“LIFE IS DREAM”
Taos Theatre Company, Taos Community Auditorium, Taos, New Mexico, February 1979
“La Vida es Sueño” by Pedro Calderón de la Barca is the most famous of Spanish dramas of the Golden Age, written in1635. When I stumbled upon it, the odd state of mind it portrays felt relevant to life in high-altitude New Mexico at the end of the 1970s. I found the translations that came to hand to be dated and opaque. I started writing my own English version as a way of understanding what was being said. I do not know Spanish, alas, but by comparing two or three translations I could get a sense of what the writer meant; when stymied, I went back to the original and puzzled it out with a dictionary.
My son Julian, who was four, took to asking at odd times, “Is this a dream?” Alfred was a baby, and our life in Taos was a weird combination of idyllic and impossible. It was pleasure to go into another head-space distinguished by great flamboyance and high-mindedness. I made a point of being much more concise than Calderón or other translators, expressing the same thing, as best I could, in about half the number of lines. It was delicious to have an excuse to write in the grand style, and nothing else would do for this tale of royalty and timeless generational conflict.
Taos Theatre Company gave me the opportunity to put it on, for which I am grateful. But the production was rather fraught. (For a satirical picture of the principals in action, see my play “Heavy Pockets.”) Even as we went into rehearsal it was clear that my little family could not stay in Taos; we were broke and I could not figure out a way to make a living there. Bill Bolender played Segismundo opposite my wife Michele as Rosaura, and he gave her a hard time, mugging at her as she bravely plowed through the interminable monologues. He gave me a hard time too, making the character more savage than I envisioned. Michele’s father, Dr. Robert Hawley, played the King.
The Taos Community Auditorium has a wide stage, which I thought would dissipate the play’s energy; I had the idea of compressing it tightly into the middle, perhaps projecting the stage out over the orchestra pit to bring the play closer to the audience. I could not work out quite how to do it. Instead the set design went an entirely different direction. Bill hooked me up with Larry Bell, one of the top artists in town, who invited me over to his hacienda (quite a contrast with our hovel), gave me a taste of cocaine, and blew my idea off. His art at that time involved metallic coatings electrically deposited on various materials in a giant vacuum chamber; he proposed to vacuum-coat large sheets of gray paper which would become the subtly shimmering surface of the set—not a design but a not very good idea for decoration. Bill, also ignoring my ideas, got together a crew and built a sprawling wooden structure to support the paper. My staging was forced to fill the space.
The show was not all bad. I loved working with the poetic language, and the comic characters were wonderful: Steve Parks and Gwendolyn Fogg as a prince and princess jockeying for the throne, and Jonathan Gordon as Rosaura’s foolish sidekick Honker. My friend Peter Hartman came from California to do the incidental music and greatly boosted my spirits and sense of artistry.
I might add that there was some controversy in town about why we would do a classic Spanish play in English translation in a largely Spanish-speaking community. It’s true, it doesn’t make sense, but I was barely conscious of that at the time, I was so overwhelmed with my own problems. (Neither were Bill and Steve, so far as I know.)
“Life Is Dream,” a new English version of “La Vida Es Sueño” by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, was first presented by the Taos Theatre Company on February 8, 1978, at the Taos Community Auditorum, Taos, New Mexico. It was directed by Michael Smith with the following cast:
CLOTALDOOtto Mears Pitcher
1st SOLDIER/SERVANTGail Boles
2nd SOLDIER/SERVANTDavid Boles
Stage ManagerJohn Flexner
Set DesignLarry Bell
CostumesMargaret Crowl, Clarisse Kopecky
The production was also presented for two performances February 23 and 24 at the Armory for the Arts in Santa Fe.
from the Taos News, February 15, 1979
‘Life is’... too dreamy
by Merilee Dannemann
Life Is Dream, the classic Spanish drama presented this week at Taos Community Auditorium, could have been an exciting piece of theater except that its director was not entirely there.
Director Michael Smith, who created a most entertaining new English version of the play for this production, also created a finished project that does not hold together as theater.
Who are those people? More importantly in this case, where are they, and when are they? The characters themselves do not seem to know, and their ignorance, which may have been intended to achieve a dreamlike effect in line with the theme, comes across the footlights as mere dullness.
The plot concerns a man who has been imprisoned in chains all his life for no reason that he can discern, who one day is drugged and wakes up in a palace to find himself honored as the prince of Poland. His imprisonment, he learns, was decreed by his father, the King, in response to some disastrous prophecies. After the prince behaves with less than courtly propriety, he is drugged again and hauled back to the tower, where his jailer tries to convince him his outing was just a dream. But the secret of his existence is now out, and the question of the royal succession is at hand.
Long speeches abound. Perhaps in a professional company it is possible to let the speaker carry the action alone, with no assistance from the visual side and with all the other characters standing around limply.
But this play is cast—as plays in Taos usually are—with a mixed group of polished and amateur actors, and most of them weren’t powerful enough to command the stage alone. What they have to back them up are other actors, each politely waiting his turn, and a gray-on-gray set. One can hardly wait for Steve Parks to return to the stage, to see the bobbing bright feather in his cap.
Bill Bolender rises splendidly above all this. Bolender, playing the unfortunate prince Segismundo, brings ringing conviction, pathos, humor, and a strong commitment to a character very difficult to define. There is an active mind behind this portrayal: it can be trusted.
Gwendolyn Fogg, seen here for the first time in Taos, also comes to the stage alive with her character, a blunt-spoken princess vying for the throne. She has created a princess robust, shrewd, and entertaining.
A real scene-stealer is Jonathan Gordon, perfectly cast in a scene-stealer’s part as the comic relief—funny and natural in a funky, flea-scratching role. Gordon, who made his first stage appearance as the police lieutenant in West Side Story, shows marked growth from a good beginning and could easily become a welcome regular feature of Taos productions.
In Steve Parks and Otto Pitcher, both seasoned actors of proven talent, the directorial problem shows itself. Parks plays a silver-tongued courtier charmingly but rather lackadaisically, as if the actor hasn’t made up his mind whether the character is a cad. Pitcher, with a challenging role as Sigismundo’s jailer-tutor, merely walks through his part, appearing to have only minimal interest in what he’s doing up there.
Dr. Robert Hawley as the old King and Michele Smith as a jealous abandoned lover could use a lot more support. Hawley lacks fire, Smith lacks control, and both lack strength. David Boles has a few interesting moments in a servant’s role; both he and fellow servant-soldier Gail Boles could stand to have their roles fleshed out, so that their mere presence in the inevitable spear-carrier’s pose adds to the dimension rather than flattening it. These characters needed direction, whether inner exploration or simply stage business, that they seem not to have received.
Much fuss has been made in anticipation of the set, designed by celebrated artist Larry Bell. Viewed by itself, the set has intrinsic visual interest, but it doesn’t help the play much. Changes of scene and color could have been used to liven the mood for those on both sides of the footlights. Instead, there is a forbidding arrangement of gray boxes, which changes from a prison to a palace by the addition of a chair.
The choice may have been intended to underscore the dream theme, but if so, that was a poor choice. The audience, at least in this production, needs help to share the visual experience of a man who has spent his life in a dungeon and suddenly finds himself in a throne room.
Thank goodness for the feathers! The costumes, by Margaret Crowl and Clarice Kopecky, are quite pretty. but missing a thread of unity, as if they had not all been made for the same play.
The incidental music, composed by Peter Hartman and played (recorded) by Richard Crowley and David Gomez, was pleasant and appropriate.
The play, written in 1635 by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, is regarded as one of the great works of the Golden Age in Spain. That Smith, who acknowledges that he does not know Spanish, undertook a new translation of this work to present to a largely Spanish-speaking community has come in for some very unpleasant comments. Since almost everybody in Taos is a cultural snob of one sort or another, the comments are understandable, as is the lack of concern for different viewpoints from the touch-me-not theatrical in-crowd.
This reviewer will not attempt to speak to the authenticity of the translation. Smith’s English version did very well as theater. The language is understandable twentieth-century speech, with a good sense of rhythm and a nice mix of elegance and bluntness.
It remains a mystery why Smith went to such pains to translate a play and then took so little trouble about directing it.
The Changing Scene, Denver, 1991
Pascale Cheminée, who came from Paris to work with me on early pianos in Stonington in the early ‘80s, gave me a copy of Marguerite Duras’s play “Agatha.” I do not read French very well so instead of just struggling slowly through it and losing the sense, I wrote it out in English as best I could. It is a peculiar play, with almost no action, about a middle-aged brother and sister who meet off-season at their family’s summer house and relive the summer of their teenage incest. Like all of Duras, it has an almost ceremonial literary quality, which I relished. But I could see that the only way it could possibly work in the theatre would be if there were two charismatic performances and a powerful sexual tension between the two actors.
I showed my translation to Pascale when she came to Westerly on a visit, and she was shocked at the liberties I had taken; I was surprised at her rather moral strictness about it: I had been trying to make it mine. I had a wonderful time working through the text with her and fixing it wherever I had misunderstood and bluffed and blundered. We made an effort to get rights to the play, but the English-language rights seemed to be firmly in the hands of her regular translator in England. Nonetheless, The Changing Scene in Denver produced our translation in 1991. I was not able to be there and regret not having seen it. I gather it did not succeed, and was taken off a week early.
“VICTOR, OR CHILDREN IN POWER”
Paul Sand told me about “Victor ou les Enfants au Pouvoir” by Roger Vitrac in the early sixties. Victor is a nine-year-old, and I think Paul had the idea of playing Victor himself: he would have been marvelous. It stuck in my mind, but I never found an English translation. Eventually I got hold of it in French, and in 2003, when I had moved to Oregon with Carol Storke and we were living in a rented house along Abiqua Creek, I worked my way through it with much assistance from the dictionary. The play, a unique surrealist combination of comedy, satire, and tragedy, amazed me at every turn. There were quite a few gaps in my first draft. I sent it to Pascale in Paris and tried by email to get her to help me fill the gaps and vet my translation, but she was too busy and far away; she found someone else to look at it, but that fell through. So I just did the best I could. Christopher Wicks, who knows French somewhat better than I do, went through it and caught the obvious mistakes. I would dearly love to see it on the stage.