Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Stuff of Legends: Don Juan.

Y’know, when you look at a legendary character whose name has become a common euphemism, you expect to get a lot of interesting information.  Yet, here I am looking at the penultimate name on my The Stuff of Legends list and the information I’ve gathered about him and finding myself a bit underwhelmed.
The legendary figure I’m talking about is the one and only Don Juan.  The man’s name has become part of common parlance, albeit as a synonym for “womanizer”.  So, one would think that he’d be part of some grand legend, right?  Like some kind of roguish antihero who beat the bad guys and made all women’s hearts melt, right.

Not exactly.

Don Juan was a legendary libertine.  “Libertine” being a fancy, three dollar word for “guy who indulges himself constantly” (see also: hedonist).  The oldest known version of the story was written down as a play entitled “El Burlabor de Seville” (“The Trickster of Seville”) by Tirso de Molina in 1630.  The story goes that Don Juan was a wealthy man whose life was punctuated by violence and gambling but mostly seducing women.  His credo was apparently “What a long term you have given me!” meaning that he thought life was so long that he’d always have time to repent for his sins.  In many interpretations, Don Juan kills Don Gonzalo, who is the father of Dona Ana, the woman he is trying to seduce.  This leads to a famous scene in which Don Juan invites the statue of Don Gonzalo on the man’s tomb to dinner.  The statue does inevitably show up at dinner as a sort of harbinger of Don Juan’s death.  Don Juan’s death is ultimately where most versions of the play end.  Tirso de Molina, who intended his play to be a religious parable, had Don Juan be denied salvation by God.  Other writers took it in different directions.  Some have the character refuse to repent at the end, others have him walk into hell of his own volition while still others have him ask for a divine pardon and receive it.  As legends often go, they vary from teller to teller.  Jose Morilla y Moral’s version Don Juan Tenorio supposedly provides a slightly more likable version by adding in a pious heroine and a serious love interest for Don Juan.
The character is not without his impact.  He fascinated the likes of both Albert Camus and Jane Austen.  Romantic era poet Lord Byron wrote a poem that flipped the script so that Don Juan (pronounced “Don Joo-an” in the poem) was not a seducer but a man easily seduced by women.  He also appears in George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman. 

So, I was hoping for a picaresque adventure story and for the most part I found a religious parable crossed with a cautionary tale.  I suppose I should have expected the story have taken a different form centuries ago.  I guess I’ve been spoiled by the Errol Flynn version The Adventures of Don Juan.  I have the movie on DVD (along with The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood).  That movie features a Don Juan who starts as a womanizer but turns over a new leaf and becomes a hero when he falls in love for real.  Of course, the woman he falls in love with in the movie is the Queen of Spain, so I can see why that might not have worked as a story in the 1600s.  It might have been downright scandalous.
But I guess this just goes to show how legends and their perception can not only change over time but also change to fit the audience and the teller.  It also could serve as something of a metaphor for how men like Don Juan might seem in real life: They look like something grand and heroic on the surface but aren’t the same once you scratch the surface.  But still, at least it’s something different.  I’ve covered a lot of different legends in this series and I have already done one religious parable (St. George and the Dragon) but I haven’t covered something that functions as a cautionary tale like this one does.

Regardless, he’s still a well-known legendary figure in his homeland of Spain and his name has become part of the English language in terms of euphemisms.  And whether he’s what I expected or not, he is still THE STUFF OF LEGENDS!

1 comment:

  1. Now I see why The Phantom of the Opera chose him as his Self-Insert Gary Stu in his opera. He's the perfect Alter Ego for a desperate, lonely man.