Recently my wife and I were treated to an extraordinary performance of Man from La Mancha at the Avon Theatre in Stratford, ON.
Neither of us had ever seen the production before, and we found it a highly moving experience. Dale Wasserman wrote this great musical in the 1960s about Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s greatest writers and author of Don Quixote.
The musical relates an incident in Cervantes’ life whereby he and his manservant are wandering around Spain performing plays when they are summarily tossed into prison for committing an offense against the Church.
The story unfolds in the prison while he waits for his trial before the Inquisition. He and his manservant are set upon by the jailer and the other prisoners, both male and female, who take their possessions.
Among those are found his masterpiece manuscript Don Quixote. Seeing no value in this sheaf of papers, the jailer orders that it be dispatched to the fire pit. Horrified, Cervantes must create the performance of a lifetime as a distraction to save his work.
The genius of Wasserman is that he has Cervantes create a series of performances that are pure improvisations based upon the stories in his manuscript.
As I watched this incredible story unfold on stage, I saw Cervantes talk the jailer and prisoners into becoming actors in these performances. Imagine, hardened criminals with their jaded views of humanity and the purpose of life, bringing all that they were into these improvisations! It was moving and terrifying too. The audience watched the gradual transformation as they began to buy into Don Quixote’s sacred Quest, embodied in the song The Impossible Dream.
Early in the performance I had given myself up to the incredible story unfolding before us. I laughed at their ribald humour, I suffered through the inhumane assault on Aldonza whom Quixote called Dulcinea, and I cried at the end when soldiers of the Inquisition led Cervantes away while the jailer and prisoners left behind sang The Impossible Dream.
As I left the theatre, I thought about the message of Don Quixote. Cervantes was reaching across the centuries, using Quixote’s words as a bridge to bring meaning to an audience in the Twenty-First Century:
I have lived nearly fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. Pain, misery, hunger … cruelty beyond belief. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth on the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle … or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words … only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, “Why?” I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. To seek treasure where there is only trash. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!
He could very well have spoken about the human agony of our own century: the pain and misery of those starving slowly to death, the horror of the innocent victims in the Gaza Strip, the outrage at the slaughter of passengers and crew of the downed airliner in the Ukraine, and many, many other examples of man’s inhumanity to man. I find it easy to become depressed by these horrors. Humanity has taken gigantic leaps in knowledge and technology down through history, and yet man has not harnessed his hunger, his urges, nor his emotions. He is no more advanced in these respects than cave men.
But Don Quixote had a great dream! The Quest he sang about is noble! Is it just a song, pretty words, a catchy tune? Nothing more? As I reflected on his Quest, the agonized words of the whore Aldonza to Quixote came to me… and stayed…
You spoke to me and everything was different … and you looked at me, and you called me by another name … Dulcinea.
He spoke to her… the soldier Don Quixote, whom everyone thought was a madman… he spoke tender words of love for a street-hardened, filthy, harlot. His words were thrown back into his face at almost every turn – she scorned him, ridiculed him, but she couldn’t crush him – not his spirit. His spirit is the Quest. It is indomitable, and the words of truth about her worth as a person, her beauty as a woman, finally crashed in upon her mind.
What did Aldonza see through her suffering? The last sentence of Quixote quoted above gives us a clue:
Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!
So. What of us? What of me? Shall I take up my sword and follow this glorious quest? Yes. Cervantes was a soldier of Spain in the late 1500s as they fought off the invasions of the Turks. So in his life experience as a soldier, it was natural that his character Don Quixote put on his armour and take up his sword. For me, that would be silly. So what am I in real life? Although I’m now retired, I am a teacher. I am also a writer. I have no classroom, but I have an audience made up of those who choose to read my books. Is the pen mightier than the sword? I don’t know. I do know that my pen, my word processor, is my sword.