Life is a Dream
by Calderon de la Barca
The Pearl Theatre Company
New York, April 1996
If I thought I had a hard time describing the Royal Shakespeare Company Midsummer Night's Dream, it's much worse trying to talk about Wednesday night. It was one of the most amazing theatrical experiences of my life, and a total surprise.
I'd noticed, among the listings of things going on in town (fairly sparse, when you considered the number of things that have already closed or not opened yet), a production of Life is a Dream, a play by the 16th century Spanish dramatist Calderon, by a company called the Pearl Theatre Company, Inc. I thought, "how could it be anything but interesting?" So today I called the theatre. "No problem getting tickets," I was told, "it might be a squeeze if you wanted seats for the matinee, but you're okay tonight."
Then I checked to see where the theatre was. It turns out to be in the East Village, only a few blocks from our hotel. So we took the subway down from the conference in midtown, dumped our stuff, and walked over to St. Mark's Place (which is really a chunk of 8th Street between 1st and 4th Avenue). As we walked down 5th Avenue from 11th and then across 8th we were reminded how much more we like the Village than midtown: more interesting people on the street, more streetlife generally, more interesting shops, more restaurants you could imagine eating at without renegotiating your mortgage . . . it's what a city ought to be.
But that's not what I want to try to talk about. It's the theatre, and the production, that convinced us that we need to come to New York quarterly at the very least. First, the theatre. It's the 80 St. Marks' Place Theatre, which (according to a plaque outside) was built by an actor who decided that he wanted there to be a theatre dedicated to productions of classic drama. It apparently went through various changes, but since 1984 it's been mounting a five or six play season every year, doing stuff that you'd just never imagine being done (like the Calderon) and other, more conventional classics. It's got a resident repertory company, many of whom seem to have been there for ten years. We were early, so we went into the little cafeteria off the lobby and had a glass of red wine ($2 donation, the kids running the counter said) and read some of the literature and looked at pictures of past productions. We also picked up a copy of a little tabloid called Hot Seats, which lists everything that's happening in theatre in New York -- five times as much as is listed in any of the conventional tourist listings (we were just lucky that the Calderon was listed in them -- now, with Hot Seats in hand, we could find stuff to go to for the next three weeks . . . if we were going to be here).
When we went into the theatre (a lovely little theatre, seating maybe a hundred -- we were in Row B, center), we had a few minutes to read the program. Inside the front cover there was a note from the Artistic Director. It said, in part (hold your hat):
Our primary job, in every production, is to tell the playwright's story. This priority preempts many questions about directorial concept, spectactle, and actors' choices. Fortunately, it leaves plenty of questions still to be answered in rehearsal. In performance, this commitment to the playwright's story makes for a thrilling journey to another time and place.
The choice to travel to the world of the play rather than to adapt the play to modern idiom is very demanding. You just can't get from here to there without staying in classical shape. That's why The Pearl is a resident acting company. I believe that only a troupe that works together and works constantly can do the kind of traveling our schedule requires.
The pure adventure and joy of travel-by-theatre may well be enough reason for all of us at The Pearl to love what we do. But in choosing and preparing these five wonderful plays, I was struck with a pwowerful sense of each playwright calling to us through ages, offering a great story important for us to hear. I imagine an ancestor calling to me, "Listen. This is my story. That means it's your story too. Listen to your story."
And what's best of all is when we, as a community of actors and audience, partake of the story together. We're glad you're here.
Well, I thought, that could be bullshit, but it's certainly a kind of bullshit I'd be prepared to buy. And it could have been a rotten production or a stupid play, in spite of that wonderful statement of principle.
But it wasn't. The play, I was surprised to discover, is some kind of bizarre masterpiece, an astonishingly intelligent script full of ideas that were being explored by Shakespeare, among other people. As we watched it we thought of The Tempest and King Lear and Midsummer Night's Dream and half a dozen other plays -- not so much because it was like them as because it dealt with some of the same ideas. But I'm not sure I can convey to you exactly why it was such a wonderful play without a really long summary. (I'm just amazed that I've never read it.)
The plot's not really very, um, plausible . . . though no less so than a lot of Shakespeare's. The basic story is this (as often in Shakespeare, there's a subplot and a wonderfully funny Falstaffian or Sancho Panza-esque clown, but I'll leave those aside for the moment): The king of Poland (well, yes, it occurs in Poland. I think for Calderon it was sort of like Bohemia or Athens for Shakespeare -- just a far-away place you could give whatever qualities you needed) has had a prophecy that his son would grow up to be a homicidal beast and criminal, so he's reported to the rest of the world that the child, Segismundo, was born dead, and had him raised in chains in an isolated prison in the mountains. For complicated reasons he winds up testing the prophecy by drugging his son, now grown, and bringing him to court to wake up Crown Prince of the country. If, he says, his son turns out to be a tyrant after all, it'll be back to prison with him, as though the whole episode had been a dream. He does so, the son in an uncomprehending rage kills a servant and generally turns out to be what you'd expect from someone who'd been raised in a dungeon and seen maybe three humans in his life (lots of wonderful Miranda/Caliban lines, including, in this superlative translation, a specific reference to this "brave new world"). So it's back to prison, where he wakes up and is convinced that all of it -- and, as far as he can make out, anything that might happen -- is a dream. Lots of wonderful speeches about the consequences of believing that anything that might be happening to you could quite likely turn out to be a dream, from which you could wake up to find yourself back in chains in a dungeon.
What was amazing about the script was how intelligently everybody talked about all this. No one was dumb: the king's motives were clear and thoughtful and respectable, and so were everybody else's, so that you couldn't dismiss anybody's arguments. Many of them occurred in immensely long soliloquys which had every reason to be excruciatingly boring but siply weren't -- partly because of the wonderful translation and partly because the actors were wonderful, especially the one who played the prince, who was utterly magnetic, I thought: violent, physical, intelligent, articulate.
OK, so what happens in the second act is that there's a rebellion, because the peasants find out that their prince, the King's son, is actually there in prison, and that the King is planning on giving the throne to the Duke of Muskovy, a foreigner. They spring Segismundo from jail, and like Tamburlaine, he heads up the army and conquers the kingdom. But -- at the moment of triumph, with his father the king kneeling in submission, he says (it's no suprise: it's perfectly consistent) that since if life is all a dream from which you might wake up in prison any minute, all that matters is to do the right thing (actually, he's already said this, after he found himself back in prison), and submits himself to his father -- who, in turn, having discovered that his son's actually not a monster after all, crowns him king. OK, so it sounds dumb. It's not. You believe every argument.
And the production was wonderful. It was elegantly and efficiently set; the king's a sort of Prospero figure, who studies mathematics, and the set's made up mostly of three or four monumental geometric figures which look from one side sort of like sextants, and which are moved around to make mountain crags, thrones, whatever's needed. The costumes were astounding -- in some fundamental way they felt "authentic" (we saw peasant embroidery with mirrors worked into it in Budapest and the Benaki museum, and this stuff was like that). And the company was just what you might expect from people who've been working together for a decade. The king and his Gloucester figure, who'd been overseeing the imprisonment and education of the young prince, were both played by old guys who must be in their sixties, both the sort of competent professionals you'd only ever expect to find in a place like New York. I've already said something about Segismundo. There was also a wonderful clown figure, servant to a woman who has come to Poland to avenge the loss of her honour, and who gets caught in the middle of all this (it turns out fairly immediately, in good Shakespearean fashion, that she's the lost daughter of the Gloucester figure). The servant is as wonderful a role as I've seen since maybe Falstaff -- a similar sort of character, with lots of really great, funny lines (at least in this translation).
As we left the theatre we walked out past a guy who I'd inferred during the intermission might be the artistic director. So I asked him, and he admitted it. I had the chance to tell him that if we lived here I'd subscribe (the company has a really extensive and aggressive donor program, with a long list posted of companies -- for instance, companies who've agreed to match contributions by their employees, an interesting idea -- and individual donors. Sustaining donors of various kinds get titles; the ones who give $1000 or more, I think, are called "Oysters").
As we walked back to the hotel it seemed to us that we couldn't imagine a theatrical experience more directly designed to fit all our prejudices about what a theatre ought to be and do. The proposed list of productions for next year includes Otway's Venice Preserv'd. I'd seriously consider mounting a bus trip down for people from my eighteenth century class. Or just coming down myself.