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Theater 34.1 (2004) 124-127

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Calderón beyond the Dream:
A Translator's Note

Rick Davis

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Figure 1
Calderón, 1600-1681

[End Page 124]

Pedro Calderón de la Barca was, by most accounts, the greatest playwright of a great age, the luminous Siglo de oro, or Spanish Golden Age, which embraces Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, among others. He has, however, remained largely a subject of academic interest in the United States. Despite his soaring language, his profound inquiry into the nature of things, and his comic gifts, all of which place his greatest work on a level with Shakespeare, Calderón has not entered the American theater's consciousness—to the impoverishment of its repertory.

Here is a playwright whose voice ranges effortlessly from matters of the highest seriousness to situations of low comedy; whose subjects include statecraft, theology, warfare, illusion, and his persistent trio of obsessions: love, honor, and power. His long life, from 1600 to 1681, and large output—some estimates run to 200 works, of which 120 are full-length plays—allowed him to explore a vast terrain of the human condition in multiple genres. And yet only one of his plays, Life Is a Dream, is widely anthologized, studied, and produced by American university theater departments and professional companies. (The Mayor of Zalamea is more honored in the mention than the observance.) There have been notable productions of Dream in the past fifteen years by major regional companies such as the American Repertory Theatre (1989), Hartford Stage Company (1998), Chicago's Court Theatre (1999), and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (2001), in addition to New York stagings at the Ark Theatre (1985), the Pearl Theatre Company (1996), and the Edge Theatre Company (2002). But for the professional theater, at least, that is largely the end of the story.

There are many reasons for this invisibility, of course, ranging from theatrical economics to the way in which drama is taught and artistic leadership cultivated in the United States. A major playwright's place in the general theatrical consciousness seldom rests so squarely on the shoulders of a single play as Calderón's does on Life Is a [End Page 125] Dream. Rather, an impression of greatness—or at least a conviction of worth and interest—is built up through multiple exposures to a satisfying range and quantity of work. We value Shakespeare more highly because we know him as the author of King Lear and Twelfth Night, as well as of Richard II and Pericles. Henrik Ibsen's stature grows when we acknowledge Brand and Peer Gynt along with The Wild Duck and The Master Builder. But to most people, in and out of the theater and the academy, Calderón remains a one-trick pony, though that one trick is sublime.

If one marker of greatness in a dramatist is the ability to embrace both sides of a duality, to countenance paradox, then Calderón admirably answers the challenge. Duality can take the form of an Ibsenian/Hegelian dialectic (consider the opposition of Christian and pagan worlds in A Doll's House, Ghosts, and Hedda Gabler); 1 a Shavian argument of antitheses (unbridled militaristic capitalism versus romantic altruism in Major Barbara or Man and Superman's paradoxical visions of heaven and hell); or as a single author's conversation between genres, the pattern for which is set by the two great Homeric epics. An artist who sees the world through both "Iliadic" and "Odyssean" eyes—whose imagination includes the tragic and the comic—arguably has the capability to contain more complexity, reveal more paradox, and (in the best instances) give voice to a broader range of human experience.

Calderón is one such dramatist. A Catholic writing in a religiously conservative and contentious time, he creates brilliant and passionate romantic intrigue in The Phantom Lady (a perfect expression of comedy) and deeply sympathetic portraits of his church's Islamic adversaries in The Constant Prince (which, if not strictly a tragedy in structural terms, is...


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