The ‘curse’ of Faust has found its way on to the walls of Mulligan’s pub. First, however, a little more about the ‘spell’…
We have all heard that the Shakespeare play, Macbeth, is supposed to be cursed. During rehearsals, actors, who believe in such things, avoid saying the name of the play referring to it as ‘The Scottish Play’. It is the same before and during intervals, even the lines are not repeated. If an actor speaks the name ‘Macbeth’ in a theatre prior to a performance, he or she is required to leave the theatre building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in.
The story of Faust, who sells his soul to the devil for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures, carries a similar burden.
The story by Goethe formed the basis of an opera by Berlioz. Its first performance at the Opera-Comique, Paris, on 6 December 1846, did not meet with critical acclaim; the public was apathetic, and two performances (and a cancelled third) rendered a financial setback for Berlioz: ‘Nothing in my career as an artist wounded me more deeply than this unexpected indifference’, he remembered.
Berlioz’s bad luck extended to his love life. He became smitten with an Irish actress Harriet Smithson, a Shakespearean leading lady from Ennis in County Clare, but she wasn’t interested.
The story was used as the theme for an opera by Charles Gounod who also met bad luck. His Faust was rejected by the Paris Opera, on the grounds that it was not sufficiently ‘showy’, and its appearance at the Théatre-Lyrique was delayed for a year because another interpretation of the drama was playing elsewhere in the city. When it was eventually staged, the manager of opera house decided to cast his wife as Marguerite and insisted on various changes during production, including cutting several numbers.
Gounod’s Faust was not initially well received.
The misfortune surfaces in our own times. Four years ago, it was announced that Terry Gilliam was to direct Faust (Berlioz) at the National Opera in London. This is how one writer greeted the announcement:
We love Terry Gilliam, we really do. It’s just that every announcement of a new project from the unlucky filmmaker comes with a virtual guarantee that something awful is about to happen (flash floods and herniated discs on the set of his aborted The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the death of Heath Ledger during the production of Doctor Parnassus, etc.). Now the Guardian says Gilliam will direct the English National Opera’s production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust next summer.
And so to the silk playbills mounted on the wall in Mulligan’s front lounge. One refers to a production of Faust (Gounod) at the Theatre Royal on Thursday, 3 May, 1906.
The Irish Independent opened its review of the production by telling readers that during the opera the safety curtain fell on Faust’s head – ‘it caught him lightly on the back, and both he and Mephistopheles only escaped a nasty knock by their agility’.
Irish Independent, 5 May, 1906.
The same reviewer was unimpressed saying that the opera was ‘obviously too ambitious’ for the cast. Of the singer in the lead role, the newspaper commented: Mr Patrick O’Shea has been heard to greater advantage than as ‘Faust’ last night.’