Deal with the Devil: Director David Herskovits Sells His Soul to Goethe's Faust-And Brings His Company into the Pact

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Most people are a little daunted by Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's sprawling 19th-century epic verse drama, but David Herskovits shows no sign of fear. "If you're not interested in the weirdness of Goethe's play, then why do it?" he says with a mischievous grin. "The answer, of course, is that nobody does it! That's why this is a match made in heaven."

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That match--between Goethe's masterpiece, perhaps the most important German literary work in any genre, and Herskovits's inventive, Brooklyn-based Target Margin Theater--is currently providing the 44-year-old director with what may prove to be his ultimate challenge: a six-hour Faust, running through May 20 at New York City's Classic Stage Company.

Written primarily in rhyme, Faust shifts in tone and form as the episodic story progresses. Goethe began writing Part 1 in 1773, when he was a 24-year-old in law school, and finished in 1808; that section includes the relatively linear tale of the scholar Faust, who bets Mephistopheles that he will never experience a moment he would want to keep forever. The author completed Part 2--a dense, more abstract weave of myth, philosophy and poetry--in 1831 and died the following year.

The dramatic poem is, of course, central to Western literature and a repertory staple in Europe. But in America Faust rarely--if ever--sees a full professional staging. Chalk it up to textual challenges that could mobilize an army of dramaturgs, a substantial length and cast size, and audiences' unfamiliarity with its abundant humor and sublime lyricism.

None of this really fazes Herskovits, who admits to having a large appetite for difficult, even "unstagable" material. Since founding Target Margin in 1991, Herskovits has directed classics by Marlowe, Beaumarchais, Wagner and Shakespeare, as well as new musical adaptations of Nathaniel Hawthorne and E.T.A. Hoffmann. His recent experimental stagings include works by Gertrude Stein and Charles Peguy, and he won an Obie in 1997-98 for Target Margin's version of Mamba's Daughters, by Dorothy and Dubose Heyward. The director's quest for mind-altering material would certainly have pleased Goethe, who once wrote that "the more incomensurable and incomprehensible for the understanding a poetic creation may be, the better."

Sitting in a pupil's classroom chair in his Brooklyn office talking about his literary enthusiasms, Herskovits sounds remarkably like Dr. Faustus, the over-reaching protagonist himself. "I am a very restless and unsatisfied kind of person," the director avows. "I'm always critical of my own work and always wanting to do other stuff that's new."

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By 2002, after self-producing nearly 15 seasons in downtown New York, Herskovits wanted to begin focusing more on the long-term development of ambitious work. "Over time I find that one of the most vital things you have to do is--as the painters say--'break one's hand,' and change habits." Herskovits asked Douglas Langworthy, Target Margin's longtime dramaturg, to suggest a project that would occupy an entire season or more. Langworthy suggested Faust. "David is always intrigued by the impossible," Langworthy recalls, "and the idea was planted."

One measure of the project's ambition is that Langworthy has undertaken an entirely new, actable English translation. After identifying passages for possible cuts with the director, Langworthy went away and translated the German original into language he hopes will resonate for 21st-century Americans. "Goethe's poetry is notoriously lofty," he says, "and I've tried to find something clear and concrete in order to make the text accessible to audiences, which is easier and harder in certain parts."

HERSKOVITS CONCURS: "DOUG HAS done a translation that foregrounds simplicity and clarity, and attempts to honor the insane variety of Goethe's forms and writing styles without insisting on them thuddingly. …