On This Day in 1820: Byron completes and dispatches “Don Juan” III and IV (Part II)

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In this series, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. This is the second of a two-part OTD blog by Dr Emily Paterson-Morgan, Director of The Byron Society. The first was released yesterday to mark the bicentenary of Byron completing and Cantos III and IV of Don Juan and dispatching them to England. Click here for the first part.

In the previous post, I discussed the first Act of what is, I think, both the worst adaptation of Byron’s Don Juan and also the funniest in its ham-fisted attempts to simplify the delicious subtleties of one of the greatest and most complicated poems in the English language into a low-brow theatrical romp fit for the masses. This is the ‘three-penny Acting drama’ titled Don Juan: A Musical Drama in Three Acts, attributed to Charles Milner, a bizarre creation which reduces Byron’s satirical epic to a series of fighting and fornication scenes complete with a score of songs and what the author’s stage directions hubristically describe as ‘ballets’.

At the end of Act I, Juan has seduced (or been seduced by) both the beautiful Donna Julia and her equally libidinous maid, discovered the cuckolded husband Don Alfonso in a compromising position with Juan’s own aunt, Donna Inez, and finally sauntered off stage to take a ship from Spain in search of pastures new. During the brief interlude, as the curtains lower, the stage directions describe a ‘picture’ showing a ship tossing in storm-swept seas before being struck by lightning, at which point it slowly sinks.

In a decision that renders this production more like an episode of Love Island (with its insistently titillating emphasis on copulation and conflict), Milner opted to discard Byron’s brilliant cannibalism episode. Perhaps he felt that the killing and eating of the hapless Pedro might put his audience off. Certainly, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to light-hearted ditties and dances – though I imagine the Monty Python team would have been able to make it work. Anyway, I digress.

The curtain rises on a sea-cave, with a half-naked and unconscious Juan watched over by two beautiful oriental women. It is worth noting that Milner’s Haidee is far more insipid and his Zoe far more caustic than their Byronic counterparts, as the playwright transforms these characters into the stock dramatic figures of the buxom innocent and shrewish servant, playing to the less-refined tastes of his lower-class audience.

When Haidee, who suffers none of the issues with language barriers which render the progression of Byron’s island romance so protracted, offers her person and her wealth to Juan, our hero is all offended aristocratic dignity at the thought of so ‘low’ a connection. His outrage is conveyed in a series of asides to the audience, and it is easy to imagine Laura Honey in her male guise hamming it up:

Juan: Have I the honour then of addressing a princess in her own right, was your father a monarch?
Haidee: At least, at home his will was absolute, here he dwelt, and none dared here resist his pleasure: but at most ties he dwelt upon the sea, and brought such treasures thence.
Juan: Aye, I understand – contraband, smuggler upon a large scale. (Aside.) Tea. Tobacco.
Haidee: And conquered ships, and brought home many captives.
Juan: (Aside.) Oh, pirates and cut-throats to boot! This is a creditable connection.
Haidee: He died at sea!
Juan: (Aside.) Hung at the yard-arm! (II.i)

In a peculiar way, however, I find this scene more realistic than Byron’s idealised scene of immediate and improbable romance. As Haidee continues to enumerate her own charms, including great wealth, our Juan is revealed to be financially, as well as sexually, shameless. ‘I’m in a good thing!’ he exclaims at last, sweeping Haidee into his arms and taking her up on all of her offers.

The curtain drops on this touching scene and on wander a group of rollicking sailors bellowing sea-chanties. Their leader, Lambro, appears and we learn that – surprise, surprise – he has not drowned but merely been blown off course. He and his piratical band wander off the stage and the curtain rises once more to display Zoe and a drunken slave, Cyrus, in a ribald scene carefully calculated to appeal to the coarse, jingoistic humour of Milner’s audience:

Cyrus: Well missee Zoe, what you think of all dis fine affair? What do you tink of your misses and of our new massa? Dim diblish hansom, and they like you and me.
Zoe: I think that she is mad!
Cyrus: As for me, missee, poor black man, me niber tink not at all, it enough for him to workee, workee, when cross old massa make him, and now it enough for him to drinkee, drinkee, now young massa giv him holiday, him very fine man. (II.ii)

This is followed by a deliberately ludicrous conversation between the newly returned Lambro and Cyrus, the latter’s ears still ringing from a hefty box on the ears by an outraged Zoe when he suggested they have sex (‘you no hab me for chum-chum, me bery nice all sugar and brandy’). Lambro thus learns about his daughter’s affair with Juan and stalks off in high dudgeon towards the palace.

Here, the audience finds a scene of deliciously over-the-top fantastical luxury and after a series of songs extolling the delights of drunken hedonism and true love, accompanied by what the stage directions optimistically call ‘a Characteristic ballet’, Lambro bursts in. The angry father attempts to shoot Juan, Haidee shrieks and flings herself protectively in front of him, Lambro’s ‘ruffians rush in’, Juan is overpowered during yet another interminable fight scene, Haidee collapses and her lover is borne offstage.

Thus concludes Act II.

We re-join the hapless hero in the third and final Act, and Milner clearly couldn’t resist the opportunity for yet more crude vulgarity in the combination of a Spanish nobleman, a British sailor and a Constantinople slave market. It is here that we meet Will Johnson, probably the only truly funny character in this somewhat laboured theatrical production. Although based on Byron’s experienced man-of-the-world John Johnson, whereas the original character is a subtly John Bullish sort of figure, Milner’s Will Johnson is himself a caricature of the brash, ruddy-faced symbol of Englishness found in contemporary satires and prints.

The brave but buffoonish sailor, whose mouth is stuffed with naval cant and expletives, takes Juan under his wing and offers an amusing commentary on the ongoing sale proceedings in a series of humorous asides:

Johnson: Pick-‘em out, damme it that chap don’t think he’s selling red herrings

Johnson: Does he mean chimney ornaments?

Johnson: Split my mainsail, they are rare judges here, it’s the first time I was ever complimented on my beauty. (III.ii)

Bought by the eunuch Baba, Johnson and Juan are hustled into the palace haram. While Juan is carried away, Johnson remains onstage and catches sight of a British naval frigate sailing on the Bosporus in the distance. His ‘true heart of [presumably English] oak’ is predictably heartened by the sight.  

Illustration from Milner Don Juan: A Musical Drama in Three Acts

Juan, meanwhile, has been led into an oriental paradise. Brought before the unsurprisingly beautiful Gulbayez, he responds with a typically rakish fervour, gobbling up her hand with passionate kisses. Having got her attention, he then coyly refuses to consummate the relationship until she grants him his freedom, and in the following scene the two of them haggle like fishwives at a market stall. Suddenly, this mercenary sexual foreplay is interrupted as Baba bursts in to warn his adulterous mistress that her husband, the Sultan, approaches. Juan is bundled, protesting, into a woman’s robes in the nick of time.

Unlike Byron’s version, where the next canto opens with a disguised ‘Juana’ infiltrating the labyrinthine depths of the seraglio and ogling a succulent bevy of nubile odalisques, Milner couldn’t resist including one final fight scene (his musical drama has all the predictability of a Jason Statham movie). Juan, instead of concealing his identity, casts off his feminine clothing and starts to fight with the Sultan’s attendants. Just when it seems he will be overpowered, Johnson bursts through the window with a horde of British sailors recruited from the nearby naval frigate, saving the day to cries of ‘Old England for ever’. On this rousing note, Juan and his comrades escape.

Surprisingly, however, the stage directions suggest that after the gallant Johnson and his troupe return to the ship, accompanied by much ‘splitting of mainsails’ and ‘damme’s’, it is sunk by Turkish canon fire. ‘The Sultan triumphs’ conclude the stage directions laconically. This deliberate undercutting of patriotic fervour makes for an inexplicably downbeat ending to a light-hearted but decidedly odd production.

Lacking finesse and arguably the most maladroit adaptation of Byron’s poetic masterpiece, there is nevertheless a peculiar charm to Milner’s Don Juan: A Musical Drama in Three Acts, and I hope that one day someone will decide to put on another performance of it!

Contact Anna Mercer (mercerannam@gmail.comif you want to suggest a future post for this series. More details here