By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 2, 2011

7. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 155-185


Arthur e-mails his father "a few basic questions" that he says "seem surprisingly polite now":
1) Where did you get this? 
2) Since Dana has the red hardcover, why is this a big deal? 
3) If it was published already, why can't I find it anywhere on earth except Dana's shelf?
His father suggests that he come visit him again. And he tells him that in 1958 he went "to England to do some work for a wealthy client" who "lived in a big country house." He was supposed to paint a "replica" of a picture "for insurance purposes" -- all very legitimate, he claims. When he wasn't painting he spent time in the house's library, which had a second edition of the Third Folio. Also in the collection were some specially bound anthologies, in which some previous owner had collected "pamphlet-size quartos." In one of these he found what the handwritten table of contents indicated was a grouping of four Shakespeare plays, a couple of Ben Jonsons, and the Elizabethan play Mucedorus, an unattributed play that was once thought to have been by Shakespeare. But as he examined the contents he discovered that an eighth play had been bound together with the others.

It's The Tragedy of Arthur, of course. Arthur keeps asking his father for the name of the man who owned the country house, but his father keeps putting off answering the question. His father discovered that the man has no interest in the books in his library, so he took his nail scissors and snipped the play from the anthology. Since it wasn't listed in the table of contents, he figured it would never be missed. He took the play back to Minneapolis.

Arthur asks again for the man's name, and this time his father says he's not going to tell him. For one thing, he discovered that the man did something illegal with the copy of the painting he made for him. And for another, he doesn't want Arthur telling the man or his heirs about his theft.
"I waited a long time to see if he ever noticed. It's been more than fifty years. He didn't notice because he never knew he had it in the first place. If he's alive, he won't be filing a claim if we proceed with this."
Arthur protests, but his father continues with his story. He was so taken with the play that he wanted to keep it secret. He discovered that there were no other records of the existence of the play. Arthur asks about Dana's poster of the Errol Flynn performance, and his father admits that it's a fake he made for her.

But the play, he insists, is genuine, and one reason he kept it secret is that he was in prison. He didn't want the true story of its provenance coming out. But the owner of the sole copy of the play has the rights to license any printing or performance of it. (Arthur claims that he checked with an English solicitor who confirmed this.) So now he proposes that, to remove any taint of felony from Arthur's possession of the quarto, he say that his stepfather, Silvius, found it in the attic of a house he once owned in Ely, Minnesota, and gave it to him.

But then Arthur asks about the 1904 edition, and his father admits that he forged it. Arthur is so stunned that he forgets to ask the follow-up questions: Why he forged the inscription to his father from the drama club, and his father's inscription to him, and the picture of his father that he included in it. "He gave Dana -- with sincere love, I'm sure -- a family heirloom going back generations that he'd made himself."

In any case, he had had to wait until the right time to reveal the existence of the quarto because his own past would have tainted its discovery. "My career is ideally suited to make my word on this useless. 'Read all about it! Convicted forger discovers Shakespeare play!'" But now that Arthur has become a successful author, he can use his own reputation to bring the play to light. (Arthur observes, "Novelist isn't much better than forger," but his father disagrees.)

So his father outlines the necessary procedure: There is no direct line of descent from William Shakespeare, but a claim might be made to it by the estates of the printer, William White, or the publisher, Cuthbert Burby, so there will have be proof that their lines have died out as well. Arthur is still upset by the fact that his father stole it from a country house, but his father insists that that secret will die with him. And anyway, his father won't get rich off of his theft: "I never tried to score off Shakespeare. I don't want to. But I do want your mother and sister to get rich off him. And I want you to get famous off him. That's why you."


Arthur and Dana and Petra spend two days trying "to poke hole" in the play, reading it skeptically and attacking anything about it that didn't seem Shakespearean. But even the flaws in the play come to feel Shakespearean to them, and they finally decide that he wrote it.


His father e-mails asking for news on the progress with authenticating the play, and notes, "I never could fake anything of real quality. You said that once to me: a coupon faker is all I am, right?" And Arthur has to admit this:
I had never once thought my father wrote the play; I had at most only suspected he'd forged the relic from some other text, forged Shakespeare's participation, found some play by someone lesser, like Thomas Dekker, fiddled with the cover page, at most.
His father asks him to trust him, and Arthur remembers the man who conned him into faking crop circles and then blamed him when he got caught. But when his father notes that the time to trust him is "now ... when I am dying," Arthur is stunned into submission.


So he begins serious study of Shakespeare, reading everything he can, relying on Dana's greater knowledge of the canon for guidance, "trying to give myself fully to my father's project, to become the world's most devoted and loving son for his dying months." He transcribes the play, modernizing the spelling, and adding act and scene divisions and notes. He begins corresponding with scholars about a possible "once-in-a-century opportunity in Shakespeare studies." And finally he visits a Shakespeare scholar, Tom Clayton, at the University of Minnesota, to ask him about Arthur plays and the possibility that the quarto is genuine. (Tom Clayton is a real Shakespeare scholar.) Clayton is noncommittal without having read the play, however.

Arthur communicates his new-found enthusiasm in an e-mail to his father, and begins spending his evenings at Dana and Petra's, falling more and more into the fantasy of an affair with Petra.


Finally, he and his agent make a pitch at Random House, and receive an offer. Random House would take charge of the authentication process. And Arthur flies home to meet Dana, and they drive to the prison where their father is being released.


Arthur rents his father an apartment in Minneapolis. Preparing to write his introduction to the edition of the play, he asks why Arthur disappeared for four hundred years. "I had asked as an interested believer, but he answered me as the chief of a criminal enterprise who has to talk down a jittery confederate, just when everything's coming together so perfectly." Essentially, he says that we don't know and therefore shouldn't ask.

Arthur reprints the notes he took in his conversations with his father, but there is an edginess and sense of unease that begins to creep into his accounts of their discussions, partly because of his father's defensiveness.

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