In a society obsessed with self-actualization and finding one’s “passion,” it’s rare to see real glimpses of the wrenching struggles that some people go through while attempting to create a persona and a life that lives up to their ideals. Not to mention the pressures to mesh those ideals with the norms our society imposes in the form of vocation, class, race or ethnicity, sexuality, and religion. Self-actualization often implies that there is a single and stable self to be realized, to be found, and the project then becomes to live fully and only as that idealized self, controlling, ignoring or purging your errant desires and failures to live up to those lofty aspirations.
The Builders Association‘s new show Sontag: Reborn (in the Under the Radar Festival through January 15), depicts, in a rich polyphonic production, the ways in which the young Susan Sontag attempted to build a regulated self, despite the messy, confounding, nonconformist and indomitable elements within her.
The text of the play comes primarily from the late Sontag’s recently published early journals. The excerpts from her journals and writing that are in the show illuminate Sontag’s journey into adulthood, beginning with her enrollment in the University of California, Berkeley, after graduating high school at the age of 15, and then following her through her marriage at 17 to Philip Rieff, the birth of her son when she was 19 and her ongoing academic pursuits, which spanned numerous schools in both the U.S. and Europe, leading up to her arrival in New York City in her late 20s. Tied in with all that are discussions of her early relationships and affairs with a handful of women, as well as a couple of men other than Rieff, and the way in which the discovery of her rich and undefined sexuality both clashed with and ignited her intellectual pursuits. In the play, as in her journals, Sontag writes after her first romantic and sexual experience with a woman, “I have been given, in part, permission to live.”
Sontag: Reborn incorporates live performance and projections of a taped performance along with additional video projections. The live performance features a young Sontag, jotting and jostling through her intellectually formative years, while an elder Sontag is projected onto a scrim above and to the right of the younger woman. The effect of the elder looking down in judgment, editing and chiding her younger self, perfectly evokes the constant inner critic that Sontag seems to have grappled with throughout her life. Both depictions of Sontag are performed by the deft and rigorous Moe Angeles, who lends a high degree of humanity to a persona that in words can sometimes seem to reject its own humanity entirely.
By animating the written struggles of Sontag through live performance, The Builders Association, shows so poignantly the way in which any idea ultimately is born of a flesh and blood person who is fallible, full of foibles, and at least occasionally wracked by dysfunction. The rebirth of the title seems to come in many layers in the play—she is being reborn from her death in 2004; through her intellectual and sexual development she is reborn as an entirely new person; and through the self-creation of her writing, she rejects an accepted fate of any kind and births a new self of her own making.
In Reborn, The Builders Association represent the elder Sontag primarily as detached, dismissive and reproachful in response to the younger Sontag’s awkward, earnest, willful, and befuddled actions and ideas. But both selves are cut through with an intellectual intensity that is simultaneously embattled and beholden to the body in which it is contained.
Sontag, in Reborn and in the journals, seems to want to be something that no human can be—a living idealization, and she never gives up the project, at least not during the years depicted in the show. And it’s that undying ambition to be more than what she is that makes her seemingly aloof life into a very human story.
Her determination to live according to abstract notions about her role in the world, combined with her inability to accept certain parts of herself, is something many people struggle with, even when those abstract notions are in the more familiar guise of religious and political ideals.
While on the page her words may seem humorless, on stage, in Angeles’ capable hands, it’s that very humorlessness that provides careful and funny notes of reflection. She was only 15 when she went to Berkeley, and at 17, after only ten days of dating, she married a man eleven years her senior. Who but a teenager would enter into such an agreement so sure that she was making an adult decision?
The subtlety of Marianne Weems’ direction contributes in no small measure to the work’s success. Angeles’ hemmed in physicalizations, along with the voice she adopts and the repetitions in her motions—particularly the smoothing out of the pages of each journal as she starts anew—evoke a hopefulness and beautiful naïveté. Naïve not as a negative quality, but as the mark of an understanding that we can sometimes make things come into being simply by willing and working for them to be so.
This show portrays, above all else, a person with an urgent desire to live, and a willful determination to be and do something she believes to be meaningful. But it also seems to warn of the negative and destructive forces that too strong a commitment to an ideal can bring about. We laud happiness and realization of the self, but when that realization has to fit a certain model, there are downsides.
(Photo: James Gibbs)