Faustus: Who made thee?
Mephistopheles: God, as the light makes the shadow.
Faustus: Is God, then, evil?
Mephistopheles: God is only light, and in the heart of the light, no shadow standeth.
-Sayers, The Devil to Pay
I had a fairly decent education in historical literature. I felt conversant in major story lines, such as The Odyssey and Hamlet, but up until the last few months, the names 'Faust' and 'Mephistopheles' conjured only murky, semi-diabolical, and depressing images for me. Nor did I have a clear idea of who wrote about them. Some German guy--Goethe--floated around in my educational soup, but he kept bumping up against Marlowe, the fellow who's not Shakespeare. Only when I realized that my literary hero, Dorothy Sayers, also wrote about the Faust legend, did I decide to get things straight. For the benefit of the curious at large, here are my findings.
Authors: There are at least three plays* of the Faust legend. Christopher Marlowe wrote Doctor Faustus around 1600. Two hundred years later, in Germany, Goethe (pronounced 'Ger-tuh'), wrote Faust again. Then, in the 1940s, back in England, Dorothy Sayers wrote another version, entitled The Devil to Pay.
Plot: Dr. Faust is a genius who is bored of all regular areas of study. Theology, law, medicine, mathematics: all these mundane fields are for lesser men than he. So he turns to the 'science' of witchcraft and summons the demon, Mephistopheles. In return for Mephistopheles' service of a set amount of time (a service that would give Faust all his earthly desires of wealth, discovery, fame, etc.), Faust promises his soul to Lucifer. The rest of the play follows Faust's luxurious travels, his magic tricks at royal courts across Europe, and his conjuring up of that historical beauty, Helen, down to his last moments of panic as the devil closes in.
Why read it? This depends on who you are. If you're an arrogant monomaniac who is tired of mundane sciences, this book is a good cautionary tale for you. If you've ever been tempted by the line "Live now, pay later," you should get to know Dr. Faust. If you want sermon material on God's remarkably stubborn desire to help wrong-headed humans, you should read a version of this story.
Which one should I read? Marlowe shows Dr. Faust at his meanest and Mephistopheles at his least interesting. But he's a brilliant writer and the originator, so ad fontes! Goethe portrays a more developed but lewd Mephistopheles, and Dr. Faust, though noble in some respects, leaves some heart-breaking wreckage behind him. Sayers's Mephistopheles is not as vulgar, and he offers some cool metaphysical insights. Since she was writing in the 1940s, it's an enjoyable and easier read for most of us. But of course, hers is an interpretation of Marlowe and Goethe.
All three keep the main characters and the supporting characters, as well as the basic story line. But Dr. Faust meets a different fate at the end of each one. Also, all versions of Faust are highly quotable, but one has to be careful. Several self-help websites proclaim Goethe's statement, "As soon as you trust yourself, you'll know how to live."* But these are the words of Mephistopheles, right after he advises his victim to trust the snake of Eden.
*Thomas Mann wrote a novel, Dr. Faustus, in the 1940s, but I'm not familiar with the book, so you'll have to discover that on your own.
*Faust, "First Part of the Tragedy," line 2061-2062.