I’ve started reading Karamzin‘s «Письма русского путешественника» [Letters of a Russian Traveler] (1791–1801), a series of novelized diary entries masquerading as letters to friends from his European travels of 1789-90 when he was in his early twenties, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly—his light, Gallic style is tremendously refreshing compared to the Slavonic-laden prose of other writers of the time, and he has a good eye for the people and places he encounters. He’s heading south and west from Petersburg via Riga, Mitau, Memel, Tilsit, and Königsberg, and in the Tilsit section he briefly threw me for a loop with this passage of overheard dialogue (the lieutenant has just been complaining about an evening at the theater):

Лиза. И, ваше благородие! Разве вы не жалуете комедии?
Поручик. О! Я люблю все, что забавно, и переплатил в жизнь свою довольно полновесных талеров за доктора Фауста с Гансом Вурстом.
[Liza: “What, your honor! Do you really not like comedy?”
Lieutenant: “Oh, I like everything funny, and in my time I’ve paid quite a few good solid thalers for Doctor Faust and Hanswurst.”]

I had a vague idea that Hanswurst was some sort of low comic figure (and Wikipedia tells me that “he was a buffoon character in rural carnival theaters and touring companies… In the later 18th Century Hanswurst was out of fashion and was only used in the puppet theater”), and I couldn’t figure out what the majestic Faust was doing in such company. Then I realized this was twenty years before Goethe would turn him into a high-flown figure of world literature; at this point Faust, like Hanswurst, was a staple of the comic puppet theater. Just one of those cultural banana peels it’s so easy to slip on when visiting a foreign country.


  1. Huh, didn’t know that. Here’s a bit more on der Fauststoff (the Faust material):

    A first comprehensive work dealing with the life of Johann Faust appeared in 1587. The book printer Johann Spies published the Historia von D. Johann Faust, also known as the Volksbuch . … The book conveys a negative image of Faust and admonitions to lead a godfearing life. … The English writer Christopher Marlowe created a dramatized version of the “Historia” in 1589. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus contains all the essential elements of the story. But certain features of the Faust character are clearly
    those of a Renaissance figure. … Marlowe’s drama was brought to Germany in 1600 by English actor groups and adopted by German touring companies. In the following years, however, the play deteriorated through performances that reduced it to merely comic elements. Faust became a comic figure comparable with the Kaspar puppet of impromptu comedy.

    Sez here: … die Stegreifrede, eine alte rhetorische Kunst …. Improvisation as a rhetorical art !

  2. In 1752, impromptu theater (Stegreifdichtung) was banned in Austria !

  3. Stu, I should have mentioned (knowing you’d be reading it) that while he was in Königsberg, Karamzin decided to drop in on Kant, was received by the grand old man, and was treated to a three-hour disquisition on philosophy which he tried to sum up in one incomprehensible paragraph.

  4. marie-lucie says

    In 1752, impromptu theater (Stegreifdichtung) was banned in Austria !
    Probably as a form of censorship. In France around that time, the texts of plays had to be submitted to the authorities before public performances were allowed, and many plays were banned that way. Allowing impromptu would have given free rein to actors to add politically dangerous lines or distort the author’s lines with satirical intent.
    I saw a form of this a few years ago in a wonderful, memorable performance of The Pirates of Penzance by local amateurs. The man playing the Major-General had added to the role’s famous song a verse of his own composition which satirized the Canadian government of the time. He was well-placed for having an informed opinion, being in real life a Rear-Admiral of the Fleet! Needless to say, his action was not putting him at personal risk, but the audience was duly appreciative of the addition.

  5. In France around that time, the texts of plays had to be submitted to the authorities before public performances were allowed, and many plays were banned that way.
    Lucky France. It continued in England until 1968, when they tried to ban “Hair”.

  6. marie-lucie says

    According to an article on Wikipédia.fr, there was censorship of theatrical works in France on and off for centuries, ending in 1906 (with exceptions in wartime). Nowadays censorship laws for any type of publication apply after the fact, not before.

  7. Faust had already descended into pantomime in England by the early 18th century, when Pope mocked the vogue for such “miserable farces” in the Dunciad:
    “[He] looked, and saw a sable sorcerer rise,
    Swift to whose hand a winged volume flies:
    All sudden, Gorgons hiss, and dragons glare,
    And ten-horn’d fiends and giants rush to war.
    Hell rises, heaven descends, and dance on earth:
    Gods, imps, and monsters, music, rage, and mirth,
    A fire, a jig, a battle, and a ball,
    Till one wide conflagration swallows all.”
    This is a dig at John Thurmond’s Harlequin Doctor Faustus which appeared at Drury Lane in 1723. (Fortunately, 21st-century audiences no longer favour such empty special effects over compelling drama).

  8. In case no one’s mentioned it, it’s worth pointing out that Hanswurst was Faust’s servant in those 18th-century puppet plays, taking over the role Wagner performs in Marlowe and Goethe (or at least that’s what I assume). This kind of low comedy/knockabout farce is already present in many scenes in Marlowe’s play, although there’s some debate whether he wrote them or if they were later additions by the theatre troupe. It looks like Faust has always veered between the poppiest popular culture and the most highfalutin high culture, from British pantomime (Thurmond’s play has been claimed as the first in the genre) to Thomas Mann. After Goethe had saved him from the 18th-century equivalent of “end-of-pier” entertainment, Faust became a very serious affair in Germany again, so much so that the Germans got very sniffy about Gounod’s French operatic version, forcing their theatres to stage it under the title Marguerite. Friedrich Theodor Vischer also got into trouble when he brought out his parody Faust Part III in 1862. Vischer had loved Goethe’s Part I, but thought Part II was incomprehensible mystical-allegorical gibberish. I’ve never read Vischer, but here’s his version of Goethe’s closing chorus (sing along with Mahler’s musical accompaniment):
    “Das Abgeschmackteste,
    Hier ward es geschmeckt,
    Das Allervertrackteste,
    Hier war es bezweckt;
    Das Unverzeihliche,
    Hier sei es verziehn;
    Das ewig Langweilige
    Zieht uns dahin!”

  9. Lucky France. It continued in England until 1968, when they tried to ban “Hair”.
    It’s funny how everything’s connected here. John Rich, the impresario behind Harlequin Doctor Faustus had his biggest hit a few years later with Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which started a vogue for staged political satire attacking Robert Walpole, which led the authorities to introduce the 1737 Stage Licensing Act, which lasted until 1968 (and maybe should have lasted just a little bit longer if it spared us from “Good Morning Starshine”).

  10. it’s worth pointing out that Hanswurst was Faust’s servant in those 18th-century puppet plays,
    It certainly is—thanks!

  11. Thanks, Sir J. I didn’t know that.

  12. Incidentally, here is Kant’s house in Königsberg, on Prinzessinplatz just behind the castle. Nice little place.

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