"When Dreams are Life and Life's a Dream"
In the 1540s, while Spanish troops led by Coronado were traversing what is now New Mexico in search of the “Seven Cities of Gold,” treasure no less splendid was starting to be discovered in theaters across their homeland. Tirso de Molina, Miguel Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca and others soon led an explosion of playwriting now called “The Golden Age of Spanish Drama,” which was as deep and diverse as that of England’s Elizabethan era. Calderón was its last and greatest writer and his La Vida es Sueño (Life Is a Dream) is widely considered to be “the Hamlet of Spanish drama,” in part for its philosophic resonances and in part for its bravura leading roles.
Calderón was born in 1600. His father, a government official, was a man of stern temperament and several of the son’s plays, including Life is a Dream, trace the destruction caused by parents indiscriminately exercising their authority. Calderón studied for the priesthood but abandoned it in favor of the theater, becoming a successful writer both for the court theater of King Philip IV and for the itinerant companies. The latter performed in corrales—outdoor courtyards with a raised platform stationed at one end, surrounded by an audience which stood next to the platform or sat in galleries of seats around the perimeter. The corrales were similar to Elizabethan stages and Golden Age plays featured many of the same dramatic conventions, such as introductory descriptions of place and time.
The first known performance of one of his plays took place in 1623, after he had come to the attention of Lope de Vega as a writer of grace and power. Calderón triumphed in a variety of genres, from social comedy, early opera, and the beginnings of zarzuela to mythological and classical drama to religious allegory and tragedy. Following Lope de Vega’s death in 1635, he was recognized as Spain’s leading dramatist. Many of his finest works date from the ten-year period that began in 1637, just after the king named him a Knight of the Order of Santiago. They include the comedies The Phantom Lady and A House with Two Doors is Difficult to Guard, the religious plays The Constant Prince and The Great Theater of the World, and the “honor plays” Secret Vengeance for Secret Insult and The Mayor of Zalamea, in addition to Life is a Dream, which dates from 1635.
Political revolts, royal deaths which closed theaters for several years, and the deaths of his two brothers and of his mistress converged to reduce his output during the late 1640s. He eventually did join the priesthood, in 1651, following which he focused primarily on religious plays in addition to his priestly duties, first in Toledo and then Madrid. He died in 1681, the final and, to many, the finest of Spain’s golden age authors. Calderón’s plays are marked by a focus on a dominant theme, which is illuminated by the plot construction and characters in a tightly controlled style. His language is often rhetorical, with frequent allusions, and written in a number of different verse forms, which vary in rhyme scheme and meter. Life is a Dream explores several dualities—the relationship between father and son, the importance of nature versus nurture in deciding behavior, the question of free will versus fate, and the difficulty of ultimately determining which, if any, of our experiences are real and which are dreamt.
Here is a summary of the play:
King Basilio’s son, Segismundo, is born under auguries that he will one day overthrow his father. The king therefore has him raised in isolation in a far-off prison, under the harsh tutelage of his minister, Clotaldo. To arrange for a successor as king, Basilio engineers the marriage of his nephew, the foreigner Astolfo, to his niece, Estrella. The king begins to doubt the decision to banish his son, so has Segismundo drugged and brought to court. When he awakens, Segismundo is treated as if he were king but his behavior is appalling—he kills a courtier, tries to attack the king and Clotaldo, and attempts to force himself on Estrella—and so is returned to the prison. Clotaldo convinces him that everything that seemed to happen was a dream, including his meeting with Rosaura, Clotaldo’s daughter, with whom he is now in love. Segismundo begins to understand the need to subdue his instincts. A group of rebels, opposed to rule by the foreigner Astolfo when a legitimate heir exists, rescues Segismundo and attacks the palace. As triumph approaches, Segismundo is able to demonstrate his restraint and self-knowledge, marking him as worthy to succeed to the throne, even as he admits that everything that has transpired may, in fact, be a dream.
For dream we will, though we possess
No sense of where it is we thrive
And dreaming just means being alive.
The insight life’s experience gives
Is that, until man wakes, he lives
A life that only dreams contrive.
The king dreams he is king and reigns
Deluded in his full command,
Imposing order in his land.
The borrowed plaudits he obtains
Blow scattered through the wind’s domains
As death—man’s life is so unjust!—
Transmutes them into ash and dust.
Oh, who on earth could wish to wield
Such might when waking means to yield
It all to death’s dream, as we must?
Segismundo, Act II
Translated by Gregary Racz
Interested in more information on Santa Fe's production?
Life is a Dream
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