Midnight Matinee — S.B. Julian
Many well-known writers have been famous insomniacs: Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte and William Wordsworth to name a few. Most considered insomnia a form of torment which deprived them of restorative oblivion, of escape from what might have been a too-active brain. Other creatives feel they get their best ideas in the middle of the night—which may however be the most inconvenient time, the demands of daily life being what they are.
Still, many of us, “creatives” or not, even when tired flirt ambivalently with the shades of reverse-day, playing at the mine-head, the mouth of the tunnel to the gems of the unconscious. We dally at the cross-over between sleep and wakefulness. Waking at night we think we’ll remember dream-insights in the morning—but often don’t. Night visions tend to vanish in the stark light of day.
Yet instead of cursing nights of wakefulness we can use them, a mental practice which requires no participant but yourself and your mind. Sleep punctuated by dream interludes is theatrical, the curtain of sleep rising and falling upon shifting mental stage sets. In the delicious moment of drifting across the threshold of sleep a hush falls over the brain akin to the hush in a theatre when the curtain rises. A new landscape is entered, the field the artist plows.
Researchers call these broken nights “segmented” or “polyphasic,” but the French word “dor-veille” better captures the alternation of sleep (dormir) and wakefulness (reveiller). Like many sleep-artistes, I kept a notebook for insights born during dream periods—but pen and paper usually trigger such wakefulness that sleep is banished. Too often I found myself at the end of the show rather than in an intermission, so now I leave the light off. Now, I simply rest in a darkened theatre awaiting the return of the muses: Melpomene (Tragedy), Thalia (Comedy), Terpsichore (Dance), and Calliope, who was invoked by Homer for inspiration before he began The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Creativity lies on the borderland of consciousness, as every hypnotherapist knows (“hypnos” is Greek for sleep). Since each “segment” of sleep is like an act in a nightly drama, that may be why classic theatre took its three-act form. The intervals feel natural to the mind, dividing scenes that shift between vivid, obscure, erotic, or oracular.
In the 1990s Thomas Wehr of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health collected data from sleep laboratories to demonstrate the metabolic underpinnings and benefits of segmented or polyphasic sleep. Sleep expert Roger Ekirch says this sleep pattern was common before the invention of electric light lit up humanity’s nights and days. People used to get up at night to use the dark hours variously, for love-making perhaps, or feeding livestock, puttering about by candle light, or traveling. After the invention of electricity everybody stayed up late and compressed sleep into one session: the famous eight hours. The ancients had a Latin phrase for the first stage: “primo somno.”
Primo somno – Act One – takes place for me immediately after a habitual bedtime drink (the pre-show drink in the lobby, so to speak), and I learn that even in this habit, science has gone before me. “Sleep theatre” is created by our brains through amino acids and hormones. Never was the unity of mind and body more clear than here. The reasons a hot, sweet bedtime drink encourage the onset of sleep are known to biochemistry: a sweetener prompts the body to produce insulin, which stimulates the amino acid tryptophan which in turn promotes the calming effects of serotonin and melatonin. With that, the stage is set. Biology, it seems as always, is the Director.
So: calmly and receptively you await the rising of the curtain, drifting off as dream characters body forth. Night is the other day, mirror of diurnal thoughts presented from other depths and angles. Like all theatre the midnight matinee combines darkness and light, stillness and action, voice and silence. You too have a role: both player and audience. Who wrote this plot? Your unconscious mind? The world soul, as some visionaries suggest? That’s the mystery of the sort writers like to delve into, another way to delight in the dor-veille experience.
The hormone prolactin is also involved. It, produced by the pituitary gland overnight, like serotonin and melatonin, promotes calm peacefulness. I decide to work with this additional mental tool in turning insomnia into a resource. First: one makes friends with night. I visualize the light of a single lamp glowing in a window as seen from a street below. Behind that window is me. What’s going on in that room? I peer, I wait, I lure and cultivate the visions which cluster naturally on the border of sleep.
Novelist William Gibson called the mood upon waking from a nap “the state adjacent to sleep.” One can mine that state when waking up at three a.m. I keep a journal each morning when I get up. I strive to recall over the first cup of coffee the places I went in the watches of the night, the things I thought and saw. There can be too much striving though, in the delicacy of this dance with the unconscious. Quite often the dancing partner turns up later in the day—or in the year. When the season’s right the hand is outstretched for another turn about the floor.
When Edward Young (1683-1765) wrote his long poem Night Thoughts (1742-4) he gave it a second title: “The Complaint.” He described the elusiveness of the “dark domain” as an elaborate form of suffering. There’s no need for suffering though when you wake up after the midnight matinee. Better to sketch dream visions, write snatches of verse, than to write a disquisition on the trials of insomnia. I make a list of positive words for it: time out, intermission, shared experience with Great Insomniacs of History. Sometimes, when nothing profound occurs, I’ll write a limerick (There was a young woman from DAY/where drowsiness got in her way/She woke up at midnight/ turned on her mind-light/and invented new plots in that way).
In other words, I’m content to be silly, if that’s all the muses have for me on a given day. From what could have been a furnace of sleepless frustration I take out a different loaf of bread. All experiences are grist for the creative mill. We need to be playful, to use what we get in sleep, in wakefulness and in-between.
Maybe I’m easily a-mused, but the voices and dramatis personae from the tragi-comic theatre of mind seldom seem to disappoint. In the watches of the night, familiar plots reveal new meanings. As I wake mornings the muses withdraw and the set dissolves, but not for long—only to reassemble after the intermission of another day.
Thomas Wehr, “In Short Photoperiods, Human Sleep is Biphasic.” J Sleep Research, Vol. 1, 1992, pp. 103-7.
Roger Ekirch. At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past. W.W. Norton, 2006.
Sandra B. Julian, B.A. History, M.L.S. Library and Information Science, is a Memoirs Coach, researcher and Canadian writer of plays and creative nonfiction. https://overleafbooks.blogspot.com/