Don Juan Tenorio first appeared 380 years ago in Renaissance Spain, a young aristocrat who dallied and played between the twin extremes of passion and repression, untouched by either. His creator was Gabriel Tellez, a monk who wrote under the name of Tirso de Molina. The play was El Burlador de Sevilla. Here was the root of all that followed. However, this Don Juan is not yet the irresistible lover. He doesn't leave women smiling, but in tears. He disguises himself as a woman's fiance in order to violate her. The first time he does this, the lady is disgraced and the man is forced into exile. He uses the same stratagem a second time without success, and kills the girl's father, who tried to intervene. The fiance, a friend of Juan's, narrowly misses being hung for the crime. Juan deceives two peasant girls by promising marriage, taking one from her wedding feast. The second girl's house he burns to cover his retreat.
In all, he never blinks or flinches, never wastes a thought for the thunderbolt God must surely be preparing for him. Death is far off, and the afterlife is just a fairy tale. Don Juan's disbelief gives him complete liberty of action and freedom from fear. Nothing in heaven, earth, or under the earth can make him turn a hair.
When he comes upon the memorial statue of Commander Gonzalo, the man he murdered, he tweaks the statue's beard and invites the dead man to dinner. That night at dinner, the stone commander arrives and invites Juan to dine at his tomb. Juan never hesitates; he takes the statue's hand, and though he feels his heart freeze within him, passes it off as "imagination." At the tomb, Juan eats the strange dinner without complaint: tarantulas, vipers, and fingernail fricassee, washed down by vinegar, frost and ice. At last, the statue offers his hand again, asking Juan if he is afraid. The answer is no: Juan grips the statue's hand, and the stone commander sinks into the earth, dragging Juan alive to hell.
This is the original Don Juan: elemental and intense, open only to his own pleasure, utterly indifferent to the consequences of his actions, possessed by the same false sense of invulnerability that children enjoy. He has no real interest in any external thing. In a word, he is a narcissist. It's no surprise that the best and most compelling portraits of Don Juan are works for theatre; Juan is a man of action. His inner life is almost nonexistent.
Juan's next incarnation comes 50 years later at the hands of Moliere. In his Don Juan, the character of Elvira appears for the first time, and the startling beggar scene is added. Here, Juan offers a pious beggar a huge sum if only the man will blaspheme. The beggar is horrified, Juan's servant begs him to stop, but Juan gently insists, unable to see the difficulty. Moliere brings into high relief Juan's cold unbelief, and characterizes his super-rational approach to the supernatural in the creed: "I believe that two and two make four, and that four and four make eight."
More than a century later, Mozart's Don Giovanni appeared. The intervening century was full of Don Juan burlesques, vulgar puppet shows, and other plays, operas, and ballets. A particularly cruel play by Shadwell appeared in England in 1758, and Purcell composed some accompanying music. Goldoni tried his hand at the theme, Gluck composed a ballet, and two other Don Giovanni operas appeared the same year as Mozart's.
Yet, with all this activity, the high points remain Tirso's original, Moliere's drama, and Mozart's opera.
The Romantic movement brought a new, more elastic Don Juan, as different from the original as the modern era differs from the past. On one hand, the eighteenth-century English stage saw a spate of musical comedies that, much like today's tv sitcoms, thrust our hero into preposterous situations. In one of these, Juan becomes a suburban vampire.
On the other hand, we find that the most radical departure comes at the hands of Lord Byron in his anomalous, highly comic, epic poem Don Juan. This hero bears only the slightest resemblance to Tirso's original. This Don Juan loves but one woman at a time, and he never voluntarily leaves his lover. War, shipwreck, acts of God tear him from her side, and he pines for each loss - for a while, anyway. At the poem's end, instead of confronting a stone horror, Juan is visited by a ghostly friar. Juan, though trembling, stretches out his hand and finds "a firm but glowing bust/which beat as if there were a warm heart under." It is, in fact, the slyly smiling Lady Grace Fitz-Fulke. A far cry from the stone commander.
There are, of course, other Don Juans that deserve mention and attention. Jose Zorilla's Don Juan Tenorio, where Juan's last moments are played out in a monumental mausoleum filled with life-like statues of his victims; Rostand's Last Night of Don Juan, in which the hero battles with devil for his soul; and George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, which sees our hero transformed into a amusing know-it-all lounging in hell with Elvira and her dead father.
Don Juan changed just as society changed, particularly in our attitudes toward sex, religion, and the role of women. Although the romantic and modern ages softened the image of Don Juan, our modernity has not taken the mystery out of sex and religion; nor has it exhausted their difficulties. Nearly every great writer in the western tradition has tried his hand at Don Juan. "Don Juan can go on indefinitely," Kierkegaard said in Either/Or. For Don Juan, "to see her and to love her is the same thing; it is in the moment. In the same moment everything is over, and the same thing repeats itself endlessly."
[ 1 January 1998 ]