When we first meet John and Jane Allison in the musical Speakeasy they are making love. We don’t see them actually. The lights are out. We just hear them, some faint sounds of intimacy followed by a post-coital conversation in the dark, until Jane turns on the bedside lamp.
John and Jane are young newlyweds around 1930, and still sexually somewhat inexperienced. They start talking about why they never seem to make love at night:
JANE: And then, some mornings, still half dreaming, and you’re so passionate…
JOHN: You’ve surprised me too mornings… It’s nice, right?
JANE: Well, yes. But isn’t it odd?
JANE: What do you dream about when…
JOHN: Dunno. What are you dreaming?
JANE: I don’t remember.
Dreams are a major theme in “Speakeasy – the Adventures of John and Jane Allison in the Wonderland”. This first scene suggests that there may be aspects to John and Jane’s erotic make-up that they are not consciously aware of, that speak to them in dreams they don’t recall in their waking moments. And just like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”, Jane and John Allison will find themselves slipping into a fantastical dream world, a world that will challenge their understanding of their own identity and sexuality.
Just like Alice in both of her books, Jane and John will not be aware of when or how they slipped into this dream world. The actual point of falling asleep will be hard to pinpoint while within the experience. Eventually, after a series of strange and improbable experiences, they tell themselves this must all be a dream. And just as in the conclusion of the Alice books, the point of John and Jane “awakening” from the dream and finding themselves back in “mundane” reality will be much clearer than their entry into the dream world was, will constitute a more definite break in the narrative. However, unlike Alice, Jane and John are not individuals who experienced their dream on their own. They suspect that they both had dreamed the same dream, or rather two conjoined halves of the same dream, experienced both separately and together. Unlike in the Alice books, in the end of “Speakeasy” there is no reassuringly clear border between dream and reality.
Lewis Carroll does not describe Alice falling asleep before she spots and takes off after the White Rabbit who leads her down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Carroll does write that “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do”, leaving open the likelihood that Alice might be dozing off by her sister’s side. Similarly Jane may have fallen asleep on her couch before her neighbor Roberta White visits her again in the evening with some illegal hooch and a penchant for dancing to the music on the radio. After an unexpected kiss between the two women Roberta rushes off and a flustered Jane runs after her, all the way to the basement entrance of a speakeasy, the musical’s version of the rabbit hole.
In “Through the Looking Glass” Carroll also doesn’t write that Alice falls asleep before discovering she can travel through the sitting room’s mirror into a magical world. The only hint at sleeping is Alice telling her cat Dinah “I’m sure the woods look sleepy in the autumn, when the leaves are getting brown” a few pages before the looking glass slide-through. Similarly, John in “Speakeasy” nods off while riding the subway with his friend Dean, but doesn’t slip through the mirror of a public men’s room until several minutes later, after a startling sexual encounter in a bathroom stall.
Before Jane and John make these dramatic entrances into the world of Wonderland magic realism, “Speakeasy” might seem as realistic as any kitchen sink drama. There are songs that are performed, but each within the context of a played record or radio broadcast. John and Jane get out of bed and get ready for the day while continuing their conversation about dreams, which takes on a lighter tone as they discuss their favorite singers and movie stars. Jane puts a record on the phonograph and it plays the song “Dream” sung by Chet Cheshire :
DREAM A LITTLE DREAM OF ROMANCE
DREAM OF BEING HELD IN A SUDDEN TRANCE
MEETING SOMEONE’S GAZE IN A DANCE
QUITE BY CHANCE
DREAM OF STEPPING OUT OF THIS WORLD
DREAM OF FINDING LOVE WITH A BOY OR GIRL
LETTING ALL YOUR WISHES UNFURL
IN A WHIRL
DREAM OF BEING CAUGHT IN A SPIN
DREAM OF TURNING OUT AND WITHIN
DREAM OF ALL THAT LOVE TO FALL IN AND OUT
DREAM I’M LOVING YOU IN A DREAM
DARLING WHEN YOU DO
YOU’LL FIND LOVE IS TRUE
LOVE WHEN YOU
The song sounds like your average crooner love song from the era. But its inclusion in the play at this stage also foreshadows the romantic adventures Jane and John will soon engage in down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass, making allusions to specific moments and revelations to come. Moreover, the lyrics of “Dream” not only deliberately imitate the lyrical style of love songs of the Tin Pan Alley era, they also off-handedly quote from two particularly apropos examples of them (“Dream a little dream” from the eponymous song and “Caught in a spin” from “That Old Black Magic”).
John and Jane’s neighbor Roberta enters the Allison’s apartment, bearing bathtub gin and a weakness for Chet Cheshire and the Wonderland Orchestra, whom she locates on the radio. While the radio plays, Jane’s cousin and John’s work colleague Dean joins the conversation. Dean disapproves of Roberta’s freewheeling ways, which leads to a spirited discussion about prohibition and speakeasies and whether Chet Cheshire is a “pansy”. Into this discussion Chet Cheshire on the radio introduces the Tweedle Sisters singing an uptempo version of “Dream”.
And at the climax of the argument something strange happens: The Tweedle Sisters keep repeating “love is true love when you…” over and over until Jane finally takes the skipping needle off the revolving record on the phonograph. Nonplussed, into the quiet John asks: “I thought we were listening to the radio…?” There is a moment of quiet confusion, but no one has anything further to add to the question, and the incident is shrugged off.
This is what I think of as the do do do do – do do do do “Twilight Zone” moment of “Speakeasy”, where the forces of magical realism make themselves known to our protagonists even before they have ostensibly entered the dream world down the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. Their complete immersion into magical realism may still be a scene or two away, but with “Dream” and the freaky reprise which begins over the air waves yet ends on the phonograph the forces of strangeness have already announced themselves at being on the watch for John and Jane Allison.
In the end of both Alice books and of “Speakeasy”, Alice as well as Jane and John Allison are torn away from the magical dream world by being unmistakably roused from sleep back into reality. In “Alice in Wonderland” Alice’s sister gently wakes Alice who is lying with her head in her sister’s lap, while in “Speakeasy” Roberta rouses Jane who finds herself waking up on her living room couch. In “Through the Looking Glass” Alice is shaking the Red Queen and wakes up in the act of shaking her cat Dinah, while in “Speakeasy” John finds himself back on the subway with Dean shaking him awake. However for both Jane and John a whole night has elapsed while they were ostensibly dreaming, a night they can’t account for other than by what they remember from their dream. A dream in which they both did things and saw their spouse do things that have, to say the least, broadened their sexual horizons. But what they don’t know yet is how “real” this dream was, and whether only they “dreamed” it or whether their spouse experienced it too. It is with this confusion of mind that John and Jane see each other again the morning after their wild dream night. What happens then I will leave for another day’s post…
Read more about Speakeasy by accessing “The Speakeasy Chronicles” at the Category Function to the right. All available Speakeasy demo recordings can be found at the Speakeasy Soundcloud.