A discussion takes place on the stage of a theatre between a director, a poet, and a clown. They argue about what constitutes a good play. Three points of view are presented. The director is interested in those things which make the play a commercial success: action and novelty. The poet is concerned with the artistry and ideas that make the play's meaning universal and give it value for posterity. The clown asserts that these views are not contradictory. He points out that the needs of art and the needs of the moment can be reconciled, for that which attracts the general public need not be worthless. The artist can maintain his integrity and still be successful if he stops feeling superior and develops a proper appreciation for the values of everyday life.
Finally the director ends the discussion, reminding the others that there is still much work to be done if they are to put on any play at all. He describes the techniques of producing a play and promises the audience that the whole universe will be presented on his stage — beginning with Heaven and proceeding through the world to Hell.
At first glance this prelude seems only indirectly connected to the tragedy itself, but Goethe uses it to sketch in commonplace terms some of the essential themes that will be treated in Faust. The poet represents the idealist who strives to comprehend eternal values, the clown is the realist who is concerned with the here and now, but both personify important principles of life. The director of the theatre is like the god of a universe, of the mind (conscience) of a single individual. He must blend these disparate elements to create a harmonious world or well integrated personality. The problems he faces on his stage foreshadow those which Faust will struggle with.
In making this analogy between the universe and the individual soul, Goethe draws upon the medieval philosophical conception of the microcosm and the macrocosm. The individual and the cosmos are related to each other as the inner "small world" and the outer "great world," vastly different in size and scope, but having the same basic essence and responding to the same eternal laws. This is also the relationship between the two parts of Faust.
On a more topical level, the director's final speech is an analysis of the problems of the playwright, and demonstrates Goethe's thorough knowledge of stagecraft, derived from many years as a dramatist and director of the State Theatre at Weimar.