Over Easter I had the incredible privilege to spend a three days drinking in the drama Faust by Wolfgang Goethe. Admittedly not every moment was filled with the play, in-between there were talks to the topics that related to Faust and what can be seen as a challenge of the 21st century, in the struggle of the individual to find not only their identity but their true being.

Seija Zimmerman spoke to the guilt of Kullervo in the Kalevala, Rune XXX1-XXXVII. In her talk she introduced Aleksis Kivi, who in the 1800s based his first play on the character of Kullervo. Essentially it is the story of a destiny that from the beginning is thwarted and to all purposes goes from bad to worse but as in Faust the question of redemption lingers. Through the tragedy questions arise as to what is the meaning in such a life and through all the experiences, what good will be gained in death, that will be carried into a future life?

Guilt and conscience in Shakespeare’s plays was the theme of Joan Sleigh’s talk. Under this theme, many characters could be drawn from the rich collection of plays. Joan chose Macbeth, Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice. In Macbeth, a chance meeting on the heath with the witches, leads Macbeth to thoughts of power through ill deeds. Fully supported by Lady Macbeth he gains the crown but ultimately loses all. Hamlet also leads us into the world of deception and murder. As Hamlet becomes isolated and disillusioned, struggling with his conscience and need for revenge, his distrust leads to the death of not only the guilty but also innocent parties.  The Merchant of Venice ultimately brings a quality of redemption. Shylock, not capable of forgiveness, is the one who loses, not life but goods. In all these plays an aspect of human destiny is played out, tragedy often leads to death, but in the darkness a glimmer of light gives hope for the future. It is well known that Goethe was inspired by Shakespeare, recognising him as one of the greatest playwrights the world has known. In Goethe we see the many characters drawn into one, the individual wrestling with the challenges of today, against all odds Faust too is redeemed.

Faust, who is a renowned scholar, makes a pack with Mephistopheles, in essence he sells his soul to gain unlimited knowledge and experience worldly pleasures. In Faust I he first falls in love with and then deserts Margareta an innocent young maiden. The tragedy of this relationship leads to the death of Margareta’s mother, brother, child, similar to the story of Kullervo. In the midst of Walpurgis Night, amidst witches and beings of the underworld Faust suddenly has a vision of Margareta and understanding that she needs help, his conscience awakens. The final scene of Faust I takes place in the cell where Margareta awaits her death. Mephistopheles has given Faust access to the cell where guilt ridden he attempts to draw Gertrude away from the prison but it is not to be. In the end he must depart and she stays to face death, the consequence of her actions. Deeply moving in this scene are when the words “She is condemned to die” from Mephistopheles are overridden by the words “Is redeemed on high!”. Mephistopheles, a portrayal of power and adversity, does not find it easy to truly win a human soul.

There is much to reflect on in Faust, not always easy to understand, it needs time to absorb and digest. Taking the opportunity to see the whole play and drink in its essence is an experience well worth having. It is not often that the whole of Faust is performed. To assist the non-German speakers there are simultaneous translations by actors. Much has been said, both negative and positive, about the production – the performance, speech, eurythmy, music, scenery. There has been an attempt to evolve the presentation and bring it into the present, my experience was that a step has been taken towards what could be a really new impulse. For now some aspects continue to hold to indications of the past while changes have been instigated. My intention was to attend the play with an open mind and no expectations, and for me this worked, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

For those who would like to see this performance there will be another two opportunities this year, Youth Conference 25th – 29th July, International Faust Festival 1st – 5th August. Go on-line and have a look at the programmes and images!