In E. M. Forster's "The Celestial Omnibus," the innocent boy determines that he must discover whether the everyday world or the world of imagination is the true one. "I shall be a fool one way or the other . . . until I know" (James A. Thurston, ed., Reading Modern Short Stories, [Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1955] 390). Perhaps no one in literature seems more foolish than Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. Caught up in the strange world of romances and chivalry, he seems hopelessly out of touch with reality and all that matters in life. Dale Wasserman, however, saw through the surface foolishness to the essential wisdom, the true vision of the world beneath. Speaking of his own re-creation of Don Quixote and Cervantes, Wasserman says, "Man of La Mancha must seem hopelessly naive in its espousal of illusion as man's strongest spiritual need, the most meaningful function of his imagination" ("Preface," Man of La Mancha: A Musical Play [New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1966] 11). The boy in Forster's story is transported by his imagination to a kind of heaven. Albert Marre, the director of the 1965 Broadway production of Man of La Mancha, described the audience reaction in similar terms. He said, "They're not just watching a play, they're having a religious experience" (Wasserman, "Preface" 11).
Originally written for television, Man of La Mancha "underwent several metamorphoses before it was exposed to a New York audience" (Wasserman, "Preface" 9). Wasserman rewrote the screenplay for the Broadway stage, but was dissatisfied with the result. He felt that he had not reached the real form of what the play was destined to have. Enter Albert Marre, who said the play simply had to be a musical. The play was written again, this time in collaboration with lyricist Joe Darion, composer Mitch Leigh, and Albert Marre himself.
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were mounted on their noble steeds, but the road was still not cleared for them. Prospective backers regarded Man of La Mancha as "too radical, too 'special' and most crushing of all, too intellectual" (Wasserman, "Preface" 10-11). Nevertheless, the "Quixotic dream" would prevail.
On November 22, 1965, the musical opened on Broadway. It was not an immediate hit. Some people thought it would have a short run, but rapidly growing ticket sales proved such predictions wrong. In fact, tickets were soon extraordinarily difficult to get, "To Dream the Impossible Dream" became a hit song, and the cast album was a best seller. "Man of La Mancha had grown into one of the biggest hits in New York theatrical history" (Wasserman, "Introduction" 13).
What was it about this strange, mystical, unlikely adventure that caught the nation's attention and made it a Broadway success? It could have been the contagious melodies and the sophisticated musical score. It could have been the nonrealistic theatre "where, with suggested scenery, creative lighting, epic acting, and a little audience imagination, we can have any kind of magic we wish" (Wasserman, "Introduction" 16). It could have been Quixote and Sancho Panza's physical humor and unfailing camaraderie. While all of these aspects of the performance contributed to the play's success, perhaps none is as important as the central message that emerges from the character of Don Quixote/Cervantes himself.
Although Don Quixote is ostensibly a figure of fun, ridiculous in his inability to tell giants from windmills, demented by his obsessive reading of hopelessly outdated romances, he is in truth much more. As Quixote says to Doctor Carrasco, "Facts are the enemy of truth" (Wasserman 74). While, in fact, Don Quixote is a madman, in truth he is the one person in the play who sees life as it actually is, lives it as it must be lived, and shows the other characters their real natures. Perhaps the clearest affirmation of this is Aldonza's expression of faith at the end of the play. Doctor Carrasco has managed to shake Don Quixote's belief in his dream and steal his memories of the Quest. Aldonza comes to Quixote's rescue, refusing to be turned away. She insists that he remember her and the Quest. She has been transformed, and has come to believe in herself, not as Aldonza, the whore, but as the lady Dulcinea. She tells him about the incredible change he has made in her, "Everything. My whole life. You spoke to me, and everything was—different" (Wasserman 119).
On some level, Cervantes' novel and Man of La Mancha are not criticisms of the chivalric romances. In the words of Vladimir Nabokov, "Don Quixote cannot be considered a distortion of those romances but rather a logical continuation" (Lectures on Don Quixote [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983] 47). It is the nature of romances to suggest that behind the contradictions and confusions of daily life, behind the coincidences and calamities of incredible plots, there lie the ultimate human values of compassion, belief, friendship, and love. Shakespeare's romances reflect a faith in human nature and a hope for the future. Sir Thomas Malory, author of one of the longest and most famous romances in English, Le Morte D'Arthur, wrote of the transforming power of love, "First a man must love God his Creator, and then, if he is to be ennobled, he must love a woman, for God has created him thus" ([New York: Penguin Books, 1962] 458).
Throughout the play Cervantes/Don Quixote proves himself to be a great teacher as well as a dreamer. As Don Quixote says in the novel that bears his name, "In the profession that I follow . . . one needs to know everything" (The Portable Cervantes: Don Quixote [New York: The Viking Press, 1969] 273). The most important thing that he knows and teaches is the power of dreaming, of imagination in human life. Without the ability to see beyond reality to a new and brighter world, we are left to the dust and the broken-down inns and the ramshackle prisons that Quixote encounters. The Knight of the Woeful Countenance transforms such hopeless places into castles, strong bastions of the human spirit. Even though Don Quixote dies, his dream lives. Ultimately, he cannot be defeated, for the world he imagines is far finer than the world he inhabits. And once his dream has transformed the people around him, everyday reality must inevitably be changed as well. Quixote knows better than to give up because his foes are too feeble and his goals are too great. He will never stop trying to "reach the unreachable star!" (Wasserman 121).