Faust and Helen stand in a shaded grove surrounded by cliffs, obscured from view. Phorkyas-Mephistopheles tells the chorus members gathered around that Faust and Helen have together just conceived and brought into the world a brilliant boy (later identified as Euphorion), a true genius who not only can already walk and talk, but who can bounce from mountaintop to mountaintop, his head bathed in light. The chorus says that this story and the ancient gods in general have no meaning for them. Nothing can affect their hearts that does not have its source in feeling.
The marriage of Faust and Helen, of the Romantic desire for transcendence and ideal beauty, gives rise to Euphorion, the incarnation of Poetry. Euphorion is also modeled after Lord Byron, a Romantic English poet Goethe admired, who died fighting in the Greek War for Independence. Mephistopheles is misunderstood by the Classical chorus because he speaks abstractly, whereas they only speak out of deep feeling.
Faust, Helen, and Euphorion enter. Euphorion says that to see him dance makes his parents’ hearts dance, and his parents praise the perfection of their union and their love. The chorus is profoundly touched. Euphorion announces that he aspires to go high up in the sky, but his parents warn against it and so instead the brilliant boy dances with the chorus. Then Euphorion pretends to be a hunter, while the members of the chorus delightedly pretend to be the does he is to conquer.
Like his father, Euphorion is ambitious. He aspires to reach the sky and to transcend his earthly nature. He is not a fully healthy child in this, presumably because Mephistopheles made Helen spiritually troubled before she gave birth to the brilliant boy. Euphorion now hunts on earth, but soon he will want to pursue his ideal into the clouds.
Euphorion singles out the wildest girl in the chorus and catches her, only for her to burst into flames and rise out of sight into the sky. Euphorion leaps up the cliffs to her, even as his parents and the chorus fear that he will fall. He is not content to dream but wants an ever-broader view of the world. He wants to wage war and win. Death, he cries, is an imperative—though he has faith that wings will sustain him.
As Faust pursues ideal innocence and beauty in the figures of Gretchen and Helen, so Euphorion pursues the radiant girl in the chorus. His knowledge that he will die no matter what makes the boy reckless, as does his false faith in his wings.
Euphorion flings himself into the air, radiant, sustained a moment by his garments, but then he falls, like the mythical Icarus whose wax wings melted in the sun. His body falls at the feet of Helen and Faust and disappears. All that remains of him onstage are his garments. The boy’s bereaved parents grieve that their brief joy has ended in merciless pain. From below, Euphorion calls for his mother not to leave him in darkness alone.
The imperfect marriage of Faust and Helen ends in tragedy. Unlike Homunculus, who successfully transcends his vial by observing nature’s limits, Euphorion attempts to escapes nature’s limits and dies in the attempt. Faust’s Romantic culture has failed to harmoniously unite with that of Classical Greece.
The chorus laments the beautiful youth’s death. Helen tells her beloved Faust that beauty and happiness can form no lasting union. She embraces him one more time before delivering herself to the Underworld, so that she might be with her fallen son once more. After she vanishes, Faust is left standing with nothing but Helen’s robes and veil in his arms. Phorkyas-Mephistopheles instructs Faust to cling tightly to these garments so that he can soar aloft on them. Indeed, the garments then dissolve into clouds, envelop Faust, and lift him up, carrying him away.
Faust earlier abandoned the innocent Gretchen, and now he is abandoned by the beautiful Helen. He is now doomed, it would seem, to unhappiness. Helen returns to the Underworld, once again a ghostly image in Faust’s culture, to dwell among the failed dreams of Romantic poetry. Helen’s garments are still imbued with the Classical spirit of harmony, though, and so the artificial textiles can turn into a natural cloud.
One of Helen’s servants resolves to join her Queen in the Underworld, and accuses those who do not join her of having no high purpose, belonging merely to the physical world. This servant exits, and the chorus women who remain celebrate nature, accompanied by satyrs. Wine is consumed, and passions grow wild.
After the high ideals of Classical Greek culture depart from the world, what’s left is the merely sensual: drunkenness and base sexual passion. These are the empty remnants of a great heritage.
The curtain falls on the scene. In the proscenium, Phorkyas rises to a gigantic height, pushes back his mask and veil, and stands revealed to the audience as Mephistopheles, as though prepared to deliver an epilogue.
The devil has succeeded in preventing Faust from achieving union with a high ideal Faust had longed for. Perhaps now the magician will satisfy himself with idle pleasure and so lose his soul to the devil per their contract.
Part 2: Act 3: Inner Courtyard of a Castle
Part 2: Act 3: Inner Courtyard of a Castle