Don Juan Tenorio as staged in Vegueta, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, 2010
A Reprint from Guidepost
29 October 1999
Cont. from Part 1
The Legend of Don Juan: From Real Life to Myth and Back Again,
By John Dawkins
A Spanish gentleman?
Curiously, some Spanish commentators are so entranced by the Don Juan figure that they would like to see good in him, to the extent of making him a meritorious character. Blanca de los Ríos wrote nearly 100 years ago about the Tirso version of the story: “Don Juan, although brazen and licentious, was a Spanish caballero, who even in his perfidious seductions maintained the aristocratic elegance of attitude which came from a notable worship of honor, which for him and his kind consisted in the reckless value of not giving way before any power… In him there is concentrated the most typical and life-giving of our race: the passionate ardour which resides in the children of the sun, the uncompromising individualism, the rebellion and reckless eternal.” She even manages to call him “a Catholic forgetful of God, who puts off his conversion until he has drunk his fill of pleasures.” This is a typical romantic Spanish reaction, mixing sex, religion and a certain concept of honor into a rather indigestible mixture. The indigestion caused discomfort to Spanish cultural life for many years.
For Gregorio Marañon, who wrote nearly fifty years later in a different age, Don Juan was not virile but puerile. According to the good doctor, writing after Freud, true virile love is monogamous while Don Juan loves all women; so he is not the perfect lover.
José Zorilla, arch-romantic turned reactionary
The overnight fame of José Zorilla is one of the great Romantic tales in Spanish literature. It came about as a result of the suicide of the Spanish essayist and critic Larra. After lying in state, Larra was buried in the cemetery near Puerta de Fuencarral (at the top of Montera Street). Many speeches were made, both because of Larra’s importance and because those involved wanted to emphasise the hypocrisy of an official burial of a suicide.
When the last poet had spoken, an unknown young man stepped forward and asked permission to read one last poem. In a voice trembling with emotion he started to read poem which was to become a classic literature of Spain. It began:
Ese vago clamor que rasga el viento
Es la voz funeral de una campana
It was the famous A la memoria desgraciada del joven literario Mariano José de Larra, and its author was the future author of Don Juan Tenorio, José Zorilla. So overcome by emotion was he that a friend had to finish the reading for him.
We know the circumstances of the incident because of Zorilla’s wonderful memoirs called Recuerdos del Tiempo Viejo. He tells us how he had arrived in Madrid the day before, and was told of the death of Larra by a well-known literary figure, Mossard, who suggested he write something for the burial, and which could later be published. Zorilla stayed up all night to complete the work which shot him to fame and fortune.
In later years Zorilla considered Don Juan Tenorio to be a youthful trifle which did not merit the praises which showered upon it. He wrote in his memoirs:
“I had been commissioned to write a new version of the Don Juan legend in twenty days. Being as ignorant as I was daring, I started on the task without knowing anything about what had been written on the theme before. Without any knowledge of the world or the human heart, without having made any social or literary studies on the matter, trusting only in my own poetic powers, I began Don Juan one night of insomnia.”
In fact, Zorilla’s version undoubtedly owed a debt to previous versions by Zamora, Dumas and Tirso de Molina. As often happens with writers known above all for an early work, he was bitter about this success, and must have been particularly galled by seeing the annual performances of this one play, when he wrote a total of 33, as well as poetry and prose works. However, after passing through poverty, towards the end of his life a pension and honors were heaped upon him by Queen Isabel, and in 1889 he was crowned national laureate in Granada.
Juan is not typically Spanish, for the Spaniard traditionally honors women and marries to raise a family, while Don Juan is a seducer and lacks a parental instinct. In fact, Marañon saw Don Juan as a product of the European Renaissance, rather than Spanish.
Please proceed to Part 3
Featured image/El Coleccionista de Instantes via Flickr, CC BY-SA2.0
Jose Zorilla, PD
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