By Charles Matthews

Saturday, December 3, 2011

8. The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, pp. 185-211


After learning that his father has an inoperable brain tumor and has refused treatment that would delay his death, Arthur moves in with him. They take turns supervising the visiting scholars who examine the quarto, making sure that they abide by the rules: photograph no more than four pages and never take the play from the room. Among their visitors is David Crystal, "the world's leading expert in Shakespearean linguistics," whom Petra describes as "quite dishy."
The "dishy" David Crystal

Crystal calls the play "a lovely piece of creativity," and dates it as "No later than 1595, if it is him, perhaps much earlier, in fact." He suggests that it is the product of a collaboration, but asks for more time before authenticating it.

Then Dana calls, very upset. Petra had already left to pick her up at the theater, he tells her, but Dana insists that he come immediately. When he arrives and finds her alone, she explains that her rehearsal had gone exceptionally well -- thanks perhaps to a particularly effective experimental dosage of her antidepressants -- and in a fit of enthusiasm afterward  she had planted a kiss on the actor playing Palamon. Petra had arrived at that moment and, witnessing the kiss, had left.

They return to the apartment, where Crystal is still studying the manuscript. He observes, "All the rhymes rhyme in original pronunciation," which is, he informs a confused Arthur, "good." Dana sends Arthur to her apartment with some flowers and instructions to explain to Petra about the kiss. She kisses him, and he winds up spending the night.


When he returns to his father's apartment the next morning, Crystal is there again, and Dana is supervising. The contract from Random House is there for him to sign, and he goes out to have the document notarized while Dana sits "guard for another hour, my semi-comforting lies draped over her ears." When he returns, she sends him to her apartment to pick up some things, refusing to go there until Petra asks her to.

Petra refuses to talk to Dana, who spends fifteen days staying at one place or another. Arthur also avoids seeing Petra, though mainly in hope that things will work out so that Petra will permanently switch from Dana to him. But when Dana's play opens, Petra attends, and he leaves her to talk with Dana. The next day, he takes the quarto to a laboratory at the University of Minnesota, where his editor and a lawyer from Random House join him, along with two specialists in ink and paper who have been flown in for the tests.

The paper expert dazzles Arthur with his expertise even before he examines the quarto, but all of the tests conducted while Arthur is there go well. Samples of ink and paper are taken and the results are promised in a week or two.

Arthur goes home and finds that his father has died.


Arthur delivers a lengthy and heartfelt eulogy at his father's funeral, and afterward asks Dana to become his partner in publishing the quarto. "I suppose I thought it might make Dana feel better, when she learned about me and Petra." She declines, however, insisting that Arthur take full credit for the book.


Back at the apartment, Arthur goes through the box of letters his father had kept, finding family letters and prison reports, but nothing like what he's hoping for: "a comprehensive catalogue of his forgeries, the basis perhaps -- I felt the seductive whisper in the back of my mind -- for my next novel."

Then he finds an index card stuck to the back of a catalog for an art exhibition in 1967 in which his father had shown two paintings.
There are four lines of writing. Under a doodled comet or approaching cannonball, two stylized arrows mark ideas or a to-do list. The first line reads, "explain Arthur in York." The second arrow points to "Cumbria backs away." Below these is a line of verse, lightly seasoned with scansion marks: "When Ríghteous mén would stánd alóof." 
The line is almost the last line of Act III -- When righteous men in conscience stand apart -- from a soliloquy in which the Earl of Cumbria backs away from his plan to assassinate Arthur (who never explains what he was doing in York).
Arthur recognizes what he has found: The index card is numbered 14, and it survived only because something spilled on it so it stuck to the back of the catalog. It represents notes his father was taking as he wrote the play.

He is thunderstruck by the revelation, and embarrassed that he had not recognized the play for what it was: "What makes something rapidly and obviously a forgery after it was, sometimes for decades, so obviously genuine? Go Google the van Meegeren Vermeers. A child could tell you that those Navajos and Down's syndrome maids aren't by the same man who painted Girl with a Pearl Earring."
Han van Meegeren forgery, The Disciples at Emmaus

So he decides to stop the publication, to "end this farce." But, he notes, "obviously, you are reading this, and I have failed." He decides that sometime in the Fifties or Sixties, his father had realized that he was never going to get anywhere with a legitimate art career, so he came up with the most profitable idea possible: a new Shakespeare play. And he studies all the ways to do it.

When he presents the theory to his mother, she objects, "There were barely libraries in those prisons. Somehow he's concocting sixteenth-century ink?" So Arthur thinks he must have had a partner, perhaps Chuck Glassow. She objects that Glassow is "a grocer and a thief, not a genius." But Arthur is certain he's right, even when his mother asks, "are you sure that index card says what you think it says? This is a lot of money." So he promises his mother he will think about it before doing anything rash. "I waited and mulled over that index card, but I could (and still can) see only one interpretation."
Han van Meegeren forgery, The Smiling Girl


Then Bert Thorn calls to tell Arthur that his father left a will making him his "literary executor" and directing him to "see to the publication, protection, and promotion of the play The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain by William Shakespeare, so as to maximize the financial return from the play to its beneficiaries." Arthur is given a 28 percent share of the proceeds, with 24 percent each going to Dana, their mother, and "my friend, Charles R. Glassow." Moreover, if Arthur should do anything to indicate that the work isn't by Shakespeare, then his share would be distributed among the other beneficiaries. And the will had been drafted two months before he contacted Arthur about the play. "In other words, he could conceive only of a son as thieving as the father." Dana directs her own scorn at Glassow: "How many times did Dad go to jail while Chuck got off?"

After their meeting with the lawyer, Arthur asks Dana how things are going with Petra, hoping that it's over between them. She says, "I think she's already seeing someone else," which piques his interest, since he assumes he is the "someone else." She goes on to blame the meds she was taking and to "wonder what Shakespeare would have made of psychopharm":
"Hard to believe that would have seemed like a good idea to him. 'Here, take this: you'll be happy to be a glover like your dad. Here, take this: you'll be happy to be a Protestant. Here, take this: you'll be happy enough married to that old hag and living in Stratford.' I don't think so."
He leaves her at the theater and goes to see Petra. But she tells him they're through. When he asks if she is going to tell Dana about their night together, she says, "Of course not. Why would I want to hurt her?"

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