TheaterMania Logo

Don Juan in Hell logo
The late actor and playwright Robert Morley once defined good theater as four actors sitting on a divan, talking. By this measure, he must have counted as heavenly, despite its title, George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell.

(Clockwise from lower left) Celeste Holm,
Fritz Weaver, James Stephens, Donal Donnelly
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
As it happens, the four actors in the Irish Repertory revival of the Shaw piece--Donal Donnelly, Celeste Holm, James A. Stephens, and Fritz Weaver--don't sit on a divan. Garbed in evening clothes, they place themselves on four Chippendale chairs with claret upholstery. They also flip the pages of the binders in which their scripts lie and occasionally sip water from tumblers resting on two end tables. But, divan or no divan, they're still able to talk, talk, talk uninterruptedly for nearly two intermissionless hours.

Some theatergoers know--and some don't--that Don Juan in Hell is an extended segment in the third act of Shaw's Man and Superman. Never one, when he was waxing polemical, to use 10 words what he could use 100, the dramatist didn't keep Man and Superman brief. Why should he, when he wanted to address Nietzschean attitudes that had only recently begun to spread abroad from Germany, as well as to continue commenting in his own insistent way about the disparities afflicting man-woman relationships?

With Shaw running off at the mouth, you can imagine how long it takes for the entire play to unfold. Too long to encourage frequent presentations of the complete work--so decades back, it occurred to some enterprising person to extract a third-act dream sequence and present it as self-contained play. It's the part in which Man and Superman protagonist John Tanner dreams that, having transmogrified into Don Juan, he is in hell, and has been for a good, long while. Perhaps Shaw himself was behind the excision decision, since he was already on record as having referred to the Don Juan digression as "totally extraneous."

This hunk of dramatic writing was given the Don Juan in Hell tag, and a new play was made. The original play had come about because one of Shaw's colleagues, Arthur Bingham Walkley, had apparently requested a Don Juan play. Shaw took the suggestion seriously--as seriously as the playful wordsmith ever took anything--and ran up a Don Juan who was modernized but not slick and reassuring. As he wrote in a letter to Walkley that serves as the foreword to Man and Superman, "[I]t annoys me to see people comfortable when they ought to be uncomfortable... If you don't like my preaching you must lump it."

Not the most encouraging words for an audience to consider when they're about to spend a couple of hours where the only people in the theater whom the playwright wants to be comfortable are the four actors sitting around gabbing. Yet the Irish Repertory production, directed by Charlotte Moore as if magically not directed, proves that smart talk can be endlessly engaging--or close enough to endlessly engaging to engender delight, even as Shaw's more instructive intentions become clear.
Clear, if didactic; but Shavian intentions are always didactic. (He thought less of Shakespeare for his disinclination to teach moral lessons.) His characters are an intellectually restless Don Juan; Dona Ana, whom Don Juan once pursued; the statue of Dona Ana's father, a man whom Don Juan killed in a dual; and the Devil, an urbane conversationalist irritated that Dante and Milton have defined him incorrectly. Ostensibly, the chatty foursome are arguing the merits of living in Hell (which is populated by amusing but by self-indulgent liars) over residing in Heaven, where existence is spiritual but numbingly dull. But what these antagonists are really discussing is how to achieve a rewarding life on earth by finding a balance between the active and the contemplative.

As embodiments of conflicting philosophical and behavioral approaches--selflessness as opposed to selfishness, romantic as opposed to realistic, the need for exercising the brain as opposed to giving it a rest--Weaver, Donnelly, Stephens, and Holm (who does have some noticeable vocal problems) keep the patter bright and lively while underscoring Shaw's darker themes; the glee Shaw has in couching his arguments as persuasively and as wittily as possible is matched by the actors. Weaver is particularly animated, which can't be easy, since he has the speeches in which Shaw advances his most iconoclastic and complex views.

Weaver especially spins gold from the outburst wherein Don Juan explains why he's leaving hell for heaven (which, incidentally, residents can do simply by choosing to). Scoffing at the dissembling he's seen from his fellow inmates, Don Juan insists:

"They are not beautiful: they are only decorated. They are not clean: they are only shaved and starched. They are not dignified; they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated; they are only college passmen. They are not religious; they are only pew renters. They are not moral; they are only conventional. They are not virtuous; they are only cowardly. They are not even vicious; they are only frail. They are not artistic; they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous; they are only rich."

Weaver as Don Juan goes on in that fulminating manner breathlessly and with great fervor so that, at the end of the raillery, the audience at the performance I attended burst into applause. My guess is that such a reception occurs nightly, and not only due to Weaver's excellence, but because Shaw here confirms once again that he's a super-playwright.

This production of Don Juan in Hell shows that, sometimes, talk is not cheap; it's what we must do if we at all expect to develop as a species.

Tagged in this Story