Life is a Dream
Written: 1998 (Calderón)
Edinburgh International Festival
The best way to begin to think about LIFE IS A DREAM is to try to imagine the theatre that it was written for.
Theatre in Madrid in the 1630's was radically different from any theatre we know.
In some ways it was very like the kind of theatre Shakespeare first wrote for: open air, without scenery and with minimal props, a stage thrusting forward into the audience, a theatre where the actors were physically very close to the audience, a theatre that appealed to every stratum of society.
Calderon's groundlings, the mosqueteros, stood in front of the stage: their avid attendance was a source of scandal to certain moralists, who felt the people should be working instead of idling; and in the theatre also there was space for the emerging middle classes, for the nobility, for the intellectuals and the clergy, for women - who had their own space, with its own separate entrance and a special guard at the door to prevent them being harassed as they entered. There would also be a box for the king: for Philip IV loved theatre and had a secret entrance so he could attend plays incognito.
So the playwright had to write something that would appeal to everybody: an extraordinary mixture of high adventure, love intrigue, high tragedy, low comedy, and intense philosophical and moral speculation, all wrapped up in an astonsihing and beautiful web of words.
For it's very clear that all the audience must have been in love with the music of poetry: every single one of Calderon's hundred's of plays contains speeches of quite astonishing length that must have been applauded (or hissed) like operatic arias.
Actors must have had something of the standing - and vocal power - of opera singers; they tended to specialise in playing the same role - either romantic lead, leading lady, king, old man, or clown - and the interst of the audience was not (as it tends to be now) in seeing what psychological insight the actor could bring to the role but how well he or she could carry it off.
It's the same with opera buffs now watching a singer perform Tosca: the focus of interest is shared bwteen the character's sufferings on the stage, the singer's skill in coping with the technical demands of the role, and all kinds of mental comparisons of how well (or badly) the preent singer is coping compared with other singers the (always insufferably knowledgeable) spectator has seen tackling the role in the past.
It's the same for a James Bond fan watching Pierce Brosnan play the role: the interest is partly in seeing what new twists the film-makers can bring to a part the spectator almost knows off by heart, partly in seeing how well brosnan can carry off the part. how sexy he is, how convincing he is in the acton scenes, how well he delivers the one liners.
That's how it must have been for people watching LIFE IS A DREAM: like the author and the actors, they were particpating in a game whose rules they understood, entering an imaginitive world in which they all felt absolutely at home, and whose details fascinated them.
Calderon was still in his thirties when he wrote the play: still a rebellious spirit who had quarrelled furiously with his father, been in deep trouble with the authorities, well known for the barb of his wit and the dangerous point of his sword play. He was living in a society that within living memory had been the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and which still displayed all the trappings of power, wealth and strength. But by this stage Spain had been ruined by a disastrous series of foreign wars; the profound racial divisions within its society, the rigid archaisms of its entrenched ideology, and the sheer exhaustion of centuries of continuous warfare meant it no longer had the inner vitality and self-belief to resolve its problems. The twice yearly cargo of bullion from the Americas was mortgaged and re-mortgaged before it ever reached seville; and all the pomp and circumstance and fatuous display of the court was a hollow sham. Living through these times - in so many ways so like our own - and living through them with open eyes created a kind of agonised sensibility all too aware of the extent to which the display of power was simply a disguise for fatuous incapacity. This is the kind of sensibility very much in evidence in the pictures of velazquez - and the plays of his friend Calderon.
There's an extraordinary moment in LIFE IS A DREAM in which the main character, after having been king for a day, wakes up to discover he's back where he started: a prisoner in a tower, naked and bound in chains. He's been told his experience inthe palace was just a drem: everyone's life must be a dream, he concludes,
"The king dreams he is a king, and lives
Governing under this deception,
Making laws and ruling;
And the applause, which he receives,
He gets it as a loan, and it's written in the wind
And death turns it all to ashes."
Each time I hear those words I think of our rulers with their armed guards and their limousines arriving for some other fatuous summit conference, some piece of theatre laid on for the benefit of the television camera, in which they try to convince us and convince themselves that they are in control, that they do know what they are doing... and I think of the sad king, alone and incognito, who must surely have heard those words at the time of the play's first performance. The wretched, weak and lonely man who must have known their truth; perhaps that's why, when we look at his portraits, we can see such sad suffering in his eyes.
But the wonderful thing about this play is that it functions a little a dream; and we can enjoy it, and take from it as little, or as much, as we want to.
Think about it: when we have a dream, we just accept it at the time. Amazing things happen, and we just let ourselves be amazed. Or astonished, or frightened, or disgusted, or delighted. Or sexually aroused. Or whatever.
And we don't worry about it or question it at the time. We just let ourselves be carried along to the next thing. It's only afterwards that, if we choose, we can think about what happened in our dream and sometimes find ways of relating it to what is happening in our lives.
It is the same with this play: the weirdest things happen. There's a father so afraid of the power of his son that he locks him up in a tower the minute he is born. There's a man who falls asleep in a prison and wakes up in a palace. He doesn't know whether he's awake or still dreaming and throws someone out of a window to try to find out. There's a woman who's so angry with her lover for cheating on her that she dresses as a man and rides all the way from Moscow to poland just to try to get even with him...
And all these extraordinary events add up to something that's funny, exciting, moving and strange... and when we think about them afterwards (which we don't have to do) maybe we'll find that they have something to say about the way parents treat their children, or the way men and women relate together, or the extent to which we are really able to control the events of our lives.
Or maybe, after all, we'll say it was all "just a dream". But perhaps what we're living through is just a dream as well...