Woman of La Mancha: the fallen woman and agency in musicals

I have been remiss. A couple of weeks back i joined the audience for the local Hitchin Players’ performance of musical Man of La Mancha. I was impressed – muchly – because this is a difficult musical.

It is condemned by many feminist critics for its clumsy appropriation of rape as plot device – an issue i explored, with others, in a panel (Assaulting the narrative) at this summer’s Nine Worlds Geekfest on just this topic – and for its shockingly cavalier treatment of sex work.

Yet, it seemed to me, in the hands of a female director (Rosemary Bianchi) and blessed with an absolutely stupendous female lead (Gina Abbatt), it can be redeemed.

Of dream and illusion

Do not be deceived by the musical format. Bursting onto the stage in 1965, into a world where youth was kicking back against state authoritarianism, Man of La Mancha is born of anger. At its heart, is a conflict between Don Quixote, a man who dares to dream an Impossible Dream, to live according to his own heroic values, and a world that demands he accept it on its own base terms.

Noble altruism, in this scheme of things, is madness, and as the action unfolds, Quixote begins in glorious madness, falls back into sanity, and finally exits this world, saved once more by his own insanity.

That, at least, is the popular version, as presented for family entertainment in the film version half sung, half spoken by unlikely songsters Peter O’Toole and Sophia Lauren. The stage version is rather more complex, beginning with the incarceration of Miguel de Cervantes (the author of the book of Don Quixote) in prison. There, he pleads his cause before the other prisoners, by enlisting their help in acting out the central story, as above.

This creates an extra, potentially confusing dimension to the action: because the musical is NOT just about nobility, but about reality and madness. Cervantes is playing the character of a Senor Quijana who, in his delusion, believes himself to be Don Quixote. So, too, for the rest, as each cast member enacts and flits between at least two levels of reality.

The good-hearted whore

Catalyst and key to the action is a female prisoner, Escalente, who becomes, in the play, first Aldonza, a rough serving girl and self-confessed whore and then, through the prism of Quixote’s madness, the noble lady Dulcinea.

We meet her initially through the bitter and cynical Its all the same, which doesn’t just hint at the abuse and violence she has suffered, but sets it out for all to see. Men are, to her, all the same: she cannot believe Quixote is any different – or understand how he can see anything good in her.

What follows is classic rescue story. His belief transforms: but when she seeks to live out his ideals, she is raped for her pains. Angry, she turns on him, rejecting his earlier vision. But at the end, it is Aldonza/Dulcinea, regaining the insight previously rejected, who brings Quixote back to his (non-)senses.

Not to like

There’s a lot not to like there.

I’ll pass swiftly over the rape itself. This, of course, is the bit that gives directors nightmares and which the film, with one eye to a family audience, just glossed away (they cut from the incident that precipitates it to the aftermath, a clearly dishevelled and distressed Sophia Lauren sat by the road side). For despite directorial squeamishness, it is not the act that signifies, so much as how it relates to the dramatic narrative.

In discussing this work at Geekfest, i was focussed primarily on the almost casual way in which this rape was tossed in to the plot. In some films, in some musicals, rape is not so much explored, as carelessly thrown in to explain female motivation. Here, it is not even that: this really is “all about teh menz”.

It’s a piece about a man’s vision: about his interaction with the world; and rape, in this scenario, is not about the woman, but about its consequences for HIS beliefs. Oh!

That’s really rather depressing – but not entirely unusual in musicals of this period. The fallen woman archetype appears frequently. From Nancy in children’s musical Oliver to Mary Magdalene (Jesus Christ Superstar) and Sally Bowles in Cabaret, musicals abound with women whose badness exists primarily to cast a spotlight on the goodness of the male lead.

Stacy Wolf, in her excellent Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, highlights this trend. She also presents Aldonza as perhaps one of the worst instances of this trope, lacking a voice of her own, recruited to the narrative solely as a means to shine reflected glory on the only character that matters, the MAN of La Mancha. As Wolf puts it: “she exists to prove only that Quixote knows her better than she knows herself”.

If she does finally achieve some limited agency, she is allowed this only when she adopts a more conciliatory feminine approach: has, effectively learnt her lesson at the hands of the Master.

Rescued by her own agency

I agree – up to a point. The narrative is constructed with little idea that someone in Aldonza’s position can be anything other than victim. The closest parallel, story-wise, might be Mary of JC Superstar who, like Aldonza, reacts to the arrival of a Christ figure in her life with bemusement. However, being insipid and largely harmless, Mary gets to sing the showstopping I don’t know how to love him before politely fading from the action.

Whereas uppity women, such as Nancy and Sally, must pay for their assertiveness: the former being beaten and killed; the latter losing child and lover.

Yep. That’s a big problem with the show. Yet the problem is not inevitable. Because while the lines may stay the same, every cast puts its own individual stamp on them. That’s why the Taming of the Shrew turns up again and again, now as retrogade romance, now as feminist inversion. Even, on one occasion, as thinly-veiled bdsm manifesto!

I sat down aware of the structural issues with Man of La Mancha, worrying whether i could like it. In the end, i did, for two reasons. First, because the play does contain the potential for Escalente/Aldonza to emerge triumphant. As Aldonza, she brings Quixote back to his true self: and after he has passed on and Cervantes has been taken from the prisoners to his own real trial and who knows what future, it is she again, as Escalente, who takes up Cervantes’ dream, making his song her own.

That, in turn, was made explicit due to an excellent performance from Gina Abbatt. A weaker actress and singer would indeed have merely reflected Quixote: become no more than her master’s voice. But here, her strength of voice and acting gave agency to an otherwise autonomy-free character. From the moment of her angry rejection of Quixote to her final triumphant reprise of his theme, this became, electrifyingly, Escalente’s dream, her quest – and it is sheer credit to Abbatt that she did this.

Ending on a positive

The good news? Perhaps i am the eternal optimist, but i believe there are few narratives that cannot be reclaimed or subverted by a determined woman. Oppression is not inevitable. And where the narrative won’t help, perhaps a little judicious intervention can.

I’m off – to write a new ending to JC Superstar. I think i’ll call it … Mary’s song.

Because who else, really, deserves the last word?

About janefae

On my way from here to there
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