The royal benevolence must have been strained by the next audacity of Molière. At the height of the war over Tartuffe, and while the Dévots were still in triumph over the suppressing of the play, he staged at the Palais-Royal (February 15, 1665) Le Festin de pierre—The Feast of the Stone Statue—telling in rollicking prose the already oft-told tale of Don Juan, and turning that reckless Casanova into an arrogant atheist. Taking the shell of the story from Tirso de Molina and others, Molière filled it with a remarkable study of a man who enjoys wickedness for its own sake and as a challenge to God. The play is an astonishing echo of the great debate that was embroiling religion with philosophy.
Don Juan Tenorio is a marquis, and acknowledges obligations to his caste; otherwise he proposes to enjoy any pleasure he has an itch for. His valet, Sganarelle, calculates at 1,003 the number of women whom his master has seduced and deserted. “Constancy,” says Juan, “is only fit for fools. . . . I can’t refuse my heart to any lovely creature I see.” 27 Such an ethic craves a corresponding theology, so Juan, for his own comfort, is an atheist. His servant tries to reason with him:
SGANARELLE. Is it possible that you don’t believe in Heaven?
JUAN. Forget it.
SGAN. That is, you don’t. And Hell?
SGAN. Likewise. And the Devil, if you please?
JUAN. Yes, yes.
SGAN. Again very little. Don’t you believe at all in another life?
JUAN. Ha, ha, ha.
SGAN. Here’s a man I’ll be hard put to convert. But tell me, surely you believe in le moine bourru?*
JUAN. Plague on the fool.
SGAN. Now, that I can’t suffer; for there’s nothing better established than this moine bourru, and I’ll be hanged if he isn’t real. But a man must believe something. What do you believe? . . .
JUAN. I believe that two and two are four, and that four and four are eight.
SGAN. A lovely creed, and beautiful articles of faith! Your religion, then, so far as I can see, is arithmetic? As for me, sir,. . . I understand full well that this world is not a mushroom that grew in a single night. I would like to ask you who made these trees, these rocks, this earth, and that sky up there; was all this built by itself? Look at yourself, for example; here you are; did you make yourself, or wasn’t it necessary that your father should enlarge your mother to make you? Can you behold all the inventions of which the human machine is composed, without admiring how one part sets another working? . . . Whatever you may say, there is something marvelous in man, which all the pundits will never explain. Isn’t it wonderful to see me here, and that I have in my head something that thinks a hundred different things in a moment, and makes my body do what I wish? I want to clap my hands, raise my arm, lift my eyes to the sky, lower my head, move my feet, go to the right, to the left, forward, to the rear, turn. (He falls while turning.)
JUAN. Good! Your argument has a broken nose. 28
In the next scene the tilt between Juan and religion takes another form. He meets a beggar, who tells him that he prays every day for those who give him alms. “Surely,” says Juan, “a man who prays every day must be very well off.” On the contrary, answers the beggar, “most often I have not even a piece of bread.” Juan offers him a louis d’or if he will swear an oath; the beggar refuses—“I’d rather die of hunger.” Juan is a bit startled by this fortitude. He hands over the coin, as he says, “for love of humanity.” 29 All the opera-going world knows the denouement. Juan comes upon a statue of the Commander, whose daughter he had seduced, and whose life he had taken. The statue invites Juan to dinner; Juan comes, gives him his hand, and is led into hell. The infernal apparatus of the medieval stage appears; “thunder and lightning fall with great noise upon Don Juan; the earth opens and swallows him; a vast fire rises from the spot where he has fallen.”
The first night’s audience was shocked by Molière’s exposition of Juan’s unbelief. It may have allowed that he had exposed Juan’s worthless character as well as his lack of theology, that the Don had been revealed as a brute without conscience or tenderness, spreading deception and grief wherever he went; and it may have observed that the villain’s victims were presented with all the author’s sympathy. But it noted that the answer to atheism had been put into the mouth of a fool who believed in bogeys more firmly than in God, and it was not mollified by Juan’s final damnation, for it saw him descending into hell without a word of repentance or fear. After the première Molière toned down the most offensive passages, but public opinion was not appeased. On April 18, 1665, the Sieur de Rochemont, avocat en Parlement, published Observations sur une comédie de Molière, in which he described Le Festin de pierre as “truly devilish . . . Nothing more impious has ever appeared, even in pagan times”; and the King was exhorted to suppress the play:
While this noble prince devotes all his care to maintaining religion, Molière is working to destroy it. . . . There is no man so little enlightened in the doctrine of the faith who, having seen this play . . . , can affirm that Molière, so long as he persists in presenting it, is worthy to participate in the sacraments, or to be received into penitence without a public reparation. 30
Louis continued his favor to Molière. Le Festin de pierre ran three days a week from February 15 to Palm Sunday, when it was withdrawn. It did not return to the boards till four years after the dramatist’s death, and then only in a verse adaptation by Thomas Corneille, who omitted the scandalous scene quoted above. The original version disappeared; it was rediscovered in 1813 in a pirated edition that had been published in Amsterdam in 1683. Till 1841 the Corneille version alone held the stage; and in some editions of Molière’s works 31 it still replaces the original.