Pedro Calderón de la Barca was one of the leading playwrights of Spain’s Golden Age in the 17th century. One of his most famous plays is Life is a Dream, which was staged at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2009. It tells the tale of Segismund, rightful heir to the Polish crown, who is kept imprisoned in a tower well away from the court as his father believes disaster will befall the family and the country if he becomes king. I won’t bore you with the details, but Segismund eventually gets to court, sees all that should be his, goes berserk, is drugged and gets hauled back to the tower, where all concerned try to persuade him he dreamt the whole thing. I’ll leave you to choose your own allegories, metaphors and what have you.
Calderón was born in Madrid on January 17, 1600, and died there on May 25,1681, so lived through the lively cultural period under Philip IV when the first makeshift theatres were built. Those theatres may be long gone, but if you walk slowly and look around you, there are plenty of vestiges of those bawdy, boisterous days in the streets of Madrid today.
You could start just off the Puerta del Sol, right at the centre of the city. Look for McDonald’s at the beginning of the Calle Mayor. Back in Calderón’s time, this was the site of the San Felipe church. People used to meet on the steps around it, known as the mentidero de la villa, to swap gossip, rumours and conspiracy theories (well, they had to communicate somehow before twitter was invented). Calderón was a regular fixture, along with other leading literary figures of the time, including Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Quevedo.
Toddling along Calle Mayor to number 61, you come to the actual house where Calderón lived and wrote a lot of his plays (and died, come to that), which was saved at the last minute from destruction in the 19th century by Ramón de Mesoneros Romanos, the great chronicler of Madrid life and passionate defender of the city’s heritage. It is a very narrow house, only about five metres wide, and might well be the narrowest house in the city.
Of course it’s been done up over the centuries, and god knows what it’s like inside, because it would be too much to ask to turn it into a museum and open it to the public, but the original structure is in there somewhere. There is a street named after him just opposite too. When he died, he was originally buried in the nearby church of San Salvador, which no longer exists, in the Plaza de la Villa, which does. When it was knocked down, his body embarked on a series of ceremonious journeys all over town, stopping off at different churches, but like many of Madrid’s great figures, his remains are now missing.
Calderón wrote a series of religious plays, known as autos sacramentales, which were performed in the Plaza Mayor to audiences of up to 50,000. The statue of Philip III in the middle of the space was placed there in 1847, and rather gets in the way when concerts and whatnot are held these days, but it was recently announced that it is going to be moved, so there will be a clear space again.
If you leave the Plaza Mayor and walk down Calle Toledo, you come to the Iglesia de San Isidro el Real, which was originally the church of the Colegio Imperial de la Compañia de Jesus, where Calderón went to school, as did Lope de Vega and Quevedo. There is still a school there, now called the Instituto San Isidro, with the original baroque granite courtyard, which you can peep into.
Cut back along Calle Concepción Jerónimo to Plaza Jacinto Benavente, and head down Calle de la Cruz until you come to a small square, where the Corral de la Cruz, one of Madrid’s first theatres, was set up in a courtyard surrounded by galleried tenements in the late-16th century. The structure was revamped several times but was knocked down in 1859. Nowadays, a large mural portrays a confused Philip IV, searching in vain for the theatre which was a focus of social life during his reign – and where he had a notorious affair with one of the leading actresses of the day, La Calderona.
If you go into the Plaza de Santa Ana, you’ll see a statue of Calderón in front of the Hotel ME. Installed in 1878, the bas-reliefs show scenes from four of his plays, including Life is a Dream. At the other end of the square is the Teatro Español, which has evolved into a rather grand building from its origins in a yard at the end of the 16th century, when it was called the Corral del Príncipe. The site had been purchased by a charitable organisation which wanted to raise funds for a hospital on Calle Toledo. Someone had come up with the idea that if they had a permanent venue for performances with paying audiences, then the income generated could be shared between the charity and the actors.
Plays were staged every afternoon, and when the doors opened at noon there would be a mad scramble as people fought to get in without paying. The corral was an open space with a platform at either end – one for the stage and the other for women spectators. The men either sat at the front or stood in the middle, which was the cheapest area. These groundlings were known as mosqueteros and were merciless hecklers – their reactions could make or break a play. If you look up at the theatre today, the medallions betwen the Corinthian pilasters contain busts of leading playwrights, including Calderón.
Nearby, on the corner of Calle de León and Calle de Cervantes, is the site of the house where Cervantes died in 1616. Mesonero Romanos tried to save that one too, but his efforts were in vain. A plaque on the Calle de León side of the building commemorates the mentidero de representantes, where the movers and shakers of the theatrical world – and a large entourage of hangers-on – would meet to see and be seen in the 16th and 17th centuries. At the time, this stretch was a small square with trees, providing just enough space for people to gather and discuss the merits or otherwise of plays, writers, actors and actresses. Members of the theatrical profession came to strike deals and hire people, but of course the irresistible attraction was the opportunity to pick up on the latest scandals.
After all that, go and chill out in the Retiro park, where Calderón’s mythological comedies were performed on a floating stage on the lake, back when the park was the grounds of the lavish Buen Retiro palace.