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The Making of Susan

Sontag: Reborn

a play adapted and performed by Moe Angelos, directed by Marianne Weems
New York Theatre Workshop, New York City, May 28–June 30, 2013
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Joan Marcus
Moe Angelos as the young Susan Sontag in the play Sontag: Reborn, with an image of Angelos as an older Sontag at right, projected onto the scrim in front of the stage

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 Benefactor, and making some entries in her journal toward the essay that will become “Notes on Camp.”

The young Sontag’s lists were probably longer, in the aggregate, than most people’s, the books were more difficult, and she read a great number of them and also went to a lot of concerts and films and plays and exhibitions and was in the habit of forming opinions about them. Reborn presents her intellectual vitality as a kind of frenzy. I wanted to laugh at another moment in the play, when Angelos depicts Sontag aboard a ship bound for England (she is going to spend a year at Oxford studying philosophy). Sontag sees many movies shipboard and has a little rapid-fire capsule review of each one (“all the cliches of the chase movie, including the good-looking prostitute…another stinker,” she growls of James Cagney’s Shortcut to Hell).

And again when the Sontag character goes on holiday from Oxford to Paris, there is something funny about the way she immediately begins yammering about the differences between Paris and New York (St. Germain des Prés is “not the same as Greenwich Village, exactly…the majority of Villagers are New Yorkers—internal, even municipal expatriates…”). These lines, which are almost verbatim from the journals, don’t seem funny when you read them (they seem pretty ordinary)—but the effect of this adaptation is to make Sontag’s tendency to take stock, compare, opine—in short, to think—seem like a drive as implacable and ridiculous as lust.

Reborn is an affectionate portrait of Sontag, but it is one that plays her for laughs. Though this is a one-woman show, we in the audience are always watching two different Susans. A transparent scrim hangs in front of the stage, and black-and-white footage of Angelos dressed as an older, middle-aged Susan is projected onto the scrim. The spectral Susan, as I’ll call her, is shown only from the waist up. She smokes a cigarette, flips through her journals, and above all she reacts to and punctuates the action of the younger Susan who is played live by Angelos on the stage.

As the younger Susan, Angelos writes in a journal while speaking the lines aloud, although she is also wont to leap up from her seat, mime some of the action, and address her soliloquies to the audience. Spectral Susan sometimes quizzes the younger Susan on French and German vocabulary, sometimes plays editor by explaining which historical figures the younger Susan is referring to, and sometimes picks up a line where the younger Susan leaves off and finishes reciting it for her. Thus does Weems evoke Sontag’s habit of reviewing her old journals and making marginal comments years after the fact.

The play seems to fold some of the more risible aspects of Sontag’s later persona (the vanity about her eminent friends, the condescension toward most of America and its cultural products, the self-importance of her bearing) that have been amusingly described in memoirs by Terry Castle and Sigrid Nunez, among others, into its portrait of the younger Sontag. The Susan of the play is still far from reaching the literary world stage, but she is already a little bit insufferable. Angelos tends to bark her lines in a scolding or exasperated tone. The younger Susan is indignant, impatient, irritated. A gnasher of teeth, a clencher of fists, she grimaces and sighs as she wills herself out of the Southern California suburbs of her childhood to Berkeley and the University of Chicago, and later to Harvard and Oxford and Paris and New York. She reminds me of Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in Election.

Spectral Susan, meanwhile, is even more imperious than the younger Susan (picture a lot of glowering). “Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts,” spectral Susan reads from the published edition of the journals. “In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do in person,” she continues. Then, glaring out at the audience, she thunders: “I CREATE MYSELF!

When we laugh at the madly bookish young Susan of Reborn, we are enjoying the comedy of excess that the play especially brings out. But there is another kind of comedy in the figure of the child who has devoured huge chunks of the Modern Library by age fourteen, before she has had almost any experience of life. It is the comedy of doing things in the wrong order.

The title Reborn comes from an entry that Sontag wrote at age sixteen, upon having sex for the first time. The entry had to be abridged for the published journals because, Rieff explains, it was originally thirty pages long, “meant to recapitulate a whole period of SS’s life at Berkeley, ending with her meeting [her lover] Harriet and, through her, beginning to take part in gay life in San Francisco.” Here is how the entry begins:

This weekend has been a beautifully patterned summation, and, I think, partial resolution of my greatest unhappiness: the agonized dichotomy between the body and the mind that has had me on the rack for the past two years.

One can imagine how this stretches to thirty pages. But it does get sexier from there. After a lot of backstory, it is finally late on a Saturday night and Sontag and Harriet are bar-hopping and then falling into bed together—or more accurately onto a cot in the back of a Sausalito nightclub. Though Sontag writes exultantly of the night in her journal, she does not dwell on the charms of Harriet herself, or profess love or even infatuation.

Later in life when Sontag writes about her affairs she laments her tendency to trail after her lover puppyishly, waiting for scraps of affection. She has to remind herself to play it cool. But the teenage Sontag is fascinated by the experience of sex in itself, without the “mental companionship” that she had previously imagined was as important as physical love. (She scorns what she sees as her society’s “ban on pure physical sensation without love, on promiscuity.”) Her discovery seems to open out immediately onto other possibilities. She sets forth a flurry of resolutions:

I know now a little of my capacity…I know what I want to do with my life, all of this being so simple, but so difficult for me in the past to know. I want to sleep with many people—I want to live and hate to die—I will not teach or get a master’s after I get my B.A…. I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge! I don’t give a damn for anyone’s aggregation of facts…I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive…I am beautiful…what else is there?

No sooner has she isolated the delights of “pure physical sensation” than she is busy spinning out its metaphorical implications for how to live. This is a young person who has been reading. She is ready to apprehend the significance of her new pleasures, she wants to take them seriously. Having reached new heights of experience she had previously only read about, she now seems poised do things in the right order.

Within a few years she would, in fact, marry her sociology professor Philip Rieff and begin a Ph.D. program in philosophy—to do just the sort of thing she vowed not to—as well as give birth to her son. She would have to be reborn all over again. You can see the push and pull of conflicting desires that fired some of her early essays; less than a decade later she would be warning her fellow critics about the hypertrophy of the intellect and calling for an erotics of art.

In the play, a fascinating expression rolls across the face of spectral Susan as the younger Susan announces her engagement to Rieff: a mix of disapproval, embarrassment, and physical discomfort, as though she is experiencing a sharp pain in some embarrassing part of the body that must be borne in silence. There are no entries in Sontag’s published journals during the first two years of her marriage. Nor do the journals give any hint of what drove her to marry in the first place. If you squint at Sontag’s life a certain way—and I think the play encourages this reading—her marriage and the work of caring for her son can seem like obstacles to be overcome; they stand in the way of the literary fate that must surely be waiting for that hilariously precocious young woman, and they can even stand for all the ways in which it might have been difficult for her to make her way as a female graduate student and writer in the Fifties and Sixties (about which the journals also say little).

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    Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008; reviewed in these pages by Deborah Eisenberg, December 18, 2008. 

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