Brooklyn Rail: How Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike
published as: Arthur Phillips Stole My Bike in the Brooklyn Rail (where it looks better):
Arthur Phillips (left) and John Reed. Photo by Dustin Luke Nelson.
April 18, 2011.
7:30 a.m. The alarm. Meh meh. Clock radio, but I’m too deaf for music to wake me up; I lost my hearing, or made it go away faster, with 20 years of Judo. I reset the alarm for 7:45 and lie there, in a sand of bliss, knowing that the tide of a long day has just rolled in.
I have to get to 311 Henry Street, Brooklyn Heights. From my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, Google mapped it at 37 minutes, but it will be longer. I don’t want to take the R train, or a taxi, which will run $20 – 25.
The Wednesday before, my computer started melting down. I came home at 8 p.m., knowing I had 20 minutes of work to do, then spent eight hours “fixing” the computer. On Friday, the computer died. As of Monday, I was copacetic, my anarchist tech guy was on the way, and between my office and my wife’s laptop, I was keeping up. E-mails, teaching, and working on Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare (my “directorial debut,” which voice-overs a low-budget horror movie with a new script culled from Shakespeare).
For several months, I’d been going back and forth with Dustin Luke Nelson. Dustin and his wife, Ashleigh Lambert, run the le Poisson Rouge reading series, where I’d read the previous February, as well as maintain the InDigest website. Dustin and I had been struggling to come up with a good idea for his InDialogue series.
Then I got an e-mail, spam, from Arthur Phillips. He had a new book, part of which was similar to my fourth book. In All The World’s A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, I disassembled the works of Shakespeare, and reassembled them, line by line, into a new Shakespeare tragedy. Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, captures her, and returns to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Lear, Juliet’s father, mounts his army. I have a footnoted version on my website: lines, meter, structure, all Shakespeare. Very occasionally, a play may appeal to a bookstore readership. In 2008, taking the prescribed course for such a work, Penguin released Grave through Plume.
Phillips’s 2011 book, The Tragedy of Arthur, includes a new play by William Shakespeare. A 200-page fictionalized memoir prefaces the Elizabethan-styled play. Abridged, the length of a short quarto, Phillips’s play mimics one of Shakespeare’s histories.
I first remember meeting Phillips in 2008, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where a Shakespeare troupe read scenes from Grave on one of the outdoor stages. April 25, 2009, at the Center for Independent Publishing’s annual Writer’s Conference, I moderated a talk on “Writing Process”; Phillips was a panelist. He was promoting his novel, This Song is You. My friend Brando remembered Phillips as “the Jeopardy Champion.” Phillips, indeed, had been a winner on the game show.
I e-mailed Dustin, and Dustin said, “Of course,” and I e-mailed Arthur, who said he was aware of my book, and agreed to a talk. That was generous of him; his book was likely to be well-covered. The overlap was incidental.
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
7:45. I get up, and can’t decide what to wear. What does one wear to . . . this? I’d have to be able to teach in it. René Ricard, a flamboyant poet who lived in my mother’s loft when I was a kid, would say: “Wear the most expensive f-ing thing you have!” Advice that makes me look public school. P.S. 41.
7:55. Get stuck on my wife’s computer. Our recording studio for Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare has fallen through. Too late to bike. R train to Brooklyn. Travel time: 47 minutes. I don’t want to take a taxi, and have a creeping feeling that the interview has been called off, though neither Dustin nor Arthur has e-mailed to cancel. Thirty dollars on a taxi to nothing is too awful to contemplate. I can’t decide whether to think of him as Arthur or Phillips.
I grab sunglasses—don’t wear them often—and slip them on in the elevator. I’ve also spritzed myself with cologne. Gray Flannel; I picked the brand 14 years ago, and have gone through 1 1/4 bottles. A woman is pleasant to me in the lobby, and I realize I haven’t made this much of an effort—suit, sunglasses, hair, cologne—in months.
8:15. On the sidewalk. I’m not going to be in Brooklyn Heights by 9:00, not by subway. I don’t want to take a taxi. Since I started getting myself ready for school, second grade, I’ve been telling myself I could be ready in five minutes.
I start down 52nd Street: R train at 49th and Seventh Avenue. On the corner of 10th Avenue: a pair of lost tourists. Mother and daughter. Their map is unfolded.
“You need help?”
“No,” says the mother.
“Where can we rent bicycles?” asks the daughter.
“There are two places nearby,” I say.
I take a closer look at her. Blond, a cross between Siri Hustvedt and Allison. On our one date, Allison made fun of my not knowing what the Twin Cities were. She pressed her fingers, shaped like an L, against my forehead.
“St. Paul?” I ask the daughter.
“Minneapolis,” she answers.
I point. “There’s one on Ninth Avenue between 52nd and 53rd, but the one between 55th and 56th is better.”
“Thank you,” says mom.
Then the daughter asks me how to get to SoHo on a bike, if that’s possible, and I work out the route for them on the map.
I’m not going to get to Brooklyn Heights by 9:00. Forty-seven minutes to Henry Street, and it’s 8:27. If I don’t get lost, I’ll be there at 9:14. Fifteen minutes late. I don’t want to take a taxi; I trudge back to 11th Avenue and hail one.
I tell the cabbie where I’m going, and he brightens up like I’m going to JFK.
Sometimes cabbies get impatient, make a sudden turn when they see a red light. I’m not paying attention, and my guy turns off the highway at 23rd. We hit traffic.
“Mercury is in retrograde,” he explains.
“I know,” I say. People have been telling me for weeks.
9:07. The taxi pulls up. Forty bucks. We’d overshot the address by a block, and I walk back. 9:10. Dustin is there. Phillips isn’t. I order coffee. Self-serve, from a carafe. Phillips shows up at 9:15, wearing sweats, and fuzzy like a yeti.
“Dog hair,” he corrects. “Always.”
He looks like a man who lives in deep isolation. But also like he’s chosen to look that way.
There’s a Baudelaire prose poem that I talk about in my classes:
Baudelaire is on a train, sitting across from a pair of bedraggled beggars. He has a baguette—a poet with day old bread. The beggars watch with hungry eyes. Baudelaire eats down to the stale heel of the bread. He can’t tear the heel, so he tosses it, whole, to the two beggars. One exclaims, “Cake!” and the two beggars claw at the crust, and each other, until there’s nothing left but crumbs.
The three of us, me, Arthur, and Dustin, opt for a table outside—even though I worry it’s too cold. Dustin turns on the tape recorder. I’m freezing. We talk de facto—what gave you the idea blah blah. I have a notepad, and Phillips jokes that I’m better prepared than he is. Grave got okay review attention; I did do a few interviews: Internet, print, radio. As we talk, I get a greasy feeling in my gut, and fight the suspicion that my Q&As are coming out of Phillips.
Mercifully, Phillips asks if I want to go inside. We do, and I refresh my cup at the carafe. We finally stumble onto something we differ on, when Phillips alludes to his hatred of the “anti-Stratfordians.” He cites the common criticism, “those guys just can’t stand the thought that a man of the people could write these plays.” It’s a straw-man argument directed at the Oxfordians, who credit the plays to the Earl of Oxford. There are many candidates in the “authorship question,” which, to my mind, misses the point. Shakespeare worked in a time without the encumbrance of a cult of identity, and without copyright as we know it. People collaborated, and Shakespeare was a head writer/producer who worked with other writers—think today’s Hollywood system. In Shakespeare’s work, there’s bound to be extensive evidence of other writers, because Shakespeare collaborated extensively. Few Shakespeare scholars would disagree, and as for specifics, I pick up the Shakespeare biographies, then put them down and pick up a Shakespeare play. The choice persists: Shakespeare, or mediocre speculation on Shakespeare?
Which leads back to the “authorship question.” The New Historicists have allowed themselves a process of a fortiori speculation. They draw broadly on Shakespeare’s period, and extrapolate. It’s a creative process, narrative non-fiction, and makes for improved reading. But free association, however informed, is not exclusively historical. There are maybe 20 Shakespeare facts that biographers revisit—spinning yarns of threads. The “anti-Stratfordians” arise from the same practice. As if to say: “If you’re going to make things up, so are we.” In and of itself, the “authorship question” is inconsequential to literary history; there is unlikely to ever be sufficient evidence to reconcile the fractals. Rather, the debate is preliminary to a healthy advance in how we think about creativity: the enduring impact of the Shakespeare library is perhaps the greatest argument in the arts that the biography of the creator isn’t that important to the understanding, the appreciation, of the work itself.
Phillips talks about immortality, about how he wants it, and I want it too. The mundanity exhausts me. As a teenager, I told my father’s friend, Charles Munch, that people are sperm—to which he observed I was speaking for myself. I look into Arthur’s face, and he seems so suburban to me, and I remember he’s from Minnesota. He asks if immortality is what I want. I talk about local arts. Shakespeare’s London had a population of 250,000. Global population today: 6.75 billion. One out of five people on Earth speaks English. To seek a line of descent, from the “greats” of the Western arts, is a fantasy—even if there is such a thing as “genius,” which recent science calls into question (“genius” may be common, if not inherent, to the human genome). “Genius” is a facile justification, best suited to marketing and oppressive conservatism.
Phillips talks about his perceived overlap with Shakespeare. A character named Arthur turns up in the King John series. While I worked on Grave, I found similar evidence: “John is the author of all,” from Much Ado About Nothing, etc. Phillips touts a birthday shared with Shakespeare; no record of Shakespeare’s birthday exists, but the celebration is traditionally coupled with St. George’s Day. I mention that I share a birthday with Charles Dickens—something I hate hearing myself say.
It ill beseems this presence to cry aim
To these ill-tuned repetitions.
Some trumpet summon hither to the walls
These men of Angiers: let us hear them speak
Whose title they admit, Arthur’s or John’s.
Phillips and I hesitate to be critical of each other—though I can see he questions my choice to update Elizabethan words. Most of the updates to Grave were minor, spelling, but on occasion I contemporized a word that had evolved. “Porpentine,” for example, was a nearly irresistible indulgence—but since “porcupine” was metrically identical to “porpentine,” and since Shakespeare would have opted for the contemporary term, I yielded to usage. Excepting superficial edits, I upheld the Shakespeare—the poetic logic, the complexity, and the variation in the meter—which is where Phillips made his concessions to readability. His meter is metronomic with very little poetry. His use of Elizabethan words is light garnish, not broth—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
In defense of Phillips’s streamlined narrative, Shakespeare’s histories are less poetic, all that furniture moving, and contemporary productions of Shakespeare are pragmatic distillates, as is Phillips’s play. While Grave is full-length, 27,000 words, the length of Richard III (Hamlet is 32,000 words), I also cut a short version, a “quarto,” honed by readings, smaller productions, and university productions. Even in Shakespeare’s times, a full-length production outside of London was unusual.
That our projects are simultaneously very similar and very different invites inquiry, but we evade confrontation. The major selling point of each book, a new play by William Shakespeare, is identical. The fault line—the big distinction—could be expressed (with assorted prejudices) as fiction vs. literature, realism vs. experimentalism, readability vs. pretension, “slick” fiction vs. “quality” fiction. The division doesn’t always hold, but the logic goes like this: in “commercial” fiction, content follows structure. In short, the story content takes on the structure that best meets the market. An easy example: Harlequin romance novels have formulas, the bodice must be torn off on page 64, etc. The story is fitted to the structure. In “literary,” or “experimental” fiction, structure follows content. The content defines how the story is told. For example, a paragraph about a bee is shaped like a bee. That self-awareness is modernism, post-modernism. Arthur, which adopts post-modern techniques, is nonetheless essentially commercial; Phillips sought the market, readability, and a category that worked (the novel)—and to those ends sacrificed as required. I sought the content first; I sacrificed structure, categories, to write what I thought was the “real thing.”
That political discussion would also betray our cordiality, Phillips and I are left with little to say. Content follows structure = the individual follows society. Structure follows content = society follows the individual. Phillips has produced a Shakespearean play that equates the life of a contemporary author with Shakespeare; it is a justification of today’s writer life, today’s creative life, today’s upper-middle-class life. My intention—to write the anti-war play that Shakespeare, beholden to royalty, couldn’t write—is subversive. An act of subversion with subversive objectives. Perhaps an author can never trust his/her own intentions, but on a conscious level, Grave was my answer to the question: how does one write revolution?
I ask Phillips if, given his title, The Tragedy of Arthur, he considers his play a tragedy, or a history. He knows that I’m thinking it’s a history; Shakespeare’s histories are, as a category, his least compelling oeuvre. Phillips says it’s a history. A moot point, he knows; his book is a novel.
It is assumed by most of us that Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist in the world … But take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare’s own to start with, full of improbable coincidence and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements.
Novelizations of Shakespeare’s plays have been coming out steadily for 200 years. Phillips, with his fictional memoir, avoids the pitfalls. The subject comes up—Chris Adrien’s The Great Night, an update of Midsummer, was released at the same time as Arthur—and Phillips says it’s been done, and I tease him, “Maybe that wouldn’t stop you.” The joke doesn’t come off, but I don’t regret it. Arthur and Dustin ignore me; I know the jibe won’t make the edit.
Phillips offers a startling comment—he thinks his play could have been written by Shakespeare. In his book, his fictionalized persona flirts with the assertion, which I’d assumed was pretense. Phillips repeats himself several times: Arthur could have been written by Shakespeare. He’s serious, the attitude of a forger. In 1796, William Henry Ireland took the same stand, but after one performance of his play Vortigern and Rowena, the jig was up. (The story of William Henry Ireland and his father, Samuel, is the source material for the father/son story in Arthur.)
Phillips, backing away from the mic, asks if I think his play could have been written by Shakespeare.
For meter, Phillips played with word order. The reversal of word order was a hallmark of standard Elizabethan fare—standard bad Elizabethan fare. Shakespeare sought emphasis in alternate word order. While I didn’t see anything out of place in Phillips’s play, the language lacked range. Ren’ Fairs abound; it’s not particularly difficult to indicate an era—but it is difficult to represent an era in the span of its curious complexity. Arthur is faithful to Elizabethan English, but calling it representative would be like calling Dick and Jane representative of 20th-century English.
During the interview, we talked about some of the bad plays—Titus, Timon, Pericles, even the of-dubious origin Edward III—and I can certainly see Phillips taking part in the writing of one of those. Those projects were undoubtedly collaboration—either Shakespeare contributed a few flourishes or an outline, or was possibly Bowdlerized after his draft was completed (the term “Bowdlerized” dates to the 19th century, and Thomas Bowdler’s sanitized productions of Shakespeare).
“I think Arthur could have been a collaboration with Shakespeare,” I say carefully.
Phillips switches up his question, asks if I think Grave could have been written by Shakespeare. I know that my pace is faster than Shakespeare’s and that Grave, even though it’s all Shakespeare and all sounds like Shakespeare, also sounds like me.
“I think it could have been a collaboration with Shakespeare.”
There’s a 5,000-word essay at the end of Grave. Phillips asks why it’s at the end: a criticism. In fact, I had considered putting it in the front. I originally wrote a 15,000-word essay, which I thought to break up into a 5,000-word intro and 10,000-word outro. Wanting to emphasize the play, I trimmed the essay and relegated it to the back; Phillips put the essay in the front, and wrote more like 40,000 words. A different gear ratio.
The interview ends with the “what are you working on now?” question. Mixed Martial Arts comes up. What a loser I am, but I ask that Dustin turn the mic back on. I have a notion for writing a narrative history of the new fight game—I did that stuff for 20 years. It’s a book that I don’t think has been written, and there’s an obvious social relevance—it’s a borderless, raceless sport, which integrated the world in very much the same way boxing integrated America. I also have a fantasy that Phillips will step into a cage and fight me. Would be fun—we could play it up. Throw down the gauntlet in Elizabethan verse.
A Little Little Grave
When were you a man? Or didst beastly form
infect thy mother’s womb? Part man, in graces,
more dog, in appetite and gross submission.
You are a tame man: go as you would come,
take as you would follow, fat as tame things.
Yet dogs must eat and meat was made for mouths,
and thou, who lovest not this cur, art brother—
a sweet boy ripe in mischief. Play boy, play,
thou art a lesser villain than myself.
‘Tis naught to use thy brothers brotherly,
and I am but a mangy, beggar’s dog,
born to cries aloud, curses, and deep exclaims.
Shouldst thou have thy marble mansion, and I
a little little grave, an obscure grave,
but few odd friends will remember: there lies
two kinsmen digg’d their graves with weeping eyes.
Many a poor man’s son would have lien still
and ne’er have spoke a loving word to you;
ay, you may think my love is crafty love
and call it cunning: do, an’ if you will:
if you must use me ill, why then you must.
I warrant I love you more than you do me,
and curse the birthright that gave you no heart:
to hang your banner on the outward wall;
to stand within the arras and rush forth;
to demonstrate, of lives lifeless, the life
of battle; to laugh a siege to scorn.
Thou art better in thy grave than to answer.
But would you bear your fortune like a man,
yet but young in deed, we would be young again,
both accout’red like young men: the prettier,
braver, your mincing steps turned manly stride,
your reed voice speaking of frays like a fine
braggart—of how you played the flouting jack.
Prince Arthur or Sir John: stranger and stranger.
One better not born, one better-part dead.
Come, go we in procession.
Whose title they admit, Arthur’s or John’s,
‘tis nothing but conceit, some nameless woe
of forefather’s grief, of brother’s excuse.
All little jealousies, which now seem great,
and all great fears, which now import their dangers,
would then be nothing: truths would be tales,
where now half tales be truths.
Come, brother beast,
the sun is high, and we outwear the day.
I stay but for my guidon: to the field!
Let’s fight it out and not stand cavilling thus.
Read here, young Arthur: there’s my gauntlet.
Now I’ll stand back, and let the coffin pass.
As we step outside for a photo, Phillips says he’s been boxing for six years—which I’ve heard—but that he doesn’t spar. I’m guessing he’s saying he won’t fight me.
I ask him if he teaches anywhere, and he acts insulted. I’m teaching three classes at two schools: Fordham and New School. I’m also an occasional at Columbia, and in fall, New York University. I don’t often exceed two classes a semester, but I stepped in at Fordham at the last minute. Years before, I spent some time in Cuba, where teaching is thought of as a human responsibility. Three classes is too many, but how could I not cherish something that makes me a better person? For a moment—just as we cross the street—I hate him. The guy just insulted every Nobel Laureate on Earth.
We part with a hug.
Dustin and I take the subway; Dustin is ambitious, capable, intelligent, and, good God, from Minnesota.
11:20. I get to my office, Crosby Street, which I still have from my glam days before the economic whatever-this-is. I want to find a few hours for my fight game proposal. I also want to look at a couple of scenes from Bikini Bloodbath Shakespeare.
I call a theater director I knew in college. We pick up a conversation from two years back. A reading of Grave: the cast non-white, or largely non-white, like Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus, to disassociate Grave from its sources.
We wonder what happened to our college friends—we’d had big plans for our lives together, but gone our separate ways. Me, to graduate school.
“Oh, wait,” I say, “I know what it was.”
“Yeah. It went down exactly like it was supposed to go down. First, they rip you from your family, put you in school; then they rip you from your community, ship you off to college; then they rip you out of the college community. At every stage in your life, whenever you might forge meaningful relationships with people, they make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Who is they?”
“You know who ‘they’ are.”
“What did Columbia do for you anyway?”
“I don’t know—kept me from being a danger to society.”
“I mean, it helped a little. People who went to Harvard don’t act like I’m a peasant.”
Then I call Clove Breuer, who’s in the city for a few days. She was my closest friend at Friends Seminary, the private school I went to after P.S. 41. Her parents: downtown theater people. My parents: downtown artists. She went to Brown, where I was admitted on transfer (after a year at Tulane). Probably unwise, I opted for Hampshire.
I tell Clove what happened; I sound like a child.
“Who is he?” she asks. I tell her, but she’s never heard of him.
“The Jeopardy guy—he won Jeopardy,” I clarify. She still doesn’t know who I’m talking about.
“He went to Harvard, then bummed around Prague, where he wrote a novel, Prague,” I say, but that doesn’t help, and I start to apologize for mentioning it all.
“At Harvard, they train people to do that.”
She’s saying that Harvard trains people to commercialize ideas.
Clove has some possible contacts for me on a reading, and she asks, “What do you want?”
“Out of a reading, or life?”
“Life, I guess.”
I don’t know what I want. “I want to run through the street, screaming, ‘The king is dead!’”
Clove invites me to a benefit for the theater company her parents founded, Mabou Mines. It starts at 8:00, Paula Cooper Gallery, Chelsea.
I get my few hours of work done.
2:20. Five minutes to spare.
I see I have a reply from a friend I e-mailed the night before. She has the same last name as the professor I replaced at Fordham. The professor, a writer and Shakespeare scholar, had passed away suddenly, and at her memorial service I noted a resemblance. My friend agreed, there was a resemblance, and yes, both families hailed from the middle of the country. She wasn’t aware of a relation, but she couldn’t be certain—typical of Mercury in retrograde, she wrote.
I race out of the office, now five minutes late. I do some reading on the train. The class is a good group, but shell-shocked by the loss of their professor. Today, they read work aloud, game show style, and elect winners to represent the class at the undergraduate reading later that night. The game-show doesn’t elicit the hysteria it did in the fall semester, but we choose representatives.
5:15. Class ends. I hang around, talking to students.
5:45. I race home, eight blocks and a few avenues. I have to be back at Fordham at 7:00 for the reading.
When I walk in the door, I’m starving. I see a tub of steak on the counter. The kids are running around. My wife is at her computer, and on the phone. I don’t know when they could have made the steak. Maybe lunch? My wife is busy with her call, and I move for the tub. She looks up, nods vigorously, points to the steak, and turns back to her laptop. I can see the steak is heavily spiced, Italian medley kind of thing, even though it isn’t aromatic. I peel off the lid and select a patty of meat. It’s squishy, been refrigerated. Big bite. A sponge. Not steak. I’m gagging in the sink. My wife is looking at me, having forgotten her call—she hurries to the bedroom, not to be distracted. The kids have appeared; they stand in the kitchen, watching me with their lemur eyes. I’m retching and rinsing out my mouth. When I turn around, they’re still there.
“What was that?” I ask.
“The mold experiment,” says my daughter, six-and-a-half.
“The mold experiment?”
“Yeah,” says my son, four.
“When did you start that?”
“A long time ago,” says my daughter.
“What did it taste like?” asks my son.
“Uh,” words elude me, “not good.”
The children wait for a better answer.
“It tasted not good, with soap,” I say.
“There was soap in there,” says my son.
My daughter explains, “We wanted to see what it would do to the mold.”
The pair reports that I didn’t bite into a sponge, but a dinner roll, which I’m instructed to return to the glass tub.
That morning, my taxi driver had told me about his seven children. I marveled that he’d managed seven; he assured me that it wasn’t the same where he was from. Back in his village in Pakistan, his kids would roam “like pets.” Everyone in the village knew everyone else, and the kids would drift from uncle to aunt to cousin, often for days at a time. In Western culture we tend to assume that people without money are poor. The process of drawing people into capitalism, stripping them of their land and family so that they’re dependent on work and government, is the fundamental impoverishment. My wife and I are homeschooling our two children; American society is not set up for that. Far too often, I leave her alone for “the bedtime ritual.”
6:50. After dinner, all from scratch, I grab my bike and head back to Fordham. The best thing about the bike, which I picked up off Craigslist, is the gigantic basket. The fruit lady gave it to me and the kids.
The reading is a challenge for me acoustically, but I get through, laughing with the students. I finally get a chance to chat with Willie Perdomo, a poet I admire. He went to my high school, Friends Seminary, where he briefly dated Clove.
8:40. The reading lets out, I hurry down for my bike; I can ride to Chelsea, drop into Clove’s thing, and be home not-too-late. My bike isn’t where I locked it.
The equation of Arthur—Shakespeare = a contemporary writer living in Brooklyn—perpetuates the fallacy of Shakespeare as a lone author, and the arrogance of a Bed, Bath & Beyond demographic. The argument, hostile to the arts, is that creativity falls outside community and economics (in reality, Shakespeare and his accomplishments came of a collaborative community, and the coffers of the Queen). But I can’t imagine an artist consciously driven to make him/herself bigger by making the rest of us smaller; I can’t imagine such a need, such a void. That Phillips’s book is assimilative propaganda is dispiriting, not evidential. Something’s in the air, a few people come up with an idea. Happens all the time. And yet, I think, here it is: Arthur Phillips stole my bike.
8:55. I run into my house and grab my skateboard. Skate down to Chelsea. Wrong kind of board for a long ride, so it’s slow going. The Minnesota tourists pass me on their way back from SoHo. We wave.
9:30. I arrive at the event, asking if Lee Breuer (Clove’s father) is around, I have a book for him to sign, but he’s in Europe: getting video-conferenced in.
I talk to people I’ve known my whole life: theater people. Gay men still fabulous, hard-edged artists, earth-mother producers. I can’t shut up about the Phillips thing; they’re patient. A few “famous” downtown people are there, people I’ve been seeing at events like this since I was four. There can be something terribly sad about talking with them, about the monstrosity that puts distance between us, and/or the monstrosity that makes me remember them too well.
In Grave, I count four major influences. First: Lee Breuer’s production of The Gospel at Colonus (performed in 1985). Second and third: Ruth Maleczech (Clove’s mother) as Lear in another Mabou Mines production, 1990; the performance of an actor, whose name I don’t know, who played Iago in a 1992 summer production in Maine. Fourth, one of those famous downtown people: he encouraged me after I had written the first act of Grave, when I was a junior in college, and then he turned up again, years later, when I had written the second and third acts. He pointed out that the work was, as much as art can be any one thing, an expression of radicalism. That Grave was without category, my primary market concern, was an unavoidable structural conclusion.
Lute, Clove’s baby brother, is mid-30s now. He walks in through the gallery doors, with his daughter in his arms. She’s slightly younger than my children, and in her face I see so much of Lute, of Clove, of their parents, and of my own life that tears fill my eyes. Weirdly pathetic, but I’m so overcome with emotion I can barely speak. The child, exhausted, flumps over Lute’s shoulder as he carries her to the car service. Her child eyes watch me.
After the benefit, there’s dancing. My preferred cocktail appears—one of my fab uncles. I dance with Clove and Caitlin, the first girl I seriously made out with. Seventh grade. The DJ mixes in ’80s songs for us: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” and “Born To Be Alive.” Caitlin and I bust couple moves we came up with for the school dance contest.
I have to get home. I grab my skateboard. Clove walks me out. She’s about to tell me that Mercury is in retrograde, so I tell her I know. She says she was going to tell me it hasn’t been in retrograde for a week.
I step onto the sidewalk, not looking forward to skateboarding uptown. A car pulls up. A taxi. Another 10 bucks if I take it. Fifty dollars on taxis in one day. I can’t bear it. I glance at my watch, 11:22, and climb in. The driver pulls away. I look out the back window: a couple of tourists are running after the taxi, trying to wave it down. I feel like a bougie pig, and sink low in the seat. The cab hurdles up the avenue, a straight shot through Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen to my apartment. I pull out my hearing aids. Silence. It’s a city of kindred spirits and ghosts, and in the pale orange of the streetlamps, I sense the laughter, all the laughter, of humor, hubris, and honor.
* Ed.’s note: The Brooklyn Rail is not accusing Arthur Phillips of stealing property.