When it comes to providing entertainment, last weekend will take some beating. First it was to the theatre to see Racine’s Berenice, then to the cinema for Amour. Both were captivating, the play intellectually and the film emotionally, and one can’t ask for more than that. Added to all this was a most unusual experience – at neither did I fall asleep!

My sleep pattern is complicated. I have never slept much at night, and taking forty winks during the day is an old ally. In fact, as a young doctor, it was those winks that saw see me through work-shifts lasting three or four days. Just 10-15 minutes of shut-eye could clear the brain for hours. Subsequently the habit continued. My secretary would refer to such sleeps as ‘power’ naps, so somehow legitimising the practice; and to avoid having to offer excuses for my snoring she would tactfully close my door. For my part, it seemed sensible to warn people beforehand. There was something unappealing about the idea of waking up to find a passer-by trying to reanimate me with mouth-to mouth resuscitation.

It is afternoons that have always been the most challenging, and when sleep arose at work, the ideal was for it to take place in the privacy of my office. However, this was often impossible so dozing during committee meetings or lectures was not uncommon. Away from work sleeping occurred (and still does) in front of the TV, or at the theatre or cinema. Friends have boasted how they can remain conscious during even the dullest of plays or talks. And it seemed reasonable to believe that they were all telling the truth. But assumptions can change!

The Racine play was wonderful and the recurring debates between the title role, a Jewish Queen, and Titus, a Roman Emperor were particularly stimulating. Their topic: ‘What is the proper balance to be taken between public duty and personal sentiment?’ In their case, it was love. As it so happened, public duty prevailed! But, over and above this theatrical pleasure, there was a second wonder. For the first time in years I remained awake throughout the performance.

The play was performed on a proscenium stage and with this arrangement, and aided by the vagaries of the stage lighting, there were times when I could see large sections of the audience with unusual clarity. Moreover gaps in the production allowed rather more time than usual to look around.

It was an afternoon performance and on my reckoning only about half the audience stayed awake throughout.  In general nodding seemed more common in men than women and for most of them dozing was momentary. One particular couple caught my eye. He nodded off occasionally. She, on the other hand, slept almost right through. Within minutes of the play starting her eyes closed, her head slumped forward on her chest and she sunk deep into her seat. Apart from the occasional startle and further sinking, that’s how she remained for the bulk of the performance. At the curtain call she promptly stood up and walked off.  Any thoughts that she might be ill or worse were quickly dispelled.

At Amour next day, being that it was in the dark of the cinema, checking wakefulness was more difficult. Nevertheless, inspired by staying awake at the play I did so again at the film and again was on the look out. The man in on my right certainly spent much of the time dozing and judging by his nodding head, so too did the man to my left just in front.

For whatever reason, perhaps because of my competitive streak, staying awake gave me an enormous buzz. But it offered more. Not only did it allow me time to soak up ideas but, ironically, by being awake throughout I could spot the behaviour of others. It also gave me insight. While there are certainly occasions when short periods of shut-eye are invaluable, by sleeping through lectures or plays for many hundreds of hours over the years I will have wasted opportunities. Imagine the advantages of having that extra time to lean and enjoy, and now the pleasure of knowing that, if for the next fifteen years I don’t take my customary sleep at plays or films or in front of the TV, my conscious life expectancy will be extended by over two months. I can already see the wording of my next new-year’s resolution coming on!


Illustrated:  Never nod off on a stranger’s shoulder again, with cunning anti-nod helmet. Label (optional) reads, “Kindly be waking me at ending of Second Act.”

3 thoughts on “Wake up call

  1. Joe, you seem to be saying that you can choose between sleeping or keeping awake at a performance. My problem is when I am sleepy, sleep follows however much I want to stay awake. I htink it is something to do with the physical passivity in a comfortable thetre seat. Advice please!

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  2. Ian, having chosen a film or play that you will find interesting, take a nap and, on waking, have a cup of coffee before setting off. Good luck, Joe

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    1. Try and get a good night’s sleep, and then don’t have any sort of meal before the performance (absolutely guaranteed to induce sleep). Take your jacket off and prime your partner to nudge you every minute or so.

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