Saturday, October 1, 2016


Mitch Leigh’s Man of La Mancha takes the themes of mythical hero and transformation into a kind of pseudo-realism akin to West Side Story. There is an air of danger and risk as the alter ego of Miguel de Cervantes confronts muleteers and Leigh’s Cervantes (not the “real” Cervantes) confronts fellow prisoners and, eventually, an imagined Inquisition. The dark foreboding dungeon, reachable only via a retractable ramp, almost seems to symbolize the prison of the mind, that dark part of the unconscious which lacks joy, hope, or any glimmer of freedom. But, through his half-insane knight-errant, the craziness of reaching for the unseen transforms the other prisoners, at least for the moment, from their previous resignation, cynicism, and despair.

Where Man of La Mancha differs from other major musical plays is the victory achieved by a change which seems to embrace a conscious archetype, rather than transformation from the control of an unconscious archetype. In such plays as Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, and Carousel the key for the leading male is to release his grip on the partially unconscious masculine preconceptions and controls. In West Side Story, the rigidity of the immature and primitive archetypal roles leads to disaster. Of course, the masculine archetype of Man of La Mancha is quite different from the machismo images of the other plays. Curly sacrifices everything, even his saddle and gun (and his swaggering cowman vocation) for Laurey. Higgins acknowledges his need for the companionship of a woman. Billy of Carousel learns selflessness and forgiveness (primarily for himself). And, the changes in these characters are not at the expense of their previous selves. Each is still essentially the same person, with greater depths and more sober perspectives on life.

Don Quixote is insane, totally possessed by the hero archetype. In Carousel Billy flirts with the archetype as he becomes aware of his impending fatherhood, but as an inept Robin Hood, fails, and is unable to withstand the temptation for the shortcut and dies, requiring redemption in another life. When Don Quixote is confronted with his profound illusion, his soul seems to die. Encouraged by Sancho, and especially Al Donza-Dulcinea, his soul comes back to life, transcending even his death, to a resounding reaffirmation of the hero archetype.

The transformation that is Don Quixote has occurred before we first encounter him in Cervantes imagination. We only know of his previous self through the shocked reaction of his niece and housekeeper. By inference, the encounter of Don Quixote with the world occurs between periodic wars, but shortly after the Moors have been driven from Iberia. The world is desolate and corrupt, barely livable. Can we also infer that the man who has become Don Quixote also perceives himself as a failure, desolate, and barely alive? The masculine archetype of the world is unconscious and tyrannical. The feminine is submerged, oppressed, and brutally exploited.

That which Quixote has embraced seeks to rescue both masculine and feminine, to bring the beauty of the latter to consciousness, to re-invent Eden by sacrificing the former. The member of the audience either responds to the explicit call to chivalry or is turned off by its blatant unreality.

The contemporary feminist may look back on the mid-Sixties romance and decry the reshaping of the feminine by Don Quixote’s projections. But, a point may be missed. Whether a man can rescue a woman is one question; whether the same man can rescue the feminine within himself is another. Thus Man of La Mancha symbolizes on an explicitly archetypical level the search for wholeness and completion within the individual Don Quixote and, by extension, the fictional Miguel de la Cervantes. How can the multiple levels and facets of the personality be integrated?

The peculiarities of the cinema version of Man of La Mancha emphasize a kind of stark naturalness of a desert setting including non-musical performers who attempt to sing the intensely familiar melodic pieces associated with the original Broadway cast and numerous popular voices. (At least four other Broadway plays have been filmed in a similar manner, using several non-singing actors: Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, Lesser’s Guys and Dolls. Audrey Hepburn’s voice in Funny Face is quite credible – How long has this been going on?—and, yes, complementary to Fred Astaire’s, quite familiar voice from many a previous movie; alas, as marvelous was her acting as Eliza--some say better than that of Julie Andrews’ on-stage Eliza--Marnie Nixon’s dubbing was essential, if only to apply Loewe’s marvelous melodies to task in the battle of more-than-words, words, words, with Rex Harrison. Returning to the “bad” stage-to-screen examples, there is now the fourth—the inexplicable phantom in the Phantom--the resulting dissonance is each of the fourt is at first discomfiting, shadowing the archetypes a bit. On the other hand, the tempering of the fairy tale in this way challenges the audience to a resolution of their own inner desires and conflicts – no, that’s not enough Sorry, these author ranks the four as failures and FF a success (Audrey in the bridal gown dancing on the stones of the brook, how could Fred not secure her then and there?)

Because Don’s cinematic desert is “real”, and not a stage (although the prison, out of which the desert is “imagined” seems a little less real; but who in the late Twentieth Century knows the reality of an Inquisition-era dungeon?), the perceived message can be to challenge the masculine search for opening to the feminine reality in life. “To dream the impossible dream” is not necessarily a syrup rendition of fairy tale nostalgia, but instead a fresh challenge to change.

Jung argued that one cannot rationally and fully characterize an archetype. Rather, the numinous power can only be symbolized or experienced by analogy. And, the presence of an archetype can only be recognized by its effects, rather like the wind. Leigh would claim that the encounter with a charismatic figure such as Don Quixote can potentially transform a person just as the prisoners are transformed in Man of La Mancha. As with other creative theater experience, the individual audience member can leave with no less than a gnawing desire for the kind of transformation and integration which “Cervantes” seems to have wrought.

At the creative leve1, Mitch Leigh and his collaborators have not achieved as great a subsequent commercial success as Man of La Mancha since it was introduced. Their handling of Don Quixote is remarkable insofar as it involves so many levels of characterization. Taking but a small part of Cervantes’ classic novel, including the author as a character, and placing the dominant setting in an underground prison emphasizes the multiple levels of meaning. “Come into my imagination…” The invitation of Cervantes can be seen as the invitation of the entire theater itself. In reality, of course, the individual member of the audience is bringing Cervantes and Don Quixote into his or her own imagination. The drama and the tragicomedy are not merely on the stage; they are on the inside as well.

[This article was previously posted on maxfrac; a few edits and observations have been added.]

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