By José Rivera 

José Rivera adapted Sueño from Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play Life Is a Dream, titled La vida es sueño in its original Spanish. Rivera shares his process adapting the over 300-year-old play for modern audiences, how his version differs from the original, and the similarities shared by both in what was originally published as a prelude to the actors’ script. 

This is the story of a relationship.  

I knew very little about Life Is a Dream when I got a call from the Hartford Stage Company asking if I had any interest in adapting the play for “next season.” In fact, I hadn’t even read the play by the time I called the theatre a few weeks later to say I’d do it. A month later, when I stopped procrastinating and finally did read Life Is a Dream, I understood why this great play – written by one of the most gifted and prolific dramatists in history – is so rarely performed in North America. 

Something in its stubborn density, its enigmatic elegance, its obsessions, the odd codes of human behavior embedded in its verse…something about this story of a resurrected prince who questions the nature of existence…something in this marvelous, sprawling, insanely technical play seemed more distant, more difficult, more untranslatable than anything I knew from Aeschylus. Remote and modern, dark and wacky, poetic and pungent, stuffy and sexy. Life Is a Dream terrified me. I wanted to call Hartford Stage and suggest another playwright for the job. 

But at the same time that the play spooked me, it attracted me. There’s greatness in this awesome tale. There’s beauty in Segismundo’s fiercesome search for the meaning of life. There’s dignity in Rosaura’s cross-dressing, cross-European pursuit of justice. There’s something sobering and moving in Basilio’s attempt to come to a redemptive peace between the dictates of the stars and his love for his son. This is a play full of Big Questions. What is honor? What separates man from animals? If life is a dream, what happens to free will? If life is a dream, who’s dreaming it? I knew I couldn’t pass the job on to another writer. I did the next best thing. I procrastinated for another six months. “Next season” at Hartford Stage came and went. 

When I actually did start to write, I was faced with an undeniable fact: I had never adapted a play before and I didn’t know where to start. I asked myself: What do I have to contribute to Life Is a Dream? The obvious answer was: Nothing. I was stuck (again) until I shifted the question slightly: What do I have to contribute to a modern North American audience’s appreciation of Life Is a Dream? That was the shift in perspective that finally got me going. 

Practical questions asserted themselves right away. Do I change the play’s time and location? Do I set it in Pinochet’s Chile? Franco’s Spain? Castro’s Cuba? Clinton’s America? I rejected these ideas as too gimmicky. The original play is set in Poland – a choice akin to Shakespeare setting his play about two gentlemen in Verona. I opted to set the play in Spain in 1635, the time and place of its creation. As a Latino writer aware of the relationship between ancient Spain and the New World, it was exciting to me to imagine this play springing from a society simultaneously obsessed with honor at home and genocide and conquest of indigenous people abroad. When I began to imagine the characters of this play in relation to the New World, I felt I had a “way into” the play that a contemporary audience might appreciate. 

I then turned my attention to the play’s bizarre plot. That was easy. I imagined that most theatregoers had a right to know and enjoy Calderón’s narrative. So I decided to be faithful to the original story, almost moment by moment, with only a couple of structural changes, and some (potentially radical) re-examining of the ending of the play. 

The bulk of my work centered around an article I read which said that Calderón wasn’t interested in writing characters as we understand that word today. Calderón (according to the article) wrote archetypes, walking mouthpieces without full-blown psychologies. So I tried to recreate Calderón’s play with 20th-century characterizations. I asked myself fundamental questions about Segismundo’s internal reality. Did he ever hallucinate while in isolation? Was he ever baptized? Has he ever felt love? Did Basilio ever visit him? How did the King keep his son’s identity a secret for twenty-five years? Has the Prince ever seen his own face? 

Calderón never answers these questions. In attempting to invent an internal reality for all the characters, I reconstructed the language of the play. I cut the lengthy asides; I trimmed the long speeches. And I did away with most of Calderón’s metaphors and created new imagery with a contemporary feel.  

Segismundo’s jail cell is now a “sewer pipe,” he refers to himself as “a storm of chemical responses pretending to have a soul,” and as “the soul of anthrax and polio.” Basilio calls the stars “secrets of the universe written in nightly Braille” and “the dandruff of Zeus.” Estrella tells Rosaura that Astolfo’s manliness “does something truly wacky to my personal chemistry.” Rosaura refers to her horse – a “violent Hippogriff” in some translations – as an “instinct-challenged freak.” She calls Spain “morbid and feisty all at the same time.” Her servant Clarín asks, when they arrive in Spain: “What contaminated mirage, I wonder, will come along to pick our pockets and flog our imaginations?” 

And the famous end-of-act-two speech now reflects a contemporary world’s end-of-century skepticism – a point of view unthinkable in Calderón’s very Catholic Spain. Segismundo says: “What is life? A frenzy. What is living? An illusion, a shadow, a fiction. The greatest good is nothing but a weightless idea. To live is to sleep, to live is to dream, all who live are dreamers, all dreamers are the dreams of God – and what is God Himself, but the greatest dream of all? 

As the months went by, I found my relationship to Calderón changing. Someone once told me that to write an adaptation is to serve an apprenticeship with a master. Like any good apprentice, I approached the Old Man with awe mixed with fear. This was followed by familiarity as I chipped away at the many translations of this play in pursuit of its beating heart. This was followed by a strange irritation at Calderón’s repetitions, his limited vocabulary, his recycled metaphors, his slavish devotion to the conventions of his time, his unwieldy subplot, and his obstinate championing of the status quo. This was followed by a truly oedipal desire to kill the old bastard. But eventually, when it was all said and done, I returned to a newborn respect and came back full circle to true awe; that is, awe without fear. 

For ultimately the story of an adaptation is the story of a relationship. It’s either a dance, a dialogue, a duet, or a duel between you the adaptor and the original creator – for Calderón and me, it’s been all of the above.