Friday, December 07, 2007

Chestertonian Literary Type Question

A Chestertonian student asks the following question:

In the essay "A Drama of Dolls" in GKC's Alarms and Discursions,
GKC talks about a certain old puppet-play he saw, supposedly the
original tale of Faust, translated into English.
Question: Does anyone know the title of this play, and whether it can be
found, in paper or electronic form?
(Note this apparently is NOT the version by Goethe.)

If anyone knows the answer, please e-mail me (Nancy). Thanks.


  1. Off the top of my head, I'd say it was one of the many folk version of "Faust" that were performed from the middle ages on in Germany, often as puppet plays. It was this pop culture fascination with the story in Germany that inspired Goethe. The Germans have always been big on bargains with the devil.

  2. Chesterton talks about the play also in an Illustrated London News article, Great Stories Spoiled by Famous Authors, I believe is the title -- I am sure Dr. Thursday or the ACS Quotemeister can get you the exact volume of the Collected Works and pages. (If they cannot, and if you want, I can look it up for you and let you know.)

    From a quick google search, here are some links to give you some ideas, just search for "puppet plays Faustus" or try other similar search terms:


    I think, and Chesterton mentions it also in the above article, there was a variety of these folk plays, so the local puppeteers most likely adopted the main story and localized it based on their criteria, such as the availability of the puppets they used, available scenery and props, length of the play they wanted, etc.

    This source mentions that the puppet play Faustus itself may have been derived from the Marlowe play:

    which Marlowe, however, got from the German Faustbuch. (Faust is undeniably an old German folk tale, perhaps with even some Central European or even Bohemian folk tale roots.)

    "The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, based on the recently published German Faustbuch, was the first dramatic version of the Faust legend of a scholar's dealing with the devil. Whilst versions of "The Devil's Pact" can be traced back to the 4th century, Marlowe deviates significantly by having his hero unable to "burn his books" or have his contract repudiated by a merciful god at the end of the play. Marlowe's protagonist is instead torn apart by demons and dragged off screaming to hell. Dr Faustus is a textual problem for scholars as it was highly edited (and possibly censored) and rewritten after Marlowe's death. Two versions of the play exist: the 1604 quarto, also known as the A text, and the 1616 quarto or B text. It seems that the A text is the most representative of Marlowe's work and is believed to be taken from "foul papers", uncorrected and jumbled manuscript copies, thus suggesting that it was incomplete at the time of Marlowe's killing."

    (from: )

    If this is important one could try a more in depth search - you could go to your nearest university library and borrow some Faust & Faustus books that deal with its history, but wikipedia is not a bad place to start, unless you need it for your doctoral thesis or something like that. The bottom line -- we will never know exactly what you are asking for.

  3. But be it noted that in Marlowe's play Dr. Faustus does NOT repent. It is not that he is "unable" to burn his books; he is unwilling to burn his books. Thus, though the mercy of God is open to him, he does not avail himself of it, and is therefore dragged screaming into Hell.

  4. Kevin, it would be interesting to know what the German Faustbuch and other related European folk stories said, and which version was used by Marlowe for his inspiration -- were these folk stories circulating independently of the poorly "intellectualized" version(s) written by some confused intelligentsia of the day?

    I am willing to bet that most of these folk tales did in fact end with Faustus being dragged into hell by black devils and that is where Marlowe got it from. This is also the version preferred by Chesterton, which he saw as the puppet show. Chesterton makes it very clear in his Great Stories Spoiled by Famous Authors, where he compared Goethe's intellectually weak Faust and the morally strong folk story of Faustus.

    On a related note -- Chesterton's essay was written to point out that many famous authors were not immune from goofing really badly on some critical points where the instinct of the unwashed masses was correct! It is dangerous to idolize any single individual, be it Shakespeare or any other famous writer, as if all they wrote were nothing but truth. Not to mention your average writers who mostly produce a mish-mash of falsehood and half-truths.


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