Life is a Dream, by Pedro Calderon De La Barca

by Paul Mathers


You went to sleep in your circumstances, whatever they may be. You have your concerns, your anxieties, your disappointments, but you go to sleep just as you would on any other night. You wake in a foreign environment and find that all of your former problems are over. You have, while sleeping, been granted all of your desires.

When I was a child, I had a lot of dreams like this. As I would be drifting off to sleep I would be taken by some figure to one of the worlds of the mythos that I buried myself in during my waking life in order to escape the anxieties of fairly relentless bullying and the constant white noise of finding school soul-crushingly boring due to its educational material being consistently years behind me.

I’m surprised that this play is not performed more often. I was reminded of Quixote in the shared theme of the mutable nature of reality. Maybe I’m projecting patterns from a limited test group, but it speaks to me. It speaks to reality as I’ve experienced it and I assume this explains the enduring quality of works like this (although, again, I’m surprised that this play is not performed more often). It is a philosophical play. By that I mean that it is meant to express ideas rather than exclusively entertain or teach a point of morality or any of the other traditional functions of live theater. I was a little amused by the introduction which made pains to point out that it would be a difficult production to mount. This is because of some rapid scene changes, but since we are not out of the time where an audience expected a full set change for every scene change and productions are no longer lit by gaslight, a little imagination could probably communicate the shifts deftly.

The story, in brief, is about the King of Poland, a superstitious man, who is foretold that his son will bring disaster on the country. His son is kept in chains in a tower, completely unaware of his standing in the world. The King decides to test the prophecy and they bring his sleeping son, one Segismundo, into the throne room while he is sleeping (drugged, if memory serves). When he wakes, he is informed that he is the prince and his former captors now bow to him. Segismundo doesn’t know how to handle this information and reverts to the dictates of his character, a series of brutish acts culminating in him attempting to rape a woman in front of everyone. The King, tucked away Polonius style, has Segismundo put back to sleep and sent back to the tower. Segismundo, upon rising in his familiar surroundings, believes it to have been a dream. But, like Pandora, the experience has let some unforeseen (well, actually foreseen if you want to get technical about it. Unforeseen by the King anyway) destructive forces out into the world which eventually come back to act against the King.

(SPOILER) It ends with Segismundo triumphant and he delivers a monologue, which is the most famous part of the play:

“We live, while we see the sun,
Where life and dreams are as one;
And living has taught me this,
Man dreams the life that is his,
Until his living is done.
The king dreams he is king, and he lives
In the deceit of a king,
Commanding and governing;
And all the praise he receives
Is written in wind, and leaves
A little dust on the way
When death ends all with a breath.
Where then is the gain of a throne,
That shall perish and not be known
In the other dream that is death?
Dreams the rich man of riches and fears,
The fears that his riches breed;
The poor man dreams of his need,
And all his sorrows and tears;
Dreams he that prospers with years,
Dreams he that feigns and foregoes,
Dreams he that rails on his foes;
And in all the world, I see,
Man dreams whatever he be,
And his own dream no man knows.
And I too dream and behold,
I dream I am bound with chains,
And I dreamed that these present pains
Were fortunate ways of old.
What is life? a tale that is told;
What is life? a frenzy extreme,
A shadow of things that seem;
And the greatest good is but small,
That all life is a dream to all,
And that dreams themselves are a dream.”

Much like the ancients, and the Christians actually, the play deals with the problem of the coexistence of providence and free will. But there is a deeper problem at the core of the play, a strikingly modern problem I think: What is reality? We are able to experience dreams within dreams, plays within plays. Who is to say that everything we experience in waking life is not simply a dream within a dream? Or an advanced computer program like The Sims? Or that our dreams are not in fact the waking life and we’ve got it backwards? I remember hearing a lecture by William Burroughs in which he was asked by an audience member in the question and answer session afterward, “Do you believe in life after death?”

To which Burroughs responded, “How do you know we’re not dead already?”

Perhaps helpful questions to keep in mind for the simple fact that our piddly daily anxieties do seem to blanch in the sight of such unnerving suggestions.