by Jessica Butturff
In the sixteenth century, England transitioned back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism. During the Reformation, Protestants were especially critical of what Robert Scribner calls the “magical” elements of the Catholic faith, elements which were removed from Protestant services (475). However, at the same time that Protestantism, which deemphasized magic, was beginning to take hold in England, Elizabethan audiences were watching plays that featured religious figures and magic (Scribner 475). Christopher Marlowe’s highly controversial use of the “magical” element of fireworks onstage in Doctor Faustus allowed him to explore religious tensions of his time period and to encourage his audience to question the world around them.
Doctor Faustus is about a scholar who has mastered all of the subjects available, is bored, and decides to involve himself in magic. Although at first he hesitates to delve into the taboo subject of the dark arts and devilry, he overcomes those hesitations and decides to do a spell, which summons the demon Mephastophilis. When Mephastophilis appears, Faustus orders him to be his servant; however, Mephastophilis is already serving Lucifer. This rejection inspires Faustus to form a contract with Lucifer saying that Mephastophilis will be his servant on earth for twenty-five years in exchange for Faustus’ soul after that time is up. Throughout the play, Faustus suffers a series of religious crises in that he is unable to decide whether or not to continue practicing magic or turn back to God. However, each crisis ends with a reaffirmation of his commitment to Lucifer and the use of magic to further degrade religious beliefs and figures: Faustus mocks religious ceremonies, attacks the Pope and friars, and marvels at the seven deadly sins. At the close of the play, when Faustus’s time on earth is over, he tries to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness; however, he is too late and is taken by demons into Hell.
In order to make the dramatic scenes of the play come to life on stage, Marlowe emphasized the use of stage magic and in particular fireworks. As Professor Tonya Howe explains, staging a play that involves pyrotechnics is a very difficult feat to accomplish safely and with a sense of control, especially in the Renaissance when this technology was just emerging. Howe argues that the fireworks themselves were probably the most dangerous element in the entire staging of the play because they were lit in a flammable playhouse, carried on stage by the players, and thrown at other characters. Lit fireworks could have caused a potentially horrifying outcome in that the players could have been injured or the wooden playhouse could have caught fire. Howe notes that for the scenes that require only loud sounds with minimal sparking, such as when Lucifer and Mephastophilis appear, firecrackers were used instead of fireworks. She explains that there were also small explosives called squibs, which added more theatricality to the production than the firecrackers because the audience could both see and hear the squibs, as opposed to the firecrackers, which were only audible. According to Howe, the scene in which squibs were used in the play is when Mephastophilis throws them onto the backs of two characters, Robin and Vintner, after they call Mephastophilis to their service (Marlowe 3.2.1011-1012).
In addition to being literally dangerous, onstage fireworks were also figuratively dangerous. The use of illusory magic to conjure the devil and set off fireworks onstage would have been at odds with the audience’s religious beliefs. In his introduction to Doctor Faustus, David Wootton argues that “[b]y bringing Mephastophilis and Lucifer onto the stage (and frightening the audience with their firecrackers), Marlowe shows that even the devil may be an illusion” (xx). Moreover, both Catholicism and Protestantism regarded certain acts in the Bible as miracles, not magic. However, as Wootton notes, it is almost “impossible to distinguish reality from illusion” and between “magic (and miracles)” in Marlowe’s play (xx). If an actor could perform magic tricks involving biblical characters onstage, how would the audience know that the miracles told in the Bible were not simply magic tricks?
By incorporating magic into the staging of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe was forcing the audience to reexamine the validity of religious ceremonies as well. One incident in which fireworks are involved in a religious ceremony occurs when Faustus asks Mephastophilis to bring him a wife and Mephastophilis returns “with a devil dressed like a woman, with fireworks” (Marlowe 2.1.597). Upon seeing her, Faustus exclaims “A plague on her for a hot whore!” (2.1.597). This is an example of irreverence within the play. Marriage is a religious sacrament, and it is sacrilegious that Mephastophilis brings a devil rather than a woman to marry Faustus and that she is carrying fireworks, one of the ultimate symbols of magic. For people living in this period of religious tension, an image of a devil carrying fireworks into a religious ceremony could generate an anxiety that might resonate on many levels.
The repeated incidences of fireworks in Doctor Faustus also suggest that magicians are more powerful than religious figures. This superiority is shown when Faustus and Mephastophilis “beat the friars and fling fireworks among them” when they go to Rome to torment the Pope (3.1.928-929). In this scene the audience sees the head of the Catholic Church and his friars being defiled by magicians right before their eyes. Howe points out that by portraying acts of magic that involved church figures, like the Pope and friars, Marlowe was illustrating the similarities between the theatricality of the stage and the theatricality of religion. Peter Thomson refers to the process of blurring between the lines of a real person and his fictional representation on the Renaissance stage as “personation,” which Thomson defines as “the making concrete of something so intangible as an invented personality” (186). Thomson explains that as people in power began to be represented on the stage, actors created a double-sided deceit that forced the audience to doubt their leaders’ authority. For an audience to see a king being represented onstage would underscore the theatricality of this office in reality (Thomson 187). In Marlowe’s case, his play asks the audience to consider whether or not priests and other church leaders are merely performers.
Marlowe went to dangerous lengths to put magic into his play in order to make his point about the illusory nature of religious beliefs. Marlowe’s fireworks were not only a way to entertain his audience but also to encourage them to question their beliefs as the Protestant religion continued to shift away from the “magic” of Catholicism.
Howe, Tonya. “Christopher Marlowe and Doctor Faustus.” Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 23 Jan. 2011. Lecture.
Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2005. Print.
Scribner, Robert W. “The Reformation, Popular Magic, and the ‘Disenchantment of the World.’” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33:3 (1993): 475-494. JSTOR. 15 April 2011. Web.
Thomson, Peter. “English Renaissance and Restoration Theater.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Theater. Ed. John Russell Brown. 1995. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 173-219. Print.
Wootton, David. “Introduction.” Doctor Faustus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2005. vi-xxiii. Print.