Did You Know . . . ?

How We Got to Now

Our natural sleep pattern is to go into a “first sleep,” followed by a period of wakefulness, which is followed by our “second” sleep.  This is pointed out in How We Got to Now by Steven Johnson.  Because of modern lighting, we have altered our natural sleep pattern with unfortunate results according to Johnson:

 In 2001, the historian Roger Ekirch published a remarkable study that drew upon hundreds of diaries and instructional manuals to convincingly argue that humans had historically divided their long nights into two distinct sleep periods. When darkness fell, they would drift into “first sleep,” waking after four hours to snack, relieve themselves, have sex, or chat by the fire, before heading back for another four hours of “second sleep.” The lighting of the nineteenth century disrupted this ancient rhythm, by opening up a whole array of modern activities that could be performed after sunset: everything from theaters and restaurants to factory labor. Ekirch documents the way the ideal of a single, eight-hour block of continuous sleep was constructed by nineteenth-century customs, an adaptation to a dramatic change in the lighting environment of human settlements. Like all adaptations, its benefits carried inevitable costs: the middle-of-the-night insomnia that plagues millions of people around the world is not, technically speaking, a disorder, but rather the body’s natural sleep rhythms asserting themselves over the prescriptions of nineteenth-century convention. Those waking moments at three a.m. are a kind of jet lag caused by artificial light instead of air travel.

I recently ran across a passage in a book that mentions someone’s “first sleep.”  It is from The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1919) by Baroness Orczy.  She wrote many books about The Scarlet Pimpernel all of which take place during the French Revolution – a time before artificial lighting.  The passage below is from “Sir Percy Explains,” the first of eleven short stories in the book:

 The next second he [Sir Percy Blakeney aka The Scarlet Pimpernel] was gone, and Fouquier-Tinville was left to marvel if the whole apparition had not been a hideous dream. Only there was no doubt that he was gagged and tied to a chair with cords: and here his wife found him, an hour later, when she woke from her first sleep, anxious because he had not yet come to bed.

 — — — — —

House of Cards

One day in February 2013 Netflix released the first season (all 13 episodes) of a new series called House of Cards.  It quickly became very popular, and was nominated for numerous awards.  Since then, three more seasons of 13 episodes each have been released.  House of Cards is still a hot property.

The protagonist of the series is a politician named Francis “Frank” Underwood.  He is ruthless, underhanded and very ambitious.  He is a man without a conscience.  In the first episode Frank kills an ill dog, then looks into the camera and says, without feeling, that someone has to do the things that are unpleasant.  His wife is as unscrupulous as he is – they are sort of a Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.

Netflix’s House of Cards is not an entirely original series.  The BBC produced a miniseries called House of Cards in 1990, and two sequels: To Play the King (1994), and The Final Cut (1996).  All three are based on novels of the same names by Michael Dobbs, a British politician.

The protagonist in all three is named Francis Urquhart, and he is, like Frank Underwood, ruthless and ambitious.  His wife Elizabeth is likewise ruthless and ambitious.  By the way, don’t overlook the significance of Francis Urquhart’s initials.  They tell you a lot about his philosophy of life.

And note that Francis, like Frank, occasionally looks into the camera to coldly inform us why it was (or would soon be) necessary to do such-and-such.  For instance he might kill someone, look at the camera, and casually tell us that he had to do it; she was going to destroy his career with some information she had just learned.

The chilling Francis Urquhart was played by Ian Richardson who was a long-time member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  On stage and on TV Richardson specialized in roles, such as Richard III, where he was the bad guy. He loved those roles, but also received a Tony Award nomination for his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the 1976 revival of My Fair Lady.

I well remember seeing the series on PBS many years ago because  Francis Urquhart was an unforgettably evil character.  I didn’t know at the time that Richardson was disturbed by the fact that Urquhart literally got away with murder and other dastardly crimes year after year.  In fact, a New York Times article from February, 4, 1996 describes Richardson’s feelings:

 This time around, Urquhart recognizes that his time is up; Mr. Richardson had said he would only do a third series if F.U. were “Blown to bits.” Though his actual demise is not as violent as the actor might have liked — “That is,” he said, “my only grouse” — Urquhart’s increasingly desperate tenacity unequivocally signals the beginning of his end.

 If you like the Netflix series, I urge you to watch the BBC version of House of Cards which includes material from all three of Dobbs’ novels.  Even better, read the books.

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