Alice in Bed is a play in which Alice James, the sister of trans-Atlantic novelist Henry James and American psychologist William James, remains numb—waiting, petrified in her bedroom. She received the same education as her brothers and yet she does not know what she should do with her wit. She keeps dreaming and the arbitrariness of her name plays a major part in her life—Sontag really melted two Alices into one. Alice James is too big or too small, too intrusive, nosy and furious, or, conversely, not daring or aggressive enough. She feels it as her head starts swelling or shrinking in a majestic scene where Rome is contained in her mind. All her bodily efforts are concentrated in her brain, she pushes back her limits and she experiences moments of ecstasy. The play deals with the power of imagination, its triumph -as Alice can escape- and its limitations -as she appears mostly disconnected, inactive and unable to use her imaginative power.
I believe Alice in Bed is an impressive play about arbitrariness. Alice’s deep thoughts are undoubtedly an asset to construct a rich existence, but she seems unable to manage with the arbitrariness of gender construction—if her nurse thinks she is careless, Alice enjoys simpering. She mostly seems to feel embarrassed by her own knowledge. She could defy that arbitrariness in a reasonable way, expand her spirit of resistance, but she only feels disgust and fear and her revolt turns against her. Disconnection leads her to contemplate suicide and she makes the tragic mistake of asking her father the permission to die, rejecting the ultimate expression of her free will. Her father, in turn, also makes a mistake when he gives her his permission, therefore refusing to help her become strong-willed.
In a majestic scene imagined by Alice, a mad tea party is given. She is surrounded by several women of her choice, each reflecting an aspect of her own personality. Fictitious characters mirror her incapacity to move on: Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis from Giselle, is furious and considered as a madwoman in a world that she brazenly challenges, and Kundry from Parsifal, a new version of the Dormouse, prefers sleeping to flee the world. Other guests are real women who died long ago: energetic, strong-willed Margaret Fuller became a journalist in the 19th century, while delicate, vivacious Emily Dickinson might have created post-modernist poetry two centuries ahead. It is relevant that both should be writers: struggling with words, they involved themselves with others.
The play might suggest that language as an arbitrary construction can be a perfect answer to the arbitrariness of life—rehabilitating words, reanimating them, making them breathe, playing with their sonorities, creating rhythm to suggest meaning. Playing with words helps us understand old metaphors that we pass on without pausing to think what they mean; unexpected associations of words or expressions encourage us to reflect on the links that may be a little too obvious not to become suspicious. Words are not naturally at home in dictionaries but they are so in speech. I myself, while translating Alice in Bed, wonder quite a lot about the right translations of the verb “want” and the modal “will”. I had to analyze a dialogue between Alice and her brother Harry.
Alice : Ah. Wanting. I’ve been told that before.
Harry : A matter of self-respect.
Alice : Which is wanting.
“Wanting” here does not stand for the willpower Alice is still lacking, rather, it refers to a desire that she has not found yet, a desire that is missing or lacking—in short, as she lacks a lack, she will be reduced to desire to get desire. This explains why Alice is left to the whims of imagination, she hopes without reason. I chose to translate the pun by “laisser à désirer” to affectionately put imperfect and misleading Alice back on earth.
Translation by Stefania Kouli