Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater

April 18th, 2012 § 0 comments

Morris Sabbath
Beloved Whoremonger,
Sodomist, Abuser of Women,
Destroyer of Morals, Ensnarer of Youth,

Philip Roth has never been adverse to a bit of sex, Portnoy’s Complaint was described by Time on its release in 1969 as “a sex novel of the absurd”, and forty years on, there are still parts of it that are quite shocking. Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, which won the National Book Award in 1995 and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer (losing to Richard Ford’s Independence), makes it look rather tame by comparison. The novel focuses on the exploits of Morris “Mickey” Sabbath, an exemplar of the phrase “dirty old man”. Formerly a puppeteer until his hands became riddled with arthritis, and fired as an arts teacher after having been caught in a compromising position with a student, he spends his life reading books about death and conducting an affair with the married owner of the local inn. His long-suffering wife, Roseanna, who has to support him, is a former alcoholic with enough problems of her own. At the beginning of the novel, Sabbath is content with his life as a gleeful adulterer, but the loss of his mistress causes a descent that follows the trajectory of Lear’s, a similarity Roth enforces, into madness and ruin.

Sabbath’s problems at first arise when he begins to see the ghost of his mother, who urges to kill himself and end his failure of a life. His relationship with his mother is an issue for him, stemming from the death of his brother, Morty. Morty was Sabbath’s hero as a boy, but never came back from World War II, having been shot down over the Philippines. His mother was so affected that she became withdrawn and was never the same afterwards, seemingly incapable of happiness (parental problems are a major theme in the novel, as Roseanna’s drinking is caused less by Sabbath than by her father’s suicide when she was a child). Sabbath’s way to escape from the situation was to sign up for the merchant navy, and as a result he spent most of his formative years, sexually, in whorehouses. His callousness, and his attitude towards women stems from a fear of abandonment, as in addition to his childhood trauma, his first wife, Nikki disappeared. She was an actress that Sabbath met when doing his puppet show and the star of the only play he ever put on, King Lear, a critical failure. What Sabbath loved about her was that she was submissive to almost the point of docility, and as a result he could impose his will on her without resistance. She disappears one night before the start of the evening’s play, while Sabbath is fooling around with the woman that becomes his second wife. He feels betrayed by the fact those he loved left him, as Roth writes,

The question haunted Sabbath. Why? Why? If only someone will explain to us why, maybe we could accept it. Why did you die? Where did you go? However much you may have hated me, why don’t you come back so we can continue our linear, logical life like all the other couples who hate each other?

This can also be seen in his attitude towards his work. He studied in Italy and came back to work in America putting on obscene puppet shows (for which he was once arrested and convicted), and although he at one point had his own theatre, he claims to be uncomfortable working with real actors, much preferring his own puppets as,

With puppets you never had to banish the actor from the role. There was nothing false or artificial about puppets, nor were they “metaphors” for human beings. They were what they were, and no one had to worry that a puppet would disappear, as Nikki had, right off the face of the earth.

His affinity with puppets goes further than simple malleability though, there seems to be something about puppets the is essential, something beyond the realm of humans. “The mistake” he says, ” is ever to think that to act and to speak is the natural domain of anyone other than a puppet. Contentment is being hands and voice- looking to be more, students, is madness.”

In his mistress, Drenka, he finds a woman as sexually adventurous as he is. In addition to having sex with her whenever he has the chance (including while his wife is away undergoing rehabilitation for her alcoholism), he encourages her to have affairs with other men too, so she can relate all the juicy details to him afterwards. There are two events of which the pair are particularly proud; the first being a lesbian encounter arranged by Sabbath, in which Drenka wanted to be paid so she could feel like a prostitute, and the second, a day in which four different men came inside her. The opening of the novel sees Drenka asking Sabbath to be faithful, something he finds preposterous as she can’t be faithful to him even if he is. His meanness (in which he counters by saying he will do so if she gives the husband she despises two blowjobs a week) leads to her blurting out that she has cancer, and it is advanced to the point that it is fatal. Despite his attitudes towards her, it becomes clear to Sabbath after her death that he cared for Drenka deeply, and he has trouble accepting the fact that she too has left him. He becomes jealous of the time that she spent with other men, and even sneaks into the graveyard late at night to masturbate on her grave (and surprisingly, discovers he isn’t the only one to do so). Sabbath is a beast, no doubt about it, but Drenka is the only person in the novel that not only accepts it, but encourages it. In fact, the only honest conversation that occurs in the novel is one between the two about how they felt when they experimented with urinating on each other.

The mental toll that Drenka’s death has on Sabbath is made apparently after an absurd incident at the cemetery where he licks from his fingers the cum of another one of Drenka’s lovers who had paid his respects in the same manner as Sabbath, while chanting “I am Drenka!” In the section that follows,  titled “To Be or Not To Be”, referencing Hamlet’s soliloquy that acts as a meditation on suicide, Sabbath begins to contemplate killing himself, as suggested by the ghost of his mother (arguably, another Hamlet reference). He purposely antagonises his wife to facilitate a massive argument, and then heads to New York to attend the funeral of a friend.  As Roth writes,

The problem was that his life was never to be solved. His wasn’t he kind of life where there are aims that are clear and means that are clear and where it is possible to say, “this is essential and that is not essentials, this I will not do because I cannot endure it, and that I will do because I can endure it.” There was no unsnarling an existence whose waywardness constituted its own authority and provided its primary amusement. He wanted his mother to understand that he wasn’t blaming the futility on Morty’s death, or on her collapse, or on Nikki’s disappearance, or on his stupid profession, or on his arthritic hands-he was merely recounting to her what had happened before this had happened… Homeless, wifeless, mistressless, penniless . . . jump in the cold river and drown. Climb up into the woods and go to sleep, and tomorrow morning, should you even awaken, keep climbing until you are lost. Check into a motel, borrow the night clerk’s razor to shave, and slit your own throat from ear to ear. It could be done.

The return to New York does little to help his mental health, as he left in the first place as Nikki’s disappearance was beginning to drive him mad. At his worst point he has a break down on a train, rambling lines from Lear, and becoming certain that the drama student who prompts him must be Nikki’s daughter, terrifying the poor girl. His despair is the result of his self-obsession though, and when he thinks he may have a new affair to look forward to, he returns to his old Falstaff-ian self. Having seduced the wife of his only friend, partly with the use of the categorical imperative, in itself impressed, he finds that he is no longer so suicidal.

Yes, yes, yes, he felt uncontrollable tenderness for his own shit-filled life. And a laughable hunger for more. More defeat! More disappointment! More deceit! More loneliness! More arthritis! More missionaries! God willing, more cunt! More disastrous entanglement in everything. For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can’t beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinee idol, but say what you will about me, it’s been a real human life!

His affair never comes to fruition though, as the contents of his trousers (her daughter’s panties, a bag of crack, and a cup he used in the city for begging as “performance art”), scare his intended target off. Without the promise of anymore sex in his future, Sabbath leaves the city, once again resigned to taking his own life.

In many ways, Sabbath is the antithesis of American Pastoral‘s Swede, where he cannot act, Sabbath seems unable of any sort of decorum. He is, to use a Freudian analogy, pure Id, driven by both Eros and Thanatos. For all his callousness and cruelty, for all his cleverness and so called brutal honesty, his talk of having “murdered” his wife, it really is just self-involvement. In his actions, he sees himself as Iago, manipulating people with his emotions, but he doesn’t even realise that he isn’t actually faking it. If there is a Shakespeare character he resembles it isn’t Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Iago, or Falstaff, but Lear’s fool because he doesn’t even realise the farce of his life. In the end he cannot even acquire the plot in the rundown graveyard next to his family, as it has already been filled by an elderly Jewish relative in comic fashion. Even his attempt to return home is foiled by his discovering that his absence, his wife has become involved with a woman. He has no one at all, as they have either died or he has driven them away. His life has come to naught and he knows this,

If he weren’t too old to go back to sea, if his fingers weren’t crippled, if Morty had lived and Nikki hadn’t been insane, or he hadn’t been-if there weren’t war, lunacy, perversity, sickness, imbecility, suicide and death, chances were he’d be in a lot better shape. He’d paid the full price for art, only he hadn’t made any. He’d suffered all the old-fashioned artistic sufferings-isolation, poverty, despair, mental and physical obstruction-and nobody knew or cared. And though nobody knowing or caring was another form of artistic suffering, in his case it had no artistic meaning. He was just somebody who had grown ugly, old, and embittered, one of billions.

Deciding now is the time to die, he returns to the scene of the crime (Drenka’s grave) to be caught by her son, Matthew, a police officer, who he believes will kill him. His last great mistake is to assume that everyone is as twisted as he is, but Matthew, knowing full well all of the things that Sabbath had done to his mother, refuses to kill him. His assumption that deep down everyone is just like him is proved wrong by a man who arguably has every right to hurt him. In the end, he can’t even bring himself to take his own life, all his talk of suicide was just self-delusion, “he could not do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here.”

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