13.7.10

Philip Roth on Suicide and the Stage

An excerpt from Roth's recent novel, The Humbling
Philip Roth, 'The Humbling'. Design by Milton Glaser.

In the first chapter of Philip Roth's The Humbling, its main protagonist Simon Axler contemplates the role suicide has played on the theatrical stage:
After Jerry had left, Axler went into his study and found his copy of Long Day's Journey into Night. He tried to read it but the effort was unbearable. He didn't get beyond page 4—he put Vincent Daniels's card there as a bookmark. At the Kennedy Center it was as though he'd never acted before and now it was as though he'd never read a play before—as though he'd never read this play before. The sentences unfolded without meaning. He could not keep straight who was speaking the lines. Sitting there amid his books, he tried to remember plays in which there is a character who commits suicide. Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Julie in Miss Julie, Phaedra in Hyppolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus the King, almost everyone in Antigone, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Don Paritt in The Iceman Cometh, Simon Stimson in Our Town, Ophelia in Hamlet, Othello in Othello, Casius and Brutus in Julius Caesar, Goneril in King Lear, Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus, and Charman in Antony and Cleopatra, the grandfather in Awake and Sing!, Ivanov in Ivanov, Konstantin in The Seagull. And this astonishing list was only of plays in which he had at once time performed. There were more, many more. What was remarkable was the frequency with which suicide enters into drama, as though it were a formula fundamental to the drama, not necessarily supported by the action as dictated by the workings of the genre itself. Deirdre in Deidre of the Sorrows, Hedvig in The Wild Duck, Rebecca West in Rosmerholm, Christine and Orin in Mourning Becomes Electra, both Romeo and Juliet, Sophocles' Ajax. Suicide is a subject dramatists have been contemplating with awe since the fifth century B. C., beguiled by the human beings who are capable of generating emotions that can inspire this most extraordinary act. He should set himself the task of rereading these plays. Yes, everything gruesome must be squarely faced. Nobody should be able to say that he did not think it through.

Philip Roth, The Humbling
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