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Don Juan and the Modern Mind: Adaptations on stage and screen

The irresistible seducer through the ages, from Molina and Molière through to Johnny Depp and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

By Will Richmond (Lead for Engagement Content)

30 January 2014 at 10.50am | Comment on this article

Don Juan has appeared in a multitude of incarnations. He can be a hero or a villain, an example of unrepentant unruliness, a romantic or political libertine, a lover unrivalled in his talent or in the number of his conquests. Don Juan is often as likeable - and even as commendable - as he is condemnable.

Don Juan was first introduced to the stage in early 17th-century Spain, in El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest). Its protagonist, the handsome trickster Don Juan Tenorio, is certainly a villain. He seduces several women by deception, force or spurious promises of marriage. He kills the father of one of the women and then mocks the tomb of the dead man. His Catholic punishment is that he is taken off to Hell, to burn in the fires of divine justice. His eventual appeal for mercy is dismissed simply because ‘Your intention condemns you’. This Juan was a character for his age - his lifestyle as a trickster undermines all the principles upon which a good Catholic society depended and a suitable comeuppance was essential.

But later in the 17th century the French playwright Molière reinvented the anti-hero as an irreverent intellectual who prides himself on playing the ‘honest man’ as opposed to indulging the ‘fashionable vice’ of hypocrisy. Molière’s Juan is flippant with divine disapproval and remains unrepentant to the end. The play was withdrawn almost as soon as it went on the stage, but those who denounced its bold and irreligious rationalism were as much concerned that the play was so entertaining – that the audience laughed. Less than half a century after Juan had first been dragged to hell, this fate didn’t seem enough of a comeuppance. Worse, the whole thing was rather witty.

Our own era has been no less perplexed by Juan’s ambiguity. In 2006 Patrick Marber reworked Molière for London’s West End. Don Juan in Soho presented ‘DJ’, an aristocratic, metropolitan playboy as much appalled by contemporary hypocrisy as Molière’s Juan. Stan, his long-suffering ‘dogsbody’, wistfully reflects, ‘I wish there was a hell he could burn in forever’, but without such divine retribution we are left with the secular justice meted out by the vigilante brother of DJ’s abandoned wife. DJ remains defiant to the last and when asked ‘Don’t you want to live?’, he replies ‘Yes! But only as I please’, before being horribly stabbed to death.

The 1990s sent forth Don Juan in the form of a troubled, handsome and desirable young man (played by Johnny Depp) in Jeremy Leven’s 1994 film Don Juan DeMarco. Juan is deluded: he thinks he is the ‘original’ Don Juan, ‘the world’s greatest lover’, ridiculously dressed in a cape and mask in modern Manhattan. Psychiatrist Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) tries to cure him of his illusions after he finds him attempting suicide from the top of an advertising billboard.

Juan appeared again in the 2013 film Don Jon, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Jon is an ordinary twenty-something Catholic boy, obsessed with the repetitive, narcissistic rituals of his lifestyle. The only salvation for this modern seducer is his own seduction by an older woman, whose soulful, realist circumspection can undo his obsession with image.

By contrast, JuanKasper Holten’s 2010 film version of Mozart’s opera, captures the sophistication of a self-conscious, civilized, modern Don Juan. Holten’s Juan is playful, charming, wealthy and (of course) alluring – but Holten suggests his awareness of the necessity of civil respectability, even if his instincts lead him to upset its norms.

We have certainly not finished re-inventing Don Juan. He exists in the modern mind in a variety of forms: sometimes irredeemably villainous, sometimes irredeemably heroic or romantic. But he is most engaging as a character when he occupies a space somewhere in between.

This is an extract from Will Richmond's article, available to read in full in the Don Giovanni programme book. This is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop.

Don Giovanni runs 1–24 February 2014. A small number of tickets are still available. The production will be broadcast live around the world on 12 February. Find your nearest cinema.

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