Goethe's Faust is currently being performed at Vienna's Volkstheater, staged by Kay Voges. The play is announced with a quote from Henri Cartier-Bresson:
"In photography, as elsewhere, the moment is its own question and at the same time its answer."
A live photographer is part of the ensemble. Reason enough to take a closer look when one is already in Vienna... So I sit in a red velvet chair in the splendidly designed Volkstheater and am curious. I really enjoyed the book Faust 1 as a young adult, I liked the language, the mysticism and yet worldly themes of love, knowledge and meaning of life. The work of Goethe's Faust is not an unknown piece on the stages of this world and all the more freely it will be staged and translated into our time may or even must.
The photographer Marcel Urlaub is already introduced at the beginning of the play with the prelude in the theater. For those who don't remember their high school graduation days: theater director, a poet and the Funny Person are arguing about a successful play. The photographer walks between them (or was he one of the three characters?). He wears casual, modern black clothes, does not speak. With bright flashes and sound effect he photographs into the audience. The sudden brightness is surprising. A murmur in the audience. One rubs one's eyes and is immediately wide awake again.
The spectator himself becomes part of the performance as a photo
The spectator himself becomes part of the performance as a photo.
Soon after, the photographed faces of the audience are projected meters large onto a screen on the stage. Laughter and amazement now go through the audience. The photo shows the different faces and their expression in this unusual situation: sitting in the theater and not prepared to contribute anything to the stage play or to be photographed in the safe theater chair. Now, as a photograph, the person looking becomes part of the play himself. "Don't stare so romantically" it seems to call out to the audience here, you too are meant, you too are in this moment; were in this moment.
Photography in Replace of Acting
In the course of the play, photography is also used to portray the beauty of Gretchen (played by 3 to 4 people in this production) or even to intensively stage an orgy scene with Faust and the many Gretchens, underlaid with rock music: The photos, each one a stand-alone image, each one newly conceived and designed - can also replace an entire scene with photography until once again the actor-Faust staggers out from behind the screen with his shirt open and takes over the narrative thread on stage.
Still other variations on the use of photography can be found throughout the play, as parallel narration, as stage design, and much more. If you want to experience it you still have to see the play for yourself ;)
A new take on the old play
The book certainly contains plenty of material for contemporary tie-ins, but bringing photography into play here is, to me, more than visual, obsessively modern. The parallels of Faust and photography have substance for me. After thinking it through in many ways, it holds up and adds something inevitably contemporary to the interpretation of the play but also to the photography.
Old Doctor Faust has studied everything, accumulated knowledge from so many disciplines, and yet he is not satisfied. He is desperate to find the meaning and enjoyment of human life. "Will I say to the moment: Stay! You are so beautiful! Then you may beat me in fetters, then I will gladly perish!" With these words Goethe makes a pact with Mephisto.
But we all know that nothing in this world is eternal. The most beautiful moment is not eternal. A photograph can evoke memory and emotion - but the intellect understands: that is past. Nevertheless, today we accumulate images like Faust accumulated knowledge. For me, an astute parallel and social statement to translate the Faustian striving of the Enlightenment into today's media age. Man - almost 200 years after the invention of photography and almost 200 years after the first performance of Faust - he strives with Instagram or the pact with the devil, with photographs or with knowledge against his own transience and that of the moment.
Is photography as a mass phenomenon our current attempt to capture all human striving and mortality? Can photography preserve the (beautiful) moment? Can photography give purpose to life? Would Goethe never have written the opus Faust if he had known photography? Would Faust be a photographer, influencer and digital nomad with barista skills today? Would Faust today be in despair over how many photos he already has on his hard drive, but still hasn't seen the whole world and still life's moments are fleeting and he never "gets there"?