This afternoon my wife and I attended a performance of “The Man From La Mancha” at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.
The musical is based on the novel “Don Quixote“, by Miguel de Cervantes .
This novel is considered the first modern novel written (and one of the greatest). It casts a sprawling net over 16th century Spain–a grand and panoramic meditation on life and death, of suffering, failure, and dreams.
The Musical Man of La Mancha, though derived from the novel, is not an adaptation. It takes a “frame” narrative arc, alternating between scenes from Don Quixote, the knight errant obsessed with chivalrous actions and defending the defenseless–with a day in the life of its author Miguel de Cervantes, who is in jail waiting to face the Spanish Inquisition for political treason.
In this performance, the jail scenes were modernized, stirring up images of our contemporary climate, conjuring thoughts of todays political prisoners and refugee camps that lay just under the stories surface.
The show is an extraordinary mix of music, artistry, and story.
The music and singing were beautiful and moving. The stage did double duty –evocative in turns of both a 20th century prison and the 16th century Spanish countryside.
It was, however, the transformation of the characters over the course of the two-hour performance that mesmerized me.
First, of Sancho Panza, the appointed squire to Don Quixote–from a poor peasant, scratching out a living for his wife and children, to a brave friend, willing to defend his friend at the cost of his own life. This happened by trusting not in his friends romantic and lunatic visions, but in his friend himself.
And then, the transformation of Aldonza, a peasant women who knew only her role as an object to be used, discarded, and used again–to a lady who had inspired the courageous acts and vision of Don Quixote.
Both of these characters were changed forever as a direct result of the imaginative vision of Don Quixote, this “Man From La Mancha”.
When he looked at Sancho Panza, he did not see a poor, cowardly peasant– but saw a brave and loyal servant and friend.
When he looked at Aldonza, he did not see a barmaid of low morals, but instead saw Dulcinea, a maiden fair and virtuous, kind and honorable, and worthy of his protection and honor to the point of his death.
By the time of Don Quixote’s death, the one who was known as Aldonza had faded away, and only Dulcinea remained.
Thus is the creative power of imagination; of imagining the very best in others, of imagining the best in our world, of declaring to someone who they really are, notwithstanding what it may look like at the moment.
Don Quixote did not directly transform his world as he hoped. But he continually transformed others by calling what is not yet as though it was.
There is word for this approach to life, and it is Faith, and faith always precedes Hope. and hope drives one on, and on, no matter what things look like to others.
The message of this “Man from La Mancha” in 16th Century Spain is needed more than ever today–to look beyond the cynicism and suffering of the day, and call out in each other the strength and courage and love we know is already there.