Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (and William Shakespeare)

Here’s a secret that’s totally not a secret: I’m a Shakespeare dork. I suppose this makes sense, when you consider that my undergraduate degree is in drama. (Although I certainly knew classmates who didn’t like his work—even in the advanced Shakespeare class I took.) I also have a deep fondness (in fiction, at least), for what a friend of mine once described as “twee postmodern crap.” So it’s really not the least bit surprising that I would go for The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.

I’ve been intending to get to Phillips’ work for quite some time now—I picked up his first three novels, Prague, The Egyptologist, and Angelica, long ago, but this one is the first one that I’ve read. The conceit of The Tragedy of Arthur (the book) is this: officially, it’s a rediscovered Shakespearean tragedy about King Arthur with an introduction by notable novelist Arthur Phillips. It is also, in the form of this introduction, the story of Arthur’s relationship with his father, a counterfeiter whom he believes forged The Tragedy of Arthur (the play). The introduction runs more than 250 pages, in which Arthur Phillips (the character), while fulfilling the terms of his contract with Random House to synopsize and annotate the play, gives the reader a history of his life with his father (brilliant, troubled, jealous of his ex-wife’s new husband) and his sister (brilliant, talented, obsessed with Shakespeare in a way that Arthur is not). It’s then followed by the play (itself about 100 pages long), with copious notes of the sort you’re likely to find in your average copy of King Lear or Much Ado About Nothing—explications of archaic vocabulary, occasional dramaturgical commentary—plus some notes by Phillips detailing the places where he believes his father’s game is given away.

“Game” is the operative word here—although I enjoyed reading The Tragedy of Arthur (the book) (the novel portion is an affecting if not extraordinary tale; the play, too, is solid-but-not-great in the way that, say Measure for Measure is solid-but-not-great), I get the distinct feeling that Arthur Phillips (the novelist) had a lot more fun writing it than I ultimately had reading it. I’ve done some dramatic writing in verse, and it’s challenging but super-satisfying (especially when you’re rhyming), and the added challenge of writing something that s convincingly Shakespearean makes for an awfully good excuse to spend a lot of time reading the canon. (Arthur Phillips (the character) makes a point of noting that many of the strange vocabulary and phrasings that he takes as signs of later forgery actually turn up in other places in Shakespeare’s work.)

Around the time the book was published, a number of theatres (including the Public Theater here in New York, home of the New York Shakespeare Festival) presented readings of The Tragedy of Arthur (the play), an I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get to any. I could imagine the play being fun to watch—more so than it is to read. Not that the novel and the play are bad—they’re not—but it’s drama after all, and drama is meant to be performed.

(As a side note, the indispensable music and books (and other interesting things) blog Largehearted Boy linked a day or two ago to an article at Intelligent Life on How to Write Like Shakespeare. It’s short, but will give you a good primer on some of the work that would go into the creation of a forged Shakespeare play.)

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