Thursday, 5 November 1998

Molière: Don Juan (1665)

Translation: John Wood, 1953
Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 158

Molière's version of the Don Juan story is cast as a comedy, however bizarre that may sound to those more familiar with the Mozart opera than any other treatment of the tale. The grim material - Don Juan being dragged off to hell when he refuses to repent of his lust even after warnings received from an animated statue - doesn't really fit into a comedy, but does at least provide a change from Molière's standard plot.

The main comic elements used by Molière are the stereotyped device of the imprtinent serving man (in this case aghast at his master's lifestyle but lacking the courage to say so to his face) and Juan's attempt to seduce two very rustic peasant girls simultaneously. Unfortunately, these scenes make the play seem like a poor imitation of a Shakespeare tragedy with the clown scenes particularly inappropriate to the main plot. Basically, for Molière to attempt this was an interesting experiment, but which moved out of his realm of genius.

This may sound like I've been saying that Molière should have written something outside the genre of commedia dell'arte plays, but then I condemn a play which is about as far removed from this genre as is possible. However, Molière was clearly gifted in the style of comedy which he made his own; his greatest plays are those where he subverts the genre and goes beyond its standard plot and character elements, which he usually did by creating a monstrous central character (like Harpagon in The Miser) who completely overbalanced and dominated the play. Don Juan is rather different; it is so far outside the genre, it cannot be said to be transcending it; it is more ignoring it completely.

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