From Newspaper Rumour to Card Game: The Intermedial "Faust"

Carsten Rohde
»Doktor Faust«, Theaterzettel einer Aufführung aus dem Jahre 1811, ohne Ortsangabe © Klassik Stiftung Weimar / HAAB

Goethe’s Faust first appeared in an imaginary medium – a rumour. In 1777/78, various journals in Germany printed stories claiming that Lessing, as well as Goethe, were writing poetic works about that late medieval “arch sorcerer” and practitioner of  “black magic” who was poised to become a German national legend. It is likely that the culturally-minded public was in a heightened state of anticipation. In Lessing’s case, the story was little more than a rumour, or rather, a plan; only a few fragmentary lines to this effect exist in Lessing’s 17th literary “Letter” from 1759. In Goethe’s case, the rumour was true. However, public reaction to the Faust fragment published in his 1790 edition of collected writings was rather muted; Goethe’s popularity was not what it used to be, especially after he practically disappeared from the public eye during his first decade in Weimar. Furthermore, a story about the fate of an old German scholar might have been less captivating than the revolutionary events taking place in France at the time.


Johann Heinrich Lips, Faust, gazing at an apparition of light, engraving, frontispiece for the Faust fragment in the seventh volume of Goethe’s Schriften, 1790.

All this changed on the publication of the first part of the tragedy in 1808. What is especially remarkable is how Goethe’s work was embedded in diverse intermedial processes of exchange. Amazingly, the public’s introduction to the drama, which was to become the national epic and epitome of high literature for all Germans in the 19th century, was the profane mass medium of the daily press. On the 7th and 13th of April 1808, two scenes from Faust I were printed in Cotta’s Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände (Morning Paper for Sophisticated Classes) before the book was released over Easter in mid-April. “Passages of Faust are already circulating through the daily papers,” wrote Goethe to his friend Knebel at the beginning of May. Soon the literary genre was followed by the fine arts, with illustrations, some of which were published in serial form, first appearing in 1808. Music and theatre also played a role in the early reception of this literary drama; plans to perform a musical version of the work can be traced as far back as 1810.

Goethe’s Faust received a resounding response from the performing arts scene in particular. In Weimar, there was even discussion about adding musical accompaniment to the performance. In Paris, the European capital of theatre, the first Faust wave led to numerous dramas, operas, ballets and musical adaptations starting in the 1820s, most of which were inspired by Goethe’s Faust and which – thanks to translations and the chapter on Faust in Madame de Staël’s De l’Allemagne – rapidly attracted the attention of artists and intellectuals throughout Europe.

The very first documentation of a theatrical production of Goethe’s Faust dates back to 1809. A Chinese shadow play featuring various scenes of Faust was apparently performed at Johannes Falk’s home in Weimar on 13th January 1809 in the presence of the author. This might seem a curious side note to the long and expansive history of the reception of Goethe’s Faust, yet this event exemplifies the diversity both of the way it was received and of its intermedial references.

Faust in the constellation of the arts around 1800

In the first volume of the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1806), we find the ‘old German song’ Doktor Faust, which, according to its subheading, can be traced back to a “flyleaf from Cologne”. This is an example of an extremely complex, intermedial constellation, in which various literary genres (song, ballad, anthology) and media (pamphlet, book, music) are placed in relation to one another.

In terms of historical reception, this example emphasises that Goethe’s Faust was part of a long tradition of Faust material which was extensively cross-linked, especially in the years of its publication. One of these traditions, which began in the 17th century in the age of the Reformation, was cultivated by the vibrant popular theatre scene, which included travelling acting troupes, theatre productions at town fairs, puppet shows, pantomimes, ballets, farces, burlesques, fireworks and children’s theatre. Although most of these were crowd-pleasing spectacles full of sensationalism, we can assume that Goethe’s work was not the first to vividly present the tale of Faust, as Goethe himself pointed out in the 10th volume of Dichtung und Wahrheit.

In the year Goethe’s Faust I was published, several performances of another popular Faust production, Doctor Faust: A Big Pantomime Ballet in Three Scenes, by Nuth. Music by Dunkel were shown to audiences in Dresden. As polymedial forms of presentation, the popular theatre productions of Faust from around 1800 influenced ‘novel’ and highly-literary medialisations, such as Goethe’s Faust, which in turn, inspired popular theatre forms through complex processes of exchange.

Faust in everyday culture

A whist card game from 1816/17 featuring four Faust illustrations (see ill. 2) is a fascinating example of the medial diversity and prevalence of Goethe’s Faust in everyday culture. The illustrations were made by the Tübingen bookseller and copperplate engraver, Christian Friedrich Osiander. They came in various forms and were most likely first produced in a special print run in 1808. These are among the earliest items of graphic design documenting the reception of Goethe’s Faust.

Card Almanac for the Present Time, three of spades, undated (1816/17), explanation in accompanying booklet: “Faust in the dungeon with Gretchen. Mephistopheles outside summoning him.” © Klassik Stiftung Weimar / HAAB

The fact that these illustrations appeared in a card game featuring other literary motifs in 1816/17 reveals a transfer to another medium with diverse connections to popular culture and high literature. The playing cards represent intermedial, multifunctional objects which serve as iconic models for literary motifs, similar to that of illustrations in magazines and books, and often figurines from theatrical performances. When playing cards were sold in the form of card almanacs, they usually came with an accompanying booklet explaining the illustrations and quotes on the cards. This resulted in a dynamic dialogue between the images and textual elements. With regard to their function, the cards were used for various purposes: playing cards, calling cards, billets d’amour, note cards, and even as inserts in family albums and souvenirs.These few examples show that the publication of Goethe’s Faust was part of a complex web of intermedial references. Perhaps it was only possible for Faust to become one of the most interpreted pieces of German-language literature because of its medial diversification. This diversification continued into the 20th and 21st centuries and gave rise to a number of new Faust medialisations, e.g. in the film genre, such as F. W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film Faust – eine deutsche Volkssage.

Gösta Ekman as Faust and Emil Jannings as Mephisto in Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau‘s movie „Faust – eine deutsche Volkssage“ from 1926. © Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung