Culture, Class, and Morality in a Whimsical ‘Don Juan’ at Faction of Fools by Matthew R. Wilson

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“When will you do Molière?” we at Faction of Fools have been asked since our founding in 2009.

The answer is “Now!” and the play is Don Juan!

Photo by Second Glance Photography.
Photo by Second Glance Photography.

Molière’s connections to Commedia dell’Arte are legion. Jean-Baptiste “Molière” Poquelin (1622-1673) was both a father of French national drama and a dramatist in the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte. He literally shared a stage with Paris’s finest Italian Commedia troupe and “borrowed” many of their plots, characters, and conventions in creating his own plays. His character of Don Juan appears related to Commedia’s il Capitano, and his griping old men resemble Pantalone (most notably in The Miser). In Don Juan, Molière even makes use of the clown Pierrot, taken straight from the Commedia tradition.  He also modeled his servant Sganarelle—a part he played himself—after the legendary Scaramouche made famous by his contemporary Tiberio Fiorilli.

In launching Season Five, Faction of Fools is excited to produce our first comedy by Molière, but with our own special twist. Molière made a name for himself by sending up high culture, so we have located our version in the arena of the museum.

But, as with Molière’s Statue of the Commander, nothing here is what it seems. We are delighted to work with multi-talented theatre artist Klyph Stanford who has designed the Set, Lights, and Projections (yes, all three!) in order to bring these moving paintings and walking statues to life. These protean artworks insert themselves in Don Juan’s life and prove that, despite his pragmatic philosophy, he cannot control everything…

Art is a funny thing. What makes one piece good and another bad? How does “high art” define itself? For that matter, how does “high class” define itself? What makes Don Juan a gentleman?

The philosopher and social critic Pierre Bourdieu (another Frenchman, go figure) argues that these special words “distinction” or “taste” are really just a product of the daily habits through which people position themselves in relation to each other. For Bourdieu, it’s not just that art is “good” because some critic says so. Rather, that act of calling the art good is what makes the critic special. “Taste” is a way for humans to define themselves. My group is into this kind of art, and your group is not!  Bourdieu argues that this is a way for my group to make itself seem better than yours.

And this is certainly true for Don Juan. He thinks he can get away with anything—can make something so just by calling it such. His status as a “gentleman” is affirmed in the high class things around him, and being a part of the “gentleman’s club” comes with extra perks for this roving ladies’ man.

The moral universe of Don Juan is complex. Almost anyone can find their own philosophy or theology argued somewhere by someone in this play. Don Juan’s position is a mix of classic pragmatism and classical hedonism. What you see is what you get; so eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!

It’s an appealing philosophy in many ways, and wouldn’t we all do better to just enjoy the now a little more often?

Don Juan’s problem is that he does not notice how his own good times affect others. He does not realize that he gets to eat, drink, and be merry because he’s got the wealth, leisure, and social positioning to do so. Life is harder on his servants and his discarded lovers. But what does he care about them?  He is a “gentleman” with high class and high art!

At least, he is until that moment in Act Five, when art comes back to bite him in the cul… A statue comes to life and brings with it a message of doom. It’s an exciting reversal on Bourdieu when culture decides to punish Don Juan instead of continuing to privilege him.

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Faction of FoolsDon Juan runs Thursday, September 12th through Sunday, October 6, 2013 at Gallaudet University. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm.

A Pay What You Can performance is on Thursday, September 12th at 8 pm. A special Monday night show is on Monday, September 30th at 7:30 pm. Purchase tickets online.

Matthew R. Wilson.
Matthew R. Wilson. Photo by ClintonBPhotography.

Matthew R. Wilson is the Founding Artistic Director of Faction of Fools Theatre Company, DC’s Helen Hayes Award-winning Commedia dell’Arte troupe. He is the adaptor/director of Faction’s upcoming Don Juan and also the author of A Commedia Christmas Carol (being published by Playscripts, Inc.) and two chapters in a forthcoming compendium on the history of Commedia dell’Arte (being published by Routledge). He holds an MFA from the Academy for Classical Acting and is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland.