Diary of A Somnambulist (1986 + unedited film)

Story, Choreography and Direction: John Kelly
Set Installation: Huck Snyder
Film Sequences: Anthony Chase
Lighting Design: Pierre Lamarche
Costume: James Reilly
Sound Mix: Guy Story
Music: Samuel Barber, Georges Bizet, Bernard Hermann, Aram Khachaturian, Serge Prokofiev, Giacomo Puccini, Henry Purcell, Igor Stravinsky, Giuseppi Verdi, Marek Weber and Paul Whiteman.

Premiere: Theater In Limbo, The Limbo Lounge, New York, NY, 12 February 1986.
WITH: John Kelly (Cesare, the Somnambulist) and Marleen Menard (Lady MacBeth).

The idea for Diary of a Somnambulist came from the 1919 German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the film, Cesare is a somnambulist manipulated by the mysterious Dr. Caligari into committing a series of murders. The hallmark of this silent classic was its exclusive use of black-and-white sets constructed and hand-painted in an extremely stylized manner.
The notion of an alluring creature controlled by an outside force amidst this fantastic monochromatic dreamscape became my point of departure. We restricted the design pallet of the performance (costume, makeup, film and setting) to black and white. Dr. Caligari was present metaphorically, by way of a small cut-out figure spinning slowly but incessantly on a hidden turntable. For dramatic tension, I instead paired Cesare with another sleepwalker from the history of art––Lady MacBeth, played by the brilliant Marleen Menard, accompanied by Verdi’s music rather than Shakespeare’s verse. Through a series of solos and duets, the two sleepwalkers interact with the set, the projected film sections, and with each other.

While the production was running, John Kelly performed the work one afternoon without an audience, so that Anthony Chase could capture the work on Super 8mm Film. This footage has never been edited, and remains a valuable document of a seminal work created at the height of the East Village bohemian scene in 1986.  We are hoping to raise the funds to edit and fully master this valuable document.

John Kelly Limbo 1985 copy

Huck Snyder & John Kelly 1986

SomnShoot_1 copy

Photo: John Dugdale

diary_image_015 copy

Filming on set 1986


Super 8mm Film Still


John Kelly storyboard 1986

John Kelly as Somnambulist_1

Photo: John Dugdale


Marleen Menard as Lady Macbeth Photo: Dona Ann McAdams


Photo: Hiro


John Kelly, oil on linen 72 X 12, 2006


Michael Feingold, Dialect Materialism,The Village Voice, July 2, 1985

“Films should be drawings come to life.” That was the belief of Hermann Warm, one of the three Expressionist painters who created the settings for The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. In Diary Of A Somnambulist John Kelly (performer) and Huck Snyder (designer) have made Warm’s idea a little warmer, so to speak, by using the film—a two-dimensional and technological art form no matter how much “life” it seems to have—as the inspiration for a live theatre piece. Not in the literal way, of course: Caligari’s double-bottomed plot is wholly discarded, both the scenarists’ inner nightmare story and the happy-ending frame added by director Robert Wiene. So are those twin poles of the action, the bustling fairground and the eerily placid insane asylum. What’s left is what most people remember of the film, the core image of the Somnambulist lurching from his coffin to abduct the terrified virgin and carry of her limp body across the crazily tilting rooftops.

Kelly and Snyder extend this central image into an implied criticism of their source by replacing the traditional virgin, hypnotized by her stalker’s menacing presence, with a guilt-racked sleepwalker out of a different nightmare—Lady Macbeth (Marleen Menard), who hand-washes her tormented way across the stage, at first alternately and then in concert with Kelly. “Concert” is the right word, too, since the piece is developed like a musical suite, and almost all the action is played out in rhythm, to a tape collage alternating the more morbid reaches of 19th century symphony and opera (a lot of entrance music, including Rigoletto’s and Lady Macbeth’s) with the most stylishly grotto horror-movie soundtracks. Another “musical” recurrence is of film sequences by Anthony Chase that show the two figures, on a Caligari-ish street, again first alternately, then together but just missing each other, then moving as one.

Outside of the dramas the two figures inevitably bring to mind, there is no literal—certainly no literary—content to the piece, only image and music, and any implications these call up. But these latter are hypnotically beautiful. Snyder’s set (lit in fine expressionist-shadow style by Pierre La Marche) contains all sorts of surprising planes and concealed exits; Kelly choreographs his way and Menard’s in and out among them with assured, stylish precision, and often with wit as well: His first appearance, as a black-gloved hand coming over a rooftop on precisely the right pizzicato chord, is a perfect specimen of the latter. Because Diary Of A Somnambulist is billed in the program as “a work in progress which will premiere sometime in the fall in a much longer and more evolved state,” there’s no point in my trying to explore Kelly’s and Snyder’s intentions or analyze the substance of their work, at least until they complete it to their own satisfaction. But it’s apparent from this preview glimpse that they know what they’re doing and that we can trust them to give us something worth looking forward to. Certainly they’ll have a hard time bettering the beauty and skill with which this version has been carried out.

John Howell, John Kelly and Huck Snyder, Diary Of A Somnambulist, Artforum, May 1986

Performance Art’s attack on theatre has often been an all-out war of concept versus drama. In the “that’s entertainment” mood of the 80’s, some performance artists have reached a separate peace with drama to produce performances with conceptual content and go-for-broke theatrics. Diary Of A Somnambulist, 1986, a collaborative performance and exhibition by performer John Kelly and painter Huck Snyder, is one of the most fully realized performances to emerge from this détente. Constructed from a catalogue of appropriated expressionist attitudes and images arrayed in dialectical patterns, Diary Of A Somnambulist was densely packed with ideas. Yet it was staged and performed with a finely tuned, knowingly melodramatic sensibility that brought its heavyweight material to theatrical life. This “somnambulist” was a very lively subject indeed.

Its principal conceit was derived from the German Expressionist socio-psychological fable The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1919). Kelly perfectly mimicked the film’s homicidal zombie Cesare in both appearance and body language, just as the crazy tilted sets Snyder duplicated the décor of the film. But Diary Of A Somnambulist didn’t limit itself to recreating its already overstuffed source. In this version, the Modernist maniac Cesare occupied the stage with another sleepwalker, Lady MacBeth (Marleen Menard), creating an impacted set of opposites: male/female, random urban homicide/calculating regicide, schizophrenia/psychosis. The characters’ activity was set to a continuous soundtrack of similarly contrasted music: Henry Purcell and Bernard Hermann (who wrote the score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1956), Georges Bizet and Igor Stravinsky. Technically, the staging alternated between film and live action, static tableaux and dance/mime movement.

But this conceptual agenda was so masterfully put into dramatic form that what played in the mind were striking moments of creepy eeriness and hysterical humor. With a ghostly hand slowly appearing over the edge of a tilted rooftop, a falsetto aria about amour, and an angular dance miming the E shapes of an eye-test chart, Kelly created a feeling of off-kilter disturbance. Sometimes, as in any melodrama, weirdness and humor merged, as in Kelly’s bizarre “Cesare-walk,” a scuttling tiptoe with his hands clenched on his butt.

Diary Of A Somnambulist’s only problem was in knowing how to wrap up its overwrought actions. After a succession of vivid scenes, the piece simply stopped. With no clear narrative line there was really no way for it to develop. Yet like a deliciously disturbing horror movie, this insomniac’s hypnotic nightmare was so wonderfully unsettling that one didn’t want it to end.

The Limbo Theatre was also turned into an exhibition hall for this performance, extending the Caligarish themes onto every available surface. Kelly’s storyboards and choreographic charts were visual marvels in themselves, and illuminating in reference to the show, as were John Dugdale’s “30’s-style photographs of Kelly as Cesare. Snyder’s combine paintings, black and white canvases with fragments of painted wood attached, were serviceably atmospheric.