The Don Juan Myth

I am not so much intrigued by the Don Juan myth as I am by its having intrigued so many others. On the face of it, I can see nothing particularly remarkable about the myth: Don Juan, an insatiable satyromaniac whom no woman can resist, strikes me as little more than a frankly rather crude male sexual fantasy. And yet, this seemingly uninteresting myth has exercised minds as distinguished as those of Molière, Mozart (and his librettist da Ponte), Pushkin, Byron, Richard Strauss, and, in a modern twist in which the mythical Don Juan Tenorio becomes the contemporary John Tanner, Bernard Shaw.  I am intrigued by what they all saw in this myth.

The only work based on this myth that I think I can claim to know to a greater depth than that merely of a nodding acquaintance is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and, as I indicated in a recent post, this opera, despite some forty or so years of listening, I find puzzling in many respects. For Don Giovanni himself, the central character around whom everyone else and everything else seems to revolve, seems, to me at any rate, a complete blank. Music which would strike us as deeply felt if sung by any other character becomes, when sung by the Don, insincere: we know that his ardent avowals to Donna Elvira of his repentance are false; in the serenade that follows, we know that the heart-achingly beautiful avowal of love he expresses is not deeply felt, nor even shallowly felt: it is not felt at all. This creates a peculiar tension: how can music so richly expressive not express anything? Through centuries of interpretations, all sorts of things have been written by commentators who refuse to accept that this can be possible: music of such emotional depth must, they assume, indicate emotional depth in the character who is singing it, and they have tried to see in the character of Don Giovanni all sorts of things that simply cannot be justified by the text. Many Romantics thought the Don Giovanni is searching for his ideal love: he isn’t. As Leporello’s “catalogue aria” makes clear, it is mere prosaic quantity rather than any poetic quality that counts for the Don. More recently, director Kaspar Holten, who directed the piece for Royal Opera, thought Don Giovanni was trying to escape his own mortality, but, once again, there is nothing whatever in the text to indicate this. Not an inkling.

So let us accept what Mozart and da Ponte gives us. Much of Don Giovanni’s music suggests that it should be deeply felt, but it isn’t, and the sense of unease this imparts to the listener is, I think, precisely the point. Mozart’s music endows Don Giovanni with a tremendous vitality, and an irresistible charisma, but there’s nothing behind all this vitality and charisma – no search for Ideal Womanhood, nor Fear of Death, nor any of the other things that the preoccupations of the interpreter’s own time may choose to saddle him with. This lack of substance where substance is to be expected makes this, I think, a very disturbing work – perhaps even more so than Mozart’s next opera, the deeply disquieting Cosi Fan Tutte.

But I remain uncertain. Mozart’s operas – especially the three he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte – are endlessly complex works, and one should always be prepared to modify one’s views on them. But I am now intrigued by how others have interpreted this myth.

So I am planning a course of reading on the matter. Over the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I am planning to read Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster of Seville (which, I believe, is where the myth began), Molière’s Don Juan, Pushkin’s The Stone Guest, and Bernard Shaw’s variation of the myth, Man and Superman. (I suppose I should really add Byron’s poem to that list, but let us restrict ourselves to drama for the moment.) And I am planning to record here, for what they’re worth, my thoughts on these works. And maybe, at the end of it all, I’ll have some inkling of why this myth has exerted to firm a grasp on the imaginations of so many.

And even if I don’t, a project such as this sounds fun.

I now therefore declare the Don Juan season officially open.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Byron’s poem comes very close to using the names as a joke. It is pretty distant from the myth.

    I hadn’t known that Shaw’s play was a Don Juan treatment.

    The idea that fervent expression must actually express something is hilarious. Were the Romantic critics unfamiliar with the confidence man?

    Reply

    • I wouldn’t be too hard on the Romantic commentators: such is the quality of the music Mozart gives Don Giovanni, it is hard to believe that the music is lying. And it’s not just Romantic commentators: all shades of critics have ascribed to Don Giovanni various thoughts and feelings that, as far as I can see, he simply doesn’t have. Even the heroic music he is given at the end seems to me a lie: one is heroic when one conquers fear, but Don Giovanni can no more experience fear than he can any other emotion.

      Shaw’s Man and Superman has a very long scene set in Hell, where various characters become transformed into characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and meet in Hell (where Don Giovanni now resides, of course) and discuss all sorts of philosophical matters. But, this being Shaw, the discussion is sparkling and witty. I’m afraid that’s all I can remember about that scene, though.

      In the rest of the play, Shaw very clearly tackles themes based on the Don Juan myth. I just emember the wit and the sparkle, though, and not much else.

      I saw Man and Superman on stage back in the 1980s, with Peter O’Toole as Jack Tanner (i.e. Don Juan). They cut out the Don Juan in Hell scene, though.

      Reply

  2. Thank you for your insightful blog. You may find the David Goldman’s take on Don Giovanni interesting (I did): http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/music/81821/divine-justice
    Warm regards,
    David Kishenevsky

    Reply

  3. Posted by witwoud on February 1, 2017 at 9:37 pm

    I don’t know … isn’t this like asking, how can Suzannah and the Countess write such a beautiful love letter to the Count when we know it’s just a hoax?

    My own view — probably a crude one — is that Mozart usually just focused on the immediate meaning of the words, even when they were obviously insincere. The mismatch between Don Giovanni’s character and the heartfelt music he sings is really just a feature of the operas in general, but perhaps one notices it more because the Don is a particularly wicked character. The more light-hearted operas abound with examples of sublime music coming out of insincere mouths, but we don’t stop to wonder what this implies about any of the characters.

    Reply

    • That duet featuring Susanna and the Countess is, indeed, wonderful. They are, as you say, writing a hoax letter intended to trap the Count, but the music is not about the letter: whatever the words are that they sing, the music tells us another story. It tells us of the Countess who is thinking back on the love that is lost, and which she hopes once again to regain; and it tells us of Susanna, and love that,she hopes, is still to come. The words say one thing, but Mozart’s music tells us what is really going on in their minds. The music doesn’t lie.

      The problem with Don Giovanni is that, in this case, the music does lie. I think this is the only time in a Mozart opera where the music lies – where it does not tell us what the character is thinking, or feeling. Or, rather, it tells us something that isn’t true – that’s a lie. I must say, I continue to find this disturbing, and can understand why so many commentators have ascribed to Don Giovanni feelings that I don’t think are actually there.

      Reply

  4. Posted by obooki on February 3, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    Have you read Stendhal’s The Cenci, from the Italian Chronicles? It’s a Don Juan myth, but Stendhal has a long introduction in which he discusses virtually all the versions you mention, and what the cultural context is. Not entirely sure I agree with him.

    Reply

    • I hadn’t even realised that Stendhal had written a version of “The Cenci”, let alone an introduction to it. I only know Shelley’s version of the Cenci story. I’ll try to get hold of his Italian chronicles.

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on February 14, 2017 at 9:17 pm

    Music has its own rules. To suggest it has its own moral character is questionable at the very least, and perhaps immoral.

    Reply

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