If I’m going to read more Restoration Comedy, then I’m going to need to read some Molière to go along with it, because it certainly seems that they did. (After all, as far as I recall, the French court is where they were all hanging out before the Restoration). We don’t tend to read Molière in this country (I’ve certainly never encountered anyone who has; though I’ve a vague recollection of Tartuffe from somewhere in the past), for much the same reason no doubt that we don’t read any Racine or Corneille – though what this reason actually is, I’m not sure.
Dom Juan is an early (1665) “Death of God” work – i.e. if, now we are enlightened rationalists, we accept that God does not exist, what does this mean for morality and society. The Dom himself is a young man who has decided to act as he likes (he has, let us say, a “will to power”), and ignore the dictates of society around him. The play starts with him leaving the woman he has just married because he only married her in order to sleep with her, has now tired of her, and is off pursuing another woman. It turns out this marriage and desertion has long been his modus operandi. He is a serial bigamist. (One of Stendhal’s Italian Chronicles is also about our Don Juan – he mentions Molière’s version, I recall – but is even more extreme in its breaking of accepted moral codes (incest, paedophilia etc.)).
He is an atheist too, a blasphemer. Here he is in a scene where he encounters a beggar.
Dom Juan: How do you pass your time here among all these trees?
Man: I pray all day long for the prosperity of the kind people who give me alms?
Dom Juan: You are quite comfortably off then, I suppose?
Man: Alas, sir, no! I am in the greatest penury.
Dom Juan: What, a man who prays all day long can’t fail to be well off.
Man: I assure you, sir, I often haven’t even a crust to put in my mouth.
Dom Juan: That’s strange. You’re not very well rewarded for your trouble. See here. I’ll give you a gold louis, if you’ll utter a blasphemy.
Man: Oh, sir, would you have me commit such a terrible sin?
Dom Juan: The question is, do you want this piece of gold, or not? I’ll give it to you if you blaspheme. Come now.
Of course, atheism and self-gratification weren’t so well-respected back then, so I guess our hero learns the error of his ways?
Well, yes he does: he learns that going around seeking carelessly after his own pleasure with no concern for morality is likely to lead to trouble; and what he ought to do to avoid this, is disguise his hedonism behind a veil hypocrisy – like everyone else.
The play was quickly banned by the authorities.
There are some good parts to Dom Juan, but it’s very much a patchwork of a play – a collection of comic scenes awkwardly strung together into a plot, with the occasionally philosophical dialogue tying them together. I actually enjoyed more the play I read just before, The Reluctant Doctor, (the plays share a common contempt for the practice of medicine), which is shorter and more tightly-bound, with a penchant for Punch-and-Judy style violence.
More Molière to come: I’ve tracked down most of it in English. – He’s funnier than Shakespeare, if that’s any sort of recommendation. In fact, I find myself relating a lot more to the humour in Restoration Comedy than that of their Jacobean forbears. These plays might have been written 350 years ago, but with a few adjustments for cultural context, Molière would work perfectly well as a sitcom (a Blackadder sort of thing; certainly funnier than most of what I shall have to put up with over the festive season). I’m not sure really that much has changed in our sense of humour.