Alice in Bed

Susan Sontag is best known as a brilliant essayist, tackling subjects such as the movies, photography, illness (cancer and AIDS). More recently, THE VOLCANO LOVER, her novel about the romantic lives of Lord Nelson Lady Hamilton, has been a best-seller. That book, like ALICE IN BED, features Sontag’s avant-garde side, her desire to make the materials of history and biography submit to the interpretive powers of fiction, in which the author is free to speculate about motivation and truth in ways that are barred to the historian or journalist, who must struggle with fact alone.

ALICE IN BED invents dialogue for Alice James, treating her invalidism not only as a feminist issue but also as one of the central problems of humanity. What are individuals supposed to do when they get out of bed? Take the world by storm, as the nineteenth century feminist, Margaret Fuller did? She is one of the characters in the play who give Alice advice. Or should they stay at home, creating a world just as adventurous through the medium of language—as another of Alice’s advisees, the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson, did.

In her play, Sontag seems to ponder everything: what it means to be a woman in the distinguished James family (the father a notable writer, one brother a distinguished philosopher, another a great novelist), the nature of language (“tenses are strangely potent aren’t they”), the patterns of history, class structure (Alice has a talk with a Cockney burglar), and the paradox of Alice herself, who does not get out of bed and yet says: “My mind makes me feel strong.“

Those unfamiliar with Alice James’s story, or who are confused by the play’s style and structure, will find Sontag’s note at the end of the play very helpful.