Tag Archives: Goethe

A Diabolical Halloween Story aboard the VIA Rail

A Mephistopheles Story

I love my Mephistopheles story. It’s a true story. I’ve told it to a few friends. The ones who are raging atheists (most of them) are skeptical. My religious friends (the minority) find it strange, as in, “Dude, you know, that’s like weird.” So I stopped telling it. But, hell, Halloween is coming up. And, perhaps we can all agree that Halloween gives storytellers an excuse to break out their best ghost stories? If so, keep reading.

Choices, choices, choices

Let’s go back to 2014. I was finishing my last year of work before going on an indefinite sabbatical to finish writing The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. There were enough funds for one more vacation. But it’d have to be frugal. Or relative frugal. A variety of options lay on the table. First option was a guided hiking tour in the Albertan Rockies. Credit card tramping in the Rockies!–what could be better? Nice hike during the day and return to civilized hotel in the evenings. This is my style! Second option was a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. Believe it or not, they were offering round trip airfare, hotel included, starting at $1100. Of course, this was after Russia invaded Ukraine (but before the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down…). Maybe there was a modicum of danger. But for $1100 dollars all-in to Ukraine, I’ll take a few chances, no problem! Third option was a train trek across Canada. Trains have a certain lore. And you never know how a train trek really rides until you try. Choices, choices, choices.

So, on decision evening, as I was pondering the options, Journey happened to be playing on the stereo. Then the song of songs came on. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? You know the song that runs:

Just a small town girl,

Living in a lonely world

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

Just a city boy,

Living in South Detroit

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

Never mind South Detroit would actually be in Windsor, Ontario: that’s a great line and a great song. And what is more, Steve Perry was telling me to catch the midnight train! No more decision-making required!

Not Quite Midnight Train (but close)

So here’s where the story starts. The VIA Rail line starts in Vancouver in a grand old terminal close to Chinatown, the “Pacific Central Station.” To get the best view of the Rockies, it’s an evening departure. The train was delayed several hours, so we ended up leaving closer to midnight. I had reserved a sleeper cabin. They’re the coolest things. The cabin is maybe 6′ long x 4.5′ wide x 7′ high. With a window. The bed folds up, and when it reclines, it covers the water closet and the lavatory. Which means, of course, if you get up in the middle of the night, you’ll need to fold the bed up.

Sleep Patterns

Did you know that this sleep routing of ours, the one that says: “get eight hours sleep each night” is a nineteenth century phenomenon? It turns out that in the Middle Ages people slept in shorter intervals, but more frequently. How do scholars know this? Well, there’s a set of early morning prayers for 3am. So people must have been getting up to pray. Some conjecture that the body’s natural sleep cycle may be to sleep four or five hours twice a day. Because we work 8 hour shifts during the day, it’s hard to test this out. But since I was on the train, I was going to give intermittent sleeping a shot.

Sleeping on Trains

Yes, the tracks are loud. No, it was no problem going to bed. Quite easy actually. The sounds of the tracks functions like a white noise. That evening, I had a few beers with the Australian rugby team in the drinking cabin (wow, they sure can pound them back, and so can their wives). Actually, I had been sitting in the corner of the drinking cabin and one of them more or less grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said: “Some drink with us!” He was so big, I didn’t know if it was an invitation or a threat at first. And I met one of the VIA Rail conductors, M. She was a Catholic lady, originally from Quebec. But she had since found out about this magical land in BC where it’s nice all year round and was living on the islands with her family. She worked the west coast leg of the trip: from Vancouver to Winnipeg. At Winnipeg, she would get on the train going back to Vancouver. She liked her job. It meant being separated from her husband and kids, but the job also gave her a week or two free time between shifts.

After retiring to my cabin at around 11pm, I set the alarm for 3am. At 3 I would get up and read. And look out the window. And just eat in the whole train experience. For this trip, I had brought a special book to re-read by one of my favourite authors: Goethe’s Faust. Every decade or so, when I want to read the story of the good and evil that men do, the lofty heights of ambition and the wretched lows of depravity and loss of direction, I return to this play to relearn the sum of human existence. Faust, of course, is Goethe’s retelling of the old legend of the magician/scholar who makes a bet with the devil.

Goethe’s Faust

My favourite Faust translation is Philip Wayne’s verse translation, easily available as a Penguin edition. I also have a Norton Critical Edition with a helpful commentary: the text is not the easiest to follow. And, to round it off, I also have Kaufmann’s translation which has the German text on the facing page. All three texts came with me on the trip.

At 3am sharp the alarm woke me up. I could hear the beat of the train going over the rails. It was pitch black outside. I turned on the light and propped the pillow on the wall, and dug out Wayne’s verse translation of Faust. Now 3am is actually a great time for reading. No distractions. Quickly, I got to the part where Faust summons up the great earth spirit. And here’s where the trouble started.

I was reading the passage where Faust summons the earth spirit, and it was so powerful that I thought, to do it justice, I really out to be reading it in German. Fortunately, Kaufmann’s edition with the German text was also there. I dug this out and started reading the German lines. And while I was reading the words, they clinged and they clanged together so much like a magic spell, I thought, to really really do the lines justice, I should read them out loud. Which I did. Now halfway through the passage, I started hearing a banging noise from the adjoining compartment. And since I could hear it above the sound of the tracks, it must have been some commotion.

Fearing some disaster (anyone seen Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express?–David Suchet probably has the most convincing film adaptation), I jumped up and went over to M’s cabin (my new conductor friend was staying next door). She opened the door after a few knocks and she looked white like a sheet. I was glad that she opened the door, and sort of awkwardly asked her if everything was okay. And in a sort of awkward way she nodded and said yes. At this point, I didn’t know what to say so I just said I was checking up on her because I thought I heard something. And then I said good night and excused myself. Going back to my cabin, I thought that was weird, but didn’t think too much of it. Maybe I was just hearing things–the excitement of the train had affected the nerves, perhaps? I kept reading.


The next morning, I went down to breakfast. Now breakfast (and all the other meals) aboard a train is a special treat. You’re paired with other folks at the table, and you’re all expected to tell some kind of story about your train experience. But that’s another tale. After breakfast, I went off to the next compartment to read for another hour or so before having a nap. That’s when M. approached me. She apologized for the previous night. She said that she had had a dream. I said that it must have been some dream you were having to make such a racket. And then she said that she dreamt that the devil was sucking out her soul. Now, if you ask my friends, they’ll say that I’m the last person to believe in ghosts and goblins. But even this made me feel odd. I could feel the goosebumps rising. Perhaps Goethe’s spell, in some weird way, had worked? After all, I had been reading the diabolical incantation out loud. Well M. saw my strange reaction. I hastily made something up: “I’m glad it was just a dream,” or something like that and went back to my quarters. And I thought: “Could it really be? Could there be more out there?”


After lunch, I was sitting around one of the compartments reading Faust again. M. came by to say hello (on the train people are constantly running into one another, as you can imagine). By this time, I was feeling a little self-conscious, and when she sat down for a quick chat, I made a little move to brush the book aside. You see, on the cover is a picture of Faust with the devil. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want her to see this.

But of course, every time you brush something aside, however discreetly, it unfailingly draws the other person’s eye. We exchanged some pleasantries, but during the conversation I could tell she was trying, in her own equally discreet way, to see why I was trying to conceal the book, which I had brushed off to the corner of the table and was covering with my free hand.

For the rest of the afternoon, we continued to play this cat and mouse game. Each time she came around, I’d brush the book off to the side and then she’d try to see what sort of suspicious book I was reading.

Next Day

The next day, I was chatting with M. again. While we were chatting, the cook came out and joined the conversation. The whole VIA Rail crew quite enjoys being on the train, and, as a result are often in jolly spirits. Now the thing I remember the most about the cook is that, at one point–and it was almost preordained–he asked what I was reading. I said, “Faust,” and thought that was a save, since who these days still remembers the name? Out of a hundred people, if you said “Doctor Faustus,” maybe ten would remember the old tale. And if you said: “Faust,” that number drops down to single digits.

But here my luck ran out: the cook was quite familiar with Faust. “Faust,” he says, “isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the devil? Cool!” As he said that, you could just see the blood draining from M’s face. She got up quickly and left without a word. I have no doubt in my mind that she put two and two together: her dream of the devil sucking out her soul and the guy in the next cabin reading occult texts. Luckily, the train was almost at Winnipeg, where M. would head back to Vancouver and I would continue on to Toronto.

Happy Halloween!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Gotz von Berlichingen – Goethe

Besides his Faust (which is read and hardly performed), most of Goethe’s plays languish. Egmont (for which Beethoven composed the overture), Torquato TassoGotz von BerlichingenIphigenia: these are hardly household names like Oedipus rex or Death of a Salesman. It’s a shame, because I rather like Goethe’s plays. They are simple in expression (usually concerned with freedom), forward driving, full of impetuous characters (including powerful female roles), and full of his wit. They read almost like fairy tales. I would cross the road to see a Goethe play. One which I’ve been meaning to read is Gotz von Berlichingen.

Before the bionic man, there was Gotz, the man with the iron hand. Gotz was based on an actual Gottfried (Gotz) von Berlichingen. He lost his right arm to enemy fire and had a prosthetic hand made up which could hold reins, a shield, or even a quill. Considering that he lived from 1480 to 1562, the technology must have been quite amazing! Gotz was a knight, mercenary, and writer. He left behind an autobiography which Goethe used as source material for the play. Gotz is a popular figure who captures people’s imaginations up to the present day. Sartre used him as a character. And there are various German movies starring Gotz. One came out in 2014 and there were also ones in 1955 and 1979. The 1979 movie is available on YouTube. I watched a few minutes and it looks good!

The Iron Hand of Gotz

The Iron Hand of Gotz

Since the library didn’t have a copy of Gotz, I was able to find a copy online here. It’s a beautiful 1885 translation (unknown translator) published by George Barrie. It’s illustrated by ‘the best German artists’. It is nice. I miss books like that. Usually books are all words. Seeing the pictures reminds me of reading children’s books when I was a child. They should do that more often.

Gotz von Berlichingen Illustrations

Gotz von Berlichingen Illustrations

Götz von Berlichingen: The Play

Yes, I can do umlauts: on the Mac an umlaut is made by pressing option+u. For those of you typing in foreign languages, it’s handy to put the character viewer in the menu bar. It looks like this and you can choose to put it in the title bar by selecting the option in keyboard preferences in system preferences:

Keyboard Viewer

Keyboard Viewer

Once you have the view up, press option, and it will show you all the different characters the keyboard can make!

Back to the play. One of the things I like about Goethe plays is the exuberance of the characters. They are full of living energy. Take this example between Gotz and the grateful monk:

Martin: Let me request your name.

Goetz: Pardon me—Farewell! [Gives his left hand.

Martin: Why do you give the left?—am i unworthy of the knightly right hand?

Goetz: were you the emperor, you must be satisfied with this. My right hand, though not useless in combat, is unresponsive to the grasp of affection. It is one with its mailed gauntlet—You see, it is iron!

Martin: Then art thou Goetz of Berlichingen. I thank thee, Heaven, who hast shown me the man whom princes hate, but to whom the oppressed throng! (He takes his right hand.) Withdraw not this hand: let me kiss it.

Goetz: You must not!

Martin: Let me, let me—Thou hand, more worthy even than the saintly relic through which the most sacred blood has flowed! lifeless instrument, quickened by the noblest spirit’s faith in God.

Goethe is also the master of coming up with little aphorisms such as:

Goetz: Where there is most light the shades are deepest.


Goetz: If your conscience is free, so are you.


Goetz: Not a word more. I am an enemy to long explanations; the deceive either the maker or the hearer, and generally both.

The last one reminds me of excuses people make for coming late to work. If it is a real excuse, it is short and simple (e.g. ‘oh, traffic was bad’). If they are lying, they make long explanations: the traffic was bad and then the car died and then my kid was sick and then my mom called and the dog barfed and on and on…

Now, have you ever heard of someone accusing a writer that he is rhetorical? I’m thinking of Euripides: he’s often accused of being rhetorical. I’ve never really understood what that really means. Looking up ‘rhetorical’ in my new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary yields this:

  • 1 Orig., eloquent, eloquently expressed. Later, expressed in terms to persuade or impress; (freq. derog.) expressed in artificial, insincere, or extravagant language. lME.
    • b Designating a rhythm of prose less regular than metrical. rare. e18.
    Rolling Stone The article lacked description, interpretation and evaluation; in short, rhetorical criticism.

    rhetorical question a question, often implicitly assuming a preferred (usu. negative) answer, asked so as to produce an effect rather than to gain information.

  • 2 Of, pertaining to, or concerned with the art of rhetoric. lME.
    G. Phelps The author’s command of the rhetorical devices.
  • 3 Of a person: apt to use rhetoric. m17.
    J. Dennis The rhetorical author…makes use of his tropes and figures…to cheat us.


I used to always think ‘rhetorical’ meant ‘using rhetoric’ or lots of arguing. But then, characters argue in Aeschylus and Sophocles as well but Aeschylus and Sophocles aren’t accused of being ‘rhetorical’. But after reading more and more Goethe, I think I understand. ‘Rhetorical’ means that you can hear the author arguing a point through a character. You never hear Aeschylus or Sophocles or Shakespeare’s own voice in their plays. At least I don’t. But, reading Euripides, sometimes I get the feeling I hear more Euripides than the characters! It is sort of the same in Goethe, though I mind it less because it seems like we share a similar perspective on a lot of things. Take this passage, for example. Is this Gotz speaking or is the Goethe speaking?

Goetz: To the health of the emperor!

All: Long lie the emperor!

Goetz: Be it our last word when we die! I love him, for our fate is similar; but I am happier than he. To please the princes, he must direct his imperial squadrons against mice, while the rats gnaw his possessions. I know he often wishes himself dead, rather than to be any longer the soul of such a crippled body.

I think I hear a bit of Goethe in there. Egmont in another one of his plays talks a similar way too. So, this is what I learned today: when you hear a writer talking in his own voice, he is being ‘rhetorical’. Believe it or not, it’s taken me over ten years to figure this great mystery out!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.



Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres they.re playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.

Goethe & Schiller Bromance: Egmont & Don Carlos

Two fisted play reading today–Goethe.s Egmont in my left hand and Schiller.s Don Carlos in my right hand! Who would have thought? It.s a strange coincidence that brings them together. I.m writing on psychological errors or slips that lead to unexpected outcomes in Paying Melpomene’s Price: Risk and Reward on the Tragic Stage (at least that.s the name of the book today, the title changes daily!). It so happens that Posa.s slip and Alba.s slip had been classified together as the type of error that results when we use the ‘if I were you, I would do this’ mental construction. What happens is that Posa thinks he understand Carlos because ‘if I were Carlos, surely I would do this…’ and Alba thinks he understands Orange because ‘if I were Orange, surely I would do this…’.  Of course, Carlos and Orange both behave contrary to expectation because Posa is not Carlos and Alba is not Orange. And so Posa and Alba.s strategy turns into tragedy. But that.s not what I.d like to share with you, diligent reader today. What I.d like to share is the striking similarity of subject and perspective in Egmont and Don Carlos. It really is striking. I hit myself for never noticing it before. But sometimes, it.s hard to raise things above the conscious threshold unless it.s really right there in front of your nose. Which is–by good ol’ good luck–the case today.

You may know that Goethe and Schiller were the best of friends. A bromance of genius. Not only that, it was an artistically fruitful union. They exchanged notes and encouraged one another. They were also joint editors of a literary journal founded by Schiller, Die Horen. Contributors included Schlegel, Herder, and the von Humboldt brothers. They corresponded with quite an exalted crowd. Lots was going on. So, at first, I had thought that the parallels between Egmont and Don Carlos were naturally due to their many discussions and correspondences. Wrong. Schiller premiered Don Carlos in 1787 and Goethe finished Egmont the following year. It was only after Goethe had finished Egmont that they met for the first time. And it would have to wait to the next decade before they would begin their friendship in earnest. It.s sure inconvenient when the data undermines our expectations, isn.t it? But, one can see from the parallels why they would become friends. So, ‘what are the parallels’, you ask? Well, dear reader, here they are!

First there is the subject matter. The Beeldenstorm or Iconoclastic Fury was raging through the Low Countries. Here.s what it looked like:



Kreuz_von_stadelhofenThe Protestant Reformation was in full swing. Protestants–and, if riots were anything like the ones today, trouble making bums–were going around abusing Catholic images and ransacking cathedrals. This did not please Philip II of Spain, who was bringing together the forces of the Counter-Reformation. This is the point of contact between the two plays. While Don Carlos ends on the April day before Alba is dispatched to quell the Beeldenstorm raging through the Low Countries, by a happy coincidence Egmont begins with Alba fast approaching Brussels on an August morning.

The brotherhood of man, the price the oppressor pays to maintain the status quo, and the price the liberator pays to lift off the oppressive yoke: both playwrights use the Beeldenstorm as a launching point into similar themes. Not only that, they achieve a unity of thought. There is a dawning brotherhood of man that transcends religion and nationality, even though its moment only arrives the day after tomorrow: the old guard represented by Philip in Don Carlos and Alba in Egmont yet rail against the dying light. There is also a price that the oppressor must pay to maintain the status quo, and that price is the bond between the father, steeped in tradition, and the son, who feels the animal spirits of innovation. In Don Carlos, father sacrifices son to the Inquisition. In Egmont, Alba triumphs over Egmont, but not before Egmont passes the torch of Enlightenment onto Ferdinand, Alba.s son. Finally, there is in both plays a bittersweet ending for the heroes who die in uncertainty of the outcome and are only vouchsafed a posthumous day of celebration. How.s that for uncanny parallels in two independently written plays which were concurrently written?

I wonder how much their similar worldviews, or, I should say rather, Weltanschauungen, contributed to their friendship? It.s good that it did, because, if I remember correctly, it was Schiller who prodded Goethe to take up and finish the monumental second part of Faust. Goethe had relegated the work to the scraps bin because, well, it was just too monumental: the marriage of Classicism and Romanticism, the journey of a man over an entire life, the struggle for redemption. And, of course, the almighty and all mystical Ewig-Weibliche or eternal-feminine that is called to save Faust at the last second. Just thinking about how dedicated Goethe and Schiller were to Doing Melpomene.s Work gives me the goosebumps. Remember, Goethe was also a full-time politician and scientist as well! So with that thought, until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I am doing my part in Doing Melpomene.s Work.