1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Don Juan
DON JUAN, a legendary character, whose story has found currency in various European countries. He was introduced into formal literature in the Spanish El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, a play which was first printed at Barcelona in 1630, and is usually attributed to Tirso de Molina; but the story of a profligate inviting a dead man to supper, and finding his invitation accepted, was current before 1630, and is not peculiar to Spain. A Don Juan Tenorio is said to have frequented the court of Peter the Cruel, and at a later period another Don Juan Tenorio, a dissolute gallant, is reported as living at Seville; but there is no satisfactory evidence of their existence, and it is unlikely that the Don Juan legend is based on historical facts. It exists in Picardy as Le Souper de fantôme, and variants of it have been found at points so far apart as Iceland and the Azores; the available evidence goes to show that Don Juan is a universal type, that he is the subject of local myths in many countries, that he received his name in Spain, and that the Spanish version of his legend has absorbed certain elements from the French story of Robert the Devil. Some points of resemblance are observable between El Burlador de Sevilla and Dineros son calidad, a play of earlier date by Lope de Vega; but these resemblances are superficial, and the character of Don Juan, the incarnation of perverse sensuality and arrogant blasphemy, may be considered as the creation of Tirso de Molina, though the ascription to him of El Burlador de Sevilla has been disputed. The Spanish drama was apparently more popular in Italy than in Spain, and was frequently given in pantomime by the Italian actors, who accounted for its permanent vogue by saying that Tirso de Molina had sold his soul to the devil for fame. A company of these Italian mimes took the story into France in 1657, and it was dramatized by Dorimond in 1659 and by De Villiers in 1661; their attempts suggested Le Festin de pierre (1665) to Molière, who, apparently with the Spanish original before his eyes, substituted prose for verse, reduced the supernatural element, and interpolated comic effects completely out of keeping with the earlier conception. Later adaptations by Rosimond and Thomas Corneille were even less successful. The story was introduced into England by Sir Aston Cokain in his unreadable Tragedy of Ovid (1669), and was the theme of The Libertine (1676), a dull and obscene play by Shadwell. Goldoni’s D. Giovanni Tenorio osia Il Dissoluto, based upon the adaptations of Molière and Thomas Corneille, is one of his least interesting productions. Tirso de Molina’s play was recast, but not improved, by Antonio de Zamora early in the 18th century. A hundred years later the character of Don Juan was endowed with a new name in Espronceda’s Estudiante de Salamanca; Don Félix de Montemar is plainly modelled on Don Juan Tenorio, and rivals the original in licentiousness, impiety and grim humour. But the most curious resuscitation of the type in Spain is the protagonist in Zorrilla’s Don Juan Tenorio, which is usually played in all large cities during the first week in November, and has come to be regarded as an essentially national work. It is in fact little more than an adaptation of the elder Dumas’ Don Juan de Marana, which, in its turn, derives chiefly from Mérimée’s novel, Les Âmes du purgatoire. Less exotic are Zorrilla’s two poems on the same subject—El Desafío del diablo and El Testigo de bronce. Byron’s Don Juan presents a Regency lady-killer who resembles Ulloa’s murderer in nothing but his name.
The sustained popularity of the Don Juan legend is undoubtedly due in great measure to Mozart’s incomparable setting of Da Ponte’s mediocre libretto. In this pale version of El Burlador de Sevilla the French romantic school made acquaintance with Don Juan, and hence, no doubt, the works of Mérimée and Dumas already mentioned, Balzac’s Élexir d’une longue vie, and Alfred de Musset’s Une Matinée de Don Juan and Namouna. The legend has been treated subsequently by Flaubert and Barbey d’Aurevilly in France, by Landau and Heyse in Germany, and by Sacher-Masoch in Austria. It has always fascinated composers. Mozart’s Don Giovanni has annihilated the earlier operas of Le Tellier, Righini, Tritto, Gardi and Gazzaniga; but Gluck’s ballet-music still survives, and Henry Purcell’s setting—the oldest of all—has saved some of Shadwell’s insipid lyrics from oblivion.