“The Impossible Dream”
Miguel de Cervantes (1564-1616) suffered unceasing failure throughout his life, yet in the only work of Cervantes that is still read, Don Quixote de la Mancha, written in his senior years, while in prison, Cervantes created a character with such a high and noble vision of the potential goodness in others, of the potential goodness in the world, that his vision continues to remain with us today, to be capable of transforming our own lives and transforming the world.
Many of us have seen Man of La Mancha, which is not a dramatization of the novel Don Quixote, but a play, actually a musical, about both the author Cervantes himself and the idealist Don Quixote. Dale Wasserman wrote the musical, Joe Darion the lyrics, and Mitch Leigh the music. Wasserman writes that Man of La Mancha “floundered rather than marched toward production, sustained only by the tenacity of those among us who shared the Quixotic dream. But there came a night when lights glowed on Howard Bay’s island-stage, and the audience responded to the performance with a fervor that stunned even the most sanguine of us. It was a phenomenon we were to grow familiar with at each performance.”
Wasserman adds, “To me the most interesting aspect of the success of Man of La Mancha is the fact that it plows squarely upstream against the prevailing current of philosophy in the theater. That current is best identified by its catch-labels—Theater of the Absurd, Black Comedy, the Theater of Cruelty—which is to say the theater of alienation, of moral anarchy and despair. To the practitioners of those philosophies, Man of La Mancha must seem hopelessly naïve in its espousal of illusion as man’s strongest spiritual need, the most meaningful function of his imagination. But I’ve no unhappiness about that. ‘Facts are the enemy of truth,’ says Cervante's-Don Quixote. And that is precisely what I felt and meant.”
Let’s look at Dulcinea, central to the musical. Dulcinea is a woman of easy virtue, working in a country tavern. Her name is not “Dulcinea” but “Aldonza.” She insists Don Quixote call her by her “real” name, Aldonza. As the muleteers come for sex, she sings contemptuously:
“One pair of arms is like another,
I don’t know why or who’s to blame,
I’ll go with you or with your brother,
It’s all the same, it’s all the same!”
Enter Don Quixote. To Don Quixote, Aldonza is a person of beauty, of high ideals, of high and noble intentions, and therefore he refuses to see her as anything else, to call her anything but Dulcinea, a name appropriate to such a lady. Of course to Aldonza, Don Quixote is a ridiculous figure, a fool, but, Wasserman writes, “We see his faith in her transform her into the person of beauty she held within herself in spite of the external ugliness of her life. We see that faith shattered in the cruel ‘rape’ scene with the muleteers, and we see it restored at the end of the play as a living testament of the power of the Don to see beauty where others—especially the brutal muleteers—see only ugliness.”
Shortly after Don Quixote first sees Aldonza, he sings:
I see heaven when I see thee, Dulcinea.
And thy name is like a prayer an angel whispers…
Of course Aldonza, as well as the muleteers, mock him. But Don Quixote is undeterred, and by the end of the play, his vision of her has transformed her, and now “Dulcinea” rushes to him as he lay on his death bed. Having finally been beaten back to “normal” thinking by his relatives, Don Quixote does not recognize her. She sings, pleadingly,
“And you looked at me! And you called me by another name!
Once you found a girl and called her Dulcinea,
When you spoke the name an angel seemed to whisper—
Won’t you please bring back the dream of Dulcinea?”
And then, moments before his death, she reminds him that he is not a failure, not just one more piece of impoverished minor nobility, but in fact he is the great Don Quixote, on a great quest; and then, of course, he begins remembering, and then speaking and again singing the song for which the musical will always be remembered, “To Dream the Impossible Dream.”
He has “dreamed” her to life, and in the end when he has apparently lost the “quest,” she “dreams” him back to life. Through their “dreams” of each other, they have each helped the other to remember who they “really are.” What a musical! What profound messages!
Of course much modern psychology calls this “romantic projection” and considers it a disease, something to be eliminated through endless and expensive hours of therapy. (We might apply Wasserman’s contemporary theater categories to contemporary therapy: Therapy of Alienation, Therapy of Moral Anarchy, and Therapy of Despair.) In fact, though, this romantic “illusion” is at the heart of life. The illusion that is more than the reality. The “dreams” we have of each other, of who each other in essence is.
The finest of thinkers throughout the centuries have encouraged us to live this way. For example, the German romantic, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), exhorts us to “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be…” That is exactly what happens in Man of La Mancha.And that is what can happen in our own lives.
Let us all here at Lakeside “dream each other to life.” Let us all dream together “the impossible dream.”