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  • To Dazzle as Macbeth:Bisociated Drama in Philip Roth's The Humbling
  • James Duban (bio)

Philip Roth's The Humbling dramatizes the insecurities, eccentricities, and suicide of Simon Axler, an actor who loses his ability to experience and project the "magic" of classical stage performance.1 After near-mental collapse, followed by rehabilitation in a psychiatric hospital, Axler becomes the lover of the sexually adventuresome Pegeen Mike Stapleford, named after Pegeen Mike Flaherty, the female lead and barmaid in Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Roth's Pegeen is the daughter of Axler's longtime friends Asa and Carol Stapleford. At age forty, she is yet twenty-five years younger than Axler. Pegeen has become sexually involved with Axler after two recent relationships—one with Priscilla, a lesbian who eventually becomes a male (51), the other with Louise Renner, dean of nearby Prescott College, "a small, progressive women's college" (48), where Pegeen teaches environmental science. After hiring Pegeen for sexual gratification (52), Renner bemoans having been abandoned by a conniving opportunist (56). When Pegeen similarly conquers and abandons Axler, he becomes psychologically [End Page 1] debilitated but resolves to stage a grand comeback, a suicide modeled on that of the failed writer and romantic Konstantin Treplev in Chekhov's The Seagull. Although Axler carefully scripts his own exit with a shot to the head, his death is less tragic than pathetic, a "staged" production in which he is both actor and audience. Self-conscious to the end—and in a chapter aptly titled "The Last Act" (91)—he fails to grasp that the performer of high drama, should not act; he should, rather, impulsively and instinctively become the part.2 Otherwise stated—and with reference to Axler's theatrical flops as Prospero and Macbeth (4)—the part cannot become the person when the person breaks the spell by becoming his own spectator and critic. Not that one would sanction suicide for the greater polish of its execution, but such are the cognitive, theatrical, and narrative concerns of The Humbling. Yet the novel, in its excursion into comparative drama, accomplishes significantly more, and mainly because of its silent debt to dramatis personae, cognitive phenomena, and anthropological rituals inspired by the writings of George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and Arthur Koestler. When viewed, moreover, through Koestler's theory of "bisociative" thinking—a term Koestler uses to explore surprising points of consistency among disparate subject matter and seemingly unrelated fields of consciousness—Axler is not the failed Shakespearean performer he fancies himself.

Roth mentions neither Koestler nor the team of Kaufman and Ferber in The Humbling or in several interviews about the novel. But Roth is not obliged to reveal either the association of ideas or the history of reading that may have helped to inspire and advance a highly dramatic narrative that draws upon, while modernizing, possible sources through provocative metamorphoses.3 With regard to those external, unacknowledged contexts of artistic inspiration, Axler is imbued with features of Roth's reading while necessarily remaining unaware of a creative debt that allies The Humbling, in unique ways, with Roth's later-life narratives about aging and death, including The Dying Animal, Everyman, and Exit Ghost. In The Humbling, Axler is nonetheless personally versed in any number of dramatic works, among which are Oedipus the King, Antigone, Death of a Salesman, The Iceman Cometh, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.4 O'Neill's A Long Day's Journey into Night is also a reference point for Axler, who at times fancies himself playing James Tyrone, Sr., an actor who has botched his domestic life and squandered his creative powers after a career of limited, though lucrative, stage roles. [End Page 2] These literary points of reference significantly shape both the reader's sense of Simon Axler and Axler's perception of himself as a performing artist, allowing us to group The Humbling among such works as Roth's "An Actor's Life for Me," The Human Stain (where the aptly named "Coleman" Silk acts the part of a Jew and a Caucasian), Operation Shylock (in which the false Philip Roth plays his part with such conviction and bravado), and Sabbath's...


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