This play in eight scenes presents the fictionalized character of Alice James, sister of Henry and William James, who after a sickly childhood, succumbed at 19 to a variety of vague and recurrent illnesses that made her a lifetime invalid. She died at 43 of breast cancer.

In a series of encounters (with her nurse; her father; her brother, Henry; several Victorian female figures: Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and mythological figures from Victorian fantasy fiction and from Parsifal; and a burglar), as well as a long dramatic monologue, her various forms of internal conflict are hilariously and poignantly articulated. They converge on the implications of her recurrently deciding whether or not to get out of bed and do something, and her confusion, often discussed by biographers and critics, about her place in her brilliant family, her vocation as a woman, and her own desires.


In a note on the play, Sontag explains the echoes of Pirandello and of Alice in Wonderland in this whimsical and provocative play. She conceived of it while directing a Pirandello play in Rome. As she thought about Alice, Carroll's Alice kept coming to mind, and the convergence produced, most notably, a "mad teaparty" scene between Alice and her historical and literary predecessors where there is much talk at cross-purposes, advice given, and frustration over objectives.

Cryptic and never heavy-handed, the play forcefully raises questions about the social and familial constraints that bind intelligent women and limit their scope of achievement. Alice's combination of bitterness, resignation, wit, morbidity, and longing directly invokes the self-representations in her diary. A sharp, restrained, finely focused work that opens doors to discussion of psychosomatic illness, family pathologies, and links between femaleness and invalidism.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York



Page Count