Since the publication of his first novel, Prague, Arthur Phillips has firmly established himself as one of contemporary America’s most original writers, dazzling readers with wit, a keen sense of humanity and an exuberant style that is simply a delight to read. Part pseudo-memoir, part Elizabethan drama, The Tragedy of Arthur tells the story of “Arthur Phillips,” a novelist whose con artist father has discovered a lost work of Shakespeare. The book is divided into two sections: first, the fictional Phillips’ introduction to the play, then the play itself, replete with scholarly (and not) footnotes. In the end, it’s for the reader to decide what’s truth and what’s fiction in this smart and insightful novel.
What brought you to this story? Did something in particular spark when you were contemplating what to write next?
This book has been bubbling up demanding attention for quite a while. The most disciplined thing I ever did was to keep putting this one off without losing that rush of ideas until it was the right time. The first seed was just the fun thought of the challenge: "I wonder if I could write a halfway convincing one of those plays.” Then—you know how this goes, Tasha—once you have that first magnetic idea, stuff starts to stick to it. Someone says something—oh, I could use that. You read something apparently unrelated—oh, I could use that. You start to daydream about the project—oh, I could use that . . . and with Shakespeare, things happen all the time. Notes started flurrying all the time.
What did you write first: the intro or the play?
Do I have to admit I wrote the play? Oh well, there goes that fun. Okay. . . . They were almost simultaneous, in that I wrote a rough draft of the play and then wrote a rough draft of what became the introduction, and back and forth in that order, always starting with the play on each revision. That said, the note-taking and planning for the introduction had gone on for quite a while before writing the play, and THAT said, the research for the play went on for quite a while before I started sifting through ideas of how the introduction might work. This is very convoluted. Isn't it all just easier if I claim I didn't write the play?
This is an ambitious project, but executed with a mastery that makes reading it a breeze. Ambitious often equals inaccessible. Did it pour out à la Mozart (minus the debauched lifestyle funded through the sale of snuff boxes) after you'd worked it out in your head? Did you meticulously outline and plan every detail? Something in between or different altogether?
This was very different than previous work. It was much more planned. Much more research ahead of time, in an organized and scheduled sort of fashion. The play was very much outlined, as it had to be, because the nature of the project was to try to imagine HIM. To imagine Shakespeare’s methods, his sources, his moments of allowing imagination to displace research, and then to try to follow those steps (all imagined, I admit). So the outline of the play came out of the sources for the story Shakespeare would have had available to him, and also the general formatting of acts and scenes that he tended to fall into. Not a formula (much too strong and loaded a word) but patterns of storytelling, moments of revelation, action and so forth. All of which varied over his career, of course.
Tell me about the play. How the hell did you pull that off? In college we used to speak in faux (and extremely bad) Shakespearean dialogue, but I don't think I could keep it up for an entire day, let alone an entire play. (Love the footnotes, by the way.)
The footnotes were so fun. The one about hemorrhoid paste in Elizabethan England made me happy for days. The process of the play research was only enjoyable. First off, I read the canon, in one of the suggested possible chronological orders, and I read it out loud. This looked a little odd at my local cafe, but that was all right. That was the first step, it took a few months, and it was a sheer joy.
The experience of reading Shakespeare is worlds away from seeing his plays staged. Would you like to see this "new discovery" produced?
A few companies around the country are planning readings and I'm very closely involved with one we're doing here in New York in May at the Public Theater. But yes, I would like to see a full production, of the play alone or of some sort of mix of Introduction and Play as a theatrical event. I'd like to see it not only for what I know of what I wrote, but of what new revelations and surprises a great director and great actors can bring to something you think you know.
Did you find yourself growing sympathetic to the anti-Stratfordians [a group that believes Shakespeare is not the author of the works attributed to him] when you were writing the play?
Oh, dear. You really don't want to get me started about this. The short answer is no: the more work I did writing a Shakespeare play, the less sympathy I had for those who said someone other than Shakespeare wrote them.
I have spent a lot of time looking at anti-Stratfordian thinking and writing and arguments and theories, and I have spent much too much time discussing it with them. While I feel a great deal of sympathy for people who passionately believe in something that most people disagree with, I very strongly disagree with them. I think it requires a view of history, people and most of all creative writing that I find unrealistic and a little silly. And—as a writer who prides himself on making things up and knows how to do it—a little offensive. I may have identified with Shakespeare a hair too much here, but there it is. And, please, anti-Strats, don't bother writing in about why I'm wrong. I've heard it all by now, I'd say.
Talk to me about truth and fiction and memoirs. Memoirs are so frequently fictionalized, it would seem more honest to call many of them novels. Or to go with Hollywood, "Based on a True Story." The Tragedy of Arthur is a novel, but do you think some readers will take the memoir at face value despite the fact that it's fiction with bits of reality?
I hope that a careful reader will think about what happens in this book and ask themselves, "What do I really know about any author that puts text in front of me, now or from four centuries ago?" [Just] let the author go and love the texts, draw whatever truth or lessons or "mere" entertainment they can, and really know and believe that that is enough.
Do you have a favorite line from Shakespeare? A favorite play?
King Johnis such a good and underperformed play, but every time you see a good production of any of his (or any good playwright's) work, it's a revelation. I just saw such a brilliant Taming of the Shrew put on here in NYC by the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project, and I went back the next weekend to see it again. And that's a play I don't like (or didn't think I liked) when I read it.
Tasha Alexander is the author of the Lady Emily series, set in Victorian England. She lives in Chicago with her husband, the thriller writer Andrew Grant.