Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips

The Tragedy of Arthur is a unique novel, and if nothing else, I have to give Phillips credit for having the guts to write it. For not only is the book a (fictional) story of (a fictional) Arthur Phillips, his con-artist dad, and a never-before-seen-in-the-modern-world Shakespeare play, the novel also includes the entirety of the "newly discovered" Shakespeare play itself. And, boy, does it take some balls to write and publish your own Shakespeare play, particularly since that play is lauded and authenticated as "true Shakespeare" within the story (framed as the play's introduction).

But, to back up a few steps. The majority of the novel is the "introduction," written by (fictional) Phillips about how the play Arthur came to be discovered and published. The story is really an account of Phillips' fractured relationship with his father, who spent most of Phillips' life in jail for counterfeiting and other scams. Phillips' father gave him Arthur on his near-deathbed, and Phillips spends much time trying to decide if the play is genuine or a last trick of his father's.

This set up has a lot of interesting possibilities, including Phillips' relationship with the Bard himself--a person so admired by his father and sister that Phillips couldn't help but dislike him. Nonetheless, I just couldn't get in to the story. Phillips spends most of the introduction self-flagellating, bemoaning his mistakes and whimpering about what a terrible son/brother/husband/father he was and is. For this reason, I found Phillips immensely dislikable, even though I didn't think his crimes and errors were nearly as terrible as he--and especially his sister--found them to be. The story dragged, even though it's relatively short.

I did enjoy some of the insight into the cult of adoration that surrounds Shakespeare, having mixed feelings about him myself. I disliked Shakespeare in high school and college, but I've come to appreciate him much more now that I teach Romeo and Juliet. I know the play so well now that I really love it, but it took a lot of time to get me there. I don't pick up a random Shakespeare play and immediately feel enthralled (though an absolutely amazing performance of Othello I saw a few years back did have me convinced). I could identify with Phillips' anger at the deification of Shakespeare and our complete willingness to excuse and explain away any potential errors or weaknesses in the plays as actually signs of Shakespeare's genius. There has to be a happy middle ground between recognizing his talent and influence and being realistic about his creations.

Nonetheless the "woe is me {mope}{mope}{mope}" of the introduction was so infuriating that I really didn't want to read the play itself, The Tragedy of Arthur, which appears at the end of the book. However, I surprisingly enjoyed the faux-Shakespeare--both the characterization and dialogue. I'm not enough of an expert to say how skilled (the author) Phillips is at imitating Shakespeare, but he doesn't seem to do a bad job.

Kudos to Phillips for a unique and daring novel--I just wish the story hadn't been such a drag.

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