The New York Theatre Workshop is ushering Moe Angelos’s Sontag: Reborn back onto the stage this month. Directed by Marianne Weems, Sontag: Reborn is a one-woman show based on the first volume of Susan Sontag’s journals, which written between the years of 1947 and 1964 when the writer was in the turbulent teenage dream years of her late teens and early 20s. From the show’s playbill, the show portrays “a young Sontag [who] wrestles with her emerging confidence and innate insecurity[;] her diary is a refuge integral to her development as a writer and journey to womanhood…. [U]sing the Builders’ signature synthesis of poetic video and sound, this tightly-crafted story of self-discovery and sexual identity is both exuberant and intimate, exploring the private life, loves and idiosyncrasies of the iconic intellectual.”
The show consists of Sontag’s younger self, played by Angelos, sitting at her desk, surrounded by her books, writing feverishly into her journal while the older Sontag—existing on screen behind the desk—watches over her younger self.
Angelos’s show is an inspired effort to keep Sontag, and all her brilliance, alive within our cultural imaginary. Of last year’s performance, the New York Times noted that “Ms. Angelos’s text captures the inquisitive, sometimes self-lacerating tone of Sontag’s writing, as well as the daily patterns of her life, through mundane details like the lists of books she intends to read.”
While the writer died nearly a decade ago in 2004, her literary and cultural criticism, especially her “Notes on Camp,” is still revered by the academic and general publics. I was able to e-chat with Angelos about her performance, including her method and ideas behind translation, both of the journals and of the woman, onto the stage.
AfterEllen.com: How did you find your way to Sontag as a writer?
AE: The fiercely private public intellectual would seem a difficult subject to crack in performance—was there something particular about the first volume of her journal that grabbed you, that compelled you to create this show?
AE: I remember when I first read book one of her journals I was both fascinated and, well, bored—I think I was bored by the refusal to psychoanalyze all the mundanities of the text, something I feel her son wanted to nudge the reader into doing….
AE: How did you interpret the sexual traces of the book? How do you incorporate those traces in your show?
AE: And a larger question that ties into the above: how did you translate a journal—a written text for private eyes—into a public performance piece? How did you negotiate the formal changes?
AE: Your show first premiered last year to much critical acclaim. With the publication of the second volume of Sontag’s journals, did you weave in any of that text into this version of the show?
AE: Would you say “Sontag: Reborn” has a politics? I ask because it seems that there is a cultural imperative to locate a “politics”—or a “greater, civic reason”—to art’s existence. How would you explain the significance of your show to potential audiences?
Art has many functions. It can illuminate relationship or a “politics” if you like. It can provoke. It can provide comfort. It can anger us. It can deliver sheer beauty, perhaps even joy. It can remind us of our lived, live human experience and also the inverse of that, death. All of these things are valid, and they are humbling tasks for any work of art or artist.
Sontag wanted to be a creative writer, an artist and the essay form which made her famous constantly distracted her from her true passion, which was the novel, as she states in the journals and many interviews. The show shows (literally!) her fierce construction of herself, her passionate mind busy with the task of making herself into a woman who is not afraid to think big thoughts, put them out there boldly, seriously, and to face the consequences. She was very successful in those aims, driven by keen intelligence. In our Kardashian world, it is hard to imagine such a creature walking among us today. And no hate on the Kardashians there; I’m just trying to contextualize fame.
AE: On a similar note, is there a significance to the performance held on Pride Night in NYC?
I am delighted to get my Pride on with anyone who wants to, the last Sunday in June. Rainbows flags and pink triangles and labryses and Tegan and Sara and RuPaul for all! And just a little bit of shame, to keep us all honest.
The four week run of Sontag: Reborn will commence on May 28 and will feature an inaugural Pride Night performance of the show and a reception on May 31 with wine, snacks, and the playwright/performer Moe Angelos in attendance. Tickets, with the special code SRPRIDE, are offered at a discounted price of $35 (from the regular $65); call 212.279.4200 for more information.