Commentary Magazine

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Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

- Abstract

Isn’t it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero? What an odd time to be thinking of sex as rebellion. Are we back to Lawrence’s gamekeeper? At this late hour? . . . What a pathetic, outmoded old crank you are, Mickey Sabbath. The discredited male polemic’s last gasp. Even as the bloodiest of all centuries comes to an end, you’re out working day and night to create an erotic scandal.

Substitute the name of Philip Roth for that of his protagonist Mickey Sabbath in this passage, and you have a fair and witty put-down of his new novel, Sabbath’s Theater. Some of Roth’s critics through the years have indeed charged that he is nothing but a pornographer, out to create “an erotic scandal.” Here, Roth anticipates the attack by airing it, and bringing it up to date: the literary sensation that D. H. Lawrence once created with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or Philip Roth himself with the dirty sex of Portnoy’s Complaint, is by now very old-hat; challenges to bourgeois propriety have grown tiresome, especially when coming from such a veteran of the genre; intelligent people should have more important things on their minds. But wait: the character who cleverly chides Mickey Sabbath in this manner is himself a foil, a prim and proper family man whose judgment we accept at peril of selling Sabbath short, and Roth, too.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).