Susan Sontag Reborn
At around 16 years of age, Susan Sontag 1. offered Thomas Mann a reinterpretation of his “Magic Mountain” 2. had her first affair with a woman, 3. met the professor she would marry shortly afterwards.
“I know what I want to do with my life,” Sontag wrote in one of the journals that is the text of “Sontag: Reborn,” part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater. “I want to sleep with many people….I don’t intend to have my intellect dominate me.”
Whether or not her intellect dominated her, she certainly was a dominant presence in American public life from the moment that “Notes on Camp” and the rest of Against Interpretation put her stunning face on magazine covers in the mid-1960’s, until her death at age 71 in 2004. We don’t get the whole of Sontag in this 80-minute multi-media presentation from the theater company The Builders Association. Rather, we see Sontag in formation, with excerpts from Sontag’s journals starting in 1948, when she was 15 and about to go to college, and ending in 1963, when she was 30 and had her first novel published.
Taking advantage of Sontag’s own penchant for scribbling comments on her journal entry decades afterward, the show presents two Sontags, both played by Moe Angelos. There is Young Sontag, writing in her journal, and next to her is the signature Sontag, with the skunk-stripe of white hair, in a black-and-white video image, elegantly smoking a cigarette and commenting tartly on her younger self.
“It is useless for me to record only the satisfying parts of my existence,” Younger Sontag says as she writes in her journal.
“There are too few of them anyway,” Older Sontag says.
“What am I to do” Younger Sontag asks in one of many moments of struggle.
“Enjoy yourself, of course,” Older Sontag tells her.
There are some perceptive observations here from somebody who clearly had achieved intellectual maturity at an early age, but who struggled like anybody with her emotions and her attractions and her ambitions.
There is some humor here. When her young son David Rieff tells her “Whenever I shut my eyes I see Jesus on the cross,” she writes: “It’s time for Homer, I think….Paganize his tender spirit.”
There is earnestness, too, and a bluntness about sex. (It is great to learn she had a passionate affair – in Paris, no less – with playwright María Irene Fornés)
“My desire to write is connected to my homosexuality. I need to identify as a weapon, to match the weapon that society has against me.”
“The writer must be four people: 1. The nut. 2. The moron. 3. The stylist. 4. The critic. 1 supplies the material, 2 lets it come out, 3 is taste, 4 is intelligence. A great writer has all four – but you can still be a good writer with only 1 (the nut) and 2 (the moron.)”
What I didn’t see in “Sontag: Reborn” is a compelling reason to have made a theatrical work out of the published book her son edited, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, which has the text of the performance piece and more. Austin Switser’s video images – words scroll like animated characters across the screens of the set – Don Dobson’s busy sound design –pull attention away from Sontag and what mattered about her, her words.
“Sontag: Reborn” will be presented at the Public Theater for $20 until Sunday, January 15.
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