Quixote at 400: Margaret Atwood
I’d like to speak briefly about a small piece of Don Quixote’s posthumous life: the recent opera by Cristóbal Halffter, which premiered in Madrid at the Teatro Real in the year 2000. I saw it completely by accident. It was what was on; I knew nothing about it. This is an unmediated-by-media view of the opera; I didn’t read any reviews.
This opera is one more installment in the continuing saga, the centuries-long afterlife of a literary creation. There’s a book called Dead Elvis about the after-death activities of Elvis Presley—his appearances in parking lots and so forth. But a much thicker book could be written about the posthumous lives of Don Quixote. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have been painted by artists and sculpted by sculptors and turned into ballets; they can be bought on eBay in many forms, including fridge magnets, posters, centennial trays, and ladies’ cowboy boots. And a large number of operas have been written about them. Halffter’s surprising and audacious new opera is episodic rather than linear. As the audience takes their seats, a bulldozer is pushing piles of books into a huge hole in the middle of the stage. Cervantes enters, dressed solemnly in black, and makes his way to his writing desk. The writing into being of Don Quixote takes place in the vicinity of a memento-mori skull. Cervantes must die, as all human beings will, but then another image is presented to us: an enormous mountain of outsize books rises up through the stage. The small, buried, dead books have given rise to huge living books and as we watch, the covers of the books open and some of the characters of Don Quixote climb out of them. Two women are wheeled on in two gigantic red high-heeled shoes. I liked that part. They sing the roles of Dulcinea and Aldonza, the two aspects of the same person: the peasant girl Don Quixote decides is really a noble lady. In this scene, they also act as muses, inspiring Cervantes to create not only his novel but also themselves. This doubling of the heroine is repeated in the hero because the Don Quixote figure, who arrives from the air, a luftmensch in a monoplane, is the other self of Cervantes.
Next, the mock knighting of Don Quixote in the inn is accompanied by a chorus extolling the mindless life of the senses. The windmill scene follows; the windmills are giants for Don Quixote and windmills for Sancho Panza, but for Halffter, and thus for the viewer, they are giant, ruling, newspaper-printing presses. I was happy they weren’t printing books, just newspapers, thus representing, says Halffter in his notes, “power exercised from banality by the liar, the mediocre, and the miser.” Don Quixote fights them in the name of truth and justice and is defeated. In the next scene, Don Quixote’s familiar domestic circle, the niece, the barber, the scholar, and the priest—well-meaning folk in the novel, but in the opera a more sinister bunch—denounce the books they feel have led Don Quixote into madness. The list includes, not only those authors named by Cervantes but also a great many others, including Wilhelm, Joyce, Freud, Kafka, and Cervantes himself.
Then in come the two flocks of sheep, which for Sancho Panza are sheep, for Don Quixote armies, and for Halffter, the forces of military might and the masses who obey them. This sheep chorus starts helping the domestic circle in their preparations for book burning. By this time, the mountain of outsize books is smoldering; these, we recall, are the books from which the characters themselves emerged. The characters are thus destroying the basis of their own reality.
The last scene in the opera is the death of Don Quixote. The books lie in ruins. Cervantes tells Don Quixote that he is not allowed to die; he is not a man but a myth, and his role is to fight, to right wrongs, and to bring justice to the world. At the end of the death scene, it is thus the Cervantes character who dies. The chorus of sheep happily believes it has triumphed over books, reading, and the imagination, and that it is now a mindless, homogeneous flock. But a cracked bell continues to sound: “The symbol of Don Quixote,” says Halffter, “and all that was attempted to reflect through him: utopia, culture, tradition, chivalry, idealism, interpreted reality, creative fantasy, literary creation, and a lengthy et cetera.”
There have been many other Don Quixote operas. The best known is probably Massenet’s, in which Don Quixote is a persecuted Christ figure, too good for this earth. Halffter’s intriguing version is closer to the spirit of Beckett and to the Ionesco of Rhinocéros. The Don struggles on against forces that are too vast and malevolent for him, but he struggles nonetheless. He does not win; the sheep are not destroyed. But he doesn’t lose completely, either, since his cracked bell continues to sound. This is about as much sustained hope as we can handle here in the twenty-first century: the sound of a cracked bell ringing. What will Don Quixote become next? It’s hard to say. But he will become something, for he is a figure of many lives, always transforming. In his multiplicity is the secret of his immortality.