Germinal's Don Juan in Hell makes for an exhilarating evening
In Mozart's Don Giovanni, the unprincipled seducer tries his wiles on the virtuous and beautiful Dona Ana, whose father challenges him to a duel and is killed — only to reappear in the final moments of the opera as a towering moving statue and drag the unrepentant Don Juan down to hell. George Bernard Shaw took the action a step further in his Don Juan in Hell, the long third act of Man and Superman. It's often cut, and often performed — as it is here — on its own.
Four chairs. Four characters — Don Juan, Dona Ana, her father the Commander, and the Devil himself — all engaged in a long, long argument. It's an argument filled with wit, wisdom, humor, flashes of insight and pure Shavian contrarianism and bloody-mindedness. As the action begins, Dona Ana has just arrived in hell, and she's quite peeved to realize it, given the conspicuous religiosity with which she lived her long life. Don Juan serves as her guide, and assures her that an eternity spent in hell is far more pleasurable than anything going on in heaven, which is filled with high-minded thinkers. His point is reinforced by the Devil, a jovial soul, and by the Commander — who doesn't recognize her at first. He is so bored with heaven that he's come to request a change of residence. The point of this essentially plotless play is a protracted discussion about, well, just about everything on earth, including the ways in which humans spend their limited time. The Devil has a long and eloquent monologue about the violent uses to which man puts his intellect, resources and energy, remaining perennially entranced by the infliction of death and pain. He himself has been misrepresented, the Devil says, and he urges his guests to remain in his realm, where sensory pleasures and heroic notions prevail.
Shaw uses Don Juan's scornful rebuttal to take digs at all of his favorite whipping boys: politicians, businessmen, the English in general, and artists. Art is seductive, Don Juan admits, but it ultimately serves only to enslave men to women, whose job it is to birth the race and rule in the home. Shaw was a complex thinker, of course, able to entertain many contradictory ideas at once; he was a socialist, spokesman for the poor, and also, at least now and then, an advocate for women's rights. It was Shaw who wrote, "If we have come to think that the nursery and the kitchen are the natural sphere of a woman, we have done so exactly as English children come to think that a cage is the natural sphere of a parrot: because they have never seen one anywhere else." So he gives Dona Ana some swift and cutting rebuttals, although he does allow Don Juan to win the argument.
Despite his intellect and blistering wit, Don Juan's essential belief system is romantically woolly-headed. While the Devil advocates hedonism because he believes there's no such thing as human progress, Don Juan — who represents Shaw himself — argues for a kind of mystical evolution in which the human mind continues to develop in breadth and wisdom and ultimately transforms the human race. Shaw's concept of the life force and the coming superman owes something to Nietzsche, but is left essentially undefined. Every now and then, I couldn't help remembering Ayn Rand's rambling novel The Fountainhead, and her hero, Howard Roark, who towered above the second-handers surrounding him. Though Shaw was both a lot smarter than Rand and a lot more democratically inclined.
It's fascinating to watch these ideas zipping around the stage like little white Ping-Pong balls, helped by Terry Burnsed's precision and clarity as Don Juan, Michael Shalhoub's amiable counterpoint as a Devil who seems to have stepped right off a Florida beach, the unexpected humor of Paul Caouette's Commander, and Julie Michalak, whose quizzical intelligence as Dona Ana contrasts perfectly with the smug pieties the character utters. And though you do occasionally feel a bit like a kid subjected to an overlong scolding, the entire evening is exhilarating.
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