During a time of headlong social and geopolitical change, its reassuring to know that some things remain unaltered and wholly predictable. The spouts of Old Faithful, for instance. The migration of the swallows to Capistrano. And the ever-reliable Susan Sontag. Back in 1967, she characterized the white race as the cancer of human history. Last year, immediately postSeptember 11, she analyzed the destruction of the World Trade Center and the murder of unarmed, unwarned thousands: the atrocity was, au fond, the United Statess fault, an attack on the worlds self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.
This summer, true to form, Sontag again adopted the stance of the outraged intellectual. The occasion, as reported by the New York Sun: the Lincoln Center Festival production of three traditional Iranian plays. The original cast of 28 was somewhat reduced in size: the INS had denied visas to ten Iranian actors, thought likely to defect.
The plays concerned child martyrdomindeed, one ended with the bloody beheading of a ten-year-oldand during a post-production symposium Sontag congratulated the festival director for importing the dramas to the U.S. Youve done something incredible, she burbled. To view these works was a privilege and a duty for us who dont live by the contemptible rhetoric of the Bush administration. The last thing in the world we want to do is cooperate with the jihadist mentality of this administration.
She might have used the favored pejoratives of the Left: Eurocentric, exclusionary, or even crusader-like, but that would not have been good enough for Sontag. Thus her use of jihadist, deriving, of course, from the Arabic word for holy war or spiritual struggle against infidels. Manifestly, Sontag did not intend to imply that George W. Bush had converted to Islam. She meant that the present U.S. government was as zealous and vengeful as . . . but the lady preferred not to connect the dots. Nor did acolytes who applauded her tirade during a post-production symposium.
The pieces in question are the expression of a Persian (now Iranian) art form called Taziyeh, a word defined as mourning. They speak of the founding of Shiite Islam, and of the murder of Mohammeds grandson. All are highly ritualized, and, in their own way, poignant. The question is not the productions religious significance, but its timing and purpose. To head off criticism, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) sought to be inclusive and all-embracing. At the same symposium, he said that the chanting of young boys in one of the plays was reminiscent of Bar Mitzvah students reciting their Haftorah: They had that kind of authority.
This extraordinary remark came just a few months after we learned of another beheadingthat of Daniel Pearl, murdered in Pakistan for the crime of being a Jew. Thus Kushner joins Sontag as a co-winner of this summers coveted Ernest Morrow award. Ernest, remember, attends Pencey Prep with Holden Caulfield. In The Catcher in the Rye, Ernests mother gushes over her sons alleged sensitivity. Holden demurs. His classmate, Caulfield tells us, is as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat.
There were several runners-up. Nigel Redden, director of the festival, explained, The reason we did the symposium was that we were afraid, frankly, that someone would think that this was a political act. We wanted this dealt with as a work of art. (No doubt that was why the ever-calm, understated, apolitical Sontag led the discussion.)
Then there were the corporate sponsors. Spokespersons for the Philip Morris Company, whose tobacco money the smoke-free festival was only too glad to take, refused comment on the productionand then refused comment on why they refused to comment. Stephen Sigmund, a spokesman for AOL-Time Warner, did a Pontius Pilate number, even as the company crashed around his ears: We dont have input into the festivals programs and it would be inappropriate for us to have it.
And then there was Kate Levin, New York Citys Cultural Commissioner. Asked whether a play glorifying Muslim martyrdom might be in rather poor taste at this point in history, she issued a bromide about the timelessness of Theater: Maybe its the cultural moment that creates the provocation, which is the universal characteristic of art. Whether this particular production pushes the envelope, I cant say. Others could say, and did. The words ill-timed, inappropriate and heartless came up a number of timesfrom those disinclined to go along with Sontags crowd.
But that should not discourage Sontags accusatory minions. Theres always room for a good hater on the West Side. You just have to hate the right people, is all.