By Charles Matthews

Thursday, November 24, 2011

2. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 14-42


While his father is out of jail when Arthur is ten, he and Dana spend weekends with him in a studio apartment he has rented, "above the bookbinder where his friend Chuck Glassow had found him a job." If Arthur gets his way, their father reads Dumas and Conan Doyle to them; if Dana does, it is Shakespeare, of course. And a line from the play -- "And I serve the fairy queen, / To dew her orbs upon the grass" -- apparently leads to a misdemeanor.

One night, the elder Arthur takes them out into the country where they do something that makes no sense to young Arthur while they're doing it, but elicits a warning: "You can't tell anyone because that sucks the life out of what we did. All the fun, all the magic bleeds out, and it's just a stupid thing." It involves some elaborate preparation, including the construction of a machine made out of a snowblower. "If you Google 'crop circles' you will find aerial photos of our work, although our circle, in 1974, was very basic, not like the overwrought ones nowadays." Arthur and Dana don't realize what they have done until later, when they watch the TV news with their mother, who "made fun of it without knowing we were involved." Arthur tells us that, ironically, "This may be the closest I ever felt to him. Together we had reshaped the world, changed how some people viewed life, the universe, everything."

But this closeness fades quickly: His father gets caught, and blames it on Arthur, whose best friend at school is the son of a prosecuting attorney named Ted Constantine. Arthur's father says, "No one is saying you squealed on us.... It's just that it must have been hard not to let your pal know about this great thing." Arthur denies squealing, but it's clear that his father doesn't believe him.

For his twelfth birthday, Arthur's father makes a fake Soviet passport for him, and for his thirteenth gives him a baseball signed by Rod Carew, the Minnesota Twins' star second baseman. But "by the time I was thirteen, I had started to assume that anything that passed through his hands was fake. I threw the ball away." For Dana's sixteenth birthday, he gives her a fake driver's license because she has flunked the driver's exam twice. "Since Dad was in prison when we turned sixteen, the license was made by Chuck Glassow, Dad's college friend who, officially, owned a grocery store." Glassow, he notes, "now owns a quarter of my family's coming fortune."


At fifteen, Arthur gets in a fight with two bullies who call Dana a dyke, and loses. She tries to console him by reading Celia's advice to Orlando in As You Like It against fighting Charles the wrestler, but it doesn't work:
Like most fifteen-year-olds (and most people), I was not delighted by Shakespeare.... Most of it is a foreign language, excessively wordy, repetitive. It was either too much work to understand the characters or, alternately (since fifteen-year-olds are programmed to produce endless reasons why they don't like anything), too easy: those awful soliloquies where bad guys reveal their plans or good guys swoon because they're so in love.
But then she reads something that does work for him: "and for this one moment, and then a whole afternoon, I thought Shakespeare was okay." It is Arthur's battle speech from The Tragedy of Arthur. She has a "little red hardcover of The Tragedy of Arthur, a simple but nicely done 1904 edition." And then he anticipates the reader's reaction: If there is a 1904 edition, "Why is Random House bothering to publish the play with such fanfare...?" But he's not about to answer that question now.

Instead, he tells us that he has the book with him right now, that it has an inscription to his grandfather, Arthur Donald ("Don") Phillips, that shows it was presented to him by "the King's Men Dramatic Society, King's School, Edmonton, Ontario, June 14, 1915." And there is a photograph of his grandfather, reproduced in the introduction on page 29, in costume for the production of the play. The author notes, however, that the costume "has nothing to do with this play," and that his "grandfather seems to be dressed in leftovers from a production of H.M.S. Pinafore." There is another inscription that indicates the book was presented to Arthur's father by his grandfather in 1942, when his father was twelve.

Arthur says he learned of this edition of the play when he and Dana were eleven and his father was out of prison and living in another apartment. He overheard his father and Dana talking. "Dana was in one of her states that can go by a lot of different names. The modern ones (manic, polar, over-stimulated, hyperactive) never much appealed to her, for good reason." He investigated the reason for her excitement but "the discovery that her buzz was Shakespeare-induced" kept him from taking much interest in it. But she insisted to him that it was important and controversial and her father "thinks we should read it and make up our own mind about it!"

Arthur remained indifferent, so there is another inscription on the book's flyleaf: "April 22, 1977 For my Dana on her 13th birthday, with eternal love. Dad." But he gave her strict instructions never to lend it out or photocopy it. "The book's rarity and importance and ambiguous value were impressed upon her." Arthur kept his distance from Arthur, but there is, he says, a final inscription: "For Arthur, from Dana."


Also on her thirteenth birthday, he gave her a poster "for a 1930s London stage production of Shakespeare's Tragedy of King Arthur starring Errol Flynn as Arthur and Nigel Bruce as Gloucester."

Arthur is "thirty-eight or thirty-nine minutes" younger than Dana, and they celebrated their birthdays on different days because he was born on the other side of midnight from her. They were "something more than fraternal" twins, and he says he "used to think of us as essentially identical if physically dissimilar." Dana "cried when she learned of Shakespeare's own twin children, the brother dying young, the sister living on." He notes that "Shakespeare's work teems with twins," and that Dana's initial attraction to Shakespeare came from plays about twins: The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night
I admit that this seems a long way from an Introduction to a newly discovered Shakespeare play; this essay is fast becoming an example of that most dismal genre, the memoir. All I can say is that the truth of the play requires understanding the truth of my life.


The focus thus far has been on Arthur and Dana's father. Their mother remarried, after divorcing their father, a man named Silvius diLorenzo "(Window Sil, our father called him, citing his transparent personality)." Like Shakespeare's mother, her maiden name was Mary Arden, "shortened from Sardensky somewhere between Vilnius and northern Minnesota." Her father was a grocer in Ely, Minn., where she was born in 1930. Silvius, whose mother worked as a maid in the Arden household, had courted her before she married Arthur's father, and proposed to her before she left to attend the University of Minnesota in 1949. She turned him down, citing the difficulty of a mixed marriage.

In her second year at the university, "she met A.E.H. Phillips, as my father styled himself at the U. of M." By the time she took him home to meet her parents, Sil had been drafted, but he never served because of a bureaucratic mixup. The elder Arthur proposed to her there, and Sil's mother overheard the proposal through an air vent. A wedding date was set for after their graduation, two years hence. Sil heard the news from his mother and sent Mary a congratulatory telegram.

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