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A CurtainUp Book Review
The Tragedy of Arthur

The Tragedy of Arthur is as good as most of his stuff, or as bad, and I suppose it is plausible (vocabulary style etc.) that he wrote it. Full disclosure: I state that as the party with the most money to be made in this venture.— Arthur Phillips, in The Tragedy of Arthur, a Novel, which serves as a lengthy introduction to a heretofore unknown play, a legacy left to him by his fathor.
Were it not for what novelist and tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare debunker Arthur Phillips calls " the Shakespeare industrial complex, we wouldn't have Will's plays on the boards all over the world, theater season after season, year after year. But just what is this complex Phillips is talking about in what seems to be an autobiographical introduction to Random House's publication of a lost Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur?

According to Phillips, it began with crowning the Elizabethan actor-playwright-poet as the emperor forever of English drama. As Shakespeare's reputation gained momentum, contemporaries like Dekker and Marlowe were relegated to also ran status, and Will Shakespeare became the theater world's first blockbuster (a term the coiner and popularizer of thousands of English words and phrases would undoubtedly have liked).

Century after century rolled by but the thirty-six plays of the so-called Shakespeare folio survived and prospered. The durability of the Shakespeare canon morphed into bardolatry and was boosted by the fact that each era's top actors clamored to play juicy roles like Macbeth and his bloody-handed Lady, Lear and his daughters, Hamlet and his adulterous mother and uncle, and Shylock demanding his pound of flesh. Thus Will had stellar contemporary partners to add luster to the jewels of his crown as the reigning monarch of English drama.

As times changed so did costumes and customs, yet Shakespeare's texts and characters were seen as ever relevant and adaptable to these changes. Fueling the continuing expansion of the Shakespeare machinery or, as Phillips would have it, "the Shakespeare industrial complex." Even the less often done and reputedly co-authored works tend to show up on some stage, while the top tier ones are made new again courtesy of ticket selling name casting or newly conceptualized (often drastically so) productions.

Our Shakespeare coverage at curtainup for just this season saw Will's decidedly minor work, Timon of Athens , one of the most sought after offerings of the Public Theater's LAB series thanks to the casting of Richard Thomas in the title role. Notable starry productions included Merchant of Venice (Al Pacino), King Lear (Derek Jacoby), Macbeth (up and coming Shakespeare interpreter, John Douglas Thompson). Of the numerous newfangled stagings, Sleep No More, an interactive wordless (yes, really) mix of Macbeth and Hitchcock's Rebecca, is the most unique and hottest ticket currently in Manhattan. If the Bard were released long enough from his heavenly resting place for a tour of his plays on stage, he'd probably be scratching his head over this one.

This sampling of recent Shakespeare offerings isn't just a case of a particularly Bard-bloated season. A click over to our special Shakespeare Page and its links to Shakespeare productions we've reviewed is sufficiant evidence that Shakespeare completists (peoplethose committed to seeing at least one production that's part of the Shakespeare folio, as well as those of unproven authorship) have had plenty to chose from during our thirteen years on line. With the publication of The Tragedy of Arthur, these completists have a new play to add to their to-see list. Surely, if an esteemed publishing enterprise like Random House published it, this recently discovered play must have undergone plenty of authenticity tests by experts in such matters. And Arthur Phillips, the novelist who owns the manuscript discovered by his father, certainly seems a fitting choice to introduce it to the public.

Okay then, to cut to the chase. The Tragedy of Arthur, a Novel is actualy a novel masquerading as a memoir, masquerading as an introduction to The Tragedy of Arthur, a play by William Shakespeare. In that introduction-memoir-novel the author who is, yet isn't quite, the real main character, confesses that he's lost faith in the authenticity of the play he's introducing. Were it not that he is contractually obligated to do so he says that he'd much prefer to just keep the manuscript discovered by his father in the trunk of the Phillips family's memorabilia. That said, the section billed as a novel is highly entertaining; in fact, considerably more so than the King Arthur play that follows, and every bit as much a provocative literary puzzle -- and not so incidentally a send-up of the memoir genre and our obsession with celebrity by-lines.

As The Tragedy of Arthur, the play, bears all the earmarks of the Bard's rhyme schemes and dramatic structure (5 acts, 5 scenes each, extensive footnotes), so the the novel-introduction-memoir is close enough to novelist and narrator Arthur Phillip's personal history to feel as much like an authentic memoir as the King Arthur play reads and looks like the real deal, even if not a very good one.

Call it what you will (the subtitle of Twelfth Night, in which, as in other Shakespeare plays, twins and identity issues figure importantly), the Arthur Phillips by-lined and narrated two thirds of the book makes a case for Random House's earnest efforts to authenticate the Phillips literary heirloom. However, Phillips is just as intent on explaining why he himself has come to believe that he was wrong to believe his father, also named Arthur. This entails going back to his and his twin sister Dana's relationship with each other and the feckless, frequently jailed father whose passion for Shakespeare was more enthusiastically shared by Dana than Arthur.

At one point during Arthur's reminiscences, while his father is still alive, Phillips says "my own career as a novelist has been shadowed by my family's relationship to Shakespeare, specifically my father, and twin sister's adoration of his work. A certain amount of cheap psychology turns out to be true: because of our family's early dynamics, i have as an adult always tried to impress these two idealized readers with my own language and imagination and have always hoped some day to hear them say they preferred me and my work to Shakespeare and his."

Well, I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of this enjoyable book, but once you to read the entire book -- the part by-lined by Arthur Phillips and the one by William Shakespeare —, you probably will prefer the Arthur Phillips section. On the other hand, if you agree with Phillips that The Tragedy of King Arthur is a fake, try replicating even one act of a Shakespeare play. You're likely to come up to the conclusion that the best man between the covers of this book is the faker.

But which Arthur is the faker? Just read the book.

Consumer note: I first read The Tragedy of Arthur on my Amazon Kindle which at $12.95 is considerably less than the $26.95 hardcover price. (Here's the link to buy the now sharply discounted edition Hard Cover edition ) and here's a link to the Kindle edition )

Since Amazon has discounted the hardcover edition to make the price difference beween it and the e-text inconsequential, you can pick which ever format you're more comfortable with. However, Kindle readers should be aware that the book contains two pages that are in a format that's unreadable on the Kindle, though the publisher is said to be addressing this issue.

Whatever format you choose, remember that Curtainup's content, including our archives, is free, so please support our site by shopping via any links on our siter.

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