Years back, when we had only two television channels broadcasting in Britain (BBC and ITV), and both of them thought of television as having the potential of being a true National Theatre of the People – a national theatre to which the whole nation had access – BBC used to broadcast every month a classic play at peak viewing hour on Sunday evenings. The slot was called, appropriately enough, Play of the Month. (They had a slot for contemporary drama as well – Play For Today, which broadcast new, specially commissioned plays for television.) It was thanks to this Play of the Month slot that I became familiar at a very early age with such names as Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, and so on. But Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell proved a few steps too far. I know for a fact that this was indeed broadcast at 8.20pm on a Sunday evening, because it is confirmed by online archive of past BBC programmes: but the very idea of putting out something such as this at peak viewing hours seems nowadays so bizarre, that, were it not for this confirmation, I would have been tempted to have put it all down as a figment of my imagination.
I think I sat through a full half hour or so before deciding to switch over, as I had not the first idea what they were on about. I am fairly sure, looking back, that most of those foolhardy enough to have started watching this play would have switched over to ITV well before the half hour mark. For the “play” consists of four people – three of them characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the fourth the Devil himself – sitting around in Hell discussing philosophy. In short, peak-time viewing material this ain’t. Not even with the presence of Michael Redgrave, and of Christopher Plummer, a mere six years after The Sound of Music.
Don Juan in Hell, despite taking up almost two hours of the BBC schedule that night, is not the full play. It is a dream episode interpolated into a longer play, Man and Superman. In this episode, we have three characters from Don Giovanni, and the Devil, all of whom are transformed versions of four characters who appear in the longer play. I don’t know if Man and Superman has ever been played complete with this dream episode: that would be, I’d imagine, far too long to be accommodated in a single evening’s performance, and a practical man of the theatre such as Shaw must surely have known that. Certainly, when I saw Man and Superman on stage back in the early 80s (with Peter O’Toole in the principal role of Jack Tanner), the Don Juan in Hell episode was cut entirely. I’d guess Shaw had intended this long episode as a bonus for the reader – a not-so-miniature closet drama embedded in a larger play for the stage – rather than something he expected to be performed. But who knows? Maybe Shaw did expect his audience to be seated in the theatre for five hours, fascinated by his new, modern variation of the Don Juan myth: I wouldn’t put such megalomania past him.
I don’t actually mean to be rude about Shaw, although, sometimes, it is hard to resist the temptation. Several of his plays still stand up pretty well, I think – Heartbreak House, say, or Saint Joan. And Pygmalion ranks with the plays of Sheridan or with The Importance of Being Earnest as among the very finest of stage comedies in the English language. But there were other times when – to crudely anticipate what should really be the conclusion of this essay – he could be a pompous windbag. I have been fascinated by all three of the Don Juan plays I read recently (see here, here, and here): this one, I must confess, I found a trial.
It is, in outline, a light comedy. After the death of her father, the young lady Ann Whitefield, by the terms of her late father’s will, finds herself placed in the guardianship of the ageing, respectable Roebuck Ramsden, and of a much younger man, Jack Tanner, who, we are informed, holds unconventional views on all sorts of things. Ramsden, who used to be a liberal in his youth and who, not realising how very outdated his outlook now is, still considers himself a man of progressive views; but he disapproves of Jack Tanner, whose radicalism is, apparently, beyond the pale. Although this play was written in 1903, when social conventions were far more strait-laced than our own, it is quite hard to see exactly why Tanner’s views are regarded as so objectionable. After all, Shaw seems to go out of his way to assure us that he is, indeed, morally irreproachable:
Ramsden: I am glad you think so well of yourself.
Tanner: All you mean by that is that you think I should be ashamed of talking about my virtues. You don’t mean that I haven’t got them: you know perfectly well that I am as sober and honest a citizen as yourself, as truthful personally, and much more truthful politically and morally.
And, a few lines later:
Tanner: … you ask yourself, as a just and upright man, what is the worst you can fairly say of me. Thief, liar, forger, adulterer, perjurer, glutton, drunkard? Not one of these names fit me.
Since Jack Tanner is – as is made explicit in the Don Juan in Hell episode – the equivalent of Don Juan Tenorio, this does seem an odd piece of characterisation. For the most salient aspect of Don Juan, in all the previous versions I have read, is that he accepts no moral bounds on himself. I am not sure whether this taming of Don Juan is to ensure that the audience would not take sides against Jack Tanner; or whether, as I suspect, Shaw himself, for all his show of disdain for conventional morality, was himself too much attached to this same morality to allow his protagonist, whom he obviously intended to be sympathetic, to flout it. Either way, presenting this modern Don Juan as such a paragon of virtue makes it difficult for us to take him seriously as a rebel against society’s morals.
The comedy comes mainly from the pompous Ramsden becoming flustered by the irreverence of the young “rebel” Tanner; or from Octavius, who is in love with Anna, being such a timid and helpless ninny. (Octavius is clearly the equivalent of Don Ottavio in Mozart’s opera.) It is occasionally mildly amusing, but is far too obvious and formulaic to be anything much more than that. As for Tanner himself, virtuous though he may be in all respects, he has one vice that I, for one, found insufferable: he just can’t stop talking. He is like one of those tiresome people one sometimes encounters who has heard it said of himself that he is something of a character, and spends all his energies trying to live up to that reputation. Only in a conventional stage drama could someone like him be allowed to go on talking interminably without being told to shut up, for Heavens’ sake.
It wouldn’t have mattered so much if what he had to say was witty, or intelligent: but it isn’t. He has an idea, which he states explicitly – and repeatedly – that women are driven by a biological imperative to perpetuate the human race, and, to that end, their chief aim is to capture a mate; while men, on the other hand, try their best to escape their clutches. Complete unmitigated gibberish, if you ask me, but Tanner takes this seriously enough, and so, apparently, does Shaw, as this nonsense seems to be the central theme of the play. Now, one may point to works that are notable despite the bad ideas they attempt to propagate, but I don’t think even the greatest of dramatists could contrive a play that survives this level of balderdash.
However, this rather strange idea does drive the play. Where, in Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni had chased after an unwilling Donna Anna, here, Ann Whitefield chases after an unwilling Jack Tanner. And by the end, she captures him. That, in essence, is the play. And in the midst of all this, we have a dramatic interlude – Don Juan in Hell.
Here, we have three of the characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – Don Juan (Don Giovanni) himself; the statue of the Commendatore who had dragged him down to Hell; and Donna Anna (who is now in Hell herself, having lived a long life); these three are joined by the Devil, who turns out to be rather a charming man, and not at all diabolic or demonic. Hell is not here a place of fire and brimstone and Dante-esque tortures: that, we are told, is all propaganda. Hell here is a place where people enjoy themselves for all eternity, and Don Juan, against expectations, is bored with all this. So bored, indeed, that he decides by the end to opt for the contemplative life offered by Heaven. But before he does so, we are treated to a long – very long – Shavian dialogue about the purpose of our human lives. We wade through a great number of Shavian jokes (none of which I found more than mildly risible) to get to the point, viz., that the biological imperative, that had been mentioned earlier, to further the human race, and of which women are the principal agents, has the aim eventually of creating the “Superman” – not the DC Comics character, sadly, but the Nietzschian Übermensch. Shaw doesn’t address the issue of how mere perpetuation of the species in itself can lead to such an end, but, given his well-known enthusiasm for eugenics, I was reluctant to enquire further.
After this scene in Hell, we return to the mode of social comedy, where the modern Donna Anna chases down and finally captures the modern Don Juan. Most lame and impotent conclusion, as Desdemona said in a somewhat different context, but no more lame or impotent than the rest of the drama, to be honest.
When I saw that BBC broadcast of Don Juan in Hell all those years ago, I did not like it because I didn’t understand it. This time, I did not like it because I did understand it, and found it too absurd to take at all seriously. Incredible how much things change in a mere forty-five years.
As for Shaw, he did write a handful of plays that are genuinely witty and sparkling and, yes, intelligent. I am afraid I could see no evidence of any of these qualities in this one.
[Edit: 3rd April 2007 – A friend has pointed out to me that Superman is a DC Comics character, and not a Marvel Comics character. I have now corrected the error.]