Monday, July 6, 2015

A frenzy, an illusion, / A shadow, a delirium, a fiction - Calderón de la Barca's Life Is a Dream

After reading one of the best plays of Lope de Vega I turned to the greatest play of the Siglo de Oro, Life Is a Dream (1635) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca.  Having read a dozen plays from the period, I am just parroting other critics who have read many, many more.  Geez, I hope they have.  Maybe they are bluffing.  Regardless, Life Is a Dream is the only one of those dozen that rivals Shakespeare in originality and imagery, if not in depth of character or language.

If it were a Shakespeare play, it would be housed with the late romances like The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline.  It is similarly free-ranging, loose, and weird.  The setting is Poland, a country as familiar to Calderón as Bohemia was to Shakespeare.  The king has locked his son in a remote tower, guided by omens suggesting that he will grow up to be Hitler.  The play occurs at the moment the king decides to test his son’s character by actually allowing him to be a prince, remembering that the fellow has spent his entire chained up in a secret prison.  The king’s failsafe is that if the prince turns out to be a monster, the king can whisk him back to the prison, allowing the prince to believe that everything he experienced had been nothing but a dream.

This play is as oddly modern as Fuente Ovejuna, except here the modern part is the bizarre psychological experiment, which is obviously insane and will have catastrophic results.  The really brilliant idea of Calderón is to have the prince actually believe that the vivid, lifelike episode was a dream.  Many rich ideas, dramatic and poetic, follow.  Metaphysically, Life Is a Dream rivals Shakespeare.

What man is there alive who’d seek to reign
Since he must wake into the dream that’s death.
The rich man dreams his wealth which is his care
And woe.  The poor man dreams his sufferings.
He dreams who thrives and prospers in this life.
He dreams who toils and strives.  He dreams who injures,
Offends, and insults.  So that in this world
Everyone dreams the thing he is, though no one
Can understand it.  I dream I am here,
Chained in these fetters. Yet I dreamed just now
I was in a more flattering, lofty station.
What is this life?  A frenzy, an illusion,
A shadow, a delirium, a fiction.
The greatest good’s but little, and this life
Is but a dream, and dreams are only dreams.  (end of Act II)

Calderón was a careful reader of Don Quixote.  The play has its Sancho Panza, too, a stock clown figure who is transformed – who is abused – in ways that are as original as the rest of the play.  As with most clowns, he is rarely funny, but he has the misfortune to be the only true empiricist in a dream play. If only he knew he were a fiction.  I have had the luck to see a good staging of Life Is a Dream, and the fate of Clarion the clown was a real shock, however well it reinforced the dramatic metaphysics.

I read the lively Roy Campbell translation.

All right, that was probably Spanish Literature Month for me.  Thanks to Richard and Stu.


  1. That was a dreamy passage, and the modern translation sounds fine. No doths and thous and thees but quite powerful.

  2. I have been very happy with Roy Campbell's translations. They were meant for performance of some kind - for the radio, I think.

    1. Roy Campbell - like Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNeice, Henry Reed and other poets worked for the BBC as writer, translator and producer. It's said that Campbell was rather surprised by the job he was offered, as he thought he was going to be given a job as a commissionaire, as a disabled ex-serviceman.

    2. It is best not to think too hard about the days when the BBC commissioned translations of Siglo de Oro plays.

  3. Now, this one I have read (in Gwynne Edwards' translation, which is the onemost readily available in UK), but far too long ago to say anything particularly interesting about it. I think I'll add this to my weekend list.

  4. A nice way to spend part of a weekend.