It is thanks to the rabid, theatre-bashing Puritan, William Prynne, that we know about an early performance of Christopher Marlowe’s masterpiece, Doctor Faustus.
It took place in the courtyard pictured above, one of the great inn-yard theatres of London, situated at the back of a public house called The Belsavage Inn, located on Ludgate Hill.
That the Belsavage ceased theatrical operations in 1589 means Marlowe’s play must have been performed there in that year, or even perhaps in 1588. It was the follow-up to his two-part Tamburlaine the Great of 1587.
Prynne’s fire and brimstone assault on English theatre was called Histriomastix (i.e. chewer of the histrionics) but was every bit as histrionic as the art he was criticising.
“… the visible apparition of the devil on the Stage at the Bel-savage Playhouse in Queen Elizabeth’s days (to the great amazement both of the Actors and Spectators) whiles they were there profanely playing the History of Faustus (the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it) there being some distracted with that fearful sight.”
Prynne is writing decades after the event, in 1633, and already the production is an urban legend. Prynne even suggests that members of the audience lost their sanity. It reminds us only of how powerful a work of art Doctor Faustus must have been, how antithetical to all orthodoxies it must have seemed, what a frisson it must have generated, dividing Elizabethans into hip and square.
The devil had always been on the stage, especially in the medieval morality plays. That would hardly be shocking. It is the sublimity of the poetry and philosophy of Christopher Marlowe, the great tones and cadences of his blank verse, the high seriousness of the tragedy newly attained by the poet, that caused the storm. Lucifer, Beelzebub and Mephistopheles were standing before thousand-strong audiences declaiming their abominations in Marlowe’s customised ‘mighty line’. As a piece of magickal theatre, it has never been surpassed. There are many imitations, in many media, notably The Litanies of Satan by Baudelaire or even Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones. The magnificence of Marlowe’s poetry in Faustus is unequalled even by Shakespeare because Shakespeare never explored the dark side of the occult with the profound immersion of Marlowe.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?
See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah my Christ —
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;
Yet will I call on him — O spare me, Lucifer!
I personally see Faustus as Marlowe’s elegy for his own soul. He had sold out to Satan in his own private life and the devils were coming to tear him limb from limb. Lucifer, Mephistopholis and Beelzebub seem like Walsingham, Poley, Baines and others from the informer’s underworld; the sympathetic scholars seem like such Shoreditch poets as Kyd, Watson, Shakespeare. Hell itself looms like the Tower of London and the torture chambers of Topcliffe. Working for the Queen’s spymaster – a truly Luciferic figure – had turned Marlowe into a demi-devil. He betrayed fellow students at Cambridge and was perhaps betraying his friends in the School of Atheism, selling information on Ralegh et al to the Privy Council.
Prynne himself made enemies in high places. His ranting and pamphleteering caused him to be pilloried and to have his ears cut off. This seems a fair punishment for a Puritan, as their ears are wilfully deaf to the life-changing sound of poetry.
Marlowe’s punishment is surely the most unjust ever meted out to an English poet. Prynne would have felt it divinely providential: “Stage-Playes are the workes, and Pompes of Satan”.
Thanks to Prynne’s notes, however, we now have the charming vista of the possible stage debut of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus occurring a stone’s throw from the epicentre of London Christianity at St Pauls Church.