All Lies: PW Talks with Arthur Phillips
By Jonathan Segura – Feb 28, 2011
Arthur Phillips wrote a Shakespeare play. Or maybe a fictional version of his father wrote it. Or maybe it’s the real deal. Read all about it in The Tragedy of Arthur, his inspired latest.
Where’d the idea to write a new Shakespeare play come from?
When I wrote Angelica, I had a plot point that required some lines from Shakespeare, and I couldn’t find the lines that did what I wanted, so I just made up a couple. I thought people would make fun of me, but nobody noticed. Another time, some friends and I were talking, and I said, “Man, Shakespeare gets away with a lot.” My friend kind of took offense at what seemed to me a pretty mild criticism. I don’t know what the final trigger was, but I think I had an excuse, in that if it was bad, then I’d write a book about a bad Shakespeare play.
Did you get involved with the anti-Stratfordians?
The more I got into writing the play, the more irritating the anti-Stratfordians made me. I started to feel, after a while, that I actually did write a Shakespeare play, and so I sort of know what it takes to do one. It doesn’t require nobility. It requires imagination and empathy and research skills, and it requires discipline and hard work and a dictionary and things that are well within the realm of the possible for the guy who is credited with having written written these plays. That was one of the things that pissed me off; I’ve skated around with this guy more than [they] have, so to take away his life’s work kind of offends me.
The first part of the book is a long introduction to the play and is set up as a memoir. How’d your friends and family like the idea of possibly being written about?
My brother, who did not make the cut for the fictional family, said his lawyers would be in touch after I finished, because he’d been excluded. That should give you an idea of what my family’s like. They’re different from their fictional versions and they are most amused.
There’s some pointed commentary in the book about the memoir genre.
The memoir industry is, what’s the word? Underregulated. I think it needs to be pruned. If there are too many books right now and the market for readers is shrinking, I think we can get rid of many of the memoirs. Another memoir should be awfully well justified before it gets published.
What’s the most underrated Shakespeare play?
King John. The comedies, what are called the comedies, are not actually funny. Occasionally a couple of mistaken twins can be mildly amusing. But it’s all old jokes that don’t make sense to us anymore and aren’t funny because they have to be explained. Or they’ve been redone and redone for 400 years. It’s very hard to find real laugh out loud moments. King John is a very funny play. Combined with great action, politicking, and a great character invention.