Faustus, PhD: Play in Two Acts

ensemble theatre · theater arts caltech · Ages 13+ · United States of America

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Jack Faustus is a frustrated, ambitious 3rd-year graduate student who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for fame, fortune, and a Nobel Prize at 35. Will the price be worth it? This play is a modern re-imagining of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, and premiered at Caltech in May 2017.

The idea for this play came about one evening in my office. I was planning out the next two weeks-worth of experiments, and in those circumstances it is quite possible that the work is done, the data are analyzed, and nothing interesting has been gained. On the other hand, there are those weeks where everything goes right, and the results are quite profitable. How wonderful it would be to guarantee two successful weeks by knowing exactly which experiments to run, and how they would work! Extend this guarantee to the span of two years, and an entire PhD could be done in that time. For such knowledge, an ambitious graduate student would be tempted to sell his soul. I realized I had an idea for a play….and then I realized that this play had already been written for a different time.
Doctor Faustus is perhaps the most famous work of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, with its description of Helen of Troy being quoted ad nauseam in the film Shakespeare in Love. The play dwells on the timeless themes of ambition and power, and provides an excellent template for a story about a man selling his soul. However, in two respects I felt that the play needed updating. First, in Marlowe, Faustus’ chief sin is that he wants to know too much about the world around him. Today, this desire drives every institution of higher learning. Second, the idea of damnation to an ever-boiling pit of fire is slightly out of fashion, though selling one’s soul in order to further worldly ends has never gone out of vogue. I decided, instead, to make the play a study of gains without (initial) pains, and of how worldly aims can lead to worldly damnation. I only hope that Kit Marlowe’s ghost won’t eternally haunt me for these modifications!

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