Perhaps the most famous lines of the play, spoken by Segismundo, are:
Calderón was born in 1600, thirteen years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which signaled the beginning of the decline of the Spanish Empire. This meteoric rise to world domination had begun in 1469 with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabela (both 17 years old), who against all odds managed to unite Spain into a single kingdom. In 1492 they drove the Moors from Granada, established the Inquisition, and sent Columbus to the New World.
King Phillip IV ascended to the throne in 1621. Perhaps sensing the decline, he created Spain’s most enduring legacy by channelling huge resources into the arts, particularly theater, which resulted in the Golden Age of Spain. Calderón was Philip IV’s personal theater impresario, and, rising to the challenge, wrote some of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
I’ve had a long relationship with the play. I played the clown figure Clarín in a 1971 Theater of All Possibilities production, directed by Kathelin Hoffman, whose translation we are using. I also played Clotaldo (the prime minister figure) in Teatro Nuevo Mexico’s inaugural 2003 production of Carlos Rivera’s adaptation of the play entitled Sueño. I have a file with seven different translations. It’s a play I hope to return to many times, and I appreciate producer Nat Eek providing an opportunity to direct a staged reading, as well as his confidence in my ability as a director.
I have worked with most of the cast on many productions, as far back as 1997. It is quite rewarding to watch as they come to grips with the rich poetic language, the classical style, and the complex ideas. We are working to make sure the actors fully comprehend the play, so that the audience will as well.
Calderón was a very devout Catholic, and his plays- both secular and religious-- are allegorical, reflecting the struggle of man to find, consciously or unconsciously, his proper place in the hierarchical structure of God’s universe. Free will and fate or predestination are major forces which push and pull one in or out of alignment with this world order. Segismundo is in animal skins and chains in the beginning of the play, representing man in his natural state. Through bizarre situations (life is bizarre), he comes to realize that one can never know for sure if one is awake or dreaming. He comes to realize the proper strategy for dealing with this uncertainty is to act well (obrar bien) in all circumstances. To act well, even in dreams, is to be more or less in one’s proper place in harmony with the universe.
The question of harmony-- everything in its rightful place-- is the basis for the Spanish concept of honor, which was a national obsession in Calderón’s day. The quest for honor is the major plot-line of his plays. Because honor-- narrowly interpreted and codified-- often demands extreme action, such as “honor killings” (still prevalent in many cultures today), it can seem alien to our modern sensibilities. Perhaps a close modern equivalent would be integrity. But integrity is also often in short supply.
Calderón may have based the plot on the legend of Baarlam and Josephat, a Christian version of the story of Gautama Buddha. The Latin name Josaphat possibly derives from the Greek and Persian derivations of the Sanskrit word Boddhisatva. According to the legend, King Abenner of India, fearful that his son Josephat would convert to Christianity as predicted by astrologers, imprisons him in isolation. The hermit Barlaam discovers and befriends the prince, and converts him to Christianity. Josaphat upholds his new faith in the face of his father’s wrath. Abenner eventually relents, abdicates the throne, and becomes a hermit. Josaphat later abdicates as well, and joins his teacher Barlaam in seclusion. The legend dates from the 4th century A.D.