MOLIÉRE AND DOM JUAN
Molière wrote Dom Juan ou le festin de Pierre (Dom Juan or the Feast of Stone) in 1665, based on the famous myth of the lawless seducer. This is a rather defiant play on all levels: first, for a classical play it has neither unity of time, nor of place nor of action (which are the three tenets of classical theater as established by the Académie Française).
Secondly, because of its disturbing subject Molière was forced to edit some scenes out after only two performances. Eventually, after only fifteen performances he had to pull the play from the stage in order to avoid the wrath of his opponents.
Why did Molière incur so much trouble? His character is a “mean man” (un méchant homme), which in 17th century language means a very bad man. He is a nobleman, rich and powerful but he uses his status to humiliate and abuse people around him, including his father and countless women. Cynical; disloyal, he praises hypocrisy as a useful social mask that allows him to lead a life of debauchery, without the shadow of a remorse.
Now, if we leave the strictly literary myth aside for a moment, and take a historical perspective, Don Juan appears as a very modern man. He represents the rift that was beginning to appear between a profoundly catholic nation and a freer and lay mentality that appealed to more than one nobleman.
What is certain is that Don Juan has a charisma that appeals to all, as the many literary adaptations can testify. The women love him because he says just the right things (those they long to hear) and the men believe him because he has a way with words. As his valet Sganarelle puts it:
(…) By my life, how you blether on! It seems that you learned it by heart, and you speak like a book. (…) You put things in such a way that seems to make sense (…) I had the most beautiful thoughts in the world, and your speech has tangled them all (…). —(Act I – Scene 2)
Of course Molière mitigates Don Juan’s power by having Sganarelle, the uneducated and silly valet complain (praise?) about it. So once again, Molière’s genius managed to pinpoint a nasty social behavior (les vices des hommes) while staying on the (Catholic) king’s good side. His Don Juan may seems like a dashing aristocrat, socially superior to most, and superiorly adept at playing the scene. But truly where is the heroism in that? Can the fact that he gets away with living a life completely free of moral constraints warrant the term “heroism”?
Indeed, by the end of the play he has trampled so many social and moral tenets that nobody can admire him anymore. His claim of grandeur has become a useless atheistic statement in a society whose “polite” aristocracy is quickly rallying under the rules of honnêteté (polished behavior), a society where libertines have no place.