Alice in Bed
by Susan Sontag | Presented by the VORTEX
Prolific American writer and critic, Susan Sontag, who died in 2004, gives us a study of the talented Alice James in Sontag’s only play Alice in Bed. Written in 1993, Sontag asks the reader - if Shakespeare had a sister with literary gifts just as brilliant as his, would that sister’s talent have remained unexpressed and unrecognized? And if so, why?
The Alice of the play, herself a prodigious writer of journals and letters, yet unrecognized and neglected, was the obscure younger sister of the famous Henry James (novelist) and William James (psychologist/philosopher). She suffered her first nervous breakdown at the age of 19 and was bedridden most of her life with diagnoses that included “neurasthenia” and “hysteria.” She died of breast cancer in 1892 at the age of 43.
Sontag merges the real life Alice James with Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She explores repression of the feminine psyche in the context of nineteenth-century patriarchy through this examination of Alice’s “unsuccess” in a surrealistic setting. The sterility of her surroundings is sharply contrasted with the fertility of her imagination, which is capable of fantastic journeys (often assisted by opiates). Alice is starved of human interaction but finally achieves some measure of self-expression when the real world rudely bursts into her bedchamber in the form of a young robber.