Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641
Sabbath’s Theater is a story about a man at the end of his rope, a man for whom life is a punishment. He is shown in the last stages of that life, when he has to decide whether he will continue to live or whether he should commit suicide. Morris (Mickey) Sabbath is a sixty-four-year-old former puppeteer and a sexual deviant consumed by lust. His life revolves around one aberrant sexual exploit after another. In the 1950’s, he runs a puppet theater opposite the gates of Columbia University in New York City. He uses his fingers as puppets and as a vehicle for fondling young girls in his audience. He is caught, and an indecency charge is filed against him. Sometime soon after, his first wife Nikki disappears without a trace. Disconsolate, he leaves New York with his lover Roseanna for the quiet and simplicity of a small Massachusetts town.
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Sabbath, however, is incapable of leading a simple life. Very quickly, he finds a way to complicate it. Although he secures a job directing theater at a local college, his career is cut short when he is forced to resign over a scandal with a coed. During these years in Massachusetts, Roseanna, now his wife, becomes an alcoholic. Living with Sabbath is too much for her. He destroys her sense of well-being and confidence and makes her life a hell. She becomes the target of his frustration and despair. Even when she is recovering, he goads her mercilessly.
When he finds his home life no longer appealing, Sabbath becomes involved in an adulterous affair with an exotic and powerful Croatian American woman, Drenka Balich, who with her husband owns the local inn. With Sabbath’s encouragement, she develops erotic needs that know no bounds. She is not only promiscuous but also unquenchable. Sabbath encourages her to have affairs with other men and then to describe them in detail to him. Much of Sabbath’s sexual pleasure comes from listening to these descriptions. However, the book takes a tragic turn when Drenka develops cancer. Her slow and painful death leaves him a desperate man capable of anything, including suicide.
The plot unfolds in a series of powerful flashbacks to various moments in his life that deal with major personal losses. The first of those is an experience from Sabbath’s years as a teenager. His beloved older brother Morty enlisted during World War II, became a pilot, and was shot down and killed by the Japanese in 1944. Morty’s death destroys the family. Morty’s loss slowly drives his mother insane, and throughout the novel Sabbath relives that death and his mother’s insanity as if both events happened yesterday. Other losses compound his sense of despair and send him reeling: the disappearance of his first wife, his loss of his career as puppeteer, the end of his career as theater director, Roseanna’s alcoholism, and finally the loss of his beloved Drenka. When his best friend and former business investor, Lincoln Gelman, dies, Sabbath decides to leave Roseanna and drive to New York for the funeral. Part of his motivation for attending the funeral is to see how it is done so that he can prepare his own.
In New York, he finds refuge in the home of an old friend, Norm Cowan, whom he promptly repays by trying to seduce his wife and engaging in sex with a graduation picture of Cowan’s pretty daughter. The last sections of the book describe Sabbath’s futile attempt to kill himself. In a bizarre ending fitting for a bizarre book, a stranger thwarts Sabbath’s final act. In a macabre series of events, he is forced to go on living. The book ends with Sabbath remarking bitterly that there is no point to killing himself because “everything I hate is here.”