(Photo by Joan Marcus of “Sontag:Reborn” at New York Theatre Workshop, featuring Moe Angelos).
In my first weeks of New York City living, trying on the title of “young playwright” as opposed to “Sarah Lawrence student,” I have been making good use of my most valuable graduation present: a newly minted, finely tuned pair of feminist binoculars, which I have trained on the New York theatre scene. A few weeks ago, two theater evenings stood out: first, a reading and talk-back with the formidable contemporary playwrights Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, and Melissa Jean Gibson, hosted by TCG at WNYC’s Greene Space, where each writer read from one of her recent works and then discussed her career and observations on the state of contemporary theatre. Next up was New York Theatre Workshop’s Sontag Reborn, produced in collaboration with The Builders Association, an adaptation of Sontag’s early journals created and performed by Moe Angelos. Both nights provided fierce, stirring examples of intelligent, creative women determined to contribute their voices to the world’s discourse. As a young Sontag exuberantly wrote, “Everything matters!” Bombarded by a wealth of opportunities, I have to say, I know the feeling. In fact, I was shocked by what a kindred spirit I found in Sontag, hearing her private reflections from her late teens and early twenties. Some of the passages seemed to be lifted from my own journal, which I’ve also been keeping since age twelve, although her revelations were certainly more profound and eloquent, thanks to her voracious mind.
Following the performance of Sontag Reborn, I attended an audience talk back, at which the attendees were mostly comprised of women in their twenties and thirties. (Out of a group of about thirty people who stayed for the discussion, I would estimate 25% were male, and only 6% were old enough to remember the era in which Sontag charged through her audacious life.) The talkback felt mostly like a customer response survey, guided by questions intended to determine our level of comprehension and satisfaction. However, one of the most interesting points of the discussion, was the question of whether or not Sontag was a sympathetic character. One woman spoke up immediately, declaring that she had been annoyed by Sontag from the start and had a hard time caring about her romantic woes because Sontag was so selfishly insufferable. Most of the other responders rose to Sontag’s defense, sympathizing with her struggle to be true to herself, a queer prodigy of a woman who quickly decided she could not fit into the mold of homemaker wife and mother, as was expected of a young woman in the 1950s. She would torment herself over love, and ate up cultural offerings as if she would uncover the secret to her life’s purpose and happiness if only she applied herself hard enough. Another audience member suggested that in this performance, Susan was not asking for our sympathy. She was methodically defining and redefining herself through her journals, analyzing and reliving every day in order to find truths and patterns. Personally, I found Sontag to be undeniably sympathetic. She was a driven, overly-analytical and overbearingly intellectual individual, sincerely trying to give her utmost contribution to the intellectual world. Her personal relationships often suffered under the weight of her mental activity, but I admired her unflagging determination and her commitment to her writing, nonetheless.
Throughout her journals, Sontag’s relationship to her writing varies, sometimes pursuing it as a selfish act of personal discovery, and at other times feeling like she is contributing to the great lineage of philosophers. Sontag writes, “I write to define myself–an act of self-creation–part of [the] process of becoming–In a dialogue with myself, with writers I admire living and dead, with ideal readers…” (295). Sontag was figuring out her place in the canon of great thinkers; and the text of her journals reveals her attempts at self-definition. In a similar effort, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, on display at the Brooklyn Museum, invites important and long-neglected women “to the table” of recorded history. Over and over, as I dip into the city’s cultural offerings, I am reminded how difficult it continues to be for women to find their place at the table.
By nature of a one-person show, it is generally to the artist’s advantage to render a sympathetic character, in order to keep the audience’s attention rapt. However, in Sontag Reborn, Angelos daringly demands that the audience accept Sontag in all of her abrasive glory, or not. In embodying the innermost mental wrangling of someone so educated and intellectually potent, we meet a different character than we might, had Angelos chosen to portray the outer Sontag, the one her friends and lovers wrote about, the one her son remembers, or the one who taught philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College. We meet Sontag’s thoughts.
The question of Sontag as a sympathetic character was all the more striking because I still had Baker, Herzog and Gibson’s words ringing in my ears — almost fifty years later, these women, albeit magnificently successful in their own rite, are the exceptions, and they are still answering (necessary) questions about the professional disparities they have encountered, in contrast to their male contemporaries. A response by Annie Baker stood out to me: she was surprised to receive criticism, and even outrage, at the length of her plays (The Flick, her most recent piece, running close to three hours), whereas her male counterparts rarely receive the same criticism. Akin to Sontag, Baker dares to make a big impression; she does not limit herself to the expectations of her society. Ultimately, these visionary women aren’t asking for anyone’s sympathy. They are asking for you to listen to an original voice.
Another comment by Baker that stood out to me was her simple declaration that, “Playwriting is about space.” Angelos’ representation of Sontag’s journals masterfully demonstrated this concept, by layering three visual planes: a video of older Sontag, looking back at her younger self, as performed by Angelos, as well as a screen of phantom journal writing and various historical video and photographic projections. This triple-layered effect created a deluge of information that was at times overwhelming. However, it justly represented the fast-paced earnestness with which Sontag approached her existence. As she wrote in her journals, “Seriousness is really a virtue for me, one of the few which [I] accept existentially and will emotionally. I love being gay and forgetful, but this only has meaning against the background of imperative seriousness” (180-181). This hard-edged approach creates an isolated and difficult existence, which Angelos adeptly portrayed visually and spatially by filling the playing space with words and images, guiding the audience’s eyes towards multiple points of attention at any given moment. Although Baker’s comment was referring literally to the importance of creatively imagining and negotiating the physical space of a stage, as the women of my generation crash our way through glass ceilings into positions of power and influence, I couldn’t help taking her comment more metaphorically. One of the most powerful theatrical experiences I’ve ever participated in was a college, all female production of Macbeth, in which the best lesson I learned was how to plant my feet, bend my knees, throw my shoulders back, and stand like a prince.
Sontag was gifted with an exceptional intellect that often resulted in feelings of isolation and stagnation, when even her fierce attempts at its cultivation and employment were not enough for her own rigorous personal standards. The final words of Sontag Reborn read, “The intellectual ecstasy I have had access to since early childhood. But ecstasy is ecstasy. Intellectual ‘wanting’ like sexual wanting” (318). Sontag craved intellectual stimulation, to the extent that she often had difficulty relating to the social expectations of her world. Angelos’ performance generously invites the audience inside this exceptional mind, similar to the way that Baker, Herzog, and Gibson’s characters give voice to their innermost perceptions. Little by little, I’m adding my voice to the mix, and I’m proud to have such astounding role models to admire.