by Chidem Kurdas
Watching Wittenberg at the Pearl Theater in New York took a group of us back to our graduate school days. This is a surprisingly entertaining comedy, creating merriment out of a mash of classical characters, modern themes and serious philosophy.
The year is 1517. Two academics at Wittenberg University, Martin Luther and John Faustus, are more or less cordial colleagues but intellectual antagonists.
Both are dissatisfied. Dr. Faustus holds four graduate degrees – in medicine, law, philosophy and theology – but has found all this knowledge lacking. On top of that, the woman he loves leaves him. Father Luther detests the Church’s selling of indulgences but feels he can’t do anything about it. Their star pupil, a Danish prince named Hamlet, is confused.
In this play written by David Davalos, Faustus is the driving force—-Scott Greer plays him with just the right mix of intellectual fire, cool confidence and disappointed passion. Faustus, who gets Luther to write his 95 Theses and confront the Church’s corrupt ways, comes across as a risk-loving man who seeks every experience. When he’s not disputing, counseling, reading manuscripts or cavorting with an ex-nun, he makes music at the local bar. The beery bar scenes are wonderfully funny.
In an obvious symbolism, Luther can be taken to represent faith and Faustus reason. But these two themes cross over—-Luther applies reason to criticize the Catholic Church while Faustus wants to believe that science is salvation.
As fleshed out at the Pearl Theater, the two characters differ in one crucial respect. Luther is careful about risk; in the end he defies the Church hierarchy but only after making a careful case as to why he has to do this. By contrast, Faustus is willing to take open-ended risks without understanding the full extent of the danger. He could be a 1960s hippie experimenting with drugs—-he does not recognize that while some rules may be flaunted with no ill effect, other rules are there for a good reason.
Ambitious Faustus hopes that Hamlet will become the philosopher king who will apply his teachings; hence he is outraged when Luther tries to turn Hamlet into a monk. Then Hamlet gets a letter from his mother, telling him his father is dead and he should return home. We know Hamlet will never become king and is condemned to “not to be” in Elsinore. Staying at Wittenberg with Luther would have been a better bet. Faustus’ counsel is wrong.
The character Faustus or Faust comes from a German legend possibly inspired by a historical person, Dr. Johann Faust from Wittenberg, an alchemist. While the best known literary works based on the character are by Christopher Marlowe and Goethe, there are many stories around the idea of a scholar or artist who sells his soul to the devil to gain knowledge.
Most versions end with the devil coming out ahead in the deal, though in the country song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” a contest with a young fiddler results in the devil losing his bet.
The moral might be that unless you know what you’re getting into and why, you’d better not transact with the devil. But under certain circumstances you may be able to get away with something like 95 theses—these days you’d put them on the Net rather than on a door.