From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 19.1 (1999): 125-30.
Copyright © 1999, The Cervantes Society of America

Don Quixote as Theatre1


In self-defense I should like it noted that I am not, nor ever have been, an Hispanic scholar. I am a playwright, one of whose works, Man of La Mancha, is enjoying performances in some forty languages, and which seems to have gone into theatrical history as the first truly successful adaptation of the novel Don Quixote. I consider this an unfortunate impression. Man of La Mancha, strictly speaking, is not an adaptation of Don Quixote at all. It is a play about Miguel de Cervantes. I do claim to know a little about Cervantes. That's a fairly safe claim, as there is no one who knows a great deal about him.
     For those interested in beginnings, Man of La Mancha was born not by design but by accident. The year was 1959. I was in Spain writing a movie when I read in a newspaper that my purpose there was research for a dramatization of Don Quixote. That was nonsense, of course, for like the great majority of people who claim to know Don Quixote, I had never read it. Spain was a logical place to repair that omission, so I waded in, emerging on the other side of its half-million words convinced that there was no way to dramatize this amazing compendium of the good, the bad, and the brilliant.
     I was aware that there had been dozens, perhaps hundreds, of such attempts —plays, opera, ballet, puppet shows, movies— every dramatic form possible. I was also aware that they had one thing in common: they failed. Having now read the book, I wasn't at a loss

     1 Speech given at Hofstra University, October 16, 1997.


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for a reason. Trying to compress this book into a neat dramatic structure was like trying to force a lake into a bucket —ambitious but impractical. It was clear that Don Quixote was all things to all people, and that no two of them could ever agree on its meanings. In that, perhaps, lay the power of the book. Each reader seemed to have read something different, something shaped by the attributes which the reader brought as personal baggage. No two people with whom I have ever had a discussion seemed to have read the same book. No two could agree on a precise meaning. One suspects that this may be the most potent reason for the enduring success of the novel —that each may take from it the meaning that he personally chooses.
     There's my confession: dazed by the riches of Don Quixote, I felt myself quite inadequate to the proposition of adapting it to theatrical form. Until that moment that one awaits . . . and awaits . . . , the moment of revelation that most often never arrives. In this case, however, lightning did strike. It illuminated a single line in the novel, a line which revealed the secret of how a dramatization might be accomplished.
     Its prelude lies in an encounter between Don Quixote and the farmer Pedro Alonso to whom Quixote has spun out a tale of capture by the Governor of Antequera and imprisonment in his castle. The farmer is astonished, for he knows Quixote perfectly well as his lifelong neighbor. Says the farmer: “Cannot your Grace see that I am not Don Rodrigo de Narváez, nor the Marquis of Mantua, but Pedro Alonso, your neighbor? And your Grace is merely a respectable gentleman by the name of Alonso Quijana?” Don Quixote replies: “I know who I am, and who I may be if I choose.”
     Examine that statement. “I know who I am, and who I may be if I choose.” That is not the statement of a madman, nor of one with vacant rooms in his head. To one whose profession is theatre, it is instantly recognizable as the statement of an actor, an actor perfectly aware of the role he is playing and quite properly annoyed by any who question his assumed identity.
     From this point forward I felt quite comfortable with Don Quixote. I understood him: an actor. That's what he was, first and last, writing his own play, always holding center stage. “In my childhood,” he tells Sancho, “I loved plays, and I have always been an admirer of the drama.” And he also says: “Plays are the semblance of realities, and deserve to be loved, because they set before our eyes looking-glasses that reflect human life . . . nothing tells us better what we are or ought to be than comedians and comedy.”

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     Of course there is a Shakespearean echo in these words. They recall the ruminations of another actor, Hamlet, who spoke of a mirror held up to nature, who had a love of theatricals, and who may or may not have been mad. It seems no coincidence that Shakespeare and Cervantes were almost precisely contemporary.
     Again and again, we find evidence that Don Quixote is acting his role. We rarely see him alone, but when we do, it is observable that he no longer acts the madman but is calm and introspective —the introspection of an actor mentally devising further scenes in the drama. To Sancho he says: “For a knight-errant to run mad upon just any occasion is not meritorious; no, the rarity is to run mad with purpose.” Or, as I paraphrased it later: “There's no credit in going crazy by accident, you've got to do it by design.
     Miguel de Cervantes was passionately and preeminently a man of the theatre. Very logically, his literary creation was an actor quite aware of the role he was playing. Here is where I found an affinity, an identification, and a solution to containment of the novel within a coherent form. The solution, of course, was not to dramatize the novel at all, but to write a play about a playwright and his alter ego. Both of them were actors, fantasists, dreamers of impossible dreams.
     Cervantes might have considered a career in theatre before the war, but his wounds and the captivity in Algiers intervened. When those harrowing years had passed, he wrote, by his own word, “some thirty or forty plays.” Sadly, they had little success. In rare lapses from his serene good nature, Cervantes would blame not his own ineptitude at playwriting but his exclusion from the circle of the literati —a circle of sycophants who clung to the shirt-tails of the very successful Lope de Vega, whom Cervantes called “that prodigy of comedy.” He blamed those who had entrée to the court and to patrons who had little interest in a crippled ex-soldier with theatrical ambitions.
     To me it was irrelevant that his plays were not successful. One recognizes the passion for theatre that drives those of us who share it. A playwright has no problem identifying the techniques of theatre in the novel Don Quixote. There is the creation of living, breathing characters; the manufacture of a world better than the one we have been born to; the search for concise yet poetic expression of that world; the difficulties of realization which never measure so splendidly as the dimensions in one's mind. And by all means include the love of applause, not from anonymous readers but from a living, breathing audience in the immediate presence of one's creation. The affinity I felt with Cervantes is the same affinity common to all

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writers of theatre. We know each other, in the same moment in which we are ferociously competitive.
     To one of the profession, Cervantes is instantly recognizable as a playwright, no matter whether he is writing in play-form, poetry, or in the shape of a novel. Don Quixote, the novel, is inherently theatrical. We have mentioned delineation of character, but there is more. Psychological motivations drive the plot. His people change, they grow. His stories show the dynamism of the stage. His scenes are pictorial. Depiction of costume and setting are meticulous. Dialogue shows acute observation of behavior; it is terse, muscular, direct.
     Most of all, however, Cervantes deals with the matter which is fundamental to all theatre —the collision of reality and illusion. Nowhere is it more eloquently explored than in Don Quixote. By no means, though, is it confined to that work. Search all of Cervantes, and you will find it, sometimes expressed overtly, sometimes in the subtext. And, by the way, those familiar with the Exemplary Novels will recognize that I drew upon them as heavily as I did upon Don Quixote. They will note that I populated the prison in Seville with raffish characters similar to those in Rinconete and Cortadillo. All of them are adrift on their own particular sea of illusion.
     Partially out of research into those lost years of Cervantes, and partially out of my own experience of a lifetime in the theatre, I formulated a vision of his career as a strolling player-playwright. Come, visualize it with me: a troupe of actors always on the move, traveling the dusty roads of Spain, stopping anywhere they might collect an audience. Visualize a painted players' wagon which will unfold its splintery boards to become a stage. The audience, largely illiterate bumpkins, but possibly including the local poet or even a grandee or two, applauding, whistling, and, one hopes, tossing coins into the hats passed by the actors. Cervantes, as the director and actor-in-chief, declaiming versions of his own adventures. His audience, doubting those adventures' extravagance, even though they had been modified for credibility. Nor let us forget a pudgy little man assembling props, pulling ropes, handling the curtains, the magic, the illusion —a Sancho to Cervantes's Quixote. The days of hunger when it rained, or when audiences whistled the players out of town. Nights under the stars, when the little band of players drank, roistered, and enjoyed the insular society of strolling players in all ages. And love-making, for it was in this period that Cervantes expressed his passion for the actress who gave birth to his natural daughter, Isabel. Here's where I found the courage to approach and interpret Cervantes; for a life in the theatre was my life too.

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     One very short chapter in Book Two of Don Quixote was particularly intriguing to me: Chapter Eleven, in which the Don has an encounter with a theatrical troupe traveling from village to village, performing a play called “The Parliament of Death.” Here the novel invokes devices which are purely theatrical: multiple levels of reality, symbolism with the implication of dark forces which are just beyond the limits of literal vision. Fascinated by the potential of such a scene, initially I developed it at full length, implying the possibility that these players on their trumpery wagon were something other than what they pretended to be. In reply to Quixote's challenge, they say they are actors representing, respectively, Death, Love, a Demon, an Angel, and the Devil himself. Under Quixote's challenge, Death removes his mask —to reveal an identical skull-face beneath. Are these really players, or is Quixote confronting the fundamentals which define each life on earth? I chose ambiguity, allowing the audience to decide just what he had encountered.
     I wrote the scene at some length, falling in love with matters barely implied by Cervantes. But don't look for it in the published version of Man of La Mancha, for it was found to be deeply troubling to the audience. The scene was evicted from the play, but I have always missed it. It's a wonderful maze of ideas, of symbolic wheels within wheels. The actor Don Quixote encounters a troupe of actors who may or may not be actors, leaving both Quixote and the audience wondering where the ultimate reality lay. That is pure theatre. The scene is a house of mirrors, multiple versions of reality, offering the audience a smorgasbord of possibilities from which to choose.
     There's the heart of Don Quixote —continuous collisions of illusion and reality. Which of them shall overcome? Quite willfully, I chose illusion. For illusion is the intriguing choice in a world where reality too often destroys the spirit. The most significant line in my play is a very simple one. Sansón Carrasco informs Quixote that there are no knights, no chivalry, that there have been no knights for three hundred years —and these are facts. Quixote replies: “Facts are the enemy of truth.” I do believe that facts are the enemy of truth. Carrasco adjures Cervantes that one must see life as it is. Here is Cervantes's answer, as he speaks in the play:

I have lived more than fifty years, and I have seen life as it is. I have heard the singing from taverns and the moans from bundles of filth in the streets. I have been a soldier and seen my comrades die in battle, and I have held them in my arms in 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 were filled with

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confusion, whimpering the question: “Why?” I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived.

Then Cervantes rallies, his natural buoyancy of spirit asserting himself, and goes on to say:

When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is 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 might be.

     These are words of conflict, philosophies to be debated. But conflict is at the heart of all theatre, and conflict is inherent in every page of the novel Don Quixote. There's a syllogism here: theatre is at the heart of every page of Don Quixote.
     In conclusion, we do not know precisely when Cervantes was born. We don't know, even, where he is buried. But these are merely facts, immaterial to the truth that his literary monuments tower a bit higher with each succeeding century, and that we are all enriched thereby.

Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes