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‘In America’ spotlights actress

Joan Walthall

“In America” by Susan Sontag

“In America,” published in 2000, is one of Susan Sontag’s final efforts. She died in New York City on Dec. 28, 2004, after a prolific writing career. During her lifetime, her works were translated into 32 languages.



“In America” is based on the life of Madame Helena Modjeska, Poland’s greatest actress (1840-1909), who immigrated to Anaheim in Southern California in 1876 with her husband, Count Charles Bozenta Chiapowski, and a small group of friends, including the future novelist and Nobel Laureate, Henryk Sienkiewicz. Sontag prefaces her novel with this acknowledgment and, interestingly, spends the first number of pages developing her fictionalized characters and deciding what to name them: Helena Modjeska, for example, becomes Maryna, the Count is Bogdan, and Henryk is Ryszard (another character called Henryk appears as a Polish doctor in the story).

Questioning the turn her life is taking as a famous actress in Poland, Maryna and her entourage (for that is what her fellow travelers constitute) decide to immigrate to America, where she believes they will encounter a new and exciting future. Maryna’s decision is based, in part, on her familiarity with Alexis de Tocqueville’s renowned work “Democracy in America” (1835-40), in which he describes an “equality of conditions” and the distinct difference between democracy and European society in an emerging modern era.



And so they set out, finally arriving in Southern California and leasing farmland in Anaheim, where they try their hand at raising produce and farm animals. Maryna effectively sacrifices her career to act as matriarch of the clan, which numbers some 10 or so servants, friends and family members, including her young son, Piotr, fathered by an older German man who was her mentor and who first introduced her to acting in Poland. Now married to Bogdan (the Polish count), she is nonetheless attracted to Ryszard (the novelist), who makes no secret of his devotion to her. Sontag’s characters are rich in inner dialogue and parts of the novel are presented in either letter format or as journal entries, where it is revealed that Bogdan is enamored of a young male worker on the ranch, though he tries to keep his desire under control out of love and respect for Maryna.

After a year of struggling to make ends meet, some members of the party return to Poland, and Ryszard, feeling rebuffed by Maryna, leaves for New York. Seeking a better means of making a living, Maryna -given top publicity by an American manager – returns to the stage at the California Theater in San Francisco, appears at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, and eventually goes on tour throughout the country. Under the tutoring of an English voice coach, Miss Collingridge (“idiot … not eediot”), she becomes America’s most distinguished Shakespearean actress traveling with her own repertory company in an elaborately outfitted Pullman car. While performing in New York City, she and Ryszard consummate their affair, but Maryna decides that in order to sustain her phenomenal success, she must finally return to her marriage – which continues to be a surprisingly amicable and supportive one.

The novel ends on a dark note, when Edwin Booth (alcoholic brother of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Booth, and a famous actor in his own right) delivers a cynical and self-annihilating soliloquy in Maryna’s presence following a brilliant stage performance as her leading man. There is no further denouement to the story, leaving the reader feeling uneasy about Maryna’s unwavering commitment to the theater and its presumably bleak and unrelenting continuum.

– Joan Walthall is a member of the National League of American Pen Women.


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