Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Off Topic: A Sword Between Banquo and Me

This is not a review of Sleep No More, previously discussed on this blog on Day 66, Day 95 and Day 119. There are plenty of wonderful reviews here, here and here if you are interested in that kind of approach. What I am writing are notes on some of the fascinating ways the experience strikes me, as a former Germanist with a particular background in the literature of early 20th century Vienna, and a previous research project involving obscenity, pornography and textual reproduction. It will contain many spoilers, of course. This is not so much serious scholarship as an effort to show that Sleep No More, whether it intends to or not, participates in a rich literary tradition rather distant from its Shakespearean source material. My hope is that it might deepen the appreciation for the intelligence of Punchdrunk's production, perhaps awaken some further interest in texts and writers who are not terribly well-known in the English language, and lastly account for the curious sense of familiarity that has accompanied my visits to the McKittrick Hotel.


Read the many fond reviews now appearing of Sleep No More, the immersive theatrical mashup of Macbeth and Hitchcock staged in Chelsea by the British company Punchdrunk, and you will find a third player frequently mentioned alongside the Bard and the Master of Suspense. Stanley Kubrick's name is often also counted among the forebears of Sleep No More, and while some reviewers reference The Shining, most invoke his name on account of the masks worn by Sleep No More audiences, which seem to be a touchstone for Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. It is not an inappropriate connection to make. After all, from behind Sleep No More's masks, one can witness, among other things, an orgy.

But from my perspective this is an altogether too simplistic account of the ties between a set of works with numerous shared themes, among them dreaming, obsession and voyeurism. Neither orgies nor Venetian masks were truly at the core of Eyes Wide Shut, though that was surely the most significant impression the challenging, critically beleaguered film left behind in the imagination at large. And while these elements of Sleep No More's production are surely a deliberate nod to Kubrick’s film, I am inclined to suspect a much more interesting, complicated and elucidating relationship, most likely unintentional, between Sleep No More and Eyes Wide Shut, or more specifically the text on which Eyes Wide Shut is based, Arthur Schnitzler's 1925 Traumnovelle.

Schnitzler's work seems fated to be known in the English-speaking world mostly in the form of adaptations. His most famous play, Der Reigen, is produced today under the name La Ronde, as it first became widely known through Max Ophüls' 1950 film. A more recent stage variant starring Nicole Kidman, The Blue Room, had less of an impact. Similarly, Traumnovelle broke out to British and American audiences by way of Kubrick's version. A contemporary of Freud and a physician, Schnitzler was both sexually adventurous and methodically taxonomical, and his work known for its psychological complexity and his sexual frankness.

Kubrick took some liberties with Schnitzler's text. Some help to restate the story from early twentieth century Vienna into contemporary New York. Other changes weaken the structural order of a novella that Schnitzler himself often called Doppelnovelle, as it was intended to contain two stories in delicate parallel; one mostly a vivid dream, the other real but so unbelievable, so uncanny and mysterious that it may just as well have been a dream itself. The conflict in Kubrick's film is set in motion by Alice's confession to Bill that she lusted after a sailor she had seen fleetingly while on vacation; this episode is in the original text, but Fridolin (adapted into Bill) also had a temptation, a young girl he met on the beach during this same trip to Denmark. "Denmark" of course ends up being the password to the masked ball, not "Fidelio" as in the film. Kubrick freely interprets what Fridolin sees at the 'orgy', though it is likely in line with visions that Schnitzler's language could merely hint at. Alice's dream however, though full of her endless sexual betrayals, is absent the capture and enslavement of her husband, prefigured in the novella's opening lines as their young daughter reads a passage from The Thousand and One Nights, as well as the crucifixion and torture of Fridolin, which make Albertine's version much more potent as a countersubject.

Yet in both the novella and the film, the episodes of dreaming, whether while sleeping or in the waking state, are bracketed by interludes of confession. These dialogues are instances of compulsory narration: Fridolin/Bill and Albertine/Alice each must in turn recount the experiences of their various adventures: at the ball (the Ziegfeld's Christmas party); in their bedroom remembering their vacation (in the novella, their Denmark trip, and their engagement years before); Albertine/Alice's dream, and ultimately, Fridolin/Bill also retells the entirety of what he witnessed at the masked ball, what led him to it, and what he did while trying to force that experience to make sense: "Ich will dir alles erzählen," "I'll tell you everything."

It is on account of this structure that the usefulness of Traumnovelle / Eyes Wide Shut as intertextual relatives to Sleep No More becomes clear. Like the âventiure of medieval epic, the dream sequences are departures from the bourgeois family's equivalent of the court: security, stability, childrearing, profession. Schnitzler, for his part, accentuates this with particular attention to the contact of Fridolin's and Albertine's hands. Their hands touch and intertwine in all of their scenes together, until their jealousies and admissions finally become, as Fridolin states, "ein Schwert zwischen uns," a sword between them, and something else to grasp at. They then go their own ways in 'dreams' of infidelity. For Fridolin in particular the contact points of his hands are representative of his attempt to gain traction and knowledge within his waking dream.

As a point of comparison, Sleep No More is often described as being like witnessing someone else's dream. It is, like Traumnovelle, the experience of inhabiting a sequence of coinciding dreams. The audience member is initiated into the dream-realm of the McKittrick through a maze of dark corridors that lead into the bar. Here however one is already in the performance per se. Characters, albeit less alien ones, circulate and interact with the audience, who, ordering drinks and waiting for their cards to be called, enjoy one final act of speaking before plunging into the ensuing hours of muteness and voyeurism.

Once inside, key points of traction come largely through the hands. One pores through documents and artifacts, one tries doorhandles and knobs, and, occasionally, one of the dream-figures takes you by the hand and leads you deeper into the dream. When this concludes, the audience is led back to the bar, where one simply must talk about what has just been seen. It is a compulsory confession, as reunited parties of visitors compare what each witnessed, nervously and often questioningly recalling strange, confusing scenes, knowing full well that if they are not confessed and mutually confirmed, they will slip into unknowledge and oblivion. Every visitor's account is fragmentary and incomplete. Even the collective recollection the production's structure encourages is not enough to account for the enormity and mystery of the space one has only just begun to explore. It is hard to not be reminded of the conclusion reached by Fridolin and Albertine about what they have undergone:

"... Ich ahne, dass die Wirklichkeit einer Nacht, ja dass nicht einmal die eines ganzen Menschenlebens zugleich auch seine innerste Wahrheit bedeutet."

"Und kein Traum [...] ist völlig Traum."

(in Eyes Wide Shut: The reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime can never be the whole truth. [...] And no dream is ever just a dream.)

Sleep No More is driven by a comparable degree of pervasive ambiguity. It is telling, perhaps, that the production has relied so heavily, and so successfully, on word-of-mouth in lieu of conventional marketing. As something that defies traditional description and explanation, it seems to want its fans to be stammering and incoherent, and altogether glad to bring new visitors in with high, but curiously inarticulate expectations of what they are about to experience.

If Sleep No More, like Eyes Wide Shut and Traumnovelle before it, is a dreamscape with indeterminate boundaries with waking, then its name is perfectly appropriate. This title derives from Act II, Scene 2 of Macbeth, after Duncan has been murdered:


Methought I heard a voice cry, "Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep" – the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,

The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,

Chief nourisher in life's feast


What do you mean?


Still it cried, "Sleep no more!" to all the house.

"Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor

Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more."

Sleep, so commonly metaphor or metonym for death, is made to be the locus of peace, calm and life. Macbeth betrays the uses of sleep, and so the Macbeths are repaid with the ultimate corruption of their sleep with ghostly visitations, madness and death. Schnitzler, alternatively, approaches sleep as the avatar of sexuality, but it is still the gateway to a realm of betrayal. The treacheries in his text occur in dreams, where they are only barely confined and threatening to burst out.

But there, confession brings the couple back together. After their adventures, they again clasp hands and are grateful for being awakened: "Nun sind wir wohl erwacht - für lange," says Albertine ("now we're awake," in Kubrick's film, "and hopefully for a long time to come." At the novella's conclusion, Schnitzler identifies dreams as an agent of isolation only temporarily overcome, and as certain to reemerge as each coming night: "So lagen sie beide schweigend, beide wohl auch ein wenig schlummernd und einander traumlos nah" - "and so they lay silent, both surely slumbering and dreamlessly near the other." The admonition to not look too far into the future is both fitting and haunting. The command to ‘sleep no more’ is the damnation of Macbeth and an impossible prescription for the temptations of Fridolin and Albertine, and Bill and Alice. For the Sleep No More audience, it is intended as an omen.

I felt an acute terror during my second visit to Sleep No More, when in a private moment with Banquo, he pulled a huge sword from beneath his mattress and thrust it into my hands. My terror was less the fear that he would strike me with it, or ask me to use it, but instead arose from a sudden sadness. The sword was not real, neither heavy nor sharp. This whole experience was not real, and nothing I could imagine coming of the encounter with the performer would happen other than what was scripted. Rather, I knew for certain in that moment that I was having "merely" the brilliantly executed approximation of a dream. "Ein Schwert zwischen uns," I immediately thought, and felt yanked back into drab, sober reality. Unlike Fridolin, my grasp on this theatrical, not psychical, sword reminded me that this is, in fact, just delightful artifice. But it is also not paradoxical that this moment, perhaps the most powerful so far in my exploration of the McKittrick Hotel, accounts for why I think so highly of this production. Ordinarily, the fourth wall is the front of the stage and the edge of your seat. Here, I find myself reaching the boundary of reality and performance only fleetingly, and in the most surprising and captivating of ways.


  1. Evan, I just came across this entry after a lot of internet searching. The thing is, I also had the "private moment with Banquo". I am so incredibly curious as to how that went from person to person, what the reaction was. Would you mind sharing with me?

  2. I'm not sure what sort of contact info you can see from this comment - I don't use Blogger - but I can leave you my e-mail, if you want.

  3. Well, having seen the scene seven times now, with all three of the actors who portray the role, I can say that the content of it doesn't really vary. Same rough thing happens. The differences between the performers just stems from the fact that they have very different takes on who Banquo is. Jeffery Lyon plays him with a kind of boyish sweetness and naiveté. Gabe Forestieri had a more stern, stoic version of the character, kind of grim and serious and honorable. And Tony Bordonaro's variant is a little bit sly.

    If you want to drop me an email to discuss further it's (my firstnamemiddlenamelastname)@gmail.com [forgive the spam guarding]