The first puppet-stage adaptations of the figure of Don Juan date to the 19th century and were largely inspired by the work of Tirso de Molina, El Burlador de Sevilla y Convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest). Played in 1626, this text was already known from the 17th century in the form of several Italian and French theatrical adaptations in existence before that of Molière in 1665. As to the interpretation given by Lorenzo da Ponte in his libretto for the opera by Mozart (Don Giovanni, 1787), reinterpreted in 1813 in a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann (“Don Juan, A Fabulous Adventure for a Travel Enthusiast”), a seductive Don Juan was presented, certainly, but also a philosopher and free-thinker. Nevertheless the story remained long unnoticed by puppeteers.

The Play by Tirso de Molina

The Spanish play unfolds in three acts, in which Don Juan seduces and deceives Doña Isabela in Naples, the young fisherwoman Tisbea on the Spanish coast, Doña Ana (who is living a secret love with his friend La Mota in Seville) and a young bride, Aminta, in the country. But it takes place primarily in Seville, where Don Juan had killed the father of Doña Ana, Commander Don Gonzalo de Ulloa. Mockingly, Don Juan invites Death (in the form of his statue) to dinner. Death responds to the invitation and in turn invites Don Juan the next day. It was during this macabre “feast” that the statue shakes his hand. Refusing a repentance that comes too late, the statue carries Don Juan to Hell.

Adaptations for Puppets

The versions performed by puppeteers followed the revisions already made in the text for actors. But the play was completely transformed because of the constraints of the genre: most often, the scenes of seduction, difficult to play with dolls made of wood, were eliminated, while the comic elements, drawn from the commedia dell’arte, were amplified. The roles of the servants of Don Juan were highlighted and endorsed by the comic characters of the various local traditions. For example, the valet Catalinón was replaced by Hanswurst in Germany and Kasperle in Austria. In Italy, in the version performed in the 19th century by the company Fiando and Colla, Don Giovanni il Dissoluto (Don Juan, the Dissolute), ended with the scene of Don Juan in Hell accompanied by Famiola and by Brighella, traditional characters of the commedia dell’arte and puppet theatre. In dramatic terms, the conflict between master and man became the real centre of interest. If Don Juan could not escape his punishment, the servants, in accordance with the principles of a puppet theatre, could indeed triumph contrarily to death and the devil.

Storylines from the German and Czech regions where the story of Don Juan enjoyed a wide circulation, often took the form of other themes such as Faust (with the presence of the devil tempting Hanswurst with a huge sausage) or the parable of the Prodigal Son. This parable was a masterpiece of religious inspiration in Protestant countries, but during the 19th century it had gradually lost its biblical elements to become a moral tale ending with the final victory of Good over Evil reinforced by scenic inventions. In some versions published in German almanacs, such as Das Kloster, used by puppeteers, Don Juan was not a seducer and libertine, but became a ruthless murderer, echoing the stereotype of the brigands, popular figures in Bohemia in the 19th century. Don Juan’s servants (Hanswurst, Kasperl, Kašpárek) became his alter egos, appearing in scenes often added to the play and awaited with impatience by the audience.

The version by the Czech Tomáš Dubský incorporated elements typical of the German tradition. Far from being a simple seducer, Don Juan wanted to marry Doña Ana and to enjoy her dowry. However, he remained a murderer, eventually killing his own father and the father of his lover because they both refused to support his proposal of marriage. The plot focused primarily on the greed of the central character. His marital project aborted, Don Juan then suggested to his servant Kasparek (who agreed to this plan after some hesitation) that they rob the good people of the forest and kill them without hesitation. Among the scenes that were highly appreciated by audiences were the appearance of the commander, usually represented by a ghost, and the spectacular illusion of devils seizing their prey in the midst of flames.

During the 20th century, Don Juan witnessed many modifications. These included a rod puppet interpretation by the Sergei Obraztsov State Academic Central Puppet Theatre (Gosudarstvenny Akademichesky Tsentralny Teatr Kukol imeni S.V. Obraztsova) of Moscow in 1996, the Salzburger Marionettentheater’s production, Don Giovanni all’Opera dei Pupi (2005), featuring pupi of the Compagnia Figli d’Arte Cuticchio, as well as the regular version presented by the National Puppet Theatre of Prague.