Written for a special reading of Calderon’s masterpiece, Life is a Dream, at the Former Residence of the Spanish Ambassador. The reading was an unqualified success. In particular, the final act – so problematic on the page – assumed a complex and satisfying moral symmetry in performance. -DL
Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) is perhaps the most luminous writer of the Siglo de oro (the Spanish Golden Age), a rough century of Spanish preeminence in arts and culture which ended with the playwright’s own death in 1681. Had Shakespeare not already coined the idea that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” Calderón would nonetheless still have written El gran teatro del mundo (The Great Theatre of the World, 1655), his masterful auto sacramental (religious drama) on the same theme.
And yet, despite these surface similarities, Calderón is about 40 years younger than Shakespeare. He comes from a younger generation, and wrote for a greatly changed world. Unlike Shakespeare, who wrote in times of ascendant imperialism, Calderón worked in the shadow of declining empire. The Spanish Armada had been defeated and Philip II had died in the years before his birth, and his greatest works (from the 1630s-50s) date to the period when Spain was embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War, the ensuing Dutch revolt, and problems with her colonies in the Americas. Perhaps this explains why Calderón is above all a poet of existential unease; his plays were written for a society in which the previous century’s certainties suddenly seemed profoundly unsure.
Whereas Shakespeare’s dramaturgy overflows formal boundaries, omnivorous in its zest for capturing the world, Calderón’s plays are objects of crystalline, elegant symmetry. His plots seem to divide and split in two separate directions that distance themselves as we advance through them. The chiaroscuro effect they produce is somewhat similar to landscapes by Calderón’s great contemporary, Diego Velazquez: disorienting, but also sublime. In other words, if Shakespeare is the Renaissance; Calderón is the Baroque.
Of Calderón’s 120 surviving comedias, the one hailed universally as a masterpiece is Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño, 1635). Its plot is strange, more like a fairy-tale or a parable than a realistic play. Before the play begins, we learn, Basilio, the immensely learned and manipulative King of Poland (he suggests no one so much as Prospero), grew convinced that an astrological prophecy would turn his son into a monster, so he had the newborn prince Segismundo locked up in a tower.
The action of the play begins with the cross-dressed female heroine Rosaura (herself more an illusion than a reality) and her clown Clarion encountering Segismundo in the tower. In Act 2, Segismundo encounters Rosaura again, this time dressed as a woman, after he has been plucked from the tower and set on the throne. By the end of the play, this situation will reverse itself once more. In fact, the play’s oscillations between reality and illusion become so violent that Segismundo – and we – come to perceive the impossibility between waking and dreaming.
Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest, Life is a Dream asks us to leap into a world of pure imagination. But unlike Shakespeare, Calderón gives us no Puck or Ariel, no fairies to serve as our magical guides, no sense of supernatural surety in a vertiginously changing world. We are instead, like Segismundo, presented with a profound and paradoxical landscape. Which is real, we ask ourselves. Is it the world of the tower, which Calderón’s language vividly portrays in Act 1? Or the aristocratic court, which we encounter in the increasingly helter-skelter action of Act 2? The answer to these questions comes in the play’s third and final act, which contains one of the most difficult and profound recognition scenes in all of dramatic literature. To go beyond reality and illusion, Calderón seems to be saying, we must rely on something within.