Review of THE CONSCIOUSNESS INSTINCT: UNRAVELING THE MYSTERY OF HOW THE BRAIN MAKES THE MIND – Gazzaniga

2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pages

Book Blurb

How do neurons turn into minds? How does physical “stuff”–atoms, molecules, chemicals, and cells–create the vivid and various world inside our heads? The problem of consciousness has gnawed at us for millennia. In the last century, massive breakthroughs have rewritten the science of the brain, yet the puzzles faced by the ancient Greeks remain. In The Consciousness Instinct, the neuroscience pioneer Michael S. Gazzaniga weaves together the latest research and the history of human thinking about the mind, giving a big-picture view of what science has revealed about consciousness.

The idea of the brain as a machine, first proposed centuries ago, has led to assumptions about the relationship between mind and brain that dog scientists and philosophers to this day. Gazzaniga asserts that this model has it backward: brains make machines, but they cannot be reduced to one. New research suggests the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together. Understanding how consciousness could emanate from such an organization will help define the future of brain science and artificial intelligence, and close the gap between brain and mind.

Captivating and approachable, with insights drawn from a lifetime at the forefront of the field, The Consciousness Instinct sets the course for the neuroscience of tomorrow.

Michael S. Gazzaniga

is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, the founding director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. He is author of many popular science books, including Tales from Both Sides of the Brain.

The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind

Contrasting Viewpoints on Consciousness

Gazzaniga starts by outlining the major theories on consciousness. There are the reductionists and materialists (e.g. Freud and Galen) that believe that mental states and consciousness arise from material interactions between neurons, atoms, and molecules. The reductionist and materialists are deterministic in outlook. Determinists believe that the future follows rigidly or is “determined” by the past. Behaviorists, such as Skinner, form a subset of this worldview.

Then, thanks to Descartes, there are the dualists. To the dualists, mental states, the mind, and the soul are separate from the material body and brain. Dualism, according to Gazzaniga, set back science two thousand years: Aristotle, while he believed in a soul, also believed that the soul dies with the body. According to Descartes, the soul was immortal and immaterial, and being an “essence,” was not subject to scientific scrutiny.

Then, there is a third theory called mentalism. Mentalists such as Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga himself believe that “emergent mental powers must logically exert downward causal control over electrophysiological events in brain activity.” In other words, mental states, the “I,” and consciousness can impact and alter the physical brain. In the 1970s, the mentalist camp was a small minority. Most scientists were materialists.

The New Paradigm

In The Consciousness Instinct, Gazzaniga offers a new paradigm to break free from the old debate between materialists, dualists, and mentalists. His new paradigm of consciousness is based on the latest breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works and also his observations of how people with broken brains function. According to Gazzaniga:

Today we have at our fingertips a vast amount of rapidly accruing new information, and with a little luck, it affords new perspective on how the brain does its magic. The ideas of Descartes and other past thinkers that the mind is somehow floating atop the brain, and the ideas of the new mechanists that consciousness is a monolithic thing generated by a single mechanism or network, are simply wrong. I will argue that consciousness is not a thing. “Consciousness” is the word we use to describe the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism. That is why “consciousness” is a proxy word for how a complex living organism operates. And, to understand how complex organisms work, we need to know how brains’ parts are organized to deliver conscious experience as we know it.

Descartes believed that consciousness arose from the pineal gland in the brain. Gazzaniga and other neuroscientists understand otherwise. It’s always easier to see how something works by looking at how broken specimens function, and the brain is no different. By looking at people with broken brains, we now know that the brain is a modular organ, built up from many discrete modules, each with its own function and history in the evolution of the species. When one module, or multiple modules are damaged, consciousness remains. What this tells us is that consciousness does not reside in a specific area of the brain. Consciousness is a phenomenon or epiphenomenon that arises from the feedback between the different modules of the brain. It is a deep-rooted function which is incredibly hard to stamp out, even in the most damaged brains.

Split-brain patients offer the strongest testimony to how consciousness is not tied to a specific neural network:

Disconnecting the two half brains instantly creates a second, also independent conscious system. The right brain now purrs along carefree from the left, with its own capacities, desires, goals, insights, and feelings. One network, split into two, becomes two conscious systems.

They used to–and perhaps they still do–perform split-brain surgery to cure epilepsy. The surgery works, and after the nerves between the two cerebral hemispheres are cut, consciousness is also cloven. Here’s an interesting story Gazzaniga shares of Case W.J. After his split-brain surgery, Gazzaniga had tested him to see the results of the surgery:

More crazy yet, in the early months after surgery, before the two hemispheres get used to sharing a single body, one can observe them in a tug-of-war. For example, there is a simple task in which one must arrange a small set of colored blocks to match a pattern sown on a card. The right hemisphere contains visuomotor specializations that make this task a walk in the park for the left hand. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, is incompetent for such a task. When a patient whose brain has recently been split attempts the task, the left hand immediately solves the puzzle; but when the right hand tries to attempt the task, the left hand starts to mess up the right hand’s work, trying to horn in and complete the task. In one such test, we had to have the patient sit on his bossy left hand to allow the right to attempt the task, which it never could accomplish!

If consciousness does not arise from a specific area of the brain, and the dualists and reductionists are mistaken, then from where does it arise? Gazzaniga’s calls his solution complementarity. It’s sort of an awkward word, but I see how he came up with it: the word is a bold rejection of Descartes’ term duality, or the mind – brain split.

Complementarity

The physicists posit that there are two worlds. There is the world of classical physics. This is Newton’s world. The world of objective observers. Processes are deterministic and predictable. Objects in the classical world can be waves or particles, but not waves and particles simultaneously. There is a spooky force over distance (e.g. gravity), but they got over this centuries ago. Classical physics explains the macro world (larger than an atom) quite well. Then there is the world of quantum mechanics. Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and others came up with this model to explain the subatomic world. This is the world where there are no objective observers. Observers, by observing, alter the system. Processes are probabilistic and unpredictable. Reality is spooky as objects in the quantum world exist as a blur, as both particles and waves simultaneously. It is only the law of large numbers that levels out the blur so that material objects appear concrete. Complementarity describes how subatomic objects exist as both particles and waves simultaneously.

The observer plays a crucial role in the quantum world. By observing quantum processes, the observer collapses the complementary reality of the subatomic object into either a wave or a particle. Choose one experiment, light acts like a particle. But choose another experiment, light acts as a wave. Physicists refer to the inescapable separation of a subject (the measurer) from the object (the measured) die Schnitt. It seemed that human consciousness played a role in collapsing quantum wave functions.

But was human consciousness required in breaking down quantum wave functions. Theoretical biologist came up with an amazing breakthrough when he argued that lower levels of consciousness was able to do this. How low?

Pattee proposes that the gap resulted from a process equivalent to quantum measurement that began with self-replication at the origin of life with the cell as the simplest agent. The epistemic cut, the subject/object cut, the mind/matter cut, all are rooted to that original cut at the origin of life. The gap between subjective feeling and objective neural firings didn’t come about with the appearance of brains, it was already there when the first cell started living. Two complementary modes of behavior, two levels of description are inherent in life itself, were present at the origin of life, have been conserved by evolution, and continue to be necessary for differentiating subjective experience from the even itself.

What Pattee claims is that quantum measurements do not require the physicist-observer. Quantum measurements can take place even on a cellular level. For example, enzymes such as DNA polymerases perform quantum measurement during cell replication.

DNA, Materialism, Symbols, and Life

Materialists say that DNA, being made of chains of atoms, must obey the laws of nature. But, according to Pattee, the materialists don’t see that DNA is also a symbol: it contains the description of the organism. And while DNA contains the description of the organism, it is not the organism in itself. To turn DNA into the organism, two separate steps are required: translation and construction. RNA and other proteins and enzymes “read” the DNA to translate DNA and construct the organism. If the physicist-observer is the highest level of consciousness, the simplest level of consciousness, according to Gazzaniga and Pattee, is the RNA reading the DNA. Like how the physicist-observer observes subatomic particles, so too, the RNA observes the DNA sequence. At the very beginning of life, there was observation. And this observation was carried up to higher and higher levels of consciousness by evolution so that, to continue the analogy, the DNA is likened to the physical brain and the RNA likened to the subjective experience of “I.” This is an exceedingly bold claim.

From Whence Consciousness?

So, “consciousness” began with the beginning of life from when RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazed” onto the DNA template or blueprint. This gaze between RNA and DNA eventually became human consciousness. But where does our consciousness arise? Gazzaniga uses a soda water analogy to illustrate consciousness. Each module of the brain produces conceptual bubbles that rise to the surface. The “I” is what lies at the surface, and whatever bubble happens to have surfaced constitutes the “I.”

The History of Ideas

For those of you interested in the history of ideas, there’s a story on thermodynamics that Gazzaniga relates that reminds me of a question the astrophysicists are tackling today:

Still, even though Newton’s view of things took some getting used to, his laws seemed to describe most observations of the physical world well, and they became entrenched over the next two hundred years. But soon there was a new challenge to Newtonian physics that had to do with a new invention: the steam engine. The first commercial one was patented by Thomas Savery, a military engineer, in 1698 to pump water out of flooded coal mines. Even as the engines’ design improved, one problem continued to plague them: the amount of work they produced was minuscule compared to the amount of wood that had to be burned to produce it.

The early engines were all super inefficient because way too much energy was dissipated or lost. In the wholly determined world that Newton envisioned, this didn’t make much sense, so the theoretical physicists were forced to confront the puzzle of the seemingly lost energy. Soon a new field of study emerged, thermodynamics, and with it a change in theory about the nature of the world.

Does the story of the missing energy remind anyone of the astrophysicists’ search for dark matter? For galaxies to spin and move through galactic superclusters, they would have to contain much, much more matter than that which we can see. It’s been argued that up to 85% of the mass of the universe has not been discovered. Just as the physicists created thermodynamics to explore and find where all the missing energy in engines was going, perhaps we’re on the verge of a new branch of physics that will discover new laws and properties of matter heretofore unknown. What I’m saying is that the history of ideas seems to recur.

The Chicago School

I had known about the Chicago School of economics. I didn’t know there was a Chicago school of biology as well. Gazzaniga relates how the Chicago School of biology is, at bottom, anti-reductionist:

As Rosen, his [Rashevsky, one of the founders of the Chicago School] student describes, “He had asked himself the basic question: “What is life?” and approached it from a viewpoint tacitly as reductionistic as any of today’s molecular biologists. The trouble was that, by dealing with individual functions of organisms, and capturing these aspects in separate models and formalisms, he had somehow lost the organisms themselves and could not get them back.” He came to the realization that “no collection of separate descriptions (i.e. models) of organisms, however comprehensive, could be pasted together to capture the organism itself…Some new principle was needed if this purpose was to be accomplished.” Rashevsky dubbed that pursuit of the new principle relational biology.

Closing Thoughts

Gazzaniga talks about how patients who have undergone split-brain surgery develop two separate consciousnesses. Presumably, if you tied back the nerves between the two hemispheres of split-brain patients, consciousness would merge back into one. Now, what if you were to wire together separate brains. On the split-brain analogy, if you wired together multiple brains, they should form into one consciousness (you could do experiments wiring left and right hemispheres in series or parallel as well). Would brains wired in series or parallel access to more computing horsepower or a higher consciousness? And, if yes, would this brain cluster still be human? Or, what if you hooked up an Intel processor to the brain. You’d think from reading the news they’re getting close to being able to do this. Yes, this would also be an interesting thought experiment for the ethical philosophers.

Gazzaniga also talks about how evolution added more and advanced modules to the brain. It would have been interesting to read his speculations on where evolution is going to take us next. In another two or three hundred thousand years, will we have acquired additional “modules?” And what will these modules give us? Easier access to abstract mathematics? Higher IQ? Nirvana? Or?

And finally, if, as Gazzaniga postulates, the act of RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazing on” or “interpreting” DNA constitutes the first act of life and consciousness, then another question arises. Was life accidental, or will Nature bring life into being whenever it can? Is consciousness part of the natural order of things? Does consciousness arise as a natural phenomenon like how gravity will coalesce matter together into stars, clusters, and the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy?

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

LA THEATRE BITES Interviews Edwin Wong on the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

I sat down with Patrick Chavis, founder of the LA Theatre Bites podcast, to talk about my new book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected (Friesen Press 2019). Thank you to Patrick and LA Theatre Bites for this fantastic opportunity to talk about risk theatre, a bold and engaging way to both interpret yesterday’s plays and create tomorrow’s classics.

Here’s the link to the half hour podcast. Sit down, grab a coffee, and enjoy! We talk about the playwright competition based on risk theatre (https://risktheatre.com/), last year’s winning play (IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean), how risk functions in drama, compare risk theatre to other theories of drama, and even attempt a risk theatre read of one of Chavis’ favourite movies: Star Wars. It’s one action-packed interview!

http://latheatrebites.com/interview-with-edwin-wong-the-writer-of-the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-and-the-unexpected/

Patrick Chavis / LA Theatre Bites Blurb

Patrick Chavis is the creator, designer, podcast/writer and head editor at LA Theatre Bites since its inception in 2016. Because of the massive size of the Los Angeles area and its large theatre presence. Patrick decided to create short review podcasts instead of the traditional written review format allowing reviewers to see more shows and connect more authentically with theatre fans. LA Theatre Bites is consistently ranked as a top ten theatre podcast.

Edwin Wong / Risk Theatre Blurb

In 2018, Edwin Wong founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition with Langham Court Theatre–one of the oldest and most respected theatres in Canada–to challenge conventional Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean theories of tragedy. Visit https://risktheatre.com/ for details.

The centrepiece of the competition is Wong’s book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Instead of looking at tragedy as the interplay between the Dionysian and Apollonian (Nietzsche), the collision between irreconcilable ethical forces (Hegel), or a process to achieve catharsis (Aristotle), Wong’s drama manifesto argues that each dramatic act in tragedy is also a gambling act where heroes place delirious bets at the no-limit tables. These heroes, by going all-in, trigger unexpected and devastating outcomes. Tragedy is a theatre of risk.

With numerous examples from well-known plays such as Macbeth and Death of a Salesman to lesser known gems such as Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Wong demonstrates how protagonists wager their human assets from dignity to “the milk of human kindness” to achieve their aims, whether it be the American Dream or a Scotch crown.

From emerging playwrights to Emmy Award winners, in the first year of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition over 180 entrants from 11 countries have taken up the challenge of reinventing an ancient art for a modern era. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is the book that launched an important and exciting new international art movement.

Wong is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated in ancient theatre. His other research interests include epic poetry, where he has published a solution to the contradiction between Homeric fate and free will by drawing attention to the peculiar mechanics of chess endgames. He lives in Victoria, Canada and blogs at https://melpomeneswork.com/.

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

Review of “The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy” – Roche

pages 51-67 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Mark W. Roche is the Joyce Professor of German Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters from 1997 to 2008. He is the author of six books, including Tragedy and Comedy: A Systemic Study and a Critique of Hegel (1998) and Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (2004).

“The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy”

Roche’s essay is chapter 4 in A Companion to Tragedy, edited by Rebecca Bushnell.

According to Roche, Hegel’s theory of tragedy is, after Aristotle’s, the most studied and quoted. Unlike Nietzsche, Hegel never formulated his theory in one book. Hegel’s thoughts are scattered through his writings. For English readers, Anne and Henry Paolucci have collected all Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy (mainly from Phenomenology of Mind and Lectures on the Philosophy of History) in their useful book: Hegel on TragedyWhat did Hegel have to say on tragedy?

Tragedy arises, according to Hegel, when a hero courageously asserts a substantial and just position, but in doing so simultaneously violates a contrary and likewise just position and so falls prey to one-sidedness that is defined at one and the same time by greatness and by guilt.

Hegel’s position on tragedy, is, unsurprisingly, based on the famous Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. His thoughts on tragedy are really an extension of this theory of knowledge:

Each category or thesis reveals its one-sidedness and passes over into its antithesis, which is likewise recognized as one-sided, eventually giving way to synthesis, which both negates and preserves the earlier terms; the synthesis itself becomes absorbed in a larger process in which it, too, is recognized as partial, though at a higher and more complex level. This continual progression, whereby partial categories give way to their own internal contradictions, leads to an ever greater realization of reason, self-consciousness, and freedom.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Great?

  1. Most theories of tragedy focus on tragedy’s effect on the emotions. Only a handful focus on the structure of tragedy. Hegel, along with Hölderlin, Schelling, and Peter Szondi, examine the structure of tragedy, and explore how the hero’s flaw is intertwined with the hero’s greatness. Of course, Hegel’s theory also considers the emotional effect of tragedy, but as a secondary element of the exploration. According to Hegel, we feel not pity, but sympathy with the hero since, despite the fall, the hero is justified.
  2. Hegel’s emphasis on collision emphasizes how “it is the honour of these great characters to be culpable.” harmartia denotes a character flaw in Aristotle’s theory. Hegel’s “error mechanism” is more complex, as now the hero’s greatness and flaw are one and the same thing: “in fulfilling the good, the hero violates the good.”
  3. The focus on collision is inherently dramatic. Hegel’s theory invites critics to focus on the most dramatic moments in tragedy. This is what we want, since tragedy is naturally a dramatic art. Drama is to tragedy what sound is to music. Hegel’s theory is especially applicable to Goethe’s Faust (the collision between Faust and Mephistopheles) and other works which contain collisions such as Euripides’ Bacchae, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan.
  4. There are external collisions (e.g. Antigone versus Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone). But there can also be internal collisions where the same individual is aware of irreconcilable and just conditions within himself. Hamlet is such an example. Roche writes: “To elevate to tragic status Hamlet’s lack of will as a simple inability to act, the common view among Hegel’s contemporaries, is to transform tragedy into mere suffering. For Hegel the apparent weakness of Hamlet derives, rather, from the energy of his thought, which recognizes a conflict between the emotional need to act in the face of corruption and indecency and insight into the immoral nature of the contemplated action.”
  5. The collision of opposite forces–both justified–inspires philosophical reflection on the good. By presenting two alternatives, Hegel invites the spectator to weight the totality of the duties and obligations contained in either claim.
  6. Hegel’s theory draws attention to tragedy’s treatment of paradigm shifts in history. Collisions frequently dramatize tradition conflicting with innovation: case in point is Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where Athena represents the democratic process of trial by jury while the Furies represent the archaic system of “an eye for an eye” retributive justice. Hegel’s theory gave rise to the historical drama of Friedrich Hebbel which dramatizes one norm being pushed aside to make way for the new norm.

While Hegel doesn’t offer a theory of comedy, he “recognizes a shift from tragedy to comedy when what is substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Limited?

  1. While Hegel considers that the opposing forces in the tragic collision are equally justified, that is seldom the case. For example, even in Antigone, Hegel sympathizes more with Antigone’s “right.” That’s an interesting point, as there’ve been a few articles by classicists (who specialize in the ancient world) arguing that Sophocles and his audience would have gravitated more towards Creon. In their reading, Antigone goes too far in her obdurate persistence. The takeaway from this limitation is that there are very few pure Hegelian tragedies where both sides counterbalance equally in their claims.
  2. Hegel does not distinguish between external (e.g. Antigone versus Creon) and internal collisions (e.g. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”). Roche points out, however, that this is less a criticism than an expansion of Hegel’s theory. Roche breaks down internal collisions into a two major types: the tragedy of self-sacrifice where the hero does good knowing that suffering will be involved (Miller’s Crucible or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) and the tragedy of stubbornness where the hero will not yield (Sophocles’ Ajax). The tragedy of stubbornness is similar to what has been understood as a tragedy of character where the hero has too much of one virtue and not enough of another (e.g. in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann has too much honesty and fearlessness but a lack of prudence).
  3. Hegel’s critics dislike his insistence on an element of harmony in the resolution of tragedy. To moderns such as Marcuse, “The absolute tragic essence of the tragic tragedy is suffering without meaning.” If this is modernity, I am allergic to modernity. For me, the purpose of art is to instil meaning onto “unmeaning” reality; reality, as a concatenation of random events, lacks intrinsic meaning. Art puts reality into human terms. A good third to one-half of ancient tragedies end in reconciliation. Would Marcuse and moderns consider Aeschylus’ masterpiece The Oresteia (where the Furies are reconciled with the new order of Olympian gods) to be something other than a tragedy? Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, where Augustus is reconciled with the conspirators is another excellent example of a successful “resolution” play. Hegel is certainly right to insist on an element of resolution in tragedy. If I want suffering without meaning, I don’t need the theatre, I’d just watch the news.
  4. Roche finds a fourth criticism in Hegel’s failure to articulate clearly between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation. This is made more complicated in that the line between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation are blurred: Goethe’s Iphigenia and Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for example, can be considered to be tragedies, dramas of reconciliation, or both. At times Hegel seems to prefer a tragedy where the reconciliation comes organically (e.g. through the plot) and at other times Hegel disparages dramas of reconciliation.
  5. Critics such as Otto Pöggeler find fault with Hegel’s long run optimistic worldview: it is incompatible with the gravity of tragedy.
  6. Critics such as Johannes Volkelt finds fault with tragedy for portraying individuals rather than metaphysical ideals. Not sure why Roche would list this as a fault or limit of Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
  7. Last criticism is that Hegel’s theory applies only to a handful of plays: “Hegel’s typology of tragedy, brilliant though it is, appears to exclude all but a dozen or so world tragedies.” There you have it: Hegel’s theory is the one-trick pony of literary theory.

Hegel’s Theory versus the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

Let’s take Roche’s comments on Hegel’s theory and apply them to my theory of tragedy, called “risk theatre.” Risk theatre argues that risk (rather than a collision) is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out February 2019, so risk theatre is, compared to Hegel, an upstart contender.

The first thing Roche likes about Hegel’s theory is that it prioritizes investigating the structure of tragedy before it looks at tragedy’s emotional affect. So too risk theatre examines the structure of tragedy. In risk theatre, the central element of the structure is not a collision, but risk. Heroes, by taking on inordinate risk, trigger cataclysmic low-probability, high-consequence events. Tragedy dramatizes risk gone awry. In risk theatre, each dramatic act is also a gambling act.

Roche appreciates how Hegel weaves together the hero’s greatness and the hero’s flaw together. It is an advance on Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, or the tragic flaw. Risk theatre does away with the flaw altogether. In risk theatre, the hero’s bet is good. The odds are with the hero. Heroes are clever, after all. They play to win. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the hero will prevail. Tragedy, however, dramatizes the one time out of a hundred where the best-laid plan fails. Risk makes tragedy exciting. In risk theatre, instead of a flaw, an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event brings the hero down. In risk theatre Birnam Wood is always coming to high Dunsinane Hill. The “flaw” in risk theatre is chance: more things have happened than what the hero thought would happen.

Roche has high praise for Hegel’s theory of tragedy because collisions are inherently dramatic. Risk theatre would argue that risk is as inherently as dramatic as collisions. Richard Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid and Walter Tevis’ The Hustler, two novels which use the gambling analogy as a visual analogy of risk illustrate the dramatic qualities inherent in risk (both were also made into memorable movies with high powered casts including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). Risk theatre and Hegel’s theory enjoy a similar advantage in that their focal points are both inherently dramatic.

Risk theatre, like Hegel’s theory of tragedy, delineates a theory of comedy. For Hegel, tragedy shifts to comedy when the substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal. Risk theatre, predictably, looks at the relation between tragedy and comedy in terms of risk. Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. The difference? Tragedy dramatizes downside risk and comedy dramatizes upside risk.

In one way, risk theatre and Hegel’s theory have quite different limitations. While Roche identifies the limited applicability of Hegel’s theory as a drawback, risk theatre casts almost too wide a net by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy.” The saving grace is that risk theatre is interested in a specific type of risk: the all-in wager. To trigger the low-probability, high-consequence event, the hero has to go all-in.

With regard to an element or resolution or harmony in tragedy versus unmitigated suffering, risk theatre is agnostic. Risk theatre is built on the idea of opportunity cost. By pursuing one option, the next best option is foregone. Risk theatre is happy so long as the price is paid. If, after the price is paid, there is a resolution, that neither adds nor detracts from the tragedy. In Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, for example, Augustus sacrifices his authority to maintain law and order. Do they try to assassinate you?—reward the conspirators with consulships and join them together in powerful marriages. Augustus has paid the cost of preserving the Empire by showing clemency to the conspirators. The play ends in a group hug. Risk theatre, however, finds it a perfectly acceptable tragedy, as the resolution came at a high price. What risk theatre cannot stomach is a resolution that comes without paying the price: that is the stuff of comedy.

As to Hegel’s optimism, risk theatre is likewise optimistic. While Hegel sees progress through the dialectical process, risk theatre sees progress because the audience, having seen how unexpected low-probability events can have the highest consequences, leaves the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. Theatre dramatizes risk acts gone awry on the stage so that off the stage we learn to become more robust. After seeing tragedy, the audience learns off stage to have a plan B, learns to keep some powder dry, learns of the dangers of too concentrated a position.

Roche finds that a drawback of Hegel’s theory is its limited applicability to the great tragedies. Hegel’s theory works on a dozen or so plays. Risk theatre does not share this drawback. As long as you can construct the hero’s actions as a wager and something happens out of left field to upset this wager, risk theatre works. In some plays, it’s obvious. Macbeth is risk theatre’s paradigm play: Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown but all is lost when Birnam Wood unexpectedly comes to high Dunsinane Hill. Some plays, such as Miller’s Death of a Salesman, require a little more imagination, but, in hindsight, work quite well through a risk theatre read. According to risk theatre, Loman wagers his dignity on the American Dream. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when, contrary to expectation, Loman realizes his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. And some plays, such as King Lear, require a great deal of imagination, but reward you with a new take on an old play. According to risk theatre, Lear bets the well-being of the kingdom on his capacity to rule. It is a good bet: he has ruled wisely and made good decisions for many years. The unexpected event which derails his bet happens when senility overtakes him; he had not been counting on that. Risk theatre, unlike Hegel, is an infinitely plastic theory of drama, bounded only by the reader’s imagination.

There you have it: round one of a ten round battle royal: risk theatre versus the mighty Hegel!

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

BookLife Review of Edwin Wong’s THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY

Wong’s hardy debut book of literary criticism succeeds in presenting a challenge to the famous playwrights of yesteryear while providing a compelling framework for today’s storytellers. Inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and drawing on examples from Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ovid, and several other venerated writers, Wong depicts risk—not sorrow or regret—as the peak point of all tragic stories, arguing that setting up one’s own downfall through a misjudged gamble is, in fact, the greatest tragedy of all. Much of the book is devoted to retellings of classic stories, leading to the redefinition of the tragic theater art form. Wong goes beyond considering characters’ risk-taking to examine factors such as meddling from outside forces, external authorities, passion, and the supernatural.

The book’s appeal lies in its novel premise and attention to detail. Readers opening it in hopes of a quick explanation of tragedy in drama may find it initially slow going, but they will be satisfied by Wong’s complete and thorough explanation of a new perspective from which one can view the masterworks of tragic theater. Wong concludes by challenging modern playwriting, viewing it both as a form of art and as a way that playwrights themselves take risks.

Tragedy has long been seen as essential to literature and drama, and much ink has been spilled about what makes it work; the idea of conscious risk-taking being the real source of tragic emotion feels genuinely new and exciting. Though the language is dry, dense, and highly technical—leavened only by the occasional humorous quotation—this is nonetheless an excellent compilation of arguments that will stimulate creative minds.

Takeaway: Playwrights and philosophers will completely devour this deep dive into the idea that tragedy stems from the misjudged gamble.

Great for fans of Eric Bentley, Simon Shepherd, Neil Verma.

Production grades

Cover: B

Design and typography: A

Illustrations: –

Editing: A

Marketing copy: A+

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

REVIEW – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values – Harris

2011, Free Press, 320 pages

“Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of Science!”–Edwin Wong

Book Blurb

Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people–from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists–agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the primary justification for religious faith.

In this highly controversial book, Sam Harris seeks to link morality to the rest of human knowledge. Defining morality in terms of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that science can do more than tell how we are; it can, in principle, tell us how we ought to be. In his view, moral relativism is simply false–and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

Author Blurb

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books, The End of FaithLetter to a Christian NationThe Moral LandscapeFree Will, and LyingThe End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at samharris.org.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

The book catalogs so many fails in religion that it might have been called, The Immoral Landscape: How Religion Fails to Determine Human Values. Agreed, religion has failed on many counts. But, perhaps it has worked some good as well? Did faith not inspire artists–Bach, Michelangelo, the poet of the Song of Songs–to create awesome works of art? Was Christianity not instrumental in improving conditions for slaves in the Roman world? Does religion not give something for the people to believe in? Many other examples are possible.

Harris’ presentation lacks balance. This lack of balance is deliberate. He cites one after another in an endless litany the fails of religion and neglects to mention any good that it has done. People who applaud Harris will love it. The lack of balance, however, may be off-putting for moderates. And religious folk may find the presentation distasteful. Even Nietzsche, who wrote works such as The Antichrist, attacked the church in a way that religious people could, if not agree with, see the point of view. Nietzsche’s pronouncement, for example, that “the very word Christianity is a misunderstanding–at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” for example rings true to many Christians who see a wide gulf between the teachings of Jesus, the original Christian, and Saint Paul, who founded organized Christianity a generation later. This seems to be a valid point: Christianity is misguided from the bottom, as the God of Paul and the God of Jesus are fundamentally different in the same way as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the Jesus. To attack religion as Harris does by saying it causes war, incites hatred, and gives rise to abhorrent practises is beside the point. If, as Harris argues, there are no gods, then is religion responsible or would it be more accurate to say human nature is responsible?

Harris’ argument that science and reason inform human values rests on a debatable premise. The premise is that the greatest good for the greatest number should be the greatest good. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but that’s what I gathered. He comes from a utilitarian school of thought. He could have just as easily have said that science and reason support eugenics or something like that, and then come up with supporting arguments. Of course, he doesn’t say that but instead says that we should use science to advance the happiness of the human race. If this is the case, I would have a few questions for him. Say I agree, for the moment, that there are no gods. What if, however, science could demonstrate (through some brain scan or through looking at actuary tables) that the belief in religion or the gods makes people healthier, more fulfilled, and longer lived? It would be a sort of placebo effect. And what if science could scientifically demonstrate that, if you took this placebo away from these people that their lives would be made less rewarding. Would you still, in the name of reason, strip these people of their god?

Because religion is a barbaric relic, Harris elevates science and reason over us as the new arbiter of human value. Science and reason will teach us ethics and morals. My spider-sense tingles here. At least under the old gods, one could say: I respect your practise, but seeing that I am not Catholic (or a Buddhist or a Protestant or a Muslim, etc.,), I do not subscribe to your practise. I am free to choose. But if science and reason can, as Harris argues, tell us how to comport ourselves, where is there to hide? Can one, in the same way, say, “I respect your practise, but seeing that I don’t believe in reason, I do not subscribe to your practise.” Whoever controls science and reason becomes a new god. And woe to the heretics who doubt the new gospel! My spider-sense tells me that if Project Reason gets its way, there will be a new Inquisition, one in which the freedom to dissent will be crucified on the cross of Science.

If you’re going to base human well-being on something, it might as well be science, right? Religion has made so many mistakes, after all. So many mistakes it can’t be trusted. But I remember they used to have this thing called margarine. “Natural animal fats are bad for the heart,” the scientists said, “have this science butter instead.” But today I think most people would say butter is healthier than margarine. It may prove true in the future for the current rage for this “healthy” meat substitutes such as “Beyond Meat.” The point is that science makes mistakes too. And when science makes mistakes, the repercussions are big, since you had put your trust in science. Here’s a secret: it’s when you’re most confident that, paradoxically, you’re in the gravest danger. Science tends towards innovations with short term track records. But since it has the backing of science, we tend to trust it. And this brings us to an interesting point: is tradition, which has been honed through history and time superior, or is science, the product of continual innovation and experimentation better?

One thing tradition has going for it is that it stands the test of time. It is robust. It grows stronger through time. If a custom has been around for a hundred years, chances are it will last for another hundred years. If a custom has been around for two hundred years, chances are it will last another two hundred years. And so on. One advantage of religion is that it embraces tradition. In embracing tradition, its precepts are tested through the persistence of time. Science is the opposite. It destroys tradition. And it shoots forward into the future at a breakneck pace. As Harris himself writes, “The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.” Take diet, for instance. There’s a lot of things we would consider odd with a diet prescribed by religion, whether kosher, halal, or a Buddhism. But, if your goal is health and longevity, would you try that, or one of the latest fad diets prescribed by science?–the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the Ketogenic diet, margarine, beyond meat, etc.,? In my mind, the answer is simple: if you’re not sure, go with tradition. Tradition doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Harris argues that you shouldn’t trust religion because it’s done a lot of bad things. And then he brings up the notable examples. Let’s take a look at our judicial system of trial by jury. I’d say it works pretty well, most of the time. And I would suggest most people agree. But sometimes the trial by jury system makes big blunders. If I were to cite these blunders, would it be a good argument to get rid of it. I would say no. But maybe you say, “If it makes many blunders, let’s get rid of it on the condition that there’s something better to replace it with.” Okay. Harris has something better to replace religion with: he has this thing called science. But then, on a closer examination, is science completely pure, only working good? Science has never done evil, never come up with nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, and designer drugs?

Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of science.

Science, through the mediator of art, will arbitrate human values. Case in point: Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities)

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

October Update – Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU assiduous playwrights for all your entries! Here are the vital statistics since the 2nd annual competition began four months ago. Sixteen plays have come in from two continents (North American and Oceania) and two countries (USA and Australia). Here are the country breakouts:

USA 14 entrants

Australia 2 entrants

Of the American entries, 11 are from the east and 3 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (10 entrants). Go New York! Australia is also off to a good start, already exceeding last year’s entries. A long way to go to hit the 182 entries from 11 countries from last year.

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 13 men and 3 woman. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know of one tragedy written by a woman. That play is The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, written by Elizabeth Cary in 1613. The times, they are a changing!

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 16 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, Australia, UK, and China. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 13,920 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My book: THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED (ISBN 978-1-5255-3756-1) hit the bookshelves in February 2019. To date, it has sold 916 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book won in the Readers’ Favorite Awards and the Colorado Independent Publishers Association Awards.

Please ask your local library to carry this unique title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: Brown University, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado (Denver), Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, and the Russian State Library. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

http://theelementsofwriting.com/wong/

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

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

Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato – Mike Tyson (Sloman)

2017, Penguin, 465 pages

Book Blurb

When Cus D’Amato first saw thirteen-year-old Mike Tyson spar in the ring, he proclaimed, “That’s the heavyweight champion of the world.” D’Amato, a boxing legend who had previously managed the careers of world champions Floyd Patterson and José Torres, would go on to train the young boxer and raise him as a son. D’Amato died a year before Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history.

In Tyson’s bestselling memoir Undisputed Truth, he recounted the role D’Amato played in his formulative years, adopting him at age sixteen after his mother died and shaping him both physically and mentally after Tyson had spent years living in fear and poverty. In Iron Ambition, Tyson elaborates on the life lessons that D’Amato passed down to him and reflects on how the trainer’s words of wisdom continue to resonate with him outside the ring. The book also chronicles D’Amato’s courageous fight against the mobsters who controlled boxing, revealing more than we’ve ever known about this singular cultural figure.

Author Blurb

Mike Tyson is the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, and the first boxer ever to hold the three biggest belts in prizefighting–the WBC, WBA, and IBF world heavyweight titles-simultaneously. Tysons’ enduring appeal has launched him into a career in entertainment: he was a standout in the films The Hangover and The Hangover Part II, and recently he has earned tremendous acclaim for his one-man show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. Tyson has launched a clothing company, Roots of Fights, and Tyrrhanic Productions, which currently has several film projects in development. In 2011 he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Kiki, and their children.

Larry “Ratso” Sloman is best known as Howard Stern’s collaborator on Private Parts and Miss America. Sloman’s recent collaborations include Mysterious Stranger, with magician David Blaine; Scar Tissue, the memoir of Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis; and Undisputed Truth with Mike Tyson. His biography The Secret Life of Houdini is soon to be a major motion picture for Lionsgate.

Iron Ambition

This book inspires. The book talks about boxing. Talks a lot about boxing. Talks a lot about D’Amato’s all-in fight against the corrupt mobsters who ran the IBC. But it’s not a boxing book. It’s a self-help book. And it’s the kind of self-help book people who don’t like self-help books will like. It’s about an old guy whose developed a specialized martial art: the peekaboo style. He’s got one goal: train world champions. The fundamentals of his peekaboo style aren’t physical, they’re mental. He believes in character. Character makes the difference in the ring. His training techniques are unorthodox. He would put his fighters under hypnosis, and whisper to them, “When you hit, hit with bad intentions.” He would have his fighters recite, twenty times, at morning and at night, a simple mantra daily: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” He would tell his fighters that they were God’s most ferocious creations. He would tell his fighters that the memory of the boxing idols of that day would all be forgotten in the future, unless one of his fighters would say, in the future, “I learned this punch from Jack Dempsey or so and so.” He would take in street kids with absolutely no confidence, and instil in them the self-confidence of the gods. He was Cus D’Amato, and his protege was Iron Mike Tyson.

My mind is divided on self-help. Obviously it works. That I don’t doubt. The problem is the people who invest themselves into self-help seem to become themselves self-help coaches. They’re like tinker toys, each winding one another up. They don’t seem to do things other than train one another. But this book is awesome in that D’Amato is into self-help and he does things. He produced three champs: Floyd Patterson, José Torres, and Mike Tyson. He took fighters with low self-confidence–especially Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, who had no self-confidence–and convinced them they could be world champions. In the book, Tyson spends pages marvelling how D’Amato’s techniques raised his confidence so high that he thought he was a god. To this day, Tyson struggles because D’Amato raised his self-esteem too high. If that’s not testimonial to D’Amato’s system of character building, then I don’t know what is.

The book is filled with examples of D’Amato and his “mind over matter” philosophy. I’m not much into hocus-pocus, but if it helps you succeed, then it is good. Here’s a short passage that gave me the chills. I wonder if everyone gets these moments or these moments only come to the happy few?

Cus was a believer in destiny. Even as a young boy, he felt that he’d be famous someday; he always had a feeling that “there was something different” about him. I had the same exact feeling. So it felt right that I would move in with Cus and Camille. Cus was so happy. I couldn’t understand why this white man was so happy about me. He would look at me and laugh hysterically. Then he’d get on the phone and tell people, “Lightning has struck me twice. I have another heavyweight champion. He’s only thirteen.”

One of the first nights that I stayed over at the house on one of the home visits, Cus took me into the living room, where we could talk alone. “You know I’ve been waiting for you,” he told me. “I’ve been thinking about you since 1969. If you meditate long enough on something, you get a picture. And the picture told me that I would make another champion. I conjured you up with my mind and now you’re finally here.”

D’Amato reminds me of a character in an Ibsen play, Solness in The Master Builder. He too, practised this visualization technique to become the master builder. So, there are others out there who feel the pull of destiny. A curious, driving call full of power and powerlessness at the same time. The fire burns into you, but at the same time you are thrall and a pawn to this destiny that looms over you.

Why do we do this, the endless hours of training? Cus too, has an answer. We do it for immortality, to be remembered in a song for the future generations. I feel sometimes D’Amato should have been an ancient Greek, living in the times of Homer. The ancients also recognized this justification. They built pyramids so that they would be remembered. They fought the Trojan War for ten years so that it could be a song for the future generations to epic singers to sing. Today, if you want to be remembered, there’s something wrong with you. You need to be humble. You need to blend in. Don’t go for a home run when you can get away with a hit. D’Amato sets today’s values on their head. Aim for one thing with all your being, he says:

I used to ask Cus, “What does it mean being the greatest fighter of all time? Most of those guys are all dead.” “Listen, they’re dead, but we’re talking about them now, this is all about immortality.” That fucked me up. It changed the whole game. I just thought it would be about riches, the big cars, the big mansions he used to point out to me. But now he was taking it to a whole other level. He got me hooked with the riches, but now he suddenly said, “You’re going to be a god.” This was the real deal, and the real deal fucked me up real good. Then he said, “Forget the money.” Once he told me that shit, it blew my mind. He was talking immortality and I’m figuring out what that is.

And here’s D’Amato on having a purpose in life. People today, I think, value living for the sake of living. But D’Amato offers another view: it’s not about life, but about life’s purpose. Purpose is so concentrated a force that when it’s not met, the dead will come back:

Then Cus told me that he was dying from pneumonia. I started getting angry. We had so much together. I’m a little street kid with this old guy who’s in exile and we’d talk about these grandiose dreams and making money and buying mansions and how there was nobody in the world who could touch us. They couldn’t do anything but gawk at us. We were the most magnificent gift boxing had ever witnessed. And now it was over before we had reached our ultimate mission. I couldn’t go on with it without Cus.

“If you die, I’m not going to fight anymore,” I said, sobbing. Cus looked angry. “Now listen, if you quit fighting, then you’re going to find out if people can come back from the dead, because I will come back and I will haunt you for the rest of your life. You have to fight.”

On the way to the goal, fighters encounter obstacles. Life gets in the way. Injuries get in the way. Doubt gets in the way. Fatigue gets in the way. D’Amato had a solution. If you don’t go all the way, you’ll never know how close you were. To keep his fighters focused, he had this John Greanleaf Whittier poem posted in the very spot where he would work the fighters the hardest:

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,

When the funds are low and the debts are high,

And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit,

Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,

As every one of us sometimes learns,

And many a failure turns about,

When he might have won had he stuck it out;

Don’t give up though the pace seems slow–

You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than,

It seems to a faint and faltering man,

Often the struggler has given up,

When he might have captured the victor’s cup,

And he learned too late when the night slipped down,

How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out–

The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,

And you never can tell how close you are,

It may be near when it seems so far,

So stick to the fight when you’re the hardest hit–

It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

Iron Ambition is a fantastic and rich read for a variety of reasons. If you’re a fan of Tyson, you’ll want to learn about his trainer and manager. If you’re a fan of boxing history, you’ll want to read about D’Amato’s dangerous fight against the corrupt IBC. If you’re driven and laser-focused on goals, you’ll want the secrets of D’Amato’s techniques which gave his fighters the psychological edge. From Cus D’Amato you will learn that it is okay to want it all. It is okay to spend your life in dogged pursuit of one purpose. It is okay to sacrifice everything that stands in your way. It is not a crime to want glory and immortality.

Cus D’Amato was born in the 20th century, but he was really born out of his time. His values and beliefs resonate more closely with the ancient Greek and Romans who believed that it is not our peers who will judge us. It is eternity who will judge us. Why is it that way? It is that way because we have the spark to be great, to be the greatest. And when you have the spark to be the greatest, you comport yourself and live life as though eternity were watching every step you take. This book teaches you that greatness is not a crime and dares you to be more.

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

A Risk Theatre Read of Marlowe’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS

OKANAGAN COLLEGE, KELOWNA CAMPUS

PRESENTED TO TERRY SCARBOROUGH’S SECOND YEAR ENGLISH CLASS

OCTOBER 29, 2019

 

1 INTRODUCTION TO MARLOWE AND DOCTOR FAUSTUS

Thank you, Terry for inviting me to talk about one of my favourite plays, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out earlier this year, and it examines this play in-depth. Like Aristotle’s Poetics, Hegel’s writings on tragedy, and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, my book is a theory of tragedy, or an idea of how tragedy works. In this talk, we’ll go through the action of Faustus act by act, and end by a special treat: interpreting the play through the lens of different theories of tragedy.

The critic AC Swinburne called Marlowe “the father of English tragedy and the creator of English blank verse.” George Bernard Shaw called him “the blank verse beast.” TS Eliot called him “the bard of torrential imagination.” Who was Marlowe? Anyone know when he was born? 1564. Who else was born that year? Hint: some people think that he was Marlowe. Marlowe lived a life of intrigue, moving from the highest to the lowest levels of society. In his plays, he savaged Catholicism, but he was rumoured to be a Catholic sympathizer, or, worse yet, a raging atheist. For this reason, Cambridge wouldn’t give him his master’s until the Privy Council confirmed that his absences were excusable: he had been conducting espionage on her majesty’s secret service. He hung around unsavory characters. One of his roommates was the revenge tragedian Thomas Kyd, who was arrested when they lived together for writing papers “denyinge the deity of Jhesus Christ.” He was a notorious brawler, and when he has a character in one of his plays say that one must “now and then stab, as occasion serves,” one wonders if he is referring to himself (Young Spencer in Edward II). He also kept company with spies, double agents, and folks involved with the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. If nothing else, learn from Marlowe to keep better company: he was stabbed at a dive bar and died at age 29. At his death, his output towers over Shakespeare, who was born the same year. Marlowe at 29 had Faustus, the two parts of Tamburlaine, and Hero and Leander. The best works Shakespeare had at 29 were The Comedy of Errors and Richard III.

Faustus is one of my favorite tragedies because excitement is in the air. This is the English Renaissance. Renaissance from re- ‘back again’ and naissance ‘birth’. It was a rebirth because the Greek and Roman classics were being rediscovered in England. A lot of things had been lost in the Middle Ages, including the art form of tragedy. Most people think that, from Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the fifth century BC, tragedy was an art form available to playwrights. Not true. The first English tragedy wasn’t written until 1561 when Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville wrote The Tragedy of Gorboduc. The catalyst for the creation of English tragedy was the rediscovery of the tragedies of Seneca the Younger. From 1559 to 1580, John Heywood translated Seneca’s plays into English. You probably know Seneca as a philosopher and the tutor to the degenerate Roman emperor Nero. But he also wrote ten tragedies. When playwrights began imitating the political bloodbaths of Senecan tragedy with the existing English morality play, English tragedy was born.

When was Faustus written? Between 1588-1593 in the heyday of the English Renaissance. This was the age of colonialization. This was the age Greek and Roman classics were being rediscovered. This is the age of boundless ambition. You can even see evidence of the boundless energy of rediscovery in the text. Look at who Faustus mentions in the opening lines, all classical authors. First, he mentions Aristotle: “Yet level at the end of every art, / And live and die in Aristotle’s works. / Sweet Analytics, ‘tis thou hast ravished me!” (1.1.4-6). The Analytics are two volumes on logic, reasoning, and scientific knowledge. Next, he mentions the physician Galen: “Galen, come! / Seeing ubi desinit philosophus, ibi incipit medicus, / Be a physician, Faustus” (1.1.12-14). Next, he mentions Justinian, the famous Roman Emperor and lawmaker from the sixth century who codified Roman law. Aristotle, Galen, and Justinian were very much part of the intellectual culture in the English Renaissance: in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, written about a decade later the jolly knight Falstaff tells us he reads Galen. Late sixteenth century England was a time of incredible rediscovery, exploration, renaissance. Marlowe’s Faustus is the first man of this new age.

It’s been said that many of Marlowe’s creations are overreachers. In another tragedy, Tamburlaine conquers kings, and then steps on them to ascend the throne. Faustus is also of this overreaching mode. He’s mastered philosophy (Aristotle), medicine (Galen), law (Justinian), and theology. He has mastered every available arts and science. In his ambition to become master of reality, he is appetite incarnate. He doesn’t even need Mephistopheles to tempt him, he is so ambitious. In a ridiculous scene, when Mephistopheles gets teary eyed reminiscing on paradise lost, Faustus tells the devil to suck it up: “Learn thou of Faustus manly fortitude,” he says the Mephistopheles (1.3.87). Faustus embodies the energy of Renaissance England.

You know who he reminds me of?—another fellow in another age of 1980s excess Freddie Mercury, who once sang “I want it all.” Not only did he “want it all,” he had the audacity to define when he wants it: he “wants it right now.” And then he clarifies the scope of his appetite: though he wants it all and he wants it now, if you want the truth, “It ain’t much I’m asking.” He’s telling us that, well, you know, to want all right now is not to want enough. Insatiable appetite for knowledge, sensuality, and to be wanted characterize both Faustus and Mercury: death is no deterrent to the will. Remember, when Mercury wrote that he wanted it all, he already knew he had AIDS, which, at that time, was a death sentence. AIDS would not stop Mercury from wanting it all, nor would the loss of a soul stop Faustus.

2 PROLOGUE

Let’s consider the play’s structure. It begins with a choral prologue, a feature Marlowe borrows from Seneca’s plays. In the prologue, the chorus tells the audience what’s going to happen. It’s a big spoiler. Note all the classical references in the prologue: Mars, Carthage, the invocation to the Muse, and comparisons between Faustus and Icarus. To find a voice for English tragedy—in its infancy at this point—Marlowe marries Roman myths with the story of Faustus, a German magician from the Middle Ages. English tragedy is the child of pagan Rome and Christian Germany.

Consider how he gives a new English understanding to the ancient myths. Do you know the myth of Daedalus and Icarus? Daedalus build King Minos the labyrinth. Since Daedalus knew the secrets of the labyrinth, Minos imprisons Daedalus and his son Icarus in a high tower. Daedalus fashions waxen wings, warns his son not to fly too close to the heat of the sun, the son ignores the dad’s warning, flies where the eagles dare and plunges into the Icarian Sea. Let’s see how Marlowe plays on the myth:

That shortly he was graced with doctor’s name,

Excelling all whose sweet delight disputes

In heavenly matters of theology;

Till, swoll’n with cunning of a self-conceit,

His waxen wings did mount above his reach,

And melting heavens conspired his overthrow.

For, falling to a devilish exercise,

And glutted more with learning’s golden gifts,

He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy. (17-25)

Marlowe conflates Lucifer’s fall from grace with Faustus’ fall through the myth of the flight of Icarus. It adds another layer of depth into the play. As a side note, you can see how, centuries later, James Joyce finds his artistic voice in the same way differently in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. In this work, he identifies his protagonist with the mythic Daedalus by naming him Stephen Daedalus. Instead of a comparison with Lucifer, however, Joyce likens Ireland itself—a country he calls “a sow which eats her own farrow”—with the tower. Stephen is trapped in the tower of Ireland in his novel. And how does the artist escape the tower of Ireland? In a stunning twist, art provides the waxen wings for Stephen to soar free. The point of this digression is to show you how, if you keep taking Terry’s English classes, you can catch and appreciate the aesthetic beauty of how artists do new things with old stories.

3 FIRST ACT

Act one sees Faustus exhausting the limits of all the orthodox faculties one by one: philosophy, medicine, law, and theology. As he reaches the limits, he seeks dominion that “Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man” (1.1.63). Valdes and Cornelius come to show him the dark arts and Faustus proves to be a quick learner. By scene three he has succeeded in summoning Mephistopheles. There’s a nice jab at the Catholicism when Mephistopheles’ true form proves to be too ugly, and Faustus commands the devil to “return an old Franciscan friar; That holy shape becomes a devil best” (1.3.25-26). England, since Henry VIII had been excommunicated by Pope Paul III, did not recognize the authority of friars and popes. I am sure in Protestant countries such as Germany, Marlowe’s play would have been popular, and less popular in Catholic countries such as Italy.

Act one also sees Faustus’ negotiations with the devil: he gives up his soul for twenty-four years of the devil’s services. This includes: living in voluptuousness, having the devil attend him, give him whatever he asks, answer all his questions, slay his enemies and aid his friends, and be in general obedient to his will. If there is any doubt of how Faustus and Marlowe’s characters are overreachers, just compare how “normal” folks make a pact with the devil. The violinist Vivaldi and blues guitarist Robert Johnson were content to give the devil their souls just to play violin and guitar. Faustus negotiates much more. That makes this play dramatic and exciting. How much is the soul worth? To Johnson, it was worth a guitar. To Vivaldi, it was worth a violin. To Faustus, it is worth power that “Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man” (1.1.63).

Have you ever thought about tragedy as a valuing mechanism? Tragedy really dramatizes a gambling act. You want something. If you’re Faustus, you want world dominion. If you’re Macbeth, you want the Scotch crown. If you’re Loman in Miller’s Death of a Salesman, you’re after the American dream. If you’re in a revenge tragedy, you want revenge. Now, to get what you want, you have to ante up. If you’re Faustus, you ante up your soul. If you’re Macbeth, because you were too nice of a guy, to get the crown, you have to put up “the milk of human kindness,” or, in other words, your compassion. If you’re Loman, you have to ante up your dignity to pursue the American dream. If you’re a revenger, you have to ante up whatever stands in your way. Now, depending on what you pledge, you can see how much it is worth. How much is world domination worth? To Faustus, one soul. How much is mastery of the violin playing worth? To Vivaldi, also one soul. When you read tragedy, think of it as a valuing mechanism for human values. The more amazing the wager, the more life is worth.

Act one ends with a comic interlude where Wagner, Faustus’ boy, and the clown parody the earlier action. They have some fun with names when Wagner summons Belcher and Balioll or “Belly-all,” the comic version of Belial. Wagner’s clearly thinking about food. The clown Robin can’t get the devil’s names right either, referring to “Belly-all” as “Banio,” or “brothel.” His mind is in the gutter as well. Comedy often laughs at bodily functions. And the scene ends with a crack at Faustus’ name. Wagner says something completely bombastic and Robin replies: “God forgive me, he speaks Dutch fustian” (1.4.75). “Fustian” means “rant” or “gibberish” and is, of course, a play on Faustus’ name.

3 SECOND ACT

Act two begins with Faustus debating the momentousness of his pact with the devil. He wavers back and forth, and, as he wavers, to add to the dramatic effect, he’s visited by the Good Angel and the Evil Angel, who vie for Faustus’ soul. At the stroke of midnight, Mephistopheles returns to seal the deal. There’s a false start as Faustus’ blood coagulates as he tries to write “Faustus gives to thee his soul” (2.1.67). The momentousness of the undertaking is such that his very body revolts at the thought of giving over the soul. In a mockery of Christ, Faustus ends the ceremony by declaring consummatum est, “It is done,” the last words of Christ as he died on the cross. Christ had died to redeem humanity for their sins.

After the deal goes down, Faustus begins testing Mephistopheles with the pertinent questions of the day. You can see from their exchange the questions fascinating to Elizabethans. Where is hell? Is it possible to control the weather? Can we predict the path of the planets to come up with a better horoscope?

In act two is another comic scene. The clown Robin seems to have gotten a job as a valet; he’s looking after people’s horses at an inn. And he’s stolen one of Faustus’ conjuring books. In a caricature of Faustus, Robin tells his friend Rafe (or modern Ralph) how he’ll use his diabolical powers to “make all the maidens in our parish dance at my pleasure stark naked” and cast a spell over the kitchen maid so that Rafe can “wind her to thy own use” (2.2.3-4 and 29-30).

What’s the point of these comic interludes? These comic interludes seem to be a feature of Elizabethan tragedy. The Elizabethans learned how to write tragedy from copying Seneca and reading Chaucer’s description in the Monk’s Tale. The bodycount and pile of corpses they got from Seneca. The fall from grace and reversal of fortune they got from Chaucer. There are no comic interludes in either Senecan tragedy or Chaucer’s Monk’s description of tragedy. These comic interludes seem to be peculiar to Elizabethan tragedy. Even a generation after in the neoclassical tragedies of Racine and Corneille, you don’t find it. And you certainly don’t find it in the tragedies of the German romantics such as Goethe and Schiller. Nor do you see it in American tragedy in the twentieth century.

Shakespeare’s night porter in Macbeth is another example of comedy within tragedy. It’s a very peculiar Elizabethan thing. Like Marlowe, the humour emerges from the bodily functions. Among other things, the night porter in Macbethgives a little sermon on alcohol and sexual performance. A little bit, you know, okay. Too much, not good. Have you thought about the function of these comic interludes? I’ve always thought that the comic interludes to tragedy is the same as soda water to cigars. If you watch cigar aficionados like Arnold smoke big stogies, you’ll notice they don’t have them in one go. Since cigars don’t have accelerants, they go out if you’re not drawing. When they go out, you cleanse the palette with soda water. Then you’re ready to enjoy the cigar again. That’s how I see these comic interludes. They relieve the tension. They cleanse the palette, so you’re ready for serious action. These interludes are one of the gems of Elizabethan tragedy. It’s a particular innovation of this time that doesn’t occur before or after. Too bad.

Bevington and Rasmussen, the editors of the “Revels Plays” edition that I’m using, have set the comic scene between Robin and Rafe in act two. I’m not sure which edition Terry has you guys using, but this scene could also be in act three of your text. That’s where it is originally, but there’s a problem with the entrances and exits so the editors in my text have moved the scene into the second act.

This is a good segue into the text of Doctor Faustus. The play itself dates to 1588 (or as late as 1592). But the original play is lost. What we have is the “A-text,” written down in 1604 and the “B-text,” written down in 1616. The A-text is shorter. The B-text has more scenes, more devils, and more characters. The A-text focuses more on the tragedy of Faustus. The B-text focuses more on the spectacle of theatre. For example, the B-text adds a whole scene involving papal intrigue: while in Rome, Faustus and Mephistopheles rescue and whisk away the German Antipope Bruno, who has been captured by Catholic Italian forces. The A-text may have been written together from actors’ memories. The B-text seems to have been commissioned by an independent impresario with the instructions to take what worked well in the first decade of performance, and to build more of a spectacle around these scenes. The debate has shifted back and forth, and it is the consensus of late that the A-text is closer to what audiences saw at the original productions of 1588.

Back to act two. Act two closes with the Good Angel and the Evil Angel tempting Faustus. Faustus goes with the Good Angel, and cries out to Christ: “Ah, Christ, my Saviour, / Seek to save distrèssed Faustus’ soul!” (2.3.82-83). But, instead of Christ coming, the opposite happens: Lucifer himself comes to remind Faustus of their pact. To keep Faustus in line, Lucifer offers to show Faustus the seven sins. Here we see a repeating motif: Faustus, when he really thinks about it, repents and goes back to God. But what the devil does is to distract Faustus’ good intentions with little sideshows and promises of wealth. The play speaks to us on the nature of temptation. It seems we know what to do, but the devil tempts us with diversions: work a few hours overtime, check Instagram, Facebook, what’s going on on Twitter? Faustus doesn’t even enjoy the show the seven sins puts on, he tells the sins to scram. But they divert him long enough that he forgets about God, and, in the fight for Faustus soul, it’s the diversions that give Mephistopheles the advantage: 24 years goes by in a twinkling of the eye.

4 THIRD ACT

Let’s move on to act three. Act three find Faustus travelling through Germany (he starts in Wittenberg) and France on his way to Rome, the eternal city. We get a geography lesson from Mephistopheles on the sights along the way. It’s surprising, to an audience in the sixteenth century, such a trip is something on a scale that you need diabolical assistance. These days, I achieve the same thing getting a ticket on Expedia and listening to a tour guide. This brings us to an interesting point. To get the most out of classic works, not only do we have to follow the playwright’s imagination as we imagine all the scenes, how the characters look, how they move, we also have to imagine how Marlowe’s audience would have been wowed by all this. For example, take these three lines of Faustus talking about the sights in Naples:

There saw we learnèd Maro’s golden tomb,

The way he cut an English mile in length

Through a rock of stone in one night’s space (3.1.13-15)

There’s quite a bit involved in understanding them. First, you’ll have to know who Maro is. Maro is Publius Vergilius Maro. Back then, they referred to him by his cognomen, Maro. We call him today after his nomen, Virgil. Who knows, maybe in four-hundred years we’ll be calling him Publius: that’s what his family would have called him. Okay, so Faustus saw Virgil’s tomb. Virgil being the great Roman epic poet who wrote The Aeneid, the epic poem which recounts Trojan Aeneas’ journey to Italy. So what’s the connection? Well, Virgil today is known as a writer of epic, but back then, he was rumored to be a magician too. So that explains why Faustus talks about the mile long tunnel between Naples and Pozzuoli that Virgil built in one night: it ties in with the magic motif of the play. Because of his powerful magic, his epic poem the Aeneid was a popular fortune telling device at this time. Want to know the future? Flip open the Aeneid to a random page, read the verses, and, they will tell you. Handy, eh?

What else? To understand these lines, we also have to know something about Virgil’s celebrity in this era and Marlowe’s own debt to Virgil. Marlowe wrote another tragedy on Dido, the Queen of Carthage. She’s the queen that saves Aeneas when he gets shipwrecked escaping the fall of Troy. Marlowe’s primary source was Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid. Even a century after, when Purcell created the first English opera, it was the story of Dido that he set to music. So, if you know all these little facts, it’s possible for you to engage with all the layers of meaning in the text. The point of literature, I think, is to fill us with a sense of wonder and awe, and we can feel the wonder and awe when we can understand first the words, then the meaning the words convey, then how the contemporary audience would have reacted, and then why the writer chose to use such and such a reference. We feel wonder over how these writers and audiences of the past are alike and similar to us, and awe over how Marlowe puts together all these words, verbs, and adjectives imbued with so many layers of image and meaning. If you are into the wonder and awe, keep coming to Terry’s English classes!

What else is in the third act? There’s Mephistopheles and Faustus’ run in with the friars and the Pope. Predictably, there’s jokes at the Catholics’ expense. For example, Mephistopheles refers to the summum bonum or “highest good” of the monks as being belly cheer. We see the inversion of the Catholic theodicy in this joke and others, such as Faustus’ request that we discussed earlier for Mephistopheles to appear in the form of a Franciscan friar. This play, with some daring, turns religion topsy-turvy, and it’s been conjectured the Puritans who shut down theatre in 1642 likely used it as an example of why the theatre should be censored. People from more traditional backgrounds might look askance at Faustus’ declaration consummatum est (“It is done”) that we discussed earlier, or the profane “Last Supper” with his fellow scholars playing Christ’s disciples that comes up in act five.

In fact, because there is an A-text of 1604 and B-text of 1616, we can see infer that there was some backlash to some of the risqué religious elements: certain cuss words have been cut out from the text “snails,” “zounds,” “sblood,” and so on. Do you know what they’re abbreviations of?—“snails” is for “God’s nails,” “zounds” is for “God’s wounds,” and “sblood” is, of course, for “God’s blood.” Their cuss words were based on the wounds of Our Lord the Saviour on the cross. In fact, there are urban legends around this play that during the scenes where the devils come on stage, sometimes the actors would be confused: where did that extra devil come from? No doubt it was an Elizabethan devil that happened to be flying over and, when he heard the actors wracking the name of God, came down to investigate.

Since it’s so close to Halloween, I’ll share with you my own diabolical Faust story. True story. In 2014, I took the ViaRail across Canada, sleeper cabin. So many things happened on that trip that in the one week, I accumulated years of experiences and memories. I had to bring something to read on the train: what better thing to do than to overlook the Rocky Mountains, sip on a beverage, and read classic literature. Well, every ten years or so, I revisit the German scientist and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s interpretation of the Faust legend. It was time.

Faust is a German legend. That’s why Marlowe’s Faustus starts off in Wittenberg, Germany. And that’s why Goethe, the granddaddy of German letters, immortalizes him in his two plays, Faust: Part One, written in his youth, and Faust: Part Two, written in his eighties. The historic Johann Georg Faust was an actual scholar, alchemist, doctor, and magician from Helmstadt, Germany who lived from 1480-1541. He claimed to be able to perform the miracles of Christ: at one point he was referred to as the “demigod of Heidelberg.” He died, perhaps, in an explosion when an alchemy experiment went bad. Hence the legend that Faustus’ body was found dismembered from devils tearing him apart.

In 1587, a German “chapbook” or cheaply produced book came out which collected all these stories of the actual Faust from the fifteenth century. This book was a bestseller, reprinted several times in the same year in German, and translated into English shortly after. Marlowe’s play—except for the comic scenes—follows the so-called “English Faust Book” closely. It pretty much is the “English Faust Book” set into blank verse with the addition of some comic scenes. Goethe, when he wrote his Faust, had access to both Marlowe’s play and the “German Faust Book.” By the way, “Faustus” is just the Latinized version of the German name “Faust.” In a strange coincidence, faustus is also the Latin adjective meaning: “fortunate, lucky, or auspicious.”

On my train trek across Canada, I brought Philip Wayne’s verse translation of Goethe’s Faust. I also brought my Norton edition, which has the German text and a crappy but literal translation on the facing page. Also, on this train trek, I was going to experiment with different sleeping patterns: our eight hours of sleep is a very modern thing. I was going to break up the eight hours of sleep into three long naps throughout the day. So that meant I would be up in the middle of the night. On the first night, I set the alarm for 3am. I got up, and started reading Goethe’s Faust. In no time, I got to the scene where Faust summons up the earth spirit with a powerful spell. It was going great. But then I thought, “You know, to really get at the heart of poetry, I need to read it out loud.” Yes that was good. And then I thought some more: “To really feel the jingle and the jangle of the metre, I should be reading the German out loud.”

I was reading the spell to summon up the ancient earth spirit out loud, and quite loud, because, on the train, the noise of the tracks conceals quite a bit. Now, as I was doing this, I heard a banging in the sleeper cabin behind me. I thought it might be train noise, but no, definitely banging. In the cabin behind me was where Maria, one of the train attendants, was staying. She had help set me up by explaining how the beds folded down. You see, in the sleeper cabin you get a washroom, a little sink, and a bed in a 6’ x 4’ space. The bed folds down over everything, so if you have to use the washroom in the middle of the night, you have to fold up your bed. Maria was from the islands on the westcoast of BC, a Catholic lady originally from Quebec. I got up, went to her door, and knocked. When she answered, she looked white as a sheet, I said I heard some noise and asked if everything was okay. She said yes, and it was a little bit awkward and then I went back to my room.

The next day, I saw Maria in the breakfast cabin. She came up, and apologized. She said, “Sorry, I had a bad dream.” I said, “That must have been some dream.” She replied, “Yeah, I thought the devil came up to me and was sucking out my soul.” At that point I got some goosebumps: when this dream came up to her, I had been in the next cabin reciting out Faust’s spell to conjure up the earth demon! Anyways, when this happened, I must have looked a little weird and she must have felt a little sheepish so we sort of headed our separate ways.

But then it gets better. So I told you I was reading Philip Wayne’s brilliant verse translation of Goethe’s Faust. A nice Penguin edition, I love Penguins. On the cover is an image of Mephistopheles flying over Wittenburg. Now, I would be sitting on the train, and there’s only so many places you can sit on the train before you run into everyone. And every so often, Mariah would walk by and we would chat. And I could tell as we were chatting she was looking at my book to see what I was reading: you can always tell when someone is looking, but trying to pretend that they’re not looking. It makes it so much more obvious. Because of what happened, I would sort of tuck the book away into the corner whenever she came. Again, just like a surreptitious glace, when you try to surreptitiously scoot something away so as not to draw attention, you draw that much extra attention.

We played this game until one day, me and Mariah were chatting, and the cook came out. “What are you reading?” he asks, and, before I could do anything, grabs the book which I had laid upside down on the table. “Oh, Faust,” he says, “isn’t that the story of the guy that makes a bet with the devil and gets his soul sucked down into hell?” At this moment, I could see a pale expression come over Maria’s face, like “Oh my God!” Without saying a word, she got up and left. I didn’t really know what to say either. I could say: “Your dream had nothing to do with me, I swear.” But how could I even say that? Luckily, the train was just about at Winnipeg. The crew change happens there, the western crew catches the train back home, and the eastern crew pick up. I never saw her again, but once in a while, I think back on this experience on the ViaRail.

What else is in act three of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus? After Faustus boxes the Pope on his ears, there’s a comic scene between Robin and Rafe. With Faustus’ magic book, they succeed in summoning Mephistopheles. Apparently, souls, like apples, come in different grades. Mephistopheles is so mad that he has come so far to collect two such unworthy souls that he turns Robin into an ape and Rafe into a dog. As befits the “bodily functions and appetite” theme in these comic scenes, Robin replies that as an ape he’ll never run short of being fed nuts and apples, and that Rafe, as a dog, will have an unending supply of porridge. Dogs, at this time, could always be found licking out porridge pots.

5 FOURTH ACT

The action shifts to Spain in act four. Mephistopheles and Faustus go to visit Charles V. There they entertain the Holy Roman Emperor by conjuring up shades of Alexander the Great and his paramour. After entertaining Charles V, they start to head back to Germany, and Faustus reminds us that twenty-four years have almost passed:

Faustus: Now, Mephistopheles, the restless course

That time doth run with calm and silent foot,

Short’ning my days and thread of vital life,

Calls for the payment of my latest years.

Therefore, sweet Mephistopheles, let us make haste

To Wittenberg. (4.1.100-105)

They are going full circle, going back to Wittenberg, where Faustus will find heaven or hell. If he repents, he will find heaven. God’s mercy is infinite. If he fails to repent, he will find hell. And again, in the horse-dealer scene, Marlowe reminds us that Faustus’ time draws to its end:

Faustus: What art thou, Faustus, but a man condemned to die?

Thy fatal time doth draw to final end.

Despair doth drive distrust unto my thoughts.

Confound these passions with a quiet sleep.

Tush! Christ did call the thief upon the cross;

Then rest thee, Faustus, quiet in conceit. (4.1.139-144)

Faustus recollects here a scene from the Gospels, Luke 23:43 where Christ and two thieves are set upon crucifixes at Calvary (not cavalry, which are troops on horseback). One thief asks Christ if he is the Messiah, why doesn’t he save them. Perhaps the incorrect thing to say. The other thief, however, has faith, and says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:43). He has faith, and Jesus responds “Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.” The key is that the thief has faith. Faustus, however, has no faith. He despairs: “Despair,” he says, “doth drive distrust unto my thoughts.” What is despair? Do you recall the scene where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He says: “This sickness is not unto death,” meaning that, even though he’s dead, he’s not going to die from whatever sickness he had, since Jesus is going to raise him. Kierkegaard would ask years later: “Okay fine, Lazarus didn’t have the sickness unto death. But then, what is the sickness unto death?” His answer was “Despair. Despair is the sickness unto death.” So with Faustus, we can see a species of this sickness of despair in him. He repents (which is good), but he despairs (which is bad because it’s the sickness unto death. His repentance is a sort of negative repentance. Because he despairs, he can’t find God’s grace. We can see Marlowe play with this theme between despair and repentance elsewhere, for example later on in act five Faustus says:

Accursed Faustus, where is mercy now?

I do repent; and yet I do despair:

Hell strive with grace for conquest in my breast:

What shall I do to shun the snares of death?

Likewise, after the Good Angel and the Evil Angel vie for Faustus’ soul in act two, Faust comes ever so close to going back to God, but ultimately concludes:

My heart’s so hardened I cannot repent.

Scarce can I name salvation, faith, or heaven

But fearful echoes thunder in mine ears:

‘Faustus, thou art damned!’ (2.3.18-21)

Act four closes with two scenes. Now Faustus has come full circle back to Germany. In the horse-dealer episode, he’s back in Wittenberg and in the concluding scene, he’s in an adjoining duchy called Vanholt. You can see from the Vanholt episode how far we’ve coming along in the last 400 years: to get out of season grapes back then, you needed a miracle or diabolical assistance. Today, to get out of season grapes, you go down so Save-on-Foods. Passages like this fill me with wonder, as I think of how, things that seem miraculous today will be, in the distant future, commonplaces.

6 FIFTH ACT

Now, act five, this is where the blank verse jingles and jangles the best. It is full of purple passages. “Purple passage” is the term for a brilliant lines out of a work of literature. The colour purple was associated with majesty, as to make the colour purple in the old days required grinding down tens of thousands of a particular type of shell in a laborious process. And so a purple passage is a like a line that lords it lesser line. The most famous must be Faustus reaction when Mephistopheles brings him Helen of Troy:

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? (5.1.91-92)

A textbook example of synecdoche, the poetic device of using a part (in this case “the face”) to represent the whole (Helen herself). Then consider this:

O lente, lente currite noctis equi!

The STARS move STILL; time RUNS; the CLOCK will STRIKE;

The DEVil will COME, and FAUStus MUST be DAMned.

O, I’ll LEAP up TO my GOD! Who PULLS me DOWN?

See, SEE where CHRIST’s BLOOD streams IN the FIRmaMENT!

One DROP would SAVE my SOUL, half a DROP. AH, my CHRIST! (5.2.74-80)

Playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw called Marlowe “the blank verse beast,” and we can see why from this passage how Marlowe raised the power of blank verse, or unrhymed iambic pentameter to express the profoundest moments of the soul in pain. He quotes the Roman poet Ovid in the first line in a wicked reversal: Ovid’s plea “Run slowly, slowly, ye horses of the night!” was originally an invocation to delay the dawning day so that the lover could have another moment with his beloved. Then, Faustus imagines himself in a sort of delusional frenzy jumping up to heaven, but unable to escape hell’s gravity over him. Then, in one of the wickedest images, Faustus sees the blood of Christ streaming in the heavens. What is this? A comet? Or is it like the plane of the Milky Way galaxy on a clear night? The image is unsettling. What is Christ’s blood doing streaming in the firmament? And where is Christ?—Faustus has called out to him a couple of times and up pops the devil instead. The more I think about this wonderful line, the more I wonder at what sort of diabolical intellect behind this image. I mean, who sees this sort of stuff? But it’s pure poetry: even though the logical mind rebels, the image makes innate sense.

How does blank verse work? In each line, there’s ten syllables: “The STARS move STILL; time RUNS; the CLOCK will STRIKE.” The ten syllables can be subdivided into five metrical feet, each of which has one short and one long syllable: “The STARS” that’s one “move STILL” that’s the second “time RUNS” that’s the third, and so on. If you rhyme the line endings as well, you get sonnets. But this is blank verse, so no rhymes. English sort of naturally works itself into iambs so Marlowe’s lines have a good flow. Consider this more modern poet, who also wrote in iambs: “I WILL not EAT green EGGS and HAM! I WILL not EAT them SAM I AM!” Iambic pentameter was the meter of Shakespeare and later, of Milton. It really captures a perfection in the English language. Driving, powerful, onwards streaming. It was in the 1560s, or a generation before Doctor Faustus that the poets began writing the first verse plays such as Gorboduc. But it took a Marlowe to bring it to its full powers of expression in Doctor Faustus. Not only is the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman classics happening in the English Renaissance, the poets are also finding ways of the national language to express the English identity. And I think it’s important to consider not only the vitality that streams through this play because they were going through a Renaissance, but to also consider the vitality of England inventing its national meter in blank verse. Homer and Vergil wrote in dactylic hexameter. Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton had iambic pentameter

Besides the purple passages in act five, what else do we notice? One thing, as the play draws to the end, is that there are no women in this play. That’s sort of odd. The only other play that I know of in any language without women is Seneca’s Thyestes. And the other touching thing about act five is that Faustus has his first real conversation, that is, a conversation not with underlings, devils, and royalty. In his conversations with the Old Man and the scholars, he talks with equals, he tells them of the diabolical pact and we get the first real conversation: “Oh, by the way, I’ve been doing all these great things the last 24 years because I made a pact with the devil.” “What?!? Time to turn back to God, my friend!” Which brings us to the final question: what is this play about? Is it a Christian play, like the old morality plays that predate it, that warns good Christians not to fly too close to the sun on waxen wings because hell awaits?

There’s an ongoing debate over when exactly Faustus’ soul is condemned. Some say that he seals the deal way back in act two when he signs the contract with Mephistopheles because the contract stipulates that Faustus becomes “a spirit in form and substance” (2.1.97). Others say it’s when Faustus takes Helen to be his paramour in act five since he commits the sin of demoniality. I think Marlowe means for us to understand that, until he’s dragged down to hell, Faustus’ has a choice to turn back to God. Otherwise why have deep into act five a scene where the Old Man and the Good Angel attempt to persuade Faustus to go back onto the straight and narrow way? What do you think? Does Faustus have free will? Does the question of predestination or free will  change how you look at the dramatic qualities of the play? When the play came out, Calvinist theologies which did not believe in free will (how can will be free if God foreknows everything) were in vogue.

7 DOCTOR FAUSTUS THROUGH THE LENS OF LITERARY THEORY

Since we’ve been talking about magic, let’s close this evening with talk about literary theory, which is a sort of magic in itself. A theorist is a powerful magician who can make texts speak in tongues. You can do interesting things with theory. Let’s start with Aristotle’s Poetics, which, interestingly, wasn’t available in England in Marlowe’s time. It was one of those lost works which hadn’t been rediscovered yet. In an Aristotelian reading of Faustus, Faustus is somewhat like us. We can identify with the hero: that is how tragedy makes us feel pity (because he suffers) and fear (instead of Faustus, the devil could be drawing us down to hell). Through some kind of hamartia, which is a tragic flaw or error, Faustus undergoes a reversal in fortune. The error is that he associates with devils and practices forbidden arts. Through his destruction, because we feel pity and fear, we undergo catharsis, or a cleansing of pity and fear. When we undergo catharsis, become a better judge of human action, of how character and intention are intertwined. The moral of the story in the Aristotelian reading is: don’t do what Faustus did.

The next major theory of tragedy was from the German philosopher Hegel. He saw that the tragic arose when two opposing, irreconcilable, and equally justified ethical forces collided. In Faustus, these two opposing ethical forces are the right to knowledge and our loyalty to God. God created us; we owe him allegiance. But we also have a right to knowledge, since we already have become mortal because we ate from the Tree of Knowledge. But God holds back on our knowledge of the spheres, of astronomy, of the inner workings of hell. Both these irreconcilable forces break out in Faustus, and he is destroyed. In his destruction, the institution of the church is restored.

After Hegel came Nietzsche, and his theory of tragedy. In Nietzsche’s analysis, there are two colliding mental states, exemplified by the Good Angel and the Evil Angel. The Good Angel voices the rational and conscious mind, which Nietzsche named after Apollo, the sun god. The Evil Angel voices Faustus’ subconscious desires. The subconscious force Nietzsche referred to as the Dionysian, after the Greek god of dreams, intoxication, and ecstasy. These two forces wrestle internally for control of Faustus’ fate. When they collide, Faustus is destroyed, but, in his destruction, the veil is lifted off of reality. We see how good and evil do not matter, but what matters is how Marlowe transforms Faustus’ story into the aesthetic phenomenon of art.

Risk theatre finds that each dramatic act in tragedy is also a gambling act. In the risk theatre analysis, Faustus bets that he can have his cake and eat it too. In the risk theatre analysis, Faustus bets that he can have world dominion and keep his soul. He bets that at the end of 24 years, he can repent. The scenes between the Good Angel, who tries to get Faustus to repent, and the Evil Angel, who distracts Faustus with the world’s pleasures. But Faustus takes on too much risk in making the pact with the devil. Because he’s taken on too much risk and concentrated his powers too far on one position, he triggers a low-probability, high-consequence event: at the end of 24 years, he finds that, when he most needs to repent, he can’t. He’s become too jaded. He had a good plan to eat his cake and have it too. A sort of Voltaire plan. Voltaire, who cursed the church when he lived, but had the last sacraments administered as he lay dying. But something happened that he didn’t think would happen. The years of power and pleasure hardened his heart. Risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk triggers the unexpected ending. When audiences see what happens to Faustus, they emerge from the theatre with a higher understanding of how more things can happen than what we expect will happen. Do not concentrate your powers too far on one position. Keep the powder dry. Have a Plan B. Risk theatre dramatizes risk gone awry on the stage so we become more robust off stage.

So these are four interpretations of the same play. Notice how theory allows you to draw quite different conclusions. This is the magic of theory.

The full transcript of this talk is available on my blog, https://melpomeneswork.com/okc-doctor-faustus/

For more on Risk Theatre, see https://risktheatre.com

Thank you, remember to tell people about risk theatre, and see you down the road!

RISK THEATRE Book Launch and Staged Reading of IN BLOOM Opening Remarks

Risk Theatre at Langham Court Theatre

Risk Theatre at Langham Court Theatre l-r: Cam Culham, Gabriel Jason Dean, Michael Armstrong, Steven Piazza, Jason Vikse, Arian Aminalroaya, Edwin Wong, Gene Sargent, Douglas Peerless, Rahat Saini, and Wayne Yercha

Transcript of my opening remarks at the Risk Theatre book launch and staged reading of In Bloom at Langham Court Theatre. Sunday, October 20, 2019. Thanks for reading, until next time I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

We have for you tonight risk theatre, a bold new asset to create and interpret literature. With us … Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean, the winner of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/)is in the house! His play IN BLOOM takes $8000 cash, a $1000 travel stipend, and a workshop. I see here competition manager Michael Armstrong and Michelle Buck, Langham Court Theatre’s general manager. They’re the heart and soul of the project. Langham Court board member Keith Digby is in France. He’s a force guiding the project. Our performers: Arian Aminalroaya, Cam Culham, Douglas Peerless, Steven Piazza, Rahat Saini, Gene Sargent, Jason Vikse, and Wayne Yercha. Michael Armstrong directing. Let’s have a round of applause for everyone!

We’re here tonight to see if risk theatre, a new theory of tragedy, can attain proof of concept. The spark of risk theatre came from a book on stock market crashes: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He argued that traders, by taking excessive risk, trigger catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events. When I read it, I thought “Replace ‘trader’ with ‘hero’ and you can give critics and playwrights a model of tragedy that resonates with modern times.”

My new book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected binds tragedy with modernity. Michelle Buck, Keith Digby, and Michael Armstrong saw the potential of making risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, and we inaugurated an international playwriting competition based on risk theatre. We fed the spark and it became a flame.

Next came the jurors: playwrights and critics of renown: Yvette Nolan from Canada, Armen Pandola from the US, and Sally Stott from the UK. They read the scripts blind. Of the 182 plays from playwrights in 11 countries, they selected Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom to champion the risk theatre concept. We fed the flame. It became a fire.

Tonight we want proof of concept. We’re staging a reading of In Bloom so that you can decide. Does risk theatre work? What happens when you make risk the dramatic centre of tragedy? Do protagonists trigger catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events by making delirious wagers? Can the risk theatre model ignite a resurgence of interest in tragedy?

We’re starting to gain traction. Theatre departments are launching courses to explore risk theatre. Historians are adapting risk theatre to the writing of history and biography. Theatre suspends disbelief, and, as you watch In Bloom, I want you to suspend your ideas about catharsis, tragic error, the Apollinian and Dionysian, alienation effect, and ethical collisions. Think instead on how the hero’s concentrated position triggers low-probability, high-consequence events. Join us as we transform risk theater into a roaring blaze so that years from now we can say: “We were there with risk theatre in those early days when risk theatre was a green shoot on the fertile soil of theory!” Thank you for coming, enjoy the show!

Full Transcript of “Why Do We Enjoy Tragedies?” – Presentation at Okanagan College

WHY DO WE ENJOY TRAGEDIES?: RISK THEATRE, A NEW 21ST CENTURY THEORY OF TRAGEDY

OKANAGAN COLLEGE, KELOWNA CAMPUS

OCTOBER 28, 2019

1 THE THEORY OF TRAGEDY

Am I at Okanagan College, home of the finest English Department in Canada? Thank you, Terry Scarborough, for the invitation. Great to see everyone here. Tonight, I have for you an amazing asset you can use to interpret and create literature. It’s a theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” It will change the way you look at literature. Theories of tragedy are fascinating. They bind together drama, literature, and philosophy for a higher calling. They’ve been studied for over two thousand years, and will be studied for another two thousand years.

The art form of tragedy has entertained audiences for 2600 years. In fifth-century Athens, the “big three” of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides lit up the stage. In ancient Rome the philosopher Seneca wrote tragedies, as did the emperors Augustus and Nero. Tragedy enjoyed major resurgences in the English Renaissance (Shakespeare and Marlowe) and Neoclassical France (Racine and Corneille). The German Romantics Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe had a turn and, in the twentieth century, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill brought tragedy to America. Tragedy has been with us a long time, and will continue for a long time after us.

The question: “Why do we enjoy tragedy?” has captivated the greatest minds from Aristotle to Hegel and Nietzsche. If you think about it, it’s odd that we enjoy tragedy. Tragedy depicts stories full of strife and sorrow. It should be repugnant to see our most exalted heroes go down in a blaze of glory. But it fires up our emotions like no other art. To answer why we enjoy tragedy, a dedicated genre called the theory or philosophy of tragedy arose. The theory belongs to a branch of philosophy which investigates the role of art: aesthetics. And though the theory of tragedy is but a limb on a branch of philosophy, if you tally all the words written in pursuit of higher learning over the last two thousand years, you’ll find that only the field of biblical exegesis has generated more discussion. The philosophy of tragedy is a cornerstone of western thought. Tonight, you’re going to assess a new asset in the interpretation of tragedy called risk theatre.

There’s hundreds of minor theories of tragedy. Of the major theories, perhaps a dozen. And then, there’s the big three. Let’s take a look at them. In the fourth century BC, they were interested in teleology, or the final purpose of things (from telos “end” and logos “story”). Predictably, Aristotle, who was around at that time, devised a theory of tragedy which explained tragedy’s final purpose. According to The Poetics, the purpose of tragedy is to elicit a cleansing or catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. The tragic protagonist, through hamartia, or an error, undergoes a reversal in fortune. Because we recognize the protagonist to be similar to ourselves, we feel pity and fear. And, in feeling pity and fear, we are cleansed of these feelings to become better judges of character.

Flash forward to the eighteenth century, Newton’s century, a clockwork and mechanistic century full of colliding and ricocheting billiard balls all obeying Newton’s laws. The German philosopher Hegel lived in Newton’s wake. Predictably, Hegel saw tragedy as the product of collisions. To describe the tragic, he took the idea of the colliding mechanical masses in Newton’s cosmos and transformed these mechanical collisions into ethical collisions. The “tragic” is the sense of wonder that arises from seeing how equally justifiable ethical positions cancel one another out.

Flash forward to the nineteenth century. The invention of the irrational world of the subconscious. Dostoyevsky illustrated the power of the subconscious in his novel The Double. Is Mr. Golyadkin’s double an actual walking and talking double or a projection of the mind? No one knows. As though taking his cue, Nietzsche devised his theory: tragedy originates in a collision of psychological forces. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the collision between the rational mind, which he referred to as the Apollinian, after the sun god Apollo, and the irrational mind, which he referred to as the Dionysian, after the god of dreams, intoxication, and ecstasy. The tragic is the higher understanding that occurs when these psychological forces collide. In the destruction of the hero we catch a glimpse of a higher reality that eludes the grasp of either the conscious or unconscious mind when considered individually.

We see from the influence of Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche how the theory of tragedy transcends art. It begins as an art form; art is the spark. The spark raises aesthetic issues: why do sad stories excite us? The spark becomes a flame. Next, tragedy raises ethical issues. Why do we suffer? The flame becomes a fire. Next, tragedy raises psychological questions. Is the rational mind thrall to irrational drives? The theory of tragedy gives rise to psychology and psychiatry. It influences the development of drama, screenwriting, and the novel. It imprints its image onto the visual and plastic arts. The theory of tragedy now sweeps through culture, like a raging inferno. They are powerful creations, all ubiquitous, which shape our imaginations. If it’s one theory you master, master the theory of tragedy. It will serve you well.

In a teleological age, Aristotle devised a teleological model of tragedy. In a mechanistic age, Hegel devised a mechanistic model. In a psychological age, Nietzsche devised a psychological model. If we want a modern theory of tragedy, we must ask: in what sort of age do we live?

2 RISK

We live in an age of risk. If you count the number of scientists active today, you’ll find they outnumber the aggregate number of scientists who existed from the dawn of time to 1970. Today’s army of scientists also work faster than ever. With AI and quantum computing, they can solve equations in seconds, equation that were deemed unsolvable in the past. The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.

With great knowledge, we take great risks. We gamble. We design terrible weapons to keep us safe. Yesterday, bombs could destroy a town. Today, bombs imperil civilizations. We globalize the world’s financial systems. Yesterday, a rogue financial model would ruin individual traders; today, rogue models mire the world in misery. We gene-edit and engineer all varieties of life. Yesterday, the Irish Potato Famine decimated Ireland; today, Monsanto plays God with all the world’s crops. Yesterday’s local risks are today’s global risks. We are the new titans, overreachers in an age of risk. How else do we describe an age which creates artificial black holes at CERN? They say, “Of course it’s safe, what could go wrong?” But I’ve seen risk go awry the day Deepwater Horizon blew out or the day Challenger fell from the sky. Because we live in an age of risk, we will make risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action in tragedy. Today, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

Playwrights write in and they say they want to write tragedy, but the mystique of its motivations and nobility and flaws puts the art form out of reach. Critics look at tragedy, and they see it as a barbaric relic of the past. Because we live in an age of risk, let’s reclaim tragedy by making risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw, but rather, heroes blow up because they make delirious wagers. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not pity and fear, but anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for how the perfect bet goes awry. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not the Oedipus complex, but rather, it’s about thrilling low-probability, high-consequence outcomes that happen against all odds. Tonight, we’re going to take the mystery out of tragedy so that even a young child can understand.

What is risk? To some people, it’s a four-letter word. It means danger. Avoid it. This lay definition ignores risk’s upside. Risk is also reward. Economists will tell you risk is volatility. They tell you that because they can quantify volatility in their equations. Economists define risk by measuring how many standard deviations a measurement is removed from the average. Think of the familiar bell curve. The average is the top of the curve. Risk is what happen at the tails at either end. That’s why you hear of unexpected low-probability events being referred to as “tail events.”

Here’s how statisticians quantify volatility: if the average height of a human male is 5’10,” if you’re between 5’7” and 6’1”, you’re one standard deviation from the mean. But let’s say you’re 5’4” or 6’4”. Then, you’re two standard deviations from the mean. It keeps going: if you’re 5’1” or 6’7”, you’re three standard deviations from the mean. Mathematically, 68% percent of males will be one standard deviation from the mean, or between 5’7” and 6’1”. 95% percent of males will be within two standard deviations from the mean, or between 5’4” and 6’4”. The “risk” of being short or tall can be quantified in terms of standard deviations away from the mean of 5’10”.

Volatility is wanting as way of defining risk. Volatility quantifies the likelihood of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” but fails to quantify the likelihood of “unknown unknowns.” You can’t put odds on unknown unknowns. Volatility fails because it can only predict what’s already happened. It predicts the punches you see coming, but fails to predict the punch you don’t see coming. Like any boxer knows, the knockout punch isn’t the punch you see, but the punch you don’t see. So we’re back to the question, what is risk? I propose that risk is simply that more things can happen than what we think will happen. When more things happen than what we think will happen, the consequences can be very high because we’re unprepared.

Here’s an example. Consider the fortifications of the Maginot Line. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the French war minister Maginot knew that Germany was chaffing under the punishing Treaty of Versailles. It was not a question of if Germany would attack, but when. Maginot thought Germany had two options, and he bet that he could outwit his German counterpart. Option one: attack France’s industrial heartland in Alsace-Lorraine by advancing through the southeastern border. Option two: attack from the northeastern border by going through the Benelux countries, an act that would mobilize France’s allies. Maginot went all-in by building massive fortifications to protect Alsace-Lorraine: he would force Germany into option two. This way, Germany would face the combined allied forces on Belgium soil.

Great plan. But something unexpected happened. Germany attacked through the Ardennes Forest. Seeing that the dense wood was considered impassable, it had been left open. More things happened than what Maginot thought would happen. When they attacked through the Ardennes, they got behind the French defenses: the massive fortifications were now facing the wrong way. Paris fell in a month. Low-probability does not equal low-consequence. In fact, the consequences of low-probability events may be cataclysmically high because unexpected harms hurt you the most.

What happened? It starts with a good plan. Then, because the plan is good, you invest yourself all-in. Why not, the plan is good, right? Nothing could go wrong. Then “more things happen than what you think will happen.” Oh no! By going all-in, you’ve left yourself exposed. You haven’t kept your powder dry. There’s no plan B. Because you’ve overextended yourself, you’ve left yourself open to a world of hurt. Risk hurts because low-probability events carry high-consequences. If you’re driving a shiny red sports car, risk isn’t the telephone pole you see. Risk is the telephone pole you don’t see. Risk, by this definition, naturally lends itself to drama.

3 MACBETH

Let’s map this definition of risk onto a tragedy. You know, each theory of tragedy champions a particular play. Aristotle loved Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Hegel loved Sophocles’ Antigone. And Nietzsche was fond of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Risk theatre champions Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth works fantastic in a risk theatre reading. It’s popularity on the stage today is a fantastic sign risk theatre is on the right track.

Macbeth. Macbeth makes a wager for the crown. Risk theatre begins with a gambling act. You need the gambling act because it triggers the low-probability, high-consequence event. This is crucial. The gambling act is to risk theatre what natural selection was to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many talked about evolution before Darwin. They’re not remembered. Darwin is remembered because he came up with the mechanism called natural selection which explains how evolution works. So too, many have commented on unexpected endings in tragedy. What risk theatre gives you is the mechanism of the gambling act which explains how tragedy generates the unexpected outcome. The more you wager, the more you concentrate your powers in one position, leaving yourself open to unexpectation.

To be king, Macbeth bets that he can get away with murdering Duncan. Like Maginot’s plan, his plan is perfect: ply Duncan’s chamberlains with wine, kill Duncan in his sleep, frame the chamberlains for murder, murder the chamberlains in turn. Macbeth even has supernatural assurances from the witches: until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and until he meets a man not born of woman, he can’t be harmed. What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? They are low: how can the trees, rooted into the earth, move up the hill? The odds of encountering a man not of woman born are even less, as all men are born of women.

But, see what happens. As Malcolm’s forces advance on Inverness, they hew down Birnam’s branches for camouflage. Birnam Wood comes. Then, when Macbeth meets Macduff on the ramparts, he tells Macduff he doesn’t want to fight: his hands are overstained with the blood of Macduff’s wife and babes. He tells Macduff he has a charmed life: no man of woman born can harm him. But Macduff tells him, he’s an anomaly: he was not of woman born. He was born by C-section. All is lost: Macbeth had not anticipated these low-probability, high-consequence events. Of course, the audience certainly anticipates it, and that’s what makes drama engaging, as the audience, once they hear the witches’ prophecy, tries to figure out how Shakespeare will bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill and find an avenger not of woman born. Macbeth is fascinating because risk drives the action, bringing Macbeth’s best-laid plans to naught.

4 OEDIPUS REX

Let’s turn to another well-known tragedy: Oedipus rex. If you have a theory of tragedy, it’d better be able to explain how the major tragedies work. In this play, a plague strikes Thebes. King Oedipus asks the oracle how to lift the plague. The oracle answers: “Find and remove the regicide who walks amongst you.” To do a risk theatre interpretation, find the bet. Oedipus bets that he can find the murderer of the previous king and he stakes his reputation on it. It’s a good bet, as he’s the sharpest wit. He had, remember, solved the Sphinx’ riddle. By going all-in on his bet, Oedipus exposes himself to risk, or the danger of more things happening than what he thinks may happen. That risk manifests itself, when, contrary to expectation, Oedipus finds out that he himself is the regicide. Like Macbeth, this play is fascinating because Sophocles makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

The further we look, the more we see how Sophocles builds unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events into the play’s deep structure. Oedipus knows the oracle that he would sleep with his mother and kill his father. What he doesn’t know is that he’s adopted. He thinks that Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, are his birth parents. Listen closely, this is how the cat comes out of the bag. Oedipus is busy conducting interviews and getting nowhere in the cold case. Then, all of a sudden, a messenger comes from Corinth to tell him: “Your dad died, congratulations, you’ve inherited the Corinthian throne!” Oedipus, perplexed, says: “How could that be, the oracle said I would kill my father … I ran away from home to avoid killing him … perhaps he died from grief because I left?” At this point, the Corinthian messenger says, “Oh, you’re worried about that? Don’t be. You’re not actually from Corinth, you’re adopted. You’re originally from Thebes. You see, by some really weird low-probability, high-consequence series of events, I’m not only some random Corinthian messenger, I had also saved you when you were a babe. You see, I used to work around here, you were left to die, I saved you and brought you to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopted you.” “Who are my parents?” asks Oedipus. “That I don’t know,” says the messenger, “I got you from the shepherd. You’d have to ask the shepherd.”

By some coincidence, they’ve already sent for the shepherd. You see, the shepherd also has an unexpected double identity: not only was he charged by Oedipus’ parents to expose Oedipus, he’s also the sole-surviving eyewitness of Laius’ murder. You see, on that day Oedipus committed his ancient act of road rage, the shepherd was also there at the crossroads, as part of Laius’ train. The shepherd, when he comes out, refuses to say anything. But under pain of torture, he speaks. Yes, Jocasta and Laius gave him a babe to expose. He shackled the babe to a crag by its feet, but relented. Yes, the babe grew up to slay his father on that fateful day. How did he recognize Oedipus after so many years? When he crucified the babe to the crag, he drove a stake through its feet. The wound left a tell-tale scar.

What we have here is absolutely extraordinary. As Oedipus conducts the investigation into Laius’ death, a messenger comes. The messenger, by some strange synchronicity, knows that Oedipus was adopted, because he had saved him years ago. Then they meet the shepherd, who had given baby Oedipus to the messenger years ago. Then, in another twist of fate, it turns out the shepherd was also part of Laius’ train that day Oedipus struck Laius down. If this isn’t the dramatization of risk, then, I don’t know what is. Oedipus rex demonstrates how heroes, by incessantly raising the stakes, trigger low-probability, high-consequence events.

Critics have fixated on catharsis; we feel pity and fear because we’re like Oedipus. But is that true? If anything, he’s different. It’s only because we’ve heard about catharsis so many times that we start to believe it. He’s not like us. He’s a king. He’s the smartest person alive.

Critics have fixated on Oedipus’ supposed tragic flaw. His pride in wanting to escape the oracle. But is that true? If someone told you that you were going to do something horrible, wouldn’t you try to avoid it? In the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus has come to peace with himself. “How was I to blame?” asks an older and indignant Oedipus. I agree. He did what he had to do.

Critics have fixated on the Oedipus complex. The play is about subconscious desires. This interpretation is wrongheaded as it rests on overreading Jocasta’s one line consolation to Oedipus. Oedipus worries that he will fulfill the prophecy by sleeping with his mother. Jocasta consoles him: “Have no fear, many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” This line has been made too much of. Her words are a stock consolation in tragedy. The consolation: “You’re not the only one … many others have also endured this” is formulaic and hardly means a thing. The chorus, for example, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, says a similar consolation to Theseus when his wife suicides: “Not to you alone has this grief come, many others have lost a trusty wife.”  So too, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius consoles Hamlet with the “many others also” consolation: “But you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his.” When Oedipus fears sleeping with his mother, the stock formulaic consolation would be to say, “Not to you alone has this fear come, many others have also slept with their mothers.” But, of course, Jocasta can’t say this, since everyone believes Oedipus is innocent. So, the stock consolation has to do a little twist to become: “Many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” The line should not be taken to mean Oedipus has a complex. That’s the last thing Jocasta would even want to imply at this moment.

If those are the other readings, what’s the risk theatre reading? Risk theatre says that Oedipus motivates the action by raising the stakes. In the beginning, it’s a murder investigation. But then the murder investigation slowly turns into an investigation into Oedipus’ past. The stakes rise with each successive interview. First, there’s the interview with the prophet Tiresias. Since Tiresias is a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to ruin Oedipus. He says: “Just send me home. You bear your burdens and I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. At some point, his wife has figured it out, figured out who Oedipus really is. She begs him to stop, saying: “Stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search. My suffering is enough.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. He has one more chance. In the final interview, the shepherd, like the others, implores him to stop: “No—god’s sake master, no more questions!” But Oedipus charges into doom.

This “charge into doom” is what I mean by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action.” Unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events are, by definition, unlikely. But the more you throw caution to the wind, the more you expose yourself to the fallout from random events. A one day delay in the post shouldn’t kill you. But it does in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Friar Lawrence and Juliet have a brilliant plan to bring Romeo and Juliet together. They’ll let Romeo know by post. The letter carrier walks into his buddy’s place to say hi. The health authority happens to quarantine the house at that moment. The letter doesn’t make it to Romeo in time. You know the rest. What’s happened? The more risk you take on, the more you interconnect seemingly unrelated events until the point where any random event can blow you up. So too, Oedipus, by going all-in, exposes himself to the fateful meeting with the messenger and the shepherd. So too, Macbeth, by going all-in, exposes himself to Birnam Wood. Tragic heroes trigger low-probability, high-consequence events by raising the stakes to the point where they blow up.

5 GO BIG OR GO HOME

How do we transform risk, or the danger of more things happening than what you think will happen, into riveting drama? Let’s expand on the gambling analogy. If, at the casino, a gambler lays down $10, sometimes things happen that the gambler expects will happen. In the game of poker, the gambler wins $10 if the gambler has three of a kind, expects that the other player has a pair, and is correct. And sometimes the unexpected happens. For example, if the gambler believes the other player is bluffing, but the other player isn’t bluffing, then he loses $10. There’s risk here, as something has happened that the gambler didn’t think would happen. But these are boring nickel and dime bets. You won’t see spectators standing around the table.

Now, consider what happens if the players move to the no-limit table and start betting $1000. More spectators would crowd around as they can now invest their emotions into the outcome. Some come to see gamblers blow up. Others cheer them on. The larger the bet, the more the spectator is transformed into a speculator. They crowd around, these armchair quarterbacks, speculating on, debating, and themselves betting on the outcome. Tragedy fascinates because tragedy dramatizes helter-skelter wagers.

Remember Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid—the one made into a Steve McQueen movie? It capitalizes on our fascination with the big bet. To become number one poker five card stud star, the Cincinnati Kid has to take down grizzled veteran Lancey “The Man” Howard. Their epic match comes down to the last hand. They both know the Kid has two pair and maybe a full house. They also both know the Man has one high card and maybe a straight or a straight flush. The Kid knows Lady Luck smiles on him. In a two-handed game of five card stud, the odds of a straight flush (that’s what the Man has) beating a full house (that’s what the Kid has) are over 300 billion to 1 against (Anthony Holden). This is a sure fire bet, like money in the bank. The Kid makes the bet. He goes all-in. He even leverages his position, borrowing a fortune to wipe the Man out. A large crowd gathers around. The crowd murmurs assent: the Kid has the Man by the neck. But, against 300 billion to 1 odds, the Man does have the straight flush. The Kid loses all. The spectators let out a shocked gasp and wonder: how did the perfect bet go wrong?

Tragedy, by dramatizing delirious all-in wagers, engages audiences in the exact same way. If you bet $10, a 300 billion to 1 event can happen, and you’d be fine. Well you’d be out $10. Yawn. The low-probability event doesn’t have high-consequences. It’s only when you lay it all on the line that the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences. When the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences, then, we have the lights, camera, and action of true tragedy.

6 COMMONPLACES ON THE STAGE OF TRAGEDY

Critics have said that proud and boastful characters populate tragedy because pride is a tragic flaw. Tonight, I call out these critics. It’s true, tragedy is full of proud and boastful characters. Playwrights, however, create proud and boastful characters not to give them a flaw, but because proud and boastful characters love risk. Inordinate, all-in delirious risk makes drama big. When the drama is big, audiences flock to see the show, because risk transforms spectators into speculators. The more the hero bets, the more the hero engages the audience. It’s the Cincinnati Kid principle: the more they wager, the more the spectators invest their emotions into the outcome as they start speculating. Does the Man have the straight flush? Will the Kid pull it off? If they’re betting $10, who cares? Change the channel. But if they’re all-in, leveraged up to their gills with their reputations on the line—then, stay tuned.

Let’s look at how tragedy sets up big bets. Consider Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Should he go to the Capitol? You’ve heard the warnings. The soothsayer tells him to stay at home: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the entrails of the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has a nightmare: Caesar’s statue bleeds. Spirits walk the streets. Birds shriek out of season. A lioness whelps in the square. Graves yield their dead. The sky rains blood. If one of these things happened, it would be a good sign to call in sick. When all these signs happen, definitely do not leave the house. But not Caesar.

See how Caesar ups the ante each time he’s told to stay at home. First time:

Caesar: I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d

Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.

second time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Caesar shall forth; the things that

threaten’d me

Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see

The face of Caesar, they are vanished.

third time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: Cowards die many times before

their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

and fourth time, “Caesar stay at home!”

Caesar: I am constant as the northern star,

Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality

There is no fellow in the firmament.

Like Oedipus who continued the investigation in defiance of the warnings, so too Caesar presses on like a bull in a china shop. He’s a proud egocentric. But it’s not hubris or a fatal flaw. Shakespeare makes him proud and egocentric so that he can raise the stakes and appear believable. We find many egomaniacs in tragedy because egomaniacs are natural-born gamblers.

Any theory of tragedy must be able to explain the world of tragedy: the characters, the setting, and the other commonplaces. Ever wonder why there’re so many idealists in tragedy? Take Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ play. Creon’s a patriot. He’s for the fatherland to the point that, when his niece is caught burying her brother, a traitor in the civil war, he sentences her to death. Risk theatre can explain his idealism: Sophocles makes him an idealist because idealists love risk. So too, Sophocles makes Antigone a religious zealot so that she can take on inordinate levels of risk and do so with conviction. She knows she shouldn’t bury her brother, but because she’s devout, she will satisfy the gods of the underworld. Because she’s an idealist, she spits out Creon’s edict by saying: “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever.” Because they’re idealists, they love to walk the walk by raising the stakes.

We’ve explained the egocentrics and idealists. What else can we explain? Have you wondered why there are so many aides, attendants, and advisors in tragedy dispensing crappy advice? Here’s why: if you have a prudent and circumspect hero, and you need them to go all-in, you give them the reckless advisor. Take Euripides’ play Hippolytus. The goddess Aphrodite strikes Phaedra with an incestuous desire for her stepson. Phaedra resists. Rather than give in, she would rather starve to death. But she has a trusted advisor in her Nurse. Her nurse says, “I can arrange the hookup. There’ll be no loss of honour.” Phaedra trusts her. When the Nurse’s plan backfires and Phaedra’s husband finds out, she will have to lay it on the line by framing her stepson for rape.

Next. Why are there so many kings, queens, and other one-percenters in tragedy? Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Again, it’s to do with risk. It’s hard to wager the world on an empty stomach. I mean, what are you going to lay down, your hunger? But, when you have ancestral capital, military capital, and human capital all burning a hole in your pocket, it’s easy to lay it on the line.

How about the supernatural elements that seem to litter the tragic stage?—the witches, ghosts, and oracles? They’re there to instill confidence. When heroes have confidence, they love risk. Look at Macbeth. Listen to the apparition, who tells Macbeth to take on risk, “Trust me,” it says, “I’m from another world. I have inside information. You’re all good. Fire at will.”

2 Apparition: Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh

to scorn

The pow’r of man; for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth: Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?

Ever consider why passions run white hot in tragedy? Tragedy seems to be full of lovers, maniacs with explosive rage disorder, and revengers screaming for vengeance. Why is that? Again, it’s because these types of emotions increase risk taking. Take a look at Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s “constant, loving, and noble nature” makes him ill-suited to carry out crimes of passion. No problem: Shakespeare has Iago put Othello “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

What about setting? Why do tragedies feature a world on the cusp: insurrection, inquisition, war. Risk theatre explains this. Risk comes at a price: the potential for loss. During times of political and social stability, why take on extra risk? Extraordinary situations are commonplace in tragedy because they skew risk to the upside: not taking risks incurs greater risk. Take the game of football. The “Hail Mary” pass where the quarterback throws a long desperation pass into the end zone is a hazardous interception-prone affair. You don’t do it if you’re ahead. But when you’re down and the clock is down and you’re far from the end zone, the “Hail Mary” option becomes attractive. That’s why tragedy dramatizes outlier events: witch trials in Miller’s Crucible, Britain rent in three in King Lear, plague in Cadiz in Camus’ State of Siege, or civil war in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. When the world is ablaze, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.

7 TRAGEDY AS A VALUING MECHANISM

Tragedy is a theatre of risk. The very structure of tragedy goads heroes to go all-in. No nickel and dime bets allowed! High rolling heroes and no-limit tables only! Risk theatre welcomes egocentrics or idealists. If they waver, look—here’s a trustworthy aide that speaks words of encouragement. Are they superstitious? Then goad them on with witches and oracles. Should that not suffice, souse them in the wine of passion. Give them access to the wealth of nations, armies, and all that glitters so temptation burns a hole in their pocket. Should that not suffice, destroy all they hold dear. Then, they go all-in. And when they go all-in, spectators start speculating on the outcome, investing their emotions into the action.

Risk theatre sees each dramatic act in tragedy as a gambling act. And this has the most fascinating implications, as it transforms tragedy into a valuing mechanism for human beliefs, values, and ideals. Tragedy accomplishes this through an extension of the gambling analogy. In each gambling act, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. If you bet, for example, $10k to win a golden crown, what is staked—the $10k—is put up against what is at stake—the crown. You show how much you value the crown by how much you’re willing to bet. If you really wanted it, you might wager more, say $20k. Of course, in tragedy you can’t use money to win the crown. Cash isn’t legal tender in tragedy. You have to make your wagers in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. We call the sorts of wagers we see in tragedy existential wagers. Through these existential wagers, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human assets. 

We already know the value of material possessions. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is compassion, or the milk of human kindness worth? We find out in Macbeth. Macbeth is too compassionate to murder Duncan. No one knows this better than Lady Macbeth, who complains he is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” So, to become king, Macbeth must ante up the milk of human kindness. In the act of anteing up the milk of human kindness, we see how much Macbeth values it. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? In Macbeth, it is worth a Scottish crown.

Risk theatre allows us to ask and answer such questions: how much is dignity worth? In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, traveling salesman Willy Loman stakes his dignity on the American Dream. He buys the American dream at the cost of his dignity. How much is a human soul worth? In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, we learn that a soul can be worth twenty-four years of world domination. How about faith, how much is faith worth? In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, we find out that one can purchase faith by laying down one’s life. How about the action of revenge, how much is that worth? In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice lays to pawn his fraternal and filial bonds to become a revenger, bribing his own mother to pander his sister.

As a valuing mechanism, tragedy provides a social function. In our material world, too many things have become monetized. We value people in terms of their net worth: he’s worth 100k, she’s worth 200k. Insurance policies set a price on life and limb. We work, some for minimum wage, and others for more, exchanging life for greenback dollars. Tragedy’s social function reminds us that the things that are truly worth having are bought by blood, and not gold. Tragedy, despite its sad stories, exalts life by telling us that, the more we dare to wager, the more we set the value of life up on high. In tragedy, a soul can be worth the whole cosmos. Imagine that. Tragedy teaches us that human values lie beyond the monetary pale.

8 COMPARING RISK THEATRE WITH OTHER THEORIES OF TRAGEDY

Let’s compare risk theatre head to head with Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean interpretations using Sophocles’ well-known Oedipus rex. In the Aristotelian analysis, we identify with Oedipus as we realize that there is a bit of Oedipus in all of us. He has a tragic flaw though: pride. He wants to defy the oracle that says he will murder his father and marry his mother. Because of the tragic flaw, or hamartia, he experiences a reversal of fortune. The elements of the plot follow the rules of probability, and are causally connected. When we witness his doom, we undergo catharsis and are purged of the emotions of pity and fear because, like a scapegoat, he has perished so that we do not have to.

In the Hegelian analysis, there’re two colliding ethical forces. There’s the will of heaven, which declares that Oedipus will marry his mother and kill his father. Then there’s the will of man, Oedipus’ will, which says: “I will not do that, heaven be damned.” Both these wills are justified. Heaven has a right to pass sentence on mortals. But Oedipus also has the free will to object to heaven’s sentence. The tragic results when these wills collide and Oedipus is destroyed. In Oedipus’ destruction, the justice of the gods is upheld. Oedipus is a scapegoat who perishes so that the justice of the gods can reaffirm itself.

In the Nietzschean analysis, there’re two colliding mental states. There’s Oedipus’ rational mind, which is Apollinian. It seeks to break free from the oracle, the oracle that’s said that he’ll kill his father and murder his mother. With the daylight of reason, thought, and logic, the conscious mind speaks: “I must get away from Corinth and avoid mom and dad.” Then there’s Oedipus’ subconscious desire which is Dionysian, primal, dark, brutal. The Dionysian desire comes out in his dreams, where he has lain with his mother and overcome his father. When these two mental states collide, Oedipus is destroyed, but, in his destruction, the veil is lifted off reality. We see how life doesn’t matter, but what matters is how we transform strife and sorrow into the aesthetic phenomenon of art.

In the risk theatre analysis, Oedipus stakes his reputation on solving the murder of the previous king—he is, after all, the original riddler, the one who solved the Sphinx. As the investigation continues, the focus on the identity of Laius’ murderer shifts to the question of the identity of Oedipus himself: they are, after all, the same person. Sophocles draws in the spectators, transforming them into speculators by having Oedipus raise the stakes by refusing to call off the investigation. Finally, Oedipus triggers the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event by bringing the Corinthian messenger together with the shepherd, the two people who can unlock his secrets. In the risk theatre reading, contrary to Aristotle, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability, but rather, the elements of the plot conspire to bring about the most improbable outcome. Because the audience sees everything Oedipus sacrifices—his crown, his eyes, the life of the queen, and his children’s legacies—the audience learns that we pay for our goals and desires by blood, sweat, and tears. The audience then leaves the theatre marveling at how low-probability, high-consequence events shape our lives more than we like to think. By comparing different theories, we can see how each casts tragedy in a drastically different light. 

9 TRAGEDY, COMEDY, AND RISK

Everyone always asks: what about comedy? Risk, remember, can skew to the downside or to the upside. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. In tragedy, against all odds, Birnam Wood is always coming to Dunsinane Hill. Comedy, however, dramatizes upside risk: you make a bet, the odds are completely against you, but somehow you win. In Menander’s comedy, The Girl from Samos one of the characters says, “Coincidence must really be a divinity. She looks after many of the things we cannot see.” You would definitely not say this in a tragedy. In tragedy, God is not on your side.

In comedy, low-probability, high-consequence events also occur. In Greek Old Comedy, the women in the play Lysistrata bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by staging a quite unexpected sex strike. In Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy, against all odds, the miser always recovers the stolen gold, kidnapped children are always reunited with their families, and young lovers always find ways around cantankerous patriarchs, onerous marriage laws, and a host of economic and social prejudices.

In comedy, chance is on your side. Don’t have a dowry? No problem, a pot of gold turns up. Can’t get married because you don’t have citizenship? What’s this trinket you have on your wrist? Oh, many years ago I had to give up my daughter because I fell on hard times, but I gave her the very trinket you’re wearing. Oh, what do you know, you’re about her age. Could it be, are you my long lost daughter? Oh!—that means you’re a citizen and you can get married to this fine young man! Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events. They’re really two sides to the same coin. Think of tragedy as the art that dramatizes downside risk, and comedy as the art that dramatizes upside risk.

10 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION / CLOSING REMARKS

In conclusion, I’ve given you a powerful asset for writing and interpreting literature called risk theatre. Risk theatre explains why we find tragedy fascinating. It’s fascinating because of the delirious hazards heroes take on. When you do a risk theatre reading, first, find the bet. What does the hero want, and what is the hero willing to lay on the line to get it? Once you’ve found the bet, you can see how tragedy acts as a valuing mechanism by setting a price on human ideals and beliefs. The price it sets is the price the hero is willing to pay. You will see how tragedy exalts life by imparting great value onto life. In tragedy, the milk of human kindness can buy a kingdom. Once you’ve found the bet, you’ll understand why the commonplaces of tragedy are the way they are. You’ll understand why tragedy loves instability and inquisition. You’ll understand why the hero is an egomaniac and why passions run white hot. You’ll understand the role the oracles, witches, and the supernatural play. You’ll understand why minor meddlers dispense crappy advice. You’ll understand why tragedy is populated by kings, queens, and other one-percenters. After you come to an understanding, you will marvel agape at how low-probability, high-consequence events upset the best-laid plans of mice and men. As you marvel the power of unexpectation, you will realize walking out the theatre that it is when we are most sure of ourselves that we are, paradoxically, in the greatest danger.

You’ll emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. And this is perfect, as in this age of risk, we have a moral imperative to come to grips with risk. We dramatize unintended consequences on the stage of tragedy so that we become more robust off the stage. And because risk theatre imparts upon us a higher understanding of risk, I think that makes it a most valuable asset, as not only does it help us interpret literature, it also helps us to interpret life.

Risk theatre is more than a theory. I’ve teamed up with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria to inaugurate the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). It’s the world’s largest tragedy playwriting competition with a combined prize package worth over $17,000 dollars. The contest is in its second year. In its first year, I’m thrilled to announce 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated in this exploration of risk in the modern world. Wherever you are, please ask your local library to make my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [Friesen Press 2019] available. Let’s share this amazing asset. Once you look at literature through the lens of risk, you’ll never look at it again the same way.

The transcript of this talk will be available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/okanagancollege/

Thank you.