Introducing the Play
As first described, in The Repairer Of Reputations:
"When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect."
The play is generally regarded as having been published in 1895, although some claim that it was written earlier and/or based on earlier works. According to the story The 7th Day The Yellow God Rests, the 1895 printing can be recognised by the golden salamander on its cover. It probably consists of two acts (see First Act and Second Act).
Although it is sometimes thought to have been written in French, The Repairer of Reputations states that the play was translated into French, the French government seizing the translated copies that had just arrived in Paris (from where is not stated), after which there was great demand in London to read it. It should be noted that this happened in the alternate timeline of that story, rather than in the history we are used to.
It's also worth noting that at this time in our history many books were banned for similar reasons – although The King In Yellow seems to have garnered a more notorious reputation, presumably because of the terrible imagery of The Second Act but, potentially, because other stories connect the play to outbreaks of madness or tragic events.
The Chambers version of the Play
From the Repairer of Reputations:
"If I had not caught a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished it, but as I stooped to pick it up my eyes became riveted to the open page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing from the hearth and crept shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa, where black stars hang in the heavens, where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon, when the the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali, and my mind will bear forever the memory of the Pallid Mask."
"No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterwards with more awful effect."—Hildred Castaigne
"I only remember the excitement it created and the denunciations from pulpit and press. I believe the author shot himself after bringing forth this monstrosity, didn't he? ...'truths' which send men frantic and blast their lives. I don't care if the thing is, as they say, the very supreme essence of art. It's a crime to have written it, and I for one shall never open its pages."
See The King In Yellow (Reconstructing The Play) for a closer examination of these details.
The author is never named by Chambers. In 'The Repairer of Reputations' it is suggested that the author shot himself after writing it, although Hildred Castaigne believes that he yet lives. Castaigne himself, or another of that name, has also been given as either the author of the play or the person who completed it because it was unfinished by the original author, although this does not appear to have been Chambers' vision.
The following Dramatis Personae are characters from the play, as elaborated from various sources.
- The Child
- The Stranger (The Phantom of Truth?)
- The King In Yellow
Note that only Camilla, Cassilda and The Stranger are actually stated by Chambers to be characters in the play.
The actual contents of the play are only hinted at by Chambers, but a common interpretation has emerged amongst some authors:
The play concerns the final days of the dynasty of a distant world, the arrival of a Stranger to their city, a masked ball and the final disastrous arrival of the King in Yellow. Various authors have given us details of the play and its background, and whilst most of them relate the same details, some seem to be inconsistent with each other. This page attempts to draw together some of the examples of text.
All versions of the story introduce Carcosa as a mysterious city where the King rules (or is perhaps in exile).
For more on the contents on the play as established by Chambers see The King In Yellow (Reconstructing The Play).
It's worth noting that only a few of the 'established' characters, Camilla, Cassilda and The Stranger, are mentioned by Chambers directly, in quoting from the play, although we can see that The King himself is also a prominent figure. Other names are vague references, to either people or places, and these details have been fleshed out by other writers. It appears that the main confusion seems to have been over the definition of who or what the name 'Yhtill' belongs to – and from here the play seems to have diverged into two separate interpretations.
'Hastur' is usually credited as the name of the city the play is set in, although August Derleth in his Cthulhu Mythos stories made it the name of a Great Old One usually credited as being the entity of which The King In Yellow is an avatar. 'Yhtill' is used, depending on the source, either as an alternative name for the central city or as the name of The Stranger (or rather it is the word for 'stranger' as used in the city of Alar). 'Alar' is generally accepted as being a city mentioned in the play, one that is at war with the central city, although on one count the name has been credited to a character.
Irritatingly enough, the divergence seems to have seen a split, into one setting usually followed by established authors, and one setting which has been carved out for the benefit of the games. As the latter continues to gain momentum as a defining element of the Carcosa Mythos, it grows increasingly important to see where the two unite, where they differ, and whether the differences demand two alternative settings or just one elusive whole.
The play The King In Yellow appears, therefore, impossible to pin down as an exact text. Is this due to inconsistencies between the various authors (both those in the real world and in its fictional counterpart)... or might there be something else at work here?
- See Theories - Are There Multiple Copies Of The Play?
- See Theories - Does The Text Of The Play Reflect The Reality Of Carcosa?
Versions of the Play
It is confirmed in-universe that the Play was translated into French (in which it would be known as Le Roi en Jaune). From what is unclear, although it may have been English. Whilst it is possible the 'quotations' given by Robert W. Chambers may have been intended to be 'from the French', i.e. appearing in English in the real book only as a translation convention, it is likely they suggest a full English translation existed within the world of Chambers' stories. Some stories imply that the Play is a meme-like threat that contrives to worm its way into the human mind and be spread, thus spreading into all languages.
- Le Roi en Jaune (French)
- Kralj u Žutom (printed in Zagreb)
- A Kiraly-ban Sarga (printed in Budapest)
- Król w Żółci (Prague/Warsaw)
- Der Konig in Gelb (German copy that circulated immediately before both World Wars)
- Obdredeni clan Krali unutra Zut (Belgrade/Bucharest/Sarajevo/Sofia)
The Call of Cthulhu RPG scenario The King of Shreds And Patches suggests that William Shakespeare helped complete a copy of the play. This is not altogether unlikely, as he was often known to take already existing stories and rewrite them according to his own personal vision.
Existing copies of the Play
Sources vary as to the availability of the Play within the universe of the stories. It is said to have been printed at least once, but the majority of copies were destroyed before they could be circulated. Some stories imply that it is virtually impossible to obtain a copy, whilst others imply that it remains relatively easy to obtain within the right circles, even if illegal and/or frowned upon morally. Some stories indicate that attempts are regularly made (and usually thwarted) to reprint it.
The story In Carcosa, The King has a character state that the last copy of the play in America was burnt by his grandmother at some point before 1990.