Few people who read Susan Sontag’s work—essays, fiction, nonfiction, plays—feel lukewarm about it. The polarizing cultural critic’s proclivity for using her vast breadth of knowledge to make bold, grand assertions (sometimes bypassing explanation) dares the reader to be either with her or against her. Either way, it’s unlikely most would find her acumen easy to relate to—which makes the New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Sontag: Reborn delightfully surprising in its warm theatricalization of her diaries.
The one-woman show, adapted and performed by Moe Angelos and directed by Marianne Weems, begins when Sontag is 14 and follows her emotional and professional development through the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor, at age 30. The writer’s precocious intelligence is evident early on, as she recounts a rigorous self-prescribed reading list that includes, among other things, lots of French author André Gide, whom she admires for his love of himself. (Intense introspection becomes a defining theme of the play.)
Behind Angelos, Sontag’s meticulous, handwritten notes appear in ghostly penmanship. On a screen in front of her, an older Sontag (also played by Angelos) looks on, offering commentary. Angelos remains sandwiched between these two screens throughout the performance; the effect of this design is both theatrical in its layering of generations and distracting in its slight obscuring of the action onstage.
Angelos portrays the younger Sontag with a pluckiness that seems incongruous with the severe older Sontag whose image hovers before her. But the contrast is affecting in that the spiritedness of the younger version seems more in keeping with the passionate tone of her diaries (the journals have been edited by her son, David Rieff, and published as Reborn (2008) and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh (2012), with a third still to come).
A pivotal moment arrives when young Sontag has her first sexual encounter with a woman she refers to as “H.” Transformed by the experience, she realizes, “I never fully comprehended that it was possible to live through your body,” and resolves to do so going forward. Why, then, with what she recognizes in herself to be “lesbian tendencies,” does she conform to the social pressure to marry and have a child?
Whether Sontag ever explains these choices in her diaries—whether she even understands them herself—remains unclear. What we do see is a woman driven by the need to form an independent identity, who escapes her marriage by striving to achieve intellectual greatness while riddled with artistic self-doubt. In these moments of naked self-reflection, sometimes brought on by heartbreak from female lovers after her divorce, the emotional core of the character—and perhaps of Sontag herself—is revealed. “The notebook is where the artist is heroic to himself,” she writes. Indeed, in her private honesty, Sontag is at her bravest.