Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Philip Roth's Chekhovian Formula: Suicide and Art in the Humbling and the Seagull

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Philip Roth's Chekhovian Formula: Suicide and Art in the Humbling and the Seagull

Article excerpt

ROTH, CHEKHOV, AND A GUN

In Philip Roth's The Humbling (2009), actor Simon Axler suddenly and inexplicably loses his magic. Axler is devastated and, much like Mickey Sabbath before him, contemplates suicide throughout the novel without finding the means to go through with it. Only when he intuits that he will have to act a role does he succeed with his self-destructive plan: "[H]e would have to pretend [. . .] that he was Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev in the concluding scene of The Seagull"' (139-40). Axler finally shoots himself just as Treplev does in Anton Chekhov's play. Accordingly, Claudia Roth Pierpont remarks: "[T]his is a man who keeps a gun in his attic, and knows his Chekhov" (309).

Pierpont alludes to "Chekhov's gun," a principle of plot-construction that, according to Roth's own Nathan Zuckerman, refers to "Chekhov's famous dictum that a pistol hanging on the wall in Act One must eventually go off in Act Three" (Counterlife 108). The gun goes off in both The Seagull and The Humbling, but the apparently indispensable Konstantin Treplev is a troubling plot device in Roth's novel. The protagonist of Chekhov's comedy The Seagull (Chayka, 1895) aspires to be a great, innovative writer and to win the heart of his beloved, but when he fails as an artist and as a lover, he kills himself. Treplev commits suicide because he has never found his magic-arguably a fitting counterpart to Axler's dilemma. On still closer inspection, however, Axler's accomplishment looks more curious: Chekhov's play ends with Dr. Dorn's laconic comment, "The fact is, he's shot himself" (Seagull 125)1- Treplev, it must be noted, is never seen committing suicide in the concluding scene of The Seagull. The puzzling question is therefore: How could Axler enact a suicide that is never properly performed? How could he kill himself as Treplev, considering that whoever plays Chekhov's character never holds a pretend gun, never pulls a pretend trigger, never pretends to kill himself onstage?

Anton Chekhov's influence on Roth can be tracked throughout much of his career. Roth has taught college courses on Chekhov; he has adapted Chekhov's last play The Cherry Orchard for a production with Claire Bloom and attempted to adapt the short story "The Name-Day Party" for television (Pierpont 76, 142, 102). Chekhov is also a continual reference point in Roth's original fiction: in "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka," Aunt Rhoda gets a part in Chekhov's Three Sisters, a play that has been read to her "from the opening line to the final curtain" by none other than Dr. Franz Kafka (Reading 298). Other performances of Chekhov are recalled in Sabbath's Theater (129) and The Prague Orgy (14, 59). Chekhov's story "He and She" provides a premise for Nathan Zuckerman's playlet of the same name in Exit Ghost (146). His college essay on E. I. Lonoff, which describes his literary idol as Gogol "filtered through the humane skepticism of Chekhov" (Ghost 13), had already testified to the fact that Zuckerman is no less knowledgeable about Chekhov than David Kepesh, who, in The Professor of Desire, is immersed in Chekhov's story worlds while he struggles with a book on the Russian writer. No wonder that Pierpont calls Chekhov one of Roth's "presiding literary gods" (93). Roth's allegiance to Chekhov might be enough to explain Axler's choice. However, considering how many "suicide plays" would have provided Axler with a more obvious foundation for acting out his suicide-among them even Chekhov's Ivanov, in which the eponymous protagonist shoots himself onstage before the final curtain-it is surprising that Roth resorts to The Seagull to finish off his novel and his character. Adding further to the riddles of this intertextual connection, Axler himself comes up with a list of suicide plays, musing about their curious abundance in canonical literature and wondering whether suicide is "a formula fundamental to the drama" (Humbling 39). …

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