By Marvin Payne
Don Quixote rides again! (My four-year-old son asks, “Donkey who?” I answer, “Xote, that’s xho.”) We’re immersed in rehearsals (“immersals”? “rexersals”?), and my white goatee is starting to look genuinely 16th Century Spanish (or Mid-Twentieth Century President of the Church). I wore Quixote’s boots Friday night for the first time. They come up to about my chin. I’ve been wearing his shaving basin helmet for about a week. I’ve been wearing portions of his attitude since about 1972.
There are some great lines in this show. (The show being “Man of La Mancha,” in which I play the actual “Man” ((who turns out to be “Men,” actually, two of them, Quixote and his creator, Don Miguel de Cervantes, whom theatregoers have long mourned as having perished under the tortures of the Inquisition, but whom in fact died in bed on the same day as that other playwright, Shakespeare)).) My friend and Scripture Scouts collaborator, Melanie Hoffman, said, “Wow, you get to say that great line about seeing men die with the question ‘Why’ in their eyes – not why they were dying, but why they had lived.” (Except that, being the serious actor that I am, I would see that question as the protagonist would see it, which is “not xhy they were dying, but xhy they xad lived.” The audience won’t know the difference, but I will – just like the guy who persisted in painting the tops of the beams inside cathedrals.)
So I was really looking forward to saying the “xhy” line. But there are more. Some favoriter already than the one Melanie likes. Like:
“Oh, thou heart of flint and bowels of cork, now I will chastise thee!”
(which is really fun to say if you have a lance in your hand) and
“At the last moment, he changed that ogre into a windmill!” (which is
quite affecting if you’re the kind of actor who can bleed on cue).
But my very favorite is one that might not be on anybody else’s list at all. The first time the Aldonza (Quixote calls her “Dulcinea”) actress, frustrated and furious about being mistaken for somebody good, stood across from me, script in hand, demanding why I do the foolhardy and
outrageous things I do, I was touched rather deeply by having to read back to her the simple words, “I hope to add some measure of grace to the world.”
(This is the “play” Don Quixote talking. The “book” Don Quixote, when asked this question, would invariably reply, “to earn fame and honor.” For himself and his Dulcinea, whom he never actually meets anywhere in the one thousand fifty pages of the book.)
“I hope to add some measure of grace to the world.” I really love that.
But how do you do that?
I guess you could start with President Hinckley’s advice to try just a little harder, be just a little kinder, write columns just a little less randomly. And, of course, there are always his “Be” attitudes: Be smart, be good, be lieve.
You don’t have to be a knight-errant to add some measure of grace to the world. You could be a kid. My wife had to pinch-hit yesterday in Primary for the lady who was supposed to conduct and had spaced it. So Laurie hurried into the chapel and saw little four-year-old Leah Ledbetter sitting in the chair up front where you sit if you’re supposed to give a talk. She whispered, “Leah, are you giving a talk today?” Leah whispered back, “Yes. But I don’t have a paper – someone will help me.” Thereupon my wife announced, “Sister Leah Ledbetter will now give a talk.” Leah’s teacher began urgently shaking her head (her own head, not Leah’s or Laurie’s), from side to side in the universal signal for “What are you thinking?” But Leah, who had no more been asked to speak than to play power forward for the Jazz, was already at the mic. Laurie sprang to her side and guided her through the testimony Leah had confidently planned to bear. (You will remember her faith that “someone will help me.”)
It reminded me of that place in Alma 32 where it is announced that sometimes words are given to little children that will confound the wise and learned. Well, just about every single thing Leah meant to say would have confounded the wise and learned: God talks to untutored farm boys in the woods and little old men in Salt Lake City, dead people will jump up out of the ground and sing, you can whisper words by your bedside at night, along with millions of other children at the same time, and the words will be heard, sorted, and answered by someOne Who is listening from someWhere near Kolob, a star to which hieing is well nigh impossible (ask the people of Babel, but don’t count on understanding their response), and, further, that the answer to prayer
number 3,600,423 will never, ever, under any circumstances, be somehow misdirected to kid number 3,600,422. And, to cap it all, the answers will be good! This sort of thing is generally regarded by the wise and learned as, according to Paul, “foolishness.” For them, it’s the perfect word.
If, however, you are among those very many (and often very young, and often somewhat knight-errantly and occasionally chivalrous) who have empirically discovered that such things are consistently and undeniably true, then the perfect word is “grace.”
In the play, Cervantes is being tried by his fellow-prisoners “in durance vile,” awaiting the Inquisition, which was not, perhaps unfortunately, led by any of the members of Monty Python. His prosecutor assails him for the madness of not seeing “life as it is.” Cervantes replies that he has lived nearly fifty years (one of your younger playwrights) and has seen life “as it is,” has heard “moans from bundles of filth on the streets,” has been a soldier and seen his “comrades fall in battle, or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I held them in my arms at the last moment. These were men who saw life ‘as it is,’ yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words, only their eyes filled with confusion, and the whimpering question, ‘Why?’ I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness – seeking treasure where there is only trash. Perhaps to be practical is madness. And maddest of all, to see life ‘as it is,’ and not as it ought to be!”
Then he slaps a shaving basin on his head, leaps astride an imaginary horse, and bellows, with full orchestra,
“I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha.
Destroyer of evil am I!
I will march to the sound of the trumpets of glory,
Forever to conquer or die!”
And all the prisoners burst into applause. It’s a nice moment. Then I and Leah ride off into the sunset. I and Leah and Paul. And Alma.
And my fat little sidekick Sancho, because to some “it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.”
I never much liked the song “The Impossible Dream.” I’ve never seen the play or the movie, and so and have never heard it sung by a mad Quixote. Hearing it on the radio a lot in the ‘sixties, I got the misimpression that some guy in a tux was singing it to a vast audience of fans, backed by fifty guitars, strum-dub-a-dub-strumming their way into some kind of crazed “Bolero” wannabe frenzy.
But no. (Universal sign for “What was I thinking?”) The light fades around the edges of the prison, blanketing the prisoners in darkness. There is only courtyard starlight, and a creaky old man testifying to one simple, wounded, tarnished and hardened young girl that there is a beauty and aspiration smoldering in all of us that the world would mock and trample and profane as the very most threatening kind of foolishness.
And it’s not until after she is gang-raped, Quixote is disillusioned and dies, and Cervantes is hauled up the stairs to meet the Inquisition, that she buys it.
Is this foolishness? Then why do people keep buying tickets? Why are actors like me routinely reduced to goosebumps and lumpy throats? Why does a creaky, crazy knight bump aside rock stars and athletes and world leaders as “role-model-for-the moment”? Why do we dream the impossible? Fight the unbeatable? Bear the unbearable? Right the unrightable? Reach for the unreachable? Why? Why?
In the words of my wonderful Spencer Kimball, Yoda, Neal A. Maxwell, Mary Fielding, Joan of Arc, Popeye character, “Xhy not?”
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)