Contributor Lindsay B. Davis reviews a complex new multimedia theater piece presented by New York Theatre Workshop.
“The journal gives us the workshop of the writer’s soul.”
–Susan Sontag, “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer “ from Against Interpretations & Other Essays
Famed literary critic, novelist, film director and feminist (she once told The Paris Review “That’s one of the few labels I’m content with but even so, is it a noun? I doubt it.”), Susan Sontag, had a definitive point of view about the importance of a journal. She saw it as a portal or gateway into the writer’s condition, something the “I” voice of a novel could never match in terms of intimacy and revelation. As such, she kept journals throughout her life and read others’ (Andre Gide being one of her earliest inspirations). She eventually published portions of her own that are now serving as source material for The Builders Association’s multi-media theatrical piece Sontag: Reborn at New York Theater Workshop through June 30.
Adapted and performed by Moe Angelos, this solo show imagines a high-strung Sontag in her early teens whose thoughts move quickly and deftly between subjects, emerging in staccato utterances that fly onto the page by way of her own pen. This is rather brilliantly enhanced by a multi-media installation that positions Angelos behind a scrim onto which thoughts and images are beamed in concert with her imagination. This, while an elder Sontag (also portrayed by Angelos and significantly more recognizable by way of Sontag’s trademark hair and ever-present cigarette) looks on and comments, at times adding context for the audience and otherwise engaging with her younger self:
Susan: What do I enjoy?
Young Susan: Music, Being in love, Children, Sleeping Meat.
Susan: What do I dislike?
Young Susan: Freckles, Licking envelopes, Taking Photographs, Ezra Pound.
The Builders Association is known for its experimental theater projects and avoids what could be the trap of distracting from the story, the character and the words. It’s seamlessly executed and very compelling. The directorial decision to place Sontag behind a screen (she is clearly visible, though) and large writing desk could speak to the elder Sontag’s point of view on her relationship to the published, written word. “The book is a wall, “ says the large, looming Sontag, “I put myself behind it, out of sight and out of seeing.”
The nature of Sontag’s journal writing makes for good theater, especially in Angelos and director Marianne Weems’ respectful hands—albeit for a certain kind of audience. The play moves from the late 1940s through the 70s and there are myriad references to books, authors, magazines, films, and people who comprise Sontag’s life in California, Chicago, Paris and Greenwich Village. This is, after all, a Fulbright scholar who finished Berkely by 16, went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago and eventually did more graduate work in philosophy at Harvard and Oxford.
A window into her mind means imagined conversations with Thomas Mann, critiques of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, utterances such as “I saw beyond Kant today” and other oddly specific references. What keeps things interesting, even if you don’t catch it all, is her willful, heroic, Rocky-like desire for rigorous, intellectual training. She reconciles new ideas in the interest of building up herself and her identity, and all while clearing the hurdles that youth brings, including intense emotional highs and lows.
Ultimately, Sontag: Reborn is a story about Sontag’s sexual awakening and the portions of her journal entries that touch upon female lovers and eventual heartbreak (there is one referred to as H and another, painter/playwright Maria Irene Fornes) are like a diary that could’ve been written by a modern teenager. They are youthful, emotional, endearing and timeless. Hers are the struggles to be true to herself — “My desire to write is connected to my homosexuality” — even as she takes a husband at age 18. With characteristic awareness she deadpans, “I marry Philip with full consciousness and fear of my will toward self destructiveness”. Moments of laughter and tenderness about her son, David (David Rieff, editor of the book, Susan Sontag Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, that serves as source material for the show) balance the emptiness of her marriage, which ended less than 10 years after it began.
Angelos does not quite exude Sontag’s sensuality but does bring her words to life with requisite intelligence, command, humor and clarity of storytelling. As the older Susan, she is sagelike in voice and stature. Most importantly, Angelos builds a relationship between the two that allows Sontag: Reborn to play more like a two-person than solo show and allows the audience to experience Young Susan through the knowing eyes of her older self. Overall, it captures her as a woman who created equally from the head and heart.
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Through June 30
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.