I've been thinking about Faust a lot lately, not – I hasten to add – as a role model.
What intrigues about Faust is not the prurient possibilities of limitless knowledge and consequenceless evil but the quick descent and slow realisation and finally, the horror.
I've been thinking about Faust a lot lately, not – I hasten to add – as a role model, although there is certainly something to be said for getting the best out of every situation. It is more that I have been noticing the prevalence of the Faust-type in different guises.
The most obvious in retrospect was crooked cop Vic Mackey of The Shield, a man with no need of an external Mephistopheles. Mackey was bad from the start, seven seasons ago, shooting dead a fellow officer and committing the equivalent of the Great Train Robbery in the nastiest part of LA, where immigrant gangs dance with drugs and guns. Mackey got worse.
Throughout the show's run, he sacrificed what the rest of us would identify as justice to his own perverse sense of right, which was often equated with personal gain. Every solution brough another problem in a chain so complex it was rarely clear who was doing what and why.
The final link – or at least the fade to black – featured Mackey, a violent, profane, autocratic (in the true sense of the word) cop chained to a desk job, a new penpusher in a corporate world. This was the solution to his sequence of problems, but it was also his damnation, as the camera lingered on him, last in his office at night, the only sound the neon light buzzing endlessly.
Another Faust is closer in time and location to Goethe's: Ibsen's surreal verse-play Peer Gynt, which anticipated Freud by having the fabulist Gynt meet his own subconscious. Staged by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Barbican (after their knockout Black Watch), the play is transferred from Norway to the Scottish wilds, but all the grotesqueries and horrors are kept.
This doesn't sound promising for Faust, but when presented with the love of a good woman (Solveig for Gretchen), he abandons her for sexual pleasure, violence at the hands of the trolls (really) and a life of arms-dealing wealth in decadent Africa. Eventually he is taken to an asylum (or has he always been mad?) and on his return home (in the NToS's version, on easyJet), he witnesses his own funeral.
The NToS is a rootless company, with no home theatre, and it is a brave attempt to present such a forbidding, difficult play around the country. What makes it successful is the emotion is draws out of Gynt's descent, first smothered under his vile plutocratic self, but brought out in the asylum. That Gynt may eventually be redeemed does not mean he has not embraced the values of Faust.
Whereas Goethe's Faust wanted knowledge, Vic Mackey and Peer Gynt both want wealth, but all three sacrifice their humanity. They prove the enduring popularity of an archetype whose vileness we are attracted to because, perhaps, we understand what drives them. There will always be room for more Fausts.