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That Mr. Gilbert’s Gretchen would be, if not directly, compared with Goethe’s Faust, at least considered with reference to that extraordinary work was inevitable; yet it is not easy to settle the precise terms in which to speak of the connexion between the two. The English play cannot be described as a version of the German, nor can Mr. Gilbert be strictly said to have cast the old legend in a new form. Save that he employs the agency of Mephistopheles, Mr. Gilbert has not attempted, and has, no doubt, wisely not attempted, the introduction of any supernatural or even philosophical matter; and thus will at once be seen how wide a difference must exist between the two works. In other respects, however, the difference is much slighter, and in the groundwork or outline of his design Mr. Gilbert has followed Goethe with tolerable fidelity, just as Goethe followed pretty closely in the same degree the old legends which Marlowe used before him.
To those, however, who are aware how old this story is in its primary conception – for it can be traced back almost to the earliest age of Christianity – to say this is not to say very much, nor in saying it should we wish any more to refuse to Mr. Gilbert the credit that belongs to his enterprise than we should think of denying all originality to Goethe because Marlowe and a score of other writers, including Calderon, had used the same idea before him. Mr. Gilbert’s play might perhaps be described as an attempt to bring Goethe within the compass of general comprehension, with particular reference to scenic representation, something after that fashion, now so popular, which essays to bring the great writers of our own and earlier times within the reach and intelligence of the general public. A short sketch of the plan of the work will possibly, however, be of more service than any definition or explanation we can presume to offer.
Mr. Gilbert’s Faustus is neither a magician nor a philosopher. He has been in his younger days a jovial roystering soldier, till, deceived by a girl whom he had loved and believed, he has sickened of the vanities and vexations of the world, and, throwing aside his sword, has buried his sorrows beneath the cowl of a Dominican. But the old Adam is not dead yet. His friend Gottfried, passing with his troop of horse through the town where Faustus’s monastery stands, finds him out, and, rallying him on his folly in holding all the world false because he has been tricked by one woman, describes to him a maiden of his acquaintance, the incarnation of truth and purity. This is Gretchen, his cousin, and an orphan, dwelling some 20 leagues away under the care of her aunt Martha.
Faustus grows interested, and confesses that had he known such an one he would not then have been wearing out his life in solitude. Furthermore, he counsels Gottfried to declare his love to the maiden, lest some more daring suitor step in and take her from him. The trumpet sounds “To horse,” and it is time for Gottfried to go. Left to himself, Faustus grows more restless and unsatisfied, till in a fit of rage at his folly he calls aloud on “Earth, Heaven, Hell – whichever hears me now,” to take him back to the world and life.
Mephistopheles answers the call, and, after parley between the two, Faustus asks for an introduction to Gretchen, expressly stipulating, however, the he means the maid no harm and craves only to learn of her the way to Heaven. He declines all compact, moreover, with his guide; the fight is to be fair between them, and if he and his maiden monitress can overcome the Devil, the latter is to own himself beaten. To these terms Mephistopheles consents, and conjures up the vision of Gretchen. As the image, holding a breviary, glides across the stage, it turns and holds its hand out to Faustus, who falls on his knees before it, and addresses it in enthusiastic terms as the divine embodiment, the spirit of peace, whose pure soul is thenceforth to be his beacon-light.
The second act opens with a scene between the girls of the village where Gretchen lives, which may, perhaps, recall that in Goethe’s Faust between Bessy and Margaret at the well. The girls are reviling one Lisa, who having left her home with a rich merchant a year ago, has now returned, ruined, deserted, and repentant. Gretchen is the only one who takes her part – unlike Margaret, who confesses that before her own fall she could revile any poor girl who had made a slip stoutly enough – and her kindness and charity leads the others to stay their scolding and make peace with their old playfellow.
Martha next comes in, and grumbling over her hard lot, which she attributes to having married a bad poor man, counsels Gretchen to come to her for advice whenever her heart is in danger. Hereupon Gretchen answers that she has already seen one whom she could love, for it appears that at the very instant when her apparition appeared to Faustus, the image of Faustus appeared to her – a coincidence which Mr. Gilbert may possibly have taken from a curious old German version of the legend, to be found, we believe, in Thom’s “Early Prose Romances.” Martha scoffs at the dream, as never likely to be more than a dream, and hopes only it may never prove a reality.
Faustus and Mephistopheles then appear, and to them comes Gottfried, who, delighted to find his friend unfrocked, and quit of his monkish follies, commends Gretchen to his care. Mephistopheles, to get rid of Martha, and perform his share of the compact, comes forward with a message for the old dame from her dead husband, borrowed from the scene between them in Faust – the only scene in which Mr. Gilbert has preferred Goethe’s language to his own, and which is acted in capital spirit by Mr. Archer and Miss Brennan – and the young people being thus left together somewhat quickly discover their love for each other, to which the sudden embodiment of Gretchen’s vision has, of course, predisposed her.
The third and last acts we may pass more quickly over. Scandal is busy in the village with Gretchen’s good name, but, happy in her love, the girl herself heeds nothing. Faustus, however, conscious how sadly he has fallen from his high professions to Mephistopheles, is ill at ease. Reproaching himself to her, he tells her the story of his former love, its disillusion, and his consequent abjuration of the world. Horrified to learn that he is already wedded to Heaven and that thus she can be no bride of his, the girl breaks from him, and exhorting him to return and ask forgiveness of the Church for his desertion, even as she will forgive him who must desert her, leaves him in a flood of tears. Faustus accepts his doom, and, casting Mephistopheles from him, who would cheer him up to take no heed of a mere lovers’ quarrel, renounces his engagement with the fiend, and rushes into the neighbouring church.
At this moment Gottfried enters, covered with glory from the wars, but much perturbed with the manner in which his inquiries after Gretchen have been received in the village. Reassured, however, by Mephistopheles’ declaration that Faustus has been true to his trust, and that Gretchen herself has ever been thinking of his welfare, he plucks up courage to confess his love to his cousin when she appears. Then he learns the fatal truth, that the friend to whom he intrusted his love has stolen that love from him. Vowing vengeance on the betrayer, he finds him kneeling in the chamber of the dying girl, clad in the monk’s garb to which he has returned. Eager for death, Faustus offers his bosom to Gottfried’s sword, but at the interposition of Gretchen, who calls upon him, by his love for her, not to embitter her last hours by the death of the man she loves, he forebears his vengeance, and leaves him to his own conscience. Balked of his desire, Faustus would seek death at his own hands, but Gretchen stays him, and bidding him live to repent, she dies as the day breaks, while Mephistopheles cowers baffled before the crucifix which is raised at her bedside.
The play is written in blank verse, and is evidently the work of much thought and polishing. The language is, happily, free from all extravagance or obscurity; it has the particular and not too common merit of expressing what the writer wishes to express in an easy and direct manner. It is a question, perhaps, whether prose might not occasionally have been more properly employed, to which, indeed, the sentiments of the characters and the circumstances of the scene seem sometimes more nearly akin; we may instance particularly the scene between the village girls, and the scene between Mephistopheles and Martha, both in the second act. For the most part, however, the dialogue is eminently sensible and to the point, lacking neither grace nor vigour, each in its proper place.
The play is long, certainly, but we do not suppose that any one expected to hear the story of Faust told within the limits of a modern comedy. The first two acts are the best, for during those the attention is fixed by an agreeable uncertainty as to the ultimate intentions of the author. At the close of the second act these intentions are tolerably clear, and the audience may, in a fashion, be said to arrive at the end of the play before the actors. This, however, is almost a natural consequence of the familiarity of the story, and unless Mr. Gilbert had essayed an even bolder flight than he has essayed it is difficult to see how it could have been avoided.
The acting is in nearly all respects intelligent and careful, perhaps, indeed, it may be said, to an unusual degree, considering how foreign the nature of the piece is to the general tone of our stage. The Gretchen of Miss Marion Terry is a very graceful and gentle performance, but deficient both in force and variety, though the character is not, as now treated, one of any very marked individuality. The same defects are also to be noticed in Mr. Conway’s Faustus, but the actor is particularly to be commended for his free and correct delivery. Mr. Archer, as Mephistopheles, pleased us most of any, and that not only because the character formed the one relief to the prevailing tone of the piece, nor because in his mouth were placed some of the best and most striking of the author’s words. It seemed to us a very careful, just, and well-balanced performance, conceived and expressed in the true spirit of the character as Mr. Gilbert has drawn it, which, as perhaps our sketch of the story may have shown, is, as indeed are all the characters, in fainter lines and softer colours than have been used in his great German model. Mrs. Bernard Beere played the small part of Lisa extremely well – indeed, after Mephistopheles, this seemed to us the most correctly expressed character in the play; and Mr. Billington as Gottfried was much better than we expected, especially in the first two acts. The play was very well received, and the author bowed his acknowledgements to an audience who seemed highly satisfied with the result of a bold adventure.
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