So you think you know what hell is?
On Friday, I experienced Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s production of DON JUAN IN HELL. DON JUAN is the third act of George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman, but often stands on its own. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the character of Don Juan, I refer to Urban Dictionary:
don juan: Legend has it that he slept with over a thousand different women from eight different countries, but was eventually sent to Hell for refusing to give up his lustful ways.
Because of Shaw’s dense script that is full of very scholarly references and lengthy monologues debating the realities and advantages of Hell and Heaven, the show is often considered unable to “acted.” Phoenix Theatre Ensemble took the risk, and went for it. And I’m overjoyed that they did, because it had some truly incredible treasures. When we watch live art, we often witness or hear small moments that just stick with us. These moments can resonate and make a little wonderful nest in our heads. They can feel like a slap in the face that wakes us up intellectually and emotionally. They can be minor and inexplicably marvelous and make us feel like we have just shared a small secret with the show. At PXP, we call these moments pops.
POP 1: The incredible visual that greeted me as soon as I walked in the door. The character I correctly presumed to be Don Juan sat in the center of the "black box" inside an elevated grey box. The playbill explicitly tells us that our story begins with Don Juan having been in Hell for many decades.
He’s stretching, rubbing his hands, rolling his neck. But then, he stretches and reaches out. All I can think of is that he has been alone for what feels like eternity and that he is reaching for something tangible or somebody else. And this little moment already stripped away the grossness I had felt towards the Urban Dictionary Don Juan.
POP 2: When a regretful and transformed Don Juan describes what characterizes those who truly belong in Hell, and it sounds a lot like what our society glorifies (even though the play is from 1903)
“They are not beautiful: they are only decorated. They are not clean: they are only shaved and starched. They are not dignified: they are only fashionably dressed. They are not educated: they are only college pass-men. They are not religious: they are only pew-renters. They are not moral: they are only conventional. They are not virtuous: they are only cowardly. They are not even vicious: they are only "frail." They are not artistic: they are only lascivious. They are not prosperous: they are only rich. They are not loyal, they are only servile; not dutiful, only sheepish; not public spirited, only patriotic; not courageous, only quarrelsome; not determined, only obstinate; not masterful, only domineering; not self-controlled, only obtuse; not self-respecting, only vain; not kind, only sentimental; not social, only gregarious; not considerate, only polite; not intelligent, only opinionated; not progressive, only factious; not imaginative, only superstitious; not just, only vindictive; not generous, only propitiatory; not disciplined, only cowed; and not truthful at all: liars every one of them, to the very backbone of their souls.”
The monologue in its entirety is emblazoned in my memory, but the bold ones specifically made me want to stand up in scream in agreement in the teeny black box theater of the “Paradise Factory.”
Are these words really that different?
I had never juxtaposed them next to each-other like this before. Does being “prosperous” or being “rich” really bring about a great difference? Do we sometimes just deem those who are “opinionated” as intelligent? Do we strive for one and settle for the other?