It was all a fantasy, an act, and yet it seduced because it seemed so real. It even took off from the stage at one point, crossing some invisible plane, whooping and dancing with harsh laughter, helicoptering over a star-gazing audience. There will have been more special effects in Don Juan in Soho than in the original, 14th century legend, but the essentials of a drama that has inspired the likes of Moliere, Byron, Camus, and Mozart are unchanged.
Patrick Marber is the playwright who has turned Don Juan into a twenty first century rogue in west end London. He appears currently as David Tennant (of Doctor Who fame), transformed from his sexy nerd sci-fi persona to that of a lusty, unfettered snake. His Don Juan is a self-confessed “child”, unapologetically seeking pleasure, while decrying the envy and hypocrisy of those whose outrage implies they wouldn’t want what he has. I was drawn to see the play because the main character was described in press releases as a sex addict, which is the fashionable term these days, replacing that of libertine, womanizer, or more plainly, sinner. Religion and morality have been the traditional lenses via which Don Juan has been criticized or admired. My profession, and specifically, the corner of it that treats sex addiction, has afforded sex addicts something like empathy while retaining our fascination, and it is this fascination that prevails in Don Juan, even as the seduction subsides, and tragedy unfolds with Reaperish inevitability.
And yet, what is most fascinating about Don Juan in Soho is not his seductions of women (only one such exercise is captured in full flight), or even his masterful manipulation of important male characters in the play, such as his long-suffering and devoted man-servant, and his curmudgeonly but foolhardy father. Ultimately, what I found most fascinating was his seduction of the audience, including me, though like a proud would-be target, I found myself resisting the supposedly irresistible, and feeling separate, even haughty, as the audience cheered and whooped along with the Don Juan specter.
This seduction is for audience sympathy, through a complex display of honesty, entitlement, defiance, and counter-provocation. As Tennant’s DJ argues that he’s not a rapist (“I don’t grab pussy”), I hear echoes of a familiar rationale. The libertine/addict claims he is not hurting anyone, contrary to the claims of others, like (in DJ’s case) his man-servant, or more ominously, the claims of brothers of a jilted bride. He points out that all involved are chronologically adult, and thus responsible for themselves, and anyway, have derived pleasure from his sexual behaviors, which is Don Juan’s all-justifying raison d’etre.
To those who disagree, or who seek to penetrate his hidden depths, DJ exudes contempt, even if they are, like his man-servant (Stan), people he values and cares about somewhat. DJ’s seeming need of Stan is not only endearing, it tugs upon suspicion that he, like the addict as he/she is understood by modern psychology, has needs that are not encompassed by physical pleasure, but merely symbolized by it. Needs for attachment. For love. For distance. Of course, DJ will never say or admit as much, and this will be his downfall, everyone says. So, besides his pursuit of sex, he alternates between acts of subtle supplication (for attachment), and efforts to subvert the wholesome.
A Kleinian analyst would have a field day watching this play. From start to finish, DJ seems most drawn to seduce those who are innocent—those whom he’d find deluded, or hypocritical. He is a child seeking pleasure, and thus wants to suckle and be suckled, but he also bites and seeks to destroy that upon which he projects his ambivalence. He callously drops the woman whom he’d married just two weeks prior to the play’s action, and whom he’d diligently seduced over the course of a year (just for the challenge, apparently). In the play’s most entertaining sequence, he hits upon the bride of another man in a hospital, hours after having been responsible for the groom’s injuries following a boating accident. Even more improbably, DJ seduces the bride while being fellated by another woman whom he’d met only moments before this scene.
His aggression isn’t exclusively directed at women. He is misanthropic, not merely misogynist, as some suggest of Don Juan. Those who highlight the latter listen selectively, and are gender-centric in their outlook. DJ delights in hoodwinking his rich father, on whose aristocratic fortune he depends. His enactment of remorse for his father’s benefit reminds me why sex addicts enter therapy, because I often hear about the pleasure’s aftermath of guilt, or even more so, of the shame of being exposed. When DJ seduced me, he did so because he revealed his darker, unrepentant side, and I rarely hear the level of honesty that DJ otherwise exhibits.
He temporarily, at least, torments a homeless Islamic man, who resists DJ’s attempt to bribe him into making blaspheming remarks. Ostensibly, this scene illustrates again the libertine’s distaste for the wholesome, for he thinks them false. But the Islamic man shows his “integrity” by refusing to blaspheme for the reward DJ offers, and as a result, DJ rewards him anyway. A secondary purpose of this and another scene I won’t detail might be a politically correct subtext: Christendom is oppressive, harboring of sex offenders, and repressive of sexuality in general, the protagonist declares. But DJ and his playwright live in 2017, and theater-goers are progressive-leaning, so author and actor are more careful with Muslim sensibilities.
Amid his two or three soliloquy/diatribes, DJ expands upon his political/philosophical outlook: he rails against men in power, makes allusions to modern race politics, the aforementioned quotables of Donald Trump, now so etched in the public mind that the lines mocking them draw instant recognition and approval. DJ, we are led to believe, is a relative hero: in 2017, he has an advantage over his medieval ancestors, because today it is less offensive to be merely promiscuous, even if that promiscuity is extreme. The audience for Don Juan in Soho ultimately applauds the protagonist and is saddened by his demise: partly because he’s clever and attractive, but more importantly because he seems democratic—meaning, he will fuck anyone, of any color, religious, or class background. Because he isn’t hateful.
But that’s incorrect, actually, because Tennant’s DJ isn’t entirely honest. He is a child, but he’s not a lover. As the Kleinian lens teaches us, children can be hateful, and may remain in that hateful state throughout their lives. And maybe that’s okay, we might quietly, reservedly suggest—as long as that hate is understood, exposed or tempered by notions of justice, for example. So, Don Juan from Soho is hateful, and maybe that’s okay with his audience, because the things he hates—the people he hates—are those whom his audience hates also.