That Time Susan Sontag Did Something Stupid

She staged "Waiting for Godot" in 1993 Sarajevo. A Sontag biography raises current questions on what motivates social practice.

Bosnian National Theatre, Sarajevo, 2012. Photo: Jennifer Boyer.

With the 2019 Met Gala’s “Camp” theme, the name Susan Sontag (1933-2004) is coming up more regularly now in pop culture. For example, I recently attended a luncheon and received a free copy of Daniel Schrieber’s Susan Sontag: A Biography (originally published in German in 2007, translated to English in 2014). Over the long Memorial Day weekend, I finished the book in one day. It was a good read. I very much appreciated the early section regarding her success with, of course, her essay “Notes on Camp.” But it was on page 200 where I became most invested. It’s the part where Schrieber writes:

When Susan Sontag staged Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in occupied Sarajevo in August 1993, theatrical artistry was not of central importance. Instead, she channeled her predilection for grand symbolic gestures — sometimes uncomfortably obvious in her own plays — into a political statement that could not have been more effective.

Story continues below.

Sontag knew Bosnia. Well, she had visited. She had done her research and she had made friends. She had studied the situation enough to take a political stance, and she stood for US intervention. But she failed to respect the first lesson of social practice: listening.

It was Sontag who invited herself back to Bosnia. It was Sontag who focused on Sarajevo, the cultural capital under siege. It was Sontag who decided which play to direct. Regarding a phone conversation she had with her friend, Bosnian playwright-director Haris Pasovic, Sontag recalled:

…I asked Pasovic if he would be interested in my coming back in a few months to direct a play. “Of course,” he said.

Before I could add, “Then let me think for a while about what I might want to do,” he went on, “What play will you do?” And bravado, following the impulsiveness of my proposal, suggested to me in an instant what I might not have seen had I taken longer to reflect: there was one obvious play for me to direct. Beckett’s play, written over forty years ago, seems written for, and about, Sarajevo.

Sontag’s Waiting for Godot would thus become a part of the annual, and world renowned, MESS International Theatre Festival in Sarajevo in 1993. Her motivations for the project were as genuine as they were personal:

I couldn’t again be just a witness: that is, meet and visit, tremble with fear, feel brave, feel depressed, have heart-breaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight. If I went back, it would be to pitch in and do something.

Sontag’s Godot was staged more than a quarter-century ago, but reading Schrieber’s biography brought up, for me, more recent conversations about motivations for social practice. Just as the arts and humanities have reacted to perpetual globalization in the 20th century with a push for global citizenship, I suggest that we must re-examine our intentions for international engagement in the 21st. Here’s how I think about them:

Artistic Intentions

  • To find novel sources of inspiration
  • To discover new ways of working
  • To learn from different cultural traditions
  • To exchange ideas with people holding different worldviews

Market — Financial Intentions

  • To gain international notoriety, attention, reputation or validation
  • To attract new audiences
  • To expand and diversify sources income

Political — Diplomatic Intentions

  • To open new markets for US cultural products
  • To inform and influence foreign publics
  • To strengthen strategic relationships and policies
  • To increase peace and contribute to regional stability to protect our national interests

Spiritual — Humanitarian Intentions

  • To fulfill a religious or spiritual mission
  • To follow one’s conscience
  • To be present and to stand alongside those who need you
  • To contribute to peace and to draw attention to injustice
  • To cultivate and leverage empathy for personal good feeling and/or the common good

Story continues below.

Sontag’s motivations appear to have fit squarely into that last category. She was 60 and accomplished. Her only child, David Rieff, was working as a journalist in the region. She chose Godot seemingly instinctually. Beckett — Irish-born but a Paris resident for most of his adult life — had died only four years prior, in 1989. Yet the legacy of his work, if strong, was being called into question. Even before his death, back in 1976, the Market Theater in South Africa had staged the first all-Black production of Godot. Yet, in 1991, an all-female version of Godot had to go to court to stage their production, with a judge mandating that an objection from Beckett’s representative be read before each performance.

One journalist compared Sontag’s project in Sarajevo to Nero “fiddling while Rome burns.” But many people, then and now, would disagree with this notion: producing art in wartime is a radical act. Writing in The Stage in 2018, Amber Massie-Blomfield quotes Gordana Knezevic, Bosnian journalist and admirer, as follows:

This was the most meaningful thing [Sontag] could have done. It was necessary to stay sane, and to preserve a sense of normality. And to do that you have to preserve culture. That was how we resisted occupation: by sending the message that no matter how many deaths there are, we are still human.

But wait: weren’t the artists of Sarajevo already doing this for themselves? In a 1993 New York Times article about Sontag in Sarajevo, John F. Burns reported that indeed they were:

Local writers and artists and actors and painters and musicians and film directors banded together at an early stage of the siege to produce works to sustain morale among the city’s 380,000 residents. Many of those involved in the productions have been part-time soldiers, digging trenches and carrying rifles at the front, then taking their off days to work at what some, with a wry reference to the Marxist jargon that was once fashionable here, refer to as “the cultural front.”

Story continues below.

Love her or loathe her, Sontag was an intellectual. She cared. She paid attention. She went. Yet, when it came to social practice and cultural diplomacy, she faltered. She failed to truly recognize and bolster the good work already happening at that time in Bosnia. She failed to truly collaborate. And while Godot was not exactly poverty porn, volunteer tourism or what writer-critic Teju Cole might call evidence of the White-Savior Industrial Complex, Sontag’s behavior was, well, off. In a scathing 2005 piece in the Daily Telegraph called “I wish I had kicked Susan Sontag,” Kevin Myers wrote that her Godot:

…lasted as long as the siege itself. It was mesmerizingly precious and hideously self-indulgent. As inexcusable as the pretentious twaddle she had mounted on-stage were her manners off it. I have occasionally seen egregious examples of de haut en bas, but I have never seen anything as degrading and insufferable as her conduct towards the Sarajevans. And as far as I could judge, she never listened to any of them. It was a grotesque performance.

Motivations for international engagement are one thing, but implementation is another. Sontag’s intention? Well, it seems to have been condescension. She developed ideas before asking. She spouted before listening. While she didn’t ask for payment and she snuck the actors food, she upstaged them offstage, then she left. It’s a good lesson for the rest of us.

Sontag thoroughly responded to her critics while she was alive. She was also made an honorary citizen of Sarajevo, and the public square in front of the Bosnian National Theater was named after her posthumously, with a sign reading, “in the heart of Sarajevo forever.” Journalist Knezevic continued her gratitude to Sontag, on behalf of all Bosnians, in a 2017 article. The act of a renowned artist going to Sarajevo under siege was enough in itself to do some good. Just imagine if Sontag had used her intellect, caring and talent to serve a practice of listening, and of collegiality, in the actual making of art.