(Veronika Fors’s article appeared on DW, 10/6; Photo: The tragic play is still regularly restaged today. Shown here is a 2015 staging by Robert Wilson at the Berliner EnsembleImage: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa/picture alliance.)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s classic drama continues to fascinate literature lovers. Why does the German play remain relevant today?
Goethe‘s “Faust,” one of the greatest works of German literature, is a tragic play that deals with various philosophical themes. Considering the fact that it can also be interpreted as a parable on the inevitable downfall of greed, it is perhaps ironic that its famous protagonists, Faust and Mephistopheles, now adorn a new €100 collector’s coin issued by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Finance.
The coin was designed by the artist Michael Otto from Redenbach, and is the first in an eight-part series called “Masterpieces of World Literature” dedicated to major German literary works.
From 2023 to 2030, a new coin with a literary theme will be issued each year.
After “Faust,” the collector’s items will pay tribute to Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Broken Jug”; Joseph von Eichendorff “Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing”; Annette von Droste-Hülshoff “The Jew’s Beech”; Bettina von Arnim’s “This Book Belongs to the King”; Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks”; Else Lasker Schüler‘s “An Old Tibetan Carpet” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”
‘Faust’: Goethe’s life work
Poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is a monument of German literature. His works, and particularly his philosophical drama “Faust,” contributed to immortalizing the author’s name and anchoring the international prominence of 19th-century German literature.
Goethe spent 60 years writing and reworking his tragic play in two parts.
Between 1772 and 1775, the author was already developing an early form of the work, known as “Urfaust.” The manuscript of this version was lost, but a copy of it was found more than a century later.
A first print version of the work came out in 1790, under the title “Faust, a Fragment.” Over the years, the playwright kept revising what is now known as “Faust, Part One.” The last published version to be edited by Goethe himself came out in 1828-1829.
Goethe spent the final years of his life working on the second part of his magnum opus, known in English as “Faust, Part Two.” It was published in 1832, after his death, following his final wishes.
A German Renaissance alchemist turned myth
Goethe’s work centers on the figure of Doctor Faust, a depressed scholar who, after a failed suicide attempt, sells his soul to Mephistopheles, the Devil, for exceptional knowledge and pleasures.
Faust’s path of relentless quest also involves a love affair with Gretchen, short for Margarete.
The play is loosely inspired by the story of a real person, Johann Georg Faust, who was a German Renaissance alchemist, astrologer and magician who was denounced by the Church as a blasphemer having made a pact with the devil.