Shaw’s Don Juan and the Devil’s Disciple

"The finding of Don Juan by Haidée" by Ford Madox Brown, 1870, watercolor and gouache over pencil. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

“The finding of Don Juan by Haidée” by Ford Madox Brown, 1870, watercolor and gouache over pencil. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the early twentieth century, George Bernard Shaw took on the “frightful responsibility” of composing a Don Juan play. His immediate sources were “a very great play” (Moliere’s Dom Juan), and “a very great opera” (Mozart’s Don Giovanni).[1] But he understood that the spirit of the Spanish hero is that of a mythological trickster.

In a brief exegesis of the first Don Juan play (El burlador de Sevilla by Tirso de Molina, 1583-1648), Shaw explained:

The prototypic Don Juan … was presented, according to the ideas of that time, as the enemy of God, the approach of whose vengeance is felt throughout the drama, growing in menace from minute to minute. [2]

Shaw rejects the notion of Don Juan as a vulgar “libertine,” and makes clear in Man and Superman that his John Tanner (Juan Tenorio) is one “in the philosophic sense”:

Don Juan is a man who, though gifted enough to be exceptionally capable of distinguishing between good and evil, follows his own instincts without regard to the common, statute, or canon law; and therefore, whilst gaining the ardent sympathy of our rebellious instincts … finds himself in mortal conflict with existing institutions.

Don Juan and the statue of the Commander, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, oil on canvas, circa 1830-1835. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

Don Juan and the statue of the Commander, Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, oil on canvas, circa 1830-1835. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish dramatic history is full of such “enemies of God.” There are the rebellious angels of the religious theater and the figure of Herod in the Auto de los Reyes Magos (13th century). There is the tricksterish pandering of the central character in the first dramatic masterpiece of the Spanish language: La Celestina (1499). During the Golden Age (17th century) there is Laurencia, who goaded the villagers of Fuenteovejuna to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Comendador in Lope de Vega’s play, and Prince Segismundo, “monster of his labyrinth,” who revolts against his father the King in Calderón de la Barca’s Life is A Dream.

In the Romantic era, the protagonist of Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (a descendant of Inca royalty in the play by the Duque de Rivas, 1835) is tormented a by a baneful destiny which ravages his world.[3] José Zorrilla’s Don Juan Tenorio (1844) features a hero that combines “disordered love with ‘evil for evil,’ and rebellion against supernatural powers” (Part One, Act Four is entitled “The Devil at Heaven’s Doors”).[4]

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of "Devil's Disciple" at the Federal Theatre Playhouse, Tulane & Miro, showing a cartoon drawing of a head in profile with a halo. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

Poster for Federal Theatre Project presentation of “Devil’s Disciple” at the Federal Theatre Playhouse, Tulane & Miro. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Cognate with this panoply of rebels, Shaw affirms that his Don Juan in Man and Superman had a previous incarnation in the figure of a Puritan nonconformist with a Diabolonian disposition from one of his earlier plays: “From Prometheus to my own Devil’s Disciple, such enemies have always been popular.”[5]

Shaw traces the genealogy of Dick Dudgeon (the hero of The Devil’s Disciple) back to the myth of Prometheus (found in Shelley’s drama with its antecedent in the tragedy by Aeschylus), to the Wagnerian Siegfried, and to “our newest idol, the Superman,” who “may be younger than the hills; but … is older than the shepherds.” He also declares that aspects of Dick Dudgeon’s “strange religion” can be found in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in Nietzsche’s “Good and Evil Turned Inside Out,” and most conspicuously, in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Both Blake and Dudgeon are “avowed” Diabolonians: “[Blake] called his angels devils and his devils angels. His devil is a Redeemer.” [6]

The Devil’s Disciple (1897) takes place in New Hampshire in 1777, during the American Revolution. In the last scene of the play, as Dick Dudgeon is about to be hanged, he is confronted by a Christian minister who counsels him to “submit to the divine will.” Dudgeon replies:

Answer for your own will, sir, and those of your accomplices here: I see little divinity about them or you. You talk to me of Christianity when you are in the act of hanging your enemies. Was there ever such blasphemous nonsense!

Since The Devil’s Disciple is a melodrama, Dick Dudgeon is saved by the arrival of rebel American armies. But he had walked to his death in full awareness of his function as a trickster. As the executioner prepared to conduct his grim business, Dudgeon proclaimed to the assembled British army and townspeople: “Amen! My life for the world’s future!”

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Opera Don Giovanni. State Opera Stara Zagora, Bulgaria. Dirigent Dian Tchobanov, Regisseur Stefano Poda, Don Giovanni Vesselin Stoykov, 2009. (Credit:  ZYN / Wikimedia Commons)

Opera Don Giovanni. State Opera Stara Zagora, Bulgaria. Dirigent Dian Tchobanov, Regisseur Stefano Poda, Don Giovanni Vesselin Stoykov, 2009. (Credit: ZYN / Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Bernard Shaw, The Black Girl in Search of God and Some Lesser Tales (1934; London: Constable & Co., 1948), 188.

[2] Shaw, “To Arthur Bingham Walkley,” 488-489.

[3] This play by Angel de Saavedra (1791-1865) was the basis for Verdi’s La forza del destino.

[4] Angel Valbuena Prat, Historia del teatro español (Barcelona: Editorial Noguer, 1956), 509; José Zorrila, Don Juan Tenorio and Traidor, inconfeso y mártir (Barcelona: Ediciones Planeta, 1990).

[5] Shaw, “To Arthur Bingham Walkley,” 488-489.

[6] Bernard Shaw, “Preface,” Three Plays for Puritans (1901; New York: Penguin Books, 1946), 26.

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