Sontag in Wonderland

Auteur Director Ivo van Hove Brings Some Radical Will to ‘Alice in Bed’

Whether deconstructing the language of illness or staging Waiting for Godot in shell-shocked Sarajevo, Susan Sontag has rarely lacked intellectual mission. Though the private demands of novel writing may have limited her role as public sage, she remains as crisply authoritative as ever. Provoked by a question about the biographical references in her play Alice in Bed—now previewing at New York Theater Workshop in a production directed by Belgian auteur Ivo van Hove—she unlooses a seminar's worth of cautionary words on the error of confusing fiction with fact.

"It's not my purpose to introduce people to Alice James," Sontag says, referring to her play's ostensible subject, Henry and William James's brilliant, but virtually unknown, sister. "If I do, that's nice fallout, but I've taken total liberty with her story." Tugging discreetly at her scarf, head cocked back at an appraising angle, Sontag's not about to suffer fallacious ideas gladly. Her emphatic tone may have something to do with the recent criticisms leveled at her otherwise well-received novel In America, in which she's accused of incorporating historical material about an acclaimed 19th-century Polish actress without fully acknowledging her sources. "Preposterous," she says, though later conceding that anytime you write about people who have actually existed, "you will necessarily use elements of the real life."

The paradox of "historical fiction" is obviously filled with occupational hazards. Not only is an author beset by questions that fall outside her imaginative purview, but the work is subject to a kind of fact-checking normally reserved for nonfiction. Sontag confesses somewhat resignedly that she no longer plans to use "existing stories as a literary trampoline." But not even she can deny that "recycling" (to use the postmodern jargon) has allowed her to attain new heights as a novelist. And, yes, as a playwright too.

Van Hove and Sontag at New York Theater Workshop: a “career invalid” in the looking glass
photo: Robin Holland
Van Hove and Sontag at New York Theater Workshop: a “career invalid” in the looking glass

That's right, Sontag the playwright. A onetime Partisan Review drama critic, an eternal friend of the European avant-garde, a stage director when the mood hits, and still an avid theatergoer, Sontag couldn't legitimately claim the title of dramatist until finishing Alice in Bed, written in 1993 during an interlude from In America. Drawing the historical background from the "James soup" in her head, Sontag, who's read nearly every magisterial sentence Henry James wrote, first encountered mention of "poor Alice" in his collected letters. It was here that she gleaned the bleak facts of Alice's life: the nervous attacks in adolescence that gave way to suicidal preoccupation; the series of undiagnosed ailments that ultimately left her bedridden; the final move to be near Henry in London, where she died at age 43 from breast cancer, leaving a diary as her only literary legacy.

As poignant as the story is, Sontag insists that the greater inspiration came from that more famous (and upbeat) 19th-century Alice, Lewis Carroll's child adventurer in Wonderland. The impulse to write the play was spawned in the sumptuous villa of her then Italian publisher, whose wife's "super-chic, high Milan taste" included a stack of very thin, striped mattresses in an entrance-hall corner. Pondering what it would be like to sleep at the bottom of the pile, Sontag began to spin an Alice in Wonderland fantasia that incorporated the self-imprisonment of Alice James in bed. "I wanted to create a mythic figure, where I would weld together elements of the two Alices to create a drama about a tormented consciousness, a woman's consciousness, a woman who gives up."

The play's sexual politics involve what Sontag calls a "lifetime of thinking" on the disparity of male and female achievement. "Talent may be nature's way of being unfair," she says, "but it's an unfairness that's divided equally between the two sexes." Sontag's theory as to why women have so often done less with their abilities is that they're socialized to be "cooperative and conciliatory"—invaluable qualities for the communal life, she admits, but antithetical to the "ruthless concentration" needed to realize special genius. Sontag's Alice confronts a spectrum of exceptional 19th-century women at a mad tea party hosted by Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller, two writers whose paths couldn't be more divergent. At the heart of the scene is the expansive mystery of Alice's psychological paralysis—why, with all her manifold gifts, does she languish under the sheets?

Often referred to as a "career invalid," Alice James was perhaps most accurately diagnosed by brother Henry, who claimed that her "tragic health was in a manner the only solution for her of the practical problem of life—as it suppressed the lament of equality, reciprocity, etc." Director van Hove—whose antirealist production last season of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire blasted through a half-century of accumulated clichés to locate the violent truth of Blanche's nightmare—shares Henry's existential view. "Alice is desperately searching to figure out how to live her life," he says in precise, Flemish-accented English. "She looks to her father, her brother, the other guests at the mad tea party for an answer, but of course you cannot get this outside of yourself. And the more she doesn't find what she's looking for, the more she withdraws into her herself."

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