Sontag Reborn


Sontage Reborn, mise-en-scene

Moe Angelos and Marianne Weems of The Builders Association have created a mesmerizing new media performance from the recently published diaries of Susan Sontag. The spoken text is adapted from the first two volumes of the diaries and various interviews with Sontag and those who touched her life.  The visual text is produced live and digitally from an array of cameras and projections.  Both combine seamlessly to create an emotionally, theatrically, and intellectually compelling work.

Angelos adapted Sontag’s diaries by selecting scenes and moments she felt cried out to be theatricalized.  (The New York Theatre Workshop’s dramaturgical notes on the production are quite useful; they can be found here.) The stories she embodies are indeed vivid—a 15-year-old Sontag describes being taken to gay bars in San Francisco in the 50s, seeing people dressed across gender, and becoming intoxicated by the queer scene and by her older female companion, the mysterious “H,” with whom she maintains a life-long friendship. Angelos’s script also captures scenes from Sontag’s life as a young undergrad at UC-Berkeley; as an expat studying at Oxford and in Paris; as a bohemian in New York; and as an intellectual prodigy who married young, had a child, and divorced early, as she couldn’t bear to be confined by conventional domestic life.

These vignettes from Sontag’s life, all described through journal entries that Angelos excerpts and stitches together, are structured chronologically, from when she was 15 to about 30. Angelos, as Sontag, sits behind a large desk center stage, embodying the writer as she leaves her intellectually and sexually promiscuous teen years to become the astute cultural critic of her 20s and beyond. To the audience’s right, projected on an otherwise transparent scrim across the front of the stage, Sontag as an older woman appears in black-and-white from the shoulders up.

Sontag the elder boasts her trademark skunk’s stripe of white across her thick dark hair and wears a scarf draped around her shoulders. She smokes continuously, comments, and watches her younger self from a perch somewhere in the future. The older Sontag’s running, often wry and cutting commentary on her younger self offers a delicious counterpoint.  In one of her first lines, for example, as the very young Sontag is enthusing over or bemoaning some event in her life, the older Sontag notes that childhood is a waste of time. Throughout the production, the woman watches us watch the younger Sontag, guiding our reactions and measuring herself against the progress of her own history.

Apparently, Sontag frequently reread her diaries, commenting on her entries in the margins as she aged. The journals, as Angelos’s script notes, allowed her to create herself. Far from private reflections, she always intended them to be read, and wrote with the sly impetuousness of a young woman who cared not at all for the bad impression she might give of her fellows or, for that matter, herself. Sontag Reborn underlines that Sontag’s life was performative; she lived it as she wrote it, rather than vice versa.

Angelos and Weems rehearsing

Sontag’s journals are ripe for theatricalizing because she used the page to create her persona, crafting herself the way other young women use their mirrors to primp and prepare to be observed and admired. The gift of the production is that it chronicles the self-making of a woman who was so smart and fearless about living contrary to her day’s dominating ideology. It’s entirely refreshing to watch a performance about a woman who loved to think, who held strong, even fierce, opinions, who was a cultural omnivore (even if her tastes ran to the highest art), and thought deeply about everything she consumed.

The production makes that intellect pleasurably material. Angelos as Sontag rifles through stacks of books, showing us their spines and reading out their titles. She lists books she needs to read and films she needs to see, pushing herself far and fast and holding the highest expectations of herself.  As she writes down her thoughts, they’re projected in urgent handwriting across the screen upstage of her desk.  Thinking, in Sontag Reborn, is a physical and emotional exertion, and in Angelos’s terrific performance, it’s a deeply embodied experience.

Rather than a static recitation of an exultant mind, the production gives us Sontag as a bundle of energy, who can barely contain the ideas firing through her brain. She lies across her desk, thinking among her journals, books, and papers, while we see her on screen, reflected by an overhead camera that projects her image in a loop that also brings movement to the scene.  (NYTW also has a great “making of” video available here.)  Both the young and the old Sontag smoke incessantly, crooking their hands with just the right insouciant flair to make the habit seem debonair and sexy, if not something of a mysterious curtain over the world-scrutinizing woman beyond.  Angelos masterfully moves Sontag through the years, aging her so subtly–as the Feminist Spectator 2 noticed–that it’s only on reflection that we can see the vocal and behavioral differences between the various versions of herself.

Susan Sontag

Sontag, obviously, is perhaps the most famous American female public intellectual in history. But how often do we see such remarkably smart women holding center stage by themselves? And how often are their stories about rejecting not just conventional interpretations of motherhood but also of romance? In the short period that Sontag Reborn charts, the writer has many love affairs. And for someone so young (not to mention someone coming of age in the 1940s), she seems utterly unruffled by all of them. She says she wants to have sex with lots of people—and though she calls herself, in this production, “homosexual” in the lingo of the day, she has sex with men and women alike—but doesn’t seem eager to settle into a relationship. Her marriage to the sociology professor Phillip Rieff happens young and impulsively and doesn’t last long. Her lust is literally for life, which she soaks in through books and thought and the utterly engaged way in which she experiences the world.

Three layers of imagery: front scrim, live performance, back screen

What a gift to get to spend time with her this way. Angelos and Weems create a theatrical experience that makes excellent use of the mediated environment. A scrim and a screen sandwich the live action.  The visual accompaniment they provide includes animated moments of Sontag writing in the journals, in which her handwriting is projected in creamy white across the journals across which Angelos’s hands fly.  Because it’s so difficult to theatricalize thought, the visuals (by video designer Austin Switser, scene designer Joshua Higgason, and lighting designer Laura Mroczkowski) do an excellent job of making her intellectual and artistic process both material and abstracted into stage art.  The designers also illustrate the performance with video clips and photo archives and long lists of titles and words, none of them exactly documentary, but all of them evocative of the Sontag aura and gestalt.  The choreography of the visuals mimic the lightning speed of Sontag’s mind and illustrate the collision of ideas populating her brain.

By mixing the kind of declamatory statements found in abundance in her journals with more meditative passages, and visualizing her thought process with an astute collection of moving images, Sontag Reborn gives us a rare glimpse into the life of the kind of woman seen and celebrated too rarely onstage and in “real life”: a smart, towering intellect who was willful, determined, sometimes caustic, and always inspiring.

The Feminist Spectator

Sontag Reborn, New York Theatre Workshop, Off Broadway, June 26, 2013.

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