Gerry DeVito & Merrill Meltz
Judith & Alex Glass
Deborah & Howard Goodman
Ellen & Barry Levine
& Michael Yovino-Young
BAY AREA PREMIERE
STARTS April 4
- In The News
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Poor Prince Hamlet! It’s the beginning of another fall semester at the University of Wittenberg and Hamlet (senior, class of 1518) is returning from a summer spent studying astronomy with Copernicus in Poland. The revelation that the sun does not rotate around the earth has left him shaken and he needs to make a choice. As the Prince ping-pongs between the contrary advice from his teachers Martin Luther (professor of theology) and Doctor Faustus (professor of philosophy), the two intellectuals go head to head in comic combat for the conflicted Dane’s allegiance. Will Faustus win the young man’s mind or can Luther win his soul?
Runtime: Approx. two hours and ten minutes, including one ten-minute intermission
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ELIZABETH CARTER* - The Eternal Feminine
DAN HIATT* - Luther
JEREMY KAHN* - Hamlet
MICHAEL STEVENSON* - Faustus
DAVID DAVALOS - Playwright
JOSH COSTELLO - Director
JIM CAVE - Light Designer
LARAINE GURKE - Props Artisans
CHRIS HOUSTON - Sound Designer/Music Director
LESLIE M. RADIN* - Stage Manager
ERIC SINKKONEN+ - Set Designer
MAGGI YULE - Costume Designer
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to
light, the following propositions will be discussed at
Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend
Father Martin Luther, Monk of the Order of Saint
Augustine, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology,
and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place.
—Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther
on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences
(a.k.a. the 95 Theses)
Then, gentle friends, aid me in this attempt;
And I, that have with subtle syllogisms
Gravell’d the pastors of the German church,
And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg
Swarm to my problems as th’ infernal spirits
On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell,
Will be as cunning as Agrippa was,
Whose shadows made all Europe honour him.
—The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
You are the most immediate to our throne;
And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart toward you. For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire;
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
—The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Who’s Who around Wittenberg U.
By Joe Ring, dramaturg
MARTIN LUTHER, an Augustinian monk, learned theologian, and lecturer at the University of Wittenberg, nailed 95 Theses to the Castle Church door on October 31, 1517 protesting corrupt practices in the Catholic Church. This first act of public rebellion set off the cataclysmic Protestant Reformation. Excommunicated by the Pope after refusing to recant, Luther was called to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521 for a further inquisition, where he again denied the authority of the Pope over his own conscience. Luther’s German translation of the Bible was wildly popular and influential, conveying the message that the Holy Word should be accessible to all, and that the reader should confront it directly, without church commentary or other mediation. His defense of private conscience informed our modern sense of the individual. Luther suffered periodically from constipation, and littered his writing with scatological references. He reputedly claimed his new understanding of theology, his so-called Tower Experience, occurred to him on the privy.
DOCTOR FAUSTUS is a legendary amalgam formed from the kernel of a real, self-proclaimed astrologer, physician, and magician who was demonized for witchcraft by Luther and his followers. Posthumously mythologized, he was most infamous for selling his soul to the devil in exchange for magical powers. Often cast as a cautionary figure of insatiable curiosity, Faustus was fictitiously granted a doctorate in theology from Wittenberg to make him an anti-Luther. Christopher Marlowe adheres to the legend, but stages Faustus more ambiguously, as a hero-villain dissatisfied with the limitations of contemporary modes of knowledge. His intellectual restlessness is also figured as a tendency to conclude prematurely, however. He dismisses theology (among all other arts and sciences, save magic) in his opening monologue, reading only half a line of a threatening bible verse which offers forgiveness at its end: “What doctrine call you this? Che serà, serà: / What will be, shall be! Divinity, adieu!" Faustus's conjuring of Helen of Troy, whose transcendent beauty he identifies with heaven and his very soul, occasions the play’s most quoted line: “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / …?" His desire to possess Helen (who is not the real Helen but a devil) exemplifies Faustus’s spiritual predicament: “Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss …” Nevertheless, a few critics have speculated that Faustus cheats Mephastophilis out of his soul at the end of the play. Goethe’s most famous addition to the Faust story is the character Gretchen, whom the magician seduces as a young girl but then abandons.
HAMLET, Prince of Denmark, is the titular hero of Shakespeare’s most popular play. Commanded by his father’s ghost to avenge his murder, Hamlet feigns madness in order to suss out the murderer, his uncle, now King and married to his mother. But Hamlet suffers not from not enough but too much knowledge in his undercover detective work, which prevents rather than spurs him to action. Hamlet was viewed as a direct avenger in Shakespeare’s time, less complex and less tortured, but our modern Hamlet is largely based on Freud. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud claimed that Hamlet is afflicted unconsciously by the Oedipus complex, hence his delay. In the final scene, Hamlet, wounded by a poisoned rapier in a fencing match rigged by the King, exacts revenge, but dies himself, along with his opponent and mother in the King’s thwarted plot. Some critics have even credited Hamlet with inventing our modern subjectivity!
NICHOLAS KOPERNIK (later Latinized to COPERNICUS), born in Frombork in what is now Poland, studied a universal mix of subjects (including most notably mathematics and astronomy) at the University of Cracow, and law and medicine in Padua, before becoming a loyal official in the Catholic Church. His brief Commentariolus (or Little Commentary) sketching his world-shaking theory—that the earth was not the fixed center of the universe, but instead moved around the sun—circulated privately in manuscript form as early as 1512. But it was not until on his deathbed in 1543, however, that he published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Concerning the revolutions of the heavenly bodies), persuaded at last by a Catholic bishop and a Lutheran professor of mathematics at Wittenberg to “go public.” Demolishing Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe, Copernicus’s book ushered in the Scientific Revolution.
SAINT AUGUSTINE (354-430), bishop of Hippo, was one of the great Latin Fathers of the Christian church, whose writings (such as Confessions, The City of God, and On Christian Doctrine) profoundly influenced medieval and Renaissance philosophers and theologians. On hearing a child’s voice from a nearby house singing the refrain “take up and read, take up and read,” Augustine reports that his final conversion came on immediately opening Paul’s Epistles and reading the first passage on which his eyes fell. Martin Luther was a monk in the Augustinian order.
THE VIRGIN MARY, a saint in Catholicism, is considered in church doctrine to have miraculously conceived the Son of God through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Although Protestants acknowledged the virgin birth, they charged Catholics with idolatry for worshipping Mary along with other saints as intercessors, instead of praying directly to Christ.
HELEN OF TROY (not the same as Helen in Wittenberg, but evoked by her), extraordinarily beautiful daughter of Zeus in Greek mythology, wife of a Spartan king Menelaus, was blamed for the Trojan War in epic tradition by Homer and others, on her abduction by the Trojan prince Paris. Other traditions, however, clear Helen of blame. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says the lyric poet Stesichorus was stricken blind for blaspheming Helen in a poem, but restored to sight when he recanted in a now lost palinode exonerating her, claiming that Homer’s Helen was in fact a phantom copy (eidolon) given to Paris in place of the real Helen. Euripides depicts the same exchange for a phantom in his play Helen, additionally transporting the real Helen to a chaste temple in Egypt. In the apocryphal Act of the Holy Apostles, the sorcerer Simon Magus, whom Faustus himself was fabled to be a reincarnation of, is reported to have kept a reincarnated Helen of Troy for his mistress. In Marlowe’s play, Faustus, assuming the role of Paris, conjures Helen and takes her as his paramour. In fact, it is not the real Helen but a spirit/devil.
Ancient Modern Comedy
By Joe Ring, dramaturg
Putting down the smelly skull of Yorick, the King’s jester, Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaims in the notorious graveyard scene: “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”—that is, recycled into a lowly clay plug on a beer barrel (though with a whiff of its vulgar sense, too). In the devilishly clever Wittenberg, it is not Alexander the Great but the famous Danish prince himself who returns for base use as an angsty college senior, yet to declare a major. Indeed, Hamlet is traced in playwright David Davalos’s imagination to The Bunghole: the name of a carnivalesque student tavern in Wittenberg where his professors Martin Luther (father of the Protestant Reformation) and John Faustus (legendary magician who sold his soul to the devil) debate matters of love, philosophy, and religion over steins of beer. But Hamlet’s campy return in Davalos’s Wittenberg is to the university he was prevented from returning to at the beginning of Hamlet by his mother and stepfather. Recall that before Shakespeare’s play begins, Hamlet is summoned home from his studies at Wittenberg on news of his father’s untimely death. Thus Davalos’s time-out-of-joint Wittenberg enacts not only Hamlet’s return but also a prequel of Shakespeare’s masterpiece. It is also a prehistory in yet a further sense, set in the fateful days leading up to All Hallows’ Eve, October 31st, 1517, when Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church. This first act of public rebellion, quickly disseminated throughout Europe within weeks by the printing press as the first modern best seller, ignited the cataclysmic Protestant Reformation.
But Wittenberg is less a place in Davalos’s play than an overdetermined place-holder. For the title works like a Faustian magic word, conjuring three early modern figures associated with it, fictional, real, and legendary, onto a twenty-first century stage. Wittenberg’s combination of these three is reflected in its subtitle: A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts. It could be the start of a joke: “Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and a constipated Martin Luther walk into a bar in Wittenberg, called The Bunghole …” Of course, genre bending such as this was burlesqued aplenty in Renaissance plays. Consider, for example, the rude mechanicals’ production “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the puppet show “The ancient modern history of Hero and Leander” in Ben Jonson’s Bartholmew Fair. Jonson’s “ancient modern history” could aptly serve as subtitle for Davalos’s play, too, but we might ask of it Bartholmew Cokes’s same question on reading the puppet playbill: “What’s the meaning on it? Is it an interlude? or what is it?”
Wittenberg is certainly comedy, unabashedly mobilizing scatological humor spread throughout Luther’s writings. For example, Luther claimed to be on the privy when he had his Tower Experience, a revelation about how to understand the biblical phrase “righteousness of God” [justitia Dei] in a new way. (The sinner was revealed to be not an object of God’s punishment but a receiver of his grace.) However, Wittenberg might also be seen as what Cokes calls above an interlude, or medieval morality play. Faustus and Luther sit angel and devil on Hamlet’s opposite shoulders, urging skepticism and free will on one side, and faith and passive surrender on the other. “You always go too far!”, Luther shouts at Faustus. “And you don’t go far enough!”, Faustus retorts. This argument in utramque partem, or on both sides of the question, parodies the original Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” dilemma (often misunderstood, it should be noted). Here, it is reduced to the modern bourgeois quandary of which major to choose: philosophy or theology?
However, for all its laughs, Wittenberg takes seriously the problems of knowledge and being it inherits from Hamlet, Luther, and the Faust tradition. But the dogmatic ‘either—or’ structure of the morality play proves too rigid and limited. For one thing, Luther and Faustus aren’t so much dichotomous opposites as anticipatory mirror images, along with Hamlet, of different aspects of our modern sense of the individual. Luther’s private conscience, wherein readers could gain access to truths in the Bible directly for themselves, without mediation, was deemed just as heretical and diabolical as Machiavelli’s secular political actor (whom Faustus resembles) confronting a realm governed not by God but by fortune. For another, a middle term excluded by the ‘either—or’ binary surfaces in yet a different revolutionary text by a character who though described never appears onstage, one Nikolai Copernik. It is the astronomer’s heliocentric theories, more than Luther’s theses, which de-center Hamlet's world-picture, sending him into a giddy free fall, in need of Faustus’s pre-Freudian psychoanalysis.
Wittenberg falls with him, into an abyssal pastiche, patching together references and shards not only from Hamlet, Doctor Faustus, and Luther, but also from a vertiginous collection of sources, including Augustine, Aristotle, Bosch, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Sartre, the Song of Solomon, psalms, hymnals, Björn Borg, John McEnroe, and Stanley Kubrick, to name a few. Pastiche appears, according to the Marxist cultural theorist Frederic Jameson, in a postmodern consumer society in which the modern private self, invented by the likes of Hamlet, Luther, and Machiavelli, is—like God himself, in Nietzsche’s aphorism—dead. For the “death of the subject” is paradoxically the unintended endpoint of the fragmentation of society into increasingly atomized selves, each speaking a private language unintelligible to the other. Pastiche then remains the only aesthetic option: “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” The return of Hamlet’s dust as a clay stopper in Wittenberg’s Bunghole is in this reading a form of nostalgia. A foreign narcotic like those Doctor Faustus dispenses throughout the play, Hamlet’s existential problems satisfy a longing by us moderns for older crises of faith occasioned by earlier paradigm shifts, which seem simpler next to our own. To the extent that Wittenberg reinforces this type of nostalgia, does it also subvert it? In leaving it up to the audience to answer such questions, undoubtedly it does.
One answer might lie in a second revenant, counterpart to Hamlet’s Alexander the Great: Helen of Troy, the sublime object of desire conjured from the dead by Faustus in Marlowe’s infernal tragedy. Helen appears very much in the flesh in Wittenberg, but in rejecting a literal Faustian bargain, she offers a third prehistory in the play. For Faustus hasn’t yet sold his soul to the devil. But this prehistory is also a counterfactual, Faustus’s own choice made differently—not an ‘either—or’ but a ‘both—and’.