In early April, just over a week before the release of Arthur Phillips’ newest novel, The Tragedy of Arthur, I had coffee with Phillips and another author, John Reed. The Tragedy of Arthur is a farce about an author named Arthur Phillips, his father, and a lost Shakespearean work titled The Tragedy of King Arthur (or The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain), which the real-life Arthur Phillips wrote especially for the novel. As Phillips says in the interview, he and Reed are “kindred spirits.” They have their differences, but they have a similarly pragmatic love of Shakespeare. A love that has grown out of viewing the man who is assumed to have impacted English letters more than any other writer as a “working” writer who needed to research and ask questions. Additionally, they have both written plays that they’ve “passed” as new or undiscovered works of the Bard. In 2008 John Reed published All the World’s a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, in which he collaged the known works of Shakespeare into a new play. In this drama, MacBeth marries Hamlet’s mother as Hamlet rejects Juliet because of an imaginary affair with Romeo, a notion planted in his head by the treacherous Iago, pawn of King Lear. The similarities don’t end with Shakespeare, though: Both authors share birthdays with famous authors. You’ll have to read on to find out which ones.
Arthur Phillips: We all share a birthday, I think, the three of us.
Dustin Luke Nelson: Who?
AP: Nabokov, Shakespeare and me.
John Reed: I share one with Dickens.
DLN: I’ve got Joe Pesci.
AP: I see that. I see the resemblance… Perhaps this is a relevant connection to your closing essay in All the World is a Grave. If you’re not really worried about your stuff; maybe we’re not really worried about classics.
JR: Well, it seems we share that: going after the classics.
AP: There’s a natural ability to let things go.
JR: We could let go of Edward as you mentioned. We can let go of Pericles, too. I have a feeling that Edward motivated you somewhat.
AP: I was moving along [with The Tragedy of Arthur] by the time I found Edward III. Then I was like, okay, fine, anybody can do this. [laughs]
JR: I wrote the first act of [All the World is a Grave] in college, then I put it down. I had an overlap with Spalding Gray—I grew up in Tribeca, sort of around him—and, 2006 or so, he spurred me on. Then I saw Pericles, which was just awful, and I sat there thinking, I could definitely do better than this. I mentioned the idea to Emily Haynes, an editor at Penguin; she liked the idea, and the next day I had an outline.
JR: Yeah, I have terrible karma with the bad plays. I feel like I’ve seen Perciles three, four times. I’ve seen Cymbeline, Coriolanus.
AP: Yeah, you’ve got to stop.
JR: Well, that’s because I have friends, probably as you do, who are radicals.
AP: Who insist on pulling them together?
JR: Exactly. It’s a challenge to produce Pericles and have the audience know what’s going on.
DLN: I’ve never seen a production.
AP: Don’t put it on your Netflix queue.
JR: If you have a choice of chainsaw juggling or Pericles, definitely go for chainsaw juggling.
DLN: Do you have a hidden favorite? A surprise favorite?
AP: I’m big King John fan.
JR: I like King John. Some speeches in there are pretty extraordinary. I would say Richard III; he gets so evil. The comedies aren’t that funny to me.
AP: I had given up on them and then these friends of mine did Shrew this spring. It was fantastic and it was hilarious and I was amazed. I had given up on that play a long time ago.
JR: There’s a John Fletcher play that’s a rejoinder to Shrew [The Tamer Tamed]. I always wanted to see those two produced in tandem.
DLN: Was it a love of Shakespeare that made you want to do these projects or was it the historical relevance and challenge?
AP: I fell love with Shakespeare more than I ever have in the process of doing this. So no, I started it more a sort of annoyance challenge. You get to a point where you write and you like what you write and people read it. The best thing anyone could ever say is that’s really good for something written today, for somebody that’s alive. I liked it okay. Hold on a second. Why do these guys get a pass because they’re dead? And believe me, I read mostly dead people, because it’s easier to read dead people. I like Shakespeare fine, and I was talking to another friend, and I said something like, He gets away with so much crap that would just get edited. I would get yelled at for this now. And he responded, That’s an odd approach to take. Why not be grateful for what there is? Yeah okay, fine I like a lot of it, but let’s face it, some of it is chaff here. They just wouldn’t have any of it now. So I thought, let’s see how far I can get with this, see how convincing I can make a page of it. That’s how it started for me. And then the process got much more involved in learning about Shakespeare and identifying what he really was: a working writer. Then he became incredibly interesting to me. How he made choices and how he took source material and turned it into plays, and what pressures he’s under, that was interesting. Then I started to get really excited about the project and excited about him in a way I never had before. That’s when I started to get mad at anti-Stratfordians but that’s another thing altogether.
JR: I have a whole lot of reasons I started writing All the World is a Grave. The first reason: I came up with the first act. I wrote the first act when I was about 21, in college. I’d grown up with theater, I wouldn’t say Shakespeare in particular, but I knew those six major tragedies well enough to come up with the first act. Then I didn’t work on the project for 7 or 8 years. I think having kids enabled me to come up with the second act, which has parents in it. I was also interested in copyright, that he could work with the source material, that he was a working writer in a very different circumstance. I read mostly live writers, and I have a tendency to resent some of my education, which had me reading dead writers. There is so much great work being written right now. With Shakespeare, some of the stuff we canonize isn’t as good as other stuff. And a perception of Shakespeare as a lone genius is anachronistic. He was working during a period where there was no virtually no copyright. You could rework old plays; you could borrow stuff from other people. He, as a head writer, could hire as many people as he wanted to brush up certain scenes, which he did, of course. If I were allowed to do all that stuff and I had the backing of the Queen, I definitely would do it. So those were extraordinary projects. I don’t think they’re extraordinary to humanity at all. 250,000 people were living in London when Shakespeare was working. Now there are 300 million living in the United States. If we valued the arts and liberated artists, there would be way more contemporary “Shakespeares.”
DLN: So you understand him, but was there a sense of intimidation, as though you were holding something precious to the world of letters in your hands? Shakespeare is put on a pedestal by so many people. Or does the distance and cynicism towards some of his work make it easier?
AP: We’re not going to break it; I felt like he should be liberated from that. I came to quite admire him in the process of doing this and hold an increasing scorn for the way he’s treated. Maybe for different reasons than John’s talking about. I would like to be remembered forever and canonized. Everybody probably would. That would be nice. You’ve got to make room, get rid of some of the crap, otherwise there’d be no time to read it all. I reviewed a collection of essays on Shakespeare a year ago now and I really liked the essays and they opened my eyes to all kinds of stuff I hadn’t noticed.
JR: What collection?
AP: Prefaces to Shakespeare by Tony Tanner. I really liked it; it made me think about Shrew in ways I hadn’t. I remember he finished his essay on Coriolanus and said, “And thus ends the last greatest tragedy written for the English stage.” Hold on a second, that was 400 years ago, you can’t find one great play written for the English stage since then? I don’t think we’re trying very hard.
AP: He doesn’t need that praise and nobody who’s going to learn to love Shakespeare is going to learn to love him through that praise.
JR: If you tell that to a kid and force him to read Coriolanus, they’re going to dismiss literature all together.
AP: Exactly. It wasn’t intimidating to deal with him. It was intimidating to try to think of all the ways people were going to get mad. So I just had fun with that. Much of the book is saying, Well, I’m sure someone is going to say this, and they’d be right of course, and just unplug all that stuff up front. Unplug the industry that supports his ghost, and find the plays you like, and go see them. Go read something published yesterday, or, as the case may be, tomorrow.
DLN: Did that happen to you at all, John?
JR: It sounds very similar to what I was thinking. I have a shorter essay in the back of Grave…
AP: Which I just read two days ago, I thought, Oh there you go; there’s a kindred spirit.
JR: I don’t have anything to add—though that essay was originally three times as long. They trimmed me back.
AP: Why did they put it in the back as opposed to the front? Or why did you put it in the back?
JR: I wanted readers to read the book first. I thought of breaking it into two chunks and having 5,000 words in the front and 10,000 words in the back. But I wanted to feature the script as a book. On the one hand I wanted a producible play, on the other hand I wanted readability. I think it is pretty readable.
AP: I’m curious about how you went about doing it. Did you write a play and then go look for the Shakespearean text that would fit in?
JR: Basically: I had the first draft. A gift from the heavens.
AP: I’m curious even about how you did that.
JR: The first act was the easiest. I knew the scenes I wanted. I blocked it out. The first draft was much too long. The real work was editorial.
AP: I’ll go even farther back. You knew the scenes you wanted because you had a character in mind. We’ll call him Reed Hamlet, but who’s not Shakespeare Hamlet. Though he speaks Shakespeare’s words, he’s another guy.
JR: I knew that I wanted to draw mostly from those six plays. I had more or less the scenes I needed for the first act in my head. Half scenes, full scenes, quarter scenes drawn from those six plays. I put them together. That was the first act. Years later, after those things I talked about–editor, motivation, Pericles, children–I was able to figure out the rest. I had an outline that pulled the scenes apart, and put them back together. Through the whole play, I would guess that there are only five scenes that I totally structured— I did those last. The foundation of Grave came from my knowledge of those six plays. You know that episode of Star Trek where McCoy is given the knowledge on how to operate on Spock’s brain?
AP & DLN, almost simultaneously: Yes.
JR: Just by magic? I feel like that’s what happened; I suddenly had a knowledge of the plays that was way beyond anything I deserved.
AP: As you jumped into the process did you re-read?
JR: I was re-reading as I was working. I kept thinking I had to go back and re-read the biographies. That stuff bored the shit out of me. And the plays, you can read one of those in about an hour. The choice was always clear; the biographies would send me back to the plays. The first draft happened very quickly. The second draft was the hard draft. I had to cut the thing to size. That was when I really had to start digging through plays for lines to extract. I had to streamline scenes, make them more efficient. By the last draft I had a footnoted version, which is available online. I footnoted everything: over 1200 footnotes. If I did something editorially questionable, I cited examples. I tended toward modern words. I took away some of the really strange Elizabethan stuff, but everything I used was in Shakespeare. I was at ease with the material until I was about 90% finished, when I forgot how to do what I was doing. Back to Star Trek: when McCoy was ¾ finished operating on Spock’s brain, the knowledge of the operation, granted to him by the aliens, suddenly evaporated. I was like, Wait a second. What the hell is this? I was terrified when my editor said she had a list of edits. I no longer understood what I was doing. She sent them back to me, I took one glance and called her–this is terrible because usually I’m very good at taking edits and Emily is a brilliant editor–and I said, I’m sorry but your edits are unmetered.
AP: I’m still missing part of this. You had a very specific project in mind. You were collaging text into a new story.
JR: The story just occurred to me. Shakespeare worked with templates for his tragedies. His characters were archetypal. What I did with Shakespeare is what he did with his plays. That’s the reason his plays break apart, I could take a chunk here and a chunk there, because that’s what he was doing—with other writers, with other plays. I fit the piece on his archetypes.
DLN: Do you create rules for yourself as you’re writing? Are you breaking it down and telling yourself, I’ll use this archetype here and This is the smallest unit I can take from Shakespeare to collage?
JR: If I could take a longer chunk I would do it. There were a few scenes that really took a long time, line by line. I was curious how you borrowed. I recognized some things, but I wasn’t really sure.
AP: Usually they were footnoted as if they were odd coincidences. Specifically, like in Edward III there’s a line that turns up in the sonnets. Edward III is published anonymously eight or nine years before the sonnets are published. So I took a line from the sonnets and stuck it in my play with a similar excuse. And the rest were somewhat having fun, lines that were used by writers 150 years later, a line taken from Marlowe because they were possibly hanging together and sharing manuscripts, maybe workshopping it. For the most part, I didn’t take anything else. I went the opposite direction. I read everything. I gave myself six months to read. I read it in one of the proposed chronological orders, trying to get a sense of his development over time. I read the whole thing out loud basically [at the café we are sitting in] getting funny looks from people. Then I started to look at templates. I went through and outlined all the plays very generically. What happens in every act one? What happens in every tragic act one of a certain period? Then I went back and looked at source stuff that he had used to try to get a sense of what he actually had in front of him. What did he get from Hollinshead? What did he get from the work in front of him to produce Henry V? What did he cut or expand? What did he disregard? That was the part that I was most excited about; it was gaining the feeling of a working writer. He’s got something on the desk in front of him. It’s also one of the reasons I hate the anti-Stratfordians so much. He’s not a falconry expert; he’s a guy with a book on falconry. Or he’s a guy who’s talked to a friend of his who’s done falconry work. He’s not a nobleman. He’s a guy who’s met noblemen because of his job.
JR: I think the reasonable stance [Stratfordians v. anti-Stratfordians] is that Shakespeare was collaborating in a way that [Steven] Spielberg might, not to take anything away from Shakespeare. I think there is a pull on either side [of this arguement] to bring things back to the middle and away from this “artist as hero” notion.
AP: I’m totally fine with all that, and I hope that my book has a similar corrective bend to it. I’m projecting on those same 20 facts a guy who, unsurprisingly, resembles me. As people tend to project onto those 20 facts. But a guy like me could have done it. And a guy like me could have found the guys you need to collaborate with, and gone to his friend who runs the bookstore and said, “What do you have on falconry?” A guy like me could have read the relevant passage of Holinshead and imagined a scene that didn’t quite happen in Holinshead. I did all those things so therefore I feel like he could have done all those things. We know he was part of a company. There are tiny details that make me so happy when I find out about them. In the earliest typesetting of some of the plays the character names switches in the typesetting and becomes the name of the actor. The Clown for example–I don’t remember which play it is–but sometimes it says the name of the character, like Touchstone, sometimes it says Clown, and sometimes it says Kemp, the guy in the company. They’re thinking, We’ll give this line to Kemp. Kemp’s good at this kind of stuff. That’s a guy working with his buddies.