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How surprising to find Edmond Rostand choosing to write a play about Don Juan! Has the now middle-aged poet, disillusioned by his experience of life, lost his idealism in making the adulterer par excellence his protagonist? Not at all. Rostand is still teaching us “lessons for the soul” as he also entertains and inspires us. Until now, Rostand’s heroes have, or learn to have, a creative and positive attitude to life. But in La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan (The Last Night of Don Juan), the poet focuses instead on the destruction caused to human beings and their souls by a cynical, negative attitude to life. The archetypal seducer is presented here without any admiration for his exploits. He is shown to be incapable of true love even when it is offered to him. Lacking any human worth, he will spend eternity as a puppet.
Don Juan wastes his talents and potential and lives solely for his own pleasure. He seduces women and debases human love to nothing more than the sexual act. Throughout Rostand’s work, such solely physical love is always shown as negative and destructive, a selfish distraction from creativity and duty. Pure love, on the other hand, has a redemptive quality: Rostand’s heroines are all transformed by such love. But when Don Juan is offered the chance to be redeemed by the pure love of a woman, he does not take it.
Rostand’s play begins where Molière’s play and Mozart’s opera end, with the statue of the Commander dragging Don Juan down towards hell as Sganarelle is shouting above for his wages. In Rostand’s original and imaginative interpretation, the Don convinces the Devil in a Prologue to give him ten more years of life in which to do the Devil’s own work, seducing women and then abandoning them. The first act opens as the ten years are up. Don Juan believes the Devil has forgotten all about him, but the Devil duly arrives to claim Don Juan’s soul, in the guise of a puppet master.
La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan contains many wonderful moments of pure theatre, poetic beauty and much wit. It was written to be read rather than performed, so it includes some special effects that would be difficult to portray on stage. However, when Rostand’s good friend, the well-known actor Charles Le Bargy, asked him in 1911 for a play to perform at his last appearance at the Comédie-Française, Rostand thought of building on the fragments he had already written for La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan. In the event, the play was not finished in time for Le Bargy’s farewell; then the First World War prevented a planned later performance, and so La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan, though published by Fasquelle in 1921, did not finally reach the stage until March 1922, more than three years after Rostand’s death.
La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan is as fresh and pertinent today as when Rostand wrote it, and well worthy of being rediscovered by our own cynical and amoral times. Earlier translations are now out of print. T.L.Riggs translated the play into blank verse (US,1929); Dolores Bagley’s version in rhymed couplets can be found in The Theatre of Don Juan, O.Mandel, ed. (US, 1963).
This play has now been translated into English prose by Sonia Yates and Sue Lloyd: The Last Night of Don Juan (La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan) A dramatic poem in two parts and a prologue. Now available as a Kindle Title, price £2.64. Performance rights are available from the Genge Press, email@example.com.
La Dernière Nuit de Don Juan has now been published, along with The Woman of Samaria, as a paperback under the title Sacred and Profane Love (Genge Press, UK, 2015) ISBN 978-0-95490436-4, pages i-vi, 1-154. Cost: £12.00 in UK, post and packing £2.00. $20 including post and packing, USA.
CRITICAL REVIEW OF SACRED AND PROFANE LOVE
Francis Phillips warmly reviewed Sacred and Profane Love in her book review for the Catholic Herald (February 2016). She enjoyed these plays so much that she was also moved to write in her blog about “The French playwright who teaches us lessons for the soul”.
Here is part of what she wrote:
“In The Last Night of Don Juan, the eponymous hero is offered a last chance to be saved by the pure love of a woman among the thousands whom he has seduced. ... It makes for wonderful theatre and even in translation the language is eloquent and memorable. Rostand knew that before God “cuts you down” ... a human being will have rejected, as Don Juan does, every offering of grace that might have redeemed him.
“I would love to see this play more widely known, either staged or read aloud by a drama group. Sue Lloyd is to be commended for her endeavours to introduce Rostand to a modern audience. As long as human beings think they can play with their destiny, his is a subject that will never become dated”.