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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Life Is a Dream

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

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To purchase Life Is a Dream

Title: Life Is a Dream
Author: Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Genre: Drama
Written: 1635 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 135 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Life Is a Dream - US
Life Is a Dream/La vida es sueño - US (bilingual ed.)
Life Is a Dream - UK
Life Is a Dream - Canada
La vie est un songe - France
Das Leben ist ein Traum - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: La vida es sueño
  • La vida es sueño has been translated into English many times; this review refers to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Gregary Racz

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Our Assessment:

A : odd plot, but exceptionally well done, fine translation

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

[Note that this edition refers to the 2006 Penguin Classic edition, a translation by Gregary Racz; there are many other translations of the play available.]

       Gregary Racz's translation of La vida es sueño is, as he explains in a Note on his translation:

the first attempt to render the drama entirely in analogous meter and rhyme since 1853, when both Denis Florence MacCarthy and Edward FitzGerald, with varying degrees of success, contemporaneously produced full-length English language versions of the play.
       With Calderón utilizing "a variety of metrical and rhyming patterns", Racz's attempt to mirror that in the English is particularly noteworthy. Obviously, a bilingual edition, with the Spanish text facing the English one, would be the ideal solution, but fortunately the Spanish text of the play can readily be found on the Internet (for example: here), and Racz's version does effectively give a sense of the sound and feel of the original for those who want to focus solely on an English text.
       In summary it certainly sounds like an odd play, not least because the Spanish playwright sets it in (exotic ?) Poland. It is a play full of secrets, with many of the characters with closer ties to each other than they realise. That hidden identities play a role is made clear from the opening scene, in which Russian noblewoman Rosaura appears -- disguised as a man.
       Rosaura has been wronged by a man and is out for revenge, but on her quest has arrived at a place that's strictly off-limits, the place where Segismund has been imprisoned all his life, attended only by Clotaldo. (As it turns out -- everything (and -one) is connected ! -- Clotaldo is Rosaura's father .....) The Polish king, Basil, is Segismund's father, but has always feared the ill-starred child. At his birth:
     We learned our heir
Would be the most rebellious man
The world could know, the cruelest prince
And even most ungodly king
Whose reckless rule would leave the realm
Divided and in open rift,
A fractious School for Treachery
And roiled Academy of Vice.
       So everyone was told the infant was stillborn, and he was secretly locked up, with only Clotaldo to attend to him. But now he's all grown, and Basil wonders whether fate really means inevitability:
The direst fate, we know for fact,
Much like the rashest temperament
Or strongest planetary pull,
May boast some influence on free will
But cannot make man bad or good.
       Basil is thinking about who will succeed him, and his nephew, Astolf -- who is courting his cousin, Stella (keeping it all in the family ...) -- looks like the best candidate, but Basil feels he has to find out whether Segismund really is such a dangerous monster. So Basil devises an ingenious method of testing his son: he's drugged, brought to the palace, and everyone pretends that he's the king. If Segismund proves himself worthy, he will assume the real throne; if not, then they'll tell him it was just a dream and return him to his solitary confinement.
       Segismund is, of course, overwhelmed by his changed circumstances -- and immediately reacts as feared. Of course, he has a good excuse: as he complains to his father, "You robbed me of humanity". And others are inclined to excuse him too, Rosaura, for example, noting:
Still, who could stoop to blame
A human being who's just a man in name,
Cruel, reckless, inhumane,
A barbarous tyrant no one can restrain,
Reared like some savage beast ?
       Basil's dream-excuse only works so far, too, but it's this idea that Calderón plays with so well, with Segismund realising (or reduced to realising):
What's life ? A frenzied, blurry haze.
What's life ? Not anything it seems.
A shadow. Fiction filling reams.
All we possess on earth means nil,
For life's a dream, think what you will,
And even all our dreams are dreams.
       It is an intricately tied together plot --as Clotaldo notes:
This is a puzzling labyrinth
Where even reason toils to find
The thread laid down to exit it.
       But Calderón easily leads the reader down the twisted paths to his neat resolutions. It's all a bit absurdly compact -- guess who the man was who wronged Rosaura ? guess who Segismund falls for ? do Astolf and Stella really have to be cousins on top of it all ? -- but so appealingly done that it hardly matters.
       The language helps move the play along nicely (and, again, the translation by Racz seems particularly successful in re-creating the feel of the Spanish), but the play does pose a few dramatic difficulties, most notably in several long expository speeches. In one 230-line speech (the whole play is only a bit over 3300 lines long) even Rosaura (and the playwright) seem to tire of it:
Let's skip a bit, for why repeat
What everyone already knows ?
       On stage these speeches probably don't work quite so well (it being hard to 'act' them), but when read their length hardly matters.
       Life Is a Dream is a fabulous play, deservedly considered classic. The strange circumstances (and all the personal connexions) can be a bit distracting at first, but the lively plot, the ideas and philosophy on offer, and the strong use of language make it a very impressive achievement. Thoroughly enjoyable, highly recommended.

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Life Is a Dream: Reviews of productions of Life Is a Dream: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Pedro Calderón de la Barca lived 1600 to 1681 and is one of the great Spanish dramatists.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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