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don juan

21 april 2019

Don Juan was invented, or at least first set on stage and paper, by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in the early 17th century. He soon went viral. At times it seems like every 17th- or 18th-century writer with any ambition wrote a Don Juan piece, or a knockoff thereof. Mozart and Byron, in their distinctive ways, helped European culture reach Peak Don Juan in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But that just meant that the Don went global, where he continues to find new interpreters, right down to Murakami's Killing Commendatore a couple of years ago.

Though Murakami's version doesn't do much with Don Juan at all, featuring instead a character killed off, in some versions, before the curtain rises: the Commander, the murder victim who returns in the form of the Stone Guest (as some versions are titled). And though Molière's version (1665) gives us quite a bit of Don Juan, the starring role (created by the playwright for himself) is Sganarelle.

Sganarelle is a character almost as widely elaborated as Don Juan. He is Molière's all-purpose Everyman, a caustic truth-teller without a shred of scruple – no better than he should be, but for that very reason able to expose the villainy and hypocrisy of everybody else in a play. The descendant of tricky slaves from Plautus and Terence, the ancestor of Figaro, Sganarelle is at the heart of Molière's comedy. Here he shows up as Don Juan's manservant and confidant. Continually helping Don Juan seduce or cheat somebody else, Sganarelle just as continually tells Don Juan he's going to hell (as everybody knows he will in the end, escorted by the Stone Guest).

Don Juan seems celebrated for its darker depths, as translator David Coward suggests in his introduction to the 2000 Penguin version. Yet it seems to me that Molière's play could be done pretty much completely as a farce. Much of the dialogue isn't funny, but as always, Molière's humor does not depend on jokes but on the incongruity of dialogue to the situation. Central to the play, for instance, is Don Juan's run-in with the jilted Dona Elvira's brothers, who are fixing to kill him. "It is not easy to be amused by the honourable valour of her brothers," says Coward (93). But that's only if you take honorable valor seriously. Don Juan doesn't, and Sganarelle doesn't. If the production adopts their point of view and makes the brothers into testosterone-soaked idiots, the scene could be the funniest in the play.

Of course, it's hard to argue that a play which ends with its hero swallowed up in Hell is altogether a laugh riot. Mozart's Don Giovanni, though it has many light moments, ends with a moving spectacle of a dissolute thrill-addict who has overplayed his hand. But earlier Don Juans, including Molière's, draw from stock-character morality plays where the Vice's comeuppance is all in a day's good fun. And Molière immediately undercuts the horror of Don Juan's fate by ending the play with Sganarelle's complaint that he is now masterless and unpaid. The energy of Molière's version is all with its bad guys – in itself a profound statement, perhaps, but not one which suggests a solemn two hours in the theater.

Coward's revision of a 1953 translation by John Woods is brisk and very lucid. The one scene almost impossible to read (and perhaps to play, too), though, renders the country dialect of two characters preyed on by Don Juan into a ghastly stage-Cockney. I don't know how the dialect scenes play in French as period pieces, but I think they'd be disastrous (on British and American stages alike) in Woods and Coward's English. Better to render the dialogue in neutral English and give Pierrot and his Charlotte character notes that emphasize their unhip naïvete than to have them squawking "Lawks-a-mercy" as they do in this translation.

Molière. Don Juan. [Dom Juan, 1665.] Translated by John Woods. Revised by David Coward. 2000. London: Penguin, 2004. 94-145.