By Charles Matthews

Monday, December 5, 2011

10. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 240-368


Arthur's preoccupation with his attempt to stifle the publication of the play is interrupted by Petra, who informs him that she is pregnant. She wants to keep the child and to go home to her country. But he urges her to stay and to live with him. The problem, as he sees it, is just how to tell Dana, but Petra insists that's not his problem. Unsettled by his reaction, she leaves.

In the meantime, he writes yet another e-mail to Jennifer vowing not to allow publication and even threatening to "burn this atrocity of an old criminal's fevered, feculent ambitions." But he doesn't follow through on his plans to tell Dana about his part in Petra's pregnancy. Instead, he leaves a message on her voicemail asking her to have dinner with him on the night when her play is off.

Then Petra calls to say, "I told her. I'm so sorry. Tonight I told her. You never did. And she told me to leave and I did." Dana has taken something, she says through her sobs.


He remembers his earlier life with Dana, and how, when they were sixteen, he passed his driver's license exam and she failed. The next day, he drove to see his father by himself, not thinking about how Dana might feel, which he takes to be an instance of his "limited empathy."
Nothing new there, I suppose: a famously vicious and dismissive New York newspaper book reviewer -- whom I made the career-bashing mistake of kissing a feeling up at a party at Yale decades earlier and then never calling -- faulted my last novel for "a curious absence of empathy."
Now, convinced that his sister has killed herself, he goes to her apartment.


He pounds on the apartment door, but it swings open at his first knock, and he finds Dana and Petra sitting on the couch. "Arthur Rex," Dana says mockingly. "Our mother was in the kitchen. I shook and hyperventilated and gagged, laughing and crying and shouting." When he calms down, Dana tells him that she has known about him and Petra all along, from the night it happened. She chides him for being a novelist unable to devise an ending to the story, and asks, "Did you really think I'd drown myself, Hamlet?" She asks him to pick his favorite Shakespeare ending, and Petra says, "Please don't pick Antony and Cleopatra, where the Middle Eastern girlfriend has to kill herself. I don't dig snakes."

She keeps at him, and says it has to be a comedy because neither she nor Petra is going to kill herself. Finally he settles on As You Like It: 'The one where everyone sort of dances around and gets married and forgives the one guy who ends up without a wife?" (Arthur notes that while writing about this experience, he looked up the play and noticed "that in that play the faithful shepherd-lover is called Silvius, so that name's appearance in Arthur isn't that suspicious after all.") He identifies himself as Jaques, the outsider who is "not utterly banished, their anger at me softening by their love for each other."

But Dana rejects the idea of Arthur as Jaques and insists that he try again. "A baby's on the way now, and everyone needs to know who you are in this." Their mother suggests The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which Falstaff is tormented at the end for his lechery. But Dana says it's clear that Falstaff isn't really going to change his ways. She considers the plays in which the villain is forced "to marry the girl he's wronged. Measure for Measure. All's Well That Ends Well." But Petra nixes that suggestion.

Finally she decides on Love's Labour's Lost:
"For a twelvemonth, probably more, depending on publishing, you will not see any of us, or call, or email, or anything. Not one word. Right, Mom? Just nod, Mom. Not one word. None of us. And if in that period you can prove something to us, then you will be welcomed back, and we will be right joyful of your reformation. You will publish The Tragedy of Arthur. Yes, you will. don't talk. Listen. And you will divest yourself of your precious reputation and self-love, which has led us to so many unfortunate dead ends these long years.
He will, she insists, write about what he has done in the introduction to the play. And she sends him away without "a word until we've had a chance to read your book. Not the galleys, either. The hardcover. Go. No, just go."


Arthur summarizes Act V, in which Arthur's self-destructiveness brings about his death, calling it "this vile picture of me that my father drew, before I was even an adult (or, worse, that Shakespeare drew centuries before I was born)."

He has received a very threatening letter from Random House's lawyer in response to his own threat to burn the quarto, on top of Dana's threat of permanent banishment, so he has continued to work on the introduction, prepared to "cash my checks and send my winnings from this venture to bank accounts established for my boys, my ex-wife, my mother, and for Petra, Dana, and their little girl, whose birth I was not allowed to attend, whose face I have not yet earned the right to see." He doesn't even know her name, and the friend who told him what sex the child is has been enjoined from speaking to him and won't return his calls.

The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare

The play itself is kind of an anticlimax. It's a fairly well-done pastiche that won't really fool anyone into thinking it's real, but that's not Phillips's point. He's out to satirize bardolatry and picky scholarship and authorial reputation and any number of metaliterary topics. There is a synopsis by Professor Roland Vere (who unlike David Crystal is fictitious), who also contributes footnotes to the play in addition to Arthur's own, which often lead the two into a quarrel over the play's authenticity. For example, footnote No. 41 to line 113 in Act I, scene i, is Arthur's:
41. See Henry VI, Part One, III.ii.95, from which my father stole this line.
Vere counters with his own footnote:
42. Or in which Shakespeare quotes the same source material, or in which Shakespeare's likely collaborator on Henry VI, Part One -- Nashe, Peele, or Greene -- quoted Shakespeare's preexisting Arthur play. The explanations are both numerous and unconfirmable, but they do not with any likelihood point to the fraud Mr. Phillips endorses in his introduction.[RV] 

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