The Humbling: Philip Roth’s Bleak Theater

January 8, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 7 min read

coverIn his 1968 study Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously adopted a “dramaturgical perspective” as his method of description, restricting himself to a theatrical vocabulary when interpreting social relations. Accounting for the behavior of a waitress, he might take care to refer to the “costume” she wore, the “performance” she delivered before her “audience,” the “props” she manipulated, and so on, with the result that dramaturgical scare quotes come to enclose every action in an ozone of artifice. The book, at times, can be a bleak read: it begins to look as if spontaneous, authentic, unperformed relations between people are impossible.

coverAn identical bleakness is at work in Philip Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, which reads in places like the diary of a madman who believes he’s trapped inside Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Roth’s thirtieth, The Humbling charts the mental dissolution of the senescent ex-actor Simon Axler, whose end-of-career unemployment and irremediable actor’s block have driven him, at the book’s open, to thoughts of suicide. His problem is one of crippling Goffmanian self-consciousness: he suffers from the delusion that he’s acting at all times, performing in the play of his own life. “The only role available to him was the role of someone playing a role,” Roth writes. “[E]very word he uttered seemed acted instead of spoken.”

Onstage, Axler had once been able to transcend acting and truly “inhabit” a role, to “make the imagined real” and be Macbeth; now, after a double-bill butchering of both Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center, he’s so racked by doubt and self-alienation that he has trouble just being Axler. A stagy unreality has leached into his everyday experience of selfhood. Even his nervous breakdown seems like a performance—“an act, a bad act”—as if he were merely “playing the role of [his] own demise”:

He could not convince himself he was mad any more than he’d been able to convince himself or anyone else he was Prospero or Macbeth. He was an artificial madman too…A sane man playing an insane man…In the mornings he hid in bed for hours, but instead of hiding from the role he was merely playing the role…[A]ll he could think about was suicide… A man who wanted to live playing a man who wanted to die.

The attraction of suicide, for Axler, is that it constitutes a last opportunity to “make the imagined real,” an escape hatch out of everyday theatricality into an authentically inhabited experience. “Suicide is the role that you write for yourself,” he explains. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged—where they will find you and how they will find you…But one performance only.” This is why so many characters in plays commit suicide, he thinks: self-annihilation is central to the experience of performativity, and vice versa, “as though [suicide] were a formula fundamental to drama,…dictated by the workings of the genre itself.” That is, dramatic characters resort to suicide as an exit strategy for the same reason Axler would—they are trapped in plays.

If Axler sounds like a Bernhard character here, expatiating feverishly on the nature of suicide, it’s because The Humbling is, at bottom, a madman novel. Axler is a pathologically alienated monomaniac, whose obsessive fear is that he’s locked inside a drama, and the job of the madman novel is to convince him he’s right—to poke and prod him, push him to the limit, to corroborate his delusion and thereby usher him to its logical conclusion. In this, Roth doesn’t disappoint: dutifully he subjects his madman to a series of increasingly play-like situations, each tragically calibrated to make Axler lose his mind. When Axler enters a psychiatric ward, for example, the group-therapy sessions there are structured exactly like dress rehearsals: the patients with their round-robin monologues remind him of character actors, “rehearsing…the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealously, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, grief;” chiming in himself, Axler soon realizes he’s “perform[ing] before his largest audience since he’d given up acting.” All the world’s a stage! (Wincingly, a doctor even refers to his grief as a “stage” of misery.) Eventually Axler leaves the hospital, but fares no batter back home. In his yard he spots a possum, the one animal guaranteed to remind him of “playing dead”: for days Axler watches as the marsupial, “nature’s little caricature of him,” prepares a hovel in the snow to die in.

Occasionally the narrator will play along, confirming at the level of word choice the reality of Axler’s “dramaturgical perspective.” Indeed, part of the pleasure of the novel is the Goffmanian ruthlessness with which Roth hews to a theatrical vocabulary. When Axler stakes his happiness on a last-ditch sexual fling, for instance, the narrator describes the fling as follows: “He was here. She was here. Everyone’s possibilities had changed dramatically.” Is it even possible to read that sentence as, “Everyone’s possibilities had changed a lot”? Maybe in a different novel. But Axler’s obsession italicizes “dramatically,” even if Roth’s typeset doesn’t.

Naturally, the lover Axler chooses is tragically ill-considered. What he needs is a relationship that won’t feel scripted or staged; what he gets is a woman precision-engineered to convince him that he’s performing at the deepest levels of himself. A middle-aged lesbian, moreover a butch who “owned little that couldn’t be worn by a sixteen-year-old boy,” Pegeen dresses and even walks like a man when Axler first seduces her. They tacitly agree that she must “become a heterosexual female,” and her conversion is treated (along with everything else) as a matter of performance: Axler takes her on a series of transformative shopping sprees, buying her Prada pumps, smart skirts, and expensive jewelry. Nor is her performance of femininity, or his role as costume director, lost on him. “Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other…?” he wonders. “Wasn’t he dressing her up in a costume?”

There’s a lability of sexuality and gender in this novel, everywhere depicted in terms of performativity. Pegeen “becomes” a heterosexual female as easily as her former lover, undergoing hormone treatment and surgical breast removal, “became” a heterosexual male. Pegeen “becomes” a male herself whenever she dons her green strap-on dildo, which Axler thinks of, characteristically, as “a mask on her genitals.” Axler, too, performs his sexuality, and not at all subtly—when he and Pegeen bring home a drunk woman for a three-way, he joins the fray thusly: “‘Three children got together,’ he said, ‘and decided to put on a play,’ whereupon his performance began.”

None of this, obviously, helps Axler shake the feeling that he’s playing a role—least of all when he and Pegeen “role-play” in bed. Dating her, he doesn’t escape from the role, only manages to “dig himself deeper into an unreal world.” And that’s before you even factor in Pegeen’s dramaturgical lineage. The daughter of some old theater friends of Axler’s, Pegeen Mike is named after a character in Playboy of the Western World, a play that Axler got his start in: while Pegeen’s mother, just pregnant with Pegeen, played Pegeen, Axler played the title role, opposite Pegeen1 (the character) and Pegeen2 (the fertilized egg and, unbeknownst to him, his future lover). This leads to a metafictionally vertiginous sequence in which Axler, arguing with Pegeen2, begins addressing her as if she were the character in the play: “‘Perhaps, Pegeen Mike,’ he said, falling into the Irish accent he hadn’t used since acting in Playboy…” Of course, it’s fatalistically engineered—and somewhat overdetermined—that he and Pegeen should begin dating forty years after that performance: he really is “playing a role” by dating her, a character from a play, and it’s one of the oldest roles he knows. He even lapses into lines from the script!

This is the point that critics are missing when they complain that Pegeen is too sketchily drawn; that, if you try to read her as a realistically motivated character, it’s not always clear why she (a middle-aged lesbian) is even with Axler (an old man) in the first place. But Pegeen’s plainly not a realistically motivated character, any more than the possum was, and she should be read as fulfilling the same function as the possum: she’s visiting Axler—Roth is inflicting her on him—as a destroying angel of thematic appositeness. She’s not his most credible sexual partner, just as Jocasta wasn’t Oedipus’s: she’s the shortest route to the ripping out of Axler’s eyeballs. And as a narrative device designed to ratify Axler’s nightmare and precipitate his suicide, she reads splendidly.

When she leaves him, as she must, he calls her parents to discover where she’s gone, but feels more than ever as if he’s merely reading off a script. What follows is a fever dream of self-consciousness, and the entire sinuous movement of the novel can be glimpsed, in miniature, in the peristalsis of Axler’s thought patterns here—from the alienated experience of his “self” as a role, to his resolution to commit suicide:

His voice was trembling and his heartbeat had quickened…It was very like the way he’d felt [at the Kennedy Center]…If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it?…He could no more figure out how to play the [abandoned] elderly lover…than he’d been able to figure out how to play Macbeth. Shouldn’t he just have blown his brains out while [Pegeen’s mother] was at the other end listening? Wouldn’t that have been the best way to play it?

coverThe reader perks up at the line, “No more than he’d been able to play Macbeth.” A hundred and fifty pages earlier, this was just how he described the hollow fraudulence of his breakdown: he’s left at the same impasse, with the same recourse. Not long after hanging up the phone, Axler does commit suicide, and it’s the only suicide available to him: that of a character in a play. Pretending that “the attic [is] a theater” and that he’s the character Konstantin Gavrilovich from Chekhov’s The Seagull, he takes down his hunting rifle and sets the stage for a final performance. No encores. His suicide note contains only the play’s parting line of dialogue: “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.”

It is a black, ambivalent ending. How to read Axler’s “transformation” into Konstantin Gavrilovich? Either the bullet that breached his skull breached the dramaturgical scare quotes, too, freeing Axler, one last time, from the imagined into the real; or else he’s entered more radically than ever before into the artificiality of a play, embedded in Chekhov’s The Seagull like Zod in his crystal prison, hurtling through the void of some Goffmanian Phantom Zone. The novel itself concludes ambivalently, on a note either of ovation or irony, with a line like a theater critic’s review of a performance: “He had brought it off,” it reads, “the well-established stage star, once so widely heralded for his force as an actor, whom in his heyday people would flock to the theater to see.”

is the author of A Questionable Shape, which was awarded the 2014 Bard Fiction Prize. He currently lives in Iowa City and will be a writer in residence at Bard College in the spring.