Philip Roth, The Humbling (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). 140 pp. $22.00.
Has Philip Roth decided that The Plot against America will be his last big ambitious novel? In the five years since it was published, he has written four small books, bidding farewell to Newark (Everyman), tying up loose ends (Exit Ghost, the last of the Zuckerman novels), and dilating on old subjects (Indignation). His latest, the twenty-sixth novel of Roth’s career, is little more than a novella—the sketch, drawn in quick strokes, of an actor who is humbled by his losses.
Sexual impotence, Roth says in The Counterlife, is “like an artist’s artistic life drying up for good.” In The Humbling, he reverses tenor and vehicle. At sixty-five, Simon Axler abruptly finds that his acting ability has deserted him; his “magic” is gone. He presses, he is wooden; no matter what the role, it feels wrong, alien. Asked to play Macbeth at the Kennedy Center, he fails appallingly; even those who do not see his performance say so. “No, they don’t even have to have been there,” Axler says, “to insult you.” Known as “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors,” he plummets into despair. His wife, a onetime ballerina, formerly Ballanchine’s favorite, leaves him; he checks himself into a psychiatric hospital for twenty-eight days. When he returns home, his agent seeks him out to tell him of an offer to play James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night. He believes that it’s a matter of confidence. “No, it’s a matter of falseness,” Axler replies, “sheer falseness so pervasive that all I can do is stand on the stage and tell the audience, ‘I’m a liar. And I can’t even lie well. I am a fraud.’ ”
Axler is not a method actor. As a young man of twenty-two he landed his first New York part before he had ever taken an acting class. On stage he riveted the attention; in class he was rotten. He was no good at exercises. “Everything I did well was coming out of instinct,” he says, but the famous “method” of Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio (“create a reality for yourself to step into,” as Axler summarizes it) made him feel ridiculous. Pretending to drink tea from a pretend teacup, he would hear
The Humbling is a three-act drama. Act I chronicles the disappearance of Axler’s talent “Into Thin Air.” Act II is “The Transformation.” A forty-year-old lesbian, the daughter of friends from his youth, enters his life and becomes his lover. Named after “the strong-minded barmaid” in Playboy of the Western World, Pegeen Mike Stapleford pulls him from the slough of despond. Lithe, full-breasted, “with something of the child still in her smile,” she has recently escaped a six-year liaison with a professor at Montana State who decided “to have her breasts surgically removed and become a man.” Pegeen flees to a teaching job in Vermont, and drives across the state line into rural New York one afternoon to track Axler down. When he asks why, she says, “I wanted to see if anybody was with you.” “And when you saw?” “I thought, Why not me?”
They are together for seven months. During that time, Axler transforms Pegeen from a tomboy with cropped mannish hair and the gait of a sixteen-year-old. He buys her new jewelry, flattering new clothes, luxurious lingerie; he pays to have her hair styled by an expensive hairdresser in Manhattan, giving her a “cared-for devil-may-care air of slight dishevelment.” The transformation is so complete that Axler stops asking questions about their age difference, the gulf in their sexual histories, her parents’ reaction, their future.
He should have asked. Act III is “The Last Act.” Pegeen’s parents disapprove of the affair; they find it “wacky and ill advised”; her father suggests that Pegeen is “starstruck” by Axler’s fame, and promises to bring pressure upon her to end things. Eventually, she does just that—but not before, like Portnoy and the Monkey in Rome, the two of them pick up another woman for a night of three-way debauchery. Unlike the Monkey, she does not accuse Axler of degrading her, but two weeks later Pegeen announces that she made a mistake; a connection with Axler is not what she wants. “I wanted so much to see if I could do it,” she confesses. If for her it was an experiment in heterosexuality, for him the love affair was, she weeps, a substitute for his acting. Disgusted at the accusation, Axler tells her to go.
The truth is rather different. Axler creates a reality for Pegeen to step into, and obligingly she does. She plays Galatea to his Pygmalion, but in the end she finds, like Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle, that she cannot prolong the charade any longer. “I’m a slave,” Eliza cries, “for all my fine clothes.” Axler wants from Pegeen pretty much the same thing that Higgins wants from Eliza: he never thinks of anything else but making something of her. He is, to use Eliza’s words again, a bully and a cruel tyrant—or, rather, the theater is. Although Axler, admitting finally that the failure was his, feels himself “impaled” upon his own “bewildering biography,” that biography is merely a list of the dramatic roles that he has played over a theatrical career of forty-three years. It has never enabled him to become a man, but only a succession of parts. When the “magic” disappears, when he is no longer a “titan” upon the stage, as his agent describes him, he is left with himself—and it is not even puny. It is non-existent. Even his breakdown seems like “an act, a bad act.” His acting ability was not a form of knowledge, but of power. And when the power dries up, so does the man.
Except for The Breast and Our Gang, anything written by Roth is worth reading. In The Humbling, he opens up new territory. He has never before, I believe, written about acting and the theater. In I Married a Communist, Eve Frame is an actress, notoriously modeled upon ex-wife Claire Bloom, but Roth does not reflect upon acting there as he does here. Axler is a sort of anti-Roth, depending on sheer energy and bluff to perform his “magic,” while Roth is a humble tradesman, writing doggedly against the end of time. As a portrait of a man of the theater, who interprets all of life, including his own, through a theatrical lens, The Humbling is brilliant and a little frightening.