“Don Quixote”, declared Menard, “intrigues me deeply, but to me it doesn't seem, how should I say, inevitable…. Don Quixote is a contingent book, not a necessary part of the world. I can imagine composing it, I can write it, without breaking the laws of logic.… My general memory of Don Quixote, simplified by forgetfulness and indifference, is pretty much similar to the vague early image one has of a book one hasn't yet written. "
Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote
The same goes for me, more or less. My general memory of Don Quixote is that of a typical norteamericano who saw Man of La Mancha when I was young and many years later listened to the unabridged audiobook in English, a recording so complete that it included the note of approval from the King of Spain and the dedicatory dialog, in the form of a sonnet, between two horses: Quixote's Rocinante and Babieca, the steed of El Cid. The huge binder of cassettes from the public library sat in my Hyundai for six weeks, and in every trip I'd listen for a few minutes more. It didn't matter how short the journey was, I would always laugh out loud at least once, alone there in my car. It was without question, and still is, the funniest book I've ever listened to. And of course through the years I've read many references to Don Quixote from many writers whom I admire, not least of whom is Borges himself. And so for me, the image of Don Quixote is that of a sprawling work of the imagination that even when glimpsed through through the mirrors of translation and narration has the capacity to surprise, entertain, and subvert.
Which is to say that the production of El Quixote at the Teatro La Candelaria was perfect for me, or rather, that I was a patron well-suited to the production: with my imperfect Spanish and my imprecise and simplified recollections of the plot, the humor and the reputation of Cervantes' book, I sat in the audience like an old child, more ready to respond to visual comedy than to immortal phrases.
The Teatro La Candelaria is a company founded in 1966, inspired no doubt (like many small theatres around the world born in that decade) by Jerzy Grotowski, Bertolt Brecht, traveling circuses, the imminence of The Revolution and the enthusiasm of children for dressing up in whatever clothes might be available. Its survival until now is remarkable; it must be a story with many reversals and probably has to do with its deep roots in the neighborhood of La Candelaria, this improbable colonial village on the edge of the megacity of Bogotá. Above all the continued existence of a little theatre for almost 50 years has to do with the fact that the company has a single leader with a prodigious talent: Santiago García, the adaptor and director of this production. So important is García in the company that only his name appears in the publicity; it's actually difficult to discover the names of the cast members. An old video on the internet reveals that the principal roles have been played by the same actors since the beginning (or so it seems): César Badillo as Quixote y Fernando Peñuela as Sancho Panza. Both deliver impressive performances. (Badillo is a short man, but that's no problem: his Quixote wears platform shoes.)
This production of Quixote, by the way, is apparently one of the mainstays of the company, first created 15 years ago with many revivals since then. According to interviews with García in the online versions of the Bogotá newspapers, the company chose 12 episodes from the mountain provided by Cervantes and from those constructed 12 scenes with a Colombian soul, a soul of Bogotá and of La Candelaria. I'm not qualified to judge exactly how Colombian or Candelarian the adaptation is; except to note that Don Quixote's behavior more than once reminded me of a street person outside, who had appointed himself supervisor of a traffic jam.
Of these 12 scenes I recall the following moments: Don Quixote mounted on his Rocinante, a gigantic puppet; Sancho Panza wearing a costume on his lower half that represented his burro; the two of them in a boat; both of them fighting the washerwomen and being rescued by the bakers (or was it the other way around?); dream after dream pulled across the back of the stage by an invisible machine; Dulcinea appearing in the air illuminated by strobe lights and speaking in a distorted voice; Sancho Panza alone (was there a scene in which he and the knight went their separate ways? I couldn't say…); Sancho meeting a group of strange people; Sancho becoming the leader of the group, a governor of sorts but with the symbols of a king: a simple throne and primitive crown; Sancho expecting that his new job would involve lots of eating and drinking; the arrival of an emissary from the King — the real King — with the news that that Sancho would have to do something unpleasant or immoral (go to war? collect taxes? I have no clue…); Sancho deciding to quit his job, as he hasn't received anything to eat or drink and doesn't want to do the onerous task (whatever it is) for the King; Sancho putting on his burro costume while the people of that place bid him goodbye; Sancho mounted on his burro, travelling away from the town, in an especially brilliant piece of staging, in which a few steps to one side and then the other gave the image of a cowboy in a movie riding toward us as seen through a telephoto lens: a long goodbye, sad and slow.
Although the play is presented without intermission, this moment feels like the midway point, and in fact it is. In the next scene a hunting party, composed of nobles and servants of the of the Renaissance, including a duchess in a huge hoop skirt, takes the stage. It's a very funny scene in which all the hunters point their muskets at audience, and the servants with skillful trickery convince the nobles that they've shot the same pheasant three times. When Don Quixote and Sancho Panza appear, the duchess recognizes the knight immediately. How? Because Don Quixote is now famous and she has read of his exploits in a book by Cervantes. We are in the second volume of Don Quixote, in which the first volume is part of the world of the story. For his part, Don Quixote doesn't like the auto-referentiality, or his exploitation at the hands of Cervantes.
What follows is an increasingly lurid succession of circuses, devils, dwarves, giants and brazen women. We are no longer watching Don Quixote and his squire wander through the arid plains of La Mancha, where dreams of chivalry crash into daily life; now we are inside those dreams, a crazy and expressionistic place, linked to the world of buying and selling, hunger and thirst, work and family, limits and regrets — which is to say the world to which those of us with healthy minds and responsible habits must reconcile ourselves during our waking hours — only by the presence of Sancho Panza, who sometimes says that he wants to return to his simple farm, his simple wife, his life before Quixote. But in fact Sancho doesn't want to leave. He wants to stay with his master, even when the knight is put in a cage and taken off as a sideshow act in a circus.
With the departure of Don Quixote in the cage, the performance has ended. But this Quixote will remain in my mind, together with the other Quixotes: those of high culture and low culture, that of Menard and Borges, the many Quixotes of Picasso, the hilariously Shakespeare-inflected Quixote of the English-language narrator, and the Quixote of Cervantes, the original, that indispensable hero of an unnecessary book, which I still hope to read in its own language some day.