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Reading Philip Roth After the Pittsburgh Massacre

(Source: newyorker.com)

In Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America,” it is 1940; the famed pilot Charles Lindbergh becomes President and secretly launches a pogrom against Jews. A foreign power, Nazi Germany, interferes in a U.S. election. Journalists are targeted with violence. The Roth family, of Newark, agonizes over the nation’s escalating anti-Semitism. As Hitler decimates Europe, Lindbergh pursues an “America First” policy of nonintervention. Roth said that “Plot,” which was published in 2004, was an “exercise in historical imagination”: he wondered if what happened in Europe could happen here.

Earlier this year, Bernard Schwartz, the director of the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, contacted Roth and proposed staging a reading of “Plot.” Schwartz would invite nine actors to perform the novel, each delivering an abridged chapter. Roth, a skillful reader of his own work, embraced the idea. He’d watched the election of Donald Trump with horror, telling his friend the New Yorker writer Judith Thurman, “What is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible.”

Roth often talked about “the terror of the unforeseen,” Schwartz said. “That terror transcends the perils that continue to face the Jewish community, and extends to any group that finds itself made more vulnerable: Muslim Americans, immigrant populations, poor people, elderly people.”

In May, with the show’s planning under way, Roth, who was eighty-five, died. Then, twenty-seven hours before the performance, scheduled for October 28th, a man with an AR-15 and three handguns killed eleven people during Shabbat services at Tree of Life, a synagogue in Pittsburgh. He told a SWAT officer that “all these Jews need to die.”

In New York, Schwartz added security. Just before 1 P.M. the next day, nine hundred people streamed into the Y’s Upper East Side auditorium, past a guard with a black Labrador retriever. The performance was dedicated to the Pittsburgh dead. The actor Michael Stuhlbarg walked to a lectern onstage and delivered the novel’s opening lines: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been President or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”

The audience absorbed the novel’s descriptions of the Roth family: the father, an insurance agent; the mother, a PTA leader; the older brother, who can draw. They live in a second-floor flat on Summit Avenue, near genteel Union County, “another New Jersey entirely.” In the darkened auditorium, people chuckled.

Lindbergh, campaigning for President, makes proud declarations about “our inheritance of European blood.” A “rabid constituency” develops, “flourishing all across America.” On the night the Republican Party makes him its nominee, the Roth children are awakened by neighborhood fathers shouting “No!” from “every house on the block.” Stuhlbarg intoned, “The anger that night.”

Chapter 2: President Lindbergh travels to Iceland to meet with Hitler, whom he calls “a great man.” It was impossible not to think of Trump’s meetings with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. The playwright Ayad Akhtar read a passage about “Lindbergh’s spirit hovering over everything.”

In the greenroom, the actors who were going to perform the remaining chapters reviewed their scripts, which had been abridged by the Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro. Shapiro was on hand, occasionally stepping out to gauge the audience’s reactions. The actress Jennifer Ehle sat beneath a wall-mounted monitor showing the performance, marking up her pages. Jon Hamm made coffee.

Maggie Siff, who plays the psychiatrist on “Billions,” studied her chapter, “Bad Days,” which mentions a synagogue bombing in Cincinnati. “The anti-Semites so emboldened,” she read when it was her turn, and “soon my homeland would be nothing more than my birthplace.” On page 122, she’d marked an insertion, made by Shapiro the night before, that mentions “the mayhem in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo.” Shapiro told Siff, “I realized we can’t cut Pittsburgh now.”

“Every day, it feels like another level of . . . ” Siff started to say.

“And who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow,” Shapiro said. “For a novel to be this prescient is extraordinary. Or maybe the rest of us just didn’t see it coming, and Roth did.”

A stage manager said, “Five minutes.”

“Be right back,” the actor John Turturro said. He went out and read Chapter 4, in which the Roth patriarch tells a Lindbergh-supporting relative, “Not so long ago you couldn’t bear the man either. But now this anti-Semite is your friend. The stock market is up, profits are up, business is booming—and why?” When Turturro returned, Hamm gave him a thumbs-up.

André Holland, who acted in “Moonlight,” read a chapter in which the older Roth brother gets a chance to visit the White House. “I am not impressed by the White House!” his father screams. “The person who lives there is a Nazi.” Hamm, drinking his second cup of coffee, said, “When I read this book, I was, like, When was this written? The parallels are right there.” He added, “I think Roth died from grief.”

Schwartz came in and reminded the actors, “There’s no curtain call.”

“Is anybody going to say anything?” asked the actor Scott Shepherd, who was given the book’s final chapter to read.

“No,” Schwartz said.

“Good,” Shepherd said. “Let Roth have the last word.” ♦

More Info: newyorker.com

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