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an analysis by Scott Miller
In a speech President John F. Kennedy never got to deliver on November 22, 1963, he had planned to say, "We are in this country watchmen on the walls of freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may achieve the ancient vision of peace on earth, goodwill toward men."
That’s the core of Man of La Mancha, inspired by – though not literally based on – Miguel de Cervantes’s timeless 1615 masterpiece Don Quixote, the second biggest selling book in the history of the world. Like Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, Man of La Mancha is an examination not only of the art but of the artist as well. As critic Norman Nadel wrote of Man of La Mancha’s literary source, "Cervantes had begun Don Quixote as a satire on the romantic literature of his day, about 360 years ago, but he went on to write a durable compendium of human folly as well as a testament to man’s unquenchable spirit." The novel was the prototype for a whole genre of comedy, in which the sanest characters can’t see the real truth of life, and only the lunatics are truly wise. The progeny of Don Quixote even includes modern television shows like Third Rock from the Sun, Green Acres, News Radio, and others, as well as hundreds of plays and movies.
Life magazine’s critic Tom Prideaux wrote of Man of La Mancha in 1965:
You’d almost think Prideaux had written this in 2004, about the sudden and exciting new influx of young people into the political process, about the human disconnection of our increasingly computerized world, about a new kind of spirituality that is sweeping the world and that does not exclude or demean others’ beliefs. Quixote’s "bleak and unbearable world," a world that demanded idealism, was both the 1960s and today.
Being primarily a playwright, Cervantes’ one great novel was at its core about the Battle Between Reality and Illusion, the same eternal tension of the theatre, and the most central tension of musical theatre in particular. Just as Quixote must navigate the fine line between illusion and reality, so too do all musicals have to maintain the same balancing act. Though they may present entirely – even painfully – realistic emotions, issues, people, and worlds, the act of breaking into song will always belong solely to the world of illusion.
Cervantes’ famous story simply had to be a musical.
And yet no other musical – except perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera or Frank Wildhorn’s Jekyll & Hyde – divides musical theatre lovers as completely as Man of La Mancha. It is considered by many to be a masterful, unconventional, deeply moving piece of theatre; but to others, it's sentimental and clichéd. This show sits at the far opposite end of the spectrum from the Ironic Musicals like Chicago, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Urinetown. It was born out of the experimental theatre movement of 1960s New York, and in its indictment of the establishment, of authority, of standards of beauty and morality, of government and religion, the show came from the same anger that spawned anti-government films like Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green, and The Candidate. But that angry idealism is too often ignored or missed by contemporary audiences, and sadly, even by directors working on the show.
In a sense, modern audiences have become Dr. Carrasco in Man of La Mancha, afraid to expose their emotions for fear of being ridiculed or considered weak, afraid of standing up for what they believe in. Because the song "The Impossible Dream" (actually called "The Quest" in the show's original program and score) was embraced by every two-bit crooner in the 1960s and 70s, the song – and its lyric – became a cliché. But as we must with shows like Carousel and Show Boat, we have to look at Man of La Mancha fresh, see the sophistication and truth in it, and give it another chance. There is much to admire and enjoy in this show if we only let ourselves. Man of La Mancha was not written to be seen as it is today, almost exclusively set on proscenium stages with a stark division between actors and audiences, often in cavernous theatres. La Mancha was written to be played in a small theatre, and in its original New York production, it was staged in three-quarter thrust, with the audience on three sides of the stage. Just as Cervantes’ novel rarely provides much detail of the settings of Quixote’s adventures, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination, likewise the musical’s creators wanted their show to be extremely minimalist, with a bare set, minimal costumes and props, and the challenge to its audience to participate in the storytelling through the use of their own imagination. But it asks for us to participate in another way as well. In its heart, Man of La Mancha is about the 1960s, and by extension, about any time of political unrest – including today – and it is about the responsibility of each of us to make the world a better place than we found it.
La Mancha is a show that owes a great debt to German director/playwright Bertolt Brecht, and also to Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which had a long, successful run off Broadway just a few years before La Mancha. Brecht believed in admitting the artifice of theatre, reminding the audience as often as possible that they are watching actors on a stage. Brecht did not want his audiences to get swept away in the emotion of his shows, but instead to think about what is happening. Ironically, Brecht was such a brilliant storyteller, most of his work was deeply emotional despite his best efforts. And La Mancha is his progeny, a show that admits its artifice almost at every moment, that periodically yanks us out of its interior story for comment, but a show that still involves its audience deeply in the human emotion of its story.
Man of La Mancha is not a musicalization of Don Quixote; it is instead a show about a few hours in the life of Miguel de Cervantes, using Quixote as a storytelling device. As the show’s bookwriter Dale Wasserman has written, "My man of La Mancha is not Don Quixote; he is Miguel de Cervantes." In fact, only a tiny part of the novel is dramatized in the show; after all, there are more than four hundred characters in the novel. When Wasserman originally set out to write the first, non-musical version of his play, he remembers, "In theory the answer seemed simple. I’d write a play about Miguel de Cervantes in which his creation, Don Quixote, would be played by Cervantes himself. The two would progressively blend in spirit until the creator and his creation would be understood as one and the same."
The Birth of the Madman
The roots of Man of La Mancha lay in the Golden Age of Television, a time in the 1950s when serious drama was the lingua franca of live television, before sitcoms, before weekly dramas. Some of the greatest American playwrights wrote for the Philco Playhouse, Playhouse 90, ABC’s Stage 67, the U.S. Steel Hour, General Electric Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre, the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and The Dupont Show of the Month. Brilliant writers like Paddy Chayevsky, Rod Serling, and others wrote some of the most interesting work ever broadcast, dealing with potent issues like racism, alcoholism, mental illness, and more. It was the Dupont Show of the Month that first produced the non-musical, first version of Man of La Mancha. Though playwright Dale Wasserman had chosen this title, the network brass didn’t think their audience was smart enough to understand it, so it was changed to I, Don Quixote, missing entirely the point that the show wasn’t about Quixote; it was about Cervantes. The network also demanded the deletion of any references to the Inquisition because it might offend their Catholic viewers. So the prison became a secular one. The original cast included Lee J. Cobb as Cervantes, Eli Wallach as Sancho, and a young Colleen Dewhurst as Aldonza (replacing the fired Viveca Lindfors). The stage manager was Joe Papirofsky, who would later become the world famous producer and director Joe Papp.
The play was in much the same form as we see it today, even to the point of using a fair amount of instrumental music by Rafaello Busoni to tell its story. Wasserman’s first lines in his script were, "There is music. It sweeps and rolls with the bombast and blind arrogance of Spain at the end of the sixteenth century. A confident march is nowhere." But inevitably, changes were demanded to keep it to only two hours. One of the things to go was a speech Quixote spoke in answer to Aldonza’s question, "What does it mean – a quest?" The cut speech began:
After it was cut, Cobb stormed into the control room demanding in the coarsest possible language that the speech be reinstated. So it was. Later, considerably calmed down, Cobb said to Wasserman, "This is an important play. It flies in the face of the news, the mood… of all the crud that’s a blight on living here and now. It could have a life… Damn right it’s got flaws. So? Try to understand what I’m telling you. It’s got an opinion. A point of view. An approach. It aims to go somewhere, to say something. So be sure the flaws are your flaws, not the notions of some cockamamie committee." The show was broadcast live on November 9, 1959. Time magazine wrote, "In humanism’s world of reason, Don Quixote’s crime was not his madness but his faith." The review went on, "Viewers and critics inclined to snicker at such idealism missed the point of a fine TV drama whose central theme was man’s eternal search for truth."
After the broadcast, Wasserman went on to other projects, including adapting for the stage the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which he only later realized was very much like La Mancha, both about crazy heroes fighting the establishment, both crushed in the end, both leaving behind one convert or disciple.
Then director Albert Marre approached Wasserman (as others had before) about turning his teleplay into a stage musical. Soon the team swelled to include composer Mitch Leigh (mostly because Leigh was rich and put up the initial investment), and poet W. H. Auden. Wasserman went to see a psychic he knew and asked her if he should stay with the project. She said he should and that "It will be extremely successful. In fact, it will overwhelm your life." She would be proved right in the years to come. Auden brought on fellow poet Chester Kallman as co-lyricist, but he fell away quickly. And soon, the others realized Auden wrote great poetry but not great lyrics, and that he was writing a different show, a more cynical, more blatantly anachronistic show. They learned the lesson that in almost all cases, poetry makes lousy lyrics. Poetry carries its own music; adding literal music to it only makes a mess.
Next, they called Joe Darion, who had recently written lyrics for archy and mehitabel (later retitled Shinbone Alley), a daring, experimental jazz opera that flopped on Broadway. At first the team asked Darion to fix Auden’s lyrics, but he had no interest in that, so he turned them down. A few weeks later, they called him back to write all new lyrics for the show, and he came aboard. By June 1964, they had a first draft, now titled Highway to Glory. The show was now the first of its kind – a musical within a play, in which the outer framing device (the prison) is not a musical and no one sings there until the end, but the interior reality (the Quixote story) is a full-blooded musical. And the climax of the show comes when Cervantes brings music into the non-musical world of the prison. Like Harold Hill in The Music Man, like Maria in The Sound of Music, Cervantes brings (metaphorical) music to the gray lives of his fellow prisoners, giving them a kind of existential salve, even though many of them may never again see the light of day. This show was a product of its times more than almost any other until Hair.
In the fall of 1964, the show’s creators began holding backers auditions to attract investors, but none appeared. Finally, they were offered a production at the newly renovated Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, to open in June 1965. The deal was too good to pass up, the chance to open their summer season, take time to revise and fix the show, and then to open again at the end of the summer, in mid-August. The show then moved in November 1965 to the ANTA Theatre off Broadway, downtown near Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, the perfect place for it, sharing more in common with radical, anti-establishment works like Marat/Sade and Wasaserman’s own One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, than with Hello, Dolly! or The Sound of Music. The ANTA had no fly space, no proscenium arch, no curtain, none of the trappings of traditional theatres. But by some weird quirk of contract law, the ANTA was officially categorized as a Broadway house because of its seating capacity, despite being some forty blocks from the rest of Broadway, and only a few blocks from other off Broadway houses. So, as it would all its strange life, Man of La Mancha was born straddling the experimental world of off Broadway and the commercial world of Broadway.
Life magazine called the show "a metaphysical smasheroo." The New York Post said, "Man of La Mancha is a triumph of creative imagination and stagecraft." London’s Morning Telegraph said, "Man of La Mancha is what theatre is for, why theatre lives and endures." Rolling Stone wrote, "Man of La Mancha has a heart that sings and a spirit that soars." John Chapman of the New York Daily News called the original production, "an exquisite musical play – the finest and most original work in our musical theatre since Fiddler on the Roof opened. It moves enthrallingly from an imaginative beginning to a heart-wrenching end." Norman Nadel wrote in the World-Telegram & Sun, "To reach the unreachable star – what a soaring aspiration for an indestructible dreamer, and what a glorious summation for a bold and beautiful new musical." He went on, "Thus it goes all evening – realism aligned with romanticism, and each sharpened by the other."
Man of La Mancha was perhaps the first true "concept musical," the kind of musical in which the over-arching metaphor or statement is more important than the actual narrative, in which the method of storytelling is more important than the story. The show starred Richard Kiley as Quixote and Joan Diener as Aldonza, and it won the Drama Critics Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Variety Drama Critics Award, the Saturday Review Award, and five Tony Awards, including best musical and best score. The show moved uptown in March 1968 to a regular Broadway house, the Martin Beck Theatre, then, oddly, moved in March 1971 to the off Broadway Eden Theatre, then again in May 1971 to the Mark Hellinger Theatre back on Broadway. It ran a total of 2,328 performances and was revived in 1972 (less than a year after the first production closed), and again with Kiley in 1977. The world famous French/Belgian songwriter and singer Jacques Brel saw the show in New York and fell in love with it. He brought it to Paris, playing the lead himself. Luckily, a French cast album was made, preserving Brel’s soulful interpretation. Productions of La Mancha were mounted all over the world, and in September 1972, it even opened in the Soviet Union. The show was revived again in 1992 with Raul Julia and Sheena Easton, then again in 2003 with the African America actor Brian Stokes Mitchell as Quixote. Today, the show enjoys 300-400 productions each year.
Don Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra was born in 1547 and lived until 1616, a witness to the decline of Spain’s great golden age. He joined the army at age twenty and showed great bravery during his five year stint, though while he was in the army he was felled not by weapons but by malaria. Despite his sickness he rose up anyway (shades of Quixote!) and threw himself into battle, sustaining two wounds to the chest and a musket ball through his left hand, crippling it.
He returned to Spain at thirty-three and began to write plays, a total of thirty to forty in his lifetime, though almost none have survived. Though his great fame came from his novel Don Quixote, written at age fifty-seven, near the end of his life, most of his output was for the stage. He had an affair with a Portuguese woman but she deserted him, leaving him with a daughter named Isabel. He married again, this time into money – or so he thought. But now he had to support his wife, his daughter, his mother, his widowed mother-in-law, and two sisters. During this time, he was imprisoned twice for owing back taxes. The Inquisition tried him under the Purity of Blood laws and, because he had Jewish blood in his family history, he was excommunicated, only barely escaping nastier punishments.
He finished his famous novel, Don Quixote, in 1604, and though it was a huge success, he never received any royalties from it. Ten years later, as poor as ever, Cervantes began work on a Quixote sequel, but someone else beat him to it, and published a sequel of his own. Cervantes’ own sequel directly responded to the faked one, incorporating the forgery into its narrative. He finally died in 1616.
Cervantes’ own life was full of contradictions. He had great talent but was unsuccessful and poor most of his life. He was an artist but worked as soldier, tax collector, and other prosaic jobs to pay his bills. Likewise, his Quixote is full of contradictions, deeply principled and deeply crazy; an ordinary man, a bad knight, and yet a great philosopher. He can be moved far too easily to anger, and yet treats Aldonza with such profound respect. He tries to make the world a better place and yet also messes up people’s lives everywhere he turns. Clearly, Wasserman’s impulse to blend the characters of Cervantes and Quixote was an insightful choice.
The Spanish Inquisition – A Little Background
Man of La Mancha is set in a prison vault, a waiting room of sorts for those to be tried by the Inquisition or other courts. And that prison and all it implies swims under the surface of the show throughout, never letting the audience forget that this story is being told inside a cell, to an audience who are also imprisoned. References to imprisonment are everywhere in La Mancha, in explicit terms, as in the scene with the Moors, and also more subtly, as when Quixote speaks of his "captive heart." And certainly, many of the characters in the interior story are metaphorically imprisoned, including Aldonza, Antonia, and others.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, opposition to the Roman Catholic church swept across Europe, and Spain in particular feared being overtaken by Muslims and Jews. So with roots going back as far as 1100 a.d., Pope Innocent III established a tribunal in 1215 called the Inquisition to try people accused of heresy against the church. The word heresy comes from the Latin word for choice. In other words, choice was not an option when it came to God; you believed what the Pope told you to believe, or else. The Inquisition was originally intended to protect the Church and to protect "civilization" in a world where secular law enforcement was often absent or irrelevant. There was no central authority (other than the Pope), no single Inquisition, but instead several relatively independent Inquisitions, in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, and later in Latin America.
The Inquisition judges, aided by local bishops and state authorities, would come to a town and announce a thirty days grace period for all heretics to come in and confess their crimes and be punished, after which the trials began. The names of witnesses were kept secret. Torture was often used to force confessions of guilt. At public ceremonies, the names of the guilty were announced and punishments inflicted, ranging from fines and excommunication to imprisonment for life or burning at the stake, called "purification." Since canonical law forbade the clergy to participate in bloodshed, the more severe penalties were determined by the clergy but carried out by the secular authorities.
The European concept of "innocent until proven guilty" was too high a standard to successfully fight the spread of heresy, so the Pope changed the rules. He appointed "inquisitors" who would secretly gather information, opinion, rumor, and gossip, build their case, and then arrest and accuse the alleged heretic. It was then up to the accused to recant or be burned at the stake. Those were the choices. And even if the accused recanted and admitted his heresy, he still had to inform on others, much like Salem Witch Trials and the House Un-American Activities Committee in America in the 1950s. If the accused would not inform on others, he would be imprisoned anyway and be fined all his possessions. In some cases, people were accused posthumously, and if convicted, their graves would be vandalized and they still would be fined all their possessions; but since they were already dead, that meant their surviving family would be stripped of their home and possessions and left destitute.
By the early 1400s, the Inquisition began to fade from public view.
Except in Spain. During the Middle Ages, Jews had been expelled from most of Europe and many had settled in Spain, where they lived happily. But by the end of the 1300s, economic and social problems sent Spaniards looking for scapegoats and they found them in the Jews. Hoping to end the resulting violence and upheaval, the crown declared that all Jews in Spain either had to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Those who did convert now could rise to high social, governmental, and religious positions previously off limits to them, but this brought with it resentment and fear from Christians who could not rise as high. And so the Inquisition was resurrected.
The new and improved Spanish Inquisition, the most feared and brutal of all, reached its height in Spain during the days of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Quite separate from the Inquisition which had come before, this one was controlled not by the Pope, but by Ferdinand, who carried it to outrageous extremes, in large part in order to acquire for himself the great wealth held by the converted Jews of Spain. The Inquisition was used as a cloak for grand larceny as well as political and private revenge, and the inquisitors were known for their fanatical zeal and great cruelties. It was a product of its time – the church and state were united closely (mostly for the profit of the state), and heresy was considered a crime against both, to be compared only with high treason and anarchy.
The Inquisition continued in modified form in Spain until 1820. The Congregation of the Holy Office was established by Pope Paul III in 1542 to review the judgments of the Inquisition courts and to examine charges of heresy. It was supplanted during the Vatican Council II (1962-1965) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Miguel de Cervantes was tried by the Inquisition in 1597, and was excommunicated for "offenses against His Majesty's Most Catholic Church," escaping more severe punishment, which could've included burning at the stake. He served several prison terms.
In Man of La Mancha, the prisoners have formed their own justice system mirroring the Inquisition, including the assumption of guilt and the forfeiture of all the accused’s possessions. In his original teleplay, Wasserman gave the prisoners all names and personalities, in tune with the place and times, a kind of quick lesson in the social and economic conditions of Spain during the Inquisition. The Governor had another name in the television play, Monipodio, named after the crime boss in Cervantes' 1615 story "Rinconete y Cortadillo" ("The Carnival of Crime") in his book Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels). Monipodio rules over a twisted, criminal microcosm of the real world in both "Rinconete y Cortadillo" and likewise in Man of La Mancha, and he even presides over a rigged court in both. Wasserman has playfully set up a parallel that only the fiercest Cervantes fan would ever catch. Perhaps Wasserman is pulling a Shakespeare in Love decades before Tom Stoppard did it – suggesting that Cervantes’ character Monipodio was based on a real Monipodio he met in prison. The prisoner who plays the Padre in the interior story is a professional slanderer, and he is ironically named Judas Macabeo, after the legendary Jewish leader and hero (also known as Judas Maccabeus), who fought off the enemies of the Jews and reconsecrated the temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC, an event celebrated today by Hanukkah. Then there’s the Duke, who plays Dr. Carrasco, and who Wasserman describes as "a handsome young man of elegance and fearful ennui. His mordant cynicism marks the frustrated idealist."
Escalante is the prisoner who plays Aldonza. Her name is Spanish for ladder because of how often she’s been "climbed." Wasserman’s script describes her as "a splendid alley cat, survivor if not always victor of many back fence tussles. She is vital, half-savage, with an aura of natural sexuality," and with "a ripe body threatening to burst its ragged clothes." There is also Graciosa, who plays Quixote’s niece Antonia ("vacuously pretty with a streak of malice"); The Scorpion, who plays Pedro ("bull-like and dangerous") and who has a hook for a hand; Lobillo (the little wolf), who plays Anselmo ("a swarthy, affable, pimp"); El Médico, who plays the Barber ("a grinny little man, evil and sprightly"), who kills with a switchblade in his ring; and Mother Bane ("a hoarse-voiced hag of many years and misdeeds"), who poisons people for profit.
This literal prison mirrors alternately the "prison of the mind," as Carrasco sees Quixote’s madness, but also the prison of conformity that Quixote battles against. In the last scene, the Padre, mirroring Carrasco’s view, says, "Where is he, I wonder? In what dark cavern of the mind?" They see the madness as a prison, while Cervantes sees it as Quixote’s liberation. Unfortunately, most productions of Man of La Mancha virtually ignore the prison framing device. The idea that Cervantes is performing his "charade" for the prisoners, in fact for their judgment of it, is central to Wasserman’s work. For an audience to fully understand the depth and richness of Wasserman’s script, the prisoners must be ever present, must be a part of the world of the play throughout. If they disappear from the stage (as is usually the case), the show loses its central metaphor and some of its power. That Cervantes’ story affects the prisoners, that it finally brings "music" to their lives with the finale, can only work when they are a constant part of the fabric of the story. Their presence also underlines the central juxtaposition of actor and audience, reader and writer, passive and active. The story must always exist within the environment of the prison for the metaphors to work, never in the open air (as they did in the most recent Broadway revival). The show itself and the character of Cervantes are not the only examples of double-reality; each of the prisoners is as well, along with the physical world in which they tell the story. Wasserman writes in his book The Impossible Musical about the first production and its director, Albert Marre:
Elaborate, realistic costumes and props detract from the magic of the story. Man of La Mancha was one of the first musicals to understand that the theatre’s greatest strength is that it is abstract, not grounded in reality like film. As the show’s interior story beings, Cervantes says to the prisoners and to us, the audience, "Come, enter into my imagination." It is an explicit acknowledgement of what is best and purest about live theatre. It is an art form of the imagination, and at its best, it requires the participation of its audience to tell its stories.
Likewise, the decision not to have an
intermission was an effort to preserve the world of the prison, without breaking
that metaphor for the audience to go out and have a smoke and a drink halfway
through the story. Again, unfortunately, many recent productions have jammed an
intermission into the show, despite the fact that one-act shows and two-act
shows have distinctly different structures, and that imposing an intermission on
a one-act structure is artistically destructive.
The Age of Aquarius
It’s important to remember the times in which Man of La Mancha was written, times that mirror the current atmosphere in America, a sharply divided country, a battle between the doves and hawks over a current war, a distrust of government, and so much more. Quixote, at least as he’s portrayed in Man of La Mancha, is a hippie. Wasserman describes him this way:
What many Americans don’t fully understand is that the counterculture of the 1960s is still with us. In 1994, when the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, celebrated the Republicans’ takeover of the U.S. Congress, he said, "There are profound things that went wrong starting with [Lyndon Johnson’s] Great Society [programs] and the counterculture, and until we address them head-on we’re going to have problems." Gingrich was Dr. Carrasco. Gingrich and his followers rejected, even feared, nearly everything the sixties had given us: feminism, gay rights, sexual freedom, reproductive rights, affirmative action, environmentalism, recreational drugs, and many of America’s social programs. Conservatives like stability, a return to the fictional "traditional values" of the 1950s, a time of calm and social stability that never really existed. The time they look back upon with such fondness was a time of unending oppression of women, African Americans (and other racial minorities), gay Americans, and the poor. It was a time of profound hypocrisy, both sexual and moral, and a boiling unrest ready to blow the top off of middle class America.
The counterculture of the sixties represents to conservatives today a disturbingly continuous shifting of social roles and values, a shifting that the conservatives keep trying to bring to a halt with no success, a shifting which continues today. They demonize America’s rich religious and spiritual diversity – a diversity our Founding Fathers saw as invaluable – and they dismissively call it "moral relativism." They continue to claim that America was founded on "Christian principles" even though every study shows that the majority of Americans have stopped attending church, have abandoned organized religion, and even though most of the Founding Fathers were Deists, not Christians, who believed in a "God in nature," not a God who created nature.
But look even deeper. There are parallels between our world today and the world into which the Spanish Inquisition was imposed. The Inquisition’s doctrine of guilt-by-association and cleansing by informing on others, was mirrored in America’s own Communist Witch Hunts in the mid-twentieth century. And the long-ago religious "Holy War" in Spain between the Catholics on one side and the Jews and the Muslims on the other, mirrors more recent religious wars, including the Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, the Muslims and Hindus in India, and the current worldwide battle between Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists. Sixteenth century Spain was embroiled in the same kind of ethnic cleansing we’ve seen in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, Kosovo, Iraq, and elsewhere.
There are also obvious parallels to be found between the provisions of our own U.S.A. Patriot Act and President Bush’s use of the "unlawful enemy combatants" designation, on the one hand, and the less violent practices of the Spanish Inquisition, on the other – search without notice, arrest without charge or notification of loved ones, no legal counsel, indefinite imprisonment, and the policy of "guilty until proven innocent." And on top of that, the government has asked us to spy on our neighbors. And then of course there was the torture uncovered in Abu Ghraib prison and, we're now learning, also in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, along with several government and military memos arguing that torture could now be justified, that the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to the "War on Terror," and so much more.
And then there's the issue of forced conformity in America today, the notion widespread that criticizing the government or the war in Iraq is automatically "unpatriotic," that dissent is "dangerous" or, some would argue, treasonous, because it helps our enemies. There's the issue of religion absolutism, the idea that only one faith is the "true" faith, that others are lesser, that they are even "evil," that they must be "battled." Christian groups continue to push for religious amendments to the Constitution, as well as a religious rewriting of the preamble to the Constitution. And of course, it's the most intensely religious folks who seem to be most in favor of the violence and death of war. Are we returning to the days of the Inquisition, or is this just a natural cycle of history? And where are all those "What Would Jesus Do?" bumper stickers when we need them most?
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
But Man of La Mancha goes even further. The Spanish Inquisition – as well as its modern parallels – are not just a backdrop for the story, not just an outside evil that surfaces here and there in the script. No, Quixote’s story is a metaphor for the world of the Spanish Inquisition. Quixote is a social and political heretic. He does not accept the mainstream view of the world. He does not accept its rules. He will not adhere to its philosophy. And in both worlds, the only answer is to confess or be killed. Because Quixote will not confess to being insane, he is "murdered" – in other words, Carrasco’s tactics "kill" the idea that is Don Quixote. When Carrasco is done with Quijana, Quixote no longer exists. He is dead. Like unrepentant heretics or Jews, Quixote simply disappears.
The Big Picture
Though Man of La Mancha was a direct challenge to the status quo, it was not alone. Both Broadway and Hollywood were getting brave in the 1960s, both before and after La Mancha’s debut. The movies of the 60s were tackling and breaking taboos, addressing subject matter that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. Some of Hollywood’s apparent breakthroughs actually began on or off Broadway, like A Raisin in the Sun, The Connection, A Taste of Honey, The Children’s Hour, Tea and Sympathy, Marat/Sade, and others. But Hollywood also produced original films, tackling gay issues in Victim in 1961; other sexual and gender issues in Butterfield 8 and The Apartment in 1960, Tom Jones and Lolita in 1962, Repulsion and Sex and the Single Girl in 1964, Darling in 1965, Alfie and The Killing of Sister George in 1966, Far from the Madding Crowd and A Guide for the Married Man in 1967. Mainstream films addressed issues of violence in Hud in 1962, The Wild Angels in 1966, Bonnie and Clyde in 1967; the insanity of war in Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964, and Shenandoah in 1965; drugs and alcohol in The Days of Wine and Roses in 1962 and The Trip in 1967; and racism with In the Heat of the Night 1967 and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1968. Hollywood had also discovered psychedelica with A Hard Day’s Night in 1964, and with Wild in the Streets and Yellow Submarine in 1968.
Television also mirrored the unrest in America in the 1960s. TV became political when it aired the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates in 1960, watched by seventy-five million Americans, the largest television audience up to that point in history. In 1964, a new series debuted, That Was the Week That Was, the first political satire on prime-time network television. In 1966, Star Trek debuted and managed to addressed dozens of social issues week after week, all disguised as science fiction fantasy. Star Trek became the unlikely source of TV’s first inter-racial kiss. Also, in 1966 the clearly psychedelic-inspired show The Monkees (copied from the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night) debuted, along with the hardest hitting political satire yet on television, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which has the distinction of being the only TV show ever canceled for its subversive political content. In 1966, both ABC and NBC had weekly shows covering the war in Vietnam, ABC’s Vietnam Weekly Review, and NBC’s Vietnam Perspective. In 1967, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (taking its title from the Be-Ins and Sit-Ins across America) debuted and quickly declared its position as the hippest, most sexual, most open, most forthright show ever on TV. Watching the show today, it’s astounding to see what they got away with in 1967, many things that would not appear on network television today.
Stages of Protest
When Man of La Mancha opened, America was changing – quickly, profoundly, and often painfully. And one of the bigger changes was happening in New York theatre, though most Americans didn’t know it. Perhaps the greatest revolution in the history of American theatre happened in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was leading to Man of La Mancha, and beyond that, to Hair.
It all started in 1952. The phenomenon we now know as off Broadway theatre had begun a few years earlier in small ways, but in 1952, a revival of the Tennessee Williams play Summer and Smoke at Circle in the Square became the first major New York theatrical success outside of the Broadway theatre district in thirty years. The New York Times had sent critic Brooks Atkinson to review the show, much to everyone’s amazement; the Times had never reviewed an off Broadway show before. And when his rave appeared in the paper the next day, off Broadway was off and running, finally a legitimate and commercially viable alternative to the slick shallowness of much of Broadway’s product. Unlike Broadway, where the bottom line was always profit – no matter what noble artistic intentions went along with that – off Broadway was a place where new actors, directors, and playwrights could get their work seen, where shows that hadn’t worked on Broadway could be given a second look, where theatres could become institutions, nurturing work and artists over time and developing loyal audiences, rather than being just real estate, a place to rent to do a show. Producer Joseph Papp also brought to the off Broadway community the idea of creating a safe environment to experiment, to risk, to break the rules, without the pressure of commercial success hanging over the enterprise. The emphasis was on the work, the creation process, more than box office success. Off Broadway also became one of the most fertile grounds for work in improvisation.
Off Broadway had begun, in a sense, back at the turn of the century, but it was more then about idealistic amateurs than serious theatre professionals. And World War II put an end to that experiment. Until 1952. Off Broadway brought back to life the idea of staging a show with the audience on three sides of the stage, as in the case of Man of La Mancha, or in some cases all around the stage. That had been how theatre was always done centuries ago, but the modern standard had become the impersonal proscenium arch, separating audience from actors by a stage frame, footlights, and often an orchestra. After hundreds of years, actors and audiences were coming back together. Off Broadway was an adventure, an experience Broadway had lost long ago. Many off Broadway theatres were even in "questionable" neighborhoods, adding to the adventure.
Off Broadway companies like Circle in the Square became the launching pad for many of the greatest actors in America today, names like Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, George Segal, Dustin Hoffman, and innumerable others. Off Broadway was where American theatre learned to cast against type, to refuse to pigeon-hole talented actors by the work they had done in the past or the roles they "looked" like they should play. In fact, off Broadway repeatedly took giant leaps that Broadway copied only years later. Off Broadway was the first place audiences saw plays dealing with African American self-identity and drug addiction. Off Broadway led the way back to the kind of heavily polemical, psychological, political plays and topical revues Broadway had done so well in the 1930s.
By 1959, Variety reported that investment in off Broadway shows totaled one million dollars for the first time. There were now more than thirty off Broadway theatres where there had been only a handful just a few years earlier. The New Yorker assigned a special critic just for off Broadway shows. And a number of off Broadway shows went on national tours for the first time. The following year, the landmark experimental musical The Fantasticks opened off Broadway and remains to this day the longest running musical in the world. By this time, there were twice as many shows opening off Broadway each season as there were on Broadway.
In 1959, the otherwise lightweight off Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress became one of the first New York shows to practice colorblind casting, putting Jane White, an African American actress in the role of the Queen, playing mother to the Caucasian actor Joe Bova. In 1961, Jean Genet’s off Broadway play The Blacks caused a sensation, addressing issues of race and racism in the most radical, most relevant terms ever on a New York stage. The show ran for more than 1,400 performances and it signaled the (re-)birth of black theatre in America. In 1962, the play Alarums and Excursions satirized growing American involvement in Vietnam for the first time. In the fall of 1962, the Writers’ Stage, a new off Broadway theatre company, was born, and its founders wrote a statement of purpose:
It was this time in which some of the angriest theatre yet opened off Broadway, plays about disillusionment, plays about America falling down on the job, about pressing social and political issues. In 1966, the nastiest political satire ever seen, MacBird! posited a fictional Robert Kennedy taking revenge on President Johnson for the murder of his brother. It was into this milieu that Man of La Mancha was born.
Levels of Reality
Perhaps it was only coincidence that Don Quixote and Hamlet – both about madness and levels of reality – were published on the same day, and that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day. Perhaps Don Quixote was always destined to be one of the world’s great masterpieces. And perhaps it was inevitable that Cervantes’ great novel would become a stage musical. After all, Cervantes was primarily a playwright and actor. And in the novel, Quixote says to Sancho, "In my childhood I loved plays, and I have always been an admirer of the drama. Plays are the semblance of reality, and deserve to be loved because they set before our eyes looking-glasses that reflect human life. Nothing tells us better what we are or ought to be than comedians and comedy." In another passage in the novel, Quixote says, "I know who I am and who I may be if I choose."
In the novel Don Quixote, author Miguel de Cervantes plays with both the form of the novel and with the nature of reality. He comments on literature through literature. Quixote was the first novel about novels. He takes an extensive pot shot at chivalric romance novels both directly and indirectly through parody. Over the course of the novel, Don Quixote continually comes across stories and storytellers; each uses his own style of relating his tale, and with each, Cervantes comments further on the nature of narrative, on the relationship between writer and reader, performer and audience. Señor Quijana is the man from La Mancha, who collects chivalric romance novels, which he reads so obsessively that he goes mad, and he believes he is the knight Don Quixote. Dale Wasserman describes the geographic La Mancha this way:
Quijana considers his novels reference works as well as entertainment. He uses them for the research that is part of his preparation to sally forth into the world. They are his only source of information on the life of knights, the life he is about to adopt for himself. To the soon-to-be knight errant of La Mancha, these books constitute his only reality. The world around him fades, and he molds what must remain so that it fits into his new reality. Cervantes has taken the convention of an author creating a reality in his book which the reader must accept, and has blown it up to fantastic proportions. Señor Quijana not only accepts the realities in his books, he literally believes them and adopts them as his own reality; and his greatest problem lies in the fact that those realities abide in the distant past. This reality he has adopted is at odds with the world around him.
After Cervantes had written the first volume of Don Quixote, another author wrote a sequel before Cervantes could. When Cervantes did publish his own second volume, he integrated the faked volume into his story. In Cervantes' second volume, Don Quixote is aware of the faked book and is incensed at the thought of a fictitious book being circulated about his squire and him. He is certain the "other" Don Quixote is an imposter and does not really exist; after all, he knows where he has been himself, what he's done, and who he is. Yet, the novel Don Quixote is already an account of a Don Quixote who did not exist; and this non-existent character is angry at the thought of another non-existent Don Quixote. And of course, even within Cervantes’ fictional world, Quixote is not real – he’s the creation (conscious or un-) of Alonso Quijana. Cervantes' acknowledgement of the fake second volume within this work of fiction strengthens the book's reality for us; if Quixote interacts with the real world, in which the fake sequel does exist, it makes him seem to us as if he really exists there as well.
In fact, Don Quixote the novel has a fictional author too. According to the book, it was written by a Moorish enchanter named Cide Hamete Benengeli. So we have a real author (Cervantes) who's created a fictional author (Benengeli) to write about a fictional man (Quijana) who believes he's a real knight (Quixote), angry over a fictional imposter (the other Quixote). It's a story within a story within a story. Don Quixote is both reader (of chivalric romances) and writer (as a teller of stories of knights, as chronicler of his own exploits, and as alter-ego of Cervantes); yet it is his voracious reading which has made him insane. How deep into these nested stories can we get before we forget where reality is? In the case of Man of La Mancha, we have three authors (Wasserman, Darion, and Leigh), who have created a fictional character based on a real person (Cervantes), who plays a fictional man (Quijana) who thinks he's a real knight (Quixote); and additionally in the musical, the other fictional characters (the prisoners) play still other fictional characters in Cervantes' play (the innkeeper, Aldonza, Carrasco, etc.). Going one level deeper, Aldonza then becomes Dulcinea when she finally sees the beauty in Quixote's view of the world.
The strange relationship between reality and unreality is what writing – and theatre – is all about. What is a novel (or a play or movie) but unreality commenting on reality, unreality acting on reality, unreality posing as reality. With the advent of "reality shows" on television, unreality and reality are often so alike that it's impossible to tell them apart. Of course, if we could easily tell them apart, the game would be over. Writers could no longer play with the two, juggling them back and forth, playing a mental shell game with the reader. The challenge is always the same – and even more difficult in the unreality of musical theatre – how extreme an unreality can a writer take and dress up as reality without the reader/audience rebelling against it? Can he create a man-eating Venus Flytrap from outer space? A transgendered East German rock singer now living in a Kansas trailer park? A "sweet transvestite" from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania? How about a half-boy, half-bat who just wants to be loved? And the other question – how close to reality can the writer shape that unreality, still keeping the two separate?
"I know who I am and who I may be if I choose."
In the musical, the relationship is less that of writer vs. reader, and more audience vs. actor. The actors in Man of La Mancha play the part of an audience for Cervantes' play, and then that audience becomes actors by playing parts in his play. For added dramatic effect, the prisoners' personalities are like those of the characters they are given to portray. The Governor becomes the Innkeeper, the cynical Duke becomes Dr. Carrasco, etc. So there are two audiences to be served – the prisoners who have put Cervantes "on trial" and us, the real audience in the theatre. Because of the parallel between the prisoners and their characters, Cervantes is trying to convince the prisoners of his story's value at the same time that the character he plays, Quixote, is trying to convince the characters within the play of the value of his view of the world; and, it can be argued, at the same time that the director and actors of Man of La Mancha are trying to convince their audience of the value of the musical's story. The burden of suspension of disbelief falls on all these audiences at once.
With the addition of the "trial" aspect to Cervantes' play, he must please his audience in order to keep his possessions, just as a real actor must please an audience in order to keep his job. And though this isn't a formal trial (that waits for Cervantes when he is brought before the Inquisition), the idea of him being put on trial by his fellow prisoners is an interesting one. First, though they are prisoners, they have created their own system of trial and punishment within their prison; they are imitating the Inquisition in this forcibly constructed world. Second, a trial is basically a theatrical presentation after all, with a formal structure designed to present a narrative, specific parts to be played, a formal set, etc.; and the defendant's goal (or that of his attorney) is to convince the jury – his audience – that his story is worth believing and caring about. Cervantes telling a story as his defense isn't as unorthodox as it may seem. All trials are a matter of competing narratives. Most interestingly, in the show, Cervantes intends his story to end with Quixote’s defeat by the Knight of the Mirrors – the way the first volume of the novel ends. It is only at the urging of the Governor that the more uplifting ending is invented (another Shakespeare in Love moment?). And as Cervantes does in the novel, Wasserman has created a narrator in the show, who can stand outside the action, manipulate it, comment upon it. The difference is that the novel is presented as an objective "history," while in the show the story is clearly presented as an entertainment, even if it may point the way toward deeper truths.
Along with the various levels of reality at play in Man of La Mancha, there are also several kinds of truth. There is literal truth, the kind that Dr. Carrasco and the muleteers see, the kind of truth based on observable, provable facts. But even in the world of fact, there is always room for interpretation. As Quixote says, "Facts are the enemy of truth." Any politician can attest to the fact that numbers, quotations, and other seemingly concrete facts can easily be twisted to support nearly any argument. Man of La Mancha has very little respect for facts. This musical instead centers on emotional truth, focusing on nobility, virtue, and integrity rather than identity, time, or place. The show also deals with universal truths, the things that are true for all people – the need for respect, compassion, and achievement. Just as the creators of the musical Assassins chose to emphasize psychological accuracy over historical accuracy, so too does Don Quixote De La Mancha focus on universal truth over physical and temporal truth. It doesn't matter that knights no longer exist, that the dragon he attacks is really a windmill, that his lady Aldonza is actually a country whore. What matters is that he strives to make the world a better place, and most of us would be hard pressed to argue that his priorities are skewed.
Knight of the Woeful Countenance
An actor portrays Miguel de Cervantes in Man of La Mancha, who in turn portrays Señor Quijana, who has becomes Don Quixote de La Mancha. At the end of the show, the Governor says, "I think Don Quixote is brother to Don Miguel," in other words, all that is brave and good about the mad knight is also a part of Cervantes. When this story takes place (the late 1500s), there have been no knights in Spain for over three hundred years, but this is entirely irrelevant to Quixote. What matters to him is what those knights stood for (at least as portrayed in his books). Most of the characters in the show think Quijana/Quixote is insane because he sees windmills as dragons, a kitchen wench as a high born lady; he sees the world as he'd like it to be, as he thinks it should be, instead of as it is. Quixote says in the musical, "When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?" Even more today than when the show opened in 1965, our real world does seem lunatic – urban gang violence, killer drugs, wars and terrorism throughout the world. The only way to stay sane in our contemporary world is to see the world as it could be. Though Man of La Mancha is almost forty years old, and the novel is almost four hundred years old, the message is as timely today as ever.
One of the central questions of the play is whether it is crazy to see only the best in people and in the world. In Quixote's case, part of what people find insane about him is his utter selflessness, that everything he does is for others (even if it doesn’t always work out in their favor). It's not his optimism and his idealism that make people doubt his sanity; it's his extremism. Nothing in his life is done in moderation. As he sings in "The Quest" ("The Impossible Dream"), his goal is:
These are all noble aims, but ones which cannot be realized. Why should a person attempt something at which he can never succeed? Quixote (and the musical's creators) believe that by setting your goals low, you won't achieve everything you're capable of, that the struggle is more important than the achievement. In the Padre's song, "To Each His Dulcinea," he suggests that perhaps people need a dream, that in fact, it is more healthy to have a dream to follow than to live life mired in realism (a philosophy which supports the presentational style of La Mancha as well). Despite his "gentle insanity," Quixote has a genuinely good heart, and this is why the Innkeeper is so nice to him, why he plays along with Quixote's belief that the inn is a castle, why the Innkeeper agrees to knight him. Don Quixote's code of ethics is difficult, but he believes in the infinite goodness and purity of the human heart, and why shouldn't he? Though there are people like Dr. Carrasco, the niece, and the housekeeper in the world, there are also people like Sancho and Aldonza, who, given the opportunity, can rise to the challenge Quixote puts forth.
The Duke asks Cervantes why poets are so fascinated with madmen. Cervantes answers that the two have much in common. The Duke replies, "You both turn your backs on life." Cervantes corrects him, "We both select from life what pleases us." This is an interesting exchange because it not only defends Quixote's mindset, but it also defines quite clearly what it is that a storyteller does, an important theme in the show. No storyteller can present all the details of a story. Even when telling a true story, a storyteller has to edit, has to select which details are important, which can be left out, which don’t serve the story.
At the end of the show, Quixote is dead, and yet he's not. He lives on in those around him, those whom he has touched. He has transformed both Sancho and Aldonza, both of whom have become different people because of their association with the mad knight. Both of them have learned compassion, nobility, integrity. In small ways, Quixote has changed the world. Similarly, if Cervantes is burned at the stake by the Inquisition, he will live on for the same reason. And though Cervantes is now dead, and even after the creators of this musical are dead, they will all live on as people continue to perform and see Man of La Mancha.
Many of the names in the novel and show have significance. First of all, when Señor Quijana takes on the identity of Don Quixote, he gives himself a social promotion. As Quijana, he’s an hidalgo, the lowest rung of the nobility; but using the title Don as Quixote elevates him to the status of caballero, one social step higher. One of the biggest jokes of the novel is the place name Quixote incorporates into his title; La Mancha is a Spanish word for stain. Quixote’s fantasy name for Aldonza, "Dulcinea," is an invented name based on the Spanish word dulce, which means sweet. Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, has a joke name as well; panza means potbelly. And the name of Quixote’s horse, Rocinante, is a composite of two Spanish words, rocin (an old worn-out horse) and ante (before or previously); in other words, the horse used to be a worn-out nag but is now a noble steed worthy of a knight-errant.
The word quixotic is now a part of our language, not always in a negative context, and we must remember that there are other Quixotes in our world. Jesus could certainly be called quixotic in his quest to literally change the world through kindness and peaceful revolution.
Quixote’s descendants include Joan of Arc, John Adams, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Mother Teresa, perhaps even the suffragettes in the early twentieth century and the drag queens who started the Stonewall riots in 1969 jumpstarting the gay rights movement. Some would even argue Howard Dean is a modern Quixote, attempting things that have never been done before, for better or worse. There are heroes fighting seemingly hopeless battles everywhere, and as "The Quest" suggests, our world is better place because of them. Maybe because they sometimes win; maybe because they expect so much of the rest of us, and also because many of us sometimes rise to the challenge.
Though the Padre also thinks Quixote is nuts, the Padre is the one person who believes that perhaps he should be allowed to live in his dream. When Carrasco promises a cure for Quixote's madness, the Padre says, "May it not be worse than the disease." He knows that taking a man's dream away from him can be devastating, or in this case, fatal. In our real world, the same is true of many people who retire from their jobs; without a goal to strive toward, without a purpose for being, they find nothing left in life. Similarly, when Quixote's quest, his "secret flame," is taken from him, he has no further reason to live. The death of his dream means the death of him. In the song "To Each His Dulcinea," the Padre sings, "And yet how lovely life would seem if every man could weave a dream to keep him from despair." The Padre knows Quixote is mad, but believes that madness to be in some way healthy in this case. The Padre is the position of moderation in the middle of the two extremes represented by Quixote and Carrasco.
Interestingly, Quixote’s first "misadventure" in the show is his famous tilting at windmills. So why did Wasserman include this episode instead of the hundreds of others in the novel? Was it because that moment has become Quixote’s identifying act over the centuries? Or does this event hold symbolic meaning that establishes important themes in the show? Does the windmill represent the giant monolith of religion (or government) that can withstand any attack by a single man? Is the windmill a metaphor for various institutions built by man that have become so powerful, no man can bring them down? Or, when Wasserman was writing the show in 1966, was it more specifically about the very early anti-war movement in America tilting hopelessly at the machinery of government, the "military-industrial complex"? And can we find parallels in America today? As with classic fairy tales, each new generation will find a new foe in the metaphor of Quixote’s windmills.
The Enemy of Truth
If Quixote’s belief that "Facts are the enemy of truth" is the central tenet of both Quixote’s and Man of La Mancha’s world view, then Dr. Carrasco represents facts and Quixote represents truth, a deeper truth than mere facts can describe. Though the Innkeeper clearly thinks Quixote is insane, he sees no reason to change him. Most of the people who encounter Quixote know he's crazy but figure he's harmless enough. But his insanity is a personal affront to the scientific logic of Dr. Carrasco; he believes that Quixote must be forced to see his insanity, no matter the consequences. Carrasco does not recognize the existence of a deeper, more profound human truth than his science shows him. Carrasco is the most narrow-minded of any character in the show; he believes that only his perception of the world can be accurate, that what is real is limited to that which can be proven. No other opinions or beliefs can be taken seriously. Perhaps today, we can see Carrasco as a metaphor for the Prozac and Ritalin too often prescribed for people who just don’t fit society’s definition of "normal." There is no room for gray area in his world.
Though most intellectuals are not this inflexible, Cervantes the poet uses an extreme view of this kind of man to offer a commentary on the struggle between science and art. Carrasco also butts heads with the Padre. In this case, the friction is not between science and art, but instead between reason and faith. The Padre, as a man of God, must accept many things on faith, things which can never be proven. For him, it is easier to accept Don Quixote's world, one built on the unseen, on what is believed to be, one built entirely on faith in an ideal. Quixote says at one point, "Too much sanity may be madness;" in other words, it's not always wise or healthy to dismiss those things predicated on faith. Some things can't be proven, but that doesn't mean they're not real. In his own way, Dr. Carrasco is as extreme in his view as Quixote, and that is why the show's climactic confrontation is saved for these two characters. It's interesting to note that Dr. Carrasco/The Duke never sings alone. As the symbol of cold, hard reality, he does not participate in the very unnatural, very artificial act of singing in a musical. In the original television play, The Duke is called to the Inquisition at the same time as Cervantes; his reason doesn’t save him any more than Cervantes’ poetry saves him. And they go off to face their fates together, like two sides of the same coin. In a way, Carrasco can be seen as the Judas Iscariot to Quixote’s Christ.
It’s significant that Quixote does "die," and is "born again," that he is betrayed by a Judas figure which leads directly to his "death," that he has a prostitute by his side, and that he even has a disciple. Just as Christ changed Simon’s name to Peter, who then led the early church, similarly Quixote has changed Aldonza’s name to Dulcinea, and there is reason to believe she will carry on his message. At the end of the show, Aldonza says, "Don Quixote is not dead. Believe, Sancho. Believe." At the end of "The Quest," Quixote sings, "
The Christ parallels couldn’t be more explicit. Certainly Aldonza’s world is better for this. And even when Quixote is "dead," we can safely assume that Alonso Quijana’s heart will indeed lie peaceful and calm as he’s laid to his rest.
To Each His Dulcinea
If Carrasco is Judas, then Aldonza is Mary Magdalene. When we meet Aldonza, she is a kitchen wench, a bitter and angry prostitute. Her stage character is based on two characters in the novel, Maritornes, the kitchen wench, and Aldonza Lorenzo, a neighbor of Señor Quijana with whom he is love. Just as Quixote sees something nobler in Aldonza’s heart, something which needs cultivating, so too does Cervantes see that nobility in the prisoner he chooses to play Aldonza. And just as Cervantes and Quixote blend together over the course of the show, so too do Aldonza and the prisoner who plays her, Escalante. By the end of the show, Aldonza sees what the world can be and she believes in it. She loves Quixote but in a pure, non-sexual way she could have never understood before. We see this transformation when she volunteers to minister to the wounds of the muleteers after the attempted rape. But while ministering to them, they do finally rape her, and she learns the most important lesson – that it's not easy to aspire to such moral heights. At first, this makes her believe again that Quixote is merely insane. But after Quixote is defeated by the Knight of the Mirrors and taken home, Aldonza has time to think about what has happened and what Quixote believes in; when she comes to him on his deathbed, we realize that she has come to believe in his ideals. She has learned to see goodness in the world. Ultimately, Quixote was right – Aldonza is a lady deep down. Could it be that he really does see truths other have been taught not to see?
Though it’s easy to see Quixote as a Christ figure, he sees Aldonza/Dulcinea as a religious icon, one worthy of adoration, reverence, and worship. Aldonza is Quixote’s religion, an ideal that guides all his actions, that dictates his morality, to which he can dedicate his life. Aldonza is Quixote’s Christ, even if she doesn’t want to cooperate in his worship. Part of this comes from the mystic vision he has cultivated of his "Dulcinea" before he even meets her. Like any lost soul who dedicates his life to a religious ideal, Quixote is lost until he finds Aldonza. And in a way, she is his proof that he’s not mad. While it’s true that Quixote never finds any other knights, no kings, no princesses, none of the trappings of the world he has created, the physical reality of Aldonza/Dulcinea is proof to him that he’s not mad, that the Lady Dulcinea does exist, and by extension, that the world of chivalry does exist. And conversely, Quixote ends up being the proof Aldonza needs that there is good in the world, that not everyone is selfish and abusive, that nobility and selflessness do exist in the world. Though she suffers a crisis of faith after the rape, she is ultimately changed – "born again" – by the end of the story.
Most of the Man of La Mancha score is written in Spanish dance styles, although none that would have actually existed when the story takes place. Quixote's song "The Quest" ("The Impossible Dream") is a bolero, an immediately recognizable style with a patient but persistent beat, embodying Quixote's determination. The show’s music and lyrics are very intense, even unpleasant, as often as they are sweet and optimistic. The relatively small orchestra (16 players originally) included two Spanish guitars, finger cymbals, castanets, and a tambourine, in addition to the more traditional brass and reeds. Wasserman also saw a production accompanied only by a single guitar, which he loved. As with most musicals, the characters' emotions are most vividly represented in their songs; but in the case of Aldonza, her character is built almost entirely through her songs, including her birth and childhood (in "Aldonza"), her current vocation and world view ("It's All the Same"), her confusion over Don Quixote ("What Does He Want of Me?"), and her eventual transformation and acceptance of Quixote (her reprises at the end). Two of her songs, "It's All the Same" and "Aldonza," share a similar rhythm, alternating between 6/8 and 3/4 meters. And "Aldonza" alternates between a minor key (representing her horrific life) and a major key (representing the better life she briefly experiences). In a way, "Aldonza" is a musical nervous breakdown, like other musical breakdowns including "Mama’s Turn" in Gypsy, the title song in Cabaret, and "Live, Laugh, Love" in Follies. "Aldonza" is about the pain of re-birth; Aldonza has been given a new life by Quixote, a new sense of dignity and self-worth, but birth is a painful experience, and "Aldonza" expresses that pain.
Interestingly, Quixote also shares her rhythm in his song about her, "Dulcinea." Giving these two characters similar rhythms links them and shows that they are alike, that they belong together. This rhythm is the same pattern Leonard Bernstein used in the song "America" in West Side Story, another intentionally Latin sounding piece. Aldonza's song, "What Does He Want of Me?" is in a highly irregular 7/8 meter, giving it a feeling of impatience, discomfort, uneasiness. Quixote's attentions have thrown her off balance, so she can't sing in a regular meter.
Like Aldonza's music, both of Sancho's songs share the same accompaniment rhythm, a much simpler, much more repetitive accompaniment than the other characters’ songs, based almost entirely on one or two chords in each case, perhaps to emphasize the simplicity and lack of education of Sancho. Appropriately, the instrumental music for "The Combat" and "The Abduction" both have constantly shifting meters to accompany the very explicit, violent action. And in one of composer Mitch Leigh's most interesting moves, he takes the seemingly innocuous love song "Little Bird" and turns it into the song the muleteers sing as they rape Aldonza later in the show.
In the last interior scene, back at Quijana’s house, Aldonza and Sancho try to revive Quijana’s memory of his adventures as Don Quixote, and as Quijana searches for those memories, Mitch Leigh dramatizes that with his music. We hear bits and pieces of "Dulcinea," "Man of La Mancha," "The Quest," and other songs, as bits and pieces of memory come back to Quijana; and his ultimate regaining of his memory is set to his opening number, a kind of re-birth as Quixote, the same music against which we first met our knight errant.
The script and full score have both been published and are available. There is a movie version with Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, which is not quite as awful as many critics have written, but it's not great. If you've never seen the show, seeing the movie may turn you off of it completely. If you know and love the show, the movie is an adequate reminder of why the stage version works so well. Though the musical is not a reproduction of the novel, reading the original Don Quixote will provide an excellent background in the themes, character motivation, and subtext that permeate the story. There is also an excellent book called Daily Life During the Spanish Inquisition, and Dale Wasserman has written a behind-the-scenes account of the creation of La Mancha called The Impossible Musical.
Copyright 1996-2004. Some of this material appeared in Scott Miller's first book, From Assassins to West Side Story, and has been expanded and revised. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.