Alice James Faced Life in a Nightgown
The only daughter in the famous family of scholars had a lively but tortured intellect
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — ALICE IN BED
Play by Susan Sontag. At the Hasty Pudding Theatre through May 5.
Alice James is generally remembered with a sigh for what might have been. Her only publication was her diary, penned between 1889 and 1892.
By contrast, Susan Sontag has earned citations, degrees, and accolades for a string of works that cover nearly every subject in contemporary arts and letters. Yet the two American women, separated by nearly a century, have been joined by Sontag's latest project, a fantasy-drama on the life of James entitled "Alice in Bed."
James was the youngest of five children - "the kid sister of the James family," as Sontag describes her - and the only daughter in the distinguished 19th-century New England family that included her brothers, William the philosopher and Harvard professor, and Henry the novelist. Her one contribution to the family bookshelf, the posthumously published diary, was written when she was an expatriate in England. A book of her letters was published in 1981.
The first American production of "Alice in Bed" runs through May 5 at Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theatre, located around the corner from Quincy Street where the James family lived during Alice's adolescence. The play has been produced by the American Repertory Theatre's New Stages series.
"Alice In Bed" is less a conventional drama than a progression of eight scenes around important events in James's life. The chronology is free-fall, ricocheting between early memories of her father, visits from brother Henry, and a surrealist time-out-of-mind voyage. The play is fraught with symbols of societal repression, including piles of mattresses that are heaped on James when she threatens to break into hysterics.
The most human encounter is a scene with a working-class burglar who gets more advice than baubles when he steals into Alice's room by night. Of plot development, exposition, and ordinary dramatic structure, there is practically none.
"I didn't decide to write a play about Alice James," Sontag declares. "The impetus was an actress friend of mine who said to me, 'Please write me a play and I want to be on stage all the time.' I said, 'Well, you'll have to be in bed all the time.' I started with an image, a feeling, a character. I thought, 'Who is she? Well, she could be Alice James.' The notion is a bed as a kind of retreat. She's a career invalid because she can't cope. She has retreated from the world but she has this extremely lively consciousness.
"Her drama was being a woman. The original image was that it would be a play centering on a woman and be about the dramas of her struggle," Sontag says.
When asked at what point she started thinking about Alice James, Sontag responds: "At all points, the point is it's in me, it's all happening simultaneously. She's real to me."
Like James, Sontag possesses an extremely lively consciousness which recasts Alice James in terms of that other Alice of the 19th century, "Alice in Wonderland." The centerpiece of Sontag's play is an imaginary tea party, la Lewis Carroll, at which James is consoled by the transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, the poet Emily Dickinson, and two figures from the 19th-century stage: Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis from "Giselle," and Kundry, a character from Richard Wagner's opera "Parsifal."
Sontag dreamed up the idea of the tea party to set off Alice's long soliloquy which follows it, a breathtaking tour-de-force by Stephanie Roth, the actress cast in the leading role. As she speaks Alice's description of the Rome that she sees in her mind's eye, Roth's face is floated behind a film collage of the city.
"I thought that most of the scenes would be one-on-one but I wanted Alice to have a monologue, so I balanced it with a crowded scene. The characters just came to me. They represent such different ideas about what it is to be a woman, so I thought they should have a conversation. Here's this woman who is pure prose, that's Margaret Fuller; and a woman who is pure poetry, Emily Dickinson; and these two figures, the avenging woman, Myrtha; and Kundry, who is made to feel so guilty," Sontag says.
The tea party is a succulent morsel in the production. The theatrical collaboration between director Bob McGrath, set designers Laurie Olinder and Fred Teitz, costume designer Susan Anderson, and filmmaker Bill Morrison, has turned the play into a particularly striking visual feast.
Despite Sontag's reputation as a tastemaker in her commentaries on contemporary culture, her recent work has veered towards fiction. Her 1992 novel, "The Volcano Lover," based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, his wife, Emma, and Lord Nelson, was a bestseller. Her current project, another novel, is about Madame Helena Mojeska, the 19th-century actress who emigrated from Poland to America.
"I do know that the form does precede the thing, and I always know how long it will be," Sontag says of her work.
Any observations about connections between Sontag and the women who have caught her attention are quickly denied.
"I just think I'm an instrument for making things. I want to write things which have some necessity. I'm not interested in self-expression. If anything, it's the inevitable limitation which I try to transcend," she says. "The point is to make something of certain value. If I can be the instrument of that, it's not important who I am."
SUSAN SONTAG AT A GLANCE
When one meets her in person, Sontag's overwhelming reputation fades away. In its place is an intelligent woman who insists that the work is more important than her celebrity.
Sontag regards herself as a reader rather than a researcher, although her most recent fiction has been based on actual people. "I don't write about something that I don't have a feeling for," she says. "If there are some factual questions, they can be checked at the end."
For the play on Alice James, Sontag says she looked at James's diary and browsed through the biography. "I have a feeling for what is an authentic look," she says. "I think one knows a whole lot without knowing how you know it."
The playwright was in and out of Cambridge, Mass., during the rehearsal period for "Alice in Bed." No stranger to the area, she lived in Cambridge in the 1950s when she was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard University. By 1959, she had earned two master's degrees, gone through a divorce, and moved with her son to New York.
In New York, Sontag left academia for the world of arts and letters in which she has moved far and wide as an essayist, novelist, playwright, and film and theater director. Her books have been translated into 23 languages. She has worked in Germany, Italy, and the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
The awards have piled up in testament to her influence: the National Book Critics Award for "On Photography," a five-year MacArthur fellowship, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard, among others.
She seems to turn up everywhere: in Sarajevo to direct a production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," in New York to watch a rehearsal by the Mark Morris Dance Group, in Germany as a speaker at the memorial service for playwright Heiner Mller, yet she is always working on a new project.
Despite the influence of her essays on contemporary culture, Sontag seems to be engaged by fiction. When asked how she comes up with a subject to write on, she compares her working habits to those of her dancer friends in New York. "Like Merce Cunningham says, 'I want to make a dance.' I wanted to write a play. It's like a soup, the emotions start to emerge. It's not that I Iet my imagination run riot, and then I give it reality. All parts of the process are in the play."