Lucasta Miller on representations of Don Juan

There are 1,700 versions of Don Juan - almost as many as his sexual conquests. Now Patrick Marber is recreating him for the 21st century. Lucasta Miller on the many faces of an unscrupulous seducer

Patrick Marber's best-known work, Closer, was in some senses a Cosi Fan Tutte for our times: a relationship drama whose sophisticated web of partner-swapping and broken trust recalled Mozart's bittersweet opera (which featured in the soundtrack to the recent film version). Now, with Don Juan in Soho, due to open at the Donmar later this month, Marber updates another Mozartian fable of sexual complication - though his starting point is not Don Giovanni but Molière's Dom Juan, Ou le Festin de Pierre, an earlier incarnation of what has become one of the archetypal plots of western culture.

With around 1,700 different versions at the last count - a figure nearly as large as the number of conquests (2,065) allegedly made by Mozart's protagonist - the Don Juan myth must be one of the most frequently told stories in history. Though it probably had an oral pre-existence in folktale, it first appeared in written form in early 17th-century Spain, hence the antihero's Hispanic name. (Its English pronunciation - Ge-wan rather than Hoo-an, as Nancy Mitford's Uncle Matthew in The Pursuit of Love insists on addressing a nonplussed monoglot Spaniard - was coined by Byron in his eponymous poem, providing much scope for vernacular populism and inventive Anglophonic rhymes.)

The late Renaissance period that saw the Don's first literary incarnation also saw the appearance of Dr Faustus, Hamlet and Don Quixote. Emerging at the birth of the modern age, these figures, none of which has biblical or classical precedents, share something of the same subjectivity, and their individualism has invited generations to use them as a starting point for moral and intellectual questioning and speculation.

Over the centuries, the Don has proved something of a shape-shifter. In the popular imagination, he is famous for little more than making swashbuckling sexual conquests - an obvious vehicle, say, for Errol Flynn in Hollywood's Adventures of Don Juan (1948). Yet he has also been a far more complex figure, inhabiting, at various stages, the form of an 18th-century libertine, a Romantic rebel and, in the 20th century, an alienated existentialist. His legend has been retold in every genre, from serious dramas and operas to puppet shows and pantomimes, from programme music to film, from prose to verse, from high art to populist working-class entertainment. Sitting ambiguously between comedy and tragedy, the story has been told as either and as both. Its all-encompassing nature - like its antihero's indiscriminate taste in women - is perhaps summed up in the title of one stage version from the English Regency: "Giovanni in London, a grand moral, satirical, tragical, comical, operatical, melodramatical, pantomimical, critical, infernal, terrestrial, celestial, GALLYMAUFRICALOLLAPODRIDACAL, Burletta Spectacle."

Don Juan has also inhabited the entire moral spectrum, from an out-and-out villain (one German 18th-century melodrama is unequivocally entitled Don Juan, or The Quadruple Murderer) to a more cosy comic figure inviting little more than amused toleration: played by an actress en travestie, as he was in some of the early 19th-century burlesques, his threatening qualities could be removed. In other, less humorous outings, the need to tame him became a quest for spiritual redemption, as in José Zorrilla's sentimental 1844 play and Eugène Goossens's unconvincing late Romantic 20th-century opera, in which an encounter with a nun leads him to see the error of his ways and he ends up becoming a friar.

The earliest English stage version, Thomas Shadwell's The Libertine (1675), has him as a monster whose crimes included parricide, church-pillaging, poisoning, assassination, mass murder, bigamy and ravishing nuns. Though in some readings he is a silver-tongued seducer, in this version he gets his kicks more forcibly: "I could meet with no willing dame, but was fain to commit a rape to pass away the time."

Whether he is driven by erotic desire or merely a will to power is often in question. In some retellings, he doesn't even like sex - Max Frisch's 1953 comedy Don Juan oder Die Liebe zur Geometrie has him turning to maths to escape the attentions of women, a play on the intellectualism of Molière's version, which associates the libertine with free thinking, atheism and philosophical materialism.

Womanising is, indeed, only one aspect of the legend. Other strands of the Don Juan plot - particularly his supernatural descent to hell, at the hands of a vengeful statue of a man he has murdered in the course of trying to assail his daughter's virtue - have been equally important. In most versions, thanatos holds equal sway with eros; the Don's defiance of death is key. European Romantics in the 19th century would idealise this aspect of his taboo-breaking ego: he was heroised as a force of nature or seen, in the words of ETA Hoffmann, as the tragic figure of universal man pitted against "the mysterious forces that play upon him".

The earliest written account, a play by Tirso de Molina first published in 1630, has no mention of sexual seduction in its title, The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, and it foregrounds its protagonist's crimes against God and religion. Looking back towards the morality plays of the middle ages, it presents its antihero as evil, a figure who is driven less by sexual desire than by the urge to deceive, betray and exert power over others. Dangerously transgressive, he gets his kicks out of breaking the bonds of trust on which the social status quo depends. But in this version, he is himself tricked at the end into begging for divine absolution for his sins. Refused by the Stone Guest, he gets his comeuppance, and order is finally restored when he is dragged to his infernal doom.

Tirso put Don Juan on the map, and it soon became a standard story, often reducing its antihero to a simple villain without the machiavellian complexity of Tirso's reading. By the time the first operatic version was staged - in an extravagant production in Rome in 1669, featuring flying statues, dwarves and umpteen scene changes - a rather bored Queen Christina, who was in the audience, could remark dismissively that, despite the frills, it was "just The Stone Guest". Yet during that same decade, Molière had taken the old story and injected it with a new intellectual edge, and a sense of moral equivocation which was so unnerving to his contemporaries that, despite huge box-office receipts, the play was withdrawn soon after its opening. In the words of one modern adapter, Neil Bartlett, "the dangerous thing about the play is that nothing in it is explicit; everything about it is vitriolically ambiguous. Its irony is not only corrosive; it is all-pervasive."

Molière's Don Juan becomes a mouthpiece for the sceptical, rationalist ideas with which many real-life French thinkers were flirting at the time, but it remains unclear whether he's a genuine progressive deconstructing moral conventions or simply an unscrupulous egoist exploiting rationalist rhetoric to justify his irresponsible cruelty. God rather than sex remained the issue on which contemporaries felt most outrage - before withdrawing the play entirely, Molière tried to tone it down by cutting what was considered its most shocking scene, in which the Don tempts a beggar to blaspheme by offering him money. Yet pamphlets published against the playwright suggest that what really irked was the way in which the audience was seduced by the antihero's charm and intellect into colluding with his irreligion and laughing with him at "the majesty of God".

In this case, the Stone Guest's retribution did not seem to provide convincing punishment. Yet the need for a moral ending - often with the Don's enforced repentance - to justify handling this popular but explosive story is a recurrent theme in its cultural history, with playwrights adding disingenuous apologias protesting that they are offering a cautionary tale, rather than an encouragement to vice.

Nevertheless, certainly in the more complex treatments, the central paradox of Don Juan remains: in order for the audience to believe in him as a seducer, he must be seductive. We must, at some level, be as taken in by his glamour as the women he betrays, and must also come to question the moral certainties the fable attempts to resurrect at the end. It is hard not to read the finale to Mozart's Don Giovanni as ironic: the surviving characters' jaunty ensemble, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, seems almost bathetic after the climactic scene in which the Don descends to hell (in the 19th century, the finale was usually cut and, in some cases, replaced with the ominous Dies Irae from Mozart's Requiem).

As with Molière, though in a different way, the genius of Mozart's Don Giovanni lies perhaps in its ambiguity, and in the carefully crafted slipperiness of its protagonist. Like many Romantics, Kierkegaard believed that the music gave transcendent expression to the antihero's universality, a representation of some principle of man's eternal drive and vitality. Yet other, less idealistic, critics have pointed instead to the ultimate emptiness of the Don, his lack of interiority, his lack of a self. Perhaps, according to this reading, his addictive need to seduce is an attempt to fill the gaping hole at the centre of his being by attaching himself, if fleetingly and by coercion, to other selves. Certainly, the music he is given is constantly changing in register depending on the situation, and he can tailor it to a peasant or an aristocratic setting as required: musically, he has no stylistic integrity, though he produces virtuoso variants of each form he attempts.

Associating the Don Juan figure with ideas of changeability and non-self has in fact provided some of the richest readings of the myth - not just Mozart's but Byron's, the first instalment of which was published in 1819, the year after Don Giovanni premiered in London. Byron's concept of "mobility" - a psychological type devoid of integrity and given to ever-changing roles and objects of affection - was something he ascribed to himself in his Conversations With Lady Blessington (an early example of the extended celebrity interview, published after his death), where he boasted that he had "no character at all", and anticipated the different and conflicting roles he would inhabit in the hands of his biographers.

The object of a personality cult, particularly among women readers, and notorious as a rake, whose wife had left him in mysterious circumstances, Byron was well aware that the public would identify him with his protagonist (as they had done with all his previous heroes). His Don Juan is seductive because he is able to mirror back to others what they want: "With women he was what / They pleased to take him for." Though the character has usually been regarded as deviating from the legendary norm - Byron's joke is to present him as a sweet-natured boy, pounced upon by women, rather than a treacherous, testosterone-driven predator - this Don Juan has qualities that render him more seductive and morally slippery than his predecessors. Tirso's Don Juan was a straightforward trickster, lying to his victims to get them into bed before abandoning them. We know where we stand even more clearly with a rapist Don Juan, such as Shadwell's.

Byron's, on the other hand, though lacking a deep interior life, is far more complex in his effect on his audience. He gains erotic power over women by his very passivity and infantilism. In a world in which a "lie" is but "the truth in masquerade", his feelings for any of his sexual partners are as true or false as his readers want them to be. Like a serial seducer, slipping like an escapologist from each consecutive entanglement, this Don Juan is constantly dodging readers' attempts to pin him down. And while he does so, the narrator's sophisticated, knowing voice entraps the reader further, with humour, verbal pyrotechnics and the illusion of shared intimacy that all the in-jokes and satirical allusions must have engendered in the original audience.

For Kierkegaard, Byron's Don Juan was a failure; as a verbal rather than musical structure, it was stuck in its own time and place, unable to embody an ideal. Yet for its first readers, who were legion, it represented a dangerously seductive weapon against conventional morality and the social order - its keenest students included those whom the guardians of morality would have liked to exclude, women and the working classes.

Byron's mobile Don Juan exploited the mobility that exists at the heart of the legend, which has seduced so many generations of audiences by its ability to reconfigure itself in ever-changing ways, depending on current tastes and preoccupations. Since Tirso, there has never been a time when the public has disdained it. The popular imagination has shown an inexhaustible appetite for new variants on the theme, just as the Don himself, in his addiction, needs endless sexual novelty.

A story about the world of showbiz by the 18th-century playwright Goldoni depicts a theatrical troupe on the brink of bankruptcy. Plays on new subjects won't solve their crisis, says the impresario, as they "will never make so much money as with Il Gran Comitato di Pietra". One wonders what led Patrick Marber back to the same subject. Whatever his motives, if history is anything to go by, he is sure to have chosen a winner.

· Don Juan in Soho, by Patrick Marber after Molière, is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, from November 30. Box office: 0870 060 6624

Lucasta Miller

The GuardianTramp

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