Man of La Mancha
is a 1965 musical with a book by American playwright Dale Wasserman. It is based on the life of sixteenth-century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes as well as his signature work, Don Quixote
The book begins in the late sixteenth century as Cervantes is stuck in a dungeon at the mercy of the Spanish Inquisition. Cervantes has failed as a writer, a soldier, an actor, and a tax collector. Along with his manservant, Cervantes has been imprisoned for foreclosing on a monastery as part of his duties as a tax collector. Cervantes has a large trunk with him, and the rest of the prisoners immediately set upon him, eager to steal its contents. With the help of a prisoner named the Governor, a mock trial is put on to determine whether Cervantes must give up the trunk to his fellow prisoners. A prisoner named the Duke accuses Cervantes of being a bad poet and also too idealistic. Cervantes says he is guilty on both counts but wishes to defend himself by putting on a play to be judged by the Governor.
Cervantes dresses himself up as a character named Don Quixote of La Mancha, a man who’s read so many books about chivalry that he believes himself to be a knight. He has a squire named Sancho Panza. These developments are taken directly from the real-life Cervantes novel, Don Quixote
. Quixote tells Panza they must be careful not to encounter an evil nemesis named the Enchanter. He then attacks a windmill, mistakenly believing it to be a four-headed dragon. Even though it’s just a windmill and not a dragon, Quixote loses the battle after getting bludgeoned repeatedly by the movements of the wind.
After losing the battle, Quixote and Panza come upon an inn that Quixote mistakes for a castle. There, they encounter a prostitute/serving wench named Aldonza. She denies the advances of all the men at the inn save for one, a man named Pedro who has already paid for her services. The innkeeper plays along with Quixote’s delusions (though it is actually the Governor playing along with Cervantes’s delusions). Quixote tries to court Aldonza, believing her to be a lady courtesan. He requests a token of her affection, and she provides him with a dirty dishrag. Aldonza asks Panza why he follows Quixote, but he can only answer: “I really like him.”
Quixote and Aldonza meet in the courtyard at night, but Pedro arrives and hits Aldonza, angry because he is still waiting for the prostitute’s services. Still believing himself to be a knight, Quixote defends Aldonza’s honor, challenging Pedro and his men to a fight. Although Quixote lacks skill, his determination and a few lucky breaks allow him to defeat the men. The innkeeper tells Quixote he must go, but Quixote refuses unless the innkeeper dubs him a proper knight. The innkeeper finally relents, since it means he’ll be rid of Quixote, who he dubs the “Knight of Woeful Countenance.”
Before leaving, Quixote says he must comfort the defeated men. Aldonza is touched by his chivalry and starts to bandage the men herself. But they awaken, and angrily attack and rape her. Meanwhile, Quixote is so immersed in his own soliloquizing about knighthood that he doesn’t notice what has happened to Aldonza.
Finally, the evil Enchanter arrives, blinding Quixote with the glare of some mirrors. This forces Quixote to see himself as the world sees him: a foolish lunatic rather than a chivalrous knight. He accepts defeat at the Enchanter’s hands before realizing it is actually a doctor disguised as the Enchanter attempting to cure Quixote.
Cervantes’s story ends there, but the other prisoners are deeply dissatisfied with its ending. And so Cervantes says there is one last scene: Quixote is in bed, near death. He has finally accepted that he is not a knight. But just then Aldonza enters, pretending to be a lady courtesan named Dulcinea because she cannot bear to be herself. Inspired by Aldonza’s own delusions, Quixote stands up, once again believing himself to be a knight. But shortly thereafter, he drops dead. Even after this lunatic display, Aldonza still believes herself to be Dulcinea.
After hearing the story, the prisoners find Cervantes not guilty. Unfortunately, he still has the Inquisitors to deal with, and the story ends as he walks to his fate, the Don Quixote
manuscript in his hands.