Author: Arthur Phillips

Title: The Tragedy of Arthur

Publisher: Random House

"I HAVE NEVER MUCH LIKED SHAKESPEARE," admits author Arthur Phillips with the first line in the introduction to his new book, The Tragedy of Arthur. "I could do without him, up to and including this unstoppable and unfortunate book."

Phillips' relationship with the Bard of Avon is certainly strained. While it appears that a long, lost play from the famous playwright has made its way into Philips' family's hands, what might have been written as a comedy of errors is nothing less than a dysfunctional family fumbling around in their relationships, trying to find their identity amidst so many falsehoods.

There are actually two stories in this book. There is a play, written as if it were by William Shakespeare (who knows, maybe it is…), on the story of King Arthur - The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain. The play is preceded by an introduction, a rather long one, in which Arthur Phillips outlines his family history, how he came to have ownership of this lost work, and what prompted him to publish the book with Random House.

This introduction, which is actually more like a forlorn memoir, takes up two thirds of the entire book. It starts with Phillips describing his early life with this twin sister, Dana, and the relationship that they have with their ill-starred father, who is also named Arthur. In describing King Arthur in the play, Philips writes, "He is a flawed hero, at best, who succeeds then fails as a result of his unique personality. Unable to find a solid self upon which to rely, he ricochets from crisis to crisis, never quite seeing how he has caused the crisis until it is too late…This description also fits my father."

The senior Phillips is a forger - a forger of art, a forger of documents, a forger of reality and relationships, and quite possibly, the younger Phillips believes, the forger of this play. Law and consequences continue to interrupt the elder's desire for significance and he spends cycles of his life in jail, for which his son labels him a "time-lapse" father. The Tragedy of Arthur, though written about a King, and introduced by a son, is ultimately about the tragedy of the father who never believed he was good enough. His decision to copy the success of others left him bankrupt of all that was truly his own, and worth his love.

The five-act play really does read like an original work of Shakespeare, complete with Elizabethan diction and syntax. It is helpful that within the introduction that Phillips refers so often to the play's storyline that it serves as usable cliff notes.

If you are a Shakespeare lover and have always hoped for more plays to dissect, you may want to skip the Introduction (as Random House sneakily suggests in the Preface). Or, if you are a glutton for twisted tales of deception and dark comedy, than the better story is the first two thirds of the book.  And last, if you want to read a very clever and creative literary device, read the whole darn tragic thing.

*This review first published 5/9/2011