Marlowe’s Faustus: Chorus, Soliloquies and Film Noir

“Doctor Faustus…” starts with a 194-word soliloquy. Sort of. It’s delivered by Chorus, named last in Marlowe’s “Dramatis Personae.”

Ancient Greek tragedies had a chorus, acting like today’s narrators. Again, sort of.

Aristotle said that chorus was a character, so maybe Marlowe saw it that way, too. Make that probably did, since his “Dramtis Personae” lists Chorus.

Anyway, here’s Marlowe’s first whacking great chunk of soliloquy, whittled down considerably, in “Dr. Faustus.” Assuming that what Chorus says is soliloquy.

“CHORUS. Not marching in the fields of Thrasymene,
Where Mars did mate the warlike Carthagens …
…His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspir’d his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604, From The Quarto Of 1616) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce (1870))

Wait. What? “Thrasymene?” “Carthagens??” “Where Mars did mate???!”

And why, oh why does Marlowe have Chorus lead with what “Faustus” isn’t about?!

Trying to explain an Elizabethan playwright’s creative choices isn’t hard. Explaining them plausibly is another matter, but I’ll try.

But first —


A Punic Parenthesis

Rome and Carthage at the Beginning of the Second Punic War, 218 B.C. - from William R. Shepherd's 'Historical Atlas' (1926) via Perry-Castañeda Library's Map CollectionThat bit about Mars mating the “Carthagens” might suggest a reverse twist on today’s ‘guidance suggested’ ratings. But I’m pretty sure it’s not.

I figure that Marlowe counted on at least some of his audience seeing “Thrasymene” “Carthagens” as references to the Battle of Lake Trasimene, an incident during the Second Punic War.

That debacle has little or nothing to do with the “Faustus” narrative. Maybe it’s there to showcase Marlowe’s historical knowledge.

Or to give his audience preening opportunities, assuming that they knew their ancient history.

Or assuming that they didn’t.

Mars was the Roman god of war. I’ll assume that “Thrasymene” and “Carthagens” referenced the Battle of Lake Trasimene.

Using today’s chess jargon, I’d see “Mars did mate” as meaning that Roman forces defeated the Carthaginians. Which doesn’t make sense. Because that’s not what happened.

Before the battle, Rome’s Gaius Flaminius was known mostly for his great piety and regrettable habit of treating commoners like people. Regrettable by upper-crust Roman standards, that is.

After the battle, he was praised for his courage and determination. And breathtaking lack of military savvy.

Details of how he died vary considerably. But bottom line? He led his troops into an ambush. Like General Custer, but with arguably-different motives.

The Battle of Lake Trasimene was a defeat for Rome and, metaphorically, Rome’s Mars.

Reshef, or maybe Baal Shamem, was the Carthaginian war god. Maybe.

My guess is that we’d know more about Punic beliefs if Roman authorities had been less thorough in their dismantling of Carthage. Which happened while Parthia’s first Mithridates was founding the Parthian Empire.1 And that’s another topic.


Contents: Links to What’s Ahead

For my convenience, and in case you want to skip ahead to hubris or maybe film noir, a table of contents:


A Millennium of Western Theater

Ancient Greek relief: an aulos player and his family standing with Dionysos and (Artemis?), with theatrical masks above. (4th century BC)

Euripides wrote “Medea” and invented theater in 431 BC. According to at least one version of Western Cultural History Lite.

But, as usual, it’s not nearly that simple. Take dithyrambs, for example: one way folks retold the story of Dionysus, Pentheus, and a world-class daft decision.

From Dithyrambs to the Renaissance: In Brief

Antonio Tempesta's 'The Death of Pentheus.' (ca. 1606)Dionysian dithyrambs predated Euripides by a good bit. A dithyramb is a hymn of sorts. An enthusiastic one.

Whether and to what extent dithyrambs inspired ancient Greek tragedies is debatable and debated.

I’d be surprised if Greeks like Euripides hadn’t been influenced by their culture’s dramatic traditions.

And even more surprised if any folks didn’t have theater or its equivalent in their traditions. My guess is that theater of some sort was ancient long before Karl Jaspers’s Axial Age.

My ancestry and culture has European roots, so that’s the sort of theater I’ll focus on. Briefly.

And I’ll start with Ancient Greece, since that’s about as far back as detailed records go.

Greeks saw tragedy and comedy as completely different genres. And their actors were, I gather, always men.

Ancient Roman theater wasn’t exactly like Greek theater. But it wasn’t all that different.

Dominican doctor taking a pulse; in a set of standard 13th-century medical texts; bound in Paris between 1225 and 1275. From the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, Penn University, used w/o permission.Fast-forward a millennium, give or take a few centuries. Rome’s empire had become a rose-colored memory.

Europeans were staging what we call mystery plays.

They weren’t plays by today’s standards.

More like narrated and/or sung stories from the Bible or Christian folklore, illustrated by folks representing Adam, Eve, a Saint or whoever.2

And then the Renaissance happened.

Elizabethan Theater, Actors and Other Threats

Hogarth's 'The Bad Taste of the Town' - first version. (ca. 1723)

By the 1500s, performances we’d recognize as plays had joined Europe’s mystery plays. And English producers were building the first English theaters: structures designed to bring an audience and actors together.

That didn’t sit well with London’s Lord Mayor and other civic authorities. Actors, they felt, brought crime and disorder to their fair city.

Possibly because ancient Rome’s first actors were foreigners: Etrurians.

It had been a millennium since the Roman Empire’s day. But the Italian Renaissance, with its passion for all things Roman, was contagious: and spreading throughout Europe.

Maybe that explains the London Lord Mayor’s anti-actor attitude. Or maybe not.

At any rate, Rome’s first actors weren’t Romans. As such, they were barred from Roman military service. And that, on top of being non-Roman, kept them out of Roman politics.

Actors weren’t on the bottom rung of ancient Rome’s social ladder, but they were close.3

Meanwhile, in Elizabethan London

1574 map of London: MAP L85c no.27., Exhibited in 'Open City: London, 1500–1700'; Folgerpedia.Either way, in 1567 citizen and Grocer (capital “G”) John Williams built the Red Lion: the first purpose-built London theater.

The first one we know of. And the Red Lion wasn’t actually in London.

J. Williams built his theater on a farm just outside the city limits.

We’re not sure exactly where. Maybe between today’s The Royal London Hospital and Whitechapel Post Office and Sidney Square.

In any case, a struggle for the hearts and minds of London followed the Red Lion’s opening and subsequent lawsuit.4

That’s Entertainment: or “Immorality, and Profaneness”

Will Kempe, dancing a jig from Norwich to London. (1600)
(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Will Kempe: an enemy of the people? (1600))

Often as not, the Queen and Court didn’t mind actors and entertainment: particularly when actors entertained them.

Some Lord Chamberlains took the Queen’s lead.

Some tried protecting London from the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe. They lost.

James Burbage — an Elizabethan tradesman, actor and producer — built The Theatre a few hundred yards southwest of where Arnold Circus is now.

But Elizabethan theater wasn’t promoted exclusively by tradesmen, Grocers and other non-aristocrats. Although that’d play well for fans of class-struggle yarns. And that’s another topic.

Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon; Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham; and Queen Elizabeth sponsored acting companies.

Maybe the Lord Chamberlain’s, Lord Strange’s and the Admiral’s Men were strictly entertainment. Queen Elizabeth’s Men were blatantly political. Which provided employment for London lawyers.

Besides political headaches, London’s civil authorities had practical concerns. Theaters, if they’re successful, draw large crowds. And large crowds can spread disease.5

Then there’s the religious angle. Angles.

“But then such People ought to be kept in dark Rooms and without Company”

Jeremy Collier's 'Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage' antitheatrical pamphlet. (1698)I’m pretty sure that Londoners who saw Henry VIII’s home-brew church as insufficiently purged of popish pomp influenced city policy.

And at least one foe of “Immorality and Profaneness” strove to save England from Shakespeare’s Ophelia.

“…Had Shakespear secur’d this point for his young Virgin Ophelia, Hamlet. the Play had been better contriv’d. Since he was resolv’d to drown the Lady like a Kitten, he should have set her a swimming a little sooner. To keep her alive only to sully her Reputation, and discover the Rankness of her Breath, was very Cruel. But it may be said the Freedoms of Distraction go for nothing, a Feavour has no Faults, and a Man non Compos, may kill without Murther. It may be so: But then such People ought to be kept in dark Rooms and without Company. To shew them, or let them loose, is somewhat unreasonable. But after all, the Modern Stage seems to depend upon this Expedient….”
(“A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage…,” Jeremy Collier, M.A., (1698))

Antitheatricality, moral panic and perceptions of mental illness — are cans of worms I’ll save for another day.

Something like a century and a half after Marlowe, Hogarth was appalled at English drama’s decline and fall. By Hogarth’s day, “Doctor Faustus” had been re-imagined as a commedia dell’arte pantomime.6 And that’s yet another topic.


Today’s America, Elizabethan London: Compared and Contrasted

Walt Kelly's Deacon Mushrat and Simple J. Malarky. (11953)Chaos reigns while terror stalks the streets!

Fear of foreigners grips the populace!

Censorship abounds!

Disease and immorality in media threaten the very heart of our fair nation!

Overripe style aside, that’s what I see in today’s headlines. Although details have changed, it’s what I’ve seen in the news ever since I started paying attention.

If I thought today’s angst parade was something new, then maybe I’d latch onto someone’s End Times Bible Prophecy — read all about it, only $19.99. 🙄

On the other hand, I could embrace a more trendy topic. Maybe supporting some ‘save the endangered critter of the month’ movement.

Or I could simply stop caring. Which doesn’t strike me as reasonable, either.

True, we’re living in ‘interesting times.’ But that’s nothing new.

“…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world….
…The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity….”
(“The Second Coming,” W. B. Yeats (1919))

“O tempora, o mores!”
(“Oh the times! Oh the customs!”)
(First Oration against Catiline, Cicero (63 BC))

We’ve got COVID-19, Elizabethan London had bubonic plague. Along with smallpox, measles, diphtheria, chickenpox, no sewer system and no antibiotics.

We’ve got politicos and their supporters demonizing the ‘bad guys,’ while the folks in charge try to control what the rest of us can read. So did they.7

What’s changed is that the printing press isn’t our scary new tech. Now it’s the Internet and particularly social media.

I talked about this last month. At length:


The Postdoctoral Dilemma of Dr. Faustus

A frontispiece for 'Historia Mundi Naturalis,' by Pliny the Elder, published Sigmund Feyerabend, Frankfurt am Main. (1582)
(From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(From Sigmund Feyerabend’s reprint of Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History.” (1582))

My academic career, such as it was, left me with two undergraduate degrees, a year of library science and half of an undergraduate degree in computer science.

I’d have majored in general studies, But that wasn’t an option. So I studied history and English for grade points, and researched everything else for fun. Having access to their libraries and archives is a big perk for college students. It was for me, at any rate.

But, doctorate-free though I am, I’ve learned a bit about the ivory tower’s turrets.

If I’d earned a Ph.D. in history, then I could could have become a history professor, museum curator, archivist or author.8 Or, at least as likely, a sales clerk.

As it is, I’ve been a sales clerk, along with a medley — or mess — of other jobs. And I have been and still am a writer.

Getting back to Marlowe’s play, Chorus finally gets around to Faustus: a bright kid “…born of parents base of stock,” who studies his way to academia’s highest degree:

“CHORUS. … So much he profits in divinity,
That shortly he was grac’d with doctor’s name,
Excelling all, and sweetly can dispute
In th’ heavenly matters of theology;…”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604, From The Quarto Of 1616) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce (1870))

That’s when he considers his postdoctoral options.

“…FAUSTUS. Settle thy studies, Faustus, and begin
To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess:…
…Sweet Analytics, ’tis thou hast ravish’d me!
Bene disserere est finis logices.
Is, to dispute well, logic’s chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?…”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604))

“What a World of Profit and Delight”

From the 'Faust' collection, central library, German Classic, National Research and Memorial Sites, Weimar.Faustus soliloquizes for 415 words.

Basically, he sees “Sweet Analytics,” economics, medicine and law as unworthy of his brilliance.

Harsh words, but Faustus has high standards.

Take, for example, his reason for rejecting a career in medicine (“physic”) — a subject that’s already earned him honors.

“…Couldst thou make men to live eternally,
Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
Then this profession were to be esteem’d.
Physic, farewell! …”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604))

At this point, Faustus considers theology. Elizabethan theology, at any rate, as presented by Marlowe. Faustus doesn’t like it.

“…Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
consequently die:
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!…”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604))

Maybe “Che sera, sera” is Marlowe’s jab at predestination, as understood in his England. Maybe not. Either way, at this point he finds something he likes.

“…These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, and omnipotence,
Is promis’d to the studious artizan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a demigod:
Here tire, my brains, to gain a deity.”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604))

Then — at last — Wagner enters, and we get some dialog. Also Good Angel and Evil Angel, but I’ll talk about them some other day.

We’ve also learned that Faustus has titanic self-esteem, with ambitions to match.

Hubris

WiNG's photo of the Beijing Television Cultural Center fire. (February 9, 2009)Having good self-esteem makes sense, but Marlowe’s ambition takes him deep into the “hubris” zone.

Oddly enough, “hubris” isn’t ancient Greek for “hold my beer.” But it’s close.

The word’s meaning is more like “outrage:” trying to do something that violates the natural order, or goes against reason.

Oedipus, for example, committed hubris by trying to dodge the Delphic oracle’s doom; that he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother.

Both Icarus and Prometheus offended the natural order, as imagined by at least some ancient Greeks, by trying to fly and giving fire to humanity.9

I don’t see either trying to fly or developing new technology as a problem.

But I’m a contemporary American, not an ancient Greek, raised back when the establishment praised science and technology. Then, during and following my teens, a conviction that science and technology will kill us all came into vogue.

And at least a few folks still assume that science and religion, particularly Christianity, get along as well as mongoose and cobra.

I haven’t heard an ‘if God meant man to fly’ joke in years, so that may not need explaining.

Alarm and despondency over new tech is another matter. Along with the assumption that religion and seeking knowledge don’t mix. I’ll get back to that.

Pride

'The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,' detail; by Hieronymus Bosch or someone else. (1505-1510 or thereabouts)But first, I’d better say why I’m not denouncing self-esteem.

Basically, it’s because I’m a Catholic.

Pride is a bad idea, a sin. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1866)

But pretending that we’re miserable wretches, fit only for eternity’s ashcan, isn’t a good idea.

We’re made “in the image of God.” And, like all of God’s creation, we’re basically “very good.” The first of us put personal preference above God’s will, a monumentally bad idea. But God didn’t change our nature. We’re wounded, but not corrupted. (Genesis 1:27, 31, 3:119; Catechism, 31, 299, 355361, 374379, 398, 400406, 405, 17011707, 1949)

Backing up a bit, sin is something that offends reason, truth, “right conscience” — and God. (Catechism, 18491851)

Self-Esteem, Within Reason

Fred Barnard's Uriah Heep, from 'David Copperfield. (1870s)So, if pride is a sin, then shouldn’t I be trying to believe that I’m a lousy writer? Or at least saying that I am?

No. It doesn’t work that way.

Accepting truth matters, so that’s not a reasonable option. Uria Heep’s oily servility is no more reasonable than a Faustian quest for omnipotence.

In my case, I’ve been a researcher/reporter and an advertising copywriter, so there’s evidence that I’m a pretty good writer.

Saying that I’m not wouldn’t be reasonable.

So would be claiming that my knack for writing was entirely my own doing.

Sure, I’ve worked at developing my talents and skills. But having something to work with? That’s from God.

HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids all inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as ‘poverty of spirit’ (2546).”
PRIDE: One of the seven capital sins. Pride is undue self-esteem or self-love, which seeks attention and honor and sets itself in competition with God.”
(Catechism, Glossary)

Summing up: truth matters, pride is a bad idea and self-esteem can make sense.

“Odious to the Lord and to mortals is pride,
and for both oppression is a crime.”
“My son, with humility have self-esteem;
and give yourself the esteem you deserve.”
(Sirach 10:7, 28)

“Little Less Than a God”

TRAPPIST–South first light image of the Tarantula Nebula, detail. (2010) From TRAPPIST/E. Jehin/ESO, used w/o permission.

Faust’s desire for God-level power doesn’t make sense.

That said, humanity is pretty hot stuff. We really are made “in the image of God,” with awesome abilities, authority — and responsibilities.

That last bit is scary, but I don’t see a point in either pretending that we’re just like every other critter on the planet or that doing whatever we want is a good idea.

And I am quite sure that using the brains God gives us does not offend a dyspeptic deity.

Noticing the beauty and order in this universe is a good idea. So is learning how it works. And using our knowledge wisely. (Catechism, 16, 341, 373, 1704, 17301731, 2293)

Again, we’re pretty hot stuff.

“When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
“What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
“Yet you have made him little less than a god,
crowned him with glory and honor.
“You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
put all things at his feet:”
(Psalms 8:47)

That said, “little less than a god” isn’t God. Our position comes with daunting accountability.


Soliloquies: Monologues, Dramatic and Otherwise

E. W. Kemble's 'Hamlet's soliloquy' for 'Huckleberry Finn.' (1885)Basically, a soliloquy is what I do when I’m talking to myself. Which happens fairly often, particularly when digital glitches or writer’s block strike.

It’s a monologue, addressed to whoever’s speaking. And the audience. Or reader, in the case of the Soliloquies of Augustine.

Soliloquies, the sort committed by actors, aren’t limited to Elizabethan theater. But that period’s grand perorations are particularly famous.

There’s the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example.10

This is profoundly not how it goes:

“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of….”
(“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Chapter XXI, Mark Twain; Charles L. Webster & Company (1885)

Soliloquies are a dandy way to show audiences what’s happening in a character’s head. More accurately, they’re an easy way to tell audiences.

Playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe get away with it. In large part, I suspect, because they’re exceptional writers.

Whether Elizabethan theater was famous for soliloquies because they had Shakespeare and Marlowe, or those two wrote soliloquies because monologues were fashionable? I think that’s a good question, and I don’t have a good answer.

I do, however, think that soliloquies enjoyed a comeback in the 20th century. But I suspect that many serious devotees of the thespian arts would disagree.

Some of them, at any rate.

Film Noir (or) A Soliloquy By Any Other Name

'Laura' trailer title frame.' (1944)
(From 20th Century Fox, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Trailer for Otto Preminger’s “Laura.” (1944))

I gather that the closest thing to an academic consensus regarding film noir is that it’s either a genre, or it isn’t. It’s an American style, or it’s international. Film noir’s mood is dreamlike, brutal or something else. It’s melodrama. Or it’s not.

Adding my two cents, I’ll say that film noir is pretty much the opposite of “Oklahoma!” and “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars.”11

That’s one cent. Now, the other one.

Film noir’s soliloquies are shorter than Marlowe’s. The ones I’ve run across have been, at any rate. And scholars call them narratives.

But I don’t see all that much difference between the two. Apart, like I said, from length. And film noir’s non-Elizabethan dialect.

“WALDO LYDECKER: [narrating off screen] I shall never forget the weekend Laura died. A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass. It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection. I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York. For with Laura’s horrible death, I was alone. I, Waldo Lydecker, was the only one who really knew her, and I had just begun to write Laura’s story when another of those detectives came to see me…. ”
(“Laura” (1944) via IMDB.com)

I also think that scholars who see film noir as a legitimate creative experiment are right. And I’m pretty sure that the style, or genre, or whatever, will eventually be assigned a label. Several, most likely, as time passes.


Coming Soon: Faustian Follies

Huntingdon Library's 'Faustus' manuscript.
(From Ken Eckert, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

But film noir controversies don’t have a whole lot to do with Marlowe’s “Dr Faustus” — who soliloquizes even in dialogue with Valdes and Cornelius.

“…Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits:
‘Tis magic, magic that hath ravish’d me.
Then, gentle friends, aid me in this attempt;
And I, that have with subtle syllogisms
Gravell’d the pastors of the German church,
And made the flowering pride of Wittenberg
Swarm to my problems, as th’ infernal spirits
On sweet Musaeus when he came to hell,
Will be as cunning as Agrippa was,
Whose shadow made all Europe honour him….”
(“…Faustus…,” Marlowe (1604, From The Quarto Of 1616) Edited by The Rev. Alexander Dyce (1870))

I’ve talked enough, maybe too much, about soliloquies. So next time I’ll look at Faust’s GOOD ANGEL and EVIL ANGEL. Also “the prince of parma,” and maybe grapes. Then again, maybe not.

I’ve also talked about faith and reason, truth and options, humility and freedom:


1 Republican Rome in retrospect:

2 Medea, mystery plays and more:

3 English traditions, Roman roots:

4 Something new:

5 Primarily producers and politics:

6 Perceptions and panic:

7 Elizabethan England; just like today’s America, except for how it’s not:

8 Academia’s deep end:

9 Hubris? Outrageous!

10 To be, or tomorrow, Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane:

11 Movies:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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4 Responses to Marlowe’s Faustus: Chorus, Soliloquies and Film Noir

  1. The stuff about pride and self-esteem’s a pretty good refresher to me, especially considering how us kids are quite obsessed about that stuff and image and blah. But I guess that’s nothing new. Maybe it’s even part of what to expect from kids and kids at heart across time. And it’s a good thing that we can overcome it, no? Praise and thanks be to God Almighty very much again, then.

    • Praise and thanks be to God Almighty, indeed! 🙂

      Getting too focused on image – apt term, that – takes different forms, I suspect, at different ages and in different circumstances. But I’d be surprised if anyone’s immune.

  2. Why are some people so focussed on their image and what others think of them? I was told I am a sex symbol for the woman who doesn’t care.

    God bless.

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