By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

6. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 124-155


Arthur tells us that he is compelled to change the name of Dana's girlfriend, but he will tell us that she was ten years younger than he and Dana, "that she was of another race" and also "another religion." And that she was a musician who played the theremin and a composer. Eventually he'll call her Petra.

First, however, he has a talk with his widowed mother, who blurts out a confession that her life with Sil had been a bit of a bore, but "later said exactly the opposite to Dana ('Thank God for Sil. I got what I needed, I owe him everything, and I am so blessed'), demonstrating a mental flexibility that is evidence of wisdom or empathy or Alzheimers. Her conversation with me may just have been steam releasing, only a piece of her." He also notes that this kind of mentality is absent from Shakespeare:
If Dana and Harold Bloom are right, if we're all just walking figments of Shakespeare's imagination, then where in the canon is my mom, who could not quite say the truth about what she'd lived, that Sil's love was not enough, that kindness and best efforts were not enough?
But this conversation with his mother is only a prelude to his first meeting with Petra, with whom he instantly falls in love. Dana and Petra have a dog, "a male beagle they'd named Maria," because of Sir Toby Belch's description of the Maria in Twelfth Night as "a beagle, true-bred." They found her at a breeder who claimed, "My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind," quoting A Midsummer Night's Dream.


He goes to visit his father, who is two months away from the end of his prison sentence and is almost eighty: "A rickety man aswim in an orange jumpsuit, a visible skull, mottled lizard's wattle from chin to top button." He surprises Arthur by saying he is proud of him because of his success as a novelist: "You make wonders, Arthur." And then, after hearing that Arthur has finished his fourth book and is looking for something to write about, asks if his publisher is a good one. Arthur laughs and says, "Random House is a reputable publisher."

His father talks around the subject for a while, finally getting around to what he plans to do when he gets out of prison. "I was a serious person," he says. "And this city, your friend Constantine -- they owe me. You always told him about me. Helped him lock me up." Arthur keeps his temper, however, and his father admits that he is wrong about that: "You forget which conversations with yourself were settled a long time ago and which ones are still recent."

But now he gets to the point: "I don't have much time, and I want you to do something. With me." Arthur says in hindsight that he isn't sure how to punctuate that request, that it might have been "I want you to do something with me," or that it may in fact have been "I want you to do something for me." But what he heard was his "father asking for my unique help, not anyone else's, not Dana's."

What he wants Arthur to do is get in touch with Bert Thorn and tell him to give Arthur a key. Then he grows confused and emotional and leaves Arthur feeling a desperate need to help him. "Like all good pigeons, I took on most of the work of conning me myself."


So he drives to the office of Thorn, his father's old attorney, and on the way calls Jana to tell her that he is staying on in Minneapolis a while longer. She tells him that she has fallen in love with a friend of theirs, Jiři.


Bert Thorn gives him the key to a safe-deposit box. He decides to share this secret with Dana after all, but when he gets to her place she has been called to an audition, so Petra accompanies him to the bank instead.


At the bank, Petra treats the opening of the safe-deposit box as if it were a scene of intrigue from a movie. The box, which the clerk tells them hasn't been opened in twenty-three years, contains a small crate with BANANAS stenciled on one side. Inside it, under layers of canvas, is a small metal lockbox, and in it, "on a foam pad, inside a sealed plastic bag, was a book about the size of a thin paperback." It is the quarto of The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain.

Petra is excited, even frightened at the discovery. Arthur is, of course, skeptical: "My father, of all people, a forger, owned and had kept hidden for decades a real 412-year-old document? No. empirically disproven by everything I knew about it." But he tries not to let his skepticism stifle Petra's enthusiasm. He just says, "This is interesting."

They carry the box home and, using latex gloves, read the book. "A printed book from the 1500s is not immediately easy to read, even if you are not standing two inches away from a woman you are overwhelmingly attracted to." Arthur, however, knows the play from the book he had read thirty years earlier, so he is able to overcome some of the difficulties of orthography and printing. Petra is enthralled "and I lost a breath as I recalled that we were coming closer and closer to a scene where Arthur kisses his new queen, and my desire and hope galloped far ahead of the main body, and my mouth went dry, and I prayed that Dana would not come home yet."

When they get to the scene, Petra strokes his cheek with her gloved hand. They discuss the implications of the scene, but are interrupted by Dana's arrival. "She had come from her callback audition for a production of The Two Noble Kinsmen, a late-career Shakespeare collaboration and, with its intimations of lesbian love, one of her favorites." Arthur is forced to yield the book to Dana and watch as she and Petra read it together.
It was already too much for me. I played up my ignorance, my incompetence, my Shakespeare indifference, and especially Dad's confusion. I told her to keep it safe and do whatever should be done with it.
But Dana insists that their father had put Arthur in charge of it, though she and Petra are more excited by the book -- Petra wants to compose music for a performance of the play. He tells her to keep it, but she says, "He wants you to do something with it," and sends him away with the book.


The next day Arthur gets an e-mail from his father, telling him not to leave the book alone with another person, not to let them copy it, but to have whatever expert testing needs to be done on it. He insists, "you and I will be partners, though you, my son, will be the senior partner (not including Shakespeare)." He admits that the quarto is worth a lot of money, "But not for me. None for me, Arthur. I do not need money, and I will not be around to spend." This will be, he says, a big boost to Arthur's own career.

Arthur is uncertain. "I didn't understand what it mattered if this quarto was real or what it proved, considering someone had published the play before -- we had the 1904 edition, and my grandfather had acted in it in 1915." But his father goes on enthusiastically about what it will mean to readers and audiences. "You will be responsible for all that. And say what you want, but your books are not good for that." He encourages Arthur to promote it, to get it staged or even filmed, to write about it, and so on.

Arthur is infected by his father's enthusiasm, mainly in terms of his insistence that it will enhance his own literary reputation, but he doesn't open the box and take out the book, because it was Dana and Petra's enthusiasm for it that had moved him earlier. "Instead, I nodded off thinking my father loved me and judged me more creative than Shakespeare."


But he comes to his senses, realizing that his father's e-mail is full of "swirling nonsense," and he telephones Dana to ask, "Is he mad at you about something?" He doesn't understand why he should have pitched the project to him. She says he wants it published, and since Arthur has a publisher, it is logical that it should be his task. But Arthur says "it was already published. What's changed?"

He goes online and starts looking for references to the play, and discovers that he can't find any copies of the 1904 edition, even on eBay. There are no references to it on Google. "Anywhere. Amazon, Alibris, Google, eBay. There's no such play. It doesn't exist." He insists that they must confront "the obvious." Dana refuses to admit that their forger father could have faked something like this: "Arthur, seriously? ... He didn't. Look at it. Touch it. Smell it. Read it. He couldn't. He didn't." And so, for a time at least, Arthur is convinced she's right.
Here is the billion-dollar question, with boffo money for me and Random House and lawyers and academics and theaters and now a film studio hanging in the balance. How did I travel from August 2009, scenting "the obvious," to October 2009, when I signed a contract in all good faith with Random House in order to edit and publish (for the very first time) a previously unknown, undocumented play by William Shakespeare?

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