"In Bed" with Arthur Phillips

Posted by Goodreads on April 4, 2011
Momentous historic discovery or brazen literary hoax? The Tragedy of Arthur begins with a 200-page "memoir" by Arthur Phillips and presents the full text of a five-act play handed down by his charismatic con artist father. The play, titled The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain by William Shakespeare, is written in the bard's characteristic iambic pentameter and could be a previously unpublished quarto, the first candidate found since the 17th century. Phillips, a critically acclaimed novelist known for Prague and The Song Is You, "never much liked Shakespeare" and insists that readers carefully consider the authenticity of this work. To mark the occasion, he offers five great literary examples (both plays and novels) that feature a clever play within them.

NOVEL: An Evening of Long Goodbyes by Paul Murray
"This very funny debut novel from the author of Skippy Dies contains the opening scenes of the play There's Bosnians in My Attic!, as written by a young Englishman who discovers that there are. The play breaks down rapidly, unfortunately, and we don't get more than a few pages of it. A pity, as it opens with great promise: 20th-century peasants revolting after hearing of a new EU agricultural policy."

PLAY: The Play at the Castle by Ferenc Molnár
"Molnár, a Hungarian, is best known in the U.S. for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, which was based on his play, Liliom. But it is The Play at the Castle that should be staged and filmed again and again. In this ingenious farce, when an embarrassing conversation is overheard with catastrophic consequences certain to follow, Turai the playwright leaps in to save the day (how rarely are playwrights called in for heroics!). Thinking quickly, he writes a play casting the entire overheard conversation as dialogue. The play is then performed (Act III) for the original eavesdroppers, not flawlessly but in the nick of time." To give you an idea of how funny it is, two men have adapted it for English theater: P.G. Wodehouse (as The Play's the Thing) and Tom Stoppard (as Rough Crossing).

PLAY: The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard
"The curtain rises on a scene, which we only later learn was a play, a play that (in the rest of our play) reverberates through the lives of the actors and playwright who produced it. Stoppard's creation is a work of art in which we can watch life imitating art. Dizzying and beautiful and intelligent and heartbreaking. (That's why he's my hero!)"

PLAY: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
"Chances are that you haven't seen the whole thing, because most modern productions cut the so-called 'Induction' to this play, but in its full version, Shrew opens with an odd scene. A drunkard, waking from a bender, is fooled into believing he is an aristocrat and that a play is being put on for his entertainment and at his command. He proceeds to watch (as we do) the play that most of us know as The Taming of the Shrew. The drunkard comments on the action a few times before he is apparently forgotten by the playwright or playwrights (as at that early date, somewhere between 1589 and 1592, Shakespeare was likely still a junior collaborator). By the end of Shrew, the Induction is long abandoned and the drunkard's predicament left unresolved. Shrew is unique in this group for having a forgettable, even disposable, framing device, while the entertainment-within-the-entertainment lives on. That said, the Induction still inspires imitators (see Eddie Murphy's film Trading Places)."

NOVEL: Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis
"Shakespeare's Induction to Shrew was also undoubtedly much on the mind of Nigel Dennis when he began this brilliant and hilarious 1955 novel. In its first few pages, a con artist with aristocratic ambitions is fooled into believing he is a butler with a sinful past as a drunken sailor. He is quickly joined by other locals, all brainwashed into domestic service by the evil-genius psychiatrists who have taken over a country house in order to hold their annual conference about theories of identity. In the middle of the proceedings, the thoroughly confused maids and gardeners and footmen write and perform a brief but complete Shakespearean romance, The Prince of Antioch. This insane and unjustifiably obscure novel has been the highlight of my reading in the last year. It was recommended to me by Ed Park, author of Personal Days, and I in turn am now telling everyone I know to give it a try."

Vote for your own favorites on Listopia: Plays Within Plays, Novels, and Other Works

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