NEWARK, NJ — The life and work of Newark native and titan of late-20th century American literature, Philip Roth, will be discussed, performed, read, and his influences examined, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center next weekend.
Commemorating the March 19 anniversary of his 90th birthday with “Philip Roth Unbound,” NJPAC will present, March 17-19, nearly a dozen public events. Roth, born in 1933 died in 2018.
Also scheduled is a stand-up comedy show at a nearby delicatessen, a discussion by The Philip Roth Society at the Newark Public Library, and two bus tours of Roth’s hometown locations that were included in his published works.
According to Liz DelTufo of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee who will be conducting the tour, bus passengers will read passages inspired by the sites where they stop.
The city of Newark, the Weequahic neighborhood, the suburbs and recollections of growing up in New Jersey often substantiated Roth’s stories. Even after he found fame and fortune, he would revisit his hometown.
He wrote more than two dozen novels, including “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), which made him both a celebrity and bull’s eye for critics of ‘60s sexual effrontery. Over a long career, from “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) to “Nemesis” (2010), he was awarded two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.
Roth also wrote a significant amount of nonfiction which illuminated his work and thinking.
“For me, the North Star, the way we curated the festival, was the spirit of Philip,” said NJPAC President and CEO John Scheiber. “He was always fresh and sometimes shocking and I love the fact that he was from Newark. There was something about the city in everything he did: grit, humor, authenticity, what’s real and what’s plausible.”
Previewing a few of Friday’s scheduled events at The Newark Public Library, there will be a discussion on the authors who attracted Roth as a child and later as an adult including Kafka, Tolstoy and Joyce. As a youth, he loved the game of baseball and reading about it.
In a 2002 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Roth said the authors who shaped his sense of America were mostly small-town midwesterners and southerners.
“None were Jews,” he said. “What attracted me to these writers when I was a raw reader of 16, 17 and 18, I am thinking, among others, of Theodore Dreiser, born in Indiana; Sherwood Anderson, born in Ohio; Ring Lardner, born in Michigan; Sinclair Lewis, born in Minnesota; Thomas Wolfe, born in North Carolina; Erskine Caldwell, born in Georgia. What drew me to them was my great ignorance of the thousands of miles north, south and west of Newark, NJ, where I was raised.”
During each morning of “Philip Roth Unbound,” there will be an audio tour of Roth’s 7,000-book personal library, now part of the Newark Public Library. The Philip Roth Society will hold its triennial conference at the library, March 15-17. For information about library events, visit: https://roth-at-90.square.site/
On Friday, at NJPAC, actors Matthew Broderick and Peter Riegert will read from “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting; or, Looking at Kafka.” The first part of the work is an essay about the writer Franz Kafka’s frustrated relationships with women. The second part is a story about Roth’s Hebrew-school teacher, also named Franz Kafka, and his relationship with Roth’s spinster Aunt Rhoda.
On Saturday, March 18, actor Morgan Spector will read “Defender of the Faith,” a short story that appeared in “Goodbye, Columbus.” The short story is about two Jewish soldiers, a sergeant and a private, and relates to how the sergeant is manipulated by the private who uses their mutual religious beliefs to obtain special treatment. Roth was criticized by rabbis and others for writing what they considered an anti-Semitic story because it portrayed the private as a wily and self-serving Jew.
In a 1960 New York Post Magazine article, Roth responded.
“The story is by no means about Jews,” he said. “It’s about individuals who happen to be Jewish. There’s a kind of reverse prejudice that says all Jews are good, all Catholics are good, all Negros are good, all of any minority are good. It’s a lie and does a great deal of harm to our sense of reality.”
On Saturday night, there will be a stand-up comedy show at Hobby’s Delicatessen, 32 Bradford Place. The headliner is Eddie Brill, formerly the talent scout for The David Letterman Show. Brill will be joined by comics Ariel Elias and Phil Hanley.
Roth is known to have said his sentences were like a Hobby’s sandwich: “First you slap on the pastrami, then you slap on the coleslaw, then you put on the Russian dressing and pretty soon the whole thing gets soggy.”
On Sunday, there will be a staged reading of “The Plot Against America.” In this novel, Roth reimagines the 1940 U.S. presidential election with pioneer aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindberg defeating incumbent Franklin Roosvelt, and how this victory and the subsequent administration affected his family and friends. In a 2004 “New York Times Book Review” article, Roth explained why he chose Lindberg.
“First off, because it wasn’t at all outlandish to me to conceive of his running and winning as he did in my book,” he said. “However, Lindberg also chose himself as the leading political figure in a novel where I wanted America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine, widespread, anti-Semitic threat not merely on the personal level but as a pervasive, insidious, native menace capable of emerging anywhere.”
On Sunday, there will be a “sneak preview” of Roth’s “Sabbath’s Theater” featuring actor John Turturro, who adapted the novel with New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy. The story is about a libidinous puppeteer. Roth told a Newark Museum audience, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, that it contained some of his best writing.
NJPAC CEO Scheiber, in his telephone interview, called himself “an old hand at the Newport and New Orleans jazz festivals” and said he was the first producer of the New Yorker Festival which featured writers. He shared a thought from these experiences.
“You don’t have to know a lot to enjoy a festival,” he said. “Much of what Roth writes has Newark as a canvas. ‘Philip Roth Unbound’ will bring Philip to life for his fans and a new generation.”
For more information, visit: rothunbound.org.
Photo Courtesy of Bernard Gotfryd