27 July 2007: Molière, Dom Juan (or Le Festin de Pierre)

Old Deerfield Productions, performing at Deerfield Academy. World premiere of Virginia Scott’s translation. Directed and produced by Linda McInerney

A fine, spirited production of a sparkling new translation by Virginia Scott, emerita of the University of Massachusetts Theater Department and author of the recent (2000) biography of the playwright. Everything about this produc­tion is intelligent, exact, and full of the essential style of a Molière original. Of course, the play is Molière at his incisive and most reflective best.

Molière’s characters are unmistakably cut from whole cloth. There is nothing in the least compromised or second-hand about them, despite the long lineage of Commedia dell’Arte that stands transparently behind them and is reflected most directly in the character of Don Juan’s faithful servant Sganarelle, who complains at one point about the “vile servitude” that keeps him in thrall to the Don’s evil ways, as unwilling facilitator of his sexual exploits and constant interlocutor, the homme moyen sensuel through whose eyes we are allowed to see and judge, and yet unfailingly enjoy, his master. The audience is encouraged to be deeply invol­ved in the action of the play, very close to it as they are in this 250-seat three-quarter round (or square, to be exact) black box of a performance space. They are delighted so to be caught up in the process through which the Don, who has dis­covered that rank, unabashed hypocrisy is the true vade mecum of life, plays what­­ever character he needs to play to obtain the woman or other object he des­ires, but simultaneously proceeds unerringly toward the violent, engulfing end that they know comprises his just deserts.

Long before writing this play, Molière had adapted and perfected his notion of dramatic character, which is based on a full, absolute self-assertiveness that can, for the moment, stop the action in its tracks while the character says what he has to say, warms to his theme, and expresses himself with full candor and the utmost frankness, apparently heedless of what the other, opposing character might think or feel and, when at last it is his turn, venture to reply. Indeed, the assertion seems so unanswerable that it seems impossible that the opposing char­acter might be able to come up with any rejoinder at all. And yet he does, he does, and his reply is just as fully assertive, and in addition wields such contra­dic­tory force that the two characters are back on level ground, ready to repeat the effort once again.

An especially compelling example of this rhetorical formula (it really is that) occurs in the appearance in Act II of Don Juan’s father, Don Luis, an old, bearded man, somewhat unsteady on his feet, who simply walks in, unbidden, and calm­ly, almost as if in despair, delivers the most consummate diatribe against his son and his notorious evil exploits. Having delivered this monumental tirade, he does not wait for an answer from his visibly cowed son, but simply turns on his heels and goes — to the applause of the audience, who have been waiting for some time for some kind of explicit condemnation of the Don, but who also have appreciated the artistry of the playwright and, perhaps also, the translator, in introducing it at this seemingly critical point.

Will the Don see the error of his ways, finally — will he reject the damnable life he has been leading, repent of his sins, and meekly embrace the paths of virtue and then embark on the road to salvation? For a moment, it seems he will. Much to our amazement, Don Luis re-enters to find an abject, remorseful son, full of penitence and begging forgiveness of the father and mother he has so deeply shamed and disappointed. The Don’s speech of remorse, though not so long as his father’s condemnation of a few minutes before, seems every bit as full and sin­cere. After this, how could we doubt the Don’s genuine repentance? The father certainly does not doubt it, and he exits to find the Don’s mother and tell her of their son’s conversion. He goes.

And there is a pause, and then Sganarelle begins to praise the Don and thank Heaven for the mercy that has been showered on Don Juan and all of them. And then the Don breaks out into gales of mocking laughter. Far from being an auth­en­tic convert, the Don has merely been exercising the hypocrisy that he has learned to use in all his dealings with humankind.

And we now understand the ethical basis of Molière’s characters — if we are new to this wonderful and infinitely adaptable comic strategy — and how the self-assertive long speech is expressive, even definitive, of the character’s un­chan­ge­able way of being in the world. Molière’s characters are never reformable; they are what they are from the day they are born. The action that Molière dev­ises to pit them one against another carries us through one conflict after another, as the complex mechanisms of social intercourse lead them, and thus, to the most predictable and yet the most satisfying conclusion. People are what they are, and nothing on earth, not even a king’s pardon or a god’s forgiveness, can lead them to alter in the slightest way. This is the deepest truth. And it is very, very funny.

There were some fine performances which should not pass unrecorded. Stephen Eldridge as Don Juan and Jonathan Polgar as Sganarelle seem to have been summoned out of two different universes and thrown together incontin­ently as master and servant, and yet they played together extremely well, perfect in their timing and in sometimes very fast-paced interplay. John Reese was excellent in three roles — as Gusman, Elvira’s servant; Monsieur Dimanche, the tradesman who futilely attempts to collect payment for a debt the Don owes him; and a pauper (whose costume of shreds and patches was the best in the play). Sigrid Von Wendel brought a fresh, genuine quality to a feeling portrait of a young peasant girl who grows up quickly as she begins to understand the depths of Don Juan’s seductive perfidiousness.

The house was overflowing last night — this is the second week of a two-week­end run. Fortunately, the production will be repeated at the Academy of Music in Northampton on December 1. I will be glad to have the opportunity to see it again. It was not to be missed.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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