The Bard Arthur and the Liar Phillips
Something weird happened to me this summer. I read the Tragedy of Arthur, the fifth offering by novelist Arthur Phillips. It’s a play; no, an introduction to a play; no, a faux memoir, except that’s not entirely accurate either. Whatever it is, it’s hard to pin down. Either way, the basic premise of the book is that Arthur Phillips is given a long-lost Shakespearean play by his father, Arthur Phillips Sr. Random House is publishing it, and given his role in bringing the play to light, Arthur Jr. has been contracted to write the introduction and annotations. So far so clear. I also took the time to read James Shapiro’s academic treatise, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. That’s not really the weird thing; what’s weird is that as I was arguing the Shakespeare authorship question with a staunch Oxfordian, I found myself quoting from rather absurd arguments in the Tragedy of Arthur, mistaking them for the content of Shapiro’s book. For me, someone who’d like to think he understands historical method, quoting a novel in this fashion is a disorienting, almost upsetting experience. The Tragedy of Arthur is a book that totally rewrites reality, and that I quoted it as history shows that The Tragedy of Arthur has done its job, and in grand fashion.
Reading The Tragedy of Arthur as a novel is tricky, as all of the characters are real people, allegedly. Ultimately I know that the book I am holding in my hands is a novel—if the dust jacket didn’t say it, I would be less confident—but Arthur The Protagonist shares quite a few characteristics with Phillips The Author. Of course the protagonist is Phillips The Author (possibly, perhaps probably, fictionalized), having written the same books, gone to the same schools, and lived in the same places. His father’s name is Arthur too. And by the time you’re done reading The Tragedy of Arthur, you have absolutely no idea which Arthur is the most tragic. It could be any one of the four; it’s a veritable “Inception” of Arthurs (and don’t try looking him up on Wikipedia, the story you get there is sparse and roughly the same as his author biography for the novel).
Away to some important plot elements. We are told early on that Arthur, the protagonist, had a rather irregular relationship with his father. Arthur, his father, a talented but luckless forger, has spent much of his life in jail. That’s not to say that his father is in any way a bad kind of guy; his intention is never to cause anyone harm. Just his bad luck, I suppose, that his forgeries also often involve trespassing and counterfeiting and military draft notices. All he really wants from his forgeries is “to add to the world’s store of precious possibility.” It’s Arthur Sr.’s obsession with the marvelous that makes him attempt to instill a love for Shakespeare in his kids, Arthur Jr. and his twin sister Dana. Dana seems to enjoy it, Arthur decidedly doesn’t; cue daddy issues. One play that is of particular importance is The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain, a curious play that has never before been seen by anyone other than Arthur Sr. and his children. He apparently got it from his grandfather who acted in its only staging. Dana takes to it something fierce, reading and re-reading it, learning it by heart, and never wasting an opportunity to quote it to Arthur Jr., who is learning to quite despise Shakespeare’s “bullying, noxious presence” by now.
We’re now a few decades in. Arthur Jr. is a successful novelist and Arthur Sr. is serving a prison term for forgery. Knowing he’s soon to expire, Arthur Sr. decides to let his son in on an important secret: the book he long ago bequeathed to Dana is a forgery. Senior had made it from an actual first edition quarto that he found in an estate in England. It is Arthur Jr.’s task to use his literary connections to see the original published. Random House (Arthur’s publisher both in the novel and in real life) buys the rights to the play, and given Arthur’s role in bringing the play to light, requests that he write the introduction.
Arthur, knowing his father’s history, has the play subjected to a battery of authentication tests, conducted by many of the world’s leading Shakespearean scholars, some named, some unnamed. Shapiro himself makes an appearance as the unnamed but readily identifiable “Brooklyn-born Ivy league Bardman.” As it turns out, Arthur cannot keep his skeletons in the closet and no number of expert authentications can erase his doubt that this is in fact his father’s (whose history of forgery is quite extensive) last and greatest play. Ultimately though, a contract with Random House forces Arthur to write the introduction despite his protests. What we get, then, is a 250-page introduction, which becomes Arthur Jr.’s catharsis. Arthur gives us the memoir because “the truth of the play requires understanding the truth of [his] life,” an odd statement coming from an author who explicitly tells us that his memoir is unreliable (of course, we don’t know if this is Arthur the Narrator or Phillips the Author speaking). The memoir certainly does achieve a certain verisimilitude, with included photos and letters, written on Random House letterhead, though, ironically perhaps, these could have all been forged by the meta-Phillips.
In his own review of The Tragedy of Arthur, James Shapiro tells the story of his contact with Phillips. It turns out that Phillips emailed Shapiro to meet and consult on “some arcane Shakespeare matters.” When he showed up at Shapiro’s Columbia office, Phillips had with him what by all appearances was an authentic cover from an original quarto of a hitherto unseen Shakespearean tragedy. It seems Phillips was seeking Shapiro’s help in forging a play, the very same play that is included at the end of the novel/introduction. They spent the next several months working to root out any language that wouldn’t sound Shakespearean, and by the time they were done, what was left, and what we see, is a play that could very well have been written by Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Arthur accomplishes something bold and quite ingenious. With its nebulous lines between fiction and reality, the book attempts and succeeds in showing us just how possible it is to recreate Shakespeare and rewrite history. Had Shapiro not divulged this story in his review, I might have been fooled.
April 19, 2011
List Price $26.00