Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell: an episode from “Man and Superman”

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.]

“The Stone Guest” by Alexander Pushkin

[All excerpts below taken from the translation by Nancy K. Anderson, published by Yale University Press, 2000.]

Pushkin seemed to have had Mozart on his mind around 1830, when he wrote those four miniature plays, usually known in English as the “Little Tragedies”. In one of these plays, Mozart and Salieri – a dramatic treatment of the myth that Salieri had poisoned Mozart, and written long before Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus –  Mozart himself is one of the protagonists. Another deals with a myth that, by then, was very much associated with Mozart – the myth of Don Juan. But, as with everyone else who had tackled this myth (including its originator, Tirso de Molina), Pushkin had his own individual view of the myth. And, partly because the form of Pushkin’s work – a miniature play in which, given its brevity, much is necessarily left unsaid – it is Pushkin’s view that I find the most enigmatic and elusive of those I have so far encountered.

Tirso de Molina had not made too much of the master-servant relationship. Molière, and, following him, Mozart and da Ponte, had, bringing this relationship to the front of the stage. Pushkin also brings the master and the servant (the servant here called Leporello, as in Mozart’s opera) to the forefront: the drama begins with the two of them entering Madrid, even though Don Juan has previously been banished from the city. The conversation between the two is partly expository – telling us what we need to know for the drama to make sense; but it is not entirely expository. Just minutes into the play, for instance, we get this:

DON JUAN (pensively): …    Poor Inez!
She’s gone now! How I loved her!

LEPORELLO: Inez! The black-eyed one … Now I remember,
For three months you were paying court
To her; it was all the devil could do to help.

DON JUAN: July it was … at night. I found strange pleasure
In gazing at her sorrowful eyes
And death-pale lips. It’s strange,
You apparently didn’t think she was
A beauty. And in fact, there wasn’t
Much beautiful about her. Her eyes,
Just her eyes. And her glance … I’ve never seen
Another glance like that. And her voice
Was quiet, feeble – like a sick woman’s –
Her husband was a worthless wretch, and stern –
I found that out too late – Poor Inez!…

With all its various ellipses and aposiopeses, the effect of this passage is sketchy – an adumbration rather than a depiction. Inez was no beauty in any conventional sense, and her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”, and her voice that was “quiet, feeble”, suggest something sickly, other-worldly, and haunted by death. She is not, in short, the type of woman we would expect Don Juan to be attracted to; and, indeed, Don Juan himself is not sure why he had been attracted to her. In Mozart’s opera, Don Juan (or Don Giovanni) would seduce (or rape, if needs be) all kinds of women, simply to add them to his list, but what we see here is something new, something very alien to the incarnations of Don Juan as imagined by either de Molina, or by Molière, or by Mozart: we see here a Don Juan capable of genuine tenderness and affection. True, the other Don Juans could express tenderness and affection for the woman they are wooing at the time, but never for a past conquest; and it is left to us to determine how sincere their protestations of tenderness and affections are, and, indeed, whether such feelings can be said to exist at all when they are, at best, merely transient. But Pushkin leaves us in no doubt: this Don Juan is indeed capable of feeling these emotions, even for a woman who is now, presumably, dead.

And neither was Don Juan attracted to Inez because of her beauty. Leporello did not think her beautiful, and Don Juan agrees. Whatever attracted him, it was not her physical charms. And what he chooses to remember about her are those death-haunted qualities – her “sorrowful eyes and death-pale lips”. All of this suggests a rich inner world that previous Don Juans did not have. But then, almost immediately, Pushkin pulls us up short: the last two lines of the passage quoted suggest – only suggest, as nothing is spelt out – that Inez was murdered by her husband for her affair with Don Juan. If this was indeed the case, Don Juan had played a significant part in her tragedy, and, especially given how he still feels about her, he should feel guilt, and remorse. And yet, he doesn’t. Immediately after this rather affecting minor key passage, without so much as pausing for breath, Pushkin turns the tonality to a major key, and the rhythm becomes jaunty, as Don Juan and Leporello move on to talk about further conquests. Yes, Pushkin had Mozart on the mind, right enough.

This passage about Inez cannot be described as “expository”, as Inez is not mentioned again in the play. The entire section could have been taken out without affecting our understanding of what happens. But that minor key tonality it imparts, if only for a few bars, colours everything that comes afterwards. And it leaves us with a strange impression of Don Juan: he is a man clearly capable of introspection and tenderness and depth of feeling, who can be drawn to qualities other than mere external charm, and yet who bears no responsibility for the past, no guilt for his actions. He had, in the past, before the curtain raises on this play, killed the Commander, for reasons and in circumstances both left unspecified. But, once again, there is not the slightest hint in him of remorse: rather than feel sorry for the man he had killed, it is his widow, Doña Ana, who now interests him. The past is buried, and not allowed to interfere with the joys of the present.

In the second of the four scenes that make up this play, we are introduced to, in effect, a female equivalent of Don Juan, the actress Laura, who, like her male counterpart, demands complete freedom to pursue her desires. If Don Juan feels no responsibility for the past, Laura, only eighteen, and, hence, without much of a past to speak of, feels none for the future. When reminded that some day she too will be old, her reaction is:

…  Then? Why should
I think of that? What talk is this?

But even in those eighteen years, she had been Don Juan’s lover, and, in this scene, Don Juan comes back to visit her once again. This is yet another departure from previous incarnations of Don Juans: previous Don Juans did not care for their past lovers, their past conquests – they were always moving onwards to new experiences. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: he may not take responsibility for the past, and may refuse to feel any guilt that may interfere with his enjoyment of the present, but that past, nonetheless, is never dead for him.

In Laura’s apartment, Don Juan is challenged to a duel by a Don Carlos, whose brother Don Juan had previously killed in duel. (Whether or not Don Carlos’ dead brother is the Commander, we are never told.) Don Juan does not want to fight in Laura’s room, but he is given no choice. Of course, he kills Don Carlos. As in Molière’s play, Pushkin had placed the killing of the Commander before the play opens, but while Molière had done this to make Don Juan a more likeable character, Pushkin has no such intention: the killing of Don Carlos takes place in full view on stage, and, while it can certainly be argued that Don Juan was given no choice in the matter, we cannot but note the utter lack of remorse, or even of regret, either on his part, or on Laura’s. It has happened, it is now in the past, and responsibility for past actions, or guilt for past crimes, must not be allowed to interfere with the demands of the present.

And yet the past cannot be forgotten. There, it seems to me, is the paradox at the heart of this strange and elusive work. To enjoy the present, to seize the moment, the past must be forgotten; and yet, the past cannot be forgotten: the death-like pallor of Inez continues to haunt.

This paradox forces itself into the forefront of the action in the final scene. Here, Don Juan, having declared his love for Doña Ana under the assumed name of Don Diego, has been invited into her chamber. And, on the very brink of attaining his desire, he does the very thing that is most likely to thwart it: he admits that Don Diego is but an assumed name, and that he is really Don Juan, the killer of her husband. It is a startling moment, and not something I can claim fully to understand. It seems an inexplicable thing to do, and certainly not something that the Don Juans of de Molina,  Molière, or Mozart would have done. But Pushkin’s Don Juan is different: however he may try  to bury the past, to expunge it from his mind so he does not have to bear its burden, it refuses to remain hidden: it must out. And, in this startling final scene, it erupts unexpectedly into the open.

And at this point, the statue of the Commander comes to drag Don Juan into Hell. It is impossible not to see the stone statue at this point in symbolic terms. What does he represent? For surely, he must represent something: he is not just an optional add-on, present merely because the story demands it. The title of Pushkin’s play is not, after all, Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, or The Trickster of Seville: it is The Stone Guest. It is the statue, the title reminds us, and not Don Juan, who is at the centre of things, and it is up to us to understand the significance of this statue.

The obvious response is that he is the past that Don Juan had tried to deny – the responsibility he had shirked, the guilt he had buried, but which refuses to remain buried. Seen in this respect, we can find significance in the fact that he is of stone, the very antithesis of the flesh and blood that lives for the moment; we may find significance also in the fact that it is Don Juan who had invited him; or in the fact that the statue of the Commander is considerably larger than the Commander had been when he had lived.

All of this makes for a coherent reading, no doubt, but it strikes me as unsatisfactory, as it reduces the poetic richness of the work to mere allegory, and symbols rich with meaning into impoverished ciphers. In these cases, it seems to me best to not interpret at all, but, rather, instead of trying to winkle out what these symbols and the poetic images may mean, to take them at face value, and allow them to resonate in one’s mind.

I can’t say this play has settled yet in my mind. But it does continue to resonate, and I do sense there is more substance here than can be conveyed by any interpretation I may have to offer. Pushkin seemed to see this myth in terms of the past, and of the burden of guilt for that past that we try to keep submerged, but which we cannot keep from irrupting into the present.

At least, that’s the way I see it right now: I’m sure that the longer I ponder on it, the more meanings it will continue to yield. It is, as I said, the most enigmatic and elusive of all the Don Juans I have encountered so far.

“Don Juan” by Molière

[All excerpts from the play are taken from the translation by John Wood, published by Penguin Classics, 1953]


Molière’s version of Don Juan appeared in 1665, only thirty-five years after Tirso de Molina’s, but it seems to inhabit a quite different world. It seems a more civilised world, more refined; and Don Juan is no demonic force of nature here, as he had been in the earlier play – no id stripped of its superego: rather, he seems, if anything, a thoughtful young man, a man who takes the trouble to think about, and to justify, his incessant womanising:

Let fools make a virtue of constancy! All beautiful women have a right to our love, and the accident of being the first comer shouldn’t rob others of a fair share in our hearts. As for me, beauty delights me wherever I find it and I freely surrender myself to its charms.

Not merely does he present his womanising as a virtue rather than as a vice, he sees the women as the victors, and himself as the vanquished – as the one who “surrenders”. Now, of course, this could be, and is, indeed, likely to be, mere self-delusion, but the fact remains that he actually believes it.

Come what may, I cannot refuse love to what I find lovable, and so, when a beautiful face is asking for love, if I had ten thousand hearts I would freely bestow every one of them.

What is generally seen as self-centredness, and lack of empathy for the feelings of others, Don Juan sees as generosity. And this leaves open the question: does Don Juan really not see the grief and the heartache that he causes? Seemingly not. When he encounters Elvira, the woman he had married and had subsequently deserted, he fobs her off with an absurd reason for having left her. It’s not so much that he is lying: not only does he not himself believe what he is saying, he does not expect Elvira to believe it either. Molière, like da Ponte and Mozart after him, endows Elvira with genuine tragic dignity and nobility of character, and Don Juan’s callous treatment of her cannot but leave a nasty taste in the mouth. But Don Juan is, nonetheless, being true to himself. “The whole pleasure lies in the fact that love isn’t lasting,” he says at one point. Love is transient. He accepts that as a fact; he takes pleasure in this fact; and he cannot hold himself responsible if others do not see this fact as clearly as he does. Love isn’t lasting; life isn’t lasting; so why not accept these truths, seek what pleasure these truths bring us, and not burden ourselves with arbitrary moral rules that make us so unhappy in our temporary existence?

For Molière’s Don Juan is a rationalist. His servant, Sganarelle, describes him in the opening scene as a man who believes in neither “Heaven, Hell, nor werewolf”. At one point, Sganarelle, tries to pin down what exactly Don Juan believes in:

Sganarelle:  Do you really not believe in Heaven at all?

Don Juan:  Suppose we leave that alone.

Sganarelle:  That means you don’t. And hell?

Don Juan:  Eh?

Sganarelle: No, again! And the Devil, may I ask?

Don Juan:  Yes, yes.

Sganarelle:  No more than the rest. And don’t you believe in a life after this?

Don Juan:  Ha! Ha! Ha!

Sganarelle [aside]: This chap will take some converting! [To Don Juan] Now tell me this – the Bogy Man – what do you think about him?

Don Juan:  Don’t be a fool!

Sganarelle:  Now, I can’t allow that. There’s nothing truer than the Bogy Man. I’d go to stake for that. A man must believe in something. What do you believe?

Don Juan:  What do I believe?

Sganarelle: Yes.

Don Juan:  I believe that two and two make four, Sganarelle, and that two fours make eight.

And suddenly, we find ourselves in the world of Turgenev’s Bazarov, who knew only that two plus two made four, and that all else is nonsense. This is the truth, this is how things are. Don Juan has happily embraced this truth, and delights in it; and if others cannot do so, then so much the worse for them: Don Juan cannot hold himself responsible for the follies of others.

But, in Molière’s version, Don Juan is by no means a man devoid of morals. When he sees a man set upon by robbers, he feels honour-bound to help protect the man from his assailant: one doubts whether de Molina’s Don Juan or Mozart’s Don Giovanni would have cared. This Don Juan is not amoral; but his morality cannot encompass the irrationality of desiring that which is not, and that which cannot be – of desiring Eternal Love, or Eternal Life.

But one cannot deal with human affairs without taking the irrational into account. Elvira’s continuing to love Don Juan, the man who had so heartlessly deserted her, is no doubt irrational, but we do not, as Don Juan does, scoff at her for doing so: rather, we find in her devotion, misdirected though it is, a nobility and a pathos, and even a tragic dignity. That may be irrational, but in all human affairs, irrationality exists, whether Don Juan chooses to accept it or not. And when irrationality does indeed irrupt into Don Juan’s life, he is troubled by it: when he invites the Commander’s statue to dinner, and the stone statue nods in response, Don Juan is momentarily speechless, and then, after a pause, can only say:

Come on. Let us get out of here.

Later, he claims it was but a trick of the light. His sense of the world cannot accommodate life inhabiting that which is not flesh and blood, any more than it can accommodate human desire for that which does not exist. As with Bazarov, when two and two stop making four, he is out of his depth.

But when the statue finally comes to drag him to a Hell in which he does not believe, Don Juan shows genuine courage. I doubt de Molina’s Don Juan or Mozart’s Don Giovanni show much courage here: since neither has the imagination to feel fear, neither has any fear to overcome. But with Molière’s Don Juan, it is different, for Molière presents Don Juan not as some phenomenon of nature, but as a human. And, being human, he is susceptible to fear, and also capable of courage. Indeed, I cannot help feeling that, despite all Don Juan’s manifold flaws and shortcomings, Molière couldn’t help liking him: he certainly humanises him in a way that neither de Molina nor Mozart does.

This is a feeling I often get with Molière, although, given how long it has been since I last read through his plays, I should really go through them again to check my impressions. But certainly, when I last read these plays, I distinctly got the impression that, despite showing us with a thoroughly unsentimental clarity all the various inadequacies of humans, he couldn’t help liking them. Of course, there are a few, such as Tartuffe, who are probably beyond the pale of human sympathy, but, from what I remember, Molière had no scorn or disdain for those who are duped by Tartuffe: he regarded them, as he did Alceste the misanthrope or Harpagon the miser, with no bitterness, but, rather, with a gentle and amused tolerance. The follies of mankind are things in which we all have a part, and that leaves little room for anger or for bile.

And I can’t help sensing a gentle humanity in Don Juan as well. This is not to say that Molière cannot see the sufferings brought about by Don Juan’s actions, but the features of the character of Don Juan are certainly softened. The killing of the commander, say, that both de Molina and Mozart present onstage, here takes place before the action starts: the exact details of that killing are not given, but, given Don  Juan’s impulsive generosity in running to the aid of a stranger assailed by robbers, we are happy to believe that he is far from a cold-blooded murderer.

Molière emphasises also the warm and easy relationship between Sganaralle and Don Juan – to such an extent, indeed, that I was more than once reminded of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Of course, Sganarelle says that he knows his master to be a scoundrel, but only stays on with him out of fear, but that is belied by the many scenes they have together: there is not the slightest hint of tyranny on the part of Don Juan, nor fear on the part of Sganarelle. In the opera, da Ponte and Mozart made more of the servant’s vicarious enjoyment of his master’s conquests, and of the co-existence of this vicarious pleasure with a certain sympathy for his master’s victims, but Molière stops short of venturing into those psychological depths: in this play, the warmth of the relationship between the two is clear, and is a striking departure from the somewhat harsher dramatic world presented in Tirso de Molina’s play.

But – inevitably, given the story – all the essential gentleness of Molière’s drama cannot camouflage that whiff of sulphur, of hellfire.  Don Juan, who believes in this world and this world only, a world of flesh and blood where two and two make four and twice four make eight, is finally overcome by an irrational force that, far from being flesh and blood, is animated stone. Once again, from what I remember from my previous readings, Molière was usually gentler to his other flawed protagonists, but this is one aspect of the story from which there is no getting away. Which makes this play, I think – despite all the laughs (and it is very funny, even in translation) – the closest Molière has come to tragedy.

“The Trickster of Seville” by Tirso de Molina – the first Don Juan

The myth of Don Juan is possibly unique in that we may pinpoint precisely its origins: it’s a Spanish play, first published in 1630 but written much earlier – possibly as early as 1616, Wikipedia tells me – written by Catholic monk Tirso de Molina. The full Spanish title of the play is El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra – which, roughly translated, reads The Joker of Seville and the Guest of Stone. The English title of this play varies by translation, but in the one I read – the verse translation by Roy Porter – the title is given as The Trickster of Seville. So let’s stick with that.

The story caught on almost immediately. In the decades following the first performance, there were – in those copyright-free days – any number of variants. Further variants continued to appear at a dizzying pace: Armand E. Singer,  Professor of Romance languages at University of West Virginia, has listed no less than 1,720 of them. And the myth has attracted the attention of some of the greatest creative minds of the Western world – Molière, Mozart, Pushkin. Indeed, Molière’s version appeared a mere 35 years after the publication of Tirso de Molina’s. Clearly, there is something in this story that resonated powerfully, and, given the undiminished popularity of various works based on this myth, continues to resonate still.

At the most basic level, it is, of course, is a male wish-fulfilment fantasy – a man addicted to sex whom no woman can resist is, I’d guess, the stuff of dreams for most heterosexual men, and the punishment at the end is no more than an obligatory piece of stuffy moralising we need to put up with. This, of course, is to interpret the myth at its most basic level, but perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss this basic interpretation: there is, it seems to me, a lot going for it: wish-fulfilment is, after all, a powerful draw. However, it seems fair to say that it is not this crude piece of wish-fulfilment that has drawn to it some of the greatest of creative imaginations: the myth clearly resonates on other levels also.

The last time I broached this subject on this blog, one correspondent very kindly directed me to this fascinating account of the myth by Paul Berman. In his essay, Berman argues that Tirso de Molina, who, despite his Catholic credentials, was a convert from Judaism, critiques in his play the Christian viewpoint that replaces the Principle of Law with the Principle of Grace, of Justice and Retributon with Repentance and Forgiveness. “The trouble,” Berman argues, “ … is that society that depends on conscience has no defense against a sociopath who has none”, and that “Christian reliance on the Attribute of Mercy at the expense of the Attribute of Justice … frees Juan to formulate a sociopath’s theory of salvation”. I shall not repeat Berman’s thesis here, since, firstly, I don’t think I have taken it all in fully; and, secondly, because it available online in its original form, and any paraphrase on my part can only distort. I do, however, recommend it to the interested reader.

However, there seems to me other angles as well that are worth exploring. The most striking, for me, is the means of Don Juan’s punishment. Of course, in a traditional morality play, the wrongdoer must be punished, and Don Juan is; however, perhaps rather surprisingly given the long list of earthly enemies he has accumulated, the punishment does not come from any earthly source: it comes from the other world. This creates for some dramatic untidiness – an untidiness that not even the stagecraft of Molière, of Mozart and da Ponte, or of Pushkin, could quite get around: throughout the action of the play, conflicts are created that are, by the end, left merely hanging in the air, since the resolution comes not from any of Don Juan’s worldly antagonists, but from a very unworldly one. As a consequence, the various characters whom Don Juan encounters are left, once Don Juan has finished with them, with no real dramatic purpose to fulfil. As Don Juan moves on from one set of characters to another, the sets of characters he leaves behind have little to do except to disappear from the action, or merely to crowd the stage for no discernible reason.

In Mozart’s opera, this seems to me the very point: the earthly antagonists are no match for Don Juan (or Don Giovanni), who emerges therefore as a character beyond the reach of earthly justice: the disorder he brings to the world can only be set right by a force from another world. The ineffectuality of mere mortals in the face of the phenomenon that is Don Juan is, it seems to me, is at the very centre of Mozart’s opera. But I am not sure this is the case in de Molina’s play: as in Mozart’s opera, there are several characters who, once their interaction with Don Juan is finished, mill about the action without contributing anything, but their inability to act effectively seems to me here more a dramatic encumbrance than anything else.

However, this other-worldly punisher is a remarkable figure. The idea of the other-worldly nemesis being a statue, a creature of stone, is, as far as I know, entirely Tirso de Molina’s creation, and while, it appears from various modern productions of Don Giovanni, many in our own times find rather risible and are embarrassed by the idea of a moving statue exacting retribution, it is precisely this feature that excited the imaginations of Molière, Mozart, and Pushkin. For Don Juan, who glories in being a creature of flesh and blood, who rejoices in pleasures of the flesh and is fired by desires of the blood, must be punished by one who has neither flesh nor blood about him – who is, indeed, quite literally, made of stone.

But of course, to speak of Don Juan’s punishment by the statue as the punishment of the human by the non-human is too crude a representation. For Don Juan is more than just human, of course. Or, to be more accurate, he is less than fully human. He is a character entirely without conscience, and, as such, no human consideration can touch him. His utter lack of human conscience places him beyond the human pale. In Freudian terms, he is the id set free, with no superego to impose any form of control. It could be argued, I suppose that this man, seeking merely pleasure, without any form of control restricting his actions, is a form of wish-fulfilment, and a very potent one at that: he is certainly a very attractive figure, as was recognised from the very start. But while we may find such a figure attractive, we also recognise his dangers: no ordered society could accommodate such a figure, and his very presence of fills us with a sense of dread, even of terror. Don Juan fills us with both joy and with terror: he both attracts and repels in equal measure. It is easy to see why so many have been drawn to de Molina’s myth.

The Trickster of Seville is, despite some dramatic clumsiness, a remarkable play, and not merely because it originates so powerful a myth: de Molina seems fully aware of the resonances of his creation – although, of course, there is always a danger that we may be reading back into this work various elements that later dramatists have introduced. De Molina presents both the attractive nature and the charisma of Don Juan, and also the misery he leaves in his wake: the lamentations of Tisbea (called Thisbe in Roy Campbell’s translation), is particularly striking, especially given that, unlike Don Juan’s other conquests in this play, she is of a lower social order:

Fire, oh fire, and water, water!
Have pity, love, don’t scorch my spirits!
Oh, wicked cabin, scene of slaughter,
Where honour, vanquished in a fight,
Bled crimson! Vilest robber’s den
And shelter of the wrongs I mourn!
O traitor guest, most curst of men,
To leave a girl, betrayed, forlorn!

Even in Shakespeare, I cannot think of an instance of a woman from the lower social orders accorded such tragic stature.

But at the centre of the play is, of course, Don Juan, the man who is beyond the control of society because he is beyond the control of his own conscience, a fulfilment of our deepest desires and also of our most fearful nightmares, and who both attracts and appals in equal measure. He is a figure who has appeared in all sorts of guises since in Western literature, and, I guess, he will continue to appear: for while we may all secretly desire to be a person who is utterly unconstrained in the obtaining of desires, the very thought of such a person existing can but fill us with terror. We need to be our own Stone Guest to keep out flesh and blood in ord

“Life is a Dream” by Calderón de la Barca

The Golden Age of Spanish Drama is something I’ve only heard about rather than known about, and so, to remedy that, it seemed reasonable to start at the very top, as it were – with what is possibly the most famous play of that era, Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), written in the mid-1630s by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. And reading it (in a translation into English blank verse by poet Roy Campbell), I could not help wondering to what extent I needed to be acquainted with the theatrical traditions of an era in order to appreciate its drama. I am not at all acquainted with this era, but I would guess, from reading this play, that theatre-goers of mid-17th century Spain went to the theatre with expectations considerably different than those of modern audiences.

One could, of course, forget about theatrical traditions, and read it as a closet play, but I am not sure that works either. Take for instance, a passage such as this (one of many I could easily have chosen):

        Those snowflaking haloes,
Those canopies of crystal spread on high,
Lit by the sun, cut by the circling moon,
Those diamond orbs, those globes of radiant crystal
Which the bright stars adorn, on which the signs
Parade in blazing excellence, have been
My chiefest study all through my long years.

Passages such as this belong to a dramatic tradition in which discursive, rhetorical flourishes are relished for their own sake, and take precedence over such matters as dramatic pace or momentum. This passage is part of an extremely long expository speech, the essence of which could easily have been communicated in a half dozen lines or so, but, quite clearly, the mere expository facts are of lesser concern here than relishing words for their own sake. One gets a few such passages in the earlier plays of Shakespeare also, but, very noticeably, Shakespeare soon learnt to tailor his speeches to serve his dramatic ends; but here, in what I think I am right in saying is among Calderón de la Barca’s most mature and considered works, dramatic ends are almost invariably secondary to a delight purely in language.

That is not intended as a criticism. Placing delight in language ahead of dramatic purpose is no doubt alien to our modern tastes – which may well deem passages such as the one quoted above as bombastic and otiose – but there is no reason why e should judge works from the seventeenth century by our modern criteria. But the problem comes when one is not entirely sure what the criteria actually are whereby a work such as this should be judged. To determine that, one needs ideally to immerse oneself in the literature of that period, and to read both primary and secondary texts: otherwise, one is, as I was, at a distinct disadvantage.

I took for granted that Calderon knew what he was doing, and that these long speeches, rather like the arias of a Handel opera, far from being errors of judgement, are intended primarily to be admired for their own sake, and only secondarily to advance the drama. I do not know whether or not I was right in thinking this, but there was no other way I could make sense of the work. I remembered Ana’s husband in La Regenta, reciting the great speeches from Spanish drama, and rolling his tongue round their magnificent sounds and sonorities – enjoying them, indeed, for their sounds, their imagery, their poetic resonance, rather than for what they communicate: for he felt nothing of their passion.

But while these many speeches retard any sense of forward movement, it could be argued, I suppose, that forward movement is not even something Calderón was aiming at here in the first place. This play, as the title suggests, presents life as essentially a dream, an illusion, and forward movement is as irrelevant in this play as it is in a dream. The entire action of the play seems to be taking place not so much in the real world, but in some strange hinterland of the mind – not of a mind that is awake, but of a mind asleep and dreaming. There is about this play a sense of the phantasmal, of the incorporeal, at times appearing even to foreshadow the dream plays of Strindberg. This did surprise me: I had always associated the idea of life as something essentially unreal to be a feature of Hindu philosophy, which describes the physical world as maya – illusion; but Life is a Dream was written long before awareness of Hindu philosophy had entered the western world. It is true, I suppose, that Plato had famously described the physical world as shadows cast on the walls of a cave by a greater reality of which we are but vaguely aware; St Paul, too, had spoken of those things we perceive in our lives as seen “through a glass darkly”; but both had indicated that there does exist a greater reality beyond our perception, and that what we perceive is but a shadowy, distorted glimpse of that greater reality. But, in Calderón’s play, there’s no such indication: our perceptions here are not even a glimpse of any greater reality; indeed, there isn’t even any indication that a greater reality may exist. What we see on stage is the only reality there is, and this reality is, possibly, utterly insubstantial.

The dramatic situation is as unreal as a dream.  A royal prince has spent all his life imprisoned, because his father, the king, had foreseen that this prince, should he succeed to the throne, will cause havoc. But now that this prince has grown into adulthood, the king his father, considering the possibility that his prognostication may have been wrong, has his son drugged into a sleep, and brought from the isolation of his prison-house into the royal palace. There, when the prince awakes, he runs wild – not surprisingly, perhaps, given how isolated from reality he has been for his entire life. His father’s prophecy had proved a self-fulfilling prophecy: as in Sophocles’ play, the very steps taken to avoid a prophecy ensure that the prophecy comes true. So the prince is drugged again and taken back into his prison; and when he awakes there, he is told that all he had experienced was but a dream. But then, the borders between dream and reality become further blurred: the prince is now freed by his father’s soldiers, and is declared king; and he takes this, too, as illusory, since, after all, all of life, everything, is a dream. And if a dream is all it is, one might as well live life as such. For what else is there?

Into all this is woven various subplots concerning family honour, long lost children and siblings, and the like – all that paraphernalia that modern audiences may well find a trifle dull. But we see all this, as it were, through a gauze: all this, too, we sense, is unreal. Nothing is real. All that seems real, all that seems to us tangible, is but the product of some sleeping mind, which may or may not be our own. And that calls into question even our own identity. If I exist only because I think, then the thought precedes the existence; and if that is so, how can I claim that thought to be my own? In short, how can “I think” precede “I exist”?

No doubt those well versed in ontology will point out where I have gone wrong here – for I am sure that an ignoramus such as myself is bound to go wrong when speaking of such matters. But in any case, what we are discussing here is not a philosophical treatise, but a play. And it is a play in which the very certainties of our own existence are questioned – not from the perspective of philosophy, but of the imagination. Shakespeare had questioned it too: the events in the enchanted Athenian wood in A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be seen, as the title suggests, as a sort of communal dream; The Tempest, too, may be seen as the dreamlike unweaving of reality in some mysterious region of the mind. But before the lovers and the rude mechanicals enter the wood, the world they inhabit is a real one; and the world they return to afterwards is similarly real, albeit transformed by their dream. And similarly, once all is resolved in The Tempest, they sail away from the dreamlike island back into reality. But here, in Calderón’s play, there is no reality to go back to, just as there is no reality from which they had emerged: here, all is unreal.

I do not know whether my reading of this play is a valid reading: I will need to acquire a better knowledge and understanding of this literature before I could make any pronouncement on this matter with any confidence. But I am glad I encountered it; and, while I may draw certain parallels with Shakespeare, or even with Strindberg, this really is quite unlike anything else I think I have encountered. I only draw these parallels because, when one comes across something so entirely new, it is natural to try to relate it to things one does know, if only to get one’s bearings. And I am glad that I encountered these works in Roy Campbell’s translation, as his blank verse really is quite splendid. (I had a look as well at the translation by Edward Fitzgerald – he of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam fame – but, at first glance at any rate, it seemed to me like second rate Victorian verse. That may be unfair: I’ll look into it again.)

How a play such as this may be performed on a modern stage, I have no idea: I don’t even know whether it can hold a modern audience with modern expectations, but, no doubt, an imaginative director may find interesting ways of staging it. But the work itself, despite depicting the world and our lives within it as essentially insubstantial, has sufficient substance to merit not merely revisiting, but further study of the literary and theatrical cultures that produced it.

Tony Harrison’s “Oresteia”

Some verse dramas hold the stage in translation, but others don’t, and I am not entirely sure why that should be. Ibsen’s Brand and Peer Gynt, though both written to be read rather than performed, hold the stage magnificently in any number of translations; Shakespeare’s plays, too, even when separated from Shakespeare’s English, are successfully performed around the world in just about every language there is. And yet, despite many years of theatre-going, I have yet to see a performance in English of plays by Racine or Corneille, by Goethe or Schiller, or by Pushkin, that I would describe as dramatically compelling. It’s tempting to say that the fault lies with the translations, but I don’t think that’s the case: John Cairncross’ translations of Racine, for example, are, I think, magnificent; but while they compel the reader’s attention in the study, they seem to me less effective when it comes to compelling the audience’s attention in the theatre. These plays, in English translation, are often wonderful dramatic poems, but I remain unconvinced about their qualities as poetic dramas, and would hazard the guess that Racine and Corneille, Goethe and Schiller, Pushkin, etc., whose works are among the undisputed peaks of the western canon, were, unlike Shakespeare or Ibsen, greater poets, perhaps, than they were dramatists. But this is just a guess: unable as I am to read any of these writers in the original, I can’t, and don’t, insist upon it.

When it comes to ancient Greek drama, we have a further complication: not only do we have to negotiate translation into another language, we have to deal with dramatic conventions that are very alien to modern conceptions of drama. Once again, these works are compelling when I read them in the study, but less so when I see them in the theatre. In all these years, I have seen only one production of a Greek play that worked in performance – a thrilling production of Sophocles’ Electra, featuring Fiona Shaw in the title role, and directed by Deborah Warner: I saw this some quarter of a century ago now, and I still remember coming out of the theatre at the end, genuinely shaken by what I had experienced: it had the same sort of effect on me as I get from seeing a good production of King Lear. But as for all the other productions I have seen of Greek drama, they have generally fallen pretty flat. Maybe I have just been unlucky: maybe there have been many other productions as powerful as that production I’d seen of Electra, and I just happened to miss out on them; but, having been disappointed by so many productions over so many years, I can’t help feeling that these Greek tragedies, without dispute among the greatest of literary masterpieces, are best treated as closet dramas, to be read, much as we’d read, say, Milton’s Samson Agonistes.

Friends of mine who know Greek tell me that no translation comes close to matching the originals, but then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? When one puts in effort into something, one wants to have something to show for it; and who, having put so much effort into learning Greek to the level where they can read Aeschylus or Euripides, would care to concede that plebs like me, who haven’t put in that effort, could appreciate these writers to the same level? I don’t dispute them, of course: I have no doubt they are right. However, I will insist that these works, even in translation, are profound experiences. I have, over the years, not only amassed but have even read a wide range of translations, explaining to guests who scan my bookshelves and wonder why I have a dozen or so translations of Sophocles that a man must have a hobby. And, since each translation is necessarily an interpretation, I find it fascinating comparing them, and trying to piece together from the different perspectives of the various translators something of what the original vision may have been like.

My most recent reading of Greek tragedies was The Oresteia of Aeschylus, in the translation by the poet Tony Harrison. Perhaps “translation” is not the right word for it: I argued in a recent post that the successful translator of poetry cannot afford to be too literal, since the literal meaning is but one of many things – and not necessarily the most important thing – that a translator needs to convey. And it can be argued that, beyond a point, so far is the translated version from the original in terms of literal accuracy, that it can no longer be regarded as a translation as such. Whether Tony Harrison’s version is too far from the original to be still considered a “translation”, I do not know: comparing with the other translations I have, he obviously takes far more liberties with the literal meaning. But it may be that he is closer to Aeschylus than the more literalist translators in some other aspects – the sound, say, or the nature of the impact made on the reader or the hearer. I cannot tell. What I can tell, though, is that his is by far the most striking version of these three plays that I have encountered. I do not mean that as a criticism of the others, but where the others are eloquent, polished, fluent, Harrison is rugged, abrasive, uncompromising, often relying on sound to convey the sense.

This may be demonstrated by a few examples. Take, for instance, the repeated refrain in the first great chorus. Michael Ewans (Everyman) renders it:

Cry sorrow, sorrow – yet may good prevail!

Robert Fagles (Penguin Classics) translates this as:

Cry, cry for death, but good win out in glory in the end.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones (university of California Press) has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail.

While Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (Methuen) go for:

Sing songs of sorrow, but let the good prevail.

Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press), meanwhile, has:

Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.

Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber), like Harrison, himself a poet, does away with the repeated refrain altogether, rephrasing the essence of it in different ways each time it appears. And I think, comparing the different versions, we can see the essence: the line is in two halves – the first an expression of lament, the second of hope. But all too often in the translations, the expression of sorrow appears more potent than the expression of hope, leaving us with a slight sense of anti-climax. Presumably this is why Fagles has expanded the latter half of that line – to give it a greater weight. Harrison’s version, however, is very different from any of the above:

Batter, batter the doom-drum, but believe there’ll be better!

The differences are striking. Clearly, Harrison’s is not a literal reading, but what we get is by far the most forceful. “Batter[ing] the doom-drum” sounds far more active and energetic than merely crying or singing of sorrow, while “believe there’ll be better” strikes a note of defiance that I cannot find in any of the other translations. The preponderance of the hard “b” and “d” sounds gives the line a greater muscularity, and the near-rhyme of “batter/better” – the two words that that open and end the line – knits the two halves together. Whether all this brings the line closer – at least in spirit – to the original, I do not know, but it is certainly more striking than any of the others.

Throughout Harrison’s version, he uses alliterative clusters, compound words (as in German), words forced together almost with a violence, with the impact of the sounds and rhythms compensating for the lack of a clear syntax. For instance:

Calchas the clanseer saw into the storm-cause –
Artemis she-god goaded to godgrudge

The clans and the clanchiefs clamour for sea-calm
The god-sop that gets it makes their guts sicken

The cure for the stormblast makes strong men craven


A surge of choler and grudge sweeps over my spirit,
spitted on pain like a stabwound or spearthrust.
Drops like the spindrift spat off a seaswell
break from my eyes like the sight of this curl.


so men get gulled get hauled into evil
recklessness starts it then there’s no stopping

so a Father can take his own she-child take her
and kill her his she-child his own flesh and blood

The war-effort wants it the war-effort gets it
the war for one woman the whore-war the whore-war

a virgin’s blood launches the ships off to Troy

It is tempting to fill this post with further examples, but let us not try the reader’s patience more than is absolutely necessary. Suffice to say that all other translations I have read seem, in comparison, too refined, too polite.

In his illuminating introduction, Tony Harrison describes his attempt to find a poetic style and diction that could form an equivalent in English to Aeschylus’ verse, that would achieve, as he puts it, “both the weight and the momentum”, and mentions, significantly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “a Professor of Greek, who achieves both the sweep and the grandeur I have always found in Aeschylus”. And he quotes two lines by Hopkins:

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivelled snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deep

The critic D. S. Carne-Ross had asked “Does this not read like an inspired translation of some unknown fragment by Aeschylus?” To which Harrison replies:

Indeed it does, like an inspired Victorian translation, and I have always felt that Hopkins, with his clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line, and his thorough knowledge of Greek, had everything necessary to render a great translation of Aeschylus, except, perhaps … a feeling for the theatre …

Harrison himself was clearly aiming himself for the “clotted but never clogged or cumbersome line”, and I think he succeeded magnificently. As for how this will work in the theatre, I really do not know. This translation was commissioned by the National Theatre, and was performed there, under the direction of Peter Hall, in the early 1980s. I would have loved to have seen it, but I was back then a student in the north of England, and certainly didn’t have the finances in those days to come down to London. But something such as this demands to be read as well: without getting into that debate yet again on whether or not a play is better seen or read, experiencing it on the printed page was spellbinding. As with Christopher Logue’ magnificent version of The Iliad, this is great poetry in its own right.

With this translation, the work itself seemed, as it were, renewed: it was like seeing something familiar from a completely new perspective. (Which, after all, is the whole point of reading different translations.) I must admit, though, that I still find the first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, the most compelling. Perhaps it’s the old story of Hell being more interesting than Heaven: the whole trilogy represents a journey from darkness to light, from Hell to Heaven (at least, a Heaven of sorts), and, as with Dante, it is Hell that makes the greater impact. (Milton, too, struggled to make God as interesting as Satan.) And the Hell that is presented in Agamemnon, once etched on the mind, is hard to erase. That long narration by the chorus of the sacrifice of Iphigenia; Agamemnon’s homecoming – where he is persuaded to trample the blood-red tapestries into his palace; Cassandra’s prophetic terror before the doors of the Argos, before she walks in to meet her death; Clytemnestra’s narration of how she killed her husband and his slave, and her imagining the dead spirit of Iphigenia in the underworld, greeting with a kiss her father who had killed her … these have long haunted my imagination, and will continue to do so.

In comparison, I find little in the subsequent plays that affects me anywhere near so powerfully. This is not a criticism of the work: it is, rather, a reflection of my own sensibilities, and expectations. In the second part, Aeschylus narrates how Orestes returns, and, with the help of his sister Electra, kills his mother, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This same story is told both by Sophocles and by Euripides in their plays, both titled Electra, but where the younger dramatists were more interested in the psychologies of the participants of the drama, Aeschylus seems to draw back from the individual characters, and focuses on the larger moral pattern. And similarly in the last part, The Eumenides: the focus is not so much on the individual characters, but on the broader question of how we humans, blinded though we are with rage and maddened with blood, can emerge from darkness into light. This is clearly what Aeschylus intended, and this is, indeed, what lies at the heart of the trilogy as a whole, and it is but a reflection of my own personal preference that the psychological approach of Sophocles and of Euripides attracts me more.

But the larger moral pattern that emerges is, nonetheless, fascinating. Aeschylus dramatises the emergence of light in the darkness: from a Hell in which our passions and our instincts reign supreme, and lawless revenge but feeds upon itself, so that each act of vengeance is but a new crime that also cries out for blood, we are presented, by the goddess Athena, with a new way of ordering our lives – a new way rooted in civil discourse, legal institutions, consensus and compromise. In short, civilisation. But, however desirable that civilisation is, however preferable to the horrors of our instinctive bloodlust, it is simply not, for me at any rate, as dramatically interesting.

However, there is of course more, far more, than my crude summary above suggests. The emergence of civic institutions from the darkness of lawless primal urges should not, I think, be seen as something happening in time – i.e. it is not the case that one replaces the other over time: rather, the two co-exist, and will go on co-existing within our divided minds. The final acquittal of Orestes, and the subsequent torchlit procession of triumph, do not cancel out the slaughter of the helpless Iphigenia, or the elemental terror of Cassandra: such terror cannot be cancelled out, or banished, for they live with us still. And neither can the Furies be banished: Athena herself, at the end, incorporates them into the newly-formed legal system: no matter how civilised we may be, no matter how many curbs and restraints we may put upon our primal urges for the sake of being able to live together with what harmony we can muster, at the bottom of it all lies a terror than cannot be wished away – not even by a goddess.

But a step has been taken, an important step: the gods, who used to order mortals to commit acts of revenge – which themselves are crimes calling out for further revenge – have now delegated their powers and responsibilities to humans: it is now up to us to shape our morality, to determine for ourselves, through discourse and consensus, guilt and innocence, and treat both accordingly. But at the bottom of it all lies terror. We cannot do without terror. Even through the triumphant songs at the end, there sound the screams of Cassandra as she walks into the palace of Argos to meet her doom.




The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.