My Dinner with Sontag, my final assignment for our Shadbolt Seminar, is a short play mimicking the style and form of the 1981 Louis Malle film My Dinner with Andre. In the film, Wallace ‘Wally’ Shawn (a playwright and actor), and Andre Gregory (a theatrical director) play themselves in conversation at a Manhattan restaurant where they discuss their opinions and their wide ranging experiences with theatre and life. Andre has much more dialogue than Wally, and as the film progresses, Wally notices their philosophical differences—that Andre is very experimental whereas he is more drawn to comfort and ease. Very little action takes place; a server visits periodically to take orders and bring food, but otherwise the two simply remain seated and talking—and yet the film is very engrossing to watch. In 1999, film critic Roger Ebert wrote after seeing it a second time, that he was “impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.”
As taken as one may be with the film and its surprising success despite its unusual style, the format does suffer somewhat from weaknesses; Andre talks too often and for too long without any conversational banter interjected by Wally. It could benefit from giving more equal weight to each character’s dialogue, the inclusion of women, or to have a third character moderate the discussion somewhat instead of having Wally’s character talk internally to himself in a voiceover. I have attempted to amend these imperfections in my play by having the conversation take place between two female GLS graduate students who are dining in a restaurant discussing art and theatre who are periodically interrupted by their server, who, unbeknownst to them at first, is Susan Sontag.
In My Dinner with Sontag, the amount of dialogue is more evenly weighted between the two student characters Andrea (named after Andre) and Wallace (Wally). There are less long monologues and more banter between the two characters to help the audience maintain interest. As they dine, the students debate criticism and interpretation in art and theatre, considering a Jeff Wall light box we saw at the Audain Art Museum, Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, and a work by 17th century painter Caravaggio. They refer to comments that have been made in our Shadbolt Seminar by Uno Langmann and Max Wyman and also quote Walter Pater in the process. When Sontag comes by to take orders or deliver food (or eventually when she just brazenly sits and eats with the students), she quotes from her essay “Against Interpretation” and attempts to guide Andrea and Wallace into a different kind of dialogue that seeks luminousness and celebrates form rather than symbolic interpretation. At this urging from her, the students’ conversation branches out to refer to work by artists playing with form: Broadway theatre director Sam Gold and New York Magazine’s senior art critic Jerry Saltz, while the stage directions begin to simultaneously mirror the experimental form being discussed (although like in the film, the character of Wallace in the play ultimately does tend towards preferring comfort instead of artistic risk- taking). Sontag’s insertion in the play as a third character and a guiding voice is an attempt to shape it into an artistic Socratic dialogue as well as an act of interpretation and creative critique in itself as a play.