The Quixotic Don Quixote

Classic Arts Features   The Quixotic Don Quixote
Sheryl Flatow shows us the method to the madness behind Cervantes' most colorful character.

He's a muddle-headed fool with frequent lucid intervals.

That's one of the descriptions of Don Quixote by Sancho Panza in Miguel de Cervantes' epic novel. It's a sharp, funny, and very quotable passage from a masterpiece teeming with insights, ideas and observations about the human condition that have remained pertinent for four centuries.

And it's a book with which most Americans are unfamiliar.

Oh, we all know Don Quixote‹or think we do. But for most of us, our knowledge of the knight errant is based on our familiarity with the musical Man of La Mancha, and/or the ballet danced by American Ballet Theatre and other companies, inspired by Marius Petipa and Alexander Gorsky.

Neither the musical nor the ballet is a representation of the novel, and neither claims to be. In both these treatments of Cervantes' material, the Don is foolishly romantic, unpredictable, extravagantly chivalrous, and touched by madness‹in other words, quixotic. But in the musical, he is first and foremost a deeply romantic figure‹dreaming the impossible dream, fighting the unbeatable foe‹who ultimately wins respect and admiration. In the ballet he is a supporting player to Kitri and Basilio‹two minor characters in the novel‹and a mostly absurd figure: along with Sancho Panza and Gamache, he sets the comic tone of the piece.

"In our version, he's not mad," says ballet mistress Susan Jones, who co-staged Don Quixote for ABT with Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. "He's the quintessential dreamer. He really believes in these visions: the things that he sees in his mind are reality to him. In the prologue, when the vision happens and Dulcinea is revealed, I tell the dancer playing Don Quixote that before he even turns around and sees her, somewhere stamped in the middle of his forehead is her image. That ideal woman is imbedded in his brain. When he turns around it's as if, 'Yes, she really does exist.' He convinces himself that this ideal woman is there for him in real life.

"Even though the ballet is about Kitri and Basilio, we chose to resolve our production with Don Quixote as a central figure," Jones continues. "I thought it was important that Don Q be left as we first saw him, on his quest. He has helped Kitri and Basilio, and he's fully aware that he's helped them"‹a lucid interval. "At the end of the ballet, Kitri says to him, 'What about you?' And he says, 'Over there, there's a beautiful woman, my ideal woman. And I have to go on my journey.' So he ends as he began. That scene is very special to me. It finalizes the ballet."

Still, the approaches taken by the ballet and the musical oversimplify a complicated character. Yet each in its own way captures an aspect of the visionary Cervantes created. When the book was originally published‹the first part appeared in 1605, the second part ten years later‹it was viewed strictly as a parody of the most popular genre of the period, novels of chivalry. But in the ensuing 400 years, attitudes and opinions about Don Quixote have evolved‹and continue to evolve.

"Until the middle of the 18th century, the work was simply considered a brilliantly successful, funny book," says Carolyn Nadeau, an associate professor of Hispanic Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University, and the author of Women of the Prologue: Imitation, Myth, and Magic in Don Quixote I. "Early readers identified with society rather than with Don Quixote, and probably perceived him as a crazed man. Later, the Rationalists of the 18th century read Don Quixote as a commentary on the relation between madness and society: the knight was understood as a rupture from the norm, a flight from reason, and for that he was repeatedly and justly punished. But with the Romantics of the early 19th century, Don Quixote for the first time became a sympathetic figure. Romantics saw the knight as they saw themselves: a being morally and artistically superior to society. His struggle was seen as noble, and Cervantes was understood as an author writing with 'romantic irony,' as an artist who mocks his own most cherished illusions. Man of La Mancha fits into this perspective. Beginning in the 20th century and continuing until today, Don Quixote is understood in so many different ways: as a Spanish Christ, crucified by a Spain that did not understand him, an idea first put forth by Miguel de Unamuno; as a Freudian prototype displaying all sorts of psychological imbalances; as a broken idealist who is brought to realize that truth and beauty are found in realistic norms; and as a humanist whose only fault is his desire to improve society."

According to Salvador Martinez, a professor of Spanish at New York University, Cervantes always intended for his novel to be more than strictly a lampoon of a certain kind of literature. "Parody is one of the main objectives, but it's not the only one," he says. "It's a very philosophical work, with many possibilities for interpretation. And Don Quixote is a complex character. I think that basically Cervantes wanted to portray the chivalric novel as absurd by depicting Don Quixote as a madman. But this madman does things that are very real and at the same time very strange. He makes speeches that made very little sense at the time they were written, but which make a lot of sense to us today. For instance, there is an episode in the book in which Marcela, a beautiful shepherdess, is blamed when a shepherd kills himself because she rejected him. Don Quixote appears, looking wild, and says he's ready to fight on behalf of Marcela. He defends her with a speech about freedom of choice. At the time, the speech didn't make sense. Everybody thought Cervantes, like Don Quixote, was crazy. Today we see it as a very prescient idea. Certainly Cervantes identified with many, if not all, of the ideals of Don Quixote."

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