GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “The Legend of Don Juan,” 29 October 1999, Part 1  

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Guidepost cover, 29 October 1999

A Reprint from Guidepost
29 October 1999


The Legend of Don Juan: From Real Life to Myth and Back Again,
Part 1  

By John Dawkins

Among the traditions associated with All Saint’s Day – the 1st of November – in Spain are a visit to the cemetery to visit the dear departed and the appearance in bakeries of huesos del santo (“bones of the saint”, a kind of marzipan) and buñuelos, a type of doughnut. One of the oldest of theatrical traditions associates this time of year with the appearance of versions of the Don Juan story, in particular the play by José Zorilla. This play is so well-known and loved that it is not uncommon for people to know whole passages off by heart: you can still see some members of the audience anticipating the actors in their speeches by mouthing the words silently.

Jose Zorilla

What has a notorious rake to do with saints and the dead? The link lies in the fact that the last scene of Zorilla’s romantic Don Juan Tenorio immediately found acceptance among the public in Madrid where it was first performed in 1844, and has been a regular autumn visitor ever since.

This version of Don Juan has his cynical and ruthless face, seen elsewhere, made up a trifle into a more acceptable figure for nineteenth century taste, and his conquests are mediated through their telling in melodious verse rather than acted on stage. He even has a “true love”, in the shape of long-suffering Doña Inés, who in the end saves him from damnation. The following is the beginning of his letter to her, while she is still a nun in the convent:

Doña Inés del alma mía

 Luz de donde el sol la toma
Hermosísima paloma
Privada de libertad

 Si por estas líneas dignas
pasear tus lindos ojos
no desprecies con enojo
el amor de tu Don Juan….

(Doña Inés of my soul
the Light by which the sun shines;
most beautiful dove,
deprived of freedom.

If you deign to pass your
beautiful eyes over these lines,
do not be annoyed and turn down
the love of your Don Juan.)

More in line with the traditional Don Juan image is his boasting in another part of the play to a friend he meets after an absence of two years in the Hosteleria de Laurel of Seville:

Por dode quiera que fui

Doña Inés, portrayed by Spanish actress Maria Guerrero in 1891, receives Don Juan’s love letter

la razón atropellé
la virtud escarnece
a la justicia burlé
y las mujeres vendí.
Yo a las cabañas bajé
yo a los palacios subí
y los claustros escalé
y en todas partas dejé
memoria amarga de mi

(Wherever I went,
I trod reason underfoot
I wounded chastity
I mocked justice
And let women down.
I came down to the hamlets
And went up to the palaces
And scaled the convent walls
And everywhere left
A bitter memory behind me.)

This is the dashing, wanton blasphemous libertine, first immortalized in Tirso de Molina’s play El Burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra of 1630, who found currency in the best of European literature since and captured the imagination, not only of the Spanish people, but of writers and musicians around the world, from Molière to Byron and Shaw, and from Gluck and Mozart to Richard Strauss.

Yet it is not easy to understand fully the passions roused by this character. After all, seduction of women is not on the face of it the stuff of myth. The Greeks never saw their gods’ numerous rapes and seduction in the same overwhelming light, while Don Juan manages to attain for some a metaphysical dimension. The Don Juan story also seems intimately linked with the Spanish character, or else why would he continue to pack the theaters hundred of years after he first appeared.

A matter of honor

Tirso de Molina

The important thing to remember about Don Juan is that his crime is not so much seduction as a disregard for some of the prevailing codes of honor. He dishonors Doña Ana, and what is more, gets away with it by killing her father in a duel. He is a kind of anarchist, but an anarchist protected by the nobility, who see him as one of their own. He not only “wounds chastity”, but “mocks justice”, and across the class divide, from palaces to villages. Although he speaks of “seduction”, many of these seductions were in fact rapes, for in those days the two concepts were not so clearly divided in all cases. He is a kind of chulo, or street-wise villain, but a noble chulo. This is where the force of the story comes from. He is a totally free man, who does exactly what he wants, and is afraid of nobody. In Mozart’s opera he even sings a toast to “Freedom”.

There is, particularly in the Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan, an implicit criticism of the nobility, and it is not surprising that he decided to set his version in the 14th century. Setting a theme in history was a regular recourse for those dramatists who were uneasy about elements of social criticism in their work, whether in Spain or in other countries. As a historical drama they had more scope to criticize the status quo.


Please proceed to Part 2


José Zorilla, PD

Doña Inés, PD
Tirso de Molina, PD

About Guidepost
The GUIDEPOST was founded on 28 February 1958. It has been published continuously since then, first as a printed magazine. It is now completely online, in keeping with the times. For which fact the GUIDEPOST is Spain’s oldest existing publication in the English language, The Dean of English-language Publications in Spain.