Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance – Goldin and Kutarna

2016, St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages

Back Blurb

Two award-winning Oxford scholars redefine the present day as a new Renaissance–a rare moment of flourishing genius and risk that promises to reshape all our lives. Da Vinci, Columbus, Copernicus, Luther, Gutenberg. These names recall an era in which an unprecedented rush of discovery and disruption broke through long-standing barriers and broke down equally long-standing powers. This rush entangled the whole world politically, economically and intellectually, and reshaped society. Now, the same forces that converged 500 years ago to spark genius and upend social order–great leaps in science, trade, migration, technology, education and health–are once again present, only stronger and more widespread.

In Age of Discovery, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna show how we can draw courage and wisdom from the last Renaissance in order to fashion our own golden age out of this New Renaissance. Whether we’re seized by Gutenberg or Zuckerberg; the discovery of the Americas or the rise of China; copperplate or silicon etching; the Bonfire of the Vanities or the rise of ISIS; the spread of syphilis or the Ebola pandemic–a Renaissance moment dares humanity to give its best just when the stakes are highest.

Age of Discovery navigates the crises of our time and helps us all define a legacy that the world will still remember half a millennium from now.

Author Blurbs

Ian Goldin is a Professor of Globalization and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. He was Vice President of the World Bank, Chief Executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa and an adviser to President Nelson Mandela.

Chris Kutarna is a Fellow at the Oxford Martin School and an expert on international politics and economics. He was a strategy consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and continues to advise senior executives in Asia, North America and Europe.

The New Renaissance

The first thing that caught my eye wasn’t the Goldin and Kutarna’s exciting thesis that we live in a New Renaissance, but rather, that a book from two Oxford academics would eschew the Oxford comma. This I noticed in the author blurb (see author blurb on Kutarana above): “He was a strategy consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and continues to advise senior executives in Asia, North America and Europe.” Notice no Oxford comma between “North America and Europe.” But if you look at the text inside the book, sometimes the hallowed Oxford comma is there, and sometimes not!–for example, page 129 reads:

Entrepreneurs have made a synthetic version with processes borrowed from the semiconductor industry, and as they tweak it, “gecko tape” will find uses in defense (all-terrain robots), manufacturing (replacing many screws, rivets and glues), and even athletics (fumble-free gloves for American football players).

In this passage, notice no Oxford comma between “rivets and glues” but an Oxford comma is there between “defense, and even athletics.” And then there is also a new device of what I guess can be called the “Oxford semicolon” to separate a list of items. This from page 166:

Chapter Two touched on how the same infrastructure, networks and investments that connect us also make it easier to coordinate crime and violence; disseminate hate; train up would-up hackers, fraudsters and bombers; and trade every illicit good from drugs to fake IDs to child slaves.

So there is a semicolon separating “bombers; and trade every illicit good.” But now compare this passage with the book blurb (printed in its entirety above):

Whether we’re seized by Gutenberg or Zuckerberg; the discovery of the Americas or the rise of China; copperplate or silicon etching; the Bonfire of the Vanities or the rise of ISIS; the spread of syphilis or the Ebola pandemic–a Renaissance moment dares humanity to give its best just when the stakes are highest.

Notice no “Oxford semicolon” separating “syphilis or the Ebola pandemic.” And then, going back to the Oxford comma, notice in the quote from page 166 (above) that there is no Oxford comma between “networks and investments.”

So it appears that the writer of the author blurbs and the book blurb (who doesn’t use the Oxford comma and the so-called “Oxford semicolon”) must be different than the book writers, who do use the Oxford comma and the so-called “Oxford semicolon.” But then again, inside the text of the book itself, sometimes you find the Oxford comma and sometimes you don’t. Is this because the book has two writers, Goldin and Kutarna? That’s one possibility. But the problem with that hypothesis is that even in the same passage (for example the passage quoted from page 129) it’s inconsistent. This inconsistency I found rather interesting and almost added to the pleasure of reading the book.

Great Quotes!

Chapter 9 kicks off with a great quote that’s traditionally attributed to Michelangelo:

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.

Hard to resist a chuckle on reading that. I don’t know enough about Michelangelo to conjecture whether he would have said that, but I do know that painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel was a debilitating exercise for him. I’d like to believe he said that, as it shows that he had a sense of humour.

For everyone wondering whether we live in an age of unprecedented manufactured risks, here’s a powerful quote from page 4:

Scientists alive today outnumber all scientists who ever lived up to 1980.

Scientists push the envelope. And when they push the envelope, sometimes unintended consequences result. So, it stands that, if there’s more scientists alive today poking the bear than there ever have been in human history, something is going to happen. And that ‘something’ is likely going to be something unexpected.

The Unexpected

Now, my favourite topic: the unexpected. Goldin and Kutarna have written a great book comparing our age to the Renaissance. For example, the Renaissance had Gutenberg. We have the internet. The Renaissance had Columbus sailing to the New World. We have globalization. I like that. Of course, I also wonder whether Goldin and Kutarna could have made a similar argument for any thirty or fifty year period since, say, 1800. It seems that the pace of human development has really picked up steam since the Industrial Revolution.

But, getting back to the unexpected. Goldin and Kutarna identify possible dangers to our modern-day Renaissance: bioterror epidemics, the rise of ISIS and other fringe movements, inequality, and climate change, to name a few. But really, what age in the past has been brought down or cut short by what it had seen coming? Look, for example, at the Great Depression. In the Roaring Twenties, the last thing the prognosticators were predicting was a Great Depression. The stock market, to the pundits of the time (including famed Yale economist Irving) “had reached a permanent high plateau.” Almost immediately after Irving said that, the stock market collapsed. The dangers that we can see coming we will work around. I call that human ingenuity. It is what we don’t know that will hurt us. Or, in other words, unexpected events.

I’ll leave you with that thought. Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

 

The Kingfisher, or the Defining Moment

A few months ago, I moved from downtown Victoria to View Royal. It’s about twenty minutes from downtown. The new place is a condo unit on the Esquimalt Harbour, high bank waterfront. It’s set back about 50′ from the water’s edge and 30′ up. There’s a trail along the harbour complete with tsunami warning signs of a walker being swept out into sea. I call this place the “global warming villa” because, soon, instead of high bank, it’s going to be low bank waterfront. But there’s some time. The City of Victoria is projecting water levels to rise just over a centimetre each year. So at 1.5 cm/year, it’s going to be six centuries before it’s low bank waterfront. I don’t know if I’ll be around that long. But, while I’m around, it’s interesting to watch all the natural patterns that happen around here.

The most interesting thing about this place is watching nature’s cycles. The Esquimalt Harbour, towards the end, is a big mud flat. And, since the global warming villa is right at the end of the harbour, you really notice the tides. At full flood, the water comes, well, within 50′ of the building. At it’s ebb, it goes out a hundred feet and all that’s left of the harbour is a ten foot stream. As you can gather, the water’s not very deep. In fact, there’s an island maybe a thousand feet out: Cole Island. When this area used to be an artillery fortress (Fort Rodd Hill is close by), the munitions would be stored on Cole Island. The local residents say that the water’s shallow enough that they’ve seen intrepid individuals walk out there. Past Cole Island the water gets much deeper. So the first of nature’s cycles you see is the ebb and flow of the tides: at any given time, you never know if you’ll see the sparkling sheen on the water or the brown flats of mud.

Now there’s also the action of the tide coming in and out itself. Sometimes the tide comes in and its hungry. If the wind’s blowing, you can get up to 6″ waves. It actually looks quite aggressive. And then there’s the wildlife. In March, when I was first out here, it was the herons. What a patient bird! The water’s shallow enough that they can walk around. And then they wait. For a long time. For fish perhaps? They’re an awkward flier, which also makes them an interesting specimen for observation. Big wing span. Not very gracious. But their patience has won me over. It’s August now, and they’ve all left, which has bummed me out. Maybe they’ll be back next year? There’s eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, and a bevy of other animals. I see raccoons venturing out into the mud flats by day, which is strange: aren’t they supposed to be nocturnal? And the swans, I am told, when their haunts around Royal Roads University (a couple of kilometres away) become overcrowded, will come up my way. But of all the creatures, nothing has captured my imagination like the herons. Until now.

The other day, I saw this bird dart out of the trees. A smallish bird, maybe a bit bigger than my fist. It hovered for about five seconds maybe twenty-five or thirty feet above the water. It didn’t hover stationary like a hummingbird, but it hovered in these five seconds within a one cubic foot space. As it zigged and zagged within this cube, you could tell from the beating of its wings that it was going all out. And then it dove headfirst, vertically into the water where it plucked out something out. And then it beelined back into the trees. What a sight, especially the precipitous vertical dive! It turns out that this fascinating little bird is a kingfisher.

It strikes me that when this kingfisher hovers and dives headlong, it fulfils its purpose. The moment must be perfect as it strives with every nerve and every muscle to plunge into the bullseye on the water’s surface. This is its defining moment where all of its powers are concentrated on one aim and goal. This is its apotheosis, if such a thing can be said. And then an interesting and important question occurred to me: what is our equivalent of the kingfisher’s moment?

What is our defining moment? Is it a feeling like the one the Pixies describe in their cover of Head On?

As soon as I get my head around you

I come around catching sparks off you

I get an electric shock from you

This secondhand living just won’t do

And the way I feel tonight

I could die and I wouldn’t mind

And there’s something going on inside

Makes you want to feel

Makes you want to try

Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky.

Have you ever felt like blowing the stars out of the sky? That’s a great great line. Even better is the supporting line: “I could die and I wouldn’t mind.” Is this what the kingfisher feels?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment lecturing before a great crowd? They’ve come to hear you, what you have to say. Their attention’s rapt and you are nervous. But as you start talking, you can feel your initial smallness grow into a larger room filling presence. That’s a sort of triumph.

Or is the kingfisher’s moment like the moment when the master sleuth Hercule Poirot exposes the murderer?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment the same as when a prize-fighter drops an adversary onto the hard canvas?

But it seems there’s one big difference between ourselves and the kingfisher. For us to define ourselves, for us to reach that culminating moment where all of our powers are concentrated on one aim, we have to pay the price. In “Death on the Nile,” Poirot sums it up well as he converses with Jacqueline on a listless evening aboard the steamer:

Jacqueline: Ah, well, one must follow one’s star.

Poirot: Love is not everything.

Jacqueline: Oh, but it is. It is. You must know that Monsieur Poirot. Surely you understand?

Poirot: It is terrible, Mademoiselle, all that I have missed in life.

But is the opposite not true of the kingfisher?–to make the dive involves no sacrifice. Rather, not to make the dive incurs a sacrifice, as perhaps a meal is lost. That’s the difference between us and the kingfisher, and thereby hangs a tale.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates – Bloom

2012, Prometheus Books, 708 pages

Back Blurb

How does the cosmos do something it has long been thought only gods could achieve? How does an inanimate universe generate stunning new forms and unbelievable new powers without a creator? How does the cosmos create? That’s the central question of The God Problem.

In The God Problem, you’ll take a scientific expedition into the secret heart of a cosmos you’ve never seen. Not just any cosmos. An electrifyingly inventive cosmos. An obsessive-compulsive cosmos. A driven, ambitious cosmos. A cosmos of colossal shocks. A cosmos of screaming, stunning surprise. A cosmos that breaks five of science’s most sacred laws. Yes, five.

And you’ll be rewarded with author Howard Bloom’s provocative new theory of the beginning, middle, and end of the universe–the Bloom toroidal model, also known as the big bagel theory–which explains two of the biggest mysteries in physics: dark energy and why, if antimatter and matter are created in equal amounts, there is so little antimatter in this universe.

Author Blurb

Howard Bloom has been called “the Darwin, Newton, Einstein, and Freud of the twenty-first century” and “the next Stephen Hawking.” He is the author of The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of CapitalismGlobal Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century; and The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History.

Tragedy and Decay, Comedy and Creativity

I’m very interested in how nature creates order from chaos. For instance, it’s not immediately obvious why, when carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen come together, they’ll link themselves into amino acids. These amino acids in turn will become proteins, the building blocks of life. Then life itself–from plant to reptile to mammal–evolves towards ever higher levels of consciousness. My dog for example, lacks the consciousness to understand the reflection is an image of herself. Sometimes she tries to play with her reflection. Other times, she goes after her reflection as though it were a rival dog. But I have the consciousness to understand a reflection is a reflection. And I’m higher up evolution than my dog. To be sure, Darwin’s process of natural selection explains why evolution happens. But, as Darwin himself was aware, natural selection cannot explain why mutations should happen in the first place that drives life higher, towards more complexity. Darwin could not explain it, nor could anyone else, for that matter. Bloom has a great quote from the physicist Paul Davies, who sums up the problem in these words:

The central issue … is whether the surprising–one might even say unreasonable–propensity for matter and energy to self-organize “against the odds” can be explained using the known laws of physics, or whether completely new fundamental principles are required. In practice, attempts to explain complexity and self-organization using the basic laws of physics have met with little success.

The enigma of order from chaos goes beyond life. It’s everywhere. Look at a beautiful and complex structure such as the arms of the Milky Way galaxy. Gravity can explain the motions of each of its constituent stars. But it can’t explain why, in the vastness of space, galaxies–local pocket of order–should have arisen in the first place. According to the conventional rules of physics, things should be more spread out, more diffuse. And what is this conventional rule, you ask?–well, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Here’s the definition of the Second Law from the Libretexts site:

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time. The second law also states that the changes in the entropy in the universe can never be negative. Why is it that when you leave an ice cube at room temperature, it begins to melt? Why do we get older and never younger? And, why is it whenever rooms are cleaned, they become messy again in the future? Certain things happen in one direction and not the other, this is called the “arrow of time” and it encompasses every area of science. The thermodynamic arrow of time (entropy) is the measurement of disorder within a system. Denoted as delta S, the change of entropy suggests that time is asymmetric with respect to order of an isolated system, meaning: a system will become more disordered, as time increases.

So, there appear to be two powers in everlasting opposition. First, there’s the Second Law. It’s the destroyer. Systems begin in highly ordered states. As high grade energy dissipates into heat, entropy increases until the point where nothing is possible anymore and the system suffers a heat death. It’s an ironclad law. Then, there’s this power that creates order from chaos. It’s nameless. We’re not sure how complexity spontaneously arises. But we can see it happening everywhere. And, worse of all, it seems to defy the Second Law. And this perceived contravention of the Second Law is really one of the great holes in twenty-first century science. Bloom’s book tries to fill in this gap.

The God Problem

Bloom begins by inviting the reader to be Bloom. He tells his story from childhood through the second person ‘you’. For example, when Bloom was a kid, he says he wasn’t very good at many things. But he was persistent. Since you are him (for the duration of the book), the book reads ‘you were persistent, and that’s how you discovered corollary generator theory’. What’s corollary generator theory? That’s one of his key terms for how the universe creates complexity: corollary generation is the process of unpacking implicit properties from axioms.

For Bloom, it all begins with the axiom. For example, it could be axiomatic that parallel lines never meet. Or it could be axiomatic that parallel lines meet in the far distance. After the axiom comes the process of unpacking the properties of the axiom, or corollary generator theory, as he calls it. If parallel lines never meet, the consequence is that space is flat. If parallel lines do meet, however, the consequence is that space is hyperbolic, curved like a saddle. So depending on the axiom, different ‘big pictures’ are possible. Yes, Bloom like coining terms.

So, what do axioms have to do with nature’s creativity? It turns out, that with a handful of simple axioms, complex structures are possible. Bloom’s search for how simple rules can produce complex structures leads him to the termite mound. Termite mounds can be built up to 13 metres and are amazingly complex structures. These structures come with a natural air conditioning mechanism that keeps the interior temperature constant. They are one of the wonders of the insect world. How are they built? They are built on a simple rule: when a termite runs across a termite dropping, it picks it up and puts it on top of the tallest pile of droppings in that area. So out of quite a simple rule, complexity is possible. The question Bloom wonders is: what if the universe is like that?–out of a handful of axioms, nature creates fascinating and complex structures.

‘The God problem’ to Bloom is a question of perspective: the natural world looks so complex, it must have been created by a higher power. But, if he is right, and complexity arises spontaneously through a handful of simple axioms, then God is no longer a necessary hypothesis. This serves Bloom well, who is a raging atheist. He points to John Conway’s Game of LIfe, Mandelbrot sets, and Wolfram’s computer simulations as proof that simple sets of rules can generate unpredictable and complex structures, and, with his proof, he asks whether the universe is like the Game of Life.

The God Problem reads like a history of science from Babylonian up to modern times. What Bloom does is he reinterprets scientific discoveries from ancient to modern times through the axiom (simple, basic assumption), corollary generator theory (unpacking the axiom), emergent property (the unexpected result of unpacking the axiom), and the new big picture (fundamental shift in understanding). For example, one axiom might be: what if the speed of light is a universal constant? Then you might use this assumption to ask how light and matter are intertwined. The emergent property would be E=mc squared, or energy equals mass * the speed of light. The new big picture would then be that matter and energy are related: you could make a nuclear bomb, for example. So while the nuclear bomb is quite complex, the idea behind it, the idea that light is a universal constant, is quite simple. So, the end result is that, even though the world appears to be quite complicated, this complexity might be based on simplicity. You just have to find the simplicity.

I enjoyed reading about the history of scientific discoveries through Bloom’s viewpoint. What I enjoyed less was his appeal to authority. Often he would say: this scientist won x, y, and z awards, so she’s very smart and therefore you should believe her. It smacked of someone saying: “Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize in literature so you should listen to his music.” No, you should listen to his music because he rules. There are some unusual editorial conventions. Whenever he mentions a trade name, the copyright symbol (the little c with a circle around it) appears. So if he mentions iPhone, the iPhone is followed by a copyright symbol. His use of quotation marks is interesting too. Consider this example:

“Discussed” is a very mild word for what these men did. They were , says Proclus “renowned” for their “studies.” So renowned that Plato mentioned them as his “rivals.”

Are all the quotation marks necessary?–maybe the ones around discussed. But surely not around studies and rivals. These are all minor points, of course, but its amazing how jarring such little details are on a reader. My own book is going to the press soon so these little types of details catch my eye.

My major criticism of The God Problem is how the book promises too much. The inside cover, for example, compares Bloom to Einstein, Hawking, Newton, and Freud. I purchased the book believing this. And the book also promises the reader that it contains a proof of how the Second Law of thermodynamics is plain wrong. While it contains lots of example of complexity arising from simplicity, I don’t think it achieves this. And, after reading the book, I conclude that there’s no way Bloom is even remotely close to Einstein, Hawking, Newton, and Freud. It would have been a more satisfying read if the book hadn’t of promised so much. Take Bloom’s “Big Bagel” theory of the universe. It’s right at the end and wraps up the book. The Big Bagel model argues that the universe started from a singularity and is donut shaped. In fourteen or so pages, he explains how it solves the problem of the missing antimatter, the problem of dark matter, and dark flow. He came up with this theory during a brainstorm in 1959. So it’s his theory. But has he published anything on it in a scientific journal? It doesn’t appear like he has. Can he explain why matter went on one side of the donut and antimatter on the other? No. Then he mentions scientists who have published on the donut model in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The work of these scientists lend credence to his big bagel theory. Wow. Especially the part about the theory being ‘his’. I wonder if the scientists who published on the donut model in the 80s, 90s, and 00s give Bloom credit for this model of the universe. I could look, but I doubt it. An interesting and disappointing read.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Risk Theatre Major Milestone – Signed up with Friesen Press

After years of wandering through the lowlands, it seems that the Risk Theatre project these days is travelling from peak to peak! As of July 6, 2018, Friesen Press has been retained to bring the title Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected to the light of day. This, along with inaugurating the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition with Langham Court Theatre earlier this year, is a milestone event in the Risk Theatre project. Good students of the Classics will be familiar with the divide between logos (thought) and ergon (action) or theoria (theory) and praxis (doing). Sometimes–actually most of the time–you have one without the other, and this just doesn’t quite cut it. Now risk theatre fulfils both sides of the dichotomy. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition takes care of the praxis or ergon aspect of the project. And the book: Tragedy is Risk Theatre encapsulates the logos or theoria side of the dichotomy. This is a major milestone and a happy moment.

Friesen Press

I had originally thought that Friesen Press was an independent boutique publishing house. It turns out that they’re owned by Friesens Corporation, a major book printer headquartered in Manitoba, Canada. Friesen Press seems to be the self-publishing arm of Friesens Corporation: the corporation takes care of printing major titles such as the Harry Potter series or the Oxford Dictionary, and the press serves the need of emerging authors.

Friesen Press caters to emerging authors looking to self-publish. The press serves authors looking to self-publish who are looking for support. It’s like a one stop shop that takes care of editing, indexing, book layout, graphics design, distribution, marketing, and you name it. If you wanted, you could subcontract out all these specialities and probably save a few dollars at the cost of some more headaches and legwork. And if you’re interested in getting hands on producing the book, that’s what you’d go for. For example, that’s what Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of a book that I’ve learned a lot from–Early Retirement Extreme–did. He taught himself how to typeset with the LaTeX program, did the illustrations, took care of the promotion, etc., But then again, he’s a sort of Renaissance man who rails against specialization. He likes to do his own renovations, make his own soap, and get hands on. And actually, if I had the time, I’d probably like to go more hands on. But with the part-time plumbing gig, doing the PR for the tragedy competition, and editing the book, it makes sense right now to sign on with a one stop shop.

I did, however, practise some due diligence before signing on. Island Blue Print also caters to self-publishing authors. For a run of 100 books, they quoted $9.76 per unit to print (softcover, 5.5″x8.5″, 270 pages). Friesen’s quote came in a little lower, at $9.25, but this is based on 200 pages of text. It’s hard to tell how many softcover pages the 67,000 words translates into, but both the quotes are in the same ballpark. It was similar with the indexing quotes. Independent indexers were quoting anywhere from $800 – $2000. Friesen’s came in at the mid-range, just over $1400.

In the beginning, I was actually leaning towards Island Blue. That would mean hiring one person to typeset, one person to design the front and back cover, another person to index, getting my on ISBNs, taking charge of publicity and distribution myself, etc., But one thing that I learned quickly was that a lot of these separate trades would have to be on the same page. And there is a sequence to do everything in, a sequence with which I wasn’t very familiar. For example, the book designer that Island Blue recommended likes indexers to embed the index within the Word document. But I quickly found out indexers like to use their specialized indexing software and don’t like embedding indexes in Word. And then there’s the issue of compatibility: what if the book designer has technical issues with converting the embedded Word index into InDesign, the program of her choice? So the more I thought of it, the more it made sense to go to a one stop shop. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about these issues and would be able to focus on reading the proofs, which, the more I think about it, will be an eye busting task.

Friesen’s offers four different publishing paths for authors: Launch, Classic, Signature, and Masterpiece. They’re priced from $1999 – $14,999. I went for the basic Launch package. The more deluxe packages offer more support, multiple rounds of editing, more revision rounds, and better publicity and distribution. Here’s what the $1999 Launch path offers:

    • Hardcover, Softcover, and eBook Editions of Your Book
    • Editor’s Manuscript Evaluation (up to 60,000 words)
    • 2 Member Support Team (including dedicated Account Manager)
    • Up to 70% Royalty
    • 100% Copyright Ownership
    • Non-Exclusive Contracts
    • 3 ISBNs & Barcode
    • Up to 6 Promotional Copies (5 Softcover, 1 Hardcover)
    • Custom Book Cover
    • Custom Interior Layout
    • Black & White or Full Color interior
    • 1 Revision Round
    • Electronic Book Proof
    • 1 Hour Promotional Strategy Consultation
    • Marketing 101 Toolkit
    • 1/8 pg Placement & Summary in the FriesenPress Book Catalogue
    • Print Distribution: available for purchase through over 39,000 booksellers & the FriesenPress Online Bookstore
    • Lifetime eBook Distribution: FriesenPress Online Bookstore, Amazon.com (with ‘Look Inside!’ Submission), Google Play Books (with ‘See Inside’ Submission), and Apple iBooks
    • Digital Rights Management (optional)

The indexing would be an adder number on top of the $1999. So all in all, considering that Friesen’s will also take care of the distribution, it’s a pretty good deal. And, the appealing thing is that you, the author, can maintain control over the availability of the book. If you’re doing an academic title with a traditional press, chances are that they’ll print off a run of 400 copies. Most of them will end up in academic libraries. The title will be in print for five years. And then it’s out of print. If you go the self-publishing route, your title can stay in print for as long as you want it to be in print: you own the rights and have the option of buying the electronic files. This is a very big plus.

The Book Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

Well, it clocks in at just over 67,000 words. A decent sized book considering that a monograph is about 40,000 words and a really big monograph or a smallish book weighs in at 50,000 words. Tragedy is Risk Theatre is made up of an introduction and nine chapters.

The process at Friesen should take between 6-8 months. Things always seem to take a little longer than estimated, so it should hit the shelves at the beginning of 2019. Mark that date on your calendar!

Did I try going the conventional publishing route? You betcha! I sent out letters of inquiry to six publishers and one agent. What I learned is that this process is lots of work. Everyone wants the letter in a different format. Some want short letters. Some want small essays. Here’s a copy of a letter I sent to a literary agent:

About Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

When Arthur Miller looked back on writing Death of a Salesman, he lamented that: “there was no model I could adapt for this play, no past history for the kind of work I felt it could become.” Today’s dramatists have little desire to write tragedy based on yesterday’s outdated models. Today’s literary critics share the playwrights’ concerns. Terry Eagleton begins his 2002 book, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, by saying, point-blank: “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject.” While Aristotle’s Poetics laid out a brilliant model of tragedy’s structure and purpose, it had been around for over two thousand years. Today’s critics tire of rehashing the same hackneyed arguments on catharsis, pity and fear, and the tragic flaw over and over. Tragedy needs a new model in touch with twenty-first century values to captivate the public imagination as it once did in the days of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Tragedy is Risk Theatre fills the need by presenting an exciting and unique brand of tragedy. As the title suggests, this new model of tragedy is called risk theatre and it takes its inspiration from a surging public interest in chance, uncertainty, and the failure of models to predict unexpected outcomes.

In 2001, the hedge fund manager, Nassim Taleb, shocked the world by writing Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. In his scathing Wall Street critique, he argues that economists imperil the financial system because the fail to recognize that it is ultimately chance, and not their economic models, that moves the markets. In 2007, Taleb followed up with The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and exploration of the incredible impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. The timing was perfect: the Great Recession was just around the corner. Since then, his books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into 36 languages. He has ignited surging interest in the philosophy of uncertainty, a new field of inquiry, which asks: “What happens when more things happen than what you expect will happen?” Risk theatre capitalizes on this growing interest in the unexpected by merging Taleb’s work with the established art form of tragedy. They are a natural match, since tragedy specializes in dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events.

Risk theatre posits that the tragic stage is a casino where gamblers come to play at the no limit tables. This is the “risk” element of risk theatre: before the dice is thrown or the cards revealed, the protagonist’s desired outcome can only be understood imperfectly as odds for or against. One difference, and a critical one, between actual gambling halls and the stage or risk theatre is that on the tragic stage, money is a counterfeit currency. Only the human currency of values, emotions, and beliefs are legal tender on the tragic stage. For this reason, for a chance to wear the Scottish crown, characters such as Macbeth ante up the milk of human kindness, not a thousand or even a million dollars. Macbeth, like the Wall Street analysts who Taleb remonstrates, is smarter and better equipped than his adversaries. The odds are in his favour. But, like the Wall Street analysts, Macbeth overestimates his ability to predict the future and underestimates the impact of low-probability events. After all, what are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? But when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Macbeth, like the overleveraged speculators during the Great Recession, comes face to face with the high-consequence event and loses all. Risk theatre promises excitement: its thrill is the same sort of pleasure the spectators huddled around the table experience when they watch the final match poker match between the “Cincinnati Kid” and Lancey “The Man” Howard. The Kid goes all-in knowing that he has played his hand by the book and that the odds are with him. But when Lancey makes the wrong move at the right time, the Kid loses everything.

Depending on their starting point, theories of tragedy highlight different aspects of tragedy. Hegel’s theory of tragedy, for example, by focusing on the moral collisions in tragedy (exemplified by the clash between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone), highlights the ethical element of tragedy. Or, in another example, Aristotle’s Poetics, by focusing on the fall of the protagonist (exemplified by Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex), highlights how tragedy elicits the feelings of fear and pity in the audience. Risk theatre, by focusing on gambling acts in tragedy (exemplified by Macbeth wagering the milk of human kindness for the crown), highlights the price heroes are willing to pay. Instead of drawing attention to the ethical elements of tragedy (such as Hegel’s theory), risk theatre directs our attention towards the opportunity cost of choice: either the milk of human kindness orthe crown, but not both. And instead Aristotle’s pity and fear, the tragic emotions of risk theatre are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation of the low-probability event and apprehension over the high-consequences. Risk theatre speaks to today’s audiences by aligning tragedy with public interest in low-probability, high-consequence events. Like Hegel and Aristotle’s theories, risk theatre can be applied to a wide variety of tragedies from ancient to modern times to produce exciting and fresh interpretations of classic plays for today’s audiences.

Tragedy is Risk Theatre contains a theoretical framework of tragedy, and analyzes the price characters are willing to pay in tragedies from Aeschylus to Miller to learn what our humanity is worth. In addition, Tragedy is Risk Theatreprovides today’s dramatists with Miller’s missing model, the model Miller lamented not having when he began working on Death of a Salesman. To guide the reader through the structure, idea, and practical application of the risk theatre brand of tragedy, the book’s nine chapters are divided into three parts. Part one examines risk theatre’s structure. Part two examines the philosophy of tragedy. Part three examines the poetics of risk theatre.

Risk theatre is based on a tripartite structure which reflects the insight that each dramatic act of tragedy is also a gambling act. It begins with the hero’s temptation. The hero is enticed to want something or to do something. In Death of a Salesman, for example, Loman is tempted by the success of Charley and his brother to pursue the American dream. After the hero’s temptation comes the wager. For a chance to live out the American dream, Loman antes up his dignity. After the wager comes the moment where the die is cast. After Loman signs the mortgage, he’s locked in and there’s no turning back. The low-probability, high-consequence event is his realization that, thanks to his life insurance policy, he’s worth more dead than alive. Temptation, wager, and cast constitute the basic structural unit of risk theatre. Depending on the dramatists’ goals, the basic structural unit can be configured differently. The different configurations are also discussed in part one of the book.

Readers interested in the philosophy of tragedy can turn to the second part of the book. Risk theatre is grounded on the principle of opportunity cost: the cost of what’s chosen is the next best alternative. Opportunity costs surround us in life. When we choose to buy a gallon of milk, we lose the opportunity to spend the money on a jug of juice. For Macbeth, the opportunity cost for a shot at the crown is his compassion; for Loman, the opportunity cost to pursue the American dream is his dignity. As they roll the die, they place human values at risk. By considering opportunity cost, risk theatre differentiates itself from other philosophies of tragedy. Other theories consider the ethical, political, and social aspects of tragedy. Risk theatre considers tragedy’s economic aspects. By looking at the price the protagonist is willing to pay, risk theatre answers the question of human worth. If a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, how much is the milk of human kindness worth? Well, according to Macbeth, it’s worth the Scottish crown. By dramatizing the tragic cost of desire, risk theatre reveals the limitations of measures such as “net worth” or tools such as the “cost benefit analyses” to capture human worth. By expressing worth in terms of human value rather than dollars and cents, risk theatre revolts against the commoditization of life and its values.

Dramatists wishing to create new risk theatre plays can turn to part three, which contains examples from tragedies of all periods help dramatists work through two problems: 1) how to motivate protagonists to take great risks, yet remain lifelike and 2) how to introduce the low-probability, high-consequence event into the play convincingly. To motivate protagonists to go all-in, dramatists through the years have resorted to seven commonplaces strategies: 1) proud heroes who are idealists, 2) secondary characters who love to give advice, 3) starring roles filled by characters who have access to surplus political, military, social, or economic capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) heroes who claim to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) unstable and volatile dramatic settings (e.g. war, revolution, and plague). Likewise, to incorporate the low-probability, high consequence event into the play, dramatists have access to a wide variety of replicable techniques. Unintended consequences may arise as a result of being overpowered by fate or the gods. They could also arise from the fallibility of human knowledge and errors in judgment. Tight coupling (leaving small margins for error) and the feedback between the characters can also lead to unexpected results.

The author, Edwin Wong, graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree and from Brown University with a master’s degree in the Classics. During both degrees, he concentrated on ancient theatre. The peer-reviewed journal Antichthon published “The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad,” his study on Homer, a poet whom Plato considers to be the first tragedian. He has presented on risk theatre at the University of Calgary in April 2017 and has forthcoming lectures scheduled in January and February 2018 at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting in Boston and the University of Victoria. In addition, he is in continuing high-level talks with the Langham Court Theatre, University of Victoria Fine Arts Department, and the Playwright’s Guild of Canada to inaugurate an annual risk theatre playwright competition. It would be set up similar to the successful University of California, Santa Barbara STAGE International Script Competition. The STAGE competition challenges playwrights to write new science and technology plays, awards the top entrants with cash prizes, and produces the winning play. From the theory to the production, Edwin Wong is committed to the success of risk theatre.

Looking at tragedy as an existential wager between the protagonist and the world is a new approach that solves age-old questions. One question asks: “Why do audiences delight in tragedy, despite its unhappy themes?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “The thrill of tragedy is the same as the thrill of gambling. Just as audiences delight in watching gamblers go all-in, they delight in watching heroes up the ante.” Another question asks: “Why are the leading roles skewed towards kings and queens, as in King Oedipus, the Duchessof Malfi, Prince Hamlet, and so on?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “Characters are drawn from the higher classes because they have to have sufficient social, political, or economic capital to ante up.” Beginning from a simple observation—tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events—Tragedy is Risk Theatrepromises to revolutionize the interpretation and production of tragedy to return the art to the days when it was the greatest show on earth.

Market and Competition

The marketing for the book can be pursued on three different levels. First, as a theory of tragedy, the book appeals to literary theorists and students of literature and drama. The academic crowd will be interested in seeing a fresh approach to tragedy, one that goes beyond the usual discussions on the tragic fall, pity and fear, and the tragic error. Second, as a working model of tragedy, the book appeals to playwrights, actors, and theatregoers. The annual risk theatre competition will create a steady and ongoing interest in the topic. Third, as a new art movement tying together the fields of economics and risk management with gambling and theatre, the book capitalizes on the current public interest in uncertainty, unintended consequences, and low-probability, high-consequence events. This third crowd is the most diverse, and consists of risk managers, scientists, economists, and others who are interested in uncertainty. The goal of staging the winner of the risk theatre competition is to create sufficient buzz to kick-start interest.

Many well-written studies examine the political, social, anthropological, philosophical, and literary facets of tragedy. Political and social interpretations can be found in Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic(Blackwell 2003) or Raymond Williams’ Modern Tragedy (Stanford UP 1966). They look at how tragedy, by questioning norms, can incite political and social change. Anthropological approaches can be found in Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy, Myth, and Mystery (Indiana UP 1962) and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (Michigan State College Press 1953). These approaches call attention to the ritual elements embedded in tragedy. Philosophical approaches are exemplified by Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy(Doubleday 1968) and Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (Insel 1961). They draw on an illustrious pedigree of thought, from Plato to Aristotle and from Hegel through to Nietzsche. Finally, literary approaches such as A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (Macmillan 1904) consider the merits of tragedy as a self-contained work of art. Tragedy is Risk Theatre differentiates itself from the crowd by examining tragedy from an economics perspective. It is a novel approach.

The only other title that approaches tragedy from an economics perspective is George Thomson’s Aeschylus and Athens (Lawrence & Wishart 1941). In this valuable study, Thomson blames the death of tragedy on the rise of coinage, which spread from Asia Minor to Greece in the century prior to Aeschylus. Tragedy, argues, Thomson, promoted egalitarian values in fifth century Athens by mediating the conflict between tribal custom and aristocratic privilege. The proliferation of coinage in Athens, however, gradually created a new class of profiteers more interested in exploiting slaves and subjugating neighbours than promoting egalitarian ideals. Tragedy, no longer able to mediate the class struggle between the profiteers and the oppressed, lost its impetus and died. While Tragedy is Risk Theatre also approaches tragedy from an economics perspective, it looks at the price an individual hero is willing to pay rather than the role of money in class struggle.

Chapter Outline

PREFACE

The art of tragedy has fallen into neglect. Dramatists lack a modern model of tragedy. Critics tire of rehashing the same old Aristotelian precepts over and over. Risk theatre offers playwrights and critics a compelling new model by calling attention to the casino-like elements of the tragic stage, a place replete with high stakes wagers, unexpected outcomes, and unintended consequences, a place where the low-probability, high-consequence outcome happens. Every time.

1          TEMPTATION, WAGER, AND CAST

On tragedy’s structure. Risk theatre, taking its cue from games of chance, begins with the hero’s temptation, proceeds to hero’s wager, and finishes with a roll of the die. The hero pursues a hazardous enterprise, stakes his values, beliefs, or relationships on its success, and goes past the point of no return. Risk theatre has a tripartite structure. Example of its tripartite structure in well-known tragedies from ancient to modern times.

2          TEMPO AND TRAGEDY

On tragedy’s structure. By positioning the fundamental components of temptation, wager, and cast at different intervals in relation to one another, the playwright can alter the tempo at which the drama unfolds. “Frontloaded” dramas set the temptation, wager, and cast at the beginning of the play: the play ends in reflection. “Backloaded” dramas set the temptation and wager at the beginning, and the cast towards the ending: suspense results. “Gradual” tragedies set the components at equidistant intervals: the focus is on the interplay between characters.

3          FORMS OF TRAGEDY

On tragedy’s structure. Different forms of tragedy arise should the dramatist dramatize the fundamental unit of temptation, wager, and cast once, in recurring cycles, or concurrently. “Standalone” tragedies, such as Macbethdramatize the cycle once. “Perpetual motion” tragedies, such as the Oresteia, dramatize the fundamental unit in recurring cycles. “Parallel motion” tragedies, such as Cinna, dramatize multiple characters going through the cycle of temptation, wager, and cast at the same time.

4          THE MYTH OF THE PRICE YOU PAY

On the philosophy of tragedy. Risk theatre argues that tragedy is based on the idea of opportunity cost: the cost of choosing one alternative is the loss of the next best alternative. Macbeth can have the milk of human kindness or the crown, but not both. One may receive something for something, and nothing for nothing (as Lear likes to say), but never something for nothing. By looking at the opportunity cost of choice, tragedy creates an alternative marketplace to value life in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. What is the price the protagonist is willing to pay?

5          FOUR PRINCIPLES OF COUNTERMONETIZATION

On the poetics of tragedy. Tragedy revolts against the monetization of life, a phenomenon that began with the invention of coinage in the sixth century BC. As the proliferation of coinage made it possible to value life in monetary terms (e.g. murder could be exonerated by paying “blood money”), tragedy arose in revolt to argue that human values must be understood in terms of the price we are willing to pay for them in blood, sweat, and tears. As a result, the stage of tragedy is an alternative marketplace where heroes price out existence. Four principles of how dramatists can reclaim human values through the art form of tragedy.

6          THE ART OF THE ALL-IN WAGER

On the poetics of tragedy. For risk theatre to thrill audience, heroes must take on inordinate risks. Audiences don’t come to see heroes make nickel and dime bets. They come to see them wager all-in. Examples of the seven “commonplaces of tragedy” from a variety of plays showing how dramatists motivate heroes to take on extraordinary risks in a convincing manner. The seven commonplaces are: 1) proud and egocentric protagonists, 2) trusted advisors goading protagonists on, 3) starring roles filled by kings, queens, and others having an abundance of military, economic, or social capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) passions running white hot, 6) heroes claiming to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) curtain rises to scenes of adultery, murder, plague, war, and famine.

7          “THE BEST-LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN”

On the poetics of tragedy. Heroes who are smarter, stronger, and better equipped than their adversaries play to win. They don’t expect to lose. It’s the dramatist’s task to waylay them with the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. From the ancient deus ex machinato the modern use of feedback and tight coupling, strategies dramatists employ to waylay heroes reflect the changing conception of chance, probability, and randomness through the ages. A brief survey of changing conceptions of chance.

8          US AND THEM

Tragedy may be defined by contrasting its worldview with philosophic, historic, or comic worldviews. Tragedy and comedy, as opposed to philosophy and history, are ex-ante arts. Philosophy and history are ex-post arts. Ex-ante arts feature characters who do not know the outcome. Ex-post art features outcomes that are already known: the aim is to explain how the outcome turned out the way it did. Tragedy differentiates itself from comedy in that the former operates in a closed system, while the latter operates within an open system. Closed systems are closed in the sense that resources are scarce; they are bound by the second law of thermodynamics. Open systems are open in the sense that resources are boundless.

9          WHY RISK THEATRE TODAY?

A discussion of the lexical instability of the term tragedyfrom ancient Greece to today. The fruitful ambiguity of the term allows room for many competing interpretations of tragedy from “a story of wicked kings” to “a poem of praise.” This same ambiguity allows tragedy to be reinterpreted as risk theatre today. A discussion of why, from stock market crashes to artificial intelligence, risk is a hot topic today. Just as ages preoccupied with psychology produced psychological theories of tragedy, today’s age of risk produces the risk theory of tragedy.

What I learned from this exercise of sending out query letters is that, when you’re talking with the presses, you have to have something to negotiate with. If you’re writing the next blockbuster, you can ask them to take a chance on you. But tragic literary criticism is not likely going to be a blockbuster text. I’d imagine even a blockbuster text from an internationally known author on tragic literary theory (Eagleton, for example), would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies. If you’re writing a scholarly or academic title (which is sort of what Risk Theatre purports to be), the presses expect you to have the right credentials: tenured or tenure track professor at a major university. The university presses are backed by the universities, so money isn’t a problem. Their mandate is to further knowledge. But you need the right credentials to get in. And these are credentials I lack. So, what I learned is that well, I have nothing really to negotiate with. And when you’re negotiating from a position of weakness, chances are you’re not going to be successful.

But I guess, the important thing in adversity is to press on. After all, when Nietzsche got booted out of academia, he started writing books on “culture” and “modernity” that classicists weren’t supposed to write (he started off not as a philosopher, but as a Classicist). No one would publish these strange titles. He was ridiculed by the leading Classicist of the day, Wilamowitz. What did Nietzsche do? He went the self-publishing route and financed his first few books from a meagre university pension. He didn’t end up doing to badly, eh? Who even remembers Wilamops today?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Why the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition?

Renowned local art critic Janis Lacouvee interviewed me last week. She noted that it was highly unusual for a private donor to approach a theatre company to inaugurate a playwright competition. She isn’t the only one who’s pointed this out. In the last two-and-a-half weeks (since the competition started), there’s been a whole tragic chorus of friends, family, and coworkers asking: “Why’d you do it?”

There’s three reasons. One: the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk is so awesome that it had to be done. Two: in our increasingly complex world, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of low-probability, high-consequence risk events. The best way to open people’s eyes to the impact of risk is to dramatize risk, e.g. put it on the stage. Three: this project is my way of giving back to the community. Let’s talk about all three points. But before we jump in, I’d like to thank everyone for their efforts and encouragement along the way: Michelle Buck, Keith Digby, Michael Armstrong, Michael Routliffe, Silvia Boriani, the Langham Theatre Board of Directors, Dave Desjardins, and all the members of the local theatre community who kindly provided feedback. And, to all the intrepid playwrights who have submitted entries: thank you for making this project happen! Let’s turn now to the origin story of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition.

Reason one: the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk is so awesome that it had to be done

Lots has been said about tragedy. Aristotle said that tragedy had to do with a catharsis of pity and fear. Hegel said it dramatized the collision of equal and opposite moral forces. Nietzsche said that tragedy arises in the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious, the rational and the irrational. Those are all pretty good, if somewhat complex models. What no one has said, however, is that tragedy is the dramatization of a gambling act where the protagonist goes all-in. By going all-in, the protagonist takes on too much risk and triggers an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event. Here’s three examples of risk theatre interpretations of famous plays–one from the ancient world, one from the English Renaissance, and one from modern times.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, Oedipus bets that he can outwit the gods. He places his reputation as the one who had solved the Sphinx’ riddle on the line. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when the Corinthian messenger unexpectedly arrives out of nowhere. Game over.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown. The low-probability, high-consequence event takes place when, contrary to every expectation, Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Game over.

In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Loman, for a shot at the American dream, lays his dignity on the line. Against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens when he finds out that his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. Game over.

In each case, notice that the dramatic moment begins with a wager. For every aspiration, a price must be paid. And so the protagonist antes up by laying down an all-too-human asset. By wagering the protagonist takes on risk. Too much risk. And what risk does is it amplifies the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. And that’s exactly what we see: in each case an unforeseen low-probability, high-consequence event upsets the protagonist’s best-laid and most foolproof plans. In a word, that’s the core of risk theatre. It’s dead simple. It’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw. It’s chance. The thrill isn’t seeing some catharsis of pity and fear through pity and fear but rather, the thrill is like the thrill of watching a gamblers duke it out at the no limit tables: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension over the impact of the low-probability, high-consequence event. And it’s not about the collision of ethical forces. It’s supramoral. It’s about risk and what happens when what you didn’t think would happen happens. Simple.

So there’s reason one: risk theatre needs to be done because it’s a simple, yet powerful idea of tragedy.

Reason two: in our increasingly complex world, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of low-probability, high-consequence risk events

Have you heard of Long-Term Capital Management? LTMC was a Greenwich based hedge fund which almost took down the global financial system in 1998. Sheer stupidity? No. They were run by no less than two Nobel prize winners. The best. But they did take on too much risk. Have you heard of the gene drive? It’s a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. In Riverside, California, scientists go through six sealed doors, including one with an airlock, to get to work: if any one of their gene driven mosquitoes gets into the wild, every mosquito in the world is at risk of losing the ability to fly. We are surrounded by technological risk. We are surrounded by manufactured risk. Before, local actions had local consequences. Today, local actions have global consequences. Because we live in an age of risk, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of the highly improbable. We need to ask the pertinent questions. Today, these questions are: what is risk? How do we contain it? What happens when our best-laid plans go the way of mice and men?

The impact of the highly improbable is what tragedy, in the risk theatre interpretation, explores.  What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? And what are the odds of Macbeth encountering a man not of woman born? If you said a billion to one against, you’d be about right. And, in Oedipus rex, what are the odds of the Corinthian messenger being the same man who had brought the infant Oedipus to Corinth many years ago? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had entrusted the infant Oedipus to the messenger (instead of exposing him as had been ordered) is the same man who is the sole surviving witness of Oedipus killing his father at the crossroads? This too has to be a billion to one against. And what are the odds that at the end of Oedipus rex they’re all reunited one last time? I don’t even want to think about those odds!  And, in Salesman, what are the odds that Loman, at the worst possible moment, would come to the realization that he’s worth more dead than alive?  This is what I mean when I say tragedy explores the impact of the highly improbable.

In this age of risk, we need art to show us the way. And of the arts, tragedy is best suited to this task because it dramatizes how even the best-laid plans go awry–who, for example, would have known in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra that Lavinia would actually become her mom? She rails against her mom every step of the way!

The problem today is that tragedy is not very popular. Lay audiences find it too depressing. Modern audiences find it too elitist. Critics don’t even like it. Eagleton begins his 2002 study of tragedy point-blank by saying “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject these days.” Besides Macbeth, theatres aren’t really playing tragedies. Comedies and dramas are popular. And musicals are becoming more popular. For every hundred comedies, dramas, and musicals, theatres are playing one or two tragedies. And the same with playwriting programs. They’ll teach you how to write comedies and dramas, but not so much tragedy. But, more than ever, we need tragedy today. And that’s why we’re doing risk theatre.

Risk theatre is modern. It aligns the ancient art of tragedy with modern conceptions of chance and uncertainty. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events, audiences are reminded not to bite off more than they can chew. And to keep some powder dry. You need dry powder always when you least expect. Today, these are timely, necessary, and powerful lessons. Humanity is operating on a scale it never has before. And this scale increases exponentially, not logarithmically.

So there’s reason two: risk theatre needs to be done because it speaks to a contemporary need.

Reason three: this project is my way of giving back to the community

I’ve had a pretty good life. Unlike my grandparents, who lived through two world wars and had everything expropriated by the communists, I was born in Canada. That itself is like winning the lottery. And during my university years, I was fortunate enough to receive a number of scholarships. They were instrumental in getting me to where I am today. So I’ve always wanted to give back to the community. First I tried donating to various charities. That was good but I felt like I needed to take a more active role. Targeted giving. And I wanted to benefit the arts. The arts are beautiful, the best thing in the world: “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified,” wrote a wise man too long ago.

It just so happened that I had been working on the risk theatre theory of tragedy. Now most of us academics stick to the academic theoretic side of things. But here was a chance to combine the two. And so the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition came to be. It’s my attempt to do philanthropy and to effect positive social change at the same time.

How much am I giving back to the community? It’s the first year of the competition, so some of these numbers will be projections. But here’s the budget for year one so far. It excludes all the substantial volunteer work (thank you everyone!) that has been done to get the competition going:

Commission artwork for the risktheatre.com website:
$2,600

Prize Money ($8000 first prize and 4x $500 runners-up)
$10,000

Travel Stipend
$1,000

Workshop Winning Play
$6,000

Administration of Competition (this includes: creating/maintaining website, communications with entrants/jurors, PR and publicity, searching for and retaining jurors)
$3,000

Jurors (based on receiving 50 entries and a reading fee of $35 per play and $50 for the final meeting to decide winner)
$1,900

So we’re at $24,500. But some income will also come in from the $45 entry fee. Based on receiving 50 entries (this is an estimate from looking at competitions such as the STAGE International Script Competition, the Theatre BC Canadian Playwriting Competition, and others and adjusting for the fact that this is the first year and that a specific type of play is required) that’s $2,250. Take off PayPal’s 3.5% cut, and that leaves us with $2171.25 income. So, I’ll be giving back to the artistic community each year just over $22,000–that’s the net benefit in monetary terms that this contest offers. But my hope is that the contest will not be seen merely in a monetary light but for the greater good it offers society. Friends, be not averse to risk, but remember to keep some powder dry, for Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane Hill, and always when you least expect!

I’m Edwin Wong, and, until next time, you’ll find me doing Melpomene’s work.

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Launched

Breaking News!

On June 1, 2018, Langham Court Theatre launched the 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition! It’s a major new playwriting competition and the world’s richest competition specifically for the writing of tragedy. At stake is $10,000 in prize money, a workshop, and a travel stipend. In addition, Langham Court Theatre may fully produce the winning play as a special event. What more could you want in a playwright competition?

Many thanks to Michelle Buck (Langham Court GM), Keith Digbie (Langham Court board), and Michael Armstrong (competition manager) for their efforts, insights, and belief. I had pitched the idea to Michelle seven months ago. She took it to the board of directors. The board liked the idea and that’s when she introduced me to Keith. We soon realized we needed an experienced competition manager. Keith had worked with Michael before at Theatre BC and brought him on board. And that’s how the team came together.

The official competition site can be found here. There’s a link on the Langham Court Theatre front page that also takes you there. The reaction in this first week and a half has been fantastic. The site’s averaging 150 hits a day. Email responses are coming back calling this competition ‘extraordinary’ and ‘something special’. The competition also has a Facebook presence. Funny thing, as people are cancelling their Facebook accounts over the privacy scandal, I–who’ve never really been active on FB–find myself doing the opposite. Last Monday, I sat down with renowned local critic Janis La Couvée to talk about the project. The interview went on for over an hour at Cafe Fantastico and we talked about how wonderful this project is for both the local and international theatre community. She asked me about how this project started and how it could develop in the coming years. Stay tuned for the full interview.

Here’s the text of the formal press release. At the bottom there’s a PDF copy. Please send it to your theatre contacts!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: LANGHAM COURT THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2019 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION\

Langham Court Theatre announces that it is inaugurating a major new playwriting competition, the world’s richest competition specifically for the writing of tragedy: the all-new 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. At stake is $10,000 in prize money. The winning play will be workshopped in Victoria, BC. A travel stipend will be offered to the winning playwright. In addition, the winning play may be fully produced by Langham Court Theatre as a special event.

Risk theatre is a model of tragedy developed by critic Edwin Wong. In risk theatre, gambling acts lead to unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Chance and uncertainty reign supreme. Risk theatre aligns tragedy with modern conceptions of chance by dramatizing the impact of the highly improbable.

This annual competition challenges intrepid playwrights to write 90 – 120 minute plays and closes on March 29, 2019. Entries cost $45. Full competition details can be found at risktheatre.com. Please distribute this release to your members to help spread the word about this exciting opportunity.

For 89 years, Langham Court Theatre has presented nearly 3000 performances with 4000 actors in over 500 shows to 250,000 guests. Established in 1929, Langham Court Theatre is one of Canada’s most successful and longest running community theatres. The theatre seats 177 and is located a ten minute walk from downtown Victoria in the historic Rockland neighbourhood.

Wong believes that the time is right to reboot tragedy. After reading Taleb’s Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan, he developed risk theatre to align tragedy with modern concepts of chance and uncertainty. The result is a tragic stage where every dramatic act is a gambling act and risk runs riot. He is currently working on a book Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. His thoughts on theatre can be found at melpomeneswork.com. Wong received a MA in Classics from Brown University where he concentrated on ancient theatre.

Contacts:

Michael Armstrong, Competition Manager

Edwin Wong, Sponsor

Keith Digby, Langham Court Theatre

via: tragedycompetition [at] gmail [dot] com

Risk Theatre Press Release

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and now I’m in the midst of doing Melpomene’s work!

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

Many thanks to PL for inviting me to take the Risk Theatre tour to the University of Massachusetts, Boston! And thank you to all the students who came out on a sweltering summer day at the end of term to see the presentation! The feedback was great and I could see at the end of the presentation that some gears were turning. And why is it that I can only go to Boston during weather extremes? Last time I was here was during the “bomb cyclone” in January. And it must have hit 30 C today, and it’s only the beginning of May! Well, assiduous readers, here’s the presentation for your reading pleasure:

Presentation Delivered to Peter Lech’s Greek and Roman Tragedy Class

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

How do myths function? One of their functions is to translate nature and culture into human terms. By telling a story, they instill human significance onto natural and cultural phenomena. How did the custom of young women dedicating a lock of hair prior to marriage arise? Why is there a temple of Aphrodite at Troezen? The Hippolytus myth answers these questions by incorporating nature and culture into a story filled with human significance. According to the myth, Phaedra built the temple after Aphrodite caused her to fall in love with Hippolytus. As for the custom, it was initiated by Artemis as a consolation to the dying Hippolytus: he would die, but his dedication to her would be remembered forever. Here’s another one: why does that star seem to blink every six days? Science would tell you it’s a variable star called Algol. But what myth would tell you is that that star is part of Medusa’s head in the constellation Perseus—you have to imagine that he’s holding up her severed head—and, what is more, that star denotes her eye: it blinks because by blinking, it signifies her power to turn to stone. So, one function of myth is to inscribe meaning onto patterns found in nature and culture, patterns which otherwise lack meaning. Myth helps us to understand the world in human terms.

What I’m going to give you today is a myth of tragedy called ‘risk theatre’. Just as the myth of Medusa or the myth of Hippolytus humanize the world around us, my ‘myth’ of risk theatre provides a framework of tragedy. I call it a myth because it’s not right or wrong, but a story of how tragedy works. In particular, risk theatre addresses a peculiar question: how can tragedy create suspense if it dramatizes popular, well-known myths? The stories of the Labdacid House (that’s Oedipus’ family) or the House of Atreus (that’s Orestes’ family) are so well-known that everyone knows how the story ends. Since the outcomes are foreknown, it’s hard for the stories to generate suspense. Take a look at Homer’s handling of the Oedipus myth. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, commonly referred to as the nekuia(after the ancient rite used to summon ghosts),Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the underworld where he sees the shade of Jocaste, Oedipus’ wife. He speaks a matter-of-factly about Oedipus’ crimes and how Jocaste committed suicide. There’s no suspense in Homer’s rendition of the myth. It’s bare bones. And it can be bare bones because everyone knows the tale. For Sophocles to keep audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, he has to get around the spoiler alert. How does he do this?

Here’s the solution risk theatre prosposes: the dramatic kernel of tragedy is a gambling act in which the protagonist wagers all-in. Because each dramatic act is a gambling act, unexpected things can happen. Bets can go wrong. And the bigger the bet, the more it can go sideways. The dramatist’s role is to suppress the odds of the foreknown outcome to make it seem like what must happen is not going to happen. Then, when it happens, it’s exciting.

In other words, the hero makes a big bet. Things seem to go the hero’s way. Because of the hero’s intelligence, skill, or strength, the hero appears to avert the outcome everyone knows is coming. But then an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event happens which brings about the foreknown outcome. Tragedy dramatizes a bet which has gone horribly sideways. That’s why I call tragedy risk theatre.

That tragedy is a gambling act and that dramatists trigger the foreknown outcome by a low-probability, high-consequence event are the two postulates of risk theatre. Let’s look at both these postulates, beginning with how tragedians deliberately suppress the likelihood of what must happen to the point where, when it happens, it seemsto have happened against all odds.

By a low-probability event, I mean an event that is unlikely, an event that is 1000:1 against, an event such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely for the trees to take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost. The play generates suspense by making it seem like the foreknown event (Birnam Wood’s going to come) is unlikely. Let’s take a look at some of the tragedies you’ve studied to see how ancient tragedians entertain audiences by suppressing the likelihood of the outcome everyone knows is coming.

Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, pits man against god. Although you know from the myth that Pentheus dies, Euripides’ goal as a dramatist is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s exciting. How does he do this? Look at how he portrays the rivalry between Dionysus and Pentheus. Dionysus is portrayed as a ninety-eight pound weakling who waltzes into Thebes with a retinue of eastern women. He’s cast as a drunk foreign dandy with long hair and scented locks who spends his days and nights cavorting around town. Pentheus, on the other hand, is cast as a capable warrior-king. He’s at the prime of manhood, fights before the home crowd, and has at his beck and call slaves, guards, archers, and soldiers. Pentheus has every expectation of prevailing. With all his resources, he’s going to throw this hobo out of town. But when, against all odds, the effeminate stranger turns out to be god, the fated outcome takes place and Pentheus is torn limb by limb. The closing lines—the same ones Euripides uses in many other plays—make it absolutely clear that he too conceived of tragedy as a theatre where unexpected low-probability events happen. Closing line are critical and ought to be read with care. That Euripides writes these lines confirms the risk theatre model of tragedy. Here are the lines as spoken by the chorus leader:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. (1388-1392)

Now, let’s look at the next play: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This trilogy culminates in a showdown between Orestes and the Furies. The foreknown outcome is that the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are transformed into the ‘Kindly Ones’ or the Eumenides, benevolent spirits who watch over Athens. Aeschylus’ goal as a tragedian is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s unexpected. How does he do this? He does so by emphasizing the extraordinary length of time the Furies have been engaged as spirits of vengeance. The Furies are the daughters of Night (Eum. 321). And Night is the offspring of Chaos, the eldest of all deities. That means the Furies have been persecuting blood crimes from the beginning of time, in fact, from way back when Kronos first castrated his father Ouranos. When the Furies come to the court of the Areopagus, they have every intention of winning. Who would have guessed that Orestes’ act of violence, from all the acts of violence from the beginning of time would result in the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides? The way Aeschylus frames it, it’s unlikely, and because it’s unlikely, when it takes place, it’s shocking.

Think of these events as ‘black swan’ events. This is the term popularized by Taleb, a mathematician and Wall Street trader in his books Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. The term ‘black swan’ goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it as a byword for something that doesn’t exist. But then in 1697, to the shock of the world, they sighted a black swan in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a visual analogy of low-probability, high-consequence events. What I’m arguing today is that tragedy is full of black swan events: the bum who happens to be god, the forest that up and attacks the ramparts, or the day the Furies became the Eumenides.

Now, let’s look at a third play, Sophocles’Oedipus rex. We touched earlier on Homer’s bare bones narration of the Oedipus myth. Not very exciting. How does Sophocles add fire to the dramatization?—easy, he transforms the outcome into a black swan event. Everyone watching knows that Oedipus’ patricide and the incestuous relationship is going to be revealed. Sophocles, however, structures the play so that it looks like that no one will ever figure it out. How does Sophocles achieve this? Let’s take a look. The one eyewitness’ account of Laius’ murder is so garbled that they don’t bother to fetch him. At least not right away. So, we’re not going to hear from him. Tiresias, who knows since he’s the prophet, obstructs the investigation. So, we’re not going to hear from him either. Jocaste, who has been warned by the oracle she would give birth to a patricide, tells Oedipus point blank that the oracle must be wrong, since she exposed the child. She doesn’t know that the child survived. So, we’re not going to hear from her. In fact, the evidence against the truth coming out is so overwhelming that the chorus stops dancing in the second stasimon and asks: “Why should I dance?” (896). The gravity of their jarring pronouncement should not be underestimated. Their question would have shocked audiences who knew that the chorus’ role in tragedy isto dance. Tragedy is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour the gods. But if the gods are a fraud—and it’s beginning to look that way because the oracle is just looking plain wrong—why should they honour the gods?

Look: the eyewitness isn’t going to tell them because they didn’t summon him. Not yet. Tiresias isn’t going to tell him. And Jocaste tells him that the oracle dead wrong. If the Delphic oracle is mistaken and the gods can’t be trusted, what’s the point of dancing? Even after the chorus stops dancing, things appear to get even worse: the Corinthian messenger comes out of nowhere to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne because his dad Polybus died. This really throws Oedipus into shock: years ago, when the oracle prophesied that he would be a patricide, he had run away from home. And now, he finds out that dad died of natural causes. Things are looking worse and worse for the oracle. It looks like the truth will never come out. But when Oedipus tells the messenger why he left Corinth, the truth finally tumbles out. “Don’t worry about your dad” says the messenger, “he’s not really your dad.” “How do you know this?” “Well I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. You’re actually from Thebes.” “Who are my real parents?” “Well you have to ask the shepherd. He gave me to you.” “Oh, you mean the shepherd that I just summoned?—the one who is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.” “Yes, that’s the one.” See where this is going? What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had saved Oedipus when he was a babe just happens to be the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder? I’ll tell you: the odds are as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or the madman actually being a god or the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides: it’s a billion to one against. And when it’s a billion to one against, when it happens, it’s dramatic.

Okay, by definition, low-probability events don’t happen very often. But, as we’ve seen, in tragedy, they happen every time. How does the dramatist set up the low-probability event so that it always happens? Do any of you gamble? Then you know, the more you wager, the more things can go wrong, up to the point when you bet everything, anything can go wrong. Lay down the bankroll, leverage yourself up 100:1, go in with all your friends’ and family’s money: if the odds are anything less than perfect, the consequences are huge. Even if the odds are 99.99 percent in your favour, when you go all-in, that 0.01 percent can ruin you. Risk theatre is where that 0.01 percent happens.

The secret of how the dramatist tees up the low-probability, high-consequence risk event is that in tragedy, each dramatic act is also a gambling act. And not any gambling act, but an all-in leveraged up to the gills gambling act. For a chance to be king, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness. Like the game of gambling, in tragedy you have to ante up for a chance to play. But unlike the game of gambling, where you lay down cash instruments, in tragedy, you lay down human instruments. For world domination, Faust lays down his soul. For revenge, revengers lay down their humanity. For the American dream, Loman (in Death of a Salesman) lays down his dignity. Pentheus bets everything that the stranger is some bum and not god personified. He lays on the line his authority as king: no bum is going to start seditious rites while he sits on the throne. Oedipus bets that he can outwit the oracle: “You prophecy I’ll kill dad?—I’ll show you! I’m Oedipus, the master riddler. I can solve anything, and I’ll solve you!” And the Furies stake their prerogative as the punishers of blood guilt on the precedence of tradition.

When you lay so much on the line, you expose yourself to low-probability, high-consequence events because you’ve taken up too much risk. For Macbeth, Birnam Wood came. For Loman, he finds out that he’s worth more dead than alive. For Pentheus, the bum happens to be god. And for the Furies, this time was different. Who would have thought?

At the beginning I promised you a myth of tragedy. What I’ve given you is risk theatre, and its framework helps you find your way around tragedy in the same way as constellations light up a road map of the night sky. And just like constellations, risk theatre works brilliantly most of the time. The constellation Orion works great: there’s the shoulders, the belt. But then there’s a constellation like Gemini where you have to squint pretty hard to see Castor and Pollux. And just as you wouldn’t throw out the whole system of constellations because one or two don’t work, you wouldn’t throw out risk theatre for the one or two tragedies that defy it. Ultimately, risk theatre adds to our understanding because it answers the question of how tragedy can be exciting even though spoilers have marred the ending.

Think of tragedy as a theatre of risk where heroes go big or go home. Because heroes make risk run riot with their wagers, think of each dramatic act as a gambling act. When characters stake their souls, allegiances, and reputations, and leverage all their military, social, and political capital to achieve their aims, things get interesting real fast because we see by how they set up their wagers how much they value life. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth?—to Macbeth, it’s worth a Scottish crown, because that’s what he antes up: the milk of human kindness for the crown. Tragedy is an arbiter of life’s value. Think of the tragic emotions not as pity and fear, but rather anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for the black swan event that’s going to dash the hero, the hero’s friends and family, and the community at large.

Think of the downfall of the hero as something brought about by pure chance rather than a tragic flaw or error. The aged Oedipus, in Sophocles’ final play Oedipus at Colonus, says this exactly: “Okay, when it happened, I thought I had done something wrong, but now, looking back, how else shouldI have acted? Where exactly was my error?—I was dealt a certain hand and I played the game flawlessly.” To blame an Oedipus or a Macbeth or a Pentheus for a tragic flaw is as inane as to blame, say, the Cincinnati Kid for going all-in on the final poker hand against Lancey in Richard Jessup’s novel. He has to play that hand, and it’s only when Lancey makes the most unexpected move that he loses. He could not have known that Lancey would “make the wrong move at the right time.” In the same way, what was Pentheus supposed to do when the seditious foreign stranger waltzes into town: kneel down and worship him? Folks, it’s chance. Not error. Stop looking for error and look instead at the role chance plays. The point of risk theatre is that it enlightens us that chance plays a much larger role in our lives than what we’re comfortable admitting. In tragedy, even fate must work through the mechanisms of chance.

This idea of risk theatre I’ve been developing for over ten years, and I’m very happy to let you know it’s more than theory. Langham Court Theatre, one of the most storied and successful community theatres in Canada, has just now signed on to inaugurate a 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We’re challenging dramatists worldwide to write bold and exciting risk theatre tragedies. We’re giving away over $10,000 in prize money. And we’re going to produce the winning play. Not only this year. Every year. We’re going to reinvent tragedy. The site is at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled with a –re ending. The site’s not quite live. But I can give you the password: 1974. Take a look. See if you can figure out that poker hand on the illustration.

Here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with. I’ve known Peter for a long time. We went to Brown together in the 2000s. He was studying speech patterns in Roman comedy and I was grappling with how tragedy functions. Thank you, Peter for the opportunity to speak today. After Brown, I came back to Canada to take up my old job. You know, by trade, I’m not an academic and not a thespian. I’m a plumber. But I never lost sight of my goal. And despite the long odds, it looks like the goal’s getting closer. And you know the odds are long when the border guard looks at you real funny when you say that you’re speaking on theatre and your occupation is plumbing. So I encourage you all, no matter what your goals are, to chase them down. If I can do it, you can too. Because, you know, if you stay hungry and keep going, despite the long odds, sometimes the low-probability, high-consequence event will work out in your favour. Thank you.

18.05.umass

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

Thanks to Professor LB and the Department of Greek and Roman Studies for setting up this seminar. And thanks to all the students and faculty who came out on a cold and snowy Friday afternoon. Great turnout (we packed the conference room) and very receptive audience for this homecoming lecture. Judging from the discussion period that followed the presentation, there’s a sharp band of students at UVic! My old roommate TS from the happy days of UVic undergrad (who’s know Professor TS of English Literature) received a research grant to fly out to hear the talk, so that was extra fun! The core of this presentation was delivered at the APA earlier this year. This version has been revised to take into account the feedback from APA which was: hammer home the point that the gate assignations are random. The preconceived (and likely mistaken) notion that Eteocles decides the assignations remains very strong with readers of the play. If the assignations are random (as I argue), the play is actually quite fun, dramatic, and full of suspense. If the assignations are decided and preordained (as others argue), the play is quite static. Which would you rather have? BTW the image on the poster is from the Exekias Vase and it depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice. Probably a high-stakes game as they have their spears handy just in case!

Exekias Vase

DEPARTMENT OF GREEK AND ROMAN STUDIES SEMINAR

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23 2:30 PM CLEARIHUE B415

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? Something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place?

 

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes is the one unique play where it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of the lottery imagery, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random. Because all the assignations are random, all the possible matchups at each of the gates exist only as a probability until the moment when the lots are drawn. Because all the outcomes exist as probabilities, we can quantify the exact odds of what takes place against what did take place to verify how tragedy engages audiences with low-probability, high-consequence scenarios.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. Even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. Tragedy is an engine that makes even foredoomed outcomes exciting by discounting the odds of the inevitable taking place.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace throughout tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. To me, tragedy’s function is to warn us that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. In this way, tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] In the US, the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done the procedure on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. In today’s technological age of manufactured risk, tragedy ought to and should be seen as a theatre of risk, as we moderns have a moral obligation to come to terms with the low-probability, high-consequence ramifications of our actions. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

edwinclwong@gmail.com

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

2018 SCS Society for Classical Studies (SCC) Annual Meeting

Ever heard of the term ‘bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’? Lots of people haven’t. But on January 3rd, lots of people learned what a bomb cyclone and explosive bombogenesis are. The strength of a storm depends on the air pressure: the lower the pressure, the more intense the storm. Why is this? Air is being sucked up during the storm, so the lower the pressure at ground level, the more air is being moved up. ‘Bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’ is a measure of how quickly air pressure drops. If pressure drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours, the result is a bomb cyclone or explosive bombogenesis. Between Jan 3-4, the pressure of the Nor’easter known as winter storm Grayson that was ripping up the east coast dropped 50 millibars. The result was over a foot of snow from Virginia to New Hampshire, flooding along the coasts, wind gusts of up to 120 km/h, and arctic blasts taking the temperature down to -30C (add wind chill to this and this is the chill that goes straight into the bones. Of course, during this time I was travelling to talk at the 2018 SCS in Boston. Not a good idea.

The flight was originally scheduled to depart Victoria Wednesday evening and arrive in Boston Thursday morning. The SCS Greek tragedy panel was scheduled to convene Friday morning at 8AM, so that gave me 24hrs. Lots of time. Or so I thought. The first indication of trouble was a call from WestJet Wednesday morning. They told me Pearson and Logan airports were shutting down. They wouldn’t be able to get me into Boston until 930AM Friday. That doesn’t work. After being on hold for an hour, they were able to reroute the flight: Victoria-Seattle-Detroit-Manchester, NH. The agent had travelled from Manchester to Boston before and remembered that this was a possibility. From Manchester, I would catch a bus. But the catch was I had to leave right away. Okay, it’s a few connections, but game on! I hadn’t packed yet, but I pack light: one backpack. I threw everything in and bolted out the door. Time: just after lunch on Wednesday.

Flash forward. Now it’s early morning Thursday, January 4. Made it into Detroit. Made it into the States. Made it past the customs officer who was having serious doubts about my motives. He asked me the reason why I was travelling. I told him I was presenting at a conference. He asked which university I was affiliated with. I told him I was a free agent, this was a hobby. He asked me if I was getting paid. I said no. It turns out if you travel on your own coin to present a really interesting idea, this raises flags! He eventually let me through after logging onto the SCS website to confirm I was really speaking. I also had to show him a copy of my speech, which, fortunately, I had on me. You know, now I reflect on it, maybe my case is odd. After all, who would spend their own money to tell people about interesting ideas? Silly me!

Now in Detroit waiting for the flight to Manchester. Buses between Manchester and Boston have stopped running. So I’d have to stay overnight in Manchester and catch the first bus out on the 5th. That’s cutting it close, but it’d still get me there in time. 2 o’clock rolls around. Manchester flight delayed, delayed some more, than cancelled. Ouch! But then there are two flights into Boston at 5:36 and 7:36 that are still a go. The storm in Boston ends 7PM so by the time the planes get there from Detroit, the storm would have subsided. Delta rebooks me for the 5:36. Flash forward to 5PM. Flight to Boston delayed once, delayed twice, and then cancelled! Everything into Boston is now cancelled until Friday, January 5. Now this is looking bad to get to SCS in time. Getting bummed out. But hey, one last hope. There’s a flight at 10PM going into Providence. I’d overnight in Providence and catch the MBTA train into Boston in the morning. 40 minute ride. Easy. Flash forward. 9:30 rolls around. No plane. No flight crew. No captain. Flight’s not cancelled yet. Delayed 15 minutes. Then delayed 1/2 hour. Nobody can give any straight answers. Then cancelled. This is the point of maximum despair. Helpless. Hopeless. I email Helene Foley (who’s presiding the SCS panel) to ask whether someone can act as a surrogate presenter. At least that way the paper can see the light of day. At this point I book an airport hotel. I’ve been on the road for 36 hours. One evening sleeping at the airport or plane is okay. More than that is hard. Getting old. I check into a Knight’s Inn. When I get there, it turns out they are overbooked too.

One nice thing about getting stranded in the airport is that you talk to people you’d normally never talk to. There’s one guy, Jignesh, he’s studying computer science in Boston, going for the mighty MA. He’s from India. His goal is to make a six figure income. We get talking, he’s asking how I passed the day. I tell him I’ve been trading stocks (some dividends rolled in and I ended up buying some Brookfield preferred shares BAM.PF.D, Clearwater Seafoods CLR, and American Hotel Income Properties REIT HOT.UN). So we start talking about stocks and he tells me to go onto Youtube. It turns out before he came to the US to study computer science, Jignesh was a stock analyst for CNBC in India–there he was, in a suit and tie, analyzing stocks on Indian TV! Then there’s a lady, Yvonne. She owns a farm in Zimbabwe with her son. She’s visiting her sister in Washington. She grows corn on her farm, it’s got an automatic drip irrigation system. Also grows ginger which she’s starting to export to Europe. She had some photos. The system is more sophisticated than I thought it would be. We talk some politics. It turns out Zimbabwe was ruled by a president-dictator who had just been ousted by the military. If the new guy enacts some democratic reforms, things could go really well there. Fingers crossed for her! This is the first time I’ve heard of a ‘good’ military coup.

Now it’s 4AM presentation morning. I’m back at the Detroit airport waiting for McDonald’s to open (sausage mcmuffin and coffee) and praying that the 5AM to Boston will depart as scheduled. Jignesh and Yvonne slept at the airport, they ask me if my nerves are getting frayed. I tell them I’ve been disappointed so many times now that the feeling is one of resignation. So now 430AM rolls around, the captain and flight crew are standing around but no plane at the gate. The gate moves, then moves back. Everyone’s still standing around. 5 rolls around. Then 530. A plane shows up at the gate. The crew get in. We’re told depart at 630. 630 rolls around they say the plane’s too cold. Too cold?–get us on the damn thing! Finally we start boarding a little before 7. Once on the plane, I have a little snooze. At this point, I’m passed the point of caring. The body is just tired. It’s been close to 48 hours of travel. That’s long enough to fly around the world! Too long.

I’m not even sure when the plane gets into Boston. Almost mechanically, I jump up and run for the taxi. Lucky for me, no checked baggage! Outside, there’s snowbanks everywhere and its damn cold (the sort of cold that hits your bones), but the road crews look like they’ve pulled an all-nighter. I jump into the cab, ask him to take me to the Boston Marriott post haste. When we get there, I notice the hotel is huge! Registration for the SCS is on the fourth floor. Out of breath, I ask for directions to where my panel is (SCS is huge: 84 panels, a ton of poster sessions, an publishers exhibition hall, a live play, awards ceremonies, and private receptions spread over four days and two hotels, it’s a zoo). Luckily, the seminar room is close by. I run in there like a bat out of hell.. and hear the words of my presentation!

As I burst in, everything stops. I must have looked like a madman. 48hrs on the road. Hardly any sleep. In my big winter jacket and all my travel gear. It turns out the SCS panel had thought the flight was still delayed. They had waited until the other speakers had presented, and then were nice enough to find a surrogate presenter. But there I was. I made a joke about low-probability events (since that was the topic of the presentation and the snow bomb cyclone was certainly low-probability) and there were some chuckles and nods. A fortuitous start.  I stepped up to the mike and delivered the presentation, relishing every moment of it. And though I felt beat, there was so much adrenalin, I felt the thrill of being up there. It felt like it was meant to be. This is what I live for! Though presenting isn’t theatre, there’s something very theatrical about it. Wow, what a rush! This is a campfire story for the ages!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work on the run.

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

2018 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting (Boston)

Session 9: Agency in Drama (Presided by Helene Foley)

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes the risk of low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? I mean, something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place? We need a play where we can see this.

 

In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of all these lottery images, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s probably how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. That’s the genius of Seven: even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. By combining subjective and objective probabilities, Aeschylus spring loads the low-probability event so that when it takes place, we feel its impact.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace all over tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. Tragedy warns us, that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. I think that tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] Here in the US the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done one on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. I look at tragedy as a theatre of risk because such an interpretation speaks to our technological age of manufactured risk. In such an age, I believe that we have a moral obligation to come to terms with low-probability, high-consequence events. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres in Victoria, Canada to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. The goal to start a new art movement in tragedy. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

2018-01-05

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Society for Classical Studies 2018 Presentation