Dramatic Genre and the Don Juan Theme

by Perry Gethner
Oklahoma State University

During the second half of the seventeenth century the enormous popularity of the Don Juan story inspired a number of European playwrights who treated it in every conceivable dramatic form. Moliere called his version a comedy, Shadwell called his a tragedy, three lesser-known French authors called theirs tragicomedies, and there were even commedia dell'arte versions labeled farce. The realization that the story inevitably crossed generic barriers continued to bedevil authors of the following century, as well. For example, the two most popular operatic versions, Gazzaniga's and Mozart's, were both labeled 'dramma giocoso.' I propose to examine Moliere's and Shadwell's treatments, focusing on what they altered, omitted or added to the traditional story to make it fit the genre they designated.

When Moliere undertook to compose a Don Juan play in 1665, he knew that the two previous versions produced by rival companies had both used the label of tragicomedy. Logically, that label would seem to be the most appropriate, since the legend involves several deaths, an unusually varied mixture of characters from different social classes, and the protagonist's refusal to submit to the established social and moral order. However, it is clear that Moliere never felt comfortable with the term 'tragicomedy.' For one thing, it was rapidly falling out of favor in France, owing to attacks by such influential theorists as D'Aubignac and Boileau, who denied the intermediate genre's right to exist, and to the fact that during the first half of the century the label had been primarily associated with plays with irregular structure and highly implausible plots. While the theorists of the day had no trouble accepting the possibility of tragedy with a happy ending, some playwrights felt uncomfortable with the view that there are only two legitimate dramatic genres. Pierre Corneille, who had scored the biggest success of his career with a tragicomedy, Le Cid, later adopted the alternative term 'heroic comedy,' which he utilized for plays featuring exclusively noble characters, devoid of comic elements, and in which there is no danger of death for the protagonists. Moliere's sole experiment in this form, Dom Garcie de Navarre (1661), had been a total failure, and by 1665 he had reluctantly renounced his aspirations in the realm of heroic drama.

At the same time, French playwrights and theorists were far from unanimous in their views about the nature of comedy, though most agreed that the five-act comedy in verse was a serious literary work, whereas the purely popular genre of farce was not. The middle decades of the century saw numerous adaptations of Spanish cape and sword plays (which are the closest thing to comedy in Spanish Golden Age drama). These works, centering on the amorous adventures of dashing young aristocrats and limiting the comic element to the witty servants, allowed playwrights to display their virtuosity both in refinement of style and in extreme complication of plot. In fact, some of Moliere's detractors, during a prolonged polemical exchange in 1663, criticized him for not following this pattern and writing instead simpler and less elegant plays focusing on bourgeois families and often featuring farcical characters and situations. To be sure, the ultimate source of the Don Juan story was a Spanish drama dealing a dashing young aristocrat, Tirso de Molina's Burlador de Sevilla, but this work was by no means a cape and sword play, and in any case Moliere, who did not read Spanish, seems to have had no knowledge of Tirso. (Nor did any other French or English playwright who treated the legend in the seventeenth century.)

Further complicating the discussion was the popularity, ever since Cardinal Mazarin introduced Italian operas to Paris in the 1640s, of plays involving elaborate stage machinery, especially flying machines and instantaneous set changes. Most of the plays written in France during the 1650s and '60s to show off the new technology were tragedies on mythological subjects. Because most playwrights assumed that the presence of this fancy machinery was best justified by plots featuring the supernatural, and gods were assumed to be the province of serious drama, only a handful of comedies were written around the use of special effects. Dom Juan was the first significant experiment of this type, and even Moliere would have difficulty in finding comic plots suitable for flying machines. (Only in his mythological play, Amphitryon (1668), would Moliere, who was undeniably fascinated by the machines, try to use them for a specifically comic effect).

In practice, even if not in theory, the plays involving machinery had to conform to a set of rules that differed in certain key respects from those applied to ordinary plays. The most obvious divergences were 1) the abandoning of the unity of place, since machine plays were expected to have highly elaborate sets, and more than one per play, and 2) the showing of supernatural characters and miraculous events on the stage, whereas in other plays such things were kept offstage and relegated to narrative passages. The recent rediscovery of Moliere's contract with painters and machinists specially engaged for the premiere of Dom Juan proves not only that the play was not hastily dashed off, as has been sometimes claimed, but also that he intended from the outset to compose a play in which machines played a central role. Admittedly, neither the special effects Moliere inherited from the tradition, such as the Don's being struck by a thunderbolt and swallowed up by the earth, nor those which he invented, such as the instantaneous set change in Act III or the appearance of a veiled ghost that turns into the personification of Time and then vanishes (V.5), are the least bit humorous. Moliere must have recognized that machine comedies, like machine tragedies, needed to operate under special rules, and, in this case, that meant coexistence of scary special effects with comic elements.

As Moliere never wrote a systematic treatise on dramatic theory, the question of how he defined comedy and how he attempted to fit the Don Juan story into the comic mold must involve creative extrapolation from the ideas and techniques to be found in his plays and prefaces. In point of fact, Moliere's conception of comedy was quite elastic, since his plays run the gamut from farce to witty satire of bourgeois or court mores to quasi-pastoral romance. In any case, as I have noted, he must have realized that a machine play incorporating all the required elements of the preexisting legend could not possibly be comic from start to finish. The question then becomes one of integrating as much as possible from his arsenal of comic structures and devices into an unusually heterogeneous play.

In his polemical comedy from two years earlier, La Critique de l'Ecole des Femmes, Moliere's spokesman had declared that the main requirement of comedy, as a genre, was to make respectable people laugh (scene 6). As critics have frequently indicated, Moliere's Dom Juan cleverly alternates humorous, even farcical scenes with serious or frightening episodes; this happens to some degree in every act, although, more loosely, one can say that the humorous scenes are more prominent in the even-numbered acts. It is interesting to note that most of the comic passages were invented by Moliere; only the accumulation of lazzi in the supper scene was borrowed from his predecessors (and even here Moliere altered the gags, eliminating all the indecent ones from the commedia dell'arte version).

In addition, Moliere seems to have conceived portions of his play according to comic structuring principles that he used in a number of other plays as well. For example, the bulk of Act II consists of a series of unrelated interruptions to a planned action that is never completed; namely, the Don's seduction of the peasant girl Charlotte. The lack of completion acquires added spice when we realize that this is the only time in the play that the protagonist tries to seduce a woman; Moliere does at least show his Don as irresistible to the ladies, but the ladies are particularly naive and stupid, and the Don's eloquence is less than impressive. At the same time, Moliere ingeniously arranges matters in such a way that each interruption, which seemingly ought to hinder the seduction, serves instead to advance it. The amorous encounter is first interrupted when Pierrot, who had left the stage to get a drink and relax after his exertions in rescuing the Don from drowning, returns to find his fiancee accepting the nobleman's advances.

His angry protests not only earn him a beating but also reveal his cowardice and childishness, along with Charlotte's lack of real affection for him and a willingness to indulge her dreams of riches and glory, thus accelerating her surrender to the Don. Next, the appearance of Mathurine, another peasant girl to whom the Don had promised marriage just prior to his entrance, at first flusters our hero as the two girls fight over him, but their vanity and their jealousy have been sufficiently aroused so that the verbal duel will continue even after the Don leaves the stage. Even the arrival of the Don's servant La Ramee, to warn that a dozen horsemen are in hot pursuit and that they had better escape at once, seems to contribute to the girls' infatuation, and the hero's promise to send word to them by the following evening suffices to silence them and presumably to inspire delighted, even feverish anticipation. Only the audience's foreknowledge of how the story ends alerts us that Dom Juan will not have the opportunity to return and complete the double seduction. Indeed, the peasants will never reappear in the play.

Another technique pioneered by Moliere is to subject a stationary character to a series of unwanted and unrelated visits which distract him from a planned activity. Since each caller gives what amounts to a performance, and since the visits follow one another with a minimum of interruption, the technique can resemble a comedy revue, rather than a realistic action. Act IV, in which the Don stays home instead of running from one adventure to the next, shows how his supper is repeatedly delayed by a group of people whom he particularly does not want to see: a creditor, his father, his abandoned wife, and finally, after the meal has already begun, the statue of the murdered Commander. Only the first of these visits is comic, but each one increases the Don's impatience and frustration, not to mention Sganarelle's insatiable hunger. Indeed, one can easily imagine a staging in which servants repeatedly try to serve the meal, only to have the next visitor sweep into the room and beckon them away.

One of Moliere's most enduring innovations in French comedy was to move the action indoors and to show how the foibles of the family's dominant member affect the lives of his/her whole household. Tartuffe, staged the preceding year, had been set in an upper middle-class home and presented an unusually complete family gathering: father, second wife, son, daughter, grandmother, brother-in-law, and daughter's fiance. With Dom Juan Moliere tries to do something analogous with an aristocratic family. His hero, shown at home in Acts I and IV (although even when he is on the road he cannot escape from family), is confronted with a legal wife, two brothers- in-law, and an irate father. Moliere is vague on the question of whether father and son live in the same, or different palaces (the fourth act stage direction refers to Dom Juan's 'apartments'), but it is clear that the son is at least partially dependent financially on his father and that he feels keen resentment for this. Like sons in many of Moliere's bourgeois comedies, Dom Juan wishes for his father to die quickly, which would give him full control of the family money (IV.5). Admittedly, the father/son rivalry is here presented in a very serious light, but the underlying pattern still recalls that of comedy.

It also seems likely that Done Elvire, the most important character to be added to the Don Juan legend by Moliere, was similarly inspired by the comic pattern in which an eccentric protagonist causes problems for the whole family. Despite Sganarelle's constant references to his master's innumerable marriages (in the opening scene he tells Elvire's servant Gusman that the Don would not have hesitated, in the heat of his passion, to have married, along with Elvire, her valet, her cat and her dog!), she is the only wife ever mentioned in the play. No other women, married or not, pursue him; indeed, the first scene of the play suggests that Dom Juan has not suffered from such pursuits before. He has not bothered to conceal from Elvire his real name and residence, making it a simple matter for her to locate him. Even more curious is the fact that Dom Louis, in his lengthy and eloquent rebuke to his son, makes no reference to bigamy, which was (and still is) a very serious crime. Nor does our hero mention bigamy when, following his supposed religious conversion, he tries to explain to Elvire's brother, Carlos, why he cannot live with her as her lawful husband. In short, Moliere gives us the impression that, although his hero may seduce many women and sometimes promise them marriage along the way, as he does with Charlotte, Elvire is the only woman he has actually married. The cast list confirms this impression by calling Elvire Dom Juan's 'wife' (and not one of his wives).

Another of Moliere's favorite comic themes is the use of disguise and/or affected role playing. Disguise is most prominent at the end of Act II, where the Don orders his terrified servant to exchange clothes with him, and at the beginning of Act III, when Sganarelle, having procured a doctor's robe as a safer disguise, cannot resist posing as a doctor, dispensing medical advice to the peasants he meets and arguing about theology with his master. The fact that role playing occurs in strategically placed scenes (the start of Acts I, III and V) is probably not a coincidence. Sganarelle's burlesque eulogy of tobacco that opens the play suggests, among other things, that he is taking advantage of his master's absence to ape high society. Tobacco, he claims, teaches one to be an 'honorable man,' while inspiring honor and virtue; in other words, it is a sign of how the nobility behaves. The Don's hypocritical interview with his father in which he claims to have seen the error of his ways and promises to repent (V.1) is a more complex case of role playing, since this supposed change of heart comes as a total surprise both to the audience and to the naive Sganarelle. It is not inconceivable, although the text does not indicate it, that the Don wears a more sober costume for the last act, as opposed to the flamboyantly elegant one described in great detail by Pierrot (II.1); if so, the new costume could be understood as yet another disguise.

Moliere's notion of realism in comedy, as expounded in his polemical comedies of 1663, requires an accurate depiction of contemporary mores and vices, so that the audience can easily recognize the society portrayed as its own; moreover, he considered the follies of the nobility, and not just those of the middle class, to be fair game for comedy. The sole middle-class character in the play, M. Dimanche, anticipates the vanity and desire for social climbing that Moliere would satirize more in depth five years later in Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Dimanche's delight and bewilderment at seeing a great lord treat him as an equal, even as a friend, are so great that he cannot bring himself to insist on being paid. At the same time, his inability to realize how he is being manipulated and exploited makes him the only one of the Don's victims who is totally funny.

There are even elements of social satire in the characterization of Dom Juan himself. For example, we know from contemporary sources that noblemen of the period took pride in not paying their bills, that some of them openly flaunted their libertine life styles and/or their religious unbelief, and that concern for the latest and most minute refinements of court etiquette and fashionable dress was pushed to exaggeration, even obsession. Moliere's hero often seems more concerned with what his interlocutors are wearing than with what they are saying. Thus, he sneers at Elvire for not changing out of her country attire once she has arrived in the big city (I.2) and admits to being fascinated with the somber (perhaps convent) garb she wears to bid him farewell (IV.7). He even notes disdainfully that the Commander's statue looks foolish wearing what he calls a Roman emperor's costume (III.5).

Parody of other dramatic genres was another of Moliere's preferred comic techniques. In a number of respects the episode with the peasants in Act II is a spoof of the pastoral tradition. Instead of dressing and speaking like aristocrats in rustic disguise, Pierrot and Charlotte speak in thick dialect and react to the Don's presence with all the excited curiosity of commoners who have never seen a nobleman up close before. Moreover, Pierrot's extended criticism of his fiancee for not loving him according to the rules is an obvious spoof of courtly tradition. Fat Thomasse, the village girl whom Pierrot cites as an example of how people who love 'comme il faut' behave, is constantly teasing, pestering, even cuffing her boyfriend Robain; on one occasion she even pulled his stool out from under him, making him fall on the ground (II.1)! The Don's extreme rudeness and blatant ingratitude toward Pierrot, who has just saved his life, likewise run directly counter to the perfect courtesy practiced by the heroes of pastoral and chivalric literature. Even the Don's behavior as he begins his wooing of Charlotte, asking her to turn all around, lift her head, open her eyes wider, and show her teeth (II.2), is more appropriate to someone buying a horse than to a nobleman courting a lady! This scene is an amusing reminder that Dom Juan follows the aristocratic code of conduct only when it suits him.

Thomas Shadwell, whose The Libertine (first performed in 1675) marked the first known version of the Don Juan story in England, was also the first to use the label 'tragedy' for it. Although Shadwell openly professed allegiance to Ben Jonson and the comedy of humors tradition, he seems to have devoted little thought to the nature of other dramatic genres. In fact, his three forays into tragedy have little in common with one another: Timon of Athens is an adaptation of the Shakespeare play; Psyche is a mythological machine tragedy with a grand celebratory finale, adapted from the French play of the same name by Moliere, Corneille and Quinault; while The Libertine, although adapted from a French tragicomedy by Rosimond, follows in its basic structure the English tragedy of blood tradition, with its accumulation of murders and scenes of horror. Moreover, within that tradition there had been ample precedents during the first half of the century for the choice of tragic protagonists who commit a long series of brutal crimes before being struck down by divine justice, but who fascinate the audience with their boundless energy and fanatical determination to achieve their goals. Though it is not certain that Shadwell knew Cyril Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy (c.1611), the two plays have striking similarities, the most notable being that both title characters engage in lengthy philosophical discussions with their accomplices in order to expound and justify their unconventional views, and that both commit their numerous crimes to show their defiance of the Christian God, in whom they do not believe. There are two other obvious justifications for the label 'tragedy', both deriving from episodes added to the legend by Shadwell: the play contains a shockingly large number of deaths, mostly murders, whereas most earlier plays had held Juan accountable for but a single death, that of the Commander; and the play's most admirable characters, the two courageous heroines who pursue the Don (Leonora because she genuinely loves him and hopes desperately to save him, Maria because she cannot forgive the Don for raping her and murdering her beloved Octavio and her brother) are both treacherously slain by him.

Unlike the typical Don Juan, Shadwell's hero seems virtually immune to sexual desire; for him, women serve merely as vehicles for his violent self-assertiveness. Don John will occasionally use his arts of seduction, but more often he prefers to rape his victims, and, whenever possible, beat or murder them. Whereas in many other versions the Don's servant maintains a list with the names of his master's conquests, Jacomo in this play keeps a record that sounds more like a police blotter: 'Some thirty Murders, Rapes innumerable, frequent Sacrilege, Parricide; in short, not one in all the Catalogue of Sins have scap'd you' (I.1; p. 28). [Quotations are from the third volume of the Montague Summers edition of Shadwell's works, London, Fortune Press, 1927.]

Don John claims Nature as his guide and exalts pleasure as his moral code, but his activities spring more from cold-blooded calculation than from natural impulses, and by 'pleasure' he really means sadism and an insatiable passion for all forms of criminality, including arson and burglary. Above all, he genuinely believes that he, and he alone, has the right to do anything he pleases, whereas all other human beings exist solely to be exploited by him. In other words, his real religion is a form of self-deification. It is this ferocious challenge to the moral order of the universe, more than anything else, that elevates this play to the sphere of tragedy and makes of the protagonist the most odious and the most consistently terrifying of the Don Juan incarnations. Don John is so convinced of the validity of his false religion that he enthusiastically defends it against all representatives of Christianity (most significantly, the hermit in Act III and the ghost of the Commander in the final scene).

One element of Elizabethan tragedy that clearly fascinated Shadwell, perhaps because he sensed how popular such things continued to be with audiences, was the accumulation of ghosts and other fearful omens. The Libertine provides an unusually large number of prodigies to frighten the hero into repentance: the ghost of his father (II.2), a terrifying storm at sea, combined with a shipboard fire ignited and stoked by devils (III.1), the statue that comes to dinner (IV.4), the assembled ghosts of all his murder victims, a song and dance of devils warning in graphic terms of the punishments awaiting him in the hereafter, and finally the death of the Don's two accomplices, struck by a thunderbolt and swallowed up by the earth (V.2). Again and again the Don refuses the evidence of his senses, insisting that, since there is no supernatural, the strange phenomena must have some natural explanation, and, in addition, that the one thing he truly believes in, his essence, can never suffer change:

There's nothing happens but by Natural Causes,
Which in unusual things Fools cannot find,
And they stile 'em Miracles. But no Accident
Can alter me from what I am by Nature.
Were there --
Legions of Ghosts and Devils in my way,
One moment in my course of pleasure I'd not stay.
(IV.4; pp. 82-83)

One of the principal differences between the tragic and comic universes for Shadwell and his contemporaries involved the distinction between violent criminal acts, on the one hand, and merely foolish conduct, on the other. In no other version does the protagonist go so far in provoking human and divine authority. Unlike Moliere's hero, who basically wants to be left alone to enjoy his pleasures and never thinks of open revolt against social and religious institutions (that is why, when his enemies seem to be closing in on him, he chooses to subvert the system by hypocritical manipulation), Shadwell's Don is eager to destroy everyone and everything that stands in his way. If his father pesters him with constant rebukes and prevents him from controlling the family fortune, Don John gleefully cuts his throat and later boasts of the murder, even in the presence of the father's ghost. But he does not stop with his attacks against social institutions; indeed, he takes great delight in every form of sacrilege. For example, he brags of raping a woman in a churchyard ('But mine, my Lads, was such a Rape, it ought to be Registered; a Noble and Heroick Rape' [I.2, p. 32]), of raping two nuns in their own convent and beating a third almost to death, and of robbing churches of their plate (I.1); while in the final act he sets fire to another convent in order to abduct and rape the nuns as they flee.

As for marriage, the Don, who made a solemn promise of matrimony to Leonora, which he confirmed before the altar during mass (I.1), proudly tells his unfortunate victim that no one takes oaths seriously (II.1). Shortly afterward, when no fewer than six women whom he officially wedded barge into his house simultaneously, each claiming him as hers alone, he boldly admits his polygamy, calls in minstrels to celebrate the multiple weddings with a song glorifying the principle of free love, then orders his associates to rape the women (II.1). The hero's challenge to the cosmic order is so shockingly violent and his imperviousness to any form of moral reasoning so absolute that only supernatural force can destroy him. Even the prospect of certain damnation fails to convince him that his beliefs were false, and he goes to his death refusing any principle of order in the universe, other than the blind pursuit of self-gratification, which is tantamount to total anarchy.

Don John, unlike the Aristotelian brand of tragic hero, never learns from his experiences; he attains no self-knowledge and no reconciliation with the order of the universe. His unshakable rigidity in maintaining his irrational views, although heroic, inspires revulsion, rather than pity and fear. Nevertheless, this type of non- Aristotelian tragedy was fully accepted in the seventeenth century, and most critics considered a play sufficiently edifying so long as some restoration of the moral order occurred in the final scene. Thomas Rymer's codification of the principle of poetic justice, which would dominate English discussions of drama during the last quarter of the century and beyond, would provide further encouragement to tragedies in which crime was so explicitly and flamboyantly punished. It is arguably Rymer's theory that best justifies Shadwell's choice of label for The Libertine. If tragedy records the presumptuous rebellion of humans against divine law and their inevitable retribution, then Shadwell's play is indeed a tragedy, whose moral is explicitly summed up by the Statue in the final lines: 'Thus perish all/ Those men, who by their words and actions dare,/ Against the will and power of Heav'n declare' (V.2, p. 91).

Perry Gethner
Oklahoma State University