Susan Sontag | Critical Review by Tess Lewis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Susan Sontag.
This section contains 904 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Tess Lewis

SOURCE: "Wild Fancies," Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 25-6.

In the following review of Alice in Bed, Lewis argues that Sontag fails to bring her characters to life and concludes that the best part of the book is the afterword in which Sontag explains her intent.

"How wild can be the fancies of the unimaginative female!" the bedridden Alice James wrote in her diary in 1891. Unfortunately, wild, self-indulgent fancy rather than quickening imagination is the guiding spirit of Alice in Bed, Susan Sontag's play based on Henry and William James's invalid sister. Intended as a play "about women, about women's anguish and women's consciousness" and about the imagination, Alice in Bed is in fact little more than a procession of emblematic figures uttering portentous, clipped sentences at one another. Rather than bring the historical and fictional figures to life on stage, Sontag exploits them for all the sociocultural atmosphere they are worth, leaving the intellectual heavy lifting to the spectator. Alice, for example, informs Emily Dickinson, "I think your interest in death is more interesting than mine." That may well be, but how, and why, and what difference does it make? Such pronouncements as the fictional Dickinson's "Death is the lining. The lines." hardly clear things up.

Sontag's emblematic use of historical and literary figures was far more successful in her recent novel The Volcano Lover, in which the main characters—Sir William Hamilton; his wife, Emma; and Lord Nelson—are not referred to by name, but as the Cavaliere, the Cavaliere's wife, and the hero. Goethe; William Beckford, the notorious collector, amateur architect, and author of Vathek—the scandalous tale of a sadistic sultan; and the Baron Scarpia from Tosca also make their appearances. But whereas The Volcano Lover's elaborate settings and dramatic action bring most of the characters convincingly to life, Alice in Bed's intellectual scaffolding remains woefully bare.

Alice in Bed opens in 1890 with a 40-ish Alice in bed under several thin mattresses bickering with her nurse about whether she can, will, or even wants to get up. She eventually does, smokes opium, delivers a monologue, and gets back into bed. Throughout the play, the mattresses—social pressures, family expectations, etc.—are piled upon her or taken away by a man and a woman in sailor outfits. In the central scene, inspired by a fusion of Alice James with the heroine of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Alice is joined for a mad tea party by Margaret Fuller; Emily Dickinson; Alice's mother; Kundry from Wagner's Parsifal, who wishes to sleep away her adulterous guilt; and Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis—a group of women in Adolphe Adam's ballet Giselle who died before their wedding days and returned to torment unfaithful lovers. Utterly devoid of humor, this scene reduces such eloquent, passionate women as Fuller and Dickinson to mouthing superficial banalities. For example, Sontag has Dickinson say, "I trust that my flowers have the good grace to be seared by our shouts," and Margaret Fuller, "Women despair differently. I've observed that. We can be very stoical."

Henry James makes an appearance, quoting from Alice's diary and from his own writings about her. In another scene a younger Alice asks her father's permission to commit suicide, a request the senior Henry James did in fact grant his then 30-year old daughter. However, that he should then remove his wooden leg and beat it with a hammer is dramatically, not to mention historically, implausible.

A touch of nostalgie de la boue enters in the form of a gentle, bumbling young thief with "a Cockney or Irish accent." Assured that Alice was ill and would not wake up, he agrees, despite his inexperience, to break into her room only to find a suddenly energetic Alice who drinks his gin, points out the choice pieces he should steal, and reveals her dark visions.

Intended as proof of Alice's victorious imagination as well as the imaginative climax of the play, Scene 6 consists of a monologue delivered by a shrunken Alice in an oversized bed. She describes her mental flight to Rome but fails to draw the reader in. Her constant repetition of the qualifier "in my mind" not only ensures that the imagined scene remains Alice's alone, but also prevents us from believing that she herself is wholly caught up in her imaginative displacement. Alice has, it seems here, constructed an insurmountable barrier between her self and her imagination. Moreover, if this monologue reflects Sontag's view of the limitations and advantages of the mental defense mechanisms of 19th-century women, why does she not illustrate her view at greater length and with greater subtlety? We are offered no insight into the suffering and invalidism prevalent among intelligent women in the 19th century, into the pressures suffered by such women as James, Fuller, and Dickinson, or into their very different reactions to these pressures.

The best thing about the book is the afterword, lumbering though it is. In this "Note on the Play" Sontag explains what she has tried to accomplish. In fact, she explains her intentions so thoroughly that there is no real need for the play at all. Sontag ends her afterword with the rallying cry: "But the victories of the imagination are not enough." Yes, and how dismal are its failures.

Henry James, himself a surprisingly unsuccessful playwright, wrote that "the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take." Sontag has clearly taken far too many here.

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This section contains 904 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Tess Lewis
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