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By Brian Robin

The Significance of “Don Quixote” on “Quixote Nuevo” and More

It is considered the first modern novel, doing for the Spanish language what William Shakespeare did for the English language. It’s a work that has been translated into all major languages—in 700 editions.

Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Michel Foucault directly refer to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote in their various works. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, who the New York Times called “one of the most admired writers in the Spanish-speaking world and an important influence on the … explosion of Latin American literature of the 1960s and 1970s,” said Cervantes and Shakespeare form part of a narrative tradition that includes literary heavyweights such as Homer, Dante, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac and James Joyce.

And given the impact Don Quixote has had on literature and language for the last four centuries, Cervantes has earned his place in that lineage.

This impactful work provides the inspiration for Octavio Solis’ Quixote Nuevo, which opens SCR’s 60th season Sept. 30 on the Segerstrom Stage. It runs through Oct. 28.

Solis took Cervantes’ 1605 masterpiece, modernized it and infused it with vivid imagination and Tejano music. In so doing, he kept Cervantes’ enduring concept about the joys and perils of being the hero of your own story, pursuing a lost dream, and balancing reality.

And Solis is merely the latest writer to call on Don Quixote as literary inspiration—an influence that goes beyond establishing its presence in 19th and 20th century works. It literally created the modern Spanish language.

While Cervantes was writing Don Quixote, the majority of the Iberian Peninsula—the area we know as Spain—spoke a dialect that was a mix of Latin, old Spanish and a North African dialect, borrowed heavily from Arabic. But Cervantes wrote DonQuixote in a local Spanish dialect.

The success of Don Quixote sparked a language revolution across Spain. Cervantes and the Spanish language became so intertwined that the Library of Congress said Spanish is often referred to as “la lengua de Cervantes”—the language of Cervantes.

And within a century, the language of Don Quixote found its way into art across the spectrum. In theatre, Henry Fielding wrote his 1734 play, Don Quixote in England, as a broadside on Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Two centuries later, Tennessee Williams wrote Camino Real, which features—among its classic literary characters—Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Among literature, you have Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), where Flaubert literally created Emma Bovary as a female Don Quixote, using romance novels and historic books as her escape from life’s boredom. Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot was directly based on Don Quixote, as was librarian Michael Herne in G.K. Chesterton’s 1927 novel, The Return of Don Quixote. Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (1960) cites Don Quixote as the first and best novel ever written and Kundera admits all of his works are a homage to Cervantes. Six years later, Foucault’s The Order of Things centers on Quixote’s confusion throughout Cervantes’ novel.

In Graham Greene’s 1982 Monsignor Quixote, the title character regards himself as a descendent of Don Quixote. And Salman Rushdie went to the Cervantes well for two of his novels—The Moor’s Last Sign (1995) and Quichotte (2019), the latter a modern take on Don Quixote.

Musically, Don Quixote has been covered by composers ranging from George Telemann to Felix Mendelssohn to Maurice Ravel to Richard Strauss, and from musicians ranging from Toad the Wet Sprocket to Nik Kershaw to Coldplay, among dozens of others.

And there’s the famous Broadway favorite, Man of La Mancha, with its oft-covered song, The Impossible Dream.

Then, of course, is Cervantes’ contribution to the English language through such idioms as “tilting at windmills,” a phrase meaning attacking imaginary enemies or evils, or “quixotic,” meaning “exceedingly idealistic, impractical or unrealistic.” That’s brought to us directly from Don Quixote’s title character, who is prone to unrealistic schemes and chivalrous behavior.

Quite an artistic legacy from a man who spent much of his life in poverty and obscurity, doing the bulk of his writing in the last 15 years of his life.

See how Solis joins the long, distinguished line of artists paying tribute to the father of the modern novel. Get your tickets to Quixote Nuevo now.

About the author

South Coast Repertory

South Coast Repertory is a Tony Award-winning theatre is known for producing classics, contemporary hits and world premieres, for having the largest new-play development program in the nation and for advancing the art of theatre in service to the community. 

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