The classic Don Juan/Don Giovanni situation comprises two elements: disrespect to the dead (flouting Taboos) and the exploits of a ruthless sexual athlete. The first motif is ancient. The somewhat intricate combination and equation of impiety and sexuality, however, first became important in the Renaissance, with the drama El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (written 1612-1616?) by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina (real name Fr. Gabriel Téllez; circa 1571-1648); it survives in two texts. (Burlador is variously translatable as "deceiver", "seducer", "playboy", "prankster", "trickster", etc.) Tirso established the main features of the conte: Don Juan Tenorio shabbily seduces women in Italy and Spain, commits general roguery, rejects redemption, insults the dead, and is dragged off to Hell by the Statue of a man whom he wronged and murdered. Nevertheless, he is a hidalgo of Spain and (apart from with women) is a man of honour. The Burlador is episodic and bare by comparison with the richness of contemporaneous English drama, but rapidly became an international work, eventually giving birth to hundreds of imitations, adaptations and comparable plays, novels and poems in most of the languages of Europe. Dom Juan, ou le festin de Pierre (1665) by Molière (see Commedia dell'Arte) was accused of being a subtle attack on religion and morals and was withdrawn from the stage. In England Thomas Shadwell (circa 1642-1692) in his The Libertine (1676) offered a brutal study of an antinomian sensualist who invoked nature and reason to justify his crimes.
The outstanding exemplification of Don Juan/Don Giovanni has been the Opera Il dissoluto punito o Don Giovanni (1787; usually known as Don Giovanni) by Lorenzo da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, where an excellent, witty libretto with clear characterizations served as the base for incomparable music. But the story was operatically popular before Don Giovanni: Don Giovanni o sia il convitato di pietro (1787) by librettist Giovane Bertati and composer Giuseppe Gazzanigga held the stage in Central Europe a few months before the da Ponte/Mozart work. There have been many other uses of the story in music, outstanding among which are Gluck's ballet music for Angiolini's ballet Le festin de Pierre ["The Feast of Pierre"] (1761), Kamennyi Gost ["The Stone Guest"] (1872) by Pushkin/Dargomyzhsky/Rimsky Korsakov, and Richard Strauss's symphonic poem Don Juan (1888), based on Nikolaus Lenau's unfinished Don Juan.
As has been observed by Oscar Mandel in The Theatre of Don Juan (1963), Don Juan has no real, solid identity, but typifies succeeding cultural periods. In the Renaissance work of Tirso he is a believer, though a driven, remorseless, wicked man; in the proto-Enlightenment of Molière and Shadwell he is a rationalist and cynic; in the early 19th century he is a passionate, idealized figure, as in C D Grabbe's Don Juan und Faust (1829), where Faust, as Intellect, and Juan, as Passion, both seek Donna Anna, the Ideal; in the early 20th century Man and Superman (1903) by George Bernard Shaw Juan is entangled with the lifeforce and paradoxes of sexual pursuit – Don Juan in Hell (1951 US) excerpts the relevant scenes from the full play. Later in the 20th century he is likely to be a man obsessed with problems of existence, with prying behind appearances.
Don Juan's fate, too, has been recalculated. For Tirso, Don Giovanni sat down with the statue to face a horrible meal of snakes and scorpions and went to a traditional Hell, while for da Ponte/Mozart the more amiable Don Giovanni's fate is – if George Bernard Shaw is to be believed – the Hades of Persephone and Pluto. In the play Don Juan Tenorio (1844) by José Zorrilla y Moral (1817-1893), still enormously popular in the Spanish-speaking world, Don Juan, inspired by the Ghost of Doña Ines (the equivalent of Donna Anna), repents and is saved, while in Vernon Lee's sentimental "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers" (1889) Don Juan, though a scoundrel, has such a powerful devotion to the Virgin that she redeems his soul after his death. In La dernière nuit de Don Juan ["The Last Night of Don Juan"] (1921) by Edmond Rostand (1868-1918) Juan, stripped of illusions by the Devil, demands hellfire; the Devil simply places him in a Puppet show where he will act out his crimes indefinitely. And in Don Juan, oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie (1953) by Max Frisch (1911-1991) Juan, working in collusion with a cardinal, fakes his descent into Hell in order to escape the women who importune him.
The legend's supernatural aspect, today, has little power. Don Juan is remembered only as the effortless seducer. [EFB]
further reading: The Story of Don Juan (1939) by John Austin, a general, somewhat erratic account; The Theatre of Don Juan. A Collection of Plays and Views, 1630-1963 (1963) ed Oscar Mandel, critical commentary plus translated texts of Tirso, Molière, Shadwell, Grabbe, Frisch and others; Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1964) by Ellen Bleiler, a study of Mozart's opera, with translated text; 1003 Variationen des Don-Juan-Stoffes von 1630 bis 1934 (1990) by Franz Rauhut, good critical summaries of about 150 texts.