Most excellent: #ReadingTheTheatre

‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ (image credit: Random House)

The Tragedy of Arthur, a novel
by Arthur Phillips.
Gerald Duckworth & Company, 2011.

“Imperfect is the glass of other’s eyes
Wherein we seek in hope of handsome glimpse
Yet find dim shapes, reversed and versed again,
Which will not ease our self-love’s appetites.”

— Act II Scene vii

Fiction is a lie that readers are willingly complicit in, for even when we know it’s all sham we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked. At least, until we reach the final page. Verisimilitude, truthlikeness notwithstanding, our capacity to suspend disbelief, to temper scepticism with a degree of rosy-spectacled optimism gives fictional realism a chance to temporarily worm its way into our belief system.

And so it is with Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur. Here are lies masquerading as truth, with a purported historical document and a memoir dressed up as nonfiction, daring us to naysay it. Try as I might I couldn’t help but hop from a desire to accept what was on the page to an amused stance in which I knew it was all an elaborate con.

And Arthur Phillips – or rather “Arthur Phillips” – aided in that fence-hopping by himself continually oscillating from doubter to believer, and back again. Is the five-act quarto drama which completed this account a unique historic document or an ingenious fake?

The Shakespeare ‘Chandos’ portrait attributed to John Taylor

The US publishers, Random House, suggest the reader begins with reading The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain so that’s where I started. Here is an unfamiliar portrait of the legendary monarch, shorn of all the medieval trappings but clothed in the version presented in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. Arthur comes across as a womaniser, a monarch irresponsible enough to allow an imposter to take his place in battle, then a roi fainéant who neglects matters of state, and finally a poor strategist who meets his end in battle duelling with Mordred.

After this text, very obviously edited, recast in modern English and annotated by Phillips and Professor Roland Verre, I turned to the ‘Introduction’ by Phillips which, perhaps surprisingly, takes up more than 70% of the book. This purports to be a memoir by the bestselling novelist Arthur Phillips, part family history, part literary sleuthing, part apologia pro vita sua. “Phillips” (as I shall call him, to distinguish him from Arthur Phillips the author) comes across as by turns self-indulgent and self-disparaging, needy and self-contained, angry and imaginative; he has a love-hate relationship with his father, seems largely indifferent to his mother and step-father and yet has a strong bond with his twin sister, Dana, who’s born scant minutes before the date Arthur Phillips (both author and fictional construct) shares as a birthday with Shakespeare. “Phillips” is not an easy character to like unconditionally or even conditionally but he dominates the narrative, and like Arthur the King is a womaniser, shirks many of his duties and makes poor decisions.

He’s also an unreliable narrator.

In fact his ‘life’, straddling the 20th and 21st centuries, takes the form of a very Shakespearean tragedy, comedy and history all wrapped in one. The title The Tragedy of Arthur might suggest that the true subject of this narrative is “Arthur Phillips” himself, with a limited cast of principals (mainly members of his family) and sundry supporting actors all enmeshed in the staples of Tudor and Jacobean plays — twins, subterfuge, misunderstandings, betrayals and the like. Will there be a happy ending or is it demonstrably a tragedy?

King Arthur, after a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron.

And then there’s the third Arthur, “Arthur Phillips Snr” we can call him, whose true tragedy this may also be: Shakespeare-lover, consummate artist, professional forger, inveterate liar, inconsistent husband, distant father, and convict for much of his adult life – has this Arthur pulled off the greatest con ever and will he be able to profit from it?

As someone who enjoyably played with those fridge magnets featuring selected words to create pseudo-Shakespeare poetry and who posted Will’s 155th Sonnet for the kalends of April, I know the draw of concocting pretend texts by the Bard. And the obvious clue to the nature of this book is in what’s appended beneath the title: “a novel by Arthur Phillips.”

The novelist deserves praise for not only constructing a seemingly authentic late Elizabethan play but for daring to create, despite the inherent drawbacks, an alternative and very flawed portrait of himself. And for giving us a superb and most excellent example of metafiction in all its dissimulating glory.

Reading the Theatre, Lory @ Entering the Enchanted Castle

My review of the play that forms the last section of The Tragedy of Arthur is here, on my Pendragonry blog.

2023 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. This was the first printing of all the canonical plays associated with Shakespeare in an edition published by colleagues and friends. And of course this review anticipates the 23rd April which, as well as marking the day he died, is the date of his supposed birthday.

The Tragedy of Arthur was also read for Lory’s annual April-long event Reading the Theatre. My previous reviews for this have included A Mixture of Frailties (1958) by Robertson Davies, Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, John Milton’s Comus and Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson. Other stage-related reviews have included Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson, a group discussion of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies, titles mentioned in a post entitled Characters with theatrical jobs, and an extended examination with Lizzie Ross of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.

8 thoughts on “Most excellent: #ReadingTheTheatre

    1. Can’t believe you claim you’re not organised, Helen, disorganised is my middle name! I had this recommended to me years ago but only now got round to reading it – I was finally in the mood for it and, coincidentally, it fell in with the Theatre theme. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another excellent review, Chris. ‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ is a perfect choice for #ReadingTheTheater month!

    I set it alongside Michael Frayn’s ‘Headlong’ and Graham Moore’s ‘The Sherlockian’, similar in how the authors play around with Shakespeare’s style, Breughel’s art, or Sherlock Holme’s fandom.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lizzie, I really meant to read this a few years ago but only the relatively recent acquisition of a proof copy of the hardback edition to replace a paperback prompted me to consider it!

      I don’t know the Moore but I quite liked the Frayn when I read it pre-blogging, was rather weirdly more disappointed that the ‘missing’ Breughel was ‘destroyed’ than that the modernised text of The Tragical Historie was available to read …

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds very clever and worth looking into. Metafiction does not always work for me, when the self-referentialness becomes too solipstistic, but the pointing up of the blurry line between fiction and truth, art and life, can be interesting, amusing and even eye-opening. Thanks for reviewing this and for linking up with Reading the Theatre!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think it was either brave or foolhardy of Phillips to clothe the skeleton of his life with this novel, but it’s pretty obvious he officially gives very little of his real personal life away!

      Anyway, amusing it very certainly was, and clever in how it played with reader expectations. I was pleased to finally get round to reading it under the umbrella of Reading the Theatre, so thank you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.