Sontag: Reborn, New York Theatre Workshop – review

The journals of Susan Sontag, the American intellectual who died in December, 2004, at the age of 71, do not make for especially engaging reading. They lack the companionable quality that being in Sontag’s physical company provided. Unlike similar works by some of her favourite authors – André Gide for example – Sontag’s jottings ignite interest less as material for sustained reading and more as the skeletal remains of her emerging cultural appetites (Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947-1963) or as a complement to a widening literary career (As Consciousness Is Harness to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980).

Sontag: Reborn, the stage adaptation of those two volumes by Moe Angelos, is an evening of ingenuity. Though the audience learns the basic facts of Sontag’s life – teenage schooling at Berkeley and the University of Chicago; marriage at 17 to sociologist Philip Rieff; motherhood at 19 with the birth of David Rieff, who edited the journals; various European peregrinations – the piece studiously avoids the approach of a biopic.

It also overcomes the obstacles inherent in presenting a writer in thought. It achieves its wonders less through Angelos’s performance as Sontag (the actor has richness of presence but not richness of speaking voice) than through the precise production crafted by Angelos with her director, Marianne Weems, and their designers.

Angelos sits at a capacious desk, sometimes writing in a journal, sometimes arranging her books. A video presence of a mature Sontag, with her signature skunk shock of white hair, looms stage left: it represents a consciousness to complement the flesh of Angelos’s actual stage presence.

Journal phrases declaimed by Angelos aren’t especially memorable: the juvenile snippets exude precocious intellectual longing and the more grown-up ones exude longing of other sorts. The extracts lack anecdotal charm and illustrate what, for me, was one of Sontag’s few deficiencies as a writer, a lack ironic in one who loved music so passionately: she did not have a poetic ear.

As we hear about Sontag’s youthful encounters with Thomas Mann and adult encounters with lovers such as playwright Maria Irene Fornes, we are kept at a remove from Sontag herself: Weems and her colleagues, in a device often used by her company, The Builders Association, place Angelos behind a screen, on to which snippets of the journals are projected. The effect is slightly wearing (Sontag: Reborn runs a long-feeling hour and 15 minutes). Also exhilarating.

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