The Lady Was A Tramp

The Lady Was A Tramp

Recently, I saw a presentation of one of my favorite musicals, Man of La Mancha. At the end of the play, the appreciative audience gave the cast a standing ovation, and as I left the theater, I was aware that I had just experienced a fascinating phenomenon: Hundreds of people, mostly strangers to each other and undoubtedly holding different political, social, and religious beliefs, found themselves, however briefly, embracing the same two moral absolutes: Purity is better than impurity, and self-sacrifice is better than self-interest.

It is, of course, essential for the reader to know the story line of the play to understand my point. So, for those who are unfamiliar with it, here is a brief summation:

Loosely based on Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the story begins with Cervantes arrested by the Spanish Inquisition. Once placed in a dungeon, he is put on “trial” by the other prisoners. Cervantes, who possesses a manuscript of a play he has written, agrees to produce the play as his defense, enlisting the male and female prisoners to assume the various roles.

Cervantes plays the key role of Alonso Quijana, an old man who has spent so much time reading about heroic knights of the past that he, in his dementia, has assumed a new identity: Don Quixote de La Mancha, a knight errant. In a tavern that Quixote believes to be a castle, he meets Aldonza, a serving girl/prostitute. Instead of being repulsed by her moral failings, Quixote sees her as a virtuous lady worthy of protection and respect. He renames her Dulcinea and pledges his undying devotion.

At first, she finds Quixote’s compliments laughable and is convinced he is hopelessly mad. But as the play progresses, she begins to soften toward him. She marvels at his selfless love for her and his impeccable ideals. By the end of the play, as Don Quixote lies dying, she has changed. She nows sees herself as one worthy of respect and insists that she is no longer the harlot Aldonza but the lady Dulcinea.

And the audience is happy because purity and self-sacrifice have prevailed. Let me explain.

Regarding purity, a very poignant scene occurs in the play when, after being raped by men at the tavern, Aldonza lashes out at Don Quixote for his continued reference to her as a lady. She begs him to see her as she really is and paints for him the picture of her life in song:

I am not your lady!
I am not any kind of a lady!
I was spawned in a ditch
By a mother who left me there,
Naked and cold and too hungry to cry.
I never blamed her.
I’m sure she left hoping
That I’d have the good sense to die!
Then, of course, there’s my father . . .
I’m told that young ladies
Can point to their fathers
With maidenly pride;
Mine was some regiment
Here for an hour,
I can’t even tell you which side!
So of course I became,
As befitted my delicate birth,
The most casual bride
Of the murdering scum of the earth!

(Don Quixote: And still thou art my lady.)

And still he torments me!
How should I be a lady?
For a lady has modest and maidenly airs,
And a virtue I somehow suspect that I lack;
It’s hard to remember these maidenly airs
In a stable laid flat on your back!
Won’t you look at me, look at me,
God, won’t you look at me!
Look at the kitchen slut reeking with sweat!
Born on a dung heap to die on a dung heap,
A strumpet men use and forget!
If you feel that you see me
Not quite at my virginal best,
Cross my palm with a coin,
And I’ll willingly show you the rest!

(Don Quixote: Never deny thou art Dulcinea.)

Take the clouds from your eyes
And see me as I really am!
You have shown me the sky,
But what good is the sky
To a creature who’ll never
Do better than crawl?
Of all the cruel b*******
Who’ve badgered and battered me,
You are the cruelest of all!
Can’t you see what your gentle
Insanities do to me?
Rob me of anger and give me despair!
Blows and abuse I can take and give back again,
Tenderness I cannot bear!
So please torture me now
With your “Sweet Dulcinea” no more!
I’m am no one! I’m nothing!
I’m only Aldonza the whore!

(Don Quixote: Now and forever thou art my lady Dulcinea!)

How easy it is to hear the pain of this woman. Sex without love has caused her to hate men and herself. She has never known true love and likely never will. There is no hope, no future different from what she knows.

And so the audience wants her to change, hopes she will change, because instinctively they know that her life will be so much better if she can choose purity. Surrounded by a culture of ever-expanding sexual perversion, the audience wants purity to again be a common virtue.

As for the virtue of self-sacrifice, this is demonstrated by Don Quixote as he sings to Aldonza about the importance of his quest:

To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go,
To right the unrightable wrong,
To love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star,

This is my quest, to follow that star.
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far,
To fight for the right, without question or pause,
To be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause,

And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest,
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest.
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with stars,
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star!

One could make a strong argument that “The Impossible Dream” is one of the most beautiful, most inspiring songs ever written. And the audience reaction is almost always the same after the last note is played: There is a brief moment of hushed silence and then thunderous, long-lasting applause. They know they have just heard something that is meaningful, something which William Faulkner defined as “ . . . the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed–love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Again we find the audience of strangers in one accord, knowing that despite Don Quixote’s mental limitations, his quest is pure and righteous and heroic and worthy of pursuit by all people in all times. They also know that this “world will be better for this” if we all had such a quest.

Now it is likely that the cynic will say that Man of La Mancha is, after all, not real; that the audience, once back in their homes, will revert to their sins of choice; that it is healthier to ignore the dreams of a fictional madman and see life as it really is.

In the play, one of the prisoners challenges Cervantes to see life as it really is. His response is perfect:

I’ve lived over forty years, and I’ve seen life as it is–pain, misery, cruelty beyond belief . . . I’ve been a soldier and a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them at the last moment. These were men who saw life as it is. But they died despairing–no glory, no brave last words. Only their eyes filled with confusion–questioning why. I do not think they were asking why they were dying, but why they had ever lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness; to surrender dreams, this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash; too much sanity may be madness! And maddest of all–to see life as it is and not as it should be.

Would that we all suffered such madness.

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Written by
Thomas Addis