It is evening, and the setting is that of a natural amphitheater in the Spanish Sierras. A group of about a dozen men recline about a dying campfire, while another serves as lookout on the adjacent rise of ground. These are an international band of brigands dedicated to stopping motor cars and robbing the occupants in order "to secure a more equitable distribution of the wealth." Their leader, a man with a fine voice and ready wit, is Mendoza. His followers include a bullfighter ruined by drink, at least one Frenchman, cockney Englishmen, and Americans. All are in their early thirties, except for one who is dressed like a broken-down English gentleman and who is anywhere from ten to twenty years older than the others; he is described as the respectable member of the group.
While waiting for victims, the brigands resume their evening debates on Anarchists and Social-Democrats. Present are one Anarchist and three Social-Democrats, making possible a lively discussion. But the others describe themselves as gentlemen and Christians. Mendoza presides with wit and skill, controlling the various speakers when they become too intense and excited. The debate is interrupted by the sound of an approaching motor car. The brigands have made the necessary preparations: Nails have been strewn on the road to puncture tires; one brigand stands ready to use his rifle if the nails should fail. They do not. The car is forced to stop, and its occupants, Jack Tanner and his chauffeur, are brought in as prisoners.
Tanner accepts his capture good-naturedly. When Mendoza introduces himself as President of the League of the Sierra and states that he lives by robbing the rich, Jack identifies himself as a gentleman who lives by robbing the poor. Thus a common bond is established between the two. In view of the exchange between Enry Straker and the brigands, it is quite understandable that the chauffeur wonders whether he and his master are enjoying a trip in the mountains or attending a Socialist meeting.
Mendoza, the soul of dignity and courtesy, dismisses his followers and announces that in Spain one puts off business until the next day. All can now relax; there will be no talk of ransom. In response to Tanner's questions and to Enry's occasional remarks, the brigand leader first talks of Socialism and then tells his life story. He, the president, had once been a successful waiter and had been driven to become a brigand by disappointment in love. No, the lady was not an earl's daughter; she was far more attractive than the daughters of the English peerage. Moreover, if she had not been "a woman of the people," he would have scorned her. Alas, she had rejected him because he was a Jew. She had been employed by a Jewish family and had become convinced that Jews considered Gentiles, especially English Gentiles, to be dirty in their habits. When Straker recalls that his sister had once been a cook in a Jewish family, the dramatic coincidence, as Tanner calls it, is revealed. Mendoza's beloved is Louisa, sister of Straker. Mendoza had heard a great deal about Enry, who was Louisa's favorite brother. But Straker is anything but pleased to hear a brigand tell of his love for the girl. At one point, Tanner has to intervene to prevent an attempt at physical violence. Things quiet down and Enry joins the other brigands in sleep. Mendoza and Jack continue their discussion, the brigand revealing his propensity for poetry and for paraphrasing Shakespeare. Tanner solemnly advises him to give up his romantic pose and to renounce Louisa, stating that he is "sacrificing his career to a monomania." But Mendoza will not follow this counsel, for the mountains make one dream of beautiful women; indeed "this is a strange country for dreams."
When Tanner lies down and composes himself for sleep, the brigand reads him an original love lyric addressed to Louisa Straker, but Jack is asleep before he has finished.
The darkness deepens. The scene dissolves into an omnipresent nothing, and then somewhere there is the beginning of a pallor. To the accompaniment of eerie music, a man, incorporeal but visible, is identified. He raises his head at the sound of the music, the strains of which are Mozartian. But the music fades away, extinguished by wailing from uncanny wind instruments, and the man slumps dejectedly. He is a Spanish nobleman of the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries — Don Juan himself. Oddly enough, he bears a resemblance to Tanner. Even the names of the two are alike: Juan Tenorio — Jack Tanner. An old crone wanders into the void, obviously lost. In the conversation between her and the Spaniard, the audience learns that she is a newcomer, one who had just died that morning. Understandably, she is appalled and incredulous when Don Juan tells her that she is in Hell: She had expected confidently to be translated to Heaven or at least to Purgatory. Had she not been a lady and a faithful daughter of the Church who regularly went to confession? Don Juan assures her that there are many good people in Hell. What of himself? she asks. To her consternation, she learns that he was a murderer, although he later qualifies this self-indictment, explaining that he had killed his man in a duel. When Don Juan again assures her that she is in the realm of the damned, the woman laments the fact that she had wasted so many opportunities for wickedness. But she is still incredulous. Why does she feel no pain? The Spaniard explains that the wicked are always comfortable in Hell and her presence cannot be a mistake. He concedes that he is not comfortable because Hell bores him beyond belief. But then, he goes on to say, by implication, that he had not been really wicked. He explains the circumstances of the duel. His opponent had presented himself as an outraged father defending his daughter's honor and had tried to assassinate Don Juan. Actually the latter had only fallen foolishly in love with the daughter, who screamed when he proclaimed his love for her.
The old woman insists that, like all men, Don Juan was a libertine and murderer. Her own father had been slain under the identical circumstances. It had been her duty to scream, and her father's honor demanded that he attack her would-be lover. Hell, Don Juan explains, is the reward of duty. It is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues, for all the wickedness on earth is done in their name.
After discussing her status as a subject of the Devil, Don Juan tells the woman that she may assume any age she wants. She chooses to become twenty-seven and immediately is so radiantly attractive that she could almost be mistaken for Ann Whitefield. The amazed Don Juan greets her as Dona Ana de Ulloa, the young woman with whom he had had the affair which led to the duel. "You who slew my father! even here you pursue me," exclaims Ana. But Don Juan protests that he does not. She is delighted to learn that her father may visit them. When Ana asks if Don Juan had really loved her, he impatiently asks her not to talk of love: The occupants of Hell are always talking about its beauty, its holiness, its spirituality, and the like, but they really know nothing about it.
The sound of music is heard. Don Juan recognizes it as Mozart's statue music and informs Ana that her father is about to appear. Earlier he had explained that the father often visited Hell because Heaven bored him. And the living statue of the Commander of Calatrava indeed enters. The father had chosen to retain the sculptured form because he had been admired so much more in marble than in the flesh. He does not recognize Ana; in fact he cannot immediately remember the name of his daughter and requests her to regard him as a fellow creature, not as a father. After all, he had died at the age of 64, she at 80. Ana is horrified to hear her father lauding the advantages of existence in Hell: "Hell . . . is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself," he concludes — and Don Juan sighs as he hears these words. The Statue has decided to become a citizen of Hell, renouncing the dull and uncomfortable Heaven. At a wave of his hand, music once more is heard, but this time the Mozartian chords are grotesquely mixed with strains from Gounod's Faust. The Devil makes his appearance dramatically. Curiously, he looks very much like the brigand leader, Mendoza. He welcomes the Statue and dwells enthusiastically on the infernal preoccupation with joy, love, happiness, and beauty. In contrast to the Statue, Don Juan is nauseated by all this. When the Statue announces the fact that he has left Heaven for good, the Devil is elated. And since the Devil and Don Juan never see eye to eye, he urges first the Statue and then Ana to talk the Spaniard into going to Heaven. He expounds at some length on the great gulf between Heaven and Hell, speaking as an authority since he had been resident in both places. Hell is devoted to the pursuit of happiness and the cultivation of the tender emotions; Heaven is coldly intellectual. Don Juan finds Hell to be the abode of those filled with romantic illusions; he wishes to devote himself to contemplation and especially to assist in the great work of helping life to struggle upward, for he has abiding faith in humanity's potential. When he eulogizes humanity as the highest miracle of organization yet attained by life despite a limited mentality which remains to be developed, the Devil decries a human being as a destructive creature, one who is a bungler in the arts of peace. But Don Juan is unperturbed. He argues that the Devil's mistake is to take us at our own evaluation of ourselves. In his long discourse on humanity's destiny, Don Juan declares that the great object of the Life Force is intellect — the evolution of the philosophic man. History has shown that humans can be moved by great ideas — witness the force of Christianity. Life Force can and must move us to strive upward toward the ideal of the philosophic.
When Ana introduces the subject of women in relation to men, Don Juan is no less emphatic. He explains that, as woman sees it, man's role is to get bread for her children. Woman instinctively knows that her great mission is to bear children: "Sexually, Woman is Nature's contrivance for perpetuating its highest achievement. Sexually, Man is Woman's contrivance for fulfilling Nature's behest in the most economical way." But man's numerical strength and superfluous energy had led him to be discontented with mere self-reproduction: He has created civilization and has done so without consulting Woman, Don Juan concludes. The Devil has his own unflattering view of manmade civilization, and the Spaniard admits that it is far from being a success. But his point is that, since Life makes a "continual effort not only to maintain itself but to achieve higher and higher organization and complete self-consciousness," only battles have been lost, not the larger conflict. Life is a force which has made and is making attempts to build itself into higher and higher individuals as its strives toward godhead. Life has been "driving at brains" through which Man can attain not only self-consciousness but self-understanding.
The Statue has little respect for brains; he has found that most of his pleasures do not bear thinking about. To this remark, Don Juan replies that that is why intellect is so unpopular, but that it is an absolute necessity to the survival of the Life Force. It follows that the philosophic man is the only man who has ever attained happiness and who has ever been universally respected; all others are tedious failures. To support his argument, Don Juan discusses doctors of medicine, doctors of divinity, and the Artist with his delightful love lyrics and paintings. He concedes that the Artist (romantic man) has indeed led him into the worship of Woman; but thanks to his social rank and wealth, he had not remained a victim of romantic illusions. He had found that Woman, motivated by instinct, was always the relentless pursuer of Man.
From his experiences, Don Juan had become convinced that the Life Force recognizes marriage only as its own contrivance for securing the greatest number of children, and that it cares nothing for "honor, chastity, and all the rest of your moral figments." Indeed, he states, marriage is the most licentious of human institutions — thus its popularity. Both Ana and her father are shocked at this statement. In defense of marriage, Ana argues that it is an institution which populates the world, whereas debauchery does not. Juan replies that the day is coming when the prudent, the seekers after worldly success, the worshippers of art and love will find the device of sterility to oppose the Life Force. But, the Spaniard continues, before that process of sterilization becomes more than a clearly foreseen possibility, the reaction will begin. The great central purpose of breeding the race to "heights now deemed superhuman: that purpose now hidden in a mephitic cloud of love and romance and prudery and fastidiousness, will break through into clear sunlight as a purpose no longer to be confused with the gratification of personal fancies, the impossible realization of boys' and girls' dreams of bliss, or the need of older people for companionship or money." The colloquy between Don Juan and the Statue which follows serves amusingly to illustrate the fancies and dreams just referred to.
When the Devil tells Don Juan that Hell offers him all that he had sought in life and nothing which repelled him, the Spaniard becomes most eloquent. Hell offers only disappointments to him: "I tell you that as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it. That is the law of my life." In a word, the Life Force works within him, with its "incessant aspiration to higher organization, wider, deeper, more intense self-consciousness, and clearer self-understanding," all pointing to the ultimate emergence of the Superman.
The Devil's repeated reference to his religion of love and beauty only disgusts Don Juan, and when he learns that there are no artistic people in Heaven, he is anxious to leave. In response to his question of how to get there, the Statue replies: "The frontier between Heaven and Hell is only the difference between two ways of looking at things; any road will take you across." Don Juan departs.
The Devil warns the Statue not to become a pursuer of Superman like Don Juan; it is dangerous, for it leads to "an indiscriminate contempt for the human." Ana asks where she can find Superman and is told that he is not yet in existence. "Then," she exclaims, "my work is not yet done. I believe in the Life to come." Addressing her words to the universe, she continues: "A father, a father for superman." Ana disappears into the void, and the scene reverts to the Sierra.
It is now the morning after. The brigands are aroused by their sentry's announcement of an approaching automobile accompanied by two armored cars filled with soldiers. Ann, Violet, Hector Malone, Ramsden, and (a bit later) Octavius enter. Ann makes straight for Jack Tanner. Hector tells Jack that she had tracked him at every stopping place — "She is a regular Sherlock Holmes." "The Life Force! I am lost," exclaims the newly found Tanner. Thanks to him, Mendoza and his followers escape arrest. Jack identifies them as his escorts, not his captors. In their respective ways, the brigands manifest their gratitude — all but the Anarchist, who defies the State with folded arms.