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February 2, 2015, 7:30 pm

SoHo Playhouse  • 15 Vandam Street

Translated by Jo Clifford

Directed by Matthew Rauch

with Steven Boyer, Corey Hawkins, Zoe Kazan, John Mainieri, Drew Ledbetter, Ismenia Mendes, Patrick Page, Jay O. Sanders, Thom Sesma, Nick Westrate


Segismundo’s only crime was being born … or was it? This Spanish Golden Age classic explores metaphysical questions of identity that ring out with the full force of Shakespearean tragedy.


Two travelers in a mystical world discover a prince, imprisoned by his father to thwart a prediction that he would destroy the kingdom. Together they grapple with destiny and the ephemeral nature of life itself. Considered by many to be the “Spanish Hamlet”, Life is a Dream transcends its basis as an extraordinary philosophical treatise on the conflict between free will and fate, to become an ecstatically poetic flight of metaphoric fancy and a delightful fairytale for grown-ups.


The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear new and rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.

"Everyone who lives is only dreaming

Who they are till they awake"





Like many of his contemporaries, Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) was a prolific playwright; he is thought to have written more than 200 plays, of which about 100 survive. Educated at a Jesuit preparatory school, he entered a poetry competition and came to the attention of one of the judges, Lope de Vega, the most notable playwright of the era. Calderón’s plays were popular both at court and in the public theaters; with the death of Lope in 1635, Calderón become the most important playwright in Spain. He was knighted by Philip IV and became the principal court playwright in 1636, the year that La vida es sueno (Life is a Dream) was produced. Throughout his career, Calderón also wrote autos sacramentales, plays celebrating the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and akin to English morality and cycle plays. Following the death of his mistress, Calderón entered the priesthood, but because the church objected to his playwriting, he wrote autos exclusively thereafter; his were so popular that for almost forty years the only autos performed in Madrid were by Calderón.





“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” – Wordsworth, Ode


Calderón was deeply influenced by the counter-reformation in Catholic Spain, working in a mannerist style that paralleled similar trends in 16th-and 17th-century England. Spanish mannerism took a unique, highly Baroque turn, however. The language is metaphoric and ornate but is contained within a symmetrical, formal structure. Stories and characters follow a strict thematic argument – almost like a legal brief.

In Life is a Dream, Calderón presents the notion that the waking state comes only with the knowledge of death, though unlike Shakespeare’s Tempest, this notion does not function as a metaphor for Calderón; he means it literally. The idea derives from Plato: we are born with an innate understanding of ultimate reality; the soul knows the form of truth regarding the meaning of life and death, but as we gain knowledge of the world we forget this truth and life becomes a mere dream of life, a veiled perception.  As an exemplar of this philosophy, Segismund is as much a proposition as a character; like an Everyman, he’s born into consciousness, which, for Calderón, is a state of imprisonment in guilt and ignorance where the soul lives in error, asleep.


Sigismund is reborn to his innate knowledge of death when he awakens back in prison in a confusion of dream and waking. Since he finds no true value in either state, he is free to see the world as absurd, and so chooses to use the world well: “While I dream, I may as well dream the best.” In the act of freeing others, Sigismund frees himself. This logical – and deeply Christian – proposition moves through the play as he moves toward his destiny, his will tempered by the knowledge that the world is so unimportant it does not merit a serious investment of moral energy. By the end of the play, he has recognized the true value of living in this shadow, this dream.


The Spanish Baroque presents an art of great tension – between movement and stasis, light and dark, creating an intense chiaroscuro effect. Unlike English drama of the period, however, there was little in the way of tragedy. After the expulsion of the Moors in 1492, Catholicism and national identity were bound together, leaving room for religious speculation but no real controversy; hence the sense of resolved endings in these plays. The marriages at the end of Life is a Dream reflect the exquisite symmetry of these logical resolutions; they are determined by what each character’s honor requires, not by conventional ideas of romantic or sexual love. And although Segismund’s existential agony is genuine, he arrives at his final resolution within the context of Christian grace (not an ironic posture, like Hamlet’s.)  The play ends in absolute spiritual stability – not certainty, as God’s design cannot be known, but stability.


Kathleen Dimmick, Bennington College


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