The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in “Oklahoma!”

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly BulkeleyA brilliant exploration of the dark psychological depths of sexual desire appears in an unlikely place—a country musical from the 1940’s.

Oklahoma! was the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the duo who went on to write many of Broadway’s most famous mid-century musicals.  A new production of Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival promises to stimulate new interest in this classic theatrical work through innovative casting, staging, and choreography from director Bill Rauch and choreographer Ann Yee.

Oklahoma! offers a surprisingly complex portrait of dreaming, desire, and the unconscious mind, and I plan to write a more detailed appraisal once the OSF production opens in April.  To set the stage, as it were, I wanted to start with an overview of the traditional production, which opened in 1943 and has since been performed in thousands of other venues in the US and around the world.  An Academy Award-winning movie adaptation appeared in 1955.

Set in the Oklahoma territory in 1906, just before official statehood, the story revolves around two love triangles.  In one, a cowboy (Curly) and a farmhand (Jud) vie for the affections of a farmer’s daughter (Laurey).  In the other, cowboy Will Parker and a Persian traveling salesman named Ali Hakim are both involved with Ado Annie, one of Laurey’s friends.

The play both opens and closes with the joyfully optimistic song “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” and the action unfolds in the space created between those two happy moments of dawning light.

In the very center of the play, at the end of the Act I, there is a dark and very elaborate dream sequence, “The Dream Ballet,” intended to express Laurey’s conflicted feelings about Curley and Jud.  Other plays and musicals before Oklahoma! had included scenes of dancing framed as dreams, but no one had ever pushed the dream theme into such bold psychological territory, with so much sophistication and artistry in the choreography.  Much of the credit goes to Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer, who helped Rogers and Hammerstein craft what became one of the most famous scenes in the play.

The Horrors of the Dream Ballet in "Oklahoma!" by Kelly Bulkeley

In the scene just before the ballet, Jud is alone and brooding about his sexual frustration.  The pornographic “postcards” in his room excite his fantasies (“And a dream starts a-dancin’ in my head”), but ultimately leave him feeling empty, deceived, and even angrier than before.  He finally declares, “I ain’t gonna dream ‘bout her arms no more!” and sets off to claim Laurey for his own.

Laurey, meanwhile, sits down in the shade of a tree in her yard and drinks a special sleeping potion (“the Elixir of Egypt”) she purchased from Ali Hakim, hoping it will “make up my mind fer me” and help her “to see things clear.”  She slowly nods off, while a group of neighboring girls sing a lullaby about flying from her dreams into the arms of the man she truly loves.  The girls disappear, Laurey falls into a deep sleep, and the dream begins.

Each of the characters in the main love triangle has a kind of dream-world counterpart or avatar, a professional dancer who performs their roles during the 17-minute sequence.  It begins well enough, with Laurey dancing “ecstatically” with Curly.  After many vigorous upward thrusts and arousing leaps through the air, they find themselves at a wedding, walking down the aisle, about to take their vows.  But at the last moment it is Jud, not Curly, who appears in front of her.  Laurey is terrified as Jud and the risqué women from his postcards take over the dream.  Curly has a gun and tries to shoot Jud, but the gun has no effect.  Jud attacks Curly and starts choking him to death.  Laurey begs Jud to stop, and promises to go with him if he will spare Curly’s life.  Jud agrees, and takes Laurey with him, as she bids a “heartbroken” farewell to Curly.

At this moment, Jud walks up to the tree in her yard.  “Wake up, Laurey,” he says, “It’s time to start fer the party.”  Just then Curly walks up to the house, too, hoping she will choose him instead.  Laurey, now fully awake, is seized with panic:

“Remembering the disaster of her recent dream, she avoids its reality by taking Jud’s arm and going with him, looking wistfully back at Curly with the same sad eyes that her ballet counterpart had on her exit. Curly stands alone, puzzled, dejected and defeated, as the curtain falls.”

This marks the end of Act I.

The provocative content and staging of the Dream Ballet was originally envisioned by Hammerstein to be “bizarre, imaginative and amusing, and never heavy.” (Carter 129)  De Mille, however, wanted to shift the tone; she suggested bringing Jud’s postcard girls into the action, and making the whole thing darker and gloomier.  Virtually all musicals try to send their audiences into intermission on a happy, buoyant note; the Dream Ballet of Oklahoma!  has the diametrically opposite effect, which de Mille felt would be entirely appropriate for Laurey’s character and situation at this point in the story.

In a later interview, de Mille said she pushed Hammerstein to make the dream sequence more emotionally realistic, more like the kinds of anxiety dreams that girls and young women actually experience: “Girls don’t dream about the circus. They dream about horrors. And they dream dirty dreams.” (Carter 123)

Thus, the core moment in one of America’s most beloved works of musical theater is a violently realistic sexual nightmare.

The Dream Ballet is an amazing work of art.  It is also a remarkably insightful portrait of the dreaming mind.  For those who study dreams, Oklahoma! raises a number of intriguing questions that can shed new light on the play, its cultural impact, and the dreaming imagination.  I will wait to see the OSF production in late April before saying more, but these are some of the anticipatory questions and ideas dancing through my mind:

Was Agnes de Mille right, as a matter of empirical fact, that girls have a tendency to dream about “horrors” and “dirty” topics?  What might modern research on the dream patterns of young women reveal about the unconscious dynamics of Laurey’s dilemma?

Has Laurey unknowingly performed a ritual of dream incubation?  She drinks the “Elixir of Egypt,” sleeps in a special place, focuses her mind on a particular question as she drifts off, and then has a dream relating to her question.  That’s pretty much the definition of a dream incubation ritual (as per Kimberley Patton.)

Is Laurey’s dream a threat simulation, along the lines of what Antti Revonsuo has proposed?  Revonsuo focused on recurrent chasing nightmares as an instance of dreams that simulate a possible threat and rehearse our response to it, so we’re better prepared in waking life if that threat should actually arise.  Laurey has a dream of Jud threatening to kill Curly, which is indeed a realistic appraisal of the dangers in her waking life.

Is her dream a sexual wish-fulfillment, as Sigmund Freud would say?  In 1940’s New York City, it’s a fair guess the Oklahoma! creative team knew about psychoanalysis and its theories about unconscious sexual desires.  Laurey certainly has a more intense and erotic interaction with Curly in dreaming than she ever does in waking.  The dream’s sexual charge only grows with the appearance of Jud’s postcard girls, who stir up even more libidinal energy, with less romance and more raw carnal desire.  And poor Curly with his limp gun…

Is Jud a shadow symbol for Laurey and the whole Oklahoma community, as Carl Jung might suggest?  From the very beginning of the play Jud is portrayed as dark, crude, rough, hairy, animal-like, stupid, and inarticulate.  He lives alone in a “smokehouse,” seething with unfulfilled instinctual urges.  He could be seen as a radical Other, in the symbolic lineage of Lucifer, Caliban, Gollum, and Darth Vader, the embodiment of all the darkness that is not allowed into the light of conscious awareness, and thus banished to the depths of the unconscious.

Does Laurey misinterpret her dream?  How exactly is her action upon awakening (choosing Jud over Curly) justified by what she has dreamed?  In both fiction and real life, people who instantly interpret their dreams usually get it wrong.  The quick response often overlooks deeper, more important meanings that the conscious mind may be all to ready to move past.  (I call this “the Odyssean fallacy.”)

Does Jud misinterpret his dream?  Same question—why does Jud think the action he takes (aggressively demanding Laurey’s affection) is justified by his arousing yet frustrating dreams of the postcard girls?  What might he be overlooking?

Finally, how will the OSF creative team reimagine this classic work for a new century and a new America?

I can’t wait to see!


Reference: Tim Carter, Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical, Yale University Press, 2007.

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity

Sexual Dreaming Before Sexual Activity by Kelly BulkeleySexual dreams have long been part of human experience, as we know from historical sources.  For example, the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, an ancient manual of dream interpretation, devoted several pages to the various types and classes of sexual dreams.


However, we do not know how widespread sexual dreams are, who has them most often, and when they begin.


In a survey I commissioned a couple of years ago, nearly 3000 American adults were asked the question, “Have you ever had a dream with sexual feelings or experiences?”  Of those who answered “Yes,” a follow-up question was asked: “Did you have any sexual dreams before your first sexual activity in waking life?”

The answers to the first question were 69% Yes and 24% No for the men (1912 of them), and 58% Yes and 34% No for the women (1058 total), with 7% of the men and 8% of the women responding “Not Sure.”

On most other typical dreams questions (e.g., chasing, falling, visitation) the women answered Yes more often than did the men.  Sexual dreams stood out as a significantly more frequent experience for the men.

For the follow-up question about sexual dreams before sexual activity, the gender disparity was even bigger: 48% of the men said Yes and 22% said No, whereas only 23% of the women said Yes while 39% said No.

Looking more closely at follow-up question results, the age of the participants mattered a lot.  The frequency of Yes answers was much higher for younger than older people, although the gap between males and females remained for all ages.


  Males     Females    
Age Yes No N/S Yes No N/S
18-29 76% 8% 15% 55% 22% 22%
30-49 55% 16% 29% 31% 37% 32%
50-64 44% 24% 33% 17% 39% 44%
65+ 37% 30% 33% 11% 48% 42%


Other demographic variables (e.g., race, income, education, religion) did not correlate with any significant differences.

What can we learn from these results?

First, we have to consider the limitations of the data. Many people are simply reluctant to talk about sex.  Dreams sometimes portray taboo, socially frowned upon sexual behaviors that people may not want to admit.  Some religious traditions teach that sexual dreams should be shunned as demonic temptations.  More generally, people vary in how well they can recall different types of dreams from earlier in life.

All these factors suggest the survey results are underestimating rather than overestimating the frequency of sexual dreams. Some of the participants probably answered “No” when the actual truth was “Yes,” while it’s unlikely that many participants said “Yes” when the accurate answer would have been “No.”

To explain these findings, we can appeal to both biology and culture.  It makes sense that young people entering their prime years of reproductive potential would have dreams that anticipate and prepare them for this fundamental biological goal.  Just as some nightmares simulate threats to our survival (e.g., being chased by wild animals) so we’re better prepared to face them in waking life, it could be that sexual dreams are simulating reproductive opportunities we will hopefully have in the future.  Such dreams might have less biological value or significance for older people.

It could also be that young people in contemporary America are more likely to dream about sex because they are immersed in a culture filled with sexually arousing content.  Dream content accurately reflects people’s biggest emotional concerns, and it’s plausible to assume that many young people today are thinking a lot about sex before they are sexually active.   Again, such dreams would be less likely among older people whose emotional concerns no longer center on sexuality.

Both biological and cultural factors could also account for the gender differences.  The process of sexual maturation may generate stronger physical pressures for young males than females, prompting a higher proportion of sexually explicit dreams.  Cultural portrayals of sexuality certainly seem to emphasize male rather than female perspectives, which may stimulate relatively more dreaming about this subject.

These explanations are admittedly speculative and open to question.  However, it is clear that dreaming is closely connected to our nature as sexual beings.  Even before sexual activity in waking life we tend to be sexually active in our dreams, anticipating how it will happen, what it will feel like, and with whom we’ll share the experience.  The fact that some dreams can lead to actual climax for both men and women suggests that dreaming is, at one level, a physiologically hard-wired means of preparing us for our lives as reproductive beings.

Tracking Robert Bosnak’s Dreams

Tracking Robert Bosnak's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe Sleep and Dream Database has just added a new series of dreams to its collection, thanks to the generosity of Robert Bosnak.  In his 1996 book Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming he included an appendix with a series of 51 dreams recorded during a seven-week period of travel and personal transition.  With his permission I have transcribed and uploaded this series into the SDDb, where it can be found under the survey label “RB Journal 1996.”


This is a fascinating and valuable series of dreams for a number of reasons. It was recorded by a Jungian analyst with extensive training and professional experience in dream analysis, and it was recorded during a time of significant changes in his waking life. I have known Robbie for nearly 25 years now, since the Chicago conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams in 1990, and I consider him a good friend and colleague.  So it is no easy task to bracket out my familiarity with his life and pretend to study the word usage frequencies of his dreams “blindly.”   Nevertheless, here’s what strikes me in comparing the RB Dreams 1996 to the SDDb male baselines, focusing exclusively on the numerical results and what I’ve learned from past studies:

By my count, this series of 51 dream reports has 7469 total words, for an average of about 150 words per report.

Most of the reports (35) are between 50 and 300 words in length.  Twelve reports have 49 words or less; the shortest report is 13 words.  Four reports have 301 words or more; the longest report is 731 words.

I performed word searches on the whole series of 51 reports for the 7 classes and 40 categories in the SDDb template, and compared the results with the Male MRD Baseline frequencies for reports of 50-300 words.  It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, so the results should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive.

You can see a google docs spreadsheet of the results here.

The RB dreams have higher frequencies of descriptive perceptual words for intensity, colors, and aesthetic evaluation, along with a slightly higher proportion of vision-related words.  This could be a product of the dreamer’s reporting style and post-awakening literary editing of the reports.  It could also reflect dream experiences of unusual sensory richness and detail.

There is no more fear in RB’s dreams than in the baselines, which would seem to rule out any unusual stressors or anxieties in waking life.  (The low falling frequency may also point in that direction.) The high proportion of happiness-related words really jumps out—I’m not sure I’ve seen a series before with more happiness than fear.  The relatively high number of sadness references suggests sensitivity to loss and mourning.

The relatively low number of awareness-related words could be another product of reporting style, and it could also reflect a greater focus while dreaming on relational process rather than cognitive analysis.

The RB dreams have more references to flying than falling, which reverses the pattern I typically see in other dream series (more falling than flying).

The high proportions of speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions all point to a person who is actively and productively engaged with other people in waking life.  He seems closely involved with several immediate family members: His wife, daughter, son, brother, mother, and father.

The very high frequency of sexual references could reflect a greater degree of honesty in RB’s reporting compared to the baselines, and it could also indicate the significance of sexual activity and thoughts in waking life.

The high number of fantastic beings suggests someone with a lively imagination, perhaps familiar with video games or fantasy fiction.  A somewhat high proportion of Christianity words may reflect someone who knows Christian culture fairly well but is not an active practitioner of the faith.

Several features of these dreams—the high intensity, colors, happiness, flying, fantastic beings—make me wonder if this set includes at least a few reports of mystical dreams with unusual spiritual or existential meaning.

So how do these quasi-blind inferences fare once I explicitly take into account the facts that the dreamer is a successful psychotherapist who says, “I consider it to be a series in connection with the death of my father and a feeling of loss of soul”?

Not perfectly, that’s for sure.  I would not have predicted this was a series relating to the death of his father, based only on these word usage frequencies.  He does not use father-related words more than other family members, and the death references do not directly indicate his father has died.  There are 3 references to ghosts, but not explicitly to the ghost of his father.

I could be missing something, but at this level of analysis the manifest content of this series does not reflect the dreamer’s felt experience of the dreams.

However, the relatively high sadness frequency may pick up on this theme.  And the mystical themes I noted may underscore the sense of deep transformation he felt was happening during this period of time.  In that sense, the dreams may accurately reflect not the death itself, but the psychological consequences of the death, the still-rippling impact of his father’s loss on his experience of the world.

Again, I wouldn’t have come up with any of that just from looking at the statistical frequencies.  But knowing this series came during a period of mourning, I can see where the waking-dreaming connections emerge, and I’ll be curious to see if future studies discover similar patterns with people who have recently lost a close loved one.

Knowing that Bosnak is a psychotherapist with a successful practice makes sense of many features of his dreams—the high speech, friendly social interactions, happiness, and low physical aggression.  The high frequency of sexual references may relate to his professional work, and so might the unusual detail of his perceptual descriptions, indicating well-honed observation skills.

In chapter 8 of his book Bosnak describes his understanding of these dreams, which goes into much greater depth than a strictly quantitative method can provide.  His goal is to teach readers how to explore the deeper patterns of their own dream series.  I highly recommend that chapter, and Bosnak’s work in general, as an excellent resource in learning how to study large collections of dreams.


Transcription note: To conform to current SDDb upload specifications, I made the following changes to the dream reports as presented in Bosnak’s book: I removed all quotation marks, dashes, and italics, condensed each report into a single paragraph, and added the location of the dream and number in the series to start each report. Some degree of meaning is lost with these changes.





Cosmo Romance Dreams

Cosmo Romance Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyA couple of years ago a reporter from Cosmopolitan magazine sent me a list of dream types she had gathered from other women in her office.  I can’t remember if an article ever appeared, but I thought the dreams were interesting as expressions of the concerns many women feel about their romantic relationships.  Here is the intro I gave to the reporter, the dream types, and my comments. (Note: I just found a copy of the article.  It appeared in the December 2010 issue, p. 112, under the rather lurid title “What Your Freaky Love Dreams Mean.”)


Many of these dreams seem to have a distressing, negative tone, so let me say that in general I look at “bad” dreams and nightmares as valuable opportunities for insight and growth.  Such dreams usually revolve around the most emotionally important and challenging issues of our lives.  They focus on our difficulties precisely in order to give us a deeper understanding of what’s going on and what we might do about it.


1) You’re back with an ex.
*Is there a different interpretation depending on whether the ex you dreamt about was a nice guy who you had a good relationship with vs. a bad guy who didn’t treat you well?
Dreaming about one’s past romantic partners never ends.  He may be gone from your waking life, but, for better or worse, he’ll linger in your dreams forever.  These kinds of dreams do NOT automatically mean you want to get back together with him.  Rather, they reflect the complex and long-lasting impact any serious relationship makes on your unconscious mind. The details of the dream are important: I would want to know, in what situations does your ex appear?  What kind of emotional energy does he bring into the dream scenario?  If he’s a “good” ex, perhaps the dream suggests there’s still a way in which his presence is a helpful force in your waking life.  If he’s a “bad” ex, maybe it reflects a sense of still being trapped in the relationship, or possibly threatened by something symbolized by his kind of personality.

2) Your partner betrays you in some way (like cheating, lying, or revealing something personal about you to everyone).
This is the price of a committed relationship: a vulnerability to betrayal.  No matter how strong a relationship may appear in waking life, both people inevitably suffer some degree of insecurity, both conscious and unconscious, about their partner’s being unfaithful.  This insecurity naturally comes out in dreams that vividly portray how badly you would feel if your partner violated your trust and fidelity.  It’s possible the dreams are clues to an actual problem in the relationship (again, the details matter), but usually such anxiety dreams are reminders of our exposure to extreme emotional pain whenever we form a romantic bond with someone else.
3) You blow it with your man (whether by having a one-night stand, saying something cruel to him, etc.).
Monogamy doesn’t come easily.  We all have within us complex and conflicting feelings about our romantic partners.  It’s important to acknowledge and accept those feelings when they arise in dreams, even if we don’t necessarily act on them.  That said, if someone were having these dreams frequently, I’d certainly wonder about the quality of their waking relationship.
4) You’re engaged, and there’s something off about your ring—the stone is missing or so small you can’t see it, it’s ugly, etc.

An engagement ring is an ancient emblem of love and commitment, a very public announcement of two people’s plans for a future life together.  This makes it an excellent dream symbol for a person’s feelings about the impending marriage.  Because the focus in these dreams is usually on the appearance of the ring, I’d want to ask if there’s a concern about the appearance vs. the substance of the relationship.

5) Something weird happens during your wedding (like you can’t see the groom’s face).

A wedding is one of the most momentous rituals of human society, a true rite of passage that forever binds two people’s lives into one.  The awesome magnitude of this life change is often reflected in distressing dreams of wedding day disaster.  A Buddhist perspective might be helpful here: In that tradition’s view, a dream of wedding catastrophe could be a good dream because it shows your old way of life is dying and a new and better way of life is being born.  The weirdness reflects the shifting of your reality from the past to the future.  In the case of the groom’s missing face, it might be that his appearance and personality are not the primary focus here; what’s ultimately important is the power of the vows you’re making with him.

A Lucid Dreaming Cautionary Tale: Graham Joyce’s “Dreamside”

A Lucid Dreaming Cautionary Tale: Graham Joyce's "Dreamside" by Kelly BulkeleyLater this month (3-23) I’m joining British novelist Graham Joyce at the Rubin Museum in New York City to discuss “Are Dreams Pure Fantasy?” as part of the museum’s “Brainwave” lecture series on dreams.  I’ve just read Joyce’s first novel, Dreamside, and it’s a hauntingly beautiful tale, both frightening and inspiring.  It raises vital questions about the perils and potentials of lucid dreaming.

Written in 1991, the novel accurately conveys the naïve excitement many people felt at that time about early psychological research on consciousness in dreaming.  The story concerns four college students who sign up for a study on the induction of lucid dreams.  The students form an unlikely team, each driven by very different motives.  Ella, a mercurial, sexually alluring spiritual seeker, will do and say anything to achieve transcendence. Lee, the central character, is a stolid, rather conventional guy painfully captivated by Ella’s erotic energy.  Brad, a medical student, has the most advanced innate skills at lucid dreaming, but he’s a cynical, drunken lout who can only express his sexual desires in the crudest of ways.  Honora, from Ireland, is the quietest and most innocent of the group.  Of them all, she is the most sincere in her desire to learn about dreaming.

Their guide from waking reality into Dreamside is Professor Burns, an elderly psychologist with a hobbyist’s interest in parapsychology and an ornery disregard for other people’s feelings.  Initially the lucid dream induction seminar is just a sham, as the Professor is in fact conducting a study of small group dynamics.  But when the students begin succeeding in their efforts—when they learn how to become aware in dreams, interact with each other, and perform various experiments to test their Dreamside abilities—Prof. Burns becomes excited, too, and pushes them further and further.

Without revealing any other plot developments, it may simply be said that everyone involved reaches a point where they deeply regret their blind rush into alien realms of psychic experience.

The moral of the story is not that lucid dreaming is bad.  Nor is it that Prof. Burns might have benefited from the input of a human subjects committee, though that’s undoubtedly true.  It’s rather that we need to ask the right questions about lucid dreaming.  The characters in Dreamside are so intent on figuring out how to induce lucid dreaming that they never ask themselves why they want to do so in the first place.  The “how” question is relatively easy, but if you haven’t reflected carefully on the “why” question you may find yourself woefully unprepared for what you encounter.

This is the same message that Hindu and Buddhist sages have taught for centuries: it is indeed possible to learn lucid dreaming techniques, but those techniques are best practiced within a context of spiritual training, guidance, and self-reflection.  The college students in Dreamside have grown up in the morally impoverished world of Thatcher-era Britain, and they have few cultural resources to help them make sense of their experiences.   Perhaps the greatest achievement of Joyce’s novel is that it provides what its characters lack—a wise and healthily cautious understanding of human dreaming potential.