Ask Philippa: Life Is a Dream edition

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly

Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly. Photo courtesy Philippa Kelly.

Like Shakespeare, Spanish Golden Age playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca, wrote about very human ways of dealing with some of our biggest emotions. Life Is a Dream, one of Calderón’s most famous plays, is about a prince whose father is told at his birth that he’ll become a vicious ruler. In order to protect the kingdom from this terrible monster, his father locks him away in a tower. Twenty years later, the prince is given a chance to rule, but he goes on a rampage and is locked up again, persuaded that his brief spell of freedom was only a dream. Life Is a Dream became famed for its questions about what makes us human and what, in life, can be counted as ‘real’.

In his translation and adaptation, Cuban-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz has distilled Calderón’s immense canvas—with its poetic rhythms and captivating questions—into a contemporary story, brought to Cal Shakes by one of America’s most important directors, Loretta Greco.

I’d be delighted to answer any artistic or dramaturgy questions about what’s in store for this season’s production of Life Is a Dream. Curious about cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Ask Philippa! Please leave your questions in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

—-

Dr. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater, is also a professor and author. Her 2010 book, The King and I, a meditation on Australian culture through the lens of King Lear, garnered international praise in its very personal examination of themes of abandonment, loss, and humor).

You can email Philippa at pkelly@calshakes.org, or post below to ask her a question.

Buy tickets for Life Is a Dream, or subscribe to the 2015 Season, by clicking here; or, call the Box Office at 510.548.9666.

This entry was posted in 2015 Season, Ask Philippa, Life Is a Dream and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Ask Philippa: Life Is a Dream edition

  1. Mike Tracy says:

    Life is a dream. I did not care much for this play. Too much telling and not enough show. There were no characters that I felt any connection to, or empathy for, or humor with, but Clarin occasionally. No convincing perspective to encourage a willful suspension of disbelief.
    You had said in the grove talk the play was shortened by a third. Would more depth of character to compete with the expansive rhetoric of themes be found in that third?
    I have a question about time. In this play (and in Shakespeare plays) it is not unusual for a character to wait for years. This play, 20 years in prison. (A Winter’s Tale, 16 years). Would such patience be considered evidence of noble blood? Or was there a different cultural expectation, belief in fate or a moral certitude conferring a patience that the carpe diem ideal of today excludes?

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Hello Mike,

      The cutting by a third is more an overall cut in embellished rhetoric. The Golden Age rhetoric is very ornate, and Nilo rendered it, I feel, with a lovely sense of contemporary simplicity. I love your question about the waiting. In our age, patience is understood as ‘good things come to those who wait.’ In that time, it was understood to mean ‘capacity to endure.’ Segismundo has shown a remarkable capacity to endure, and I’m intrigued by your suggestion that this might link him to noble blood. This is a very interesting suggestion – but we could also think of Shakespeare’s Caliban, who’s been enslaved for years and is depicted by Prospero in less than Princely terms. Caliban certainly sticks out the years. I think that the passage of time, in these plays (like Life is a Dream, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale) is not so much indicative of nobility of blood as it is a kind of allegorical signal: nobody would actually be kept in a tower for 20 years (King Phillip’s son was locked up for only a year before he died), but the passage of stage time indicates the enormity of the action. Thank you for starting this blog off for Life is a Dream, Mike!

      • Haskel says:

        A comment on the opening two posts:

        “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother.” Caliban certainly thought he was of noble birth. Maybe a thought for your next Tempest.

  2. Rick McGeer says:

    A couple of points, very quickly:

    1. I thought the key moment in the play came when Segismundo tells Clotaldo of his “dream” and Clotaldo (knowing full well Segismundo had abused him) asked Segismundo if Segismundo had treated him kindly, since Clotaldo had been the father-figure in Segismundo’s life and had taught him from birth. Segismundo says that no, he had acted out of rage and cruelly towards Clotaldo. Clotaldo then reminds Segismundo that even in a dream, it is important to be good and kindly. Segismundo then repeats this advice to himself in a number of situations after he is finally liberated, most notably in his conversation with Rosaura. This, it seems to me, is the key element of the play that is not discussed — the father/son mentor/apprentice relationship between Clotaldo and Segismundo. This play has many elements of the classic Hero’s Journey plotline (most notably seen in popular culture in the Star Wars epic and Harry Potter): an orphaned son is raised in poverty and privation, with only the counsel of an older male figure. On maturity, the Hero realizes that he is in possession of great powers and is uniquely qualified for a noble quest; after initially abusing or misusing his powers, he comes to realize the responsibility that goes with them, uses them responsibly and achieves his quest. Segismundo was not orphaned, but was abandoned by Basilico, and his great power is simply his authority by ancestry. In the event, he eventually becomes a wise and generous ruler, ignoring his own desire for Rosaura in order that her honor should be satisfied, and pledging his own hand to Estrella.

    2. I notice that Calderon uses Shakespeare’s device of setting his play in a remote land — Life is a Dream is set in Poland.

    3. In your Grove talk, you said in an aside that the Spanish Inquisition was a reaction to the Reformation. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition pre-dated the Reformation by a generation: it was instituted as Ferdinand and Isabella consolidated their rule with the completion of the Reconquista. Spain was then moving from a period of religious tolerance under the Islamic Moors into a period of Catholic orthodoxy: Muslims and Jews were required to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain, and the Inquisition was established to ensure that they weren’t faking it. The Reformation didn’t really touch Spain proper much, though it did play hob with their various European possessions (the Seventeen Provinces, etc).

    — Rick

  3. Philippa Kelly says:

    Hello Rick,
    What a magnificent and meaty post! I’ll address your points 1 by 1.

    1) The father/son motif: this is a lovely idea, the idea that Segismundo is being mentored for growth, as the king had hoped to set this play as a kind of template for conquring the bestial barts of ourselves and aiming toward the angels. I wonder, though, how Clotaldo could be excused for imprisoning Segismundo for so long? His duty to the king would be seen to be at war with his duty as a father/mentor, would it not? To imprison a poor child for all his growing years – to keep the key and not let him out – seems pretty cowardly. Just a thought. I know that Clotaldo has a great amount of battle between competing loyalties.

    2) The remote setting – just a form of self-insurance against the possible wrath of the Catholics for any perceived infraction.

    3) The Inquisition – thank you for this input. I was making a comparison between the reformation and counter-reformation in England in relationship to the religious steadiness in Spain. What I meant to say (or thought I said) in the grove was that the Spanish Inquisition kept the Protestant faith from infiltrating Spain. My understanding is that Protestantism would quite likely have made a dent in Spain (particularly with the defeat of the Armada) if the forces of the Inquision were not so strong and so successfully repellant. Of course Spain was furious a century before Calderon was writing, because it was the catholic C of Aragon who was spurned by Henry VIII in his drive to have an heir and reject Catholic law in order to do so. He had gotten a dispensation from Pope Pius to even marry his brother’s wife – and then when the pope would not allow him an annulment, he said at first that this marriage shoudl never have been permitted – that it was against God’s law in the first place. When that wouldn’t fly with the Catholics, he decided to ‘reform’ Catholcism. This was all in the early part of the 16th century – a century before calderon was writing in Spain.

    • Rick McGeer says:

      It’s not clear that Clotaldo had much choice about keeping Segismundo imprisoned; after all, when Rosaura and the clown showed up in the opening scene, they were immediately threatened with death. So Basilico was keeping tabs on the situation, even down to nailing occasional visitors. And despite Basilico’s self-characterization as an idealized man of intellect, when push came to shove he was pretty brutal, and was, uh, somewhat indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Witness turning the kingdom and court — unsupervised — over to a drugged Segismundo, which results in the death of a courtier whose only crime was trying to calm down a bad situation. A more sensible ruler would have had somebody keep an eye on things and at least prevent blood from being spilt the first morning. So Clotalda had good reason to obey the king, and his only latitude was in how he treated his prisoner, which, by both Segismundo’s and Clotalda’s accounts, was kindly. And the evidence shows that. Segismundo was able to speak reasonably, and was obviously in good physical condition (despite being drugged, he manhandled a courtier and tossed him out a window), and could even fight with swords — a skill that takes hard training. He had to get that from somebody, and Clotalda was the only obvious candidate.

      If you want references on the Hero’s Journey, they’re here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth and here: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/hero's_journey.htm. It’s a pretty universal theme (even the Polynesian legends, notably the legend of Maui, show it), and for good reason: it speaks to a universal across human cultures, the coming of age. This is typically of young men, but there is a parallel Heroine’s Journey as well.

      — Rick

      • Philippa Kelly says:

        Hello Rick,

        Yes, you’re right – AND someone has had to have taught him language. It is an interesting issue, isn’t it – the idea that the sense we have of ‘power’ today (power to shape one’s own destiny) includes a kind of latitude that’s impossible under a functional king. I guess the closest thing to Basilio is to go to one of the Islamic countries right now.

        • Rick McGeer says:

          You’re right, of course (sorry for the delay in replying — I have been traveling). North Korea is another case — the Kim family is essentially a family of hereditary monarchs.

          All the best
          Rick

    • Rick McGeer says:

      And, thanks, I missed that subtle point about the Reformation and the Inquisition. We’ll never know a counter-factual, of course. It is the case that the Reformation didn’t make any headway in France, Italy, or Spain. I suspect it may have had less to do with whether the Church was seen as the bulwark of the state or the opposition. In England, certainly, the Reformation only took hold because English leaders, notably Cromwell, saw the Pope as an agent of Charles V; the seminal event, Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, was far more political than personal. The English King didn’t want to be associated with the Spanish Emperor by marriage.

      So, you may well be right: I really don’t know. It’s an interesting question.

      Cheers
      Rick

  4. Rick McGeer says:

    That is, “MORE to do with whether the Church was seen…”. Edited out a clause…sigh…

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      I am smiling to myself Rick – there is something about these posts (and emails) that is so final. We press ‘post’ and then all of our mistakes and corrections are out there for potentially millions to see. So different from tearing up a letter and starting again. By the way, I think that communication is a very interesting concept in these plays – both in England and Spain – how messages get communicated, how much time is taken, etc. It’s noteable in this play that it seems almost no time at all between Segismundo getting locked up again and the people revolting at this indignity and demanding he be let out. One of the principal plot features about many of these 16th and 17th century plays is the passage of time it takes a letter to get from someone to somewhere.

  5. Jim says:

    A few random thoughts.

    1) At the post-matinee discussion, you or Hugh said that most plays of Spain’s Golden Age were not performed until fairly recently, even in Spain. Do you have any idea why this might be? I realize that while, aside from Shakespeare, we may not be flooded with productions of Elizabethan or Jacobean plays, but in my experience they are performed more frequently than Victorian or Restoration plays (especially the Restoration dramas).

    2) You mentioned at the park talk the importance of honor in the Golden Age, and this reminded me of Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, though I have always thought of the opera as a comedy. Was the theme of honor important in Golden Age comedies as well as the dramas?

    3) Clarin reminded me somewhat of Sancho Panza in that he was a sidekick who tried to keep his “master” out of trouble. I wonder if this was a familiar character type to contemporary audiences.

    4) I wonder what the stars said at Basilio’s birth.

    Thank you for all your wonderful insights. They really do enhance my enjoyment of the play.
    Jim

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Jim, your reply is below – sorry I messed up on the ‘reply’ button PK

    • In response to Jim’s first question: a rather facile summary of the problems in reviving and studying Golden Age Drama can be culled from Wikipedia:

      The volume and variety of Spanish plays during the Golden Age was unprecedented in world theatre, surpassing even Elizabethan dramatic production of by a factor of at least four. This has been as much a source of criticism as praise for Spanish Golden Age theatre, for emphasizing quantity before quality, though a large number of the plays of this period (10,000 to 30,000) are still considered masterpieces today. For modern theatre historians, however, it has contributed to the difficulty of researching theatre from this period. The vast majority of plays have remained virtually untouched, in terms of both production and scholarly analysis, since the 17th c. Combined with the error-prone printing techniques that plagued the publication of Spanish plays, this has vastly undercut the study of Spanish Golden Age theatre. Although a thorough inclusive analysis remains difficult or even impossible, Spanish Golden Age theatre represents an area of active and productive research for theatre historians.

      Our UCB Humanities Dean Antony Cascardi is a genuine expert on Spanish Golden Age Drama, which I am not, just an amateur, anxious to strengthen our appreciation of it. Indeed, I was startled to find that our brief documentary on “Shakespeare and the Spanish Connection” counted as a contribution to revival in Golden Age popularization. It is available both on YouTube and in the Video Gallery of our UCB site, found at http://shakespearestaging.berkeley.edu/ It has been visited on UCTV almost 200.000 times.

      There is also now a greater sense of some consistency in themes, characters, and staging between the English and Spanish theatrical traditions, as reflected in the anthology Parallel Lives: Spanish and English National Drama 1580-1680, edited by Louise and Peter Fothergill-Payne. Most recently Barbara Fuchs has more fully outlined the broader pattern of English indebtedness to Spanish culture in The Poetics of Piracy: Emulating Spain in English Literature (2013), with particular emphasis on Jacobean dramatists, and with modern treatment of the elusive script of Cardenio as a major example. There are several translations of Golden Age drama by a previous Artistic Director of Cal Shakes, Dakin Matthews, including one of Lope de Vega’s version of “Romeo and Juliet,” – “The Capulets and Montagues,” which he staged in west Hollywood and at at the magnificent annual Chamizal Golden Age Festival in El Paso.

  6. Toni Mester says:

    Please comment on the philosophical arc of the play from temporal and secular to moral authority. For most of the play, God, the Church and the Clergy make no appearance or reference whatsoever while the neo-Platonic underpinnings of Christianity are enacted: this material life is a rehearsal, trial, reflection or dream compared to life eternal – like the shadows in the cave of The Republic. But the play ends with virtue being not only its own reward but redemptive. How does this moral development relate to the cultural ethos of honor?

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Hello Jim,
      lovely ppints, all 4!!!

      1. I don’t know why this vast resource of beautiful plays has been untouched till recently. In fact, UC Berkeley was at the head of the movement – I believe, from what Hugh told me, that Professor Tony Cascardi at UC Berkeley made it possible for him to introduce a teaching unit on Spanish Theater quite some years ago.

      2. Yes, eg. in Fieras Afemina Amor, Calderon blends sly comedy with concerns about honor and dignity – at one point, to retrieve her own honor, Yole braids the sleeping Hercules’ hair with ribbons, giivng him a ridiculously feminized appearance!

      3. Yes, as with England, Spain had had the kind of bozo or clownish fool. But if you look at the Don Quixote Fool (Pt 1) he has a terrific wisdom built in. Both Spain and England (specifically Shakespeare in England) were interested in using the “wise” fool from just before the turn of the century

      4. YES!!!!!

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Hello Toni,

      Certainly I think you have a case for suggesting this arc. At the start of the play we see the results of astrology – and then as the play moves on we see the conquering of degradation and the emergence of ethics. i love that segismundo traces that arc. And what a brilliant portrayal via Sean San Jose’s Hamlet/earthiness. Honor spanned both the temporal and the eternal – honorable conduct in this world ensured rewards in heaven. Honor was also not confined only to Spain. Just for fun, I have dug out for you a typical reference to honor in English writing – the famous Lady Grace Mildmay, who writes:

      … it cometh to pass too often and too universally that the minds of children are tainted and corrupted, even from their infancy, and made capable of every lewd and evil conversation and are made impudent and bold without all shame … Many gentlemen and their wives are desirous to place their sons and daughters in honourable services; but they take no care to furnish their minds with true religion and virtue and other good parts fit for such preferment…

  7. In response to Jim’s first question: a rather facile summary of the problems in reviving and studying Golden Age Drama can be culled from Wikipedia:

    The volume and variety of Spanish plays during the Golden Age was unprecedented in world theatre, surpassing even Elizabethan dramatic production of by a factor of at least four. This has been as much a source of criticism as praise for Spanish Golden Age theatre, for emphasizing quantity before quality, though a large number of the plays of this period (10,000 to 30,000) are still considered masterpieces today. For modern theatre historians, however, it has contributed to the difficulty of researching theatre from this period. The vast majority of plays have remained virtually untouched, in terms of both production and scholarly analysis, since the 17th c. Combined with the error-prone printing techniques that plagued the publication of Spanish plays, this has vastly undercut the study of Spanish Golden Age theatre. Although a thorough inclusive analysis remains difficult or even impossible, Spanish Golden Age theatre represents an area of active and productive research for theatre historians.

    Our UCB Humanities Dean Antony Cascardi is a genuine expert on Spanish Golden Age Drama, which I am not, just an amateur, anxious to strengthen our appreciation of it. Indeed, I was startled to find that our brief documentary on “Shakespeare and the Spanish Connection” counted as a contribution to revival in Golden Age popularization. It is available both on YouTube and in the Video Gallery of our UCB site, found at http://shakespearestaging.berkeley.edu/ It has been visited on UCTV almost 200.000 times.

    There is also now a greater sense of some consistency in themes, characters, and staging between the English and Spanish theatrical traditions, as reflected in the anthology Parallel Lives: Spanish and English National Drama 1580-1680, edited by Louise and Peter Fothergill-Payne. Most recently Barbara Fuchs has more fully outlined the broader pattern of English indebtedness to Spanish culture in The Poetics of Piracy: Emulating Spain in English Literature (2013), with particular emphasis on Jacobean dramatists, and with modern treatment of the elusive script of Cardenio as a major example. There are several translations of Golden Age drama by a previous Artistic Director of Cal Shakes, Dakin Matthews, including one of Lope de Vega’s version of “Romeo and Juliet,” – “The Capulets and Montagues,” which he staged in west Holiwood at at the magnificent annual Chamizal Golden Age Festival in El Paso. Best wishes, Hugh

  8. As the stagehand said Sunday before the play began: what a rare treat to see a classic play and not know the end. The remarkable economy of words, especially at the beginning, and elegant arc of the story were a wonderful surprise. I was struck—and delighted—by the profound emotional swings we experienced throughout Segismundo’s journey and transformation. First, so much pity and sadness as we witness his fate and learn about his gentle, poetic nature. Then shock and helplessness as he vents his cruel and murderous rage. Ultimately, I felt relief and admiration about the nobility of his final actions. His demand that Astolfo and Rosaura marry made sense and seemed fair. But his decision to marry Estrella elevated him from magnanimous to truly illustrious. That came as a complete surprise and had me grinning ear to ear. His transformation from prisoner to murderer to king was well resolved.

    • Philippa Kelly says:

      Richard, what a beautiful comment. This is an actor’s dream – to move an audience as you have been moved by Segismundo’s journey. I love what you say about his gentle, poetic nature – I often think that we humans are ‘trapped’ within the faces and forms we have, as well as the fates (actually, our faces and forms sometimes dictate our fates)

  9. Zipporah Collins says:

    My friend and I enjoyed the play very much. Your grove talk was excellent and gave us good preparation for the play (as always, I might say): the themes, the history, the culture, and interesting tidbits to watch for or think about. And we were left with a lot to think about at the end, about loyalty, honor, love, forgiveness, fate, free will.

    One element that made it so enjoyable for us I hope you’ll convey to the Cal Shakes staff: we could hear everything. The actors were miked, didn’t rush through the lines, and enunciated clearly, so that the poetry and sense came through beautifully. (We had both had trouble hearing in Twelfth Night and were beginning to question whether we should stop subscribing because we’re too old.) The performance of Life Is a Dream was just wonderful in this respect. Our compliments to all the actors and the director!

    One small question, if you have time. The pairings of couples at the end were a surprise to me. I guess they represent a cultural shift from Calderon’s time to more modern concepts of who should end up married to whom. Is that what you see? Do you have any thoughts on what caused the shift? Many thanks!

  10. Philippa Kelly says:

    Dear Zipporah (what a beautiful name!),

    It’s wonderful to get these comments and I will certainly pass them on.

    Regarding the coupling at the end, it’s all about honor, which was so central to Golden Age drama. Astolfo dishonored Rosaura by leaving her high and dry, and she’s come to this part of Poland to ind him and to restore her honor by fighting him with the special sword left by Clotaldo – but she ends up being ordered by Segismundo to marry Astolfo! A relief for her (restoration of honor) and a movement upward into a higher order of being for him (he is no longer a cad, he is making amends and participating in the restoration of honor). Then Segismundo, now king, takes for himself the beautiful princess Estrella, and she will end up as the queen she always had ambition to be! Perfect!

  11. Philippa Kelly says:

    question from Roy:

    You indicated that astrology was inconsistent with Catholicism, but then pointed
    out how astrology was integrated with the Church (or rulers) at that time. There
    was a reference to Original Sin, as I recall. Could you explain the interaction
    in detail, please?
    Thank you for your attention to this. (I realize you are probably working on the
    next play!)
    Roy

    My answer:

    The Catholic doctrine is built around original sin, the idea that we are born into this original sin created by Adam and Eve. Amd that we need to overcome this by strving toward the angels. The astrologers made their case by suggesting that the alignment of the planets inclined people in certain ways and personality directions, and that understanding these inclinations would help them to manage their personalities all the better to overcome original sin. I think this may have been addressed above

Please leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We’re so pleased to be able to offer this forum for our community to see behind the scenes of a working theater organization, and for our patrons and friends to be able to provide their insight, as well. Please observe the following guidelines:

• No personal attacks
• No profanity
• No shameless self-promotion

We do not wish to moderate this important dialogue, but we reserve the right to remove inflammatory, off-topic, or otherwise inappropriate comments. Thank you for participating in the conversation!