Critical Questions: Arthur Phillips
The play’s the thing.
You've got to admire someone brave and/or crazy enough to write a five-act play in the style of William Shakespeare in this day and age. Arthur Phillips, author of the novel The Tragedy of Arthur, and author of the play The Tragedy of Arthur - the pseudo-Shakespearean play contained within the novel of the same name - is just that person. No stranger to ambitious projects, Phillips changes tack with each book he writes while consistently maintaining an impressive blend of historicism, intrigue, and satire. He took time out to talk with us about all things Shakespearean, the pleasures of seeing his play come to life on the stage, and his latest projects.
CM: What inspired The Tragedy of Arthur? Did the book's structure - an introduction to a play serving as the novel proper, followed by the play in its entirety - come to you at once or was it developed gradually? Was Nabokov's Pale Fire a touchstone?
AP: It was gradual. The first step was a strange, overwhelming desire to try to write a Shakespeare play. Obviously, that is not a normal urge, but the thought of it just tickled me and I started wondering what I would have to learn to make a go of it. The frame, the container to hold such a thing, came quite a bit later, developing as I was doing the research to get started on the play. Pale Fire is a touchstone for everything, as far as I'm concerned.
Writing a five-act play in a Shakespearean style is a pretty nervy move. And I understand you consulted with Shakespeare scholars while you worked on the play. What types of reactions did you meet with when you told them what you were doing?
I was astonished to find them universally interested, amused, helpful. These are serious scholars with serious expertise, and yet when some joker asked them to proof-read a forgery and make suggestions for its failings, they all were happy to do so, sometimes more than once.
As a novelist, what was it like to shift gears and write in verse?
I've dabbled a bit before, so it didn't seem insane to try to shift gears. And there were certain limitations that made it seem manageable: a plot, a verse structure.
In The Tragedy of Arthur -- the novel, not the play - your narrator takes numerous swipes at the memoir genre while inconveniently writing a memoir himself. How much of the fictional Arthur Phillips' opinions on the subject reflect your own?
I'm not opposed to memoirs in general, and not even opposed to memoirs by people who haven't really "done" anything. But I do think there are too many of them, at the cost of fiction in the marketplace and winning readers' attention. Also, I'm generally opposed to memoirs that are not reasonably objectively true, and don't believe that "that's how I recall it" is sufficient fact-checking.
In the meta-world of the book, you poke fun at your publisher Random House. They're publishing a Shakespeare play that you've spent most of the book explaining is a fake; within your explanation is a suggestion that much of their efforts to bring the manuscript to light are financially motivated. Did you encounter resistance from anyone at Random House about the ways in which you portray them?
Not in the slightest. The real life Random House has shown itself to be a supporter of literature, fun, risk-taking, and art. Seriously. The place is stocked with exactly the sort of people you'd hope worked in publishing. I kid you not.
The Public Theater recently put on a staged reading of the play of The Tragedy of Arthur. What was it like to hear it in a theater? What did the actors think of it?
I found it thrilling. I like the play, I must admit. I like it more than some Shakespeare plays, so I am very eager to see it come to life. And in the hands of good actors (and these were really good actors), it becomes something more than what you'd imagined when you were writing, or at least there are lots of possibilities that can occur, as many possibilities as there are actors with good imaginations. The actors were pretty excited, I think. These are serious Shakespeareans and a few told me that they felt they were getting more of "him" to play around with. They felt that new material in verse made them stretch out in a way that normal, contemporary prose plays don't.
In both The Egyptologist and The Tragedy of Arthur you parody the single-minded obsessiveness of scholars and their search for elusive truths - yet both of your books are heavily researched. Were you ever tempted to become an academic?
Nope. No disrespect intended, as I admire them most of the time, but I am just not cut out for it.
Your website bio states that you were a jazz musician. What instrument did you play and is playing music still an active part of your life?
I used to sing and play tenor sax, but it's been years since I've done it, and music in my life is now only a matter of listening.
You had a career as a child actor. After writing this play, do you have any renewed ambitions to get back into acting?
I very much enjoyed the rehearsal process for the play. I like backstages, empty houses, working lights, and watching as text becomes alive in good actors. I'm no actor myself, though. I get all of the performance satisfaction I want from giving readings and Q&A's.
Your books have varied widely in theme, from expats in Eastern Europe to an obsessive Egyptologist to a Shakespeare scandal. What's next?
I'm not sure what the next novel is, but I'm working on a couple of TV pilots at the moment, so we'll see how that genre-shift works out for me...