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Dale Pendell: Seeking Faust
Published by Scarlet Imprint 2014
Illustrated by Jennifer Rain Crosby

§ Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, like Goethe’s, sought power, pleasure and, above all, knowledge. In Dale Pendell’s extraordinary re-invention of the archetypal drama, it is Faust’s servant Wagner, reborn in a modern setting, who seeks his master’s ‘secret intercept twixt world of matter and the world of mind.’

Seeking Faust

At one level, this is a brilliant theatre of the absurd, highly stylised, in which Wagner’s quest drags him into alarming or baffling encounters with Freud, St Augustine, Dr.Frankenstein (‘a molecular biologist’), Martin Luther and the CEOs of multi-national corporations, as well as assorted newscasters, bacchic revellers and post-modernist academics. It’s certainly an exciting challenge for any director or designer. One scene calls for ‘naked fire dancers; cars with huge jack-in-the-boxes on their roofs; ships on wheels with strings of flashing coloured lights… bare-breasted Minoan priestesses dancing with snakes…’

Yet through the bizarre imagery and slapstick humour Pendell constructs a fun-house mirror in which Wagner’s understanding of philosophy, economics, psychology and culture is constantly being challenged and re-shaped. It’s a Satyric carnival, a psychedelic circus, Tom Stoppard on ayahuasca, a trip through a comic inferno.

Wagner’s introductory monologue cheerfully pastiches Elizabethan iambic pentameter, as he recounts his alchemical project of creating a homunculus with blood, semen and the urine of Mary Shelley, traditional ingredients refined in a contemporary lab. The creature that emerges from his test-tubes is the Serpent, a seductive hermaphrodite with a flair for innuendo and cynical asides, a sly shape-shifter who, like Milton’s serpent in Paradise Lost, relishes specious reasoning and dubious argument. S/he leads Wagner a merry and perilous dance as he tries to learn the secrets of God, the Soul, the Universe and what women really want in a series of surreal tableaux.

Thus, in a necromantic ritual, Wagner summons St Augustine for theological debate, to the Serpent’s amusement. ‘And as they squabble, our side takes the throne.’ Then Wagner seeks Redemption, and is directed to a factory where dollar bills are churned out to sustain a Ponzi-style economic system. When Wagner asks the foreman about ‘content’ he’s told ‘There’s plenty of content. It just needs to be re-packaged.’ Later the Serpent demands to be taken to a party where they drink in their underwear with cultural critics and post-modernist intellectuals. Wagner enters the spirit of the occasion, declaring ‘That the electron is socially constructed should be clear by now even to graduate students…’

In a first-aid tent at a riotous festival, Freud vainly attempt to psychoanalyse the Serpent, who’s had a bad acid trip. While they discuss his/her resentment that ‘Daddy was keeping all the angels for himself…’ Wagner comes across Oswald Spengler sitting on ‘a dilapidated throne’, exhorting him to have faith in the Faustian dream of science and technology and ‘take our rightful place at the table of the gods.’ Instead Wagner takes his place on a two-seater privy alongside Martin Luther who rails against Spengler. ‘Does he not see that his enemy, pecuniary acquisitiveness, is the Faustian soul laid bare…’ Meanwhile the Serpent goes to bed with Freud and is temporarily ‘cured’. And so it goes…

Strands of the traditional Faust narrative remain, like the servant girl Gretchen, whom the Serpent prevents Wagner from marrying. Allegorical figures crop up like Greed and Pride who engage Wagner and his serpentine companion in surreal banter. Indeed, the dialogue throughout is aphoristic and often poetic, generating chains of analogy and subtle word-play, mingled with wisecracks, philosophical discourse and crazy rhetoric. The action is equally dadaist, a pantomime that veers between the sinister and the euphoric, eventually culminating in revolution in the streets, Wagner’s arrest and trial - defended by Daniel Webster - and an enigmatic epilogue in which the Serpent returns, quite literally, to his or her Edenic roots.

The book is beautifully produced by the UK esoteric publisher Scarlet Imprint and the line drawings by Jennifer Rain Crosby are - very appropriately - reminiscent of Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations in Alice in Wonderland. This is a hilarious firecracker of a play which nevertheless sets off some very deep resonances. There must be a company out there with the nerve to stage it - I’d pay good money for a seat in the stalls.

© Paul A. Green 2015

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