This week’s castaway is Mickey Sabbath, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (1995), and our presenter is Professor David Brauner of the Department of English Literature.
Sabbath’s Theater is Philip Roth’s masterpiece. Its protagonist is one of the great anti-heroes of literature: equal parts King Lear, Humbert Humbert (from Nabokov’s Lolita) and Krapp (from Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape), but ultimately sui generis.
The novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes (mostly the latter) of Morris (Mickey) Sabbath, a 64-year-old ex-puppeteer, theatre director and disgraced former academic. Unhappily married to a recovering alcoholic, Roseanna, the true loves of Sabbath’s life are his mother, who never fully recovers from the death of Sabbath’s older brother, Morty, at the age of 20, in the Second World War; his first wife, Nikki, who mysteriously disappears one day in 1964; and his long-term mistress, Drenka, who has recently died of ovarian cancer, leaving Sabbath bereft and planning his own death.
As ever in Roth, however, the plot is almost incidental. What makes the novel utterly compelling is Roth’s prose – by turns exuberant, indignant, lyrical, melancholy, hilarious and heart-breaking — and the tragicomic character of Sabbath, a man whose outrageous amorality and nihilism paradoxically invests him with the transcendent power of a prophet.
1. ‘Dry Land’, Joan Armatrading.
As a young man Sabbath serves in the merchant navy. If the ‘gift of love’ that the narrator of ‘Dry Land’ offers may be far removed from the sexual adventures that Sabbath enjoys, the ambiguous line ‘I’ll promise you so much more’ is very apt for the opening section of Roth’s novel, which is entitled ‘There’s Nothing That Keeps Its Promise’.
2. Metallica, ‘Master of Puppets’
At Sabbath’s puppet shows ‘the atmosphere was insinuatingly anti-moral, vaguely menacing, and at the same time, rascally fun’, which sums up Metallica’s song rather well. The song also deals metaphorically with addiction, something with which Sabbath’s wife, Roseanna, struggles, without much help from Sabbath himself (he wouldn’t like Toto’s ‘Roseanna’, in case you were wondering!).
3. Claire Teal, ‘Messin’ With Fire’
Sabbath enjoys nothing more than setting things alight (metaphorically). He is a misanthropist who, like the protagonist of this song, loves to expose the hypocrisy of those who are ‘holier-than-thou’, believing that at heart ‘we’re all arsonists!’
4. Warren Zevon, ‘Mr Bad Example’
Sabbath prides himself on behaving badly and offending everybody – Warren Zevon’s comic song is the perfect theme tune for him.
5. Indigo Girls, ‘Ghost’
Sabbath is haunted by the ghosts of lost loved ones and even has regular conversations with his dead mother.
6. Blondie, ‘Hanging on the Telephone’
Sabbath loses his job as a drama teacher at a local college when an audio tape of him engaging in phone sex with a student comes to light.
7. Thea Gilmore, ‘The Dirt is Your Lover Now’
(the song begins at 11.25 mins in to the album)
Sabbath compulsively visits Drenka’s grave, communing with her in ways that I won’t reveal here!
8. Leonard Cohen, ‘You Want it Darker’
Sabbath also spends much of the novel thinking about suicide and trying to find the ideal plot in the ideal cemetery, although in the end he decides that he can’t end his own life as ‘Everything he hated was here’.
Sabbath would certainly appreciate the time to reread The Complete Works of Shakespeare: the epigraph from the novel is one of Prospero’s lines from The Tempest (‘Every third thought shall be my grave’) and at one point he goes begging on a subway train, reciting passages from the moment in King Lear when the old king is reunited with Cordelia (‘I fear I am not in my perfect mind’ etc.). But I think his choice would be The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, whose ‘Meru’ is quoted in full in the novel and with whose mad, raging old men he has much in common.
Although he has long ceased to practise puppetry because of arthritis, Sabbath’s luxury would have to be a puppet theatre, if only so that he could continue to amuse (and torture) himself with memories of his youth!
Which disc would he save from the waves?
It would have to be ‘Mr Bad Example’ – it evokes Sabbath’s anarchic, iconoclastic,
(self-)satirical spirit perfectly.