Choreography for the Devil:

The Deed Scene in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus

by Linda McJannet

[Adapted with the author’s permission from a paper delivered at the Seventh Annual International Conference of the Marlowe Society of America, Staunton, VA, June 24-29, 2013.]

As attentive readers of Doctor Faustus know, when Faustus hesitates to hand Mephastophilis the deed giving his soul to Lucifer, Mephastophilis exits to “fetch [Faustus] somewhat to delight his mind” (sc. 5.82). A stage direction then indicates that he reenters “with DEVILS, giving crowns and rich apparel to FAUSTUS; they dance, and then depart” (sc. 5.82). The dialogue that follows implies that the combination of the gifts, the dance itself, and the promise that, if Faustus gives over the deed, he will be able to “raise up [such] spirits when [he] please[s]” convinces him to seal his bargain with Lucifer. Thus, the way in which these stage directions are realized sheds light on the hero’s mind at this crucial moment.

As Erika T. Lin has demonstrated, to an Elizabethan audience the words “pleasure” and “delight,”  associated with dancing and spectacle generally, connoted sensuality and seduction as well as more wholesome forms of  re(-)creation (11).  To some moralists, watching bewitching dances was as dangerous as performing them oneself:  “As the spectator quite literally ‘takes in’ the show, watching becomes a form of sexual participation” (Lin 12). Thus, Lin argues, Marlowe’s choice of a dance and other spectacle to influence Faustus’s decision to sell his soul “makes . . . sense” (14).

Contemporary directors, choreographers, and composers realize this moment in fascinatingly different ways. In the production at Shakespeare’s Globe (London, 2011) directed by Matthew Dunster, choreographed by Georgina Lamb, and with music by Jules Maxwell, the sexual elements of the dance are graphically evident. The Greenwich Theatre version (London, 2009), directed by Elizabeth Freestone and with music by Adrienne Quartly (no choreographer is listed on the DVD), also depicts a seduction, but not a conventionally sexual one; moreover, Freestone’s subsequent use of the three dancers gives their initial appearance an even larger significance. By contrast, on the evidence of the video trailer, the 2010 production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre imagined the demonic dancers not as seducers, but as zombie-like denizens of hell against whom Faustus must test his strength—or in conjunction with whom he will achieve the earthly power he craves.

The Globe production gives the dance in scene 5 considerable prominence. Dunster follows the stage directions fairly closely. No “rich apparel” is bestowed on Faustus, but he does receive bracelets and golden chains; he initiates the exchange by taking a bracelet from a dancer’s wrist. In many respects, this interpretation of the dance is in keeping with Lin’s analysis. The dancers are attractive, not devilish, in appearance; they are elegantly dressed in baroque gowns and waistcoats of white and cream, and they wear white wigs and masks. Their dancing is graceful and initially decorous, but it soon begins to suggest—even mime—the kind of sexualized “pleasure” Lin discusses, including suggestions of same-sex encounters. The musical accompaniment features the distinctive sounds of gamelan, the gongs used in Balinese temple rituals. Typically the gamelan summon the gods, unite the community, and ward off evil spirits. Ironically, here they do the reverse.

Clip 1. Paul Hilton as Faustus with dancers, Globe Theatre production.

The Globe’s Faustus is obviously intrigued and perhaps titillated by the dancers’ movements and alluring demeanor. However, since the subsequent dialogue (“Speak Mephastophilis, what means this show?” l.83, and “But may I raise up spirits when I please?” l. 86) is spoken as the dance is happening, Faustus’s attention is divided between the dancers and Mephastophilis.  In addition, Dunster does not have the dancers finish the dance and then exit, as the stage direction instructs; rather Faustus interrupts the proceedings by rising abruptly from his chair at line 89 (“Here Mephastophilis, receive this scroll”). In the recorded performance, the audience laughs at this line. It seems comical that, after hesitating at the warning “Homo fuge” (“Fly, O man!”), Faustus suddenly can’t wait to sign away his soul. My initial reaction was that this Faustus is rather uncomfortable with such luxurious sexuality (he is a poor scholar, after all). Perhaps he breaks off the encounter out of embarrassment and then covers his inadequacy with bravado, insisting on reciting all his “conditions” in the deed of gift. All in all, Dunster’s interpretation of the dance stresses sexual seduction, but his Faustus seems more interested in power to raise spirits than in sexual gratification per se.

Elizabeth Freestone’s Greenwich production is far less lavish in spectacle than the Globe’s. Freestone opts for quasi-modern setting with 19th century touches, such as ruffled cuffs, weskits, and candles (though Faustus seems to have some edgy alchemical tattoos on his back). The Globe’s Faustus and Mephastophilis were age-mates and eventually seemed like “twin brothers”  (Foster 3). In this production, Mephastophilis is clearly older and dresses throughout as the text’s “friar,” while Faustus is a vulnerable young  scholar. As the deed scene begins, Faustus is terrified at what he is about to do. He crouches downstage left, moaning. Mephastophilis, already weary of his troublesome charge, speaks his line about “delighting” Faustus’s mind, snaps his fingers, and three dancers appear, ominously backlit, at each of the stage doors. They stand for a few moments and then begin to move  to eerie and increasingly intense synthesizer music, reminiscent of John Cage or Philip Glass. They raise Faustus to a standing position (gently, with one finger) and begin to manipulate his body (without actually touching him). Their movements resemble a reiki massage, which is “administered by ‘laying on hands’ and is based on the idea that an unseen ‘life force energy’ flows through us” (International Center for Reiki Training). The dancers then blend his body with theirs into group shapes and embraces, reminiscent of the inventive modern dance troupe, Pilobolus. In the middle section, their movements become violent; they buffet Faustus (again without touching him). He swings his arms wildly at—and with– them, then falls to the floor—laughing. The tempo slows and the music becomes more organ-like;  the dancers raise him once more, move their hands slowly, close to his body, creating at one moment a crown-like image around his head (perhaps a nod to the crown in the stage direction). The scene ends as they take hands and circle around him, as in a Renaissance roundel, and exit.


Clip 2.  Gareth Kennerley as Faustus with dancers in Greenwich Theatre production.

Unlike the Globe Faustus, who is chatting with Mephastophilis throughout the dance, this Faustus gives himself up entirely to the ministrations of the dancers (assuming he has any choice in the matter).  This “seduction” of Faustus is meant first to calm and reassure him and then to shock him with rhythmic violence. The effect is a curious combination of a massage, a ritual gauntlet, and a cult “love-bombing” to overcome his fears. No gifts are offered save those of “touch.” Although hugs are exchanged as if among friends, sexualized imagery is entirely lacking. In short, this is a very different sort of seduction than the one Dunster creates at the Globe. But it succeeds in strengthening Faustus’s resolve, and, as he gravely hands over his deed of gift, no one in the audience was moved to laughter.

Freestone reprises this choreography in the last scene–to poignant, even horrific, effect. The three dancers are the devils who come to fetch Faustus to Hell. Their entrances, movements, and facial expressions initially reprise those in the earlier scene, but after a few moments, they are transformed by hostile intent. Their hands traverse his body once more (again without actually touching him), but now their gestures are violent and inflict pain. They hiss and grimace at him; they “raise” him exactly as they did in scene 5, with one finger, only to fell him with a slashing blow to the back. They encircle him, not in a quiet roundel but as merciless predators already tasting blood. Their ferocity is doubly shocking: the devotion and caring projected in their first appearance are now revealed to be a cruel hoax, as they flay their victim and drag him gleefully to hell.

Final dance of Doctor Faustus at Greenwich Theatre

Clip 3.  Reprise of the dance in Greenwich Theatre production.

Both the Globe and the Greenwich Theatre productions show that the dance sequence is an important element of the deed scene. It presents, if you will, “the last temptation of Faustus” before he seals his bargain, and it can therefore convey significant aspects of the director’s vision. In the Globe production, it seems to reinforce the superficiality of Faustus’s desires, and the relative ease with which Mephastophilis can manipulate him with trifles. Owing to Georgina Lamb’s rousing closing jig (or choreographed curtain call), we feel that Faustus and Mephastophilis, now soul-less mates, are going to have a ball in hell, playing rock duets (“the devil’s music,” Faustus quips in the recorded performance). In Freestone’s production, we see a less conventional seduction; the hero’s deep need for human connection is manipulated to achieve his ultimate isolation –betrayal and damnation. There will be no music and dancing in hell for this Faustus.

Of course, these two productions by no means exhaust the possibilities of the dance in this scene. As one can see in the theatrical trailer, director Toby Frow at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in 2010, took a fascinatingly different approach. In this production, the dancers appear to be a pack of zombies who stump in robotically—hardly a seductive spectacle!

Clip 4. Trailer: Patrick O’Kane as Faustus, Royal Exchange Theatre.

As Faustus engages with them, the scroll of the deed in his hand, he seems to do battle and drive them from the stage, conveying a physical strength and courage lacking in the two Faustuses examined previously.  Moreover, in the scene in which  Faustus entertains  the emperor, Faustus himself does a little dance in front of his patrons, indicating his own pleasure (however fleeting) in his magical powers. The choreography in this production suggests that in this Faustus, Mephastophilis and Lucifer may almost have met their match.

Works Cited

Doctor Faustus. Greenwich Theatre, London, 2009.  Dir. Elizabeth Freestone. With Gareth Kennerley as Faustus and Tim Treloar as Mephastophilis. Stage on Screen: London, 2010. 129 min. DVD.

Doctor Faustus Trailer. Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, UK, 2010. Dir. Toby Frow. With Patrick O’Kane as Faustus and Ian Redford as Mephastophilis.

Doctor Faustus. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, 2011. Dir. Matthew Dunster. With Paul Hilton as Faustus and Arthur Darvill as Mephastophilis. 147 min. DVD.

Foster, Brett. “A Re-Review: The Globe’s Doctor Faustus on DVD.” Marlowe Society of America Newsletter 32.2 (Spring 2013): 2-3. International Center for Reiki Training.

Lin, Erika T. “Recreating the Eye of the Beholder: Dancing and Spectacular Display in Early Modern English Theatre.” Dance Research Journal 43.1 (2011 supplement): 10-19.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. Edited by Roma Gill.  2nd ed., based on the A text. London: A &C Black, 1990.

McJannet, Linda. “Choreography for the Devil: The Deed Scene in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.” The Shakespeare and Dance Project, edited by Linda McJannet, Amy Rodgers, and Emily Winerock, September 9, 2013. Accessed [date].

Updated September 9, 2013.