Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 28 Jan 2019

Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth

After writing the sequence of novels that toyed with modernism, post-modernism and identity (Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy, The Counterlife), books which occupied the 1980s, and before embarking on the masterpieces that make up his ‘American Trilogy’ (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain) and which occupied the late-90s, Philip Roth wrote two novels in quick succession, published in 1993 and 1995 respectively, which seemed to push his rambunctious, transgressive, foul mouthed and contrarian approach to comic writing to its limits: Operation Shylock and Sabbath’s Theater.

I’ve just had another bash at reading the second of these, Sabbath’s Theater, and found it an altogether puzzling experience.

Mickey Sabbath, pushing seventy, is Roth’s anti-hero. Raging against the dying of the light, raging against bourgeois convention and pious moral codes, raging against the dying of sex, and just generally raging – why merely anger people when there is an opportunity to outrage? – Sabbath is a disgraced academic (sex, of course) and a former 50s and 60s street performer, a puppeteer, prosecuted for obscenity.

Broadly speaking, the novel consists of Sabbath’s raging inner monologue, his stream of consciousness – swirling, out of control, bile-filled, bitter, sex obsessed, profoundly misogynistic and often scabrously, disgustingly funny. And there is an awful lot of it: 450 pages to be precise. If you’re going to read this you have to put aside your sense of shock, of propriety, and buckle up: it’s a bumpy ride.

His once so mobile hands crippled with arthritis, unemployable, any notion of a life of bohemianism and street performance a distant memory, Sabbath and his alcoholic (second) wife Roseanna have retreated to Madamaska Falls, a small hamlet in the New England mountains. This offers respite from the chaotic rush (and expense) of life in New York city, and is also conveniently close – although his wife doesn’t know this – to the woman who becomes the love of Sabbath’s life, the promiscuous, libidinous Drenka Balich, Croatian wife of a local inn-keeper.

The novel has some sophisticated touches. The dead, for instance, seem barely a heartbeat away from the living, and as the narrative progresses Sabbath’s interior monologue expands to include his dead mother, long-dead sexual partners, his dead brother and Drenka herself, which comes as something of a shock as she dies relatively early in the book – but whom Sabbath is as aroused by in death as in life. (Yes, you’re right: prepare to be disgusted.) It has brilliant, laugh-out-loud passages and probably more unstoppably inventive prose than almost all of Roth’s final five novels put together. But at no point does it achieve the contrary, outrageous brilliance of, say, Portnoy’s Complaint (reviewed HERE).

So why couldn’t I finish it? I think Sabbath’s Theater is essentially Roth’s Lolita. It is consciously and deliberately transgressive, and in placing an utterly repellent figure relentlessly at its centre, it is somewhat experimental. I think – although I am not sure about this – that Roth’s aim is perhaps to make us care despite ourselves for the monster Mickey Sabbath.

The problem is, I didn’t and don’t. The other problem is that the characters – Sabbath’s brother, his mother, his (disappeared, possibly dead) first wife, his oppressed and ruined and alcoholic second wife, Drenka the mistress, the college student whose witting or unwitting recording of his sex-calls leads to his dismissal and disgrace – may exist only in Sabbath’s head. While Sabbath himself is a startlingly real presence, these secondary characters seemed to me to have no independent existence, and hence do not add to any sense of the book’s reality. For all its flamboyance and brio, it is a book that has some tremendously (and increasingly lengthy) flat passages – ultimately to the point of boredom.

To return to the Lolita analogy for a moment (which you can read a review of HERE), one might say, I think, that Lolita is a book that has been rendered obsolete by the passage of time and changing social attitudes; it also suffers from its author’s overweening ambition. There are some similarities to Sabbath’s Theater. Make no mistake, Roth’s novel, for all that it is disgusting, transgressive, obnoxious, does not lack serious purpose or high intent. But it fails, I think, because in seeking to elevate sex and misogyny to high humour and moral purpose it adopts easy options which Roth, frankly, can ‘do’ until the cows come home. They are topics that require him to exert almost no effort. Add to this that it has no sense of economy (and certainly none of restraint). It seeks Rabelaisian squalor and grotesqueness, and there is frankly no doubt that it is intentionally antagonistic and confrontational, but ultimately it achieves only a feeling that we are in the process of being battered into submission.

It is a novel that reminds us that everyone has their off-days, that everyone can produce a clunker now and then. And the fact is, if Roth’s reputation rested on, let’s say, Our Gang, The Breast, Operation Shylock, and Sabbath’s Theater, then that reputation would be very different indeed. Thankfully it doesn’t. I shall do Philip Roth the favour of pretending it never happened and concentrate instead on the wealth of novels in which he completely and masterfully succeeds.


Alun Severn

January 2019


More elsewhere on the Letterpress website about Philip Roth:


Portnoy’s Complaint

Rereading Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books



The Frightening Lessons Of Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” by Richard Brody