Susan Sontag, Renowned Essayist and Intellectual, Is Dead at 71

Obituaries   Susan Sontag, Renowned Essayist and Intellectual, Is Dead at 71
Susan Sontag, perhaps the most renowned American intellectual and essayist of the latter 20th century, and an occasional playwright and theatre director, died Dec. 27 at New York City's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the New York Times reported.

The cause was complications of acute myelogenous leukemia. Ms. Sontag had been suffering from cancer on and off for 30 years.

Ms. Sontag was the rare intellectual who achieved public fame and popular acclaim. A striking woman whose mane of dark hair was bisected by a dramatic streak of white, she was known to the small readership of the high brow journal Partisan Review and the vast audiences of "Bull Durham" (where her work is a bone of contention between the characters played by Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon) and Woody Allen's "Zelig" (in which she appeared as herself).

While never a major participant in the world of theatre, she also never quite left it alone. Fascinated by the increasingly blurred lines separating high and low culture, the marriage of art and entertainment that is commercial theatre offered a natural canvas on which she could sketch her thoughts. She first made her mark as a thinker with her landmark 1964 essay "Notes on Camp," in which—through a series of loosely connected statements and observations—she mulled the sources, meanings and trademarks of the then loosely understood notion of camp culture. "Camp is esoteric," she claimed, "something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques." The effects of that article are still felt and debated in corners of the theatre that traffic in the camp style.

Ms. Sontag also penned an extended analysis of playwright Eugene Ionesco. Written in the mid-60s when the absurdist was enjoying his greatest fame, the piece credited him as a master of the short play, but berated his longer works and faulted him for espousing political platitudes.

"A lot of my early life was spent in the theatre," she told Time Out New York in a 2000 interview. "I actually did community theatre in Tucson when I was a child. The first long thing I wrote as a child was a play. Now I want to write more plays. And I love actors. And I direct. Not my own work, however." The interview preceded the premiere of her sole published play Alice in Bed, which was produced by New York Theatre Workshop in fall 2000, directed by Dutchman Ivo van Hove. The highly esoteric, avant garde, fragmentary piece was about Alice James, the bedridden, little known sister of novelist Henry James and philosopher William James. The production featured a bound, immobile Joan Macintosh, surrounded by an ever-changing field of sounds and projections.

Alice in Bed was first directed by Bob Wilson in Berlin in 1993 and then had its American premiere in Boston in 1996. Wilson also directed Ms. Sontag's free adaptation of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea in Korea.

In August 1993, Susan Sontag made headlines by staging a production of Waiting for Godot at the Youth Theatre in Sarajevo while that city was under siege by Serb forces and subject to daily shelling and sniper fire. Local actors were used and the stage was lit by candles. Ms. Sontag triple cast the leads of Vladimir and Estragon, using a male pair, a female pair and a mixed pair.

Her final novel, "In America," published in 2000, took as its hero the renowned Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, who emigrated to America in 1876, touring the country and introducing audiences to Ibsen's A Doll's House. "I've always wanted to write a novel where the principal character was a performer, a woman, an actress, an opera singer, a dancer," Ms. Sontag said at the time. "So I wanted to write a theatre novel, and then I wanted to write a novel about people discovering America. So the two came together when I heard of this actress who came in the 1870s."

Susan Sontag's many well-known collections of essays include "Against Interpretation," "Under the Sign of Saturn," "On Photography," and "AIDS and Its Metaphors." After publishing the unread early novels "Death Kit" and "Benefactor" in the 1960s, she returned to the form in 1992 with "The Volcano Lover," earning a bestseller. "In America" did not sell as well, and was the target of accusations of plagarism; however, it won a National Book Award.

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