Alice in Bed is a free dramatic fantasy which merges the life of Alice James, the brilliant sister of William and Henry James, with the heroine of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. It is a play about the anguish and grief and rage of women; and about the triumphs and limitations of the imagination.
Sontag's ( The Volcano Lover ) first stage play focuses on Alice James, the invalid sister of Henry and William and, since Jean Strouse's acclaimed 1980 biography and the publication of her diary, a feminist icon. It is in the latter role that Sontag casts the bed-ridden Alice, and playing off her name, she suggests, too, another, more famous Alice of fiction--to the extent that the center of the play's action is a tea party. The tea party becomes a gathering of independent women of imagination: Emily Dickinson, Margaret Fuller, Myrtha from the ballet Giselle and, as the somnolent dormouse, Kundry from Wagner's Parsifal. Alice's doting brother Henry makes a couple of appearances as well. Unfortunately, although Sontag acknowledges that her work is ``a free fantasy based on a real person,'' none of the characters ever breathes with life; each lies flat on the page as a mouthpiece for Sontag's ideas about the imagination's dual role as liberator and jailer for a 19th-century woman of intelligence and about ``women's anguish and women's consciousness of self.'' Moreover, her dialogue is arch and literary. Regrettably, Sontag can add her name to a list of talented novelist-critics whose stage work disappoints. (Aug.)