Sabbath’s Theater

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Toward the end of Sabbath’s Theater, the novel’s sixty-four-year-old protagonist, having chosen and paid (with stolen money) for his burial site, orders a monument over his grave and composes an epitaph for it which reads:

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

The self-portrait is accurate except for the last two lines, since Sabbath decides, at the end of Roth’s longest work, that he is not yet ready to die, since “everything he hated was here,” and he has an endless supply of loathing for the world.

Sabbath’s Theater, which was awarded the 1995 National Book Award for fiction, is Philip Roth’s most controversial text, making his notorious Portnoy’s Complaint (1968) a liberating salute to conscience by comparison. Mickey Sabbath is Roth’s most outrageous creation, deserving not only his tombstone’s description but such labels as satyr, racist, pagan, nihilist, misanthrope, and all-around, over-the-top transgressor. He is an ideologue of the id, the personification of disorderly conduct and Dionysian excess. Yet he may well be Roth’s greatest character, dominating his most ambitious and richest book.

While the novel begins with Mickey already in his sixties and considering suicide, he recalls in vivid scenes his past as youth, sailor, actor, puppeteer, sometime husband, and full-time philanderer. He grew up, like his author, on the New Jersey shore with his beloved older brother, Morty, who joined the Air Corps and was shot down by the Japanese in 1944, and his broken-down parents. His father was a poor, defeated butter-and-egg man, while his mother, driven into catatonic depression by her favorite son’s death, took to her bed for two years before dying. (Her ghost haunts Mickey when he is in his sixties.) At seventeen, Mickey Sabbath shipped out as a merchant seaman and, encountering a worldwide field of whoredom, came to prefer what was mockingly known as the Romance Run of South American ports.

By 1953, at twenty-four, Sabbath was a street performer in charge of his Indecent Theater near Columbia University, using his fingers suggestively to perform penile exercises and, when the opportunity arose, unbutton the blouses of young women. That is how he met the six-foot-tall, exotic Nikki, a gifted actress who, enthralled by his cockiness and menacing charm, became his first wife. She was to fascinate him all his life by reminding him of a fairy-tale princess by her beauty and innocence. After she vanished, ten years later, he would increasingly hallucinate about having murdered her—hence the epithet “uxoricide” on his tombstone.

Marriage to Nikki did not keep Sabbath from having an intense, love-hate relationship with Roseanna, an alcoholic artist who was drawn to him because his domineering narcissism reminded her of her sexually abusive, violent father. They married to revile each other, with Roseanna hating his womanizing, self-absorption, and economic dependence on her after he was fired from a local college.

They had moved to a remote Massachusetts town after Nikki’s disappearance and after arthritis in his hands had ended his career as puppeteer. Sabbath became an adjunct professor at the college, only to be disgracefully dismissed at age sixty after a tape of his sexually graphic telephone conversations with twenty-year-old Kathy had been “accidentally” left by her in the college library, then acquired by the college dean. Perhaps too obligingly, Roth provides readers with an “uncensored transcription” of the raunchy conversation in a twenty-page footnote. Explicitly stepping into his novel, Roth also advises his public not to be too hard on either Sabbath or Kathy: “Many farcical, illogical, incomprehensible transactions are subsumed by the mania of lust.”

Sex, for Sabbath, is the only consolation for a life otherwise shorn of meaningful attachments except for one grand love: his Croatian-born mistress Drenka, wife of the local innkeeper, with whom he played out all of his erotic fantasies for twelve years before she died of ovarian cancer. Drenka was his “genital mate,” his female counterpart in lechery, whom he taught to be joyously and voraciously promiscuous. Sabbath was delighted to hear of her lustiest feat: She managed to have sex with three lovers on a one-day trip to Boston, then, back at home, just before midnight, accommodated her husband to achieve a twenty-four-hour quartet. This made her, for the saluting Sabbath, “a woman of serious importance.” Their only disagreement occurred when Drenka astounded him by asking him to take a pledge of mutual sexual fidelity with her. He was...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)

Sabbath's Theater Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. An excellent book that explores the range and depth of Roth’s work, including some juvenilia and lesser known works and Sabbath’s Theater. Cooper discusses the material in the context of the political, social, and literary climate surrounding each work.

Greenberg, R. M. “Transgression in the Fiction of Philip Roth.” Twentieth Century Literature 43, no. 4 (Winter, 1997): 487-506. Places Sabbath’s Theater in the context of Roth’s previous novels that deal with the protagonist’s transgressing against society. Sabbath is an absurd hero who, like his forbears, believes in nothing.

Kelleter, F. “Portrait of the Sexist as a Dying Man: Death, Ideology, and the Erotic in Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater.” Contemporary Literature 39, no. 2 (Summer, 1998): 262-302. Kelleter discusses the major themes of the novel, which he identifies as death, eros, and ideology. An excellent in-depth article.

Shatzky, Joel, and Michael Taub. Contemporary Jewish Novelists: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Good sourcebook for biographic and critical information on Roth, including critical information about Sabbath’s Theater.

Wisse, Ruth R. “Sex, Love, and Death.” Commentary, December, 1995, 61-65. Wisse notes that Sabbath is an autonomous character, unlike so many of Roth’s previous heroes. She points out several relationships between Roth’s work and Kafka’s and concludes that Roth’s work falls short of Kafka’s.

Wood, James. “My Death as a Man.” The New Republic, October 23, 1995, 33-39. Wood describes Sabbath’s Theater as a departure from Roth’s books that present the author in disguise. Sabbath is a character larger than life and a character unto himself.