35. SONTAG: REBORN
Let’s be honest. How familiar are you with the writing of the late Susan Sontag (1933-2004), the prolific writer, activist, and public intellectual you may remember for the blaze of white hair across the front of her dark mane (some call it a “skunk stripe”). If you’re a Sontag fan, or are at least semi-conversant with her life and thoughts, you will probably love SONTAG: REBORN, a 75-minute, intermissionless, one-woman presentation of material carefully culled by Moe Angelos—the actress who convincingly plays Sontag—from the writer’s journals; these were edited by her son, David Rieff, as REBORN and AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH: JOURNALS AND NOTEBOOKS. If you know her as I did, as a cultural phenomenon of whom I was persistently aware but whose work never called to me, you will, perhaps, not love the content of this show so much. But whoever you are, it will be hard not to appreciate the considerable talent that the Builders Association and director Marianne Weems have put into producing the play at the New York Theatre Workshop.
Sontag is seen both as her mature self and her younger self, the former in an almost hologram-like black and white video projection that overlooks the stage; as the smoke from her cigarette rises, the mature, sophisticated Sontag interacts, sometimes contentiously, with her optimistic but always questioning live and girlish presence, itself behind a scrim. The stage is dressed by designer Joshua Higgason primarily with a large desk and many books, as videos, seen on multiple transparent surfaces that occasionally overlap each other, provide the primary visual interest. Austin Switzer’s projection designs are among the most technically advanced I’ve seen, even in a time when projections are becoming a primary tool of theatrical design.
Angelos plays Sontag from 1947 to 1963 (or ages 15 to 31), and the years are ticked off by the video Sontag, who informs us of all the remarkable milestones in this brilliant woman’s early career: her teenage precocity while growing up in Sherman Oaks, California; her one-time meeting with Thomas Mann, when she stole a cigarette he was smoking; the schools she went to; the multiple degrees she acquired; the books she read and the writers she admired; the plays and movies she saw; her failed marriage of eight years to sociologist Philip Rieff, whom she wed ten days after she met him (when she was 19); the birth of her child, David; her lesbian affairs, notably with a woman named H she met at Berkeley, and the love of her life, painter-playwright, Maria Irene Fornes; her European travels; the New York Times’s dismissal of her first novel, BENEFACTORS, when she was 30; and the success of her “Notes on Camp” essay in Partisan Review, which finally brought her wide acclaim. We even see an electronically enhanced vision of her hand writing her journals, with the sentences magically illuminated as pen touches paper.
The spoken content seems entirely to have been drawn from Sontag’s journals, so there are highly intimate revelations, such as her noting a time she masturbated and then examined her c—t, as she calls it, in the mirror. She was constantly judging her own work, about which she felt insecure, as well as that of others. But the play shoots out so many rapidly spoken nuggets of information and ideas that it becomes difficult to catch them all, and the effect, especially for those unfamiliar with the material, eventually grows tedious.
Still, Angelos’s performance, while never overly showy (except when she captures the accents of Mann or Fornes), remains compelling; when Sontag’s comments register, they do so effectively, possibly inspiring some to want to seek out her work and get to know her better. But unless you are already a Sontag follower, I doubt that this play makes her writing and ideas scintillating enough to spark a rediscover Sontag movement. I remain content to have gotten whatever snippets of the writer I could from SONTAG: REBORN and let those more literarily inclined explore Sontag to their hearts' content.