“Facts are the enemy of truth!” says Don Quixote in the musical Man of La Mancha. Soon after, he adds, “I think reality is in the eye of the beholder.”
Perhaps that’s why the 1965 Broadway musical and Tony winner is experiencing a bit of a resurgence of late. A new production just launched in London’s famed West End; another will play at the Horton Grand Theater this fall. At the moment, the Oceanside Theatre Company is staging a production at the Sunshine Brooks Theater, which runs til May 26.
The subjectivity of facts has become a popular concern, given the politics of the past few years, as the promised democratization of speech delivered by the information age has mainly served to fragment our once shared perception of objective reality. Now, for every news report suggesting one truth, there appears another claiming the opposite. Armed with contradictory so-called facts, we are left to bicker with one another online over which reality should prevail.
In La Mancha, as in the novel that inspired it, Don Quixote sees a world of magic-endowed enemies that can be overcome only by the incorruptible nobility of a knight-errant. Plenty of characters try to call the Don’s attention to empirical truths, and even his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza points out that the ogre Quixote attempts to fight is actually a windmill. Is it? Or, as Quixote suggests, has the ogre cleverly transformed himself into a windmill to escape justice? Such reversals of logic have become familiar in 2019.
Knightly quests were already an antiquated notion when Spaniard Miguel de Cervantes published the musical’s source material, the novel Don Quixote. That was in 1605, a century after Columbus, a colonial era during which Spain became flush with wealth and military might. Through the 16th century, it was the undisputed most powerful country on the planet, with unprecedented global influence. But even as the 17th century began, it was an empire in decline: its armada stretched thin and no longer invincible, its economy dependent on colonial holdings that were beginning to escape its grasp. Even as Spain tried to maintain its might, the institutions that controlled it — the church and aristocracy — contributed no taxes to the state, overburdening the lower classes instead, and ultimately diminishing what we nowadays call gross domestic product.
In such a time and place, under circumstances that echo our own, perhaps it’s not Quixote’s disdain for facts that resonated, but that he resisted the argument over them in a quest to reclaim ideals and virtue.
The tragedy of Don Quixote isn’t that he can’t discern the reality before him, it’s that his compatriots view his optimistic notion — that honor can be reclaimed in a world of prevailing self-interest — as insanity. His niece and heir sees him as doddering, her fiancé as a family embarrassment. The prostitute he puts on a pedestal as the virtuous Lady Dulcinea sees him as a nonsensical madman.
We’re no less jaded today. Even within the musical, the audience doesn’t directly root for Don Quixote, but for the character Miguel de Cervantes. La Mancha’s protagonist is the author himself, who finds himself imprisoned for questioning by the Spanish Inquisition, and acts out the story of Quixote as a play within a play, to prevent fellow inmates from destroying his manuscript. The structure suggests that a contemporary audience cannot suspend disbelief enough to accept Quixote’s fantastic optimism. We need an extra degree of separation, the assurance that such an idea could prevail only as fiction.