Like many avid readers, Susan Sontag had a lifelong habit of keeping lists of books that she planned to read in the near future. One of these lists appears early in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963*; at age fifteen, in 1948, she names seventeen titles that are “just a few” of “so many books and plays and stories I have to read.”
The play Sontag: Reborn, a one-woman show based mainly on the first volume of Sontag’s journals, has an ingenious way of representing her teenage list-making. Moe Angelos, the actor who plays Sontag, picks up an armful of books and lays them out one by one across the big desk that occupies the center of the stage. As each one hits the desk she says its title and author’s name aloud. A camera is mounted above the desk, its observations projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. We can see the covers of all the books as they line up. Angelos picks up the pace, faster and faster as the number of books—the size of the ambition—grows. At a certain point, maybe around number ten or eleven (“Against the Grain—Huysmans…The Disciple—Paul Bourget…Sanin—Mikhail Artsybashev…”), I had the urge to giggle. Though reading ten or even seventeen novels should not be an improbable ambition for a teenager, something about the young woman on stage is outlandish.
“Anything accelerated to a faster pace, as Chaplin liked to demonstrate, somehow becomes absurd,” wrote theater critic Ronald Bryden in a 1966 essay in the Observer that Sontag partially transcribed into her journal. (Her journals, edited by her son David Rieff, are full of quotations, one-line observations, briefly sketched ideas for future projects.) The Chaplin principle holds true for book-reading, it turns out, if you can find a way of stylizing the action into a fast and frenetic activity instead of the slow one that it actually is in reality.
Sontag’s journals are patchy; she rarely describes the substance of her days or gives much physical or sensory detail. Nor does she register most political events. And she leaves out some major events of her own life, such as publishing her first novel. To dramatize her early life relying almost entirely on actual lines from the journals, as the director Marianne Weems and Moe Angelos have done, is an achievement. Angelos has condensed material from the two published volumes (Reborn and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980) into one act that spans Sontag’s life from adolescence through college and her wayward marriage and early motherhood to the time when she begins to write for publication in the early Sixties. The play ends with Sontag having recently published her first novel, The …