Susan and Wendy, in Their Own Words

Sontag Reborn, at the Public/ Under the Radar. Photo by James Gibbs

It’s all about the sources in “Wendy and the Lost Boys” and Sontag Reborn, two wholly different cultural artifacts that hold microscopes to egoistic, road-paving women. For “Lost Boys,” a biography by Julie Salamon, that giggly specimen is playwright Wendy Wasserstein; for the new play Sontag Reborn it’s writer and uber-critic Susan Sontag. Each piece features valuable contributions from biographer or adaptor—Salomon’s chronicle of Wasserstein’s untimely death is literally tear-jerking, and actress Moe Angelos gives Sontag’s glittering words, drawn verbatim from her journals, some human pettiness and petulance.

But it’s fundamentally the voice of the first person, independent of interpretation or commentary, that is most powerful in both works. For “Lost Boys,” that’s quotes and letters from Wasserstein and contemporaries. For Sontag Reborn, it’s the original, Sontag journal. The book and the play are valuable insofar as they give us a chance to hear the clear voices of these women—individual, insecure, ambitious—one more time. Here’s a very small sampling of  some unadulterated, straight from the source gems.

“WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS”

Letter to Caroline Aaron

When Aaron, an actress in the out-of-town tryout of The Heidi Chronicles, was replaced in the New York production, Wasserstein started out an apology note with typically funny, food-related self-deprecating humor.

Dearest Caroline;

Oy Gavlat!! I’ve had a baguette, a Saga Blue Cheese, and a nice bag of Reese pieces [sic] before I sat down to write this note. I can’t tell you how difficult this is, or how very fond of I am of you…

Of that letter, Aaron later said,  “It was a lesson everybody in show business could learn. Good manners go a long way. But even people in the mafia have better manners than in show business.”

Letter from Frank Rich

New York Times theater critic Frank Rich was close friends with Wasserstein, and recused himself from reviewing her plays. But that didn’t stop him from giving Wasserstein this remarkable letter after the opening of Isn’t it Romantic.

Dear Wendy,

It was impossible to tell you at La Rousse how overwhelmed I was by your play. Partially because of the circumstances—but just as much because of the strong feelings your play aroused…

I know it isn’t easy for you to be my friend, given the odd paths of our respective careers. I value your friendship so much I cannot tell you. I hope you know that I love you, and it was killing me to have to contemplate all the gloomy faces … as Mel’s review [in the Times] came in. His piece was by no means bad, objectively speaking—save for his shortchanging [director] Gerry [Gutierrez]—but I do know that as low [an] opinion as I have of my own work, I could have done better. But I guess what the whole scene brought home to me is how silly my job is—whether it’s executed my Mel, me, whoever—and how unfortunate it is that our theater lives or dies by a single article in a newspaper. It’s ridiculous, and a critic’s words should have nothing to do with an artist like Gerry’s self-esteem. (But I know that is easier said than put into practice.)

Still that’s another subject—which I must start to deal with in my own way. The point of this letter is to say how proud I am of you, how much in awe I am of your talent, how much I treasure being your friend.

                                                                        Frank

Letter to André Gregory

Wasserstein and producer André Gregory were the closest of bosom buddies, and thought about getting married and having a family, although he was gay. Here’s an angry letter Wasserstein wrote while waiting for him one day:

André—

… It is 4:05 and I am placing a bet with myself that you will arrive at 4:30 or later.

Frankly this makes me furious! I have seldom to experience a meeting with you for which you are not at least twenty minutes late. Yes plays are important, deficits are important… but the consistency is irritating and insulting…

… I don’t know why I am so angry at this moment. Maybe it’s because I am angry at myself for letting you play such a large part in my life. You are at the moment my major attachment, who I call when I get a tooth extracted.

André, I don’t want to marry you. I did two years ago, maybe six months ago. I don’t anymore and sometimes I think I would like to have children with you. I would like us to reproduce, I would like to bring them up at One Fifth near you. But that fantasy, too, fades. Has faded.

Sometimes I feel like a convenience for you. Someone to travel with, spend weekends and few demands or commitments. Because the ultimate answer is, Wendy I love you but I’m gay.

I wish you weren’t late. I wish I wasn’t so angry…

                                                            Wendy

No less articulate is SONTAG REBORN, drawn from “REBORN: JOURNALS AND NOTEBOOKS 1947 – 1963”

5/23/49 – age 16, at Berkeley

I know now a little of my capacity... I don’t intend to let my intellect dominate me, and the last thing I want to do is worship knowledge or people who have knowledge! I don’t give a damn for anyone’s aggregation of facts, except that it be a reflection [of] basic sensitivity which I do demand… I intend to do everything… to have one way of evaluating experience—does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful—I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly… everything matters! The only thing I resign is the power to resign, to retreat: the acceptance of sameness and the intellect. I am alive… I am beautiful… what else is there?

1. 1/15/57

Rules + duties for being 24

1. Have better posture.
2. Write Mother 3 times a week.
3. Eat less.
4. Write two hours a day minimally
5. Never complain publicly about Brandeis or money.
6. Teach [son] David to read.

3. 12/31/57

On Keeping a Journal.

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself.

The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather—in many cases—offers an alternative to it.

*************************

Wasserstein and Sontag carved careers distinct from each other, but their writing is united by an immediacy and a sense of importance. Words were the way they remade the world in their own image and projected that world out to the rest of us.

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