Susan Sontag | Critical Review by Marie Olesen Urbanski

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Susan Sontag.
This section contains 670 words
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Critical Review by Marie Olesen Urbanski

SOURCE: "A Festering Rage," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 10, 1993, p. 8.

In the following review, Urbanski writes that the subject matter of Alice in Bed is challenging and interesting but the play suffers from numerous limitations.

How do you write a play about emptiness, about a woman whose "career choice" was to be an invalid? Who retreated from life to her bed with recurrent, undefined—perhaps imaginary—illnesses? Who read a lot, had a few friends and kept a journal, but never held a job or took a lover? This is the difficult subject Susan Sontag has chosen to dramatize in Alice in Bed, her new play about Alice James, who lived from 1848 to 1892.

If known at all today, James is remembered for being the sister of the famous novelist Henry James and the renowned psychologist William James. In literary circles, she first attracted attention for the strange diary she kept the last three years of her life. First published in 1934, the journal is admired today for its austere and acerbic social commentary, but it first caused a stir for her expression of "enormous relief" upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer at the age of 42.

James' startling reaction to the news of her premature demise surely attracted Sontag's attention, perhaps in part due to her own diagnosis of breast cancer at around the same age. Although in Illness as Metaphor, Sontag considered tuberculosis as the disease for 19th-Century romantics, she suggests that James's retreat into her "mental prison" of illness was the Victorian lady's archetypal response to anger and grief.

Much of the success of the theatrical production of Alice in Bed—which has been produced in Germany and Austria but not yet in the United States—would depend on the shock value of seeing the crippled character pinned under 10 mattresses and in watching a supposed victim manipulate her able-bodied nurses, relatives and even a burglar. The play sizzles as the young thief, puzzled by the insouciance of his chatty victim as he ransacks her drawers implores: "Why don't you scream?"

After the stark, post-modernist manner of Samuel Beckett, Sontag creates muted dialogue, showing Alice pitting her passive aggression against her nurses, brothers and father. In one scene, she introduces historical personages Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson having tea with Alice while stage directions indicate that she is shrinking like Alice in "Wonderland."

Feminist activist Fuller is the perfect foil to the invalid, but instead of showing Fuller as the accomplished and charismatic woman that she was, Sontag perpetuates an outdated stereotype by depicting her as intimidating and insensitive. Though this transgression might seem surprising coming from the feminist Sontag, such slipshod characterization is doubtless due to the two-week period she devoted to writing the play rather than any literary malice of forethought. To her credit, Sontag does better by Emily Dickinson, whose characterization lacks the trivial treatment given the poet by William Luce in his popular play, "Belle of Amherst."

The essayist in Sontag often overwhelms the dramatist as throughout Alice in Bed she substitutes intellectual concept for pure dramatization. She falters in a scene showing James' fantasy life in Italy: "[I]n my mind I can go as far as I want, I can do what I can't do, what I shouldn't do, in my mind." In this monologue, Sontag's Alice lacks the emotive power of Tennessee Williams's heartsick heroines who declaim their losses, not by repeating words, but by high poetry.

It would have been much easier for Sontag to create a modern Medea who could rave against the man who had betrayed her and enact a terrifying revenge, than to create a protagonist paralyzed by internal conflict. Given the difficulties of dramatizing that special weakness of women in this century and the last—psychological self-immolation—Sontag was brave to attempt so challenging a subject.

Despite its limitations, readers and theatergoers will surely be exposed to a rare but little-explored reality, from the female experience: a festering rage that causes depression, and perhaps illness—ultimately the "life force" turned on itself.

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This section contains 670 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Marie Olesen Urbanski
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