The Don Juan Saga
Don Giovanni is, of course, the Italian name of the legendary romancer and seducer, Don Juan. The origins of the Don Juan character can, however, be traced not to ancient folklore but rather to a single literary source, the play The Trickster of Seville and his Guest of Stone, written by the Spanish monk Tirso de Molina in about 1616, who grafted onto his story an old folktale about a man who insults a deceased person with a jesting dinner invitation only to have the guest show up.
While Tirso intended his drama to be a morality play, demonstrating that one cannot lead a life of debauchery with the intention of repenting before one’s death, the character and drama took on a life of their own as the Don underwent several literary metamorphoses. The French playwright Moliere (1665) made the Don an atheist rebelling against both religion and society, in contrast to Tirso, who saw him as a believer naively counting on having time to repent in old age. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries there were numerous literary treatments, including several Italian operas, among them on by Giovanni Bertati, which apparently was Da Ponte’s most direct literary source. The Mozart and Da Ponte version, in fact, was one of the three Italian operas on the subject to appear in 1787. In our day, another name synonymous with Don Juan is Casanova. The latter, however, was a real person with whom Mozart and Da Ponte were personally acquainted. In fact, he attended at least one performance of their opera.
With the growth of individualism in the 19th and 20th centuries, Don Juan became more hero than villain, a romantic rebel against the conventions of society. Jose Zorilla (1844) allowed him to be saved by a love from beyond the grave (cf. Goethe’s Faust). The German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann saw him as representing “that infinite longing which brings us into direct contact with the supernatural.” (Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann takes place during a performance of Don Giovanni). In fact, in some versions, the Don becomes almost Faust-like in a search for knowledge.
Some writers, in fact, have turned the legend on its head, making Don Juan not the pursuer but rather the pursued, as in Lord Byron’s poem on the subject (1821), in which he becomes an innocent young man pursued by women. And in Man and Superman (1903), George Bernard Shaw portrays him as a man who must yield to marriage with the woman who pursues him in order to advance the human race.
Perhaps such reversals are inevitable. The original Don Juan legend was based on the social inequality of the sexes. The term “seduction” may no longer apply given the current acceptance of non-marital sex; a man who is constantly in search of new “conquests” is more likely to be the subject of pity rather than envy or admiration.