Reconstructivist Art: Man of La Mancha

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Man of La Mancha (1965) by Wasserman, Leigh and Darion as an example of Reconstructivist Art

The ground-breaking and seminal seventeenth-century Spanish novel Don Quixote attracted a number of prior attempts at theatrical adaptation, but none had the success of the clever and playful musical Man of La Mancha, which captured the original’s theme of imagination in allegiance to higher Truth.

(1) Nod to Artifice: The main content is staged as an impromptu performance being produced within a prison by Don Quixote author Miguel De Cervantes. This device invites the audience to suspend their disbelief as they enter the imagination of Cervantes, while preserving a theatrical economy of minimal sets, props and actors. An unusual second-level Nod to Artifice is present within the play-within-a-play, in as much as the audience is further invited to enter a world that exists only in the half-deranged mind of the lead character, Don Quixote, who experiences the mundane realities of his world as though they were magical events taking place in a vanished, semi-mythical age of chivalry.

(2) Classic Structure: The plotline of Man of La Mancha is loosely adapted from the aforementioned Don Quixote, which is considered the first modern novel, and an enduring classic of the form. The massive contents of that book, however, have been streamlined and reduced to fit the form of a romantic tragedy.

(3) Transcontextual and Iconic Elements: The original book was itself a loving parody of Medieval romances, and is rich in iconic archetypes such as the “Brave Hero,” the “Wicked Sorcerer,” and the “Beautiful Damsel,” all transcontextualized to the more mundane Spain of Cervantes’ era, and embodied in an ironic form by figures such as Alonso Quijana, the seemingly senile country gentlemen, and Aldonza, the local tavern whore. The musical adds another level of transcontextualization by inserting Cervantes himself into the narrative, and by having he and a ragged band of prisoners take on the already doubled roles of the characters from the book both as they are in “real” life and as they are in Quijana’s imagination.

(4) Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: Considered a masterpiece of musical theater, Man of La Mancha has proved deeply moving and inspirational to the multiple generations of theater-goers. In particular, the emotional heart of the show is found in its trademark number The Impossible Dream, with its paradigmatic reconstructivist message that imagination, belief and moral courage bring us closer to a higher and better level of reality than that inhabited by cold hard facts.

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