Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A winner of the 1995 National Book Award for fiction, Sabbath’s Theater was published thirty-five years after Roth first won the award for his widely acclaimed 1959 first novel Goodbye Columbus. Sabbath’s Theater, Roth’s twenty-first book, represents something of a breakout from what critics had noted as a relatively quiet time in the author’s life, a period that followed his fight with depression in 1987. During this “quiet time,” Roth’s father died; his death is the subject of Patrimony (1991). Roth also published the autobiographical The Facts (1988) and the novel Deception (1990). These books lack the verbal pyrotechnics for which Roth is famous, and many critics concluded that Roth had entered a new, more mellow phase. In Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath’s Theater (1995), American Pastoral (1997), and I Married a Communist (1998), however, Roth appears to have returned to form, pouring out verbal venom unequaled by any other writer of his generation. The themes of his earlier work—misogyny, sexual indulgence, alienation of the modern Jew, and self-hatred—are back in full force.

Critical reception of Sabbath’s Theater was mixed. Some reviewers expressed a preference for Operation Shylock and An American Pastoral, commenting that those books tell richer stories, are less claustrophobic, and embrace more of the cultural and historical events of their time. Sabbath’s Theater, on the other hand, tells the story of one man and his obsessive concerns, a character largely outside history. He does not read the newspapers or watch television; his great interest is lust and personal loss. Unlike Operation Shylock and An American Pastoral, therefore, Sabbath’s Theater lacks a base in the context of history and ideas.