Life is a Dream – A look at the play

Willem Bruls, dramaturg for Life is a Dream, examines the play and the lessons it seeks to teach

Juan Gil in rehearsal for Life is a Dream (2018) © Camilla Greenwell

After a lifetime of incarceration, what would happen if a man gained a single day of freedom and how would he perceive the world around him?

Pedro Calderón’s play Life is a Dream (1635) addresses these questions through the character of Prince Segismundo. Imprisoned by his father throughout his youth, Segismundo is granted a day of freedom where he discovers the things he has never possessed; overwhelmed by this experience, resentment, greed and anger start to take control of his emotions.

This freedom is short-lived and Segismundo is sedated and imprisoned once again. Upon waking, he is told that everything he experienced was a dream. This confusion leads him to ask fundamental questions about our existence; was the dream real, and is the world around us an illusion? Segismundo comes to realise that everything he longs for is actually contained inside his cell, within himself. When he is given a second chance at freedom, this inspires him to approach the world with a newfound appreciation and wonder.

By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. 'Tis the waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.

Virginia Woolf

Kim Brandstrup and I embarked on our exploration of the conflicting worlds of dreams and reality some years ago and, with Calderón as our starting point, this developed into an investigation into the mechanisms of the mind. Illusion, imagination and conjuring up outer worlds are essential to us, making our lives full and rich. There is, however, a downside to this, as our expectations can grow far beyond reality and lead to frustration.

Liam Francis and Kim Brandstrup in rehearsal for Life is a Dream (2018) © Camilla Greenwell

The allegory of Prince Segismundo has been present throughout our history and in every culture; the story of the imprisoned prince existed in Persian and Arab literature before Calderón wrote the play and scholars believe that the sources for these Oriental versions are rooted in the biography of the Buddha.

There is no teaching where the idea of letting go of your desires is more central than in Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that attaching ourselves to temporary states and material belongings ultimately leads to suffering and, when we realise that this will not lead to inner happiness, we become enlightened.

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Simone Damberg Wϋrtz and Stephen Quildan in rehearsal for Life is a Dream (2018) © Camilla Greenwell

There are stark parallels between the Prince and the story of the Buddha himself. The Buddha grew up in an environment that was completely isolated from the outside world, but while Calderón’s prince was deprived of everything, the Buddha spent his youth in wealth and abundance, protected from the disappointments of the outside world. When, later in life, the Buddha was confronted with the realities of the world and the struggles of humankind, he was deeply saddened. It was through this confrontation with reality that Buddha gained a clearer image of his inner self and realised that what he had been searching for in the outside world was, in fact, within him.

Life is a Dream shows us that the world of our senses is a mere shadow, and that the only reality to be found is within ourselves and therefore invisible. The challenges of life will lead to an insight and eventually to a sense of solidarity with and compassion for those around us.

Life is a Dream premieres at Sadler’s Wells, London, on Wednesday 23 May (preview 22 May), before touring the UK from September. More information here.

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