Phillips began by starting, “This story begins in my childhood.” The novel’s protagonist and narrator just so happens to be a novelist named Arthur Phillips, and has numerous similarities with the author himself—but the character is fake… right?
Phillips read two passages from the first part of the text, the books extended “Introduction.” Both involved the importance of Shakespeare in Arthur’s life, beginning in childhood and continuing through his discovery of what might be a lost Shakespeare play, The Tragedy of Arthur, which is featured, in its entirety, in the book’s second half of the book. Phillips claimed it was not a real work by W.S., but also suggested that he could be sued for saying the wrong thing, and stupefied the audience by hinting that unnamed professors had authenticated the 1597 date on the manuscript.
Next came a theatrical interpretation of The Tragedy of Arthur by New York’s Guerrilla Shakespeare Project. Now was the real test: did the play sound and feel like the real thing? Well, yes and no.
During the twenty minute performance (the actual play-within-the-novel would run three hours), questions of identity, war and romance played out in iambic pentameter across of modified version of the Arthurian legend, with a fatalism reminiscent of the great tragedies.
wait, did King Arthur just say, “Saxon-ish?” And “Saxonland?” Did Shakespeare ever use “ish?” Probably not. And perhaps that first scene was a bit too sexually suggestive. Sure, Shakespeare liked to write bawdy puns , but the whole exchange about dominating the tree (I think?) was just too crude, even for Will.
Following the spectacle, there was a chance to ask Phillips some questions, but certainly not for purposes of clarification. (Unless his young son was there to tell you the answer you really wanted to hear.)
So fine, Phillips’s book is a novel questioning the truth of art, itself included—but then why extend the confusion to tonight’s reading? Why not just say it’s a piece of fiction, about a faux? The book’s answer is simple, in its mysterious way: “To set the record crooked once and for all, so that someone’s life (some stranger’s) was not without wonder.”