Don Juan Tenorio, the boastful libertine who defies God in his search for earthly pleasures, is one of Spain’s mythical figures. In the legend and in Tirso de Molina’s seventeenth century masterpiece El burlador de Sevilla(1625?; The Trickster of Seville, 1923), time runs out and Don Juan is dragged down into hell. Heaven’s justice has been appeased and the fabric of society restored.
In the nineteenth century Don Juan Tenorio by José Zorrilla y Moral, on the other hand, Don Juan is given time and is saved, even after death. The difference between the two works lies in the varying perspective of the hero. Although in both works the personality of Don Juan dominates the play, sweeping all other characters aside, Tirso chooses to accentuate in the title the salient trait of his Don Juan’s nature, that of gamester, the man who views life as a game and uses people, especially women, as pawns. Tirso’s Don Juan is incapable of change or true affection; handsome, magnificently proud, and brave though he may be, he is not complete, not a hero. The Don Juan Tenorio of Zorrilla’s play, by contrast, is a hero, the quintessential romantic hero. In one of those rare moments of inspiration, Zorrilla seems to have found the right combination of medieval lore, literary tradition, and the Romantic ideal. Don Juan Tenorio, appearing at the very end of the Spanish Romantic movement, resonated with the Spanish people, and every November 1, All Saints Day, the play is still performed throughout the Hispanic world.
Spanish Romantic drama extravagantly rebelled against rigid neoclassicism, and Don Juan Tenorio’s only concessions to unity are in the dominance of its protagonist and in its principal theme of salvation through love. It is a long operatic work of seven acts in mixed verse which, although uneven at times, reaches intense melodic heights. The action starts during carnival week in a torch-lit Seville where masked revelers await the participants in a cruel wager, and it ends in a cemetery complete with antithetical vengeful ghosts and cherubs, hellfire and flowers, funeral chants and joyous song. Its acts are titled, each stressing the dominant mood or theme. Act 4, for example, in which Don Juan carries off Ines and has his first chance at redemption, is entitled “The Devil at Heaven’s Door,” representing the antithesis of the devil and the angel, Don Juan and Ines.
Don Juan, in true Romantic rebel fashion, scoffs at tradition and society’s mores until he meets Ines, whom he steals from her convent out of spite. Something in Ines, perhaps her innocence or her obvious adoration of him, mysteriously moves him, or perhaps he sees his only hope of salvation through her. If Don Juan is the archetypal Romantic hero, Ines is the archetypal Romantic heroine. Dreamy, delicate, unaccustomed to the world, shut up in her convent, and almost hypnotized by the force of Don Juan’s personality, she forms an ideal image of him that time and death cannot break. She dies from grief after Don Juan’s abandonment of her, following her father’s death, and then literally sacrifices her own salvation for that of her lover. She may be weak in life, but in death she is forceful enough to make a pact with God.
Theology is not the strong point of Don Juan Tenorio . Don Juan is saved after death, even though God generally does not equate a sinner with a saint; an entire life of crime and scandal is rarely blotted away forever by one second of repentance. The moral linchpin of the play, however,...
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is the fact that Don Juan tries to repent; a moment of Gonzalo’s scorn and taunting destroys that moment of salvation.
The play, at its most excessive, is melodrama, but it is effective. At times it is as hypnotic as its title character in the kaleidoscopic use of light and sound and changing scenes and in the seductive music of its verse. The extreme contrast between the action, mood, and scene of acts 4 and 5 is a good example of Zorrilla’s technique of change and reversal. Act 4 is all passion, light, fire, and motion, but when the reader meets the characters again in act 5, the start of the second half of the play, they have been transformed into lifelike statues in a cemetery dedicated to the victims of Don Juan; their vital force has been converted into frigid marble. The light now is cold; a silver moon shines on a stillness of white and black. There is no movement; even the rhythm of the verse slows down.
The contrasting nature of the scenery and action is the medium for the expression of the work’s antithetical themes. All the great dramatic dualities are present—betrayal and faith, damnation and salvation, corruption and innocence, hope and despair, hate and, above all, love. All the excess, all the music, all the disparate images coalesce around this overriding central tenet, that love is dominant, even after death, and can break down even the gates of heaven. This message is certainly one of the principal reasons for the play’s continuing popularity.
In contrast to the stern retribution of God’s justice in Tirso’s The Trickster of Seville, here the audience is consoled with the prospect of divine mercy. Another reason for the play’s success could be that secretly the audience has always wanted Don Juan to be saved. Even in Tirso’s work, in which Don Juan deserves to be punished, it is his fire and passion that are remembered.