News & Politics

Sontag in Wonderland


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.

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.”

What especially attracted van Hove was the way Alice’s Beckettian inertia—she can’t go on, she’ll go on in bed—is accompanied by an acute intellectual awareness. For him, the play is “a study in solitude,” a portrait of a woman ill-equipped to deal with quotidian harshness, yet one who possesses an incredibly rich inner life. The production—which premiered this summer at the Holland Festival, where van Hove is artistic director—creates a multimedia dreamscape centering almost entirely on Alice’s mental travels. Joan MacIntosh, who won an Obie for her performance in van Hove’s 1997 production of More Stately Mansions, plays the immobilized Alice; the rest of the actors all appear on video, with the exception of Belgian actor Jorre Vandenbussche, as the thief who seductively loots Alice’s surprisingly hospitable room. Taking his customary nonliteral approach to text, van Hove not only forgoes the stack of mattresses, but, as he puts it himself, “turns the experience into a kind of drifting, opium-induced monologue.”

Let the controversy begin. Sontag at least has given van Hove her blessing, as she did Robert Wilson, who directed his own mattress-less Alice in Berlin six years ago. (The U.S. premiere took place in Boston in 1996, an A.R.T. New Stages production directed by Bob McGrath.) Though the play may be literary in subject, its fluid theatrical style invites auteurial collaboration, and Sontag is thrilled to be working with someone she considers “one of the most important living directors.” After seeing Streetcar three times—she’s still haunted by Elizabeth Marvel’s searing performance as Blanche—Sontag is convinced that “the future of theater as something you want to see rather than something you want to read in a book” lies in the hands of people like van Hove. “We don’t have many directors like that anymore,” she adds. “We have one obvious one, Elizabeth LeCompte, who’s the American theater director I most admire. Robert Wilson too, of course—though he’s increasingly distracting himself with projects like doing the decor for the Guggenheim’s Armani show.” LeCompte stands out in Sontag’s mind not only because she has “her own company of brilliant performers,” but because she’s stayed faithful to her aesthetic and developed “a real theater instrument.”

Given the tremendous excitement van Hove’s productions have generated in the downtown artistic community, it’s disappointing the way he’s been casually dismissed by so many critics. The long-standing tradition here of a “director’s theater”—the work of people like JoAnne Akalaitis, Ping Chong, Peter Sellars, and Andrei Serban, to name a few—seems to have fallen out of journalistic favor. More distressing, however, is the thumbs-up, thumbs-down consumer-report style of reviewing that has discouraged rigorous engagement with this kind of challenging, ambitious, and, yes, often fascinatingly flawed work.

Though the latest NYTW offering is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about van Hove, perhaps his triply deceitful Alice—one that’s unfaithful not only to Alice James and Lewis Carroll, but also to Sontag’s own stage directions—will expand the scope of poetic license. Both director and playwright agree that an artist should have free rein to revise the factual and theatrical pasts. History may depend on slavish accuracy, but as Oscar Wilde once observed, imagination is built on provocative lies.

Archive Highlights