Imagine picking up a novel, hoping for an entertaining read. You open it up, read the first paragraph, and realize that the main character is …
What would it feel like?
A teacher might find this a good discussion starter for students (I'm thinking of grades 6-10). After all, kids are likely to point out that stranger things happen nowadays. One might well turn up in somebody’s blog, in a viral video, or even on TV without expecting it—often in a most unpleasant way.
The discussion could also introduce two of the most iconic figures in world literature: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the protagonists of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel Don Quixote. They went through exactly this experience.
Early in Part 2 of Don Quixote, the deluded “Knight of the Woeful Figure” and his down-to-earth squire learn that they are the heroes of Part 1 of the novel, and they have to live with the consequences of fame. Later in Part 2, they find out (as did Cervantes, to his dismay) that a phony second part has already been published by an anonymous hack trying to cash in on the success of Part 1. Through his characters’ reactions to this spurious work, Cervantes masterfully ridicules his unknown rival’s version. Don Quixote and Sancho become all the more vividly alive as they contemplate their own presence in works of fiction.
As for poor Cervantes, he found out that fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He wrote Don Quixote largely because he was broke and hoped it would be a bestseller. Once it was in print, it “went viral” (as we might say today), appearing in all sorts of pirated editions. Cervantes wrote a real blockbuster, all right, and his name was known internationally—but he remained penniless. At least his fame lasted a great deal longer than the 15 minutes allotted to most of us!
“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” as Mark Twain once famously observed. Now, I’ve read Walter Starkie’s 1000+ page translation twice. But I admit that this massive tome is not for everybody, let alone kids in grades six through ten. Even so, how can anyone go through life without some familiarity with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? They’ve been portrayed in drawings, paintings, sculptures, plays, movies, songs, symphonic works, operas, and a Broadway musical. Cervantes’ book has enriched language itself with words and phrases like “quixotic” and “tilting at windmills.” How can you introduce your students to Don Quixote and Sancho in a single class period?
I was delighted to tackle this problem for READ magazine in 2006. In my short classroom play, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are magically transported to the present, where they are faced with their 400-year-old legacy. The play was a 2007 finalist for a Distinguished Achievement Award from The Association of Educational Publishers.
“Don Quixote in Hollywood” appears in my new book, Classroom Plays: Volume 1, which includes five plays and 105 Reading Comprehension questions. Author notes and answers are provided in a free downloadable Teacher Guide. See my ChironBooks classroom plays page to find out how to order the book and download the guide.
Here’s an excerpt from “Don Quixote in Hollywood.” In this scene, Don Quixote and Sancho are cast as themselves in a forthcoming movie version of Don Quixote. (Tom Hanks and Danny DeVito have been fired.) The story is told by Narrators 1, 2, and 3. Dulcinea is not Don Quixote’s real lady love (who was only a common village woman anyway), but a bookstore owner and Cervantes fan who changed her name from Myrtle Lederhosen. As always, Don Quixote believes that he is being vexed by an “Evil Wizard.”
Narrator 1: Meetings are held, contracts are signed, and the real Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are slated to play themselves. The movie is a big-budget production. Even Rozinante the horse and Dapple the donkey are shipped to Hollywood at no small expense.
Narrator 2: Then one day, Don Quixote and Sancho arrive on location, riding Rozinante and Dapple. Don Quixote carries his lance and wears his rusty armor. Sancho wears his simple peasant clothes. They are in an open field, surrounded by cameras and crew members. They find themselves facing about 40 huge windmills.
Narrator 3: Dulcinea has come along to watch.
Dulcinea: The first day of shooting! How exciting!
Narr 1: The director begins to give orders …
Director: Okay, the first scene we’ll shoot is Don Quixote’s famous battle against the windmills.
Quixote: I never did battle against windmills.
Director: Sure you did. It’s the most famous part of the book. You and Sancho were out riding one day when you came across a bunch of windmills, just like these. You were convinced that they were evil giants waving their arms. So you spurred your horse and charged at the nearest windmill. Your lance broke against a sail, which sent you flying backwards off your horse and flat on your back. Does that jog your memory?
Sancho: Master, as you may remember, I told you that they looked a lot more like windmills than giants.
Quixote: You did, indeed, Sancho—because you were under the Wizard’s spell. But they were truly giants. It was only after I had soundly defeated them that the Wizard turned them into windmills. He did so to cheat me out of my victory.
Director: That’s not what the book says.
Quixote: That’s because the book is a pack of lies. If you wish to retell my adventures, you must follow my honest memories.
Dulcinea: (to director) He does have a point. He remembers fighting giants, whether it happened or not. How can he play the scene with windmills?
Director: So what do you want me to do? Tell the story as if everything really happened the way he imagined? Why do people love Don Quixote, anyway? Why haven’t they been able to get enough of him for 400 years? Because he’s crazy, that’s why. The public loves crazy characters. After all, most people live in their dreams—just like Don Quixote. That’s why they can relate to him. But a sane Don Quixote? Nobody will buy tickets to see that.
Dulcinea: (to Don Quixote) He has a point too.
Quixote: (to Dulcinea) He talks complete nonsense. How can I admit to my madness and still be mad? That would make me sane. (to director) My good sir, I’ll have nothing to do with your windmills. Replace them with giants, and I’ll gladly fight them for you.
Director: Impossible. That would put us way over budget.
Quixote: Then my squire and I must regretfully depart.
Director: Hey! Where do you think you’re riding off to?
Quixote: Come away, Sancho.
Director: You’re under contact! I’ll sue you for every penny you’ve got! You’ll never work in this town again!
Dulcinea: (to Don Quixote) Please wait! Think about what you’re doing!
Quixote: Farewell, my Lady Dulcinea! We shall not part for long! I go to slay the Evil Wizard who has made you believe that your name is Myrtle Lederhosen!
Sancho: I don’t like this, Master. We’re riding away from a fortune.
Quixote: Not so, Sancho. We are merely fleeing the temptations of a wicked city. But look there, up on that hillside—the name HOLLYWOOD in gigantic white letters. Only the Evil Wizard could have created such a wonder. We must go there at once, for my knightly instincts tell me that we shall find him there.