“Don Juan” is the sobriquet we somewhat lightly give to anyone known to be a ladies’ man. The original bearer of the name, immortalized by Molina, Mozart and more recently Montherlant, but above all by Jean Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Molière, was the quintessential immoral, hypocritical, cynical seducer famous in both literature and opera. Molière made him the subject of a tragi-comedy, something of an exploit in a play that ends spectacularly with the anti-hero plunged by divine judgement into the fiery furnace.
Molière’s purpose was, as in his “Tartuffe”, to ridicule religious hypocrisy. In a society dominated by the court of Louis XIV, where religious practice was not only politically correct but dangerous to criticize, the playwright dared to portray a fascinating character who besides being a profligate in his sexual conduct was a self-confessed non-believer. In Act 3, scene 1, we discover first that he does not believe in medicine, “one of humanity’s greatest errors”. In a hilarious dialogue with his less than gifted valet, Sganarelle, Don Juan dismisses certain medications, one after the other, as the ineffective artifices of charlatans. Sganarelle sets out to establish the efficacy of an emetic wine and the wisdom of a doctor who finally administered it after six days’ treatment with other medications :
“Don Juan : So he recovered, I suppose ?
Sganarelle : No, he died.
Don Juan : The effect was admirable.
Sganarelle : What ? For six whole days the poor man couldn’t die, and the doctor got him to die right away ? What could be
more effective ?
Don Juan : Indeed, indeed !
Sganarelle : But let’s leave medicine aside . . . Is it possible that you do not believe in Heaven ?
Don Juan : Let’s not get into that.
Sganarelle : That means “no”. And Hell ?
Don Juan : Well . . .
Sganarelle : That neither. And the Devil, if you please.
Don Juan : Oh, yes, yes !
Sganarelle : Just as little. Do you not believe at all in another life ?
Don Juan : Ah ! Ah ! Ah !
Sganarelle : (Here’s a man I’ll have my work cut out trying to convert.) Well, tell me : the Surly Monk – you believe in him,
surely ? (Editor’s note : The Surly Monk was a ghost who appeared before Christmas and persecuted everyone
Don Juan : May the plague destroy such a stupid character !
Sganarelle : Now that’s something I can’t accept. There is nothing more true than the Surly Monk. I’d be hanged rather
than deny it. But one must believe in something. So what do you believe ?
Don Juan : What do I believe ?
Sganarelle : Yes.
Don Juan : I believe that 2 plus 2 equals four, and that four plus four equals eight.” (Editor’s note : Molière is using a
famous response of a dying prince to a Protestant theologian.)
Sganarelle then launches into a monologue worthy of discussion today about Intelligent Design, with arguments like “the world is not a mushroom that came to be all by itself overnight”, and “who made those trees over there, these rocks, this earth and the sky up there, as though all that made itself ?” He goes on to speak of Don Juan, who did not create himself but needed his father to impregnate his mother, and of the human body, with its “nerves, bones, veins, arteries, lungs, heart” and “all the other ingredients that are there and which . . . O, bother, please interrupt me. I can’t argue if I’m not interrupted. You are being silent on purpose, just to cleverly get me to talk”.
Don Juan : I am waiting for the end of your reasoning.
Sganarelle : My reasoning is that there is something admirable in man, whatever you say, that all the experts cannot
explain. Isn’t it marvellous that here I am and I’ve got something in my head which is thinking of a hundred
different things at once, and makes my body do whatever my head wishes – clap my hands, raise my arm, raise
my eyes to the sky, lower my head, move my feet, go to the right, to the left, forward, backwards, turn around …
(In turning he falls, flat on his face.)
Don Juan : Great ! See how your reasoning came a cropper !
Sganarelle : ‘Morbleu !’ (Editor’s note : this is an oath, a deformation of ‘by the death of God’, like our ‘Zounds’ or
‘Blimey’ – see my book, page 57). I’m an idiot to try to argue with you. Believe me if you like : I don’t give a
damn if you are damned ! ”
Don Juan will go on to use his supposed religious scruples as a ruse to pursue his sexual conquests, and the play will end
with inevitable divine retribution . But Molière’s satire, after 350 years, has not, as the French say, acquired a single wrinkle.