DEL Island Discs Episode 1: Dr Faustus

Welcome to the first episode in a new series of DEL Island Discs!

In this series, literary characters are cast away on a distant desert island, located somewhere on the enigmatic fourth floor of the Edith Morley building. Each week we will hear the musical choices of a new castaway, presented by one of their fans from the Department of English Literature.

Our castaway today is a true Renaissance man: a scholar of considerable erudition, learning and intellect. However, he notoriously passed up the opportunity to live a godly life and chose instead an infernal pact with the devil, sacrificing his own soul in the process. Probably he’d welcome an eternity on a desert island in comparison to burning in the fires of hell for all eternity, but unfortunately, that’s not a choice he ever got to make.

Today’s castaway is Doctor Faustus from Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, presented by Chloe Houston.

Dr Faustus is Marlowe’s version of the cautionary tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge and worldly pleasures – a bargain which he comes to regret. Marlowe’s play begins with Dr Faustus listing all the subjects he’s mastered. Despite having read every authority of human learning, he yearns for something more, and turns to “necromantic books” to help him. With the assistance of his friends Valdes and Cornelius, he learns enough black magic to summon a devil, Mephistophilis, and contracts to sell his soul to Lucifer in return for twenty four years of service from Mephistophilis. He questions this decision several times during the action of the play but ends it convinced that he is going to hell and cannot be redeemed. The action finishes with him descending into a hell-mouth onstage, and his scattered limbs being found by the scholars whom he leaves behind.

There is a fair amount of music and dancing in the play of Dr Faustus, but who knows what it actually sounded like, so for this list we’ve allowed Faustus to make a wider selection …

Disc One – ‘I’m Bored’, Iggy Pop (1979)
The video for ‘I’m Bored’, with Iggy Pop lounging around moodily, is a fitting version of Faustus as the play starts, frustrated with his reading and looking for trouble…

Disc Two – ‘The Magic Number’, De La Soul (1989)
With Valdes and Cornelius, Faustus learns the arts of magic. Like De La Soul, he is also looking for the magic number and how to be the best at what he does, but unfortunately Faustus chooses to summon the devil instead of create a hip hop masterpiece. Still, it seems worth allowing him one happy song when he’s on the up, and he can dance to this one while he works on some new spells.

Disc Three – ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’, Stevie Wonder (1970)
Faustus signs his pact with the devil in his own blood after cutting his arm. Although the clotting of his blood nearly prevents him from finishing the job – he should have paid attention to what his body was saying, maybe – Faustus eventually manages to sign, seal and deliver his soul to Lucifer.

Disc Four – ‘Losing My Religion’, REM (1991)
This one is self-explanatory. Faustus says he will “Despair in God, and trust in Beelzebub”.

Disc Five – ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’, The Charlie Daniels Band (1979)
This is the classic country tale of what happens when the devil comes looking for trouble, leading to a violin battle between him and a mere mortal. The outcome of this song would have been a happy ending for Faustus; in this version, the human wins.


Disc Six – ‘Go To Hell’, Megadeth (1995)

You can’t have a hell-inspired playlist without some heavy metal, and Faustus might appreciate this classic of the genre, which also, trivia-fans may care to know, featured on the soundtrack of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Faustus can nod along to the lyrics: “much too late I realize […] It’s true you reap what you sow”.

Disc Seven – ‘Everything Goes to Hell’, Tom Waits (2002)
Tom’s message is simple: you can’t trust anyone and hell waits for us all.

Disc Eight – ‘Pandaemonium’ from ‘La Damnation de Faust’, Hector Berlioz (1846), Op.24/Part 4, Scène 19
If Faustus wants to hear some other works of art about his story, he could do worse than listening to Berlioz. Berlioz’s music was inspired by Goethe’s poem Faust and his imagination of hell is full of fury; a review of the 1892 revival of Berlioz’s Faust commented that “when all pandemonium opens, and the infernal chorus breaks forth, the music becomes an unspeakable horror: it screams with agony, it buffets us with the sounds of orgy, it exults in the triumph of hell”. A nice, relaxing listen for the beach.

Doctor Faustus’ book
Doctor Faustus is allowed to take the Bible and Shakespeare to his desert island, but he might not want the Bible for obvious reasons, and few of Shakespeare’s plays had been performed by 1592, so he’d probably choose his necromantic books instead. Good luck, doctor, and thank you for being our desert island castaway.

Doctor Faustus’ luxury
“pleasant fruits and princely delicates”

About English Literature at Reading

The Department of English Literature at Reading has been an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in English Studies for over a hundred years. Our teaching system, with its emphasis on seminars and tutorial work, encourages our students to discuss ideas with tutors and other students in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. All of our students have access to dedicated study advisors; our academic placement scheme and 'professional track' programme provide invaluable preparation for subsequent careers.
This entry was posted in Department of English Literature news and events. Bookmark the permalink.