DON GIOVANNI

Myths of Seduction and Betrayal

Edited by Jonathan Miller

Schocken. 128 pp. $22.95

Oh the opportunities I've missed What have I made of them? Only a list!"

-- Edmund Rostand "The Last Night of Don Juan"

IN HIS introduction to these essays on the legendary Don Juan, Jonathan Miller tells of some of the problems he encountered when recently staging Mozart's "Don Giovanni." For example, the absence of social setting tends to make the singers appear as "demented banshees weightlessly haunting an abandoned city." (Miller does not note that it can also lead to an excess of decor, like the Palladian villas and pastorales of Joseph Losey's film.) This problem and others, Miller suggests, arise from the timeless, mythic nature of the story and its hero.

The origins of most myths are lost in fogs of prehistory, yet researchers continue to seek an historical basis for Noah's Ark or Robin Hood. Such efforts have failed too for Don Juan, but this myth does have an exact source. In an early 17th-century play by a Spanish monk, Don Juan makes his debut, seducing peasant girls and ladies, killing the father of one, and having a fatal encounter with a stone statue of his victim, who offers him a supper of vipers and vinegar. Juan describes himself candidly as "the man whose greatest pleasure is to play a woman for a fool and abscond with her honor." As for the consequences, "Plenty of time for that!" Yet as he dies he asks for a priest to confess and absolve him.

Ever since, Don Juan has been a star of theater, from puppet shows to grand opera, by obscure hacks or masters like Moliere and Shaw. In 1787 alone there were two other Don Juan operas on stage besides that of Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. A major Italian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, who himself wrote a Don Juan drama, commented disdainfully on others' treatment of the theme:

"Never had so much applause, for so many years, been bestowed as for this play; the very actors marvelled, and some . . . used to say that a pact with the devil kept up the concourse to this foolish comedy."

But as the Faustian allusion suggests, Don Juan is the subject of much more than foolish comedy. He has been depicted or diagnosed as an amiable hedonist like Casanova, a libertarian on principle, a Miltonic rebel against divine authority, an Oedipal complex groping for the maternal, a disappointed latent homosexual, or -- like the original Don Juan -- a misogynist who likes to humiliate women. In our century he is often portrayed as burned out, bankrupt or bored with seduction, and the ladies are the aggressors. Bernard Shaw's hero is captured by a charming embodiment of the Life Force. Max Frisch's Don Juan, eager for refuge in a monastery, fakes the whole statue-and-hellfire scene with the collusion of a bishop, who instead turns him over to the secular arms and custody of a doting duchess.

In addition to plays, operas, novels, poems and films, Don Juan has inspired tomes of essays -- historical, psychiatric, philosophic. Of those written for this book, only Joseph Kerman's examines Mozart's opera, finding the clue to Don Giovanni's character in the music he sings. Peter Gay typically, gracefully, redundantly expands on the Oedipal reading of Freud and Otto Rank. Lawrence Lipking in "Donna Abbandonata" does a thorough job on Elvira and our ambivalent reaction to her. Marina Warner's comparison of Don Juan and Valmont of Les Liaisons dangereuses is more interesting about Valmont and his wicked lady friend, the Marquise de Merteuil. The two most useful and illuminating essays are by English academics. Roy Porter discusses the complex factors which led to a surge of sexual promiscuity in the 18th century and thus the relevance of Don Juan as a symbol. Peter Conrad provides a spirited guide to the various manifestations of Juan and reactions to him since his creation.

The weakness of this collection is that three articles hardly touch on their ostensible subject. They mention the Don in the first and second or last paragraphs only -- and then respectively veer off into an interesting account of tomb statuary, a jargon-riddled feminist discussion of the usual English novelists, and a summary of the sexual exploits of a mid-18th-century Parisian glazier. Robert Darnton, who writes so well on French history, promotes this last varlet as a real-life working-class Don Juan; but the rowdy escapades and ribald language make him seem a Gallic version of the lads in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale," or an ancien regime Henry Miller.

The difference suggests that a working-class Don Juan is an oxymoron. Oddly, the class issue is hardly mentioned in this book, even though the aristocratic seducer has been pandemic in European plays and novels. Of all the many versions of the legend since 1630, a few have even detached the hero from his amorous conquests, but I know of none that has robbed him of his title or status. Perhaps, though, someone will eventually produce a Senor Juan, Monsieur Jean, or Mr. John, and send the old myth off into yet another direction.

Audrey Foote is a Washington critic and translator.