What motivates a “a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian” (the author’s self-portrait) to take on Goethe and one of the most famous plays in the whole universe? Writing a wrong.
At 74 years of age, Alasdair Gray has decided the time has come to rectify the ending of Goethe’s Faust. The story is well-known. In Faust Part I, Faust sells his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in the quest for knowledge, which he believes will give him true happiness. Mephistopheles tricks him into a life of selfishness and debauchery during which the very lovely and very innocent Gretchen is destroyed. In Faust Part II, published 24 years after Part I, the vision widens and Faust becomes involved in politics and combats the forces of war and nature. At the moment of his success, Mephistopheles, comes to claim his soul. However, and this is where Gray takes great exception, God, recognising the value of Faust’s striving, snatches him back from the devil and reunites Faust with his true love, Gretchen in heaven. A deus-ex-machina to trump them all!
From which it is obvious that Goethe was pagan, not Christian. But Gray’s argument with Goethe is more fundamental than that and leads to an interesting question. What kind of ending can an atheist give to the story of Faust?
Of course, I’m not about to reveal.
Fleck rewrites Goethe’s epic 2-parter into just 70 pages of modern verse, transposing it into our contemporary pop-culture. The first act stays faithful to the original. Fleck, the professor, dissatisfied with his limitations in the face of the universe, is approached by Nick (playful Mephistopheles at one moment, a more sinister Satan figure at others). Fleck accepts his proposition and is transformed into a more youthful and attractive figure. Thereafter elements of Goethe’s plot are reused and twisted to create a significantly altered and more irreverent piece. Actually irreverence bordering on blasphemy in parts ….but then, look how uncomplimentary Gray is about himself (see paragraph 1), you couldn’t really expect him to hold back.
The stage directions are highly visual and contribute significantly to the entertainment. Here’s the beginning of Fleck transformation:
SOUND: sinister, sensual music
LIGHTS: grow dimmer except for revolving coloured spots casts by disco ball.
TWO FEMALE BEAUTICIANS and HAIRDRESSER skip in with trolley holding tools of their trade. They wear purple clothes that are otherwise conventional. Their ballet with FLECK (who is dazed and passive) removes his thickly padded gown, taking away enough bulk to show an athletic figure in black slacks and white shirt ….
I’d enjoy seeing the play performed although there appear to be no takers at the moment. Is it too short? How long do 70 pages take to perform? Actually less than that, the expansive stage directions take up about a quarter of the page count.
The book, produced by Two Raven’s Press, contains a 15-page postscript by the author and a selection of Gray’s poetry entitled “God Poems”. A misnomer that, they are godless.