Hope is an earthly weapon
Satire, wrote John Dryden, scorned soft music. Wit 'will shine through the harsh cadence of a rugged line'. Not always. Satire and music, Chaplin and Bernstein, Brecht and Eisler were deemed equal perils during Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunt for communists in the United States of America.
McCarthy's terror receded around 1956, as did the fear of Bolsheviks. In February, Khrushchev denounced the late Stalin's personality cult at the 20th party congress. In the US, Dale Wasserman scripted a play for CBS which was telecast as I, Don Quixote, in 1959. When, in 1964, Albert Marre directed the same play — not adapted from Cervantes, but shuffling episodes from Don Quixote in an inset play acted out in a dungeon with Cervantes himself being one of the prisoners — he had the script turned into a musical. Auden was hired to write the lyrics. Auden's samples were acerbic, poking fun at paying viewers, and Joe Darion was brought in to replace his 'harsh cadence'. Mitch Leigh's music scored big, and the Broadway version ran for 2,328 shows.
But the Broadway play was not all song and dance. The coiled action struck a chord because of the idea of a crazy knight tilting against the dull squalor of the everyday world. Quixote was imagined as a poet who dared to dream of a luminous life, ignoring insults and persecution. "To dream the impossible dream", a phrase from an advertisement of Paul Kester's 1908 stage adaptation of Don Quixote, became the signature anthem of the later play. Erich Auerbach had declared in Mimesis (1946) that romantic readings of the Don betrayed a snobbish contempt for the unspectacular life of people who couldn't afford the knight's willed withdrawal from common sense. In 1946, the Second World War had only just ended, and Marxist literary scholars were looking to the realist novel for the cognitive value of fiction. At the end of the McCarthy era, however, it was urgent that other forms of art were not dismissed simply as variants of 'false consciousness'. The year Wasserman's play was telecast, Ernst Bloch, a socialist distant from Auerbach's views, completed the third and final volume of The Principle of Hope. He was writing in Harvard while McCarthyism was active. Bloch recognized in utopian fiction not the falsity of 'ideological consciousness', but the projective drive of ideological thinking. The time was right for canonizing the Man of La Mancha.
Hope is an earthly weapon, especially when ancient troughs of blood seem too close. Calcutta's theatre troupe, Chetana, has revived the Bengali adaptation of the play, Don: taake bhalo lage. The time has come to challenge the evil magician who turns giants into windmills. In a counter-strike, the Ashok stambh is turned into the shokastambha. Shades of the prison-house close in on us each day, while the idealist combatant is derided as a deluded idiot. Sujan Mukhopadhyay has revised Chetana's old adaptation to fit the moment. The text reclaims the legacy of the Bengali stage for creativity and resistance when the prisoner-playwright playing Quixote recalls lines from Utpal Dutt's Tiner Talowar. In the role of a lifetime, Suman Mukhopadhyay is Subhamay Datta-cum-Quixote, persuading himself and viewers of the truth of his hopeless dream. His world is askew, physically off-balance every time he assumes Quixote's part, invoking song and romance in a world that has lost their use.
The times have need for the hope the play inspires for our theatre and our people. The hope charges the performance of the younger actors, who seldom let flag the energy driving the music, spectacle and physical pain. Fun and spectacle are not new on our stage: what is remarkable is their focused fight against desperation. 'Despair' is the hellish condition in which hope (spero in Latin) is abandoned, a trope equally crucial to the Christian Cervantes and the socialist Bloch. The signs of a similar predicament seem to have induced Chetana to revive a play that was first staged in 1994, a year-and-a-half into the razing of the Babri mosque.
Theatre is potent as long as it stares back at the times with resources that have beaten time. A gang-raped Dulcinea, played with torrid passion by Nibedita Mukhopadhyay, brings the sinking Don back to his self-fashioned dream. Sancho follows the Don simply because he values counterfactual love more than the demand of 'common sense' or feudal duty. The Muslim inmates are brought to book for what they eat rather than for breaking the law. Women and sects in the Indian prison signal a challenge to the settled order similar to that Cervantes had disturbed.
Such dispersed elements gather round a brilliant musical score. The play assembles songs from the adapted play, Hindi films, Ramnidhi Gupta, Tagore and Kabir Suman. Chetana reminds us that we would need every cultural resource at the barricades. Don makes one believe that Bengali theatre is already there.