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Smoking and the Intellectual

'Susan Sontag: Reborn' turns intellectual evolution into drama

Jens-Ulrich Koch/AFP/Getty Images

The first thing you see as the lights go down at Sontag: Reborn, the clever and affecting one-woman show now playing at New York Theatre Workshop, is a billow of cigarette smoke. I happened to see the play not long after watching the new movie Hannah Arendt, in which Arendt's smoking is a leitmotif, practically an obsession, and it was suggestive to see how Sontag, too, is defined by her cigarettes. Early on, we hear Moe Angelos—who adapted Sontag's published journals, and plays her—tell the cherished Sontag anecdote about her pilgrimage, as an awed and precocious 15-year-old, to Thomas Mann, then living in Los Angeles. Mann thinks nothing of offering the teenager a smoke, and Sontag, desperate for a souvenir of her brush with greatness, makes off with the butt. In this way, the light of culture is passed on, one glowing tip to another.

Cigarettes are, of course, one way of marking the period—the great age when everybody smoked, which now seems almost as incredible as if everyone were constantly going around drinking arsenic. But there is also, as the Arendt and Sontag cases show, some natural affinity between smoking and the intellectual. Thinking is famously impossible to portray on screen or on stage—think of all those biopics of writers and composers, in which hair-tearing or frantic scribbling is meant to represent the throes of inspiration. Really, however, thinking is more like smoking—solitary, apparently effortless and productless, and in the end not very good for you.

In fact, there are two Sontags puffing away in Sontag: Reborn. On the right side of the stage, we see a film projection of Angelos as the middle-aged Sontag, familiarly leonine, with the white streak in her hair. This Sontag, mature and accomplished, wears a kind of permanent sneer of impatience, which is meant to read as brilliance and authority—the grand intellectual who does not suffer fools.

But the main fool she refuses to suffer is her younger self, who is played live by Angelos on the rest of the stage, made up to look like a book-strewn study. The young Sontag's hour-plus-long monologue is drawn, as best as I could tell, almost entirely and verbatim from her published diaries; the play offers the spectacle of a writer becoming herself in her own words. During her visit to Mann, the great man describes The Magic Mountain as a "Bildungsroman"—the novel of education, staple of nineteenth-century fiction—and that is what Sontag: Reborn really is: a compressed and dramatized Bildungsroman, the story of how Sontag stage left became Sontag stage right.

What makes the show so effective is the way it combines respect for Sontag's earnestness with affection for her absurdities—indeed, the way it shows how her earnestness and her absurdities were the same thing. (Perhaps Sontag's truest parallel in literature is Dr. Johnson, so formidable and so odd.) One of the most striking things in Sontag's diaries are the long lists—of words she wanted to learn, books she wanted to read, movies she has seen. When Angelos, reciting the teenage Sontag's self-imposed reading list, begins stacking and then hurling the books in question on her desk, the scene has a frenetic quality: This is what autodidacticism looks and feels like.

The education Sontag had to undergo, however, was not only intellectual. Indeed, that part came pretty easily, as we see her triumphant march from Berkeley to Chicago to Harvard to Oxford. (Along the way, the older Sontag sternly quizzes the younger one—on German vocabulary and Hindu mythology, among other subjects—becoming a concrete superego.) But the core of the show, as of the diaries, lies in her sentimental education, which took an especially difficult course.

Near the beginning of Sontag: Reborn, we hear the 16-year-old Sontag, a precocious freshman at Berkeley, rhapsodizing about her discovery of her sexuality. She tours the lesbian bars of San Francisco, and (true to form) makes lists of gay slang, and has her first love affair with a woman identified as "H." Then, abruptly and inexplicably—Angelos cues the words to the sound of a scratching needle, an overemphatic touch—Sontag is married, at just 17, to her professor at Chicago, Philip Rieff. For the next few years, there are no diaries, which Angelos dramatizes by showing the older Sontag riffling through empty notebooks. The scene gets a laugh, but really it is tragic: the process of education has been interrupted, the inner voice lost.

When it resumes, Sontag has already embarked on a hectic and determined process of "rebirth," which means fleeing her marriage and her country (a bravura sequence dramatizes her last day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which mere errands become a kind of grail quest). Then comes the exciting part, the hour of fulfillment, and the show becomes a bit of a blur. There is a liberating but finally miserable reunion with "H.," then an equally troubled affair with Irene, punctuated by more books and movies. There is even a psychedelic scene in which we see Sontag trying drugs and doing the Watusi. (The older Sontag goes blurry, her authority momentarily disrupted.)

What Sontag: Reborn cannot do, of course, is dramatize Sontag's actual ideas, the work that made her famous and which is still, in theory, the reason why we are interested in her in the first place. But Angelos understands this generic restriction and—unlike the lame Hannah Arendt, with its dreary recitation of talking-points about Eichmann—Sontag: Reborn does not try to get into the finer points of its subject's thoughts on camp, fascism, and Godard. What we get instead is a powerful visual metaphor: In the show's last moments, the scrim is covered with projections of Sontag's handwriting and the titles of her works, rushing toward us in a tsunami of text. Having been reborn, Sontag is now free to write all this; having seen her rebirth, the audience is free to take it on trust, or to ignore it. The power of Sontag: Reborn, as of the diaries it is based on, suggests that it may be as a human story—an icon of education, self-discovery, and self-invention—that Sontag is destined to be remembered.