The following is really a personal tale of a story that helped me in a personal way at just the right time. But I’m telling it as a review of the play, Man of La Mancha. Spoilers abound throughout, but this is a rather old story by now.
As many of you know, I sometimes struggle with my faith, especially during times of depression. One night when I was at a low, my wife reminded me we had a play to go to that night. We’d already changed our date for the play once, so even though we didn’t feel like going we decided to not waste the tickets. When we arrived at the theater, I saw that the play was Man of La Mancha. I groaned inwardly, “Ug! Not Don Quixote!” Boring! Or so I thought.
Half way through the play I still had no idea where the meandering storyline was going. I couldn’t relate to the characters either, so I wasn’t enjoying the play much.
Then all of a sudden the threads of the story came together in an unexpected way that. As the play ended I turned to my wife and said “well… that was sort of like God shouting a message to me… just when I needed it the most.”
I will explain the play and its theme and why its message was one that I needed to hear.
Don Quixote: The Play vs. The Book
The book “Don Quixote” is, if anything, nihilistic in nature. There are no definitive statements about life being made that aren’t somewhere else undermined by the author. It’s more of a parody of life, if anything. By comparison, the play uses the same characters and the same story of Don Quixote to take a strong stance about the nature of life. And it handled it so skillfully that this has now become one of my favorite stories.
A Play Within a Play
The play begins with the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, being put in jail by the Spanish Inquisition. This turns out to be key to how this play pulls off its theme.
Cervantes, a starving poet, became a tax collector – as hated back then as today – to pay the bills. As a tax collector, Cervantes placed a lien on a Church that would not pay its taxes – that was the law after all, and Cervantes felt that no one, not even the Church, should be above the law. So, of course, the Church sent the Spanish Inquisition after him, thereby landing him into his current predicament.
Cervantes, has just arrived in prison with his assistant and a chest full of all his most important possessions. The leader of the inmates, called “The Governor”, informs Cervantes that every new prisoner is tried and found guilty of some ‘crime.’ Then his possessions will be taken from him and split up amongst the other inmates as ‘punishment’. The inmates also notice that Cervantes has a journal or book of some sort with him. The Governor takes the book from Cervantes and intends to burn it. But Cervantes stops this by reminding all of the inmates that he was promised a trial first.
Cervantes’ Defense: Don Quixote
The inmates proceed with their trial, charging Cervantes of being ‘an idealist’ — which they see as the worst of all possible crimes – as well as a “bad poet”. Cervantes pleads guilty to the charges, but asks for the ‘court’ to hear out his defense anyhow in hopes that he might receive leniency from them. Despite grumbles from the inmates, they have nothing better to do, so they allow Cervantes his defense, with no intentions of showing him any leniency.
Cervantes then proceeds with his defense by opening up his trunk of possessions which turns out to be full of props for a play. His defense will be having all the inmates put on a play.
It is at this point we start the tale of Don Quixote, which is a play within a play, often flashing back to Cervantes and the prisoners to interweave commentary and to draw analogies. The story proceeds by intertwining how the story of the play affects Cervantes’ defense.
Don Quixote’s Tale Begins
Alonso Quijana is a man that read too many books and went mad. (I note here that just as we fear video games will rot the brain or lead to insanity, back then fiction books were the assumed culprit. The very thing that today we are so anxious to get kids to do instead of video games.)
When Alonso goes mad he has a delusion that he is a knight named Don Quixote. He rides off with his ‘squire’ Sancho looking for adventure. His first adventure is his famous battle with ‘giants’ which are really windmills. He loses that fight and decides that the reason why is because he has yet to be knighted. So he rides to a ‘castle’ to find a ‘nobleman’ to knight him. This castle is really just a tavern and inn filled with the scum of the earth.
The obvious analogy here is between Cervantes, the faith-based idealist, and Don Quixote, the delusional knight who sees the world as it ideally “should” be. It took a while for me to even “get this” connection, but once I did, I wasn’t impressed. This story has been done many times before and since and (I falsely assumed) better than this meandering play. For example, Life of Pi, is really about a boy that see horrible things that force him to become a murderer, so he makes up a story about a tiger instead. (I am taking the skeptical view here, of course, but the story is told in such a way that I think you can’t help but favor that view.) The story even likens the whole thing to faith in God: God may not be real, but he’s a better story than real life, so it’s good to believe in him even though he doesn’t exist.
This was even the main theme of the recent award winning (or so I hear) Book of Mormon: The Musical. Fiction is better than truth! Delusion better than reality! Blah blah.
This point slowly gets driven home as Don Quixote proves incapable of seeing people as they really are but sees someone “noble” instead. Everyone think him mad, of course, and he scares them a little.
Aldonza’s story and her interactions with Don Quixote are the key relationship in the story, thematically speaking. The first time we see Aldonza the whore she is accepting payment from “Pedro” the local leader of the thugs that inhabit the Inn. She agrees to do the deed with him later.
But when Don Quixote arrives, upon seeing Aldonza, he decides she is his lady love, a noble woman. Since no noble woman could have a name like “Aldonza” he renames her “Dulcinea.” Aldonza figures this is all probably just a ploy to get free sex and pays him no heed at first.
But when Quixote sends Sancho, his servant, with a missive to her, to her surprise, what he asks for is only a token to represent her as he journey’s on his quest. She is thoroughly unbelieving still, but offers a dirty rag. The rag is, of course, pure silk to Don Quixote’s eyes.
She continues to puzzle over him and finally demands that he tell her what he really wants. He admits he has an ulterior motive and she is just sure she knows what it is. But it turns out he wants to die for her and take strength from her as a noble lady.
Faith, Idealism, and Suffering
At this point Pedro arrives because Aldonza is late to give him what he’s paid for. He hits her and this enrages Quixote who must now defend his lady’s honor. Pedro and his gang of thugs attack and, despite having no actual combat skills, Quixote (with a lot of help from Aldonza and Sancho) manage to win the fight by sheer chance.
Quixote is asked to leave by the Innkeeper’s wife for beating up her good regular customers. But Quixote says he must first attend to the wounds of those he beat in battle. Aldonza is shocked! He is so idealistic that he will try to heal those that are his enemies? Realizing he needs to leave to keep the peace, Aldonza — letting some of Don Quixote’s delusions finally rub off on her — offers to attend to their wounds instead.
This is where everything goes horribly wrong.
First, Aldonza goes to help her enemies. Because she has to let down her guard to take care of their wounds, they take advantage of the situation and abduct her, beat her, and rape her.
Meanwhile, Quixote is on the road and thieving gypsies come along. He is so idealistic and naïve that he thinks them people in need. They rob him of all his possessions and he thinks they are merely asking for a donation.
I think this is the point in the play where it finally caught my attention. This play was outright admitting that faith and idealism – compared to “realism” — causes pain and suffering. Sometimes even serious pain and suffering! Had Don Quixote not been delusional and convinced Aldonza — even for a moment –that she was something more than a whore, all this suffering could have been avoided. To have them so drastically admit to this shocked me awake and I was riveted for the rest of the play, wondering where it was going. I had been so convinced it was a simple predecessor to The Life of Pi type stories, which frankly I find silly and inane for the most part. Was this story instead going to turn into nihilism like the book it was based on, undermining any assumptions you thought you had about the story?
Quixote returns to the Inn and things get even worse. Aldonza confronts him over what happened and blames him and his delusions. She shows him the graphic results of his idealism and explains how hurtful it was to give her even a glimpse of a better life she can never have. She explains (partially in song) that her father was a solider passing through — she had no idea which side he was on — that got her mother pregnant. Her mother left her in a ditch hoping she’d die. She wishes she had for her life has not been worth living. But by cruel chance she survived. Now she survives as a whore — it is just who and what she is. She tries to force Quixote to see her as she really is. But he can’t. He only sees the beautiful and noble Dulcinea.
The Knight of the Mirrors
Meanwhile, Don Quixote’s relatives are all ashamed of his insanity and (under the guise of ‘only thinking of him’) have hatched a plan to break him out of it.
They pretend to be “the Knight of the Mirror” (and companions) – Quixote’s ultimate enemy. They battle him with broken mirrors that show him what the world is really like and what a sham and silly insane person he really is. As they hoped, this finally breaks Don Quixote.
The Author Explains the Theme
We move back to Cervantes on trial by his fellow prisoners for some philosophical commentary. The inmates are obviously interested in the story, but unfortunately this is as far as Cervantes has written. At about this time, we hear that the Inquisition is on its way to take him. The inmates are so upset by this ending that they are about to burn his manuscript when Cervantes asks to be given long enough to improvise an ending. They agree, curious how he’ll end the story.
Earlier in the play, the governor mentioned the obvious similarities between an idealist and a delusional. He has not missed that Don Quixote represents Cervantes himself. Cervantes does not deny it and explains himself in words that sent shivers down my spine.
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!
We understand now the true meaning of the most famous song from the play, The Impossible Dream:
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go.
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star.
This is my quest —
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
no matter how far.
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause.
And the world will be better for this
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.
Cervantes will never give up his faith in what he believes in. He honestly doesn’t care if that kills him or not. He’d prefer to not die, but dying an idealist is better than living a realist.
Again, this theme seemed very much like The Life of Pi, though more realistically told due to the admission of the suffering faith and idealism causes. So the final scene of the play of Don Quixote perhaps does not surprise us, though it was still quite touching and got me all chocked up.
So Cervantes improvises an ending. Don Quixote is sick in bed and hasn’t woken up since his last battle. When he finally does, he is no longer Quixote but is back to being Alonso Quijana. He has forgotten what happened to him. He is again sane.
As he starts to dictate his will (the true purpose behind his family wanting him back) Aldonza enters and insists on seeing him. She has changed since their last conversation. She found she could not bear to go back to being Aldonza again and found that she was really Dulcinea in her heart, despite the suffering it caused her. That is who she really is and she now accepts that the suffering it brought was worth it.
She begs Alonso to see her as, and call her, Dulcinea again. But he can’t remember her or anything that happened. She starts to sing the song he taught her: To Dream the Impossible Dream.
At first this doesn’t work, but then it finally comes back to him… He is not Alonso! He is Don Quixote! A knight on a quest! And she is the lady Dulcinea!
As he rises to go on another one of his quests… he dies.
But to Dulcinea, it is only Alonso — a good man — that died. But Don Quixote lives. They should believe that. And with this, the play within a play ends. And, I thought, the play how now made its point. I was wrong.
One Final Twist
The play had won me over by this point, though to be honest I was disappointed that outside of admitting to the connection between faith and suffering, they had only done the Life of Pi or Book of Mormon: The Musical but better. But I was in for a final surprise as the play makes the true point it was secretly building to all along.
We switch back to the author (Cervantes) in prison now that the play has ended. The prisoners are all silent. Cervantes asks them for a judgment and he is unanimously declared not guilty.
He is the only person ever declared not guilty by this “court” of inmates.
He is given his manuscript back, which by now they have figured out is the very story he’s been telling them and had them acting out.
As Cervantes leaves to face the Spanish Inquisition “the Governor” says “if you defend yourself in that court as well as you did in this one, you will not burn.”
To which Cervantes says — rather idealistically of course — “I do not intend to burn.” Then off he goes to face the Spanish Inquisition. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
While you do not get to see how this turns out, you realize that Cervantes faith and “idealism” might just be the one effective defense against the Spanish Inquisition. With this, the play really ends.
And I was left with the startling realization, that the “Idealist” might be seeing reality more clearly than the so-called Realist. Maybe it is the so-called “Realist” that is the delusional one and the faith-based “Idealist” that is seeing the world as it really is. Through the use of the two interweaving stories, the author has skillfully made the point in a way I would not have thought possible. Faith seemed now more real than reality.
This wasn’t yet another Life of Pi, after all. It was its opposite!