The Return of Radical Writer Susan Sontag: History Ignored





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Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

If you don’t remember Susan Sontag’s writings, you must remember the famous photo of her with the shoulder length jet black hair, pensive face and penetrating eyes.  Sontag was a novelist and fiery essayist, who started writing in the 1950s and continued through her death in 2004.  She was, with others, a highly charged critic of much of American life throughout the volatile decades of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

You would not know that sitting through Sontag: Reborn, a weak one-woman show starring Moe Angelos that opened last week at the Public Theater as part of New York’s annual Under the Radar Festival, which features experimental new plays.

Susan Sontag was a controversial figure, often attacked for her writing.  In 1967, she wrote an essay in the Partisan Review in which she said that “the white race is the cancer of human history” and spent a long time trying to explain it away.  Later, she was accused of plagiarism and had to defend herself against those charges.

She traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and wrote extensively about life in  North Vietnam, attracting the same kind of American vitriol that was hurled at actress Jane Fonda when she visited North Vietnam.

On the more positive side, she was a magazine editor that nurtured many up and coming writers. She was President of PEN, a writers group, in the 1980s, and led the protest against the  Iranian death sentence imposed on writer Salmon Rushdie.  She won much acclaim for her essays, including “Notes on ‘Camp’” and “On Photography.”  Her later novels were well-reviewed and she also directed plays.

Sontag: Reborn ignores all of those works and that rich time in U.S. history. This play is a 70-minute retelling of the personal and sexual life of Susan Sontag, where civil rights and the Vietnam War are ignored in favor of Susan’s attraction to the girls of San Francisco and Paris that she met in bars.  Her husband, Paul Rieff, is mentioned only in passing.  Angelos, a member of The Five Lesbian Brothers Theater Company, shows Sontag as an exceedingly shallow and egomaniacal literary figure, treating everything she experiences and does as earthshaking history.

The play runs from 1948 up to 1963, when Sontag became a magazine editor and public speaker, and then stops.  That’s it.  There was nothing about her controversies, the Vietnam War, civil rights or how she became a controversial figure in the women’s movement.  It is a real disappointment because a well done play about Sontag would have been a fine story about the ‘60s and ‘70s, a turbulent time in the U.S., and would have explored an entire generation of Americans.

The staging of this play is quite good.  Angelos dressed like the elder Sontag and filmed herself in black and white, a cigarette always dangling in her fingers.  That film is used as a projection on the theater wall and the filmed Susan helps Angelos tell her story.  The writer’s desk, cluttered with thick books and notepads, is sometimes projected on the wall at the same time that Angelos is using it.  At the end of the show, a tidal wave of words flies off the wall towards the audience like machine gun bullets in a mesmerizing 3-D attack.

The play, that only runs through Sunday,  is based on one of Sontag’s books.  It is a shame that Angelos and director Marianne Weems chose to eliminate the best parts of the Sontag story and instead stage this limited personal memoir.  It is especially disappointing because Weems worked with Sontag in the early 1990s and knew all about her work and the controversy that surrounded it.

Here, Susan Sontag was not reborn at all.

PRODUCTION: New York Public Theater and the Builders Association Theater. Sound: Dan Dobson, Video Design: Austin Switser, Sets: Joshua Higgason, Lighting: Laura Mroczkowski, Costumes: Andreea Mincic, Makeup: Dick Page.


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