A Con Man Meets Shakespeare In 'Tragedy Of Arthur'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:30 pm

The Tragedy of Arthur is a play within a novel within a mystery. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, grew up with a love of Shakespeare imbued by their father, also Arthur Phillips, who has a fringe of "Einstein hair" and is charming to the point of seduction and shrewd to the point of brilliance. He is a con man, who paints masterpieces until he is imprisoned for it.

Then one day, the elder Phillips gives his son his greatest legacy: a previously undiscovered play by Shakespeare called "The Tragedy of Arthur." Is it a fraud? Is it for real? Is Arthur Phillips' real legacy the fact that you end up wondering what is real, what is not, and why does it matter anyway? In the end, the reader gets to judge the play on its own terms.

The Tragedy of Arthur is the latest work by one of the most acclaimed novelists working in the English language, Arthur Phillips. His previous novels include The Song Is You and Prague. Phillips spoke to Scott Simon on Weekend Edition.

On the confusing nature of having many different protagonists named Arthur, Phillips says, "Well, you've got confusing and you've got enchanting. It's certainly not meant to be confusing. I don't think it should confuse anyone if they plunk themselves down and read it. It should be a lot of fun."

The father Arthur Phllips tells a fantastic story: In 1958, he was hired to make a replica of a valuable painting for a rich man in England, and in his library, he finds a 1597 play credited to Shakespeare, "The Tragedy of Arthur." He takes it, and doesn't consider it a theft because the guy didn't know that he had it. The father's story is hard to believe, at best, but Phillips the author argues that it is possible.

"I think if anyone's going to find a new Shakespeare play that we haven't noticed before, that's not an unlikely place to find one," he says. "People in the 1600s and 1700s would buy up these quartos, essentially one play in paperback, and when they had eight or 10 of them they would stitch them together into a collection, and then they would hand-write a table of contents. That's a hard thing to keep organized over the centuries. Quartos are fragile; quartos don't necessarily make it for the long haul. Most of them are lost."

But, of course, the man who "discovers" the lost quarto is a con man.

"It's certainly a plausible story, by the way, or he wouldn't be a very good con man," Phillips jokes. "On the other hand, he is a terrible con man, as he ends up in prison for most of his life. So maybe this is the one time he is telling the truth."

The virtuoso achievement among others in Tragedy of Arthur is that Phillips actually produces the play — rather than just referring to an undiscovered work of Shakespeare, he writes out all five acts.

"Yes, The Most Excellent and Tragical History of Arthur, King of Britain," Phillips explains. "Apparently published in 1597 based on an earlier, now lost edition, is included as the endpoint of the book."

The work, as good of an imitation as it is, doesn't sound exactly like Shakespeare's best. But as Phillips points out, not everything Shakespeare wrote was genius.

"I'm thinking I would like to see it put on stage sometime," he jokes. "And the marquee out on 42nd Street would say, 'It's better than Henry the 6th!' So, one of the things I wanted to get at in the book was ... I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, obviously, but he's not above serious discussion as someone that we admire as a great writer without having to talk about him as a deity beyond our human criticism."

One of the most humorous aspects of the novel is the back-and-forth between Arthur Phillips, the son, and the editors at Random House — which also happens to be the real Phillips' publisher, so they are in on the joke — and the way that the editors, even when told that the play may not be real, barrel ahead with the project.

"Let's just say for a moment that I turned up at Random House and said, 'Look what I have here, it's a 1597 Shakespeare play that no one has ever heard of before,'" Phillips says. "I think everyone knows what that would be worth. So everyone in the novel goes to great lengths to authenticate it and prove what it is and what it might not be. But when the professors are lining up to say it's real, and the ink and paper specialists say it's real, one guy jumping up and down saying 'My father is a con man' is worth ignoring."

Phillips' book raises the question of whether or not, at the most basic level, a fraud can be just as good as the real thing.

"I do, in fact, care whether a book labeled a memoir is verifiable," Phillips says. "I do actually care whether something put forth as a Shakespeare play is a Shakespeare play."

So in the end, does Arthur Phillips, the con man, create something of value?

"Yes, I am ... what's the term, aesthetic empiricism? I'm one of those guys," Phillips says. "I think if it's good and you like it, then it's good and you like it. You should stick to 'it's good and I like it' no matter what people say, no matter if the write person wrote it at the right time. So I'm of the position that if you like it and you think it's good, then by definition, it's good."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

"The Tragedy of Arthur" is a play within a novel within a mystery. Arthur Phillips and his twin sister, Dana, grow up with the love of Shakespeare, imbued by their father, Arthur Phillips, who has a fringe of Einstein hair, and is charming to the point of seduction and shrewd to the point of brilliance.

Hes a con man who paints masterpieces until hes imprisoned for it. Then one day, he gives his son, Arthur Phillips, his greatest legacy - A previously undiscovered play by William Shakespeare called "The Tragedy of Arthur."

Is it a fraud? Is it for real? Is Arthur Phillips' real legacy the fact that you wind up wondering what is real, what is not, what does it matter anyway?

In the end, the reader gets to judge the play on its own terms.

"The Tragedy of Arthur" is the latest work by one of the most acclaimed novelists now working in the English language, Arthur Phillips, whose previous novels include "The Song Is You" and "Prague." Arthur Phillips joins us from New York

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ARTHUR PHILLIPS (Author, "The Tragedy of Arthur"): My pleasure.

SIMON: So is this meant to be confusing? We've got all the different protagonists named Arthur.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you've got confusing and you've got how about enchanting? How about that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right.

Mr. PHILLIPS: No, it's certainly not meant to be confusing. And I don't think it should confuse anyone if they plunk themselves down and read it.

SIMON: So but it's meant to be illuminating.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I hope so. What it illuminates exactly may be out of my league to explain. But it should be a lot of fun. How about that?

SIMON: Yeah. So the father, Arthur Phillips, tell us his son, Arthur Phillips a fantastic story. He says that in 1958, he was hired to make a replica of a valuable painting for a rich man over in England. And in his library he finds bound into a collection of quartos, a 1597 play credited to Shakespeare, "The Tragedy of Arthur." And he takes it; doesn't consider it a theft because, of course, the guy didnt know that he had it.

Now, why would anyone think that story's real?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, you know, I think if anyone is going to find a new Shakespeare play that we haven't noticed before, that's not an unlikely place to find one. People in the 16 and 1700s would buy up these quartos. Essentially they were, you know, one play, little paperbacks. And when they had eight or 10 of them, they would stitch them together in some sort of a collection, and then they would hand-write a table of contents.

Well, that's a hard thing to keep it organized over the centuries. You know, quartos are fragile. Quartos don't necessarily make it for the long haul. Most of them are lost.

SIMON: But I mean the guy who discovers it is a con man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PHILLIPS: It's certainly a plausible story, otherwise he wouldn't be a very good con man. On the other hand, he's a terrible con man; he ends up in prison for most of his life. So maybe this is the one time he's telling the truth.

SIMON: The virtuoso achievement among others in this book is that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...you produce the play. You don't just talk about this undiscovered Shakespeare play. You actually produce it, all five acts.

Mr. PHILLIPS: "The Most Excellent and Tragical History of Arthur, King of Britain," apparently published in 1597 based on an earlier, now lost addition, is included as the endpoint of the book. Yes.

SIMON: Not to delay the joy of discovery, our friend Matt Frei of the BBC has recorded a section.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Oh, lovely.

SIMON: It's Arthur addressing Guinevere, except she's got a different name in this. How do you pronounce that, Mr. Phillips?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Gwenera.

SIMON: Arthur addressing Gwenera to tell her how, she's heard before, how utterly lovely she is.

Mr. MATT FREI (Anchor, BBC World News America): (as Arthur) I am untongued when most I want new words to lock your beauty in my longest thoughts. I spent too soon the language I did know; like to an actor hoarse from preparation or a traveler of the Afri coast who lights with wonder on an unknown bank.

SIMON: Matt Frei of the BBC hosts "Americana" on BBC Radio.

Sounds pretty convincing, doesn't it?

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, with a nice accent, yeah, you can get away with anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I don't mind telling you, I enjoyed reading the play. But to me, it was kind of like Joe Piscopo's imitation of Sinatra.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You know, which is to say it's a good imitation. But you point out not everything Shakespeare wrote was of a high quality.

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, I'm thinking I'd like to see it put on stage sometime. And banner advertisement, maybe the marquee out on 42nd Street, would say in big letters: It's Better than Henry the 6th."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PHILLIPS: So one of the things I wanted to get at in the book was I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, obviously. But he's not above serious discussion as someone that we admire as a great writer, without having to talk about him as a deity beyond our human criticism.

SIMON: To me, the really golden parts of this novel were the scenes of Arthur Phillips, the son, and the back and forth with the editors at Random House. And we will note Random House is your publisher. So they're, you know, they're in on all this.

And the way that editors at Random House, even when Arthur Phillips says: Look, my father is a con man, this is not real. The editors at Random House don't like to hear that.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, let's just say for a moment that I turned up with - as which is what, you know, much of the action in the novel is about, is that I turn up at Random House and said, Look what I have here. It's a 1597 Shakespeare play no one has ever heard of before. I think everyone knows what that would be worth.

And so everyone in the novel goes to great efforts to authenticate it and prove what it is and what it might not be. But when the professors are lining up saying it's real, and the ink and paper specialists say it's real, one guy jumping up and down saying, my father's a con man is worth ignoring. So...

SIMON: And in the interest of full disclosure, you create a character, Jennifer Hershey, who is your actual editor in real life, and mine, too, I should point out, too.

MR. PHILLIPS: Exactly. There's - so there's Jennifer Hershey and Jennifer Hershey Prime. Jennifer Hershey in the novel is a little more willing to ignore the possibility that's it's not a real play in an effort to get across the billion dollar threshold for publishing something.

SIMON: I remember talking to the late David Halberstam once, who was very proudly wearing a fake Rolex he'd bought on the streets of New York. And he said any man that pays for a real Rolex is an idiot...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ... because the fakes will tell time for, you know, at least a few months as well as the real one and won't tie up all that money. So he suggested that the fraud, in a way, was more valuable than the real thing. Is your book raising some of those arguments?

MR. PHILLIPS: I do, in fact, care whether labeled a memoir is verifiable as a memoir.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MR. PHILLIPS: I do actually care whether something put forth as a Shakespeare play is a Shakespeare play.

SIMON: In the end, does Arthur Phillips, the con man, produce something of value?

MR. PHILLIPS: Oh, wow. What a great question. Yes, I am of a - what's the word, aesthetic empiricism? I guess I'm one of those guys. I think if it's good and you like it, then it's good and you like it. And you should stick to it's good and I like it no matter what people say; whether the right person wrote it or the right person wrote it at the right time. So I'm of the position that if you like it and you think it's good, then by definition, it's good.

SIMON: Mr. Phillips, great pleasure. Thanks so much.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Oh, that was good fun. Thank you

SIMON: Arthur Phillips' new novel is "The Tragedy Of Arthur," which is also the title of a newly discovered play by William Shakespeare, if there was such a man and such a play, that is thoughtfully included in the back of this novel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.