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By Drew Lichtenberg
One of the first things to know about Man of La Mancha, perhaps the most popular adaptation of Don Quixote, is that it isn’t an adaptation at all. During a 1959 trip to Madrid, Dale Wasserman read the book (or parts of it, it isn’t entirely clear) and came away convinced that this book, considered the greatest novel of all time, this “monument to human wit and folly could not, and should not, be dramatized.”
Wasserman was right. Begun, most likely, as a short s tory ridiculing the romantic notion of chivalry, Cervantes’ Don Quixote quickly expanded into two volumes of brilliant, mercurial prose. A failed playwright and civil servant writing at the end of a long and chaotic life, Cervantes somehow produced, by some strange alchemy, a brilliant panorama of Spanish society in the 16th century, a profound meditation on life and death, and an endless hall-of-mirrors on the mysteries of identity.
The premise of Don Quixote is a simple one: a country gentleman by the name of Alonso Quixana becomes enamored of chivalric literature, and determines to become a knight errant, by the name of Don Quixote. Accompanied by his faithful manservant Sancho Panza, what follows are countless variations on this theme. Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita and an inimitable literary critic, once sat down and tallied up the result of each adventure. He realized they resembled a tennis match: “6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 5-7. But the fifth set will never be played. Death cancels the match.”
In between his own adventures, Quixana/Quixote hears the life stories of characters from all walks of life—noblemen, knights, poets, priests, traders, barbers, muleteers, scullions, and convicts. Continuing the digressive pattern, Cervantes includes prologues to both volumes in his own voice, addressing the reader as well as another unnamed friend. Dialoguing with this ghost Cervantes, our author wonders how to tell this tale, the “true history” of Don Quixote.
There had never been anything like this. Nothing with such a variety of incident, such a dizzying menagerie of overlapping voices, so many layers of reality between the reader and the fictive world. As many critics have pointed out—Nabokov and Kafka among them—Cervantes himself is a weak and piddling character in the book, dwarfed immeasurably by Don Quixote, his great creation. One’s mind, of course, turns to Shakespeare, who pales next to his own characters such as Falstaff and Hamlet. Shakespeare’s life has been the subject of endless questioning, his characters the subject of endless fascination. So it goes with Cervantes and Quixote.
So what did Wasserman do? Brilliantly mimicking the meta-fictional tricks of Cervantes, Wasserman begins with the enigmatic figure of Cervantes himself. Instead of staging the un-stageable events of the book, he gives us two worlds: the “real” world of a Seville prison in 1594, and the world of the theatre, in which an imprisoned Cervantes acts out scenes from his manuscript. The play unfolds on an “abstract platform whose elements are fluid and adaptable,” like the ever-changing landscape of Cervantes’ stories. As Wasserman writes, “the primary effect of the play should be improvisational,” like Cervantes’ prose itself. The only way to adapt Don Quixote, Wasserman must have realized in a flash of insight, was to abandon any attempt at replicating the content of the book and instead find a theatrical twin for the book’s form.
This breakthrough leads to every surprising twist. Instead of dramatizing Don Quixote, the un-dramatizable character, Wasserman gives us a day in the life of Miguel de Cervantes. Instead of adapting the un-adaptable, Wasserman shows us the artist, inspired, against the backdrop of the Inquisition. Instead of trying to answer the un-answerable question, Wasserman poses it: How do we dream impossible dreams?
Originally written as a 90-minute teledrama, Wasserman was frustrated by what he called the original production’s “assertive naturalism.” When he converted it into a musical, he retained the play’s one-act structure, unusual for Broadway then and now. The composer, Mitch Leigh, drew on European classical and American jazz idioms, abolishing strings in favor of a band featuring brass, winds, and guitar. Nothing like it had been heard on a Broadway stage before. Wasserman desired to create a new form of theatre that was “disciplined yet free, simple-seeming yet intricate,” a “kind of theatre that was without precedent.”
Man of La Mancha was certainly unprecedented for a Broadway musical, but it was not a kind of theatre that nobody had seen before. Instead, the work looked to the cutting edge of the contemporary avant-garde. La Mancha premiered the same year as Peter Brook’s landmark London production of Marat/Sade, a production also designed for an empty stage and a unit set with no intermission, also featuring a play-within-a-play, also on the lofty themes of madness and sanity, of idealism amid historical cataclysm.
Unlike that work, however, Man of La Mancha does not traffic in postwar alienation or avant-garde cruelty. Equally indebted to the metatheatrical innovations of Luigi Pirandello and Bertolt Brecht, it sounds a note of utterly American optimism. While Cervantes had bid goodbye to an age of chivalry, Wasserman & Co. looked forward to an age of renewed social justice. Seen against the backdrop of the 1960s, “to dream the impossible dream” speaks strongly to the desire to leave the world a better place, to continue the fight for freedoms both social and personal, political and individual. It is a fitting phrase and signature song for the impossible musical, an adaptation of the unadaptable, one that is really not an adaptation at all.
Written at a time when the hippest works of theatre wallowed in despair, Man of La Mancha gives us something much harder to define. As the great Spanish critic Miguel de Unamuno wrote, of Don Quixote: “Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.”
Man of La Mancha plays Sidney Harman Hall through April 26.