Monday, August 19, 2019

The Byron/Buckstone Don Juan

While I was at the Romantic Facts and Fantasies Conference in Nottingham, I happened to pick up a Dicks' Standard Plays version of Lord Byron's Don Juan, as it was adapted by John Baldwin Buckstone for the stage of the Adelphi Theatre in 1828.

John Dicks published a number of cheap, abridged versions of plays and novels during the 19th century. Young people could use the scripts Dicks provided to put on amateur theatricals, including toy theatre versions of the plays popular on the London stage.

Though Byron composed Don Juan as a mock-epic poem (and never finished it), its story enjoyed a continued life at the Adelphi, which was known for producing melodramas. Buckstone, who had been mentored by the great actor Edmund Kean, provided a number of those melodramas, including the 1827 hit Luke the Labourer.

The Dicks' Standard Plays version of Buckstone's Don Juan is thus an adaptation of an adaptation. Still, it does roughly follow Byron's story, in spite of being written entirely in prose. Its first act corresponds with the first canto of Byron's poem, in which the hero has an affair with Dona Julia, narrowly escapes being seen by her husband, is identified by some clothing he left (in the poem his shoes, in the play a hat), and flees Spain.

Byron's second canto involves Don Juan's shipwreck at sea and eventual arrival on an island in Greece. The play version glosses over this action with some stage directions:

The open sea. A vessel is seen tossed by a tremendous storm. The crew take to a boat. A thunderbolt strikes the ship, and it sinks. The boat presently is swamped, and the bodies of Sailors and Juan are seen tossing in the waves. Picture.

In the third and fourth cantos of Byron's poem, Don Juan's idyllic love affair with the Greek maiden Haidee is interrupted by the return of her father Lambro, a pirate who owns the island but was presumed to have died. Byron describes their meeting in a stanza so closely followed by the play that the scene was used for a cover design:

          'Young man, your sword;' so Lambro once more said:
               Juan replied, 'Not while this arm is free.'
          The old man's cheek grew pale, but not with dread,
               And drawing from his belt a pistol, he
          Replied, 'Your blood be then on your own head.'
               Then look'd close at the flint, as if to see
          'Twas fresh--for he had lately used the lock--
          And next proceeded quietly to cock.

Don Juan is injured in the fight that follows and ends up being sold into slavery, which is where the third act takes up the story again. Juan is sold together with an English prisoner who was played in Buckstone's version by T.P. Cooke. Cooke specialized in playing honest British sailors, as he had in Douglas Jerrold's Black Eyed Susan. When Juan is threatened by the sultan, naturally, the good-natured British tar arrives just in time to save the day.

The play isn't exactly Byron, but it certainly shows how Byron continued to influence the British stage well into the Victorian era.