The other night, Mary and I went to see a stage production of The Man of La Mancha. Believe it or not, I had never seen the play even though it came out originally when I was a child. The only thing I knew about it was that it related somehow to the story of Don Quixote and it contained the popular song The Impossible Dream.
At first, I was a bit confused by the story but by intermission started to understand. I enjoyed the play but it was only after it was over when Mary and I started to discuss it that I really began to appreciate its deeper meanings. It began when she described it as an “Abraham-Hicks play”, noting the similarities between the teachings of the law of attraction and how the character Don Quixote created his own reality.
In my way of thinking, a truly remarkable film or play is one that has you contemplating it and discussing it long after it’s over. Mary’s comments got me reflecting upon the story and sent me off on a bit of Internet research!
In addition to being fairly ignorant about the play, I really didn’t know much about the book Don Quixote or its author Cervantes. About all I knew was that the book was written by this Spanish author hundreds of years ago about some crazy guy who rode around on a horse fighting windmills. I now know a bit more and if you’re interested, you might want to read the Wikipedia article.
Here, I really want to focus on the meaning I am beginning to see from the play The Man of La Mancha and how it relates to our lives. There is a wonderfully detailed synopsis available on the Wikipedia article, but I am going to briefly outline what you need to know here.
All of the action takes place within a prison around the year 1600. Prisoners roam freely within this dark cave-like atmosphere where they have created their own rules and culture. There is an unseen outer world offstage which occasionally drops into the prison world by way of a staircase that is lowered and raised from a higher platform. .(It’s hard here not to think of Plato’s allegory of the cave.)
Early on, the staircase is lowered and two new prisoners are deposited – the playwright/tax collector Cervantes and his servant. The prisoners put Cervantes on trial themselves where Cervantes both declares himself “guilty” of his crimes (being idealistic and trying to tax the church!) yet demands the opportunity to defend himself.
His defense then becomes a “play within a play” as he tells the tale of a man named Alonso Quijano and his alter ego Don Quixote. The play’s author, Dale Wasserman, here has made The Man of La Mancha really about the author Cervantes and the interplay of these two characters, Quijano and Quixote, within Cervantes’ mind.
For most of the play, his fellow prisoners assist Cervantes in acting out the tales of Quijano and Quixote. Quijano appears only briefly as the “rational and normal” individual who gives way to his inner idealistic self – Don Quixote. As the prisoners take on their roles in the story, their new characters spend much time trying to bring Quixote back to the “real world”. They see him as an idealistic madman.
Yet Quixote sees through their stories and circumstances and sees a greater truth. As he states, “facts are the enemy of the truth.” Hence, where they see an old inn, he sees a castle. Where they see thieves and rapists, he sees honorable adversaries who have at their core some being worth honoring and serving. Where they see the prostitute Aldonza, he sees her true beauty and deems her “Dulcinea” which at the time of Cervantes meant “sweetness” in Spanish.
Continuously, Quixote treats others as he truly sees them – from a higher vision where there is a true inner perfection. His only concern is having to do battle with his arch enemy, the magician called the “Enchanter”. Eventually the Enchanter defeats Quixote by appearing as the “Knight of the Mirrors”, reflecting back into Quixote’s senses the so-called reality of the outer world and overwhelming him with this external truth. The message here, of course, is that we get enchanted by the external world of affairs that are fed into our senses, these outer experiences ultimately overwhelming us into believing they are real rather than our inner vision of a greater truth.
In the play, this is where Cervantes attempts to end his defense but his fellow prisoners do not like the ending and demand another one! Cervantes then “improvises” an extended ending to his story. We now see Quijano in his deathbed with no memory of his life as Quixote. Yet his servant and Dulcinea (who now claims her new name and vision) eventually are able to re-waken within him the memories of his greater vision as Quixote. He rises from his deathbed energized by his remembrance but then falls to the floor and his death.
Here the outer world interjects itself into the prison world with the lowering of the staircase and the demand for the prisoner Cervantes to go face his trial – hence he leaves the prisoners’ trial to face the outer trial. Cervantes arises from the floor where he had “died” with newfound respect from his fellow prisoners. As he moves up the staircase, the prisoners urge him on by singing “to dream the impossible dream.”
The Man of La Mancha can easily be seen as having metaphysical overtones. Life magazine pointed that out in its initial review in the 1960s. Many have written detailed articles analyzing the deeper meaning of the play – here is a link to a lengthy but interesting one.
Obviously, how we interpret the story is a product of our own worldview. Some traditionalists have obviously pointed to what they see as the death of Don Quixote and the rebirth of Cervantes as parallel to the resurrection of Jesus. Materialists tend to see it as a story about trying to balance our idealism with scientific material reality. If we get out of balance and lean too far into our idealistic nature, we can veer into the world of “madness”.
Yet from a different viewpoint, we can see the tale as one we all face – listening to our inner idealism or listening to the material world. Like Cervantes, we all contain an inner ” Quijano ” who must live in the physical world and experience being bound by what it reflects into our senses. Life “out there” enchants us into believing that it is the true reality. If we try to see beyond it to some greater truth, some greater possibilities, some higher vision – then others who have bought into the enchantment see us as crazy. It’s easier just to conform and be part of the crowd than it is to question whether this outer world and its apparent limitations is really all there is.
Yet also like Cervantes, we all contain an inner “Don Quixote”– an aspect of our being that sees beyond the limitations of the outer world and knows at some deeper level that there is a higher vision, a greater world that we can create if we just hold true to our dream.
Like Cervantes, we struggle with which voice to listen – Quijano or Quixote. Do we give into the crowd or listen to our vision? Ultimately, in the play Cervantes had to have the struggle between both inner voices “die” so that he could be reborn to his greater truth. Don Quixote’s idealism needed to live within Cervantes and must live within us.
The late playwright Wasserman wrote a book a few years before his death about the making of The Man of La Mancha. It’s entitled “The Impossible Musical”. There he acknowledges the metaphysical aspects of the play.
In referencing the Life magazine review, he writes that “there was more to that ‘metaphysical’ side. It was evidenced in the flood of mail I began receiving at the opening of the show and that, though diminished, continues to this very day . The wild variety of interpretations of the text I had thought to be simplistically clear astonished me. There were many who identified Quixote with Jesus Christ, which I found puzzling since neither I nor my play have any interest in religion whatsoever. Others found various spiritual interpretations, most of which represented not interpretations of the play so much as verification of the letter writers’ own beliefs.”
He continues, “but there was one theme that chorused through almost all of the communications. In one way or another, they said, ‘the play changed my life.’ By this I understood not so much that the play had actually changed anyone’s life but that it had reawakened the ideals of innocence, ideals that had died of the attrition of living.”
So, yes, I recognize that this interpretation here reflects my own beliefs. It’s always that way whether we see it or not. Yet I agree with Wasserman that his message was clear – as we move through outer life, its imperfections overwhelm us into losing our ideals. Yet we always have the power to change our own thinking – to reawakened that childlike state of innocence – to turn away from outer conditions – to hold firm in our consciousness that impossible dream – to see the greatest possibilities within each other and for our world and to continuously hold the light of our candle shining upon that dream.
Dream on, Don Quixote, dream on.
Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!