During a time of headlong social and geopolitical change, it’s 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 post–September 11, she analyzed the destruction of the World Trade Center and the murder of unarmed, unwarned thousands: the atrocity was, au fond, the United States’s fault, “an attack on the world’s 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 martyrdom—indeed, one ended with the bloody beheading of a ten-year-old—and during a post-production symposium Sontag congratulated the festival director for importing the dramas to the U.S. “You’ve done something incredible,” she burbled. “To view these works was a privilege and a duty for us who don’t 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 Ta’ziyeh, a word defined as “mourning.” They speak of the founding of Shi’ite Islam, and of the murder of Mohammed’s grandson. All are highly ritualized, and, in their own way, poignant. The question is not the production’s 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 beheading—that of Daniel Pearl, murdered in Afghanistan for the crime of being a Jew. Thus Kushner joins Sontag as a co-winner of this summer’s coveted Ernest Morrow award. Ernest, remember, attends Pencey Prep with Holden Caulfield. In The Catcher in the Rye, Ernest’s mother gushes over her son’s 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 production—and 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 don’t have input into the festival’s programs and it would be inappropriate for us to have it.”
And then there was Kate Levin, New York City’s 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 it’s the cultural moment that creates the provocation, which is the universal characteristic of art. Whether this particular production pushes the envelope, I can’t say.” Others could say, and did. The words “ill-timed,” “inappropriate” and “heartless” came up a number of times—from those disinclined to go along with Sontag’s crowd.
But that should not discourage Sontag’s accusatory minions. There’s always room for a good hater on the West Side. You just have to hate the right people, is all.
Stefan Kanfer is a contributing editor of City Journal. He writes extensively on a wide range of political, social, and particularly cultural topics.