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The Theatre of the Self

part 6

The motif of play-acting is exuberantly dominant in Zuckerman Unbound. Set as it is at the end of the zany sixties, this seems unavoidable, the period atmosphere playing a large part in the fears and anxieties that trouble Zuckerman. The book deals with some of the cultural aspects that gave the final push to the rise of what Christopher Lasch later termed the “culture of narcissism” of the seventies. Lasch writes that “[a] number of historical currents have converged in our time to produce not merely in artists but in ordinary men and women an escalating cycle of self-consciousness – a sense of the self as a performer under the constant scrutiny of friends and strangers.” This self-consciousness, he further writes, “derives in the last analysis from the waning belief in the reality of the external world.”19 Lasch himself links this uncertainty with developments in the arts, notably the theatre of the Absurd, where “it crystallizes in an imagery of the absurd that reenters daily life and encourages a theatrical approach to existence, a kind of absurdist theatre of the self.”20 Lasch is not always convincing when he discusses literature, but that a sense of unreality grew as the sixties progressed is an often-voiced sentiment, expressed also by Roth himself in “Writing American Fiction” (1960; reprinted in Reading Myself and Others 173-191).

“To the performing self,” Lasch also writes, “the only reality is the identity he can construct out of materials furnished by advertising and mass culture, themes of popular film and fiction, and fragments torn from a vast range of cultural tradition, all of them equally contemporaneous to the contemporary mind.”21A riotous representative of this state of culture barges into the novel under the name of Alvin Pepler, Zuckerman’s “pop self,” a would-be writer who suddenly accosts Zuckerman on the street. He is obsessed by performance in show business and popular culture. Indeed, according to him, his tragedy has been that he has refused to play along in the game the TV producers wanted him to perform in, that he has always refused to be other than his natural self. Yet on the other hand, his self seems to be so infused with images from popular culture that it becomes hard to determine exactly what that self is. Even his telephone threats to kidnap Zuckerman’s mother seem to be no more than a bit of performance, and Zuckerman responds to them as such (although, being Zuckerman, of course he also breaks out in a sweat): “Friend, too many grade-B movies. The lingo, the laugh, everything. Unoriginal. Unconvincing. Bad art” (Zuckerman Unbound 212).

Pepler is not the only one who is affected by the escalating cycle of self-consciousness, however. Its effects are also demonstrated in the behaviour of Zuckerman himself, who has been rocketed from the relative obscurity of the republic of letters into the glamorous realm of television talk shows and glossy gossip columns by the overwhelming success of his novel Carnovsky. His sudden fame has two important results, not independent of each other: the first is to make him prone to a slight paranoia, and the second is to increase his feeling of self-importance and self-consciousness. It is, in fact, his increased self-importance that makes him slightly paranoid, makes him blind to certain facts and over-susceptible to others. In the first two chapters of the novel, this state of mind is mainly connected to the general state of culture as Lasch describes it, through such figures as Alvin Pepler and the actress Caesara O’Shea. These characters are used by Roth both in order to emphasize and to act as contrasts to the specific problems of sincerity that Zuckerman runs up against both in his public and his private life.

With the appearance of Caesara O’Shea, play-acting once more becomes an explicit subject. Not only is she an actress, she also moves in an aura of play-acting that touches everything near her. Certainly Zuckerman is affected: “talking to Caesara O’Shea in the velvety back seat of a dark limousine, you came out sounding a little like Caesara O’Shea in the velvety back seat of a dark limousine. Appendicitis as a passionate, poetic drama” (Zuckerman Unbound 189). He becomes extremely self-conscious about his own behaviour, about what he does – “he didn’t want to appear to be trying to impress, given how hard he was trying” (Zuckerman Unbound 188) – and what he does not do – like embracing her: “No, he wasn’t about to impersonate his own hungering hero for the further entertainment of the fans” (Zuckerman Unbound 190).

Caesara is aware of the effect she has on men, and weary of it. The roles she plays have a tendency to get between her lovers and the reality of herself, and as she herself says: “How often can you get a thrill out of deflowering the nineteen-year-old novice of that touching first film, when she’s thirty-five and the mother of three?” (Zuckerman Unbound 194). But it is uncertain to what extent the ambiguity created by her play-acting really does make her unhappy. As Hermione Lee remarks, she is in fact one of Roth’s first female characters to hold interest as more than a stereotype; she certainly manages to be admirable without being a mere household goddess (as Claire Ovington, in The Professor of Desire, at times threatens to become).22 Her biography contains quite some ingredients for a disastrous life, but she still makes an extraordinarily resilient impression, and seems to be reading Kierkegaard’s The Crisis in the Life of an Actress to impress the high-minded Zuckerman rather than because of personal worries.

There is certainly, then, no hint of Zuckerman’s being cast in the role of heroic saviour, come to rescue the damsel from the hollow dungeons of Film. On the contrary: if anything, Caesara seems to have come to teach Zuckerman a lesson, which unfortunately he does not take to heart: how to deal with fame. Having experienced the debilitating effects of fame, she yet seems to know how to cope with it; Zuckerman, so the novel insists, does not. Zuckerman Unbound shows him continually at risk to get lost in a postmodern mirror land where selves do not exist and sincerity is a lie. In this postmodern waste land, the “unreal city” of the sixties, where he is accosted on the streets by crazy, masturbating misfits that might be plotting to shoot him or kidnap his mother, and where he has a one-night stand with a glamorous film actress who flies off the next morning for a tryst with Fidel Castro, Zuckerman’s sense of reality is severely put to the test. The whole world seems indeed to be a stage.

Even New York funerals cannot hide their essentially theatrical nature. In a funeral across the street from Zuckerman’s apartment, a gangland figure, Nick “the Prince” Seratelli, is lying “on display,” and passers-by stop “to identify the entertainers, athletes, politicians, and criminals who would be arriving to get a last look at the Prince” (Zuckerman Unbound 213). The funeral gets extended press coverage, and when Zuckerman, to escape Pepler’s anger, walks “[p]ast the prancing horse, the gaping crowd, past J.K. Cranford and his camera crew (‘Hi, there, Nathan’), past the uniformed porter, and into the funeral parlor,” we read that “[t]he large foyer looked like a Broadway theater at opening-night intermission: backers and burghers in their finest, and conversation bubbling, as though the first act had been a million laughs and the show on its way to being a hit’ (Zuckerman Unbound 244).

The theatrical front of this everyday event is juxtaposed to the backstage practice. About one of the funeral directors we read:

Zuckerman had seen the fellow around, usually outside in the afternoon, talking through the cab window of a truck with the casket deliveryman. One evening he’d caught sight of him, dragging on a cigarette and with his tie undone, holding open the side door for the arrival of a corpse. When the lead stretcher-bearer stumbled on the doorsill, the body stirred slightly in its sack and Zuckerman had thought of his father.
                                                             (Zuckerman Unbound 244)23

His father, although incapacitated and kept in a nursing home, is not yet dead at that moment. It is not quite clear why Zuckerman has to think of him. But what is clear is that it makes the funeral of “Prince” Seratelli, and even the very presence of the funeral parlor across the street from Zuckerman’s apartment, a foreshadowing of the deathbed scene in Florida.

The reference thus links the two realms in which he faces problems of sincerity and play-acting: the public world of the New York media and the private world of his family. The results of his novel’s commercial success on his public life are hilariously presented in the first chapters of the book. The results it has on his personal life, and especially on his relationship with his family, are explored in the scenes dealing with his father’s death and its aftermath in the subsequent chapters. It is this personal crisis that is the book’s central focus, of course. But the context fo media cranks like Pepler, media personalities like O’Shea, and media funerals like “Prince” Seratelli’s serves as an appropriate and suggestive backdrop, suggesting a wider cultural significance in Zuckerman’s private ordeal.

It is at his father’s deathbed that Zuckerman’s feelings of unreality and insincerity, of being an actor in a play, come to a head. What is perhaps most astonishing in this scene is the trouble Zuckerman has even here, faced with his father’s imminent death, in struggling free from his self-consciousness, and from the theatrical. The term “deathbed scene” is doubly appropriate: the relatives’ quibbling and his father’s dying words nearly do turn it into a row. Also, Zuckerman is very aware of the moment as a “topos” in a literary and hence also in a theatrical sense. On the whole the scene is very moving, and Zuckerman’s alternative “Genesis” becomes increasingly effective, up to the point where he decides to leave out of the account of the “Big Bang” theory the objections to the hypothesis of a universe endlessly being reborn after having imploded: “this information his father could live without. Of all that Dr Zuckerman had so far lived without, and that Nathan would have preferred him to live with, knowledge of the missing density factor was the least of it. Enough for now of what is and isn’t so. Enough science, enough art, enough of fathers and sons” (Zuckerman Unbound 269).

This moving cadence, however, is undercut by Nathan’s earlier self-consciousness about what attitude to take, what words to use. His sincerity is questioned not only by his choice of subject (a theory about the origin of the universe culled from a pocketbook read on the plane), but by the very fact that there is a choice of subject – that he worries about what to say, and not only before he starts talking, but during. His cousin Essie is the first to be taking leave of Victor Zuckerman, and Zuckerman wonders about the effectivess and the appropriateness of her reminiscing about “the old winepress, the new American children, the sweet-smelling cellar, the crunchy mandel bread, and the mother, the revered and simple mother who baked the mandel bread” (Zuckerman Unbound 263). Is that such a good idea? he wonders. But then again, “[h]aving buried her share, maybe Essie knew what she was doing. Not that not knowing had ever worried her before. Precious time was passing, but Essie wasn’t one to stint on details, nor did Nathan see any way to stop her now that she had the floor” (Zuckerman Unbound 263). Nathan’s worry over Essie’s “holding the floor” is entirely characteristic – as though they are giving a performance, in which he would hope to do better than his uneducated cousin. Who is supposed to be more of an expert on deathbed scenes than me, the hijink writer? he seems to say. The same mixture of persecution mania and inflated self-importance that was observable in the earlier chapters can here be discerned.

Characteristic also is his thought that “maybe Essie knew what she was doing.” Because Nathan does not know. While he is holding forth on the creation of the universe, he keeps worrying whether he made the right choice of subject matter and treatment. “Oh, the mandel bread was a much better idea. Homely, tangible, and to the point of Victor Zuckerman’s real life and a Jewish family deathbed scene” (Zuckerman Unbound 266). Nathan gets near to feeling competitive towards Essie about their respective speeches to his father – he feels Essie is superseding him as the family’s author. It is with this insight that the novel, which has shown Zuckerman at his most vainglorious, reaches a moral nadir.

In what way this crisis of sincerity, too, is related to play-acting becomes even clearer in connection with Zuckerman’s quarrel with his brother Henry. First of all, the references to the theatre in chapter two are parallelled by the account of the abortive dramatic career of Henry in chapter four. In the plane back to New York after their father’s funeral, Zuckerman remembers the violent scene upon Henry’s announcement to the family of his decision to become a “drama major.” A “scene” not only in the sense of a row but also in the theatrical sense, because Henry had “for days rehearsed” it at school with his friend Timmy, the director of the school play, “Timmy playing Dr Zuckerman like a miniature Lear, and Henry as a rather outspoken version of himself – Henry playing at being Nathan” (Zuckerman Unbound 278).

 The reference to Henry’s earlier ambition has further relevance, in that Henry says that it was a copy of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares borrowed by Carol that once prevented him from breaking off his engagement to her. All this leads Zuckerman to use dramatical metaphors to describe his brother’s messed up marriage. “The Crisis, thought Zuckerman, in the Life of a Husband” (Zuckerman Unbound 280), alluding to the book he found in Caesara O’Shea’s hotel room. The advice he gives his brother is couched in terms of play-acting. “Maybe what you ought to start squeezing out of yourself is the obedient son,” he says to him. “Come on, you’re a bigger character than this. An actor prepares. Well, you’ve been preparing for thirty-two years. Now deliver. You don’t have to play the person you were cast as, not if it’s what’s driving you mad” (Zuckerman Unbound 284). Not realizing the depths of a husband’s emotional involvement in a marriage with children, the childless author thus tries to instill a cruelty in his brother that would otherwise seem acceptable only on a stage. “Now ... we can all be as cruel as we like,” he’d said to Henry earlier, with “now” meaning “now that father is dead” (Zuckerman Unbound 281). And emboldened by Henry’s own seeming “savagery” in confessing to An Actor Prepares being the “reason” why he married Carol, Nathan’s holds forth against the filial meekness that keeps Henry leashed to a marriage that is “murder” to him.

Not that Zuckerman does not have doubts about the validity of his advice himself: “Inventing people. Benign enough when you were typing away in the quiet study, but was this his job in the unwritten world? If Henry could perform otherwise, wouldn’t he have done so long ago?” (Zuckerman Unbound 285). Still he urges his brother to “squeeze out the obedient son.” Thus he himself also fails to perform otherwise than as the way he is typecast in the family drama as the evil genius, the family’s id.

It is impossible to make a conclusive judgement of the scene of the final parting of the Zuckerman brothers. Are we to sympathize with the excruciating position of Henry, caught between and torn apart by the love for his family and his mistress? Or should we scoff at the hypocrisy of his attack on Zuckerman, whose advice may have been clumsy and destructive, but was also tendered with the best of intentions; and whose demolition – in the written world – of the Zuckerman family ideal in Carnovsky is surely no more devastating than Henry’s demolition of the same ideal – in the unwritten world – by keeping a mistress on the side.24 As always, Roth strikes such a perfect balance that it becomes impossible to judge Henry either way. For of course the accusations hold a lot of truth: Nathan is self-engrossed – a flaw that has increased with the extreme success of his fourth novel. So when Henry says that their father did call Nathan a bastard with his dying breath, this rings true, and constitutes a dizzying turn in the novel’s “plot.”25 The remark is all the more devastating because it unwittingly responds to the very doubts that Zuckerman has been entertaining throughout the novel about himself and his books and his place in life. It points to the way in which Zuckerman himself is an actor – and not a failed actor like Henry either, but an all too successful one. As Mr Metz puts it: “You are their wordsmith ... You are their mouthpiece. You can say for everyone what is in their hearts” (Zuckerman Unbound 268). As Henry repeatedly complains, Zuckerman is an impersonator, a ventriloquizer who produces painful rip-offs of his relatives’ intimate family life for all America to laugh at.

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19: Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner, 1979) 165. Lasch’ book does not, of course, contain a scientific description of a factually objective state of affairs, but rather a fairly subjective interpretation of a number of cultural phenomena. Whether his interpretation is “right” or “wrong,” or whether it can even be judged in such terms, is irrelevant to my use of his book here: regardless of whether a “culture of narcissism” exists, Lasch’ ideas about it are well-known, and they do exist as objective facts. Roth himself, for instance, is bound to be aware of them, and he is not unlikely even to have read Lasch’ books. It does not seem inappropriate, therefore, to make use of Lasch’ formulations – as representative of a wide-spread view of some cultural developments in the sixties and the seventies – as background material, without implying that I myself fully agree with Lasch’ diagnoses. (Back.)

20: Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 164. (Back.)

21: Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 166.(Back.)

22: Cf. Hermione Lee, Philip Roth (London: Methuen, 1982) 77.(Back.)

23: Cf. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1959) 128: “Throughout Western society there tends to be one informal or backstage language of behavior, and another language of behavior for occasions when a performance is being presented. The backstage language consists of reciprocal first-naming, co-operative decision-making, profanity, open sexual remarks, elaborate griping, smoking, rough informal dress, ‘sloppy’ sitting and standing posture, use of dialect or sub-standard speech, mumbling and shouting, playful aggressivity and ‘kidding,’ inconsiderateness for the other in minor but potentially symbolic acts, minor physical self-involvements such as humming, whistling, chewing, nibbling, belching, and flatulence. The frontstage behavior language can be taken as the absence (and in some sense the opposite) of this.” (Back.)

24: Exactly how shameful Henry’s behaviour really is (not only does he have mistresses, he has had at least one passionate affair with a “Teutonic” shikse), is underlined by the parallel with Roth’s early story “Epstein” – one of the very stories that outraged the Jewish community when it was first published. This parallel is one of the means Roth uses to show up the strange double standard that led to the attacks on his work in the fifties and the sixties: apparently, to his critics it is less wrong indulge in unethical behaviour oneself – as Henry and Lou Epstein respectively do – than to criticize the unethical behaviour of others – as Zuckerman and Roth have done. (Back.)

25: After what I have said about the role of interpretation in Roth’s work, it will come as no surprise if I maintain that readers who flatly accept Henry’s interpretation of Victor Zuckerman’s dying breath take too simple a view of the matter. Henry’s “reading” certainly carries most emotional force, and seems on the whole the most plausible; but it is not, in the final analysis, the only possible one. The inaudibility of the final word is stressed too much for that. (Back.)

More about Roth:
Roths 'Late Years'
Over Exit Ghost

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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