Attending a preview week performance of Stephen Wadsworth’s production of Moliere’s Don Juan at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, I experienced one of the most uncomfortable moments I have ever felt in a theater. Of course you know the basic story of Don Juan, or Don Giovanni as da Ponte, Mozart’s Italian librettist, called him. He is an aristocratic rogue and a seducer who, apprehended by the father of one of his victims, kills him. Later, to show himself untroubled by conscience over this deed, he invites a statue of the dead father to dinner with him. The statue descends from its pedestal and keeps the appointment, offering Don Juan an opportunity to repent of his wicked ways. The Don indignantly refuses to be otherwise than he always has been, and he is dragged down to Hell.
In Moliere’s version of the story, there is an earlier opportunity for penitence when his own father reproves him for his conduct and for a moment it looks as if he has taken it. But once his father leaves and his servant, Sganarelle, congratulates him on his amendment of life, he repents of his repentance, saying he hasn’t changed at all: Je ne suis point change. Even the moving statue won’t change him. He says that his pretense of adopting a different course is nothing but a stratageme utile in order to trick his father. But he doesn’t stop there. There are plenty of others who do the same, he tells Sganarelle. So many, indeed, that
There is no longer any shame in acting thus. Hypocrisy is a fashionable vice, and all fashionable vices pass for virtues. The character of a good man is the best of all characters one can play nowadays, since the profession of hypocrisy has wonderful advantages. The imposture of this art is always respected, and though it be detected, no one dares to speak against it. Men are censured for all other vices and everyone is at liberty to attack them openly; but hypocrisy is a privileged vice, which, with its own hand, shuts everyone’s mouth and peacefully enjoys a sovereign impunity. By means of shams a close fellowship is formed among all people of the same set: he who offends one brings them all down upon him, and even those whom everyone knows to act in good faith in the matter and whom we know to be really sincere, these people, I say, are always the dupes of the others. They run heedlessly into the snare of the humbugs and blindly support those who ape their actions. How many, do you think, I know, who, by this stratagem, have dexterously patched up the disorders of their youth, who have put on, as a shelter the cloak of religion, and who, under this venerated guise, have permission to be the most wicked fellows on earth? It signifies nothing that their intrigues and they themselves are known to be what they are; they are not, for all that, less credited in society; and a certain lowly bending of the head, a humble sigh and a pair of upturned eyes, justify, before all the world, all they may do. It is under this convenient shelter I intend to take refuge and to secure my affairs. I will not abandon my cherished habits, but I shall take care to conceal them, and divert myself with as little noise as possible. If it should chance that I am discovered, I shall, without raising a finger, find the whole cabal looking after my interests and I shall be defended by it against, and in spite of, everybody. In short, this is the true way to do whatever I please with impunity. I shall set myself up as a censor of the actions of others. I shall judge ill of all and have a good opinion of myself alone. I will never forgive anyone who has offended me, however slightly, and I will quietly keep an undying hatred. I will act as avenger in the interests of heaven and, under this convenient pretext, I will persecute my enemies. I will accuse them of impiety, and I will let loose against them those indiscreet zealots who, without knowing for what reason, will raise an outcry against them, will load them with abuse and will openly damn them on their own authority. It is thus we must profit by the foibles of mankind: a wise man adapts himself to the vices of his age.
Throughout this long speech, as delivered by Jeremy Webb in the role of the Don, the audience laughed and clapped and cheered. Hooray for the libertine! Bravo the murderer! So long as he is assailing the hypocrisy of more respectable folk, we’re meant to be on his side, apparently.
I know there is a fashionable view, derived from the existentialist philosophers, that Don Juan is an admirable character because he is the only one in the play, or in Mozart’s opera, with the guts to be who he really is and not to dissemble and make a virtue of his weakness like the bourgeois prigs and hypocrites he defies. But somehow that point of view, like the belief in the Nietzschean superman, depends on his being unique, or at least in the minority. If the bourgeoisie is united in finding bourgeois respectability merely hypocritical then it’s not really respectable anymore, is it? Once everybody is defiant, then there’s no one left to defy. Once vice becomes universally admirable, then it is virtue which is the quality of the rarer and higher sort of fellow. Once everybody worships at the shrine of the Ubermensch, then the Ubermensch becomes a bit of a joke.
Yet I suspect that the cheers were not really for vice but because the audience were typically eager to find a contemporary political allusion in the Don’s words, as Mr. Wadsworth and the cast were probably equally eager to supply it. The humbugs and hypocrites were immediately identified with — who else? — President George W. Bush and his Christian supporters. This was not because of any particular act of hypocrisy on their part, I imagine, for hostility would surely have made much of it if there were one. Rather, it is because, like Don Juan, the urbane and cynical theater-going public in America naturally assume that all virtue and piety are hypocrisy. At least they are as ready as Don Juan to assume it if it suits their purposes.
The Don’s purposes are of course to continue living his life of debauchery without paying any price for it, so at least there is some payoff to him in such unlovely cynicism. But I have no reason to suppose that his cheering audience on the night I saw the play were anything but ordinarily decent Americans who wouldn’t dream of corrupting a virgin, let alone murdering her father, but for whom the pleasure of hating George W. Bush and the Christians who support him is enough of a reward for adopting this miserable view of human nature. They are like Chesterton’s Higgins, “the Strange Ascetic” — or one
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun
— unless you count hating as fun. As one who has enjoyed only a very indifferent success as a practitioner of the virtues but who has a great deal of admiration for them, who at any rate believes that neither the President’s nor most of his Christian followers’ virtues are merely hypocritical, I briefly felt what it must be like to be a member of a hated minority in the midst of a mob out for blood.