Why Don Quixote Isn’t All That Funny

One of the perks of working for Arts Club is that I get complementary tickets to see all of their shows.  I fully intend to exploit this perk, since over it works out to me and Gill saving about 200 bucks (based on what those seats normally cost) every month or two.  Yay culture!

I already mentioned Tear the Curtain at the Stanley Theater, now the other major theater for Arts Club has opened with their first play – Don Quixote.

This is a story I’ve never read but always related to.  And I don’t think I’d want to read it, to be honest, because I know how it ends.  Ordinarily a spoiler isn’t enough to stop me from reading a book, but in this case it is – my soul can’t take that much abuse.

Don Quixote is a comedy, but it’s a tragic comedy, particularly at the end.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it.  It’s just that the story affects me differently than most, I suspect.

On a technical level, this production is well done.  It uses flesh colored half-masks to turn everyone into an ugly caricature that is in line with what you expect from a story like this.  The edges of the theater are made to looks like bits pages from the book itself, and the props are made simplistic to the point of being sketches or silly to illustrate a point (Quixote’s horse Rocinante is either a stick with a horse head on it, a foot powered push car, and at one point, a unicycle).

However, the accents are all Canadian which I think detracts from the feeling.  Still, having everyone fake Spanish accents wouldn’t necessarily work, either.

This is meant to be a largely physical comedy, and it stays true to the novel (though altered and condensed of course).

The problem is, for me I find the story largely depressing.  It’s about a man who read so many books on chivalry that one day he goes mad and believes himself to be a knight.  He thinks everything has been enchanted, and the windmills he attacks are actually giants, and the sheep he slaughters an enemy army, the wash basin he wears on his head an enchanted helmet.

You can look at this just as about an old man who goes mad, but really it’s about something more.  It’s about the part of us that isn’t happy with the way things are.  The part of us that grew up realizing that the dreams we had as children would never happen and feared that we would end up in a mediocre humdrum life.

It about the dark side of the age of reason, where science was believed to have the answers to everything, and those that thought otherwise were fools.  Only the real mattered, what you could see and touch with your own hands. Or, on the flip side there’s religion, that is all about the unreal, but in a very specific and predefined way – and woe betide you if you step out of line with either of them.

It’s about an age that dismisses the frivolous and embraces the serious and forgets that not everything in those books Quixote read should have been thrown away and burned.

I ask you, can science distill a thimble full of love to examine under a microscope?  Can it show you an ounce of justice or a grain of compassion?  Science can tell us many things about us, how things work and why we live, but many of the important things in life are concepts that cannot be put into a test tube – they are stories we can only tell to ourselves.

Of course, stories can be explained, just as love and justice and compassion can be explained by anthropologists. But it is as stories that we learn to understand these things in a different way, a way that has far more meaning than hormones, serotonin, or tribal order and protection.

Stories give us meaning.  Stories give us purpose.

And that is the aspect to Don Quixote that strikes me as most tragic.  Because the real world he rides through in his fog-like dream is a uncaring and unsympathetic place, and even most of those who try to help him do so out of fear of what others will think of them because of Don Quixote than genuine concern for the man. And then there are those so bored with life they see Quixote as a plaything, something to humiliate and discard.  People who would have been far better off, I suspect, if they put a dented wash basin on their head.

In the end, as you probably know, Don Quixote regains his sanity, and it is the worst thing that could ever happen to him.  He dies in his bed a broken man, horribly horribly sane.

And I suppose that is why this story depresses me so much, because I think I’ve been tilting at windmills from a very young age and never really stopped.  I still wear a vest and a shoulder bag designed to be ready for an adventure at a moment’s notice – adventures that never really come.  So I make my own adventures.  I bike across countries every so often, or climb a mountain or two, and all the while hope that something really unusual happens.

But in the end I just cross a country or climb a mountain.  I meet people and see things, and it’s all really very nice.  But I do sometimes wish those windmills I passed in Holland would have turned out to be something I never expected…

The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed -- for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.