Monday, February 23, 2009

Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Although to have been born,
I know, is an offence, and with just cause
I bear the rigours of your punishment:
Since to be born is man's worst crime. But yet
I long to know (to clarify my doubts)
What greater crime, apart from being born,
Can thus have earned my greater chastisement,
Aren't others born like me? And yet they seem
To boast a freedom that I've never known.
The bird is born, and in the hues of beauty
Clothed with its plumes, yet scarce has it become
A feathered posy--or a flower with wings--
When through ethereal halls it cuts its way,
Refusing the kind shelter of its nest.
And I, who have more soul than any bird,
Must have less liberty?

~ Segismund

My reading of Marlowe's somber Doctor Faustus probably suffered from being followed immediately by Pedro Calderón de la Barca's techni-color Life is a Dream. Roy Campbell's translation of Calderón is thrillingly vibrant. I hadn't heard much about this play, but after reading it, I won't be able to think about Renaissance theatre without this play jumping to my mind as the (late) essence of the era.

Let me count the ways Calderón delighted me: his poetic language, the question of free will vs. destiny, parallels in his characters' dilemmas with honor, disguises, imprisonment, the force of Rosaura's personality, the portrait struggle scene, etc. The tragi-comedy mix of Life is a Dream threw me for a loop several times, but this was also part of what made the play so enjoyable--not knowing whether a scene would end in laughter or an increase in the overall body count.

There were some scenes that sat oddly with my modern sensibilities. The romantic pairings at the end of the play occurred with swift, Renaissance comedy convenience ("You hate me? Let's get married!" "Sure!"), which I imagine is a challenge for contemporary directors. But I enjoyed this play so much, I was willing to temporarily suspend whole truckloads of disbelief.

Note on the Translation: I don't know much about translations beyond the fact that I enjoyed Roy Campbell's efforts in Life is a Dream. The first pages of Edward FitzGerald's translation on Project Gutenberg read much differently than Campbell's (almost like a different play). In Spanish, Life is a Dream rhymes, and FitzGerald attempts to keep this element in his English translation (Campbell doesn't). FitzGerald's version, however, seems to have very different (flatter) images and many more lines than Campbell's. I don't know if there are several versions of Life is a Dream (Calderón reworked his plays frequently) or if FitzGerald just took more creative liberties, but Denis Florence MacCarthy's translation is much closer to Campbell's (while rhyming).

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