Don Juan, A Myth Closing the Circle
As Don Juan pays a visit to the theatres of Hong Kong, in the form of the new comedy “Don Yuan”, this new adaptation of the classic tale provides an opportunity to reflect on the literary myth, its origins, and whether its purported universality extends all the way to East Asia.
The character Don Juan first hit the stage in early 17th-century Spain, a flourishing time for the arts and letters and a golden age for the theatre, vibrant with comedies and dramas ranging from the purely entertaining to the critic of social mores, or philosophic or theological debates. Most important, the Spanish theatre served to articulate people’s aspirations. Spanish society had not yet turned inward and was exposed to the international world, the New and the Old, by will, by conflict and by necessity. It was a society still based on caste and privilege but where equality in dignity was strongly asserted; No one below the king, would be the motto and the title of a famous play.
The play that gave birth to Don Juan would be known as El burlador de Sevilla o el convidado de piedra—The Trickster of Seville or the Guest Stone, incorrectly attributed to Tirso de Molina, a major playwright and also a friar, a fact that would distort the play’s significance from the start, influencing every possible interpretation. Questioned for centuries, only recently, in 2005, new documents have resurfaced that in all probability discard that attribution.
The true father of the original Don Juan should be instead Andrés de Claramonte, a lesser author, impresario, director and actor shifting companies, who took inspiration on two minor plays by the great Lope de Vega—those ‘written in a rush’—and another by Vélez de Guevara. It is almost certain that the first recorded staging took place in 1617 and the title of the manuscript was Tan largo me lo fiáis—roughly, What a long term you are giving me, popular saying in allusion to the disregard or postponement of responsibilities, in the play’s context it underlies the protagonist’s contempt for the authority, including God, and for rules in general. That title reflected the genuine author’s first intention. Years later the play assumed a second title, The Stone Guest, in reference to the novelty it had introduced, a statue in motion who can speak. And it was in 1630 that a shrewd publisher titled the printed version El burlador… The Trickster, under Tirso’s name, as still is known by the public. The ‘action’ drama was never entirely successful—the name of Tirso helping its standing nonetheless—while in the first quarter of 17th-century in Spain at least a dozen plays are known with similarities to the plot and characters.
It was partly the incomplete or fragmentary nature of The Trickster that prompted its adaptation immediately afterwards, crossing the borders. First in Naples, whose cultural relations with Spain were so fluent, and via La Commedia dell’Arte to the rest of Europe. Molière, Corneille, Goldoni, Hoffman… wrote a Don Juan, the character reaching new heights with the opera Don Giovanni, by Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, the most influential version to stand on its own. A myth was born, but at this point the original meaning, to condemn the blasphemous rogue, had disappeared, the hero transformed and idealised— along the way entrenching a stereotype of things Spanish. Lord Byron’s epic poem and Pushkin’s play would add a Romantic twist, the challenge of the rules taken in a favorable light; even Tolstoy wrote a Don Juan and Kierkegaard a ‘Johannes’.
There were innumerable versions well into the 20th-century—Don Juan now regarded as an iconic Western literary myth, the other being Faust—and the character has been renewing itself, adding or losing features at every turn. The archetype should be a gentleman or man of privilege who flouts the rules, shows scorn for the authority, even kills its representative, seduces and takes women for granted no matter their social background, and has a servant as a counterpart.
Did the great literary traditions of East Asia produce an equivalent? There are too many factors, historical, social, economic, political and religious, that are untranslatable to allow for meaningful comparisons, yet two masterpieces, in Japan and China, come to mind.
Some suggest that The Tale of Genji written by Lady Murasaki around the year 1000 and considered the first psychological novel, portraits a Don Juan. Genji is a seducer, a child-like prince who fancies a woman after another, though there is not an overt challenging of rules. On the other hand, Chin P’ing Mei(The Plum in the Golden Vase), published in 1618—therefore an exact contemporary of the original Spanish Don Juan—takes seduction at its core, though rather than defiance of an established order there is a blatant subversion of any moral norm.
Both Genji and Chin P’ing Mei would then meet Don Juan by the lowest common denominator, the trickster, but would also differ with him by elevation. Those monumental works explore a wider spectrum of human passions and emotions, and both surpassed it in significance: The Tale of Genji offers rich insights on Japan during the late Heian period, while Chin P’ing Mei stands as an invaluable historic document on late Ming China, the womaniser with dark overtones serves to articulate a social critique on a sweeping narrative of complex proportions.
Comparison between literary works of different formats and cultural underpinnings is problematical, but we have seen some of its elements, and surely many other characteristics are present in other literary works. What about the personage in real life in 2014? Nowhere more ubiquitous than in the People’s Republic of China, the new land of Don Juan. It is rare the day we don’t come across news of a princeling flouting the rules—normally traffic rules, while showing off the latest sportive car—though sometimes with tragic consequences.
Yet, although the princeling should always appear in good company, there may be an element missing. In modern advanced societies, or industrial or technology-based societies, it will be hard a young woman can be taken for granted. She is no longer that vulnerable. In fact in the play Don Juan seducing women is a means, not an end, in the challenging of rules. Newly asserting herself, well-educated and successful, could she become the future Don Juan?
Perhaps in the new adaptation we have the answers. Don Yuan in Hong Kong advertises itself as a comedy; it should not be otherwise. Redemption or not, is a finer point to make. I stand for redemption, if the rogue changes his ways. Let’s see what the Hong Kong public says.