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June 10, 2011 10:03 pm

Recurring dream

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The Great Night, by Chris Adrian, Granta, RRP£16.99, 304 pages

The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips, Random House, RRP$26, 384 pages

 

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,” says Theseus, close to the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/More than cool reason ever comprehends.” The Great Night by Chris Adrian and The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips are novels written by lovers of Shakespeare. They take his plays as starting points for their own eccentric inventions. The madness that results shows us something more about the plays – and perhaps about ourselves – than any coolly sober literary criticism could ever comprehend.

In The Great Night we are in San Francisco a year or two ago but otherwise all is the same as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is the shortest night of the year and there has been upset in the fairy kingdom; Titania and Oberon are at odds, and Puck is on the loose. Elsewhere, young lovers run in confusion through a park and a chaotic group of homeless people tries to stage a performance. Adrian has perfectly captured the weirdness of the play, the half-understood tone of what he calls “dreamy undream”.

This wonderful novel is much more than a simple adaptation. Adrian emphasises some parts of the play – he makes Puck, for example, far more sinister than Shakespeare wrote him – and draws out one particular strand that is just beneath Shakespeare’s version. In Adrian’s hands this is a play about grief.

The saddest and most lovely scenes of this sad and lovely book are those in which the fairy queen waits in a San Francisco hospital. Her child is sick, and her magic cannot save him; she can only understand his chemotherapy as “distillations of sadness and heartbreak and despair”. Heartbreak too waits behind the experiences of the young lovers Henry, Molly and Will. “I cannot straighten the paths you make crooked with your dreams,” one of the fairies tells one of the mortals, and this is what Adrian has taken most powerfully from the play: the sad knowledge that heartbreak and love are necessary transformations, ones we need but cannot control.

 

The Tragedy of Arthur opens with a perfectly dry scholarly preface, announcing, with an academic absence of enthusiasm, “the first modern edition” of a play by Shakespeare. There are acknowledgements to colleagues in the field but then the introduction begins: “I have never much liked Shakespeare.” What follows is a story pitched at this moment of collision between the proper study of the plays of Shakespeare and the tastes of one individual.

The introduction is a memoir by a novelist called Arthur Phillips about his charming forger father, who had the same name. One night years before, the memoir recounts, Phillips senior was reading to his twin children from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, inspired by its fairies, the three went out and faked crop circles in a Midwestern field. “This was now positively exalting, the opposite of daily life,” recalls Phillips the novelist son. “It was work but it felt like something higher.”

Not all responses to great literature take the form of a high school essay; the father here may or may not have forged a Shakespeare play as a gift to his children.

A play that looks like one by Shakespeare then follows the introduction, and as a work on its own it is both very good and just slightly wrong. Phillips captures Shakespeare’s sense of humour perfectly and the way characters mark the passing of time (here, as in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, a minor character makes reference to births and deaths). If at times this new Shakespeare play does not sound quite right, that hardly diminishes the ambition of this bold novel as a whole. In the loveliest line in the play, King Arthur says: “I am no author of my history.”

For Adrian and Phillips, literary imagination begins with Shakespeare and they show that we are most original when most derivative.

Daniel Swift is assistant professor of English literature at Skidmore College, New York and author of ‘Bomber County’ (Penguin)

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