STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF
We do not know enough about the history of candles and oil lamps to know how and in what way being awake –necessarily, usefully or pleasurably – was possible in the day’s hours of darkness but can assume they were limited. And yet, even before the coming of gas and more significantly electric light, from the 16th century onwards among various currents of Protestant Christianity there was a concern with mortality expressed as not losing or wasting time and associated with productivism as virtuous. It placed into doubt the unequivocal virtue of sleep as both relief and restorative let alone pleasurable. Such a concern was one of the strands of the performance piece Stop the World I Want to Get Off at the Between Subversion and Hallucination event curated by Ruth Noack in Arnhem.
In our own times, heralded by electricity and the electric light and now the 24/7 society, sleep has become an ‘issue’. On the one hand there is the macho phenomena, the justifying boast by bankers in particular of what long hours they work: Sleep is for Wimps, that kind of thing. It was a claim first celebrated by the inventor of the electric light himself, Thomas Edison. Writing in 1921 he says
“People will not only do what they like to do — they overdo it 100 per cent. Most people overeat 100 per cent, and oversleep 100 per cent, because they like it. That extra 100 per cent makes them unhealthy and inefficient. The person who sleeps eight or ten hours a night is never fully asleep and never fully awake — they have only different degrees of doze through the twenty-four hours. … For myself I never found need of more than four or five hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. I never dream. It’s real sleep. When by chance I have taken more I wake dull and indolent. We are always hearing people talk about ‘loss of sleep’ as a calamity. They better call it loss of time, vitality and opportunities. Just to satisfy my curiosity I have gone through files of the British Medical Journal and could not find a single case reported of anybody being hurt by loss of sleep. “
The reference to inefficient is very much of that productivist ideology which in the accompanying script –performed with students at the Dutch Art Institute – is voiced by Cotton Mather the fanatical prosecutor of ‘witches’ in the 17th century Salem, Massachusetts, dramatised by Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible.
Sleep is another of the thieves which make people snore away the Time that should go to work which God calls them to. Fetters of immoderate sleep.
At the same time, Edison was making his claims, a psycho-technical profession built on the 19th century metaphor of the ‘human motor’ was in full swing, especially in Germany, in which the notion of fatigue was seen as an intrinsic limit to production. Absorbed by more hardline ‘scientific management’, favoured by Bolshevik Russia and German capitalism studies were made of both workers and work processes to ascertain optimum conditions for production that avoided the hazards of fatigue but they did not consider sleep, its length or quality even though there was recognition that intellectual labour would pose new demands on the ‘human motor’.
Where workers did win fights over the length of the working day as at the Carl Zeiss works in Jena, sleep was not an ‘issue’. That was first fought in Edison’s USA by the Afro-American Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters formed in 1925.
These were the porters on the sleeping cars of the railway Pullman company working in a late 19th century instance of the 24/7 society. The company’s founder, George Pullman – a standard racist of the time – thought such men were particularly suited to making beds, shining shoes, emptying spittoons, and other demeaning tasks the passengers demanded. Like steelworkers who worked the dreaded “long shift,” they were also subjected to temporal and spatial arrangements that made restful sleep impossible. A porter in 1903 estimated that the average employee got less than four hours of sleep a night; making matters worse, the company disciplined those who fell asleep at the wrong time or the wrong place with up to 30 days’ suspension. Led by future civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the Brotherhood highlighted connections between sleep loss and respiratory, cardiac, and mental health risks — and that fatigue destroys efficiency and lessens productivity.”
It is such a functionalist argument, used strategically by the sleeping car porters, that has dominated sociological and ergonomic interest in sleep as ’an issue.’ It has become entwined with concern about the kind of intellectual labour which both this writer and the Dutch Art Institute students are engaged with in which the division between work and not-work (usually called leisure or in more slimy language ‘quality’ time) of the old style 9-5 worker is dissolved. Especially in what are called creative industries, a situation in which one is always ‘working’ has been identified; in which one’s very thoughts are functional to immediate or prospective projects. This phenomenon has in turn been linked to sleeplessness and burn out, though in reality burn-it is more likely to be the fate of a sewing machinist in a maquiladora. In the creative industries situation though, the ergonomic concern with performance is as elsewhere with avoiding such burn-out and a recognition that one of sleeps’ functions is precisely making the person immobile in unprofitable parts of the day-night cycle. This fits snugly with this dominant instrumentalized view of sleep, the optimum efficiency of the individual. In our performance we looked also at the available techno-fixes for our professional creative, the sleeping pill and one of the many available eight hour sound tracks ‘to suit the individual’ that are conducive to sleep, be it one type of train or another, or the many varieties of the sea lapping on the shore, available on YouTube. At the same time in the script I also wanted to catch the resentment that is commonly theirs amongst high-flyers of all sorts, creative or financial, of how easy it is, they assume, for the lower orders to sleep, those without the compulsion to perform. It was for this purpose that Shakespeare’s King Henry V makes his speech expressing a sentiment similarly applied to the street sleeper in Stop the World I Want To Get Off.
The street sleeper as the main character of the piece originated with the experienced knowledge that sleep can be a blissful escape from the non-stop nature of life; and from Ruth Noack pointing participants in Between Subversion and Hallucination to the poetic text of Haytham El-Wardani in which I was struck by the level of trust he describes in the act of sleeping in public: “Sleeping in public is, therefore, a declaration of faith in the random other.” For the street sleeper rather than the tired worker napping on the bus home, this is a no-choice trust and, for more than most, an escape from a hard-to-bear waking-life that most of us will only experience in the earliest –however long – period of grieving over the death of a loved one. The street sleeper then has more reason than most for wanting to escape the non-stop but in the process make themselves vulnerable and it was this vulnerability that horrified those early Protestant Christians. For Cotton Mather it is “Men are asleep when they omit their guard over themselves.” This self-guard I translated in the performance into the Thin Controller who “grows fat on a diet of anxieties and ambition”.
There is another layer to this vulnerability. In making his boast about how little sleep he needs Edison emphasised that he never dreamed. This seems unlikely, indeed unique and reflects more that particular fear which in the text is expressed by Edmund Spenser in the first genuinely Protestant epic, his Faerie Queene: in sleep one is not just vulnerable to physical attack, but to being deceptively tempted. In his version dreams are externally introduced by the devil and his minions but this is a thin cover for what is really dangerous, the subconscious in which the thin controller is liable to lose control. It would I think have been invidious to create a dream for the street sleeper. Instead he is helped to sleep by a lullaby and then protected, his right to sleep inviolate.
Alejandro walks across the stage with a sleeping bag in an IKEA bag also full of rags/cloth.
Through speakers the loud sounds of a city.
Alejandro walks back and forth, then takes the sleeping bag out and using the IKEA bag as a pillow gets into it.
The city sounds morph into sound of many footsteps from speakers but amplified by other students using their feet on polythene as if walking on a wet pavement.
Alejandro eyes close and looks peaceful.
John looking down at him.
Sanne comes close to where Alejandro is lying and sings her own composition, a boat and sea lullaby
The sound of footsteps quietens and disappears.
John looks down at the sleeper again:
“Will the wearied body yield
To a fatal lullaby of wind and sea, Ah No.”
Sanne finishes the song. John turns away in disgust to a lectern where he continues.
Spoken softly as if to himself:
“In Morpheus house.
Amid the bowels of the earth full steepe,
And low, where dawning day doth never peepe,
In silver deaw his ever-drouping hed,
Whiles sad Night over him her mantle black doth spred.
And more, to lulle him in his slumber soft,°
A trickling streame from high rock tumbling downe,
And ever-drizling raine upon the loft,
Mixt with a murmuring winde, much like the sowne
Of swarming Bees, did cast the goodly man in a swowne: drowned deepe
In drowsie fit.”
In changed voice, shouting at the audience:
“Some awake yet do fall asleep again no sooner is your back turned upon them but they lie down to sleep again. How many are met with at a Sermon and are startled and alarmed but before the next opportunity are as fast asleep as ever. Listen”
Changes voice again to soft:
“And when drownd in deadly sleepe he’s found,
Satan to this study goes, and there amiddes
His Magick bookes and artes° of sundry kindes,
He seekes out mighty charmes.
And forth he cald out of deepe darknesse dred
Legions of Sprights,° the which like little flyes
Fluttring about his ever damned hed,
Awaite whereto their service he applyes,
with charmes and hidden artes,
to deceive the good man with desire and
In the changed voice screaming at audience:
“From a Man that is Asleep anything may be taken away. When the Devils have lulled us asleep they may, and may take away from our Hearts.”
“A sinful sleep is indeed a deadly sleep; it is a venomous and stupefying Bed of Night Shadows whereupon men by when they sleep in sin If a man sleeps he makes himself a prey….If asleep he makes himself prey to all his internal and external adversaries he lays himself open to all manner of blows upon his Interest.”
He starts to move towards the sleeper again:
“Men are asleep when they omit their guard over themselves.”
Olivia dressed brightly and moving into a position of protecting the sleeper.
“Sleep is another of the thieves which make people snore away the time that should go to work. Immoderate sleep. shake it off.”
He drops a metal bucket in front of Olivia near the sleeper but the sleeper sleeps on.
Olivia points at John in accusing fashion.
“The Thin Controller grows fat on a diet of anxieties. and ambition; ambivalent to comfort and its expenses. In sleep the Thin Controller prompts dreams only of missed appointments, missed planes, missed ideas that had been yours and yours alone; opportunity knocked and mistakenly, it was imagined there was all the time in the world. Or rendering the dream Useful: this is where you are going wrong; this must be dealt with. Face up to the accumulation of what must be dealt with. The competition , the show must go on, the task, endless inescapable reality. The thin controller grows fat on…”
Clementine with laptop continues without pause:
(When she is in full flow, Olivia walks off stage.)
“The project. I must. The project.. I ought. I should. . Smart. I must.. The project. Conception to completion. LSD microdose to loosen the synapses, cross the boundaries and back again. Quantum physics Face patterns merge in and out slow motion then… skewered by an arrow on a revolving target. Microdose exhausted. But I must hold on tight to the sequence, the revolving target with an eyelashed bullseye. Eyelashed bullseye opening and closing. In syncopated rhythm. Got it. Part one, conception achieved.
Part Two, I can. I will. I can I should I ought. Performance. Judgment. I will. I ought. Concept Brilliant. Not a moment to be lost. Deadline. Appropriate software and lines of cocaine as required. Like now. This is good, this is very good, the concept, the face as target. Critique of marketing. Critique Needed. Of the moment. Yes, Go for it!. I ought. I should. I must. I can I will. I will see it through because it’s important, it really matters. This is a Now Thing. Absolutely of the moment Deadline. Got to keep going. Keep it fresh.. No time to waste I can. I must. I will. I can I must I will.”
John moving out of the freeze to stand by the sleeper while Clementine keeps making the movements that suggest computer work:
“How many thousands of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep!
Why gentle sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hushed with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common ‘larum bell? Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the beggar in an hour so rude, and yet deny it to a king.”
John walks off.
“Got it, secured. Rough cut done. Concept captured. I can. I have. I will. And now a for 4 hour sleep, well deserved, then fresh for a tweak here and a tweak there, Half a pill will do the trick with sounds for relaing. 8 hours of soft rain on Youtube? Or a night train? No I’ll take the 8 hours of the sea, waves gently lapping the sands. Gently lapping for a fresh tomorrow. Wake up to its gentle sounds.”
The sound of waves on the beach.
After30 seconds is outdone by
The sound of the city and footsteps getting louder.
Sound of the waves disappear.
Alejandro awakes. Tries to sleep again.
The sounds get louder.