Jean-Baptiste Molii??re’s Don Juan has all the outward appearances of seventeenth-century French farce-the stage settings are surreal, the costumes are ludicrous, and the wordplay is witty. The particulars have their origins in Molii??re’s years of experience directing a troupe of traveling actors in southern France. Appealing to a popular audience, Molii??re adopts the format of the Commedia dell’Arte, the troupes of traveling Italian actors that present farce with a maximum of gesture and mime and a minimum of dialogue.
Despite the trappings of farce, Don Juan has very serious elements, ones designed to elucidate the character of the protagonist, his relationship with the world, and his impact on those he deals with. It is Molii??re’s genius to join these elements to themes that attract a more aristocratic (and presumably more sophisticated) audience in the nation’s capital. In many respects, Don Juan is a man apart and totally self-contained.
Just as Satan, in Milton’s Paradise Lost preferred to “reign in Hell rather than serve in Heaven,” so Don Juan is adamant to follow his own life prescriptions-no matter what the outcome-rather than observe, however hypocritically, the modalities of society. The full French title of the play is Dom Juan, ou le Festin de Pierre, the latter phrase of which may be variously translated as “the stone banquet” or “the stone guest. ” (Perhaps Molii??re has various permutations of meaning in mind. Regardless, the inclusive title points to the end of the play in which an enlivened statue, a sepulchral golem-having been invited to a feast at the house of the protagonist-warns him of his impending doom. As the denouement of the play, perhaps this is the point that Molii??re is trying to make: there is a connectedness in the universe; disrupting that continuum can lead to destruction. In the opening scene, Sganarelle, Don Juan’s valet, appears carrying a snuffbox and declaiming on the virtues of tobacco.
Speaking to Gusman (a servant of Doi??a Elvire), Sganarelle asks: “Don’t you always see, as soon as a man takes it [tobacco] , how obliging his manner becomes with everyone, and how delighted he is to offer it right and left, wherever he may be? ” (318). This, of course, is taken directly from the Commedia dell’Arte. Snuff consumption is signature behavior of the aristocracy, a trope for its cultural refinement; making a show of careless generosity is considered requisite behavior.
Sganarelle (his character perhaps interpreted as the conscience that Don Juan never developed), views the consumption of tobacco not only as aristocratic behavior, but more importantly, as a root cause of that social nobility (rather than a manifestation). If Sganarelle confuses cause and effect to achieve a higher status, his master does something more sinister: allowing his desire to be completely autonomous in his relationships. Outwardly, Don Juan manifests the behavior patterns of a particularly thoughtless member of the aristocracy; inwardly, he is void of any moral precepts.
Molii??re uses symbolism of the snuffbox and tobacco anecdote to imply the duality of Don Juan’s hypocritical nature. Ironically, the narrative is delivered by Sganarelle, a reflection, however distorted, of what he (Don Juan) should be. Don Juan is, of course, a rebel and a libertine-an amoral pursuer of the sensual rather than the cerebral, a dedicated seducer of women, both young and old, their squires, and anything that breathes, even their cats and dogs (319).
His principal ploy is to engage in a “secret” marriage with his chosen target-the nuptials of course being invalid-and then dispose of the woman after losing interest in her and leaving her to her own devices. But, Don Juan’s objective appears to go considerably beyond simple sexual gratification. Rather, he has evidently defined success as seduction as the sine qua non of his existence. His tastes are quite catholic and he is willing to expend the same energy to bed a serving girl as a countess.
Doi??a Elvire, a nun (and presumably a tough nut to crack) is his next intended target. In the Commedia she would be a prominent figure, probably of fun. In Don Juan, she is ultimately an iconic warning, returning in Act IV to “convey to you [Don Juan] a warning from Heaven, and try to bring you back from the precipice toward which you are rushing” (367). Several scenes later, a specter appears as a veiled woman to deliver a last warning.
In Molii??re’s stage directions, this spirit is played by the same actress who portrays Doi??a Elvire. After the spirit says, “Don Juan has but a moment left to take advantage of Heaven’s mercy,” the protagonist draws his sword and prepares to strike (379). During the course of the play, Doi??a Elvire evolves from prospective conquest to messenger of mercy to last warning. And the earthly Doi??a Elvire that Don Juan, “the swordsman,” earlier succeeds in penetrating with his “weapon” returns as a spirit that cannot be felled by his sword.
Just as Sganarelle appeals to his master to act in conformity with the formal values of the aristocracy, Doi??a Elvire seeks to draw Don Juan out of his self-imposed autonomy by an appeal to God’s mercy. Of course, Don Juan rejects her appeal just as he dismisses that of Sganarelle. In Act III, Don Juan and Sganarelle hide in a cemetery, on the run from Doi??a Elvire’s outraged family members. The statue is that of the “Commander,” a recently murdered fellow whose name is given as Peter.
As Peter (from petrus) means “rock” or “stone,” the statue can be interpreted as a reflection of Don Juan-heartless and dehumanized (just as Sganarelle reflects the human qualities that Don Juan should have in life). By the same token, the statue could represent Saint Peter (murdered, or martyred, by Roman Emperor Nero and popularly perceived as guarding the gates of Heaven). In any event, after Don Juan invites the statue to dinner, it comically responds by nodding in agreement.
In the final scene, the statue-now in effect, the angel of death-arrives at Don Juan’s lodgings to “take him to dinner. ” However, the statue-a vehicle of divine justice-offers Don Juan a third and final chance of salvation. In return, Don Juan responds to this appeal just as he responds to those of Sganarelle (noblesse oblige) and Doi??a Elvire (divine mercy). The earth opens up and Don Juan vanishes into Hell. In many respects, it is Don Juan’s refusal to be a hypocrite that separates the play from farce and turns it into a discussion of social and philosophical issues.
Don Juan is a liar and a scoundrel; however, his ruthlessness has its own interior logic. And it is this self-contained logic that creates the gulf between Don Juan and the rest of society, just as Lucifer’s perceptions resulted in the infinite gulf between that angel and his creator. Is Don Juan predestined for Hell? Though a particularly difficult, perhaps unanswerable question, some public authorities of that time evidently think so and this perception may contribute to the play being banned after fifteen performances. Signarelle’s closing outburst, “My wages!
My wages! My wages! ” (380), as he watches his master swallowed in the fires of hell, effectively frames Molii??re’s characterization of Don Juan. For all of his implied desire to be a gentleman, Sganarelle remains attached to his paycheck, his true concern, while everyone else on earth or heaven is satisfied with the outcome of his master’s predicament. But Don Juan remains attached to his pride, understood in the medieval sense of a misplacement of moral hierarchies. For Christian moralists, Satan’s fall comes about through the sin of pride.
Don Juan’s failing is much the same. While the vehicle of such misplacement is that of lust, Don Juan’s ultimate objective is confirmation of his self-perception as a superior being to those about him. And it is this failing that the three warnings (from Sganarelle, Doi??a Elvire, and the statue) are unable to overcome. Thus, as in the case of Satan, Don Juan’s pride has blinded him to reality, understood in a cosmic sense. Under these rubrics, Don Juan is not predestined for damnation. Rather, he is the vehicle of his own destruction.