"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Don Quixote at the San Diego Rep

Last night I went to see the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Don Quixote at the Lyceum in downtown San Diego. The show is not a dramatization of Cervantes’ picaresque novel. It is a show: an extravaganza of costumes, stylized acting, poetic evocations of medieval Spain, and juggling. It also conveys a world view and an implied political agenda, and there’s the rub.

The show features The Flying Karamazov Brothers, whose work in the past I have always loved for its brilliance in combining movement, timing, beauty, comedy, and meaning. To see the Karamazovs at their best is to experience perfection in the combination of physical motion and aesthetic delight. The Karamazovs are led by that master of significant juggling, Paul Magid, who also wrote the script. Magid (whose name means “teller” or “teacher” or “preacher”) is a remarkable and gifted clown, juggler, imagist, playwright, and entertainer—a teller, a teacher, and a preacher, and there again lies the rub.

The play was directed by Sam Woodhouse, the artistic director of the Rep, and a very fine director indeed. I’ve worked with Sam on several productions at the Rep, including The Merchant of Venice, which he directed, and King Lear (directed by Todd Salovey), in which Sam starred. The Rep is known for its multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic mix of productions and is a mainstay of peace-making theatre in San Diego. And there’s that rub again.

The cast—actors, movement artists, and musicians—was a superb band of multi-talented performers. Despite the hard-to-lighten content, they did wonderful and entertaining work.

In the play, Benengeli (played by Magid) is a Muslim Moor of 17th-century Spain who holds as his ideal the way Christians, Muslims, and Jews got along in Andalusia in the 10th and 11th centuries. He tries to be the friend of Don Quixote (played by the excellent Peter Van Norden), who in this play has gone mad not in the name of chivalry, but in the name of Catholic anti-Moorish jingoism. What he finds is that only in dying and in death can he and his prejudiced friend just get along.

Well, here’s the rub: This Don Quixote, for all its hilarity and costume and movement and juggling, is really a work of thinly veiled political propaganda. Don Quixote is a stand-in for that image of President George Bush invented and promoted by the anti-war Democratic left: he rushes in to tilt at enemies who don’t really exist and messes everything up. So far as the play is concerned, we all would be able to get along if it were not for our own (i.e., America’s) irrational and hysterical hatred of the imaginary other—Muslim, Hispanic, or Black.

The implication of the play, repeatedly and heavy-handedly made, would be merely childish and ironic if it were not also dangerously stupid. Please don’t misunderstand me. I want us all to get along too. I really do. But I don’t think Americans like those sitting in the Lyceum last night or those sitting in the White House or the Pentagon are the main problem.

The play’s raison d’etre being relevance to current events, the play associates America’s war against Muslims in Iraq and the movement opposing illegal immigration with the Catholicism of the Inquisition and the re-conquest of Spain. President Bush, for whom Don Quixote is the fairly obvious stand-in, is presumably the bad guy on both counts, (though many who wish he were more aggressive in securing the borders would put him on the other side): One would have to be as mad as “DQ” (so this Sancho Panza calls him) to justify the war in Iraq or to want America’s borders secured.

The irony is that America, more than any other country in the world at any time in history, IS the Andalusia of Benegeli’s dream. Only those brought up from the cradle (by the likes of Maureen Dowd, say, or Noam Chomsky) to believe the world would be Eden were it not for America and capitalism could possibly think otherwise. Of course we are not an ideal society. But where else in space or in time, since America fought to abolish slavery, have so many people of such different races, backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, languages, opinions, and customs gotten along so well with one another for so long and fought so consistently against racial and ethnic and religious persecution at home and abroad?

Is it right to judge others by different standards from those to which we hold ourselves, the universal standards of kindness and love that the play embraces? Or is America to be judged a hideous failure against the impossible standards of the Garden of Eden before the fall, while other peoples are given a pass for not rising above the world’s norm of conquest, hatred, corruption, violence, and injustice? Are we or are we not the least nasty society the world has ever seen?

And from which culture came the ideas that have caused it to be so? It is only because of the biblical doctrine of the brotherhood of man and a thousand years of Christian government that the Western world has come to value so highly the ideal of getting along with others. Yes Western Christianity produced the Inquisition. But it also produced the American Revolution and the war against slavery and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The irony is that it is not the imaginary Moor Benengeli who holds the ideal of love-despite-differences. It is the American Jew Magid and the American Christian Woodhouse. Without two millennia of the Western religious tradition, where could Magid and Woodhouse possibly find grounds for the shared belief in loving their neighbors as themselves?

Ask the Benengelis of Iraq, grateful for our help in setting up a government of laws in a country racked by sectarian religious violence, who is better represented by the Spanish Inquisition: the American army or the Shiite death squads? If the author and director really want to be relevant to the present moment, it is not Don Quixote’s Catholicism that they should be indicting for inquisitorial cruelties but the likes of the Taliban and the Wahhabists and Hesbollah and Ahmadinejad.

When has George Bush ever called for the expulsion from anywhere of anyone but terrorists and murderers? And yet every day we hear calls for the destruction of Israel and the Jews and the Christian “crusaders” and the West from the real-live present-day inquisitors that the play and the media and the entertainment left pretend would just get along if only America would let them.

Sitting in the theatre last night, approving by their responses, was an audience that could only sit there approving of such upside-down “relevance” because the play depicts the opposite of the truth. Where would they be if they clapped at a play put in on Tehran or Damascus or Gaza or Riyadh that made Muslims into the cruel and unjust persecutors of Jews and Christians? Oh, wait. Clapping there would be ok; if you didn’t clap at the cruelty and injustice against Jews, Christians, and secular Westerners you’d be beaten up or killed. “Let’s all just get along” would probably not be that play’s theme, though.

Has the artistic/aesthetic/entertainment community gone completely mad? Say what you want about the errors and follies of our war in Iraq. But please spare us the superior moralizing that refuses to acknowledge the most obvious facts of history and current events.

In reality, the Medieval Christian and Muslim rulers of Spain were almost perpetually at war, and the Jews were persecuted from both sides. The century of relative harmony enjoyed by Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Andalusia under the Ommiad caliphs was ended when the country was overrun by the Almoravides in the 11th century and the Almohades in the 12th, Medieval North-African versions of the Wahhabis and the Taliban respectively. Not all those who were expelled in the Reconquista were decent folk like Benengeli.

Why are the Crusades and the Inquisition and the Reconquista the icons of evil in this play and not the Taliban, Hesbollah, Hamas, and Al Qaeda? Cruelty and unjust violence are evil whoever perpetrates them, aren’t they? It is not the Christians or the Jews or the American capitalists who are fighting today out of race hatred or religious fanaticism. To pretend that one is in favor of everyone’s getting along while refusing to recognize where tyranny really lies is not only quixotic. It is suicidal.