“Dr. Faustus” director discusses Gertrude Stein, identity crises

On Tuesday, Gertrude Stein’s 1938 play “Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights” opened at the Iseman Theater. Based on the German myth of a man named Faust who sells his soul to the devil in return for unlimited knowledge, the play deals with issues of identity, ego, good and evil. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz DRA ’12, who directed “The Taming of the Shrew” last March, spoke with the News about bringing Stein’s interpretation of the Faust tale to the stage.

Q What was the biggest struggle you encountered in directing this play?

A I think the most difficult part was straddling the line between how Gertrude Stein plays with narrative and how she breaks it apart. She has taken the two main sources of the myth [the original German story and Christopher Marlowe’s 1589 play] and fractured them to make her own version of Doctor Faustus. In her version, Doctor Faustus makes a deal with the devil to get the electric light.

Q Throughout the play, Stein refers to the main character as “Faust” and “Faustus,” among other names. Does the shifting of Faustus’ name connect to a greater meaning?

A One of the main questions I feel this production is asking is, “What am I?” His name keeps shifting because his identity keeps shifting. One minute he is Doctor Faustus; the next he is Faust — this is his search for “I.” Stein is putting pressure on the notion of identity of ego: he is not just one of these things, he is all of these things. The play asks whether you can you be a singular being or if you are part of a collective world and what that means.

Q How does the play relate to the Faust legend upon which it was based? Does Stein’s style diverge the themes of the two plots?

ADoctor Faustus came from Marlowe [in 1589 with “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”]. The most significant thing to mention is that she has Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel [split personalities of the same character]. Helena is sort of seen as a whore, as in Helen of Troy, and Annabel as the innocent woman [Faust] fell in love with in Marlowe’s version. [Stein] takes these female identities and puts them into one powerful female character. This directly puts into question how she can put two identities together and still be one, while Faustus is still questioning how he can be one. She interrupts and explodes Doctor Faustus’s myth with this persona.

Q How did you go about creating a set fit for this show?

A We were playing with how Stein saw landscape. In Iseman Theater we created a really long space instead of [the standard] proscenium. We’ve literally created a landscape really wide across… where lots of things can be happening at once. It’s almost like a Bosch or Bruegel painting. One of the things we discussed was how to create Doctor Faustus’ world. He is a scientist perfectly confined in his white little perfectly square laboratory, which is surrounded by dirt and neon trees and taxidermy animals. This creates a juxtaposition of Doctor Faust’s [desire to conquer] nature and darkness, but at the same time they have never really gone away.

Q In what way do you feel this work is a reflection of Stein’s own life struggles?

A I think this question of identity, gender identity and politics are [visible] all throughout the play. She is a woman writer taking on a very masculine myth. One line really strikes me: “Doctor Faustus is a queer name” [because Stein struggled with her own sexual identity]. Doctor Faustus is a celebrity in his world for having invented the light and is questioning who he is. Similarly, Gertrude was famous when she wrote this because of her autobiography for Alice Toklas.

Q How are light and sound effects going to be used in the play and to what end?

A Light has become useful in terms of organizing Doctor Faustus’ world. Faust has become associated with pushing the world into modernity. For him, [we used] neon, the fluorescent light, whereas for Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel it is a warm natural light, a light that allows darkness to exist around it. It concerns light as a concept that is generally seen as positive but that sometimes reveals ugliness.

Q What is the most important meaning you would want an audience member take from the play?

A I want people to question our notion of ego and our need to be an individual. Especially in American society, we think, “This is who I am and no one else can be like me.” But what is destroyed in that? What is the danger in not hearing the voices around us, in not recognizing that the people around us make us who we are. Everyone should leave asking, “Who am I?”

Q Elaborate on the devil character in this show. How does it represent multifaceted embodiments of evil? What do you think the end of the show is meant to convey?

A There is something interesting about how Mophisto [the devil character] is a trickster. He is a master manipulator. He is sly because he manipulates Faustus into thinking he wants to go to hell. That is what the most powerful people do — they make you think you want to do something. This makes him a seducer in a way instead of a demon. He keeps repeating himself; he keeps repeating, ”I am the devil,” to reaffirm his identity. That vulnerability in Mophisto is interesting because it provides a piece of humanness in him. By the end of the play, even the devil asks who he is.

Q From a directing standpoint, what has this show taught you?

A I think I’ve learned how important it is to experiment and to rigorously play. I think the best work gets done when you really try something your not comfortable with, when you examine the things you take for granted. Stein takes the play and characters and puts pressure on them in a way that makes you question them. Working on [a] Stein play really pushes me to take risks. I think taking risk is the most terrifying but the most rewarding thing to do.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Stein, the mother of us all, does for syntax what Picsso does for portraiture: Fractures it.

    She is the deconstructionist of us all.