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Faust in popular culture

From The Godfather to The Simpsons, we take a look at the Faustian theme in popular culture.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

21 September 2011 at 10.55am | 2 Comments

You have to feel for Faust; slaving away at his studies for years on end not getting anywhere. It's almost no surprise that he went for the option of summoning the demon Méphistophélès and swapping his hell-dwelling visitor's services on earth for eternal torment. It's a compelling tale based upon a centuries-old legend - immortalized in literature by Goethe - that since that time has been referenced in hundreds if not thousands of other works including Gounod's opera which premiered in 1859.

In film, diabolical deals crop up in a number of works including The Coen brother's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with the character Tommy Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads for the ability to 'play the guitar real good' (the film in turn is a 1930s era retelling of The Odyssey). There’s also a hint of Faust in The Godfather with the undertaker asking the feared character of Don Corleone for a favour, only for the gangster to request a favour in return. Both versions of Bedazzled (the 2000 remake starring Liz Hurley) also involve deals with the devil in disguise.

Television also provides a number of examples of the Faustian theme. One of the most well known examples of recent years involves a Halloween special episode of The Simpsons that parodies Faust with Homer Simpson selling his soul to the Devil (in this case played by the usually saintly neighbour Ned Flanders) for a donut. Other examples occur in Lost, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Other works of literature too have incorporated the theme – Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray telling the tale of a young aristocrat who sells his soul to be eternally young with shocking and destructive results. Isaac Asimov also included satanic soul-selling in his science fiction stories as did Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita which sees the Devil in disguise visiting 1930s Moscow.

And finally popular music has also taken a influence from the work. Examples include the at-times nonsensical lyrics of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (in particular the operatic section) being interpreted as a murderer selling his soul and atoning on the night of his execution. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson (like his similarly-named aforementioned counterpart) was also said to have acquired his musical skill through a fiendish exchange with Lucifer. Radiohead have also taken influence from the work, most notably the tracks Faust ARP and Videotape – the latter featuring the lyrics "Mephistopheles is just beneath / and he's reaching up to grab me".

There are a wealth of other cultural references to Faust. If you'd like to share one you know of, let us know by commenting below.

Faust is currently on stage and streaming live into cinemas internationally on September 28th.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

21 September 2011 at 10.55am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged books, Faust, Film, Gounod, Literature, Music, Television, TV

This article has 2 comments

  1. Sara Fogl responded on 21 September 2011 at 12:07pm Reply

    ~ <3 ~

  2. Deborah Staunton responded on 21 September 2011 at 1:08pm Reply

    Another Bulgakov one for you (particularly relevent) is early in his novel 'Black Snow' ('Teatralniy Roman' in russian): the writer Maxudov is contemplating suicide and hears the strains of 'Mais ce Dieu, que peut il pour moi?" through the wall. On the thunder crash and "Me voici!" the Mephisophelian editor Rudolfi appears in his room.

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