Monday 5 January 2009

faust, frankenstein or cassandra

A while back we noted George Monbiot's choice of Dr Faustus as the key play for our time. In Heat he quotes Marlowe's line 'The God thou servest is thine own appetite.' Dr Faustus is given 24 years to live 'in all voluptuousness'. After that, he has to surrender his soul. Monbiot writes: 'You could mistake this story for a metaphor of climate change.'

Others have taken the Faust story to represent man's endless quest to unlock the secrets of nature. It was this side that evidently appealed to Pamela Rosenberg, general director of San Francisco Opera, when she asked John Adams to compose 'an American Faust' based on J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In his fascinating review of the recent New York production of Doctor Atomic Daniel Mendelsohn explains why this was misjudged. Essentially, during the period covered by Doctor Atomic (the four weeks leading up to the test of the first atomic bomb) Oppenheimer wasn't 'confronted by soul-searing choices of the kind that would have made a good Faustian drama.' His concern was whether 'the gadget' would work.

Mendelsohn writes that the 19th century model, anyway, is Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, 'an Enlightenment figure whose misplaced faith in scientific creation leads inevitably, tragically, to complete destruction.'

Meanwhile, we would suggest, climate-change scientists are closest to the prophetic Cassandra: 'No escape, my friends, not now.'

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