Sontag: Reborn

Moe Angelos and The Builders Association provide a fascinating glimpse into the early life of Susan Sontag.

Moe Angelos in <i>Sontag: Reborn</i>
Moe Angelos in Sontag: Reborn
(© Joan Marcus)

One of the world’s great intellectuals — and tough cookies — Susan Sontag might have appeared to observers as having emerged from the womb with an overwhelming sense of superiority and surety. But as we learn almost immediately in Moe Angelos and The Builders Association’s often fascinating biodrama Sontag: Reborn, now at New York Theatre Workshop, the younger Sontag was plagued with an almost crippling amount of self-doubt regarding her talent and sexuality.

The 75-minute play is based primarily on the first published volume of copious journals kept by Sontag (played crisply yet with great feeling by Angelos), covering the years 1947 to 1963. It was a period during which Sontag’s professional and personal accomplishments are often mind-boggling: numerous college and graduate degrees by age 25; an ill-fated, quickly-decided-upon marriage to sociology professor Philip Rieff (which resulted in the birth of their son, David, who would later become Sontag’s greatest collaborator); a long, eventually unhappy relationship with playwright Maria Irene Fornes; and the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor (which received a scathing notice in The New York Times Book Review) at age 30.

But each step of the way Sontag fought with herself, questioning every decision and every action. Even the reading of the journals of French writer Andre Gide by the precocious teenager results in self-admonition. “I finished reading this at 2:30 a.m. of the same day I acquired it — I should have read it much more slowly and I must re-read it many times — I do not think: How marvelously lucid this is!”— but: “Stop! I cannot think this fast! Or rather I cannot grow this fast!”

One of the most engaging aspects of director Marianne Weems’ clever production is that the younger Sontag, hidden behind a scrim as she putters around her desk, also periodically argues with a projection of the older Sontag. (The superb video design is by Austin Switser.) She provides bon mots of wisdom, scathing commentary, and the occasional pop quiz — in keeping with Sontag’s lifelong desire to better prepare herself for the future, even when she is totally unsure of what it would hold.

At times, the intellectual discourse here gets too heady, as if the audience is enrolled in a college class where the curriculum is over their heads. But Angelos wisely never lets us get too far away from Sontag’s human struggles (although the script does give short shrift to the fact that she gave up custody of David for much of his early life so she could travel the world).

Among the most affecting sections of the piece is the 16-year-old Sontag’s decision to finally embrace her lesbianism when she meets a woman called H while studying at Berkeley. After they make love for the first time, Sontag writes: “And what am I now, as I write this? Nothing less than an entirely different person…—And I was so close to completely negating myself of surrendering altogether. I know now a little of my capacity…I know what I want to do with my life, all of this being so simple, but so difficult for me in the past to know…”

As it would turn out, such certainty was more of an illusion than a reality. But few people’s journeys, even with its myriad twists and turns, were more fascinating than Susan Sontag’s.

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