Man of La Mancha

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Man of La Mancha
Painting by Alex Katsenelson

It is hard to name much writing that was published more than four hundred years ago and is still read today. Religious texts and the works of William Shakespeare come to mind, and that is about it. And then there is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, which was published in two parts in 1605 and 1610. I just finished writing a non-investment book, and I’ll be lucky if it doesn’t fizzle out two months after its publication. The fact that Don Quixote was published more than four centuries ago and that anyone who reads this sentence knows who Don Quixote is means that there must be something special about that book or about Don Quixote himself. 

What is it?

I have to confess that I read Don Quixote in my early teens. It had little impact on me. I did not remember much about the book, other than it was about a crazy old man going on weird crusades, fighting windmills and seeing them as an evil army. I was too young to understand its message. I have yet to reread the book (something I plan to do soon). 

A few years ago, I stumbled on the 1972 movie musical Man of La Mancha, and I finally understood what makes Don Quixote so special. In the movie Don Quixote is played by Peter O’Toole and Dulcinea de Toboso by the stunningly beautiful Sophia Loren. The movie is based on the musical, which in turn is based on Dale Wasserman’s television play, which adapts the Don Quixote novel and brings Miguel de Cervantes right into the middle of it. 

In Man of La Mancha Don Quixote meets Aldonza Lorenzo, a local farm girl who is vulgar and has very few virtues – she belongs to the oldest profession. On the surface Aldonza has few redeeming qualities. Don Quixote believes that he needs to have a lady, someone for whom he fights. He imagines and thus sees Aldonza as a model of female perfection and calls her Dulcinea. More importantly he treats her as bespoke royalty. It takes a while, but by the end of the movie Aldonza turns into Dulcinea – she starts seeing the Dulcinea in herself. This was (in part) the message of Les Misérables, too – you become what you believe you are. These three excerpts from the movie capture Aldonza’s transformation perfectly.

This message is so important to remember as a parent. I always had low self-esteem. The Russian education system and my being different from other kids had plenty to do with it. My parents’ unwavering belief that I could achieve anything is responsible for everything I have achieved to date. 

Now let’s talk about the musical. It is uplifting and optimistic. My favorite song is “Impossible Dream” – the words of this song are full of aspirational virtue. This version is from the movie:

This is my favorite version, by Luther Vandross:

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