Monday, June 08, 2009

Man of Guantanamo

I am a pretty picky consumer of culture these days. One of the forms of entertainment I no longer much care for is musical theater. Andrew Lloyd Webber makes me barf; almost everything else is a revival or otherwise recycled. There are perhaps two shows that I consider worthy of such resurrection: West Side Story and Man of La Mancha. The former is so insanely difficult and demanding that it is virtually never staged (I've only seen the 1961 film); the latter is much easier to find (I've seen at least four stage productions).

One thing they have in common is their centuries-old source material -- Shakespeare and Cervantes are almost perfect contemporaries. (The two Broadway shows launched only a few years apart as well.) Another similarity is the importance of that material: Don Quixote is widely considered the first modern novel. And of course they are both tragedies in which optimism collides with a dark, hostile reality.

An interesting diffference between the works of the two authors is that Shakespeare's plays are often staged in updated contexts (the whole point of West Side Story); La Mancha is almost always staged in its original context. The whole play-within-a-play takes place in a prison where the protagonist awaits his turn before the Spanish Inquisition. That context has seemed sui generis for most of the 40+ years since its first run.

Until now.

And that's why I'm prattling on about Broadway -- I just realized that Man of La Mancha ought to be staged in a new prison with a Spanish name: Gitmo.

(It turns out I am not the first to think of this, and there have been small productions that are explicit, and a more mainstream one that drew explicit parallels in the program without changing the setting. But I think this is a textbook case in which familiar art could make an uncomfortable but needed point to people who might not otherwise hear it. Were I to stage it now, the play would start conventionally during the Inquisition, but when the play-within ends, the scene would be Guantanamo.)

More on La Mancha in context here. If you don't know the show and are tempted, skip the movie and find a stage production.


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