• Faust Post-Show Discussion

 Dealing with the Devil:
A Discussion of "Faustian Bargains" in Real Life

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Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the 20th-century setting of this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Faust experts.

In the Performance Activity Not Space Alone, But Time students paid close attention to director Des McAnuff’s choice to set the opera in the mid-20th century, the period before and including the Second World War. The costumes, set, and other visual aspects of the staging conveyed this choice. Students might enjoy an opportunity to reflect upon their observations. What objects did they see? How did these indicate the time and setting of the opera?

Students will probably be surprised to learn that McAnuff’s interpretation of Faust was influenced by a decision made by a real-life physicist. Jacob Bronowski worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. After the war, Bronowski visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cities largely destroyed by the first two atomic bombs. In response to the destruction, he vowed never to work in physics again.

The suffering made the harnessing of atomic energy—the greatest achievement of 20th-century physics—seem like “a deal with the devil.” With Bronowski in mind, Des McAnuff imagined a Faust who had made his first “deal with the devil” long before the opera begins. (This helps to explain the disgust with life expressed in his opening aria —“I see nothing! I know nothing!”).

What do your students make of Bronowski’s viewpoint? Did the scientists who harnessed the atom “sell their souls” by making possible a devastating weapon?

To develop specific responses, students may need to go online or to a library to research the history of the atomic bomb. But more recent experience with nuclear  energy can also inform a discussion of its ethical complexity. In the wake of the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl and the Japanese earthquake of 2011, questions like these will help guide a discussion:

  • What immediate benefits are provided by nuclear technology?
  • What might be the long-term risks?
  • What might be the moral implications (for instance, effects on the environment, effects on future generations)?
  • Do the dangers involved make our use of nuclear energy a “Faustian bargain”?

In fact, such questions can be applied to many of the technologies that define our 21st-century world. For instance, social networks like Facebook facilitate communication, but they also pose risks to personal privacy. Many high-tech devices incorporate “conflict minerals,” sold by warlords and guerrillas to fund violent activities around the world. Fast food restaurants have made tasty, inexpensive meals widely available, but have also had disastrous effects on nutrition in some communities. Do these innovations represent “Faustian bargains”? Why? Why not? Students may enjoy picking a familiar innovation and exploring its social and economic implications. Take the MP3 player, the tablet computer, the disposable diaper—or any other innovation students choose: 

  • How has this invention changed people’s lives? (For instance, does the internet bring people together? Does it isolate people? Does it make rumors easy to spread? Easy to stop?) 
  • Taking into account not only the innovation, but also the objects or activities it replaces or makes obsolete, does it represent a “Faustian bargain”? (For instance, do we spend less time talking to people face to face, thanks to e-mail and instant messaging?)
  • What are the intended purposes? The unexpected uses? The processes and materials involved? The benefits and costs, intended or unintended?
    • to people
    • to society at large
    • to culture?

When students have decided whether the innovation they have chosen is a boon or a threat, they should create a poster praising or denouncing it, and showing why. Does this innovation provide true benefit—or do its users make a Faustian bargain—a “deal with the devil”?

Note: Students interested in learning more about Jacob Bronowski can read some of his writings at www.drbronowski.com. Brief excerpts from a television series he narrated, The Ascent of Man, can be seen on YouTube.