Friday, December 24, 2010

Visions of Regeneration after War: Bringing the Spanish Dream to Life Again

For those who study and enjoy the Spanish comedies of the Golden Age (1580-1700), the playwright Jose Rivera can be a kind of revelation, a whisper of the past in the here and now.  He also writes beautifully in English, so there is no issue of translation as a potential barrier for a modern audience.  The passion, intelligence, and humor of Jose Rivera’s plays can sometimes read like he stepped out of a time capsule from imperial Spain and the days of Lope de Vega.  There are many similarities between the passionate and intelligent Gabriela from References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot and the heroine Rosaura from Life is a Dream, by Calderon de la Barca, and Sueno , the adaptation by Jose Rivera.  One of the reasons that Spanish plays appeal to the modern audience is that the female characters are strong, intelligent, passionate, and sexual, and all at the same time.  They are powerful women to be reckoned with, and there is a timeless quality to these Spanish women from another age.  They play well in our time, and Gabriela would fit right in with the women from the past.  She is a character, like Rosaura, that yearns to understand the male experience of warfare, and the suffering it produces in the world.  In Act I of Sueno, Rosaura is dressed as a man, armed with a mysterious and beautiful sword; she is looking for revenge with a man who has dishonored her, as she travels from Poland to Spain on his trail.  By the end of the play, she wants to fight in a battle dressed as a peasant woman.  Spanish Comedy is full of strong, formidable women, and Rosaura is one of the most memorable.  The very different cultural environment in Spain, as opposed to Elizabethan England, was such that women were involved in all aspects of the theater; as actresses, playwrights, theater owners, and directors.  Life is a Dream is the most philosophical play of this period, and it is often compared with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Passion and virtue, love and healing, are part of both plays by Jose Rivera, as they represent, and explore, the life of the soul with the central motif of dreaming.  These two plays, in comparison with each other, can help to illuminate the thinking of Rivera on many different levels, especially what kind of redemption the playwright believes is possible after the traumatic experience of warfare.  On the subject of dreams and war, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot and Sueno read as companion plays that illuminate the darker realms of spiritual healing: in what dreams have to teach us in the modern era.  Dreams are the spiritual womb through which we are reborn, and they teach us how to navigate the mysteries of reality itself.   
The Motif of Dreaming and Dreams for the Life of the Soul
The central idea of dreaming completely dominates both of these plays, and it is the theme for understanding the life of the soul.  In Sueno, the nature of reality is presented as a dream repeatedly in the text, over and over; that reality is an illusion, or the nature of it is so changeable that it cannot be trusted.  It therefore must be treated always as a dream by the virtuous man.  Because of the rapid changes in the play for Prince Segismundo, reality is completely unpredictable and baffling.  Each act of the play has a shockingly different reality for the prince, and for the audience, and this can be emphasized by the director by costume and set design to emphasize the degree of change.  In Act One, the audience meets the imprisoned Segismundo, as does Rosaura and her comic servant Clarin.  Segismundo is chained at a guard tower in the wilderness, and he is dressed in animal skins, or is virtually naked in some productions.  Rosaura is disguised as a man, and she is traveling with her servant to Spain to have her honor restored with a nobleman, Astolfo.  He left her behind in Poland, despite his love for her, because he thought she wasn’t a woman of noble birth.  She does not know that really she is of noble blood, and the audience will eventually find out the truth, that Don Clotaldo is her father.  Segismundo has been imprisoned for his entire life because of the unfavorable astrological omens that said he would be a monster and destroy the Spanish kingdom in a civil war.  Rivera adds the birth of the child Segismundo at the beginning of his adaptation, along with an eclipse of the sun and moon while the mother dies in childbirth.  This addition can certainly make the opening of the play very dark and ominous for the audience.  The reality of the wilderness is all that Segismundo has known, but there is a radical shift the very next day.  Act Two is completely different.  Segismundo is given the opportunity to behave as a prince, and to overcome thereby the potential for destruction that was predicted for him.  The palace and princely clothing can be lavish and sumptuous to accentuate the difference between Acts One and Two.  But Segismundo behaves, as predicted, like an animal in a rage.  He rips out the eyeballs of a servant who displeases him (The prince throws this servant to his death in the original play).  He also tries to kill his captor in the wilderness, the closest advisor to the king, Don Clotaldo.  The prince then attempts to rape Rosaura, who is now dressed fabulously as an attendant to Estrella, the niece of the king.  At the end of the fateful day, Segismundo is drugged by Don Clotaldo, and then told that the previous day in the palace was only a dream:  “We were talking about eagles as you fell asleep.  So you dreamed of power.  Let me tell you something.  Even in dreams you should honor those who gave you life and raised you.  Even in dreams there is right and wrong and you must do what’s right” (Rivera 146). 
The play has a very tight unity in terms of time, one act for each day, and on the third day Segismundo is rescued by the Spanish people who have revolted against Basilio, the king who followed the omens about his son.  They want the natural born Spaniard as their king, not the Polish nephew Astolfo.  The third act is a battle in the wilderness, during which Segismundo and his father will powerfully reconcile.  Segismundo is again in his animal skins, but he is now behaving virtuously based on his understanding that life is an illusion, and that something greater awaits us when we wake from the dream of this life.  Nothing is constant, and the soul’s conversion to this awareness becomes a rule of life: to do what is right in every transitory scene, especially because you can’t really tell the difference between reality and a dream in the first place.  You should treat all experience as transitory.  Moreover, our waking experience is only a precursor to God’s greater reality, as Segismundo begins to understand: “And since life is a dream, I know we don’t truly wake up until we die” (Rivera 146).     
The experience of dreaming and spiritual healing is the bedrock of both Sueno and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.  In the Book of Genesis, the importance of dreams, from Jacob’s ladder to the character of Joseph as a diviner of dreams, is the central place, or portal, of communication between human beings and the divine.  It is the ancient place of oracle that is still open to the modern world, according to Jose Rivera.  As the early, more anthropomorphic God recedes in the first generations of the Jewish people, the place of connection with God is then the realm of dream.  Sleeping and dreaming are a kind of spiritual cocoon in these two plays where rebirth and healing from trauma are first spiritually conceived, and then envisioned consciously by the human psyche.  Spanish Comedy playwrights are always theological in their art, but what makes them especially compelling, as they wrote under the shadow of the Inquisition and a censorious crown, is how sexual they can be at the very same time.  Dreams are like that too.  The erotic and the spiritual share the same architecture; they are two sides of the same coin.  You lack one, you lack both.  The Spanish writers of the Golden Age deeply understood that to cut yourself off from the body is to cut yourself off from the soul.   In just an early, potentially unimportant line in the more realistic scenes of Act Two, Gabriella remarks to Benito that he is “Like living with the author of the Song of Songs, I swear” (Rivera 41).  First of all, Gabriella would never say this.  Very few people would, though I’ve met some of them.   This happens in Spanish Comedy all the time as servants quote Ovid and other classical writers by heart.  But it is a very revealing line in terms of the spiritual awareness of Jose Rivera, as he references the most erotic book in the Hebrew Bible.  Many people of faith, including Rabbi Akiva, believed The Song of Songs to be the most sacred text in the canon: because it reveals the proper relationship between the body and the soul, and the male and female bodies, separate and together in union, as the image of God.  This is the greatest song of all the songs we sing to God.  Jose Rivera knows the tune in his sleep.     
Jose Rivera is much more covert in his theology than the Spanish playwrights, but it is still present in his work.  Magic realism invokes the supernatural directly; that there is a divine presence within the natural world.  The surrealism and magic realism of Rivera and other Latin American writers are like the modern remnants of God, still very much alive but hidden, and the divine texture to human dreams.  Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali actively explored religious symbolism and dream archetypes in their work.  Sueno emphasizes the inconstant and shifting reality through the changing scenes of each act, while References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot presents a surreal dream landscape in two of the four acts, at the beginning and the end of Rivera’s play.  There is an implied equity between Acts One and Four, and the more realistic scenes between Benito and Gabriella in the Acts Two and Three.  Can it even be established that the world of the italics in Acts One and Four is less real than the intervening acts in plain text?  Both worlds are held in tension, and neither one emerges as being the dominant reality for the audience.  The director can then emphasize the significant difference between these two worlds through costumes for the Moon and the animals, along with a potentially surreal or exotic set design for the desert world out of doors.  The indoor scenes in the military housing can be spare, even shabby.  The multiple worlds are set up in tension, and the dreaming and the waking must be treated just as seriously in this play.  This is the same principal thesis of Sueno.
The realism of Benito and Gabriela does not deviate from this emphasis on dreaming, despite the realism of their dialogue and heated arguments as a married couple.  In Act One, the realities are linked when Gabriela explains to Martin about Benito’s condition: “He’ll cry and shout in his sleep/ as the truth fights to get out/ while he dreams” (Rivera 35).  The problems in the marriage are first presented as a problem in the realm of dreams, and the potential solution also lies there.  Gabriela is forceful from the beginning on this point with her husband (who just wants to sleep with his army wife): “…and I’m having dreams every night and all of them want me to test you” (Rivera 49).   Benito’s career in the army and his service in the first Gulf War are now obstacles in their marriage:  “You think, oh, your mind’s this distant private place, what happens in there only happens to you—but it happens to me, too-.“ (Rivera 55)  Benito’s character has something very much like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Gabriela acknowledges what Benito has tried in vain to repress.  But in dreams, they can’t hide from their problems.  The deepest places of conversion, forgiveness, and new life flow from the understanding of dreams in relationship to reality.  This is the life of the soul as the conscious and subconscious realities are brought together.   The dream world brings animals and humans out into the desert night.  Segismundo is treated like an animal in Act One, and in Act Two he behaves just like one in attacking others:  “In this room, I am God and animal!” (Rivera 135).  The Coyote and the Cat present the same kind of tension between the civilized and the untamed animal world.  Segismundo is initially a mixture of the two animals, like the potential mutant offspring of the Cat and Coyote.  Segismundo describes his in-between state in these animal terms:  “But now I know exactly what I am, what I’ve turned into courtesy of my dear dad: a crossbreed, a mixed-blood, a hybrid, half man, half animal” (Rivera 132).
But in Act Three Segismundo behaves, finally, as a noble prince, sparing Don Clotaldo when he can kill him, and even giving him a chance to serve the king in battle against the revolution he is leading.  Segismundo also has a chance to kill the king in battle, but instead he offers his own head to the defeated father, in their powerful reconciliation on the battlefield.  The change of heart is the spiritual understanding from the realm of dreams, and it is fully expressed by Segismundo at the beginning of Act Three:
“And since we’re dreaming now—and anything is possible in a dream—let me bury my animal side, as well as my anger and ambition.  In this enchanted world, this world of mirages, to simply live is to dream.  And since life is a dream, I know we don’t truly wake up until we die.  The king dreams he’s the king and he rules and governs without knowing all the praises he receives on loan are written on the wind and are soon turned to ashes and death.  Who’d want to be king knowing when he does he’s going to wake up and be nothing?...The pretender, the anarchist, the child, the ancient scholar, the pious, the lonely—all of them are dreamers, and none of them understands the dream!  I dream I’m sitting in the muck, a convict—but I dreamed earlier I was happy, alive, powerful.  Which was real?  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?” (Rivera 146-147).

The inability to distinguish between reality and dreaming becomes the place of virtuous action for Segismundo in Act Three.  In References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Gabriela echoes this understanding, but in more haunting terms: “But what if I’m still dreaming?/ What if none of us wake up?/ What if we go one like this:/ dreaming and sleeping,/ until we’re boxes within boxes/ and there’s no way out” (Rivera 73).  Both plays emphasize the strangeness of life itself, and both plays begin to point the direction for new life through the muse and guidance of dreams, the lost remnant of connection with the divine.  
The sharing of a dream by Gabriela is the powerful point where she most deeply seeks to understand her husband’s military service, and the psychological wounds of his service in the Gulf War.  The portrait of marriage in this play is one where dreaming is a place of shared suffering, not the nightmare of human isolation.  Though Gabriela was separate from her husband during the war, the potential reconciliation between them is placed in the context of her entry into his private experience of war.  She tells him about one of her dreams right after Benito tells her about the memories that haunt him the most, his destruction of an Iraqi village.  Gabriela tries to stay with him, knowing he is more wounded than he can admit to himself. 
“I get your body after the war.  You can’t move.  I can’t figure out why.  You open your mouth for me.  I put my hand down your throat.  My whole arm goes in.  Your skin is see-through so I watch my hand groping the things in your stomach.  These little round rocks in you, smooth, like from a beach, and I pull these these outta your stomach by the fistful but you don’t get better.  Not ‘til I’m reaching deeper in your bowels and pull out the rusted nails and burning bits of shrapnel that were in there and they cut my hand to pieces but I don’t stop until I pull them out of your body” (Rivera 68).
The implication is that dreaming is not something that we do alone.  In living our nightmares, we are, potentially, not alone in this play.  Benito argues that he can also do the same thing for Gabriela that she does for him: “You know I can fix every bad dream in your head” (Rivera 68).  The references to Salvador Dali in the title and in the play may seem random, but they are not.  They underscore the place of dreams as a healing landscape for the soul.   The surreal desert scenes of Acts One and Four are subtly maintained, and invoked like a prayer, with the Dali painting Two Pieces of Bread Expressing the Sentiment of Love in the bedroom.  This is the place where the lovers finally come together physically.  There are two pieces of bread in the desert, and someone—an animal or a human being or both—has eaten them, just partially.  The pieces of bread may represent the nourishment the lovers and can give to each other, even in the desert of human experience, or on a dream landscape.  There is also a subtle but strong Eucharistic current by Dali here, one that suggests that this manna in the desert is not ordinary bread at all.  It is rather a gift of God that the beloved can offer to the other, a shared sacrifice of eating.  The lovers can consume each other, and yet they are not devoured, as in the sex act itself.  Two simple pieces of bread are expressing a holy sentiment of love.  The Moon powerfully expresses to Gabriela that she has been dreaming the dream of soul mates.
                “You two go deep.
                So the wounds go deep.
                You give a person so much,
                you rearrange them.
                You rewrite them.
                He’s your creation.
                You’re his” (Rivera 74).

The Problem of the Adaptation in Sueno
It is more than understandable why Jose Rivera would be drawn to these plays of Spanish Comedy as a Latino playwright.  But what really needs to be adapted by Rivera from Calderon de la Barca’s original play?  Not very much is the confusing answer.  When the aficionado of this period discovers that Jose Rivera chose to adapt Life is a Dream, it seems too good to be true.  Sadly it is.  D.J.R. Bruckner of The New York Times was at a loss to discover what exactly Jose Rivera was doing in Sueno: “His play should translate easily into captivating present day theater.  That does not happen here.  It is as if Mr. Rivera was hesitant about the Calderon play, unwilling to simply translate it (heroic labor in itself), or send it up, or lift into modern times in a modern voice…Instead we get the old play with distracting moments of odd comedy and with characters wise-cracking in current clichés that make them seem singularly vacant” (Bruckner, “When Life Is Not a Dream But an Unending Nightmare,” pars. 5-6).  There is a fascinating kind of confusion here, one that is worth exploring to better understand Jose Rivera and References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.  As mentioned, this is not a translation, but rather an adaptation.  But it’s not really clear how or why Rivera is writing this play as an adaptation.  The original Spanish text of Life is a Dream is polymetrical, but Rivera’s text is simply prose, with modern flourishes, some anachronistic references, and a nearly identical storyline.  It reads more like a prose translation, which some modern translators choose to do with the complex polymetrical verse, than a modern adaptation.  Rivera is either being very reverent or is very confused, or perhaps just a combination of both conditions.     
 Warfare and Regeneration: The Healing Dreams of Jose Rivera
So what changes does Jose Rivera make to the play?  On first inspection, there don’t seem to be very many, but there are some important ones to help better understand both of these plays.  The big changes in the adaptation can enhance how Sueno and References to Salvador Dali work together as companion pieces.  Calderon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream is set in Poland.  Like Hamlet in Denmark, this setting is not an attempt to offer historical observations about another country.  But it does give Calderon the opportunity to explore a political crisis without anyone thinking he is criticizing the political leadership of his native Spain at the time, or making commentary on historical figures.  Jose Rivera moves the play to Spain directly, and only Rosaura and Astolfo are from Poland in the adaptation.  Rivera then subtly evokes the trauma from war in what an attentive audience can hear as a reference to the Spanish Civil War: “I’m seeing eyes being torn out of faces, common street corners turning into instant graves and the proliferation of orphans and ghosts.  Every flower in the kingdom covers someone’s tomb.  Every citizen is an accomplice to murder” (Rivera 156).  War is not just for the soldiers anymore, as Gabriela knows firsthand.  The other major change in the play is making Rosaura and Segismundo the highly charged romance of the adapted play; they are now the soul mates who come together in Act Three, to heal a nation after a civil war.  In Calderon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, the magnanimous Segismundo arranges instead the union of Astolfo and Rosaura, while he as king will rule with Stella (Estrella for Rivera) as his queen.  The attraction of Segismundo to Rosaura is obvious in this play, but his decision highlights his virtue, the triumph over his animal side, of reason over passion.  This is always disappointing in the original play, though the arranged romantic unions at the end obviously fit with the dream understanding of virtue at the heart of Segismundo’s conversion.  Jose Rivera is much more passionate about his soul mates, and he brings them together without apology to Calderon.  Rivera’s Sueno has more of a balance of our animal and angelic natures, rather than the victory of separation, of virtue over passion, in Life is a Dream.  This celebration of soul mates as lovers also comes across in References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot.  As Gabriela questions Benito about the moon, Coyote’s Ghost and the Cat slow dance, “hot and tight,” together at the curtain.  Both plays present the power of dreams to regenerate the human psyche after warfare.  Dreams are the healing sanctuary of the soul, and soul mates are the ones who dream together in the divine union that can forgive the world.       

Works Cited List
1.       Bruckner, D.J.R. “When Life Is Not a Dream But an Unending Nightmare.” New York Times March 3 2000.
2.        Rivera, Jose. References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot and Other Plays. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2003.

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