Caravana de Recuerdos invited people to read the great 1630 play The Trickster of Seville and His Guest of Stone by Tirso de Molina, so I thought I would revisit it. I am glad I did. Tirso de Molina is hardly an artist at the level of his contemporary Pedro Calderón de la Barca, but he managed something rare. He was the first person, apparently, to write down the story of the womanizer Don Juan, one of those unusual fictional characters who has had a long metaphorical life outside of any particular text.
Simpler Pastimes, who read the play in Spanish, writes that the play is “not perhaps the best known” version of the story, which is “likely” the Mozart and da Ponte opera Don Giovanni (1787). Very droll! The Trickster of Seville is no better than fourth, discounting film versions, also trailing Molière’s brilliant 1665 version and Byron’s glorious, enormous reconfiguration of the character (1819+). Well, maybe not so many people read Byron anymore.
Tomorrow I will write a bit about a Selma Lagerlöf booj which, to my surprise, turned out to be another Don Juan retelling.
This first version, more than that of Molière or da Ponte, is not just a seducer but a sociopath, not just chaotic but evil. Maybe not a lot more. He is irresistible to some women, but delights as much in tricking them into sex – impersonating their lovers, for example. He not only has no interest in the consequences of his sexual affairs, but seems to actively enjoy the damage. He is for a time protected from the consequences by his powerful patrons, until, as was inevitable, he is burned to death by a vengeful statue.
Readers of English plays contemporary with Tirso de Molina will likely be amazed, as I am, by the looseness and rapidity of the play, even compared to Marlowe or Shakespeare. They may also be surprised by the intrusions of early modern erudition. I did not remember this stuff at all.
DON GONZALO: Why, Lisbon is the world’s eighth wonder!
Cleaving the heart if her asunder
To travel half the breadth of Spain,
The sumptuous Tagus swirls its train
And through the ranges rolls its thunder
To enter deep in to the main
Along the sacred wharves of Lisbon
Of which it laves the southern side. (Act I, p. 156)
None of the play’s scenes are set in Lisbon, yet this speech about the city goes on for four pages, covering Lisbon’s ships, fortifications, religious institutions, and royal court. When I last read this play I must have been baffled, but now I at least know that this is a city encomium, a genre popular, if that is the right word, with early modern humanists, but that has not survived so well.
A bit earlier, a shipwrecked Don Juan washes ashore and into the arms of a fisher girl who talks like this:
THISBE: Here where the slumbrous suns tread, light
And lazy, on the blue waves’ trance,
And wake the sapphires with delight
To scare the shadows as they glance;
Here by white sands, so finely spun
They seem like seeded pearls to shine,
Or else like atoms of the sun
Gilded in heaven; [etc. etc. etc.] (Act I, pp. 148-9)
In other words, the play suddenly turns into a pastoral poem – other characters do not talk like this – or more specifically into a parody of Luis de Góngora’s baroque reworking of pastoral poetry in Los Soledades. Now I wonder which other passages are actually borrowings from Horace or whoever.
Honestly, if I were performing the play I would cut all of this learnedness. I am emphasizing the aspects of the play least likely to attract readers. Well, there is too much reading as it is; I have always thought that. And come on, it’s the story of Don Juan – seductions, murder, madness, a funny servant, a terrifying supernatural statue along with occasional detours into obscure early modern modes. It’s a great story. Subsequent writers have made that clear enough.
I read Roy Campbell’s translation, found in Eric Bentley’s Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics, which contains at least two plays better than The Trickster of Seville.