Don Giovanni in Hell:
A Discussion of the Afterlife of Mozart and Da Ponte's Protagonist
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet—in short, to see themselves as Don Giovanni experts.
The character of Don Giovanni has had a long literary life. Students may enjoy considering what aspects of his personality prompted later artists and thinkers to discuss, deconstruct, and re-invent him. Allow them to come up with their own terms to describe Don Giovanni’s personality; these might include:
Then introduce students to one of the most provocative Don Giovanni “sequels,” George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell, published at the beginning of the 20th century. (The complete text is available online at the public-domain literature site www.bartleby.com).
As the title suggests, Shaw’s play finds Giovanni in hell, long after the events of the opera. An old woman shows up; she turns out to be Donna Anna, who has died many years later.
The hell of Shaw’s play is not a place of fire and pitchforks. It is a place without a sense of time; a moment is like a year. It is a place where no one feels pain, or much of anything. Shaw’s Don Juan complains, “it bores me, bores me beyond description, beyond belief.” He goes on to say:
"There are no social questions here, no political questions, no religious questions, best of all, perhaps, no sanitary questions. Here you call your appearance beauty, your emotions love, your sentiments heroism, your aspirations virtue, just as you did on earth; but here there are no hard facts to contradict you, no ironic contrast of your needs with your pretensions, no human comedy, nothing but a perpetual romance, a universal melodrama."
What do your students make of this?
Does hell have to be a place of physical suffering?
Could hell be different for different people?
Why would this be hell for Don Giovanni?
Shaw is making the point that Giovanni’s hell represents the absence of anything he held dear in life. Invite your students to consider what such a hell says about the character.
How does it relate to the Don Giovanni they saw and heard at the Live in HD transmission?
How might this be a punishment for his deeds? For his personality?
Would Mozart and Da Ponte have agreed with George Bernard Shaw?
Depending on your class’s interests, you might want to follow up by having students read, or even perform, scenes from Don Juan in Hell.
Another activity to provoke thinking about the ideas raised by Don Giovanni would be to consider other “hells” imagined by people who do not accept the Western concept of hell as a great inferno. For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre, the 20th-century French philosopher, stated, “Hell is other people.” His play No Exit depicts three characters trapped for eternity in one small room. Your students might be interested in choosing a fictional or historical character, learning about that person’s life and achievements, then imagining and writing or illustrating a depiction of that person’s “hell,” as Shaw did for Don Giovanni. How would it reflect, or correct, their character’s life experience?
If your class did the Classroom Activity A Lot of “Light” Music they might be interested in comparing the positions of Enlightenment thinkers to the hells of Don Giovanni and Don Juan in Hell. Would either hell make sense to thinkers who believe that liberty is a natural right and that moral offenses are offenses against other people? If Rousseau or Locke believed in an afterlife, what might their hell look like?