A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s MACBETH

The true star of Macbeth is the low-probability, high-consequence event. And the true story of Macbeth is the hero’s reaction to it. In this tragedy, a man is transformed by a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, in the beginning raised up by chance, and, in the end, cast down by the same power he hoped to harness. Macbeth is the story of how low-probability, high-consequence events encouraged a man to wager all-in, thinking that he was bound for glory, and of how the random element fooled him.

For the dreamers who believe that low-probability, high-consequence events could be tamed through progress, the play warns of evil’s allure and the follies of ambition and confidence. For others, whose powers of recognition are clearer, and who perceive the random element working at each existential juncture in life and in history, the hypotheses of other-worldly powers, ambition, and confidence were redundant. To them, Macbeth tells an all-too-human story of how, because of our innate predilection to scorn chance, having always satisfied our intellectual biases by seeking any other explanation than one which involved the random element, we thought ourselves lords of chance and became, instead, the fools of chance.

The definition of a low-probability, high-consequence event is one in which, before it happens, is considered improbable. Sometimes the possibility it can even happen cannot be imagined, such is its remoteness. Examples include the Gutenberg Press, the rise of the personal computer, or the Gunpowder Plot. We can know that a low-probability, high-consequence action has occurred by watching the reactions. Sometimes, it prompts the one who has seen it to alert others. “From the spring,” says the dying Captain, “whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells: mark, King of Scotland, mark” (1.2.27-8). Other times it elicits disbelief. “Nothing is,” says Macbeth, “but what is not” (1.3.144). Sometimes, one takes one’s own life: this was the case of the “farmer that hanged / himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4-5). Having bet all-in on a bumper crop, when waylaid by the low-probability event, out of rent, out of food, and out of luck, he hangs himself. The danger these events present is that, though they were impossible to predict beforehand, after they happen, we retrospectively invent simplistic explanations of how they arose. In doing so, our sense of comfort is misguided, as we fail to give chance its due. This danger extends to the criticism of Macbeth.

In Macbeth, the action pivots around four low-probability, high-consequence events. The first is when, contrary to expectation, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. The second is when, against all hope, he becomes king. The third is when Birnam Wood, impossibly, comes to Dunsinane Hill. The last is when, beyond nature’s permutations, he meets a man not of woman born. That each of these events will happen is foreshadowed by the Witches—Shakespeare’s agents of improbability—to Macbeth, who, in turn, rejects each as being out of hand. By dramatizing the path from prediction to rejection to fulfillment, Shakespeare makes probability the play’s true theme: what happens when more things happen than what we thought would happen happens?

To most people, the Witches are not agents of improbability, but rather supernatural agents. Like the oracles of old in Greek tragedies, the Witches would prophecy to Macbeth his fate, fate being the antinomy of chance and probability. But, the funny thing is, to dramatize fate—to bring fate onto the stage—fate had to be cast into the play as a random event that takes place against all odds. That such an event could have taken place against overwhelming odds is then attributed back onto the powerful action of fate. The feeling of surprise that a miracle has occurred is the proof that fate exists. But really, there was no fate, only the fulfilment of a low-probability, high-consequence event that the audience appreciates to represent fate. Fate in tragedy is a literary artifact, is probability dressed up as fate. In this way, Macbeth, by exploring fate, became a venue to explore the impact of the highly improbable. Wherever there is fate, there is also chance: the way fate manifests itself in literature is by overcoming the random element. At last, fate and chance are synonymous, two sides of the same coin.

Macbeth begins with Scotland in alarm. The first crisis sees the rebel Macdonald leading Irish soldiers into Forres. King Duncan sends in Macbeth and Banquo. But, in the act of dispatching Macdonald, a second crisis strikes. Seeing Scotland convulsed by civil war, Sweno, Norway’s king, seizes the moment. He allies with another Scottish rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. With covert support from the thane and fresh Norwegian troops, they open a second front at Fife. Macbeth and Banquo remobilize to win the day. The opening action sets the scene for the first two of the four low-probability, high-consequence events.

After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, on the road to Forres, encounter the Witches:

Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?

1 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

2 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

3 Witch. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.47-50)

The first Witch accosts Macbeth by name and title. This draws his attention: when his father died, he had become Thane of Glamis. The second Witch teases him with a present tense pronouncement, calling him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth finds this both disturbing and unlikely. The news that Duncan has executed the traitor and given his title to Macbeth is still in transit. Then, the third Witch goes in hook, line, and sinker, hailing Macbeth as tomorrow’s king. Macbeth finds this impossible:

Macbeth. Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1.3.70-8)

The Witches vanish. At that moment, Angus and Ross enter. Acting as though the mouthpiece of chance, Ross hails Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor:

Angus. We are sent
To give thee from our royal master thanks,
Only to herald thee into his sight
Not pay thee.

Ross. And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine.

Banquo. What, can the devil speak true?

Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Angus. Who was the Thane lives yet,
But under heavy judgement bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.
Whether he was combined with those of Norway,
Or did line the rebel with hidden help
And vantage, or that with both he laboured
In his country’s wrack, I know not,
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him. (1.3.101-118)

Macbeth’s surprise—“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”—relays to the audience the improbability of what is happening. Banquo too, stunned, says: “What, can devil speak true?” a little too loud.

As the true star of the show, not only do low-probability events change our perceptions of how many things there are in heaven and earth, they also change the plot’s trajectory. Macbeth, previously fighting traitors, turns traitor. With the low-probability event, Shakespeare boldly pivots the trajectory of the play. The imperial theme begins.

Shakespeare’s Swans

Part of the good interpreter’s task is to sound out yesterday’s iambs on today’s instruments. For yesterday’s plays to jingle and jangle to modern ears, new approaches are required, approaches which resonate with today’s preoccupations. Today, there is a preoccupation with low-probability, high-consequence events: 9/11, the Great Recession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Deepwater Horizon, and other events give us reason to reflect on how nothing is impossible, once it happens. In the last decade, a new term has arisen to describe these events: today, we call them “black swans.”

The term “black swan” comes from Roman antiquity, and its journey to the present day has been itself swan buffeted. In the beginning, it meant something entirely different. The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term in the Satires where he likened a wife, perfect in all her virtues, to “a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan (6.165).” Since it was believed that the perfect wife does not exist, the black swan became a byword for the impossible. This was the term’s first meaning.

In 1697, European explorers sighted black swans off the coast of Australia. With one sighting, the improbable overcame the probable and a belief system—that all swans are white—fell. As a result, the term was orphaned. In 1843, however, John Stuart Mill reinvented it. In A System of Logic, Mill transformed the term from an expression of impossibility (which it could no longer denote) into a visual representation of the power of the unexpected. In Mill, the black swan is the empiricists’ bogeyman. It symbolizes the philosophers’ horror of how one observation can wreck any number of inferences based on any number of observations made over any immemorial period of time. In philosophical circles, the black swan came to symbolize the danger of formulating general principles from particular observations, otherwise known as the problem of induction. Another swan event, however,  was required for the term to enter the public consciousness.

In 2007, mathematician, options trader, and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb released The Black Swan. He argued that Wall Street’s risk management models, far from containing risk, exacerbated risk and endangered the financial system. Being rooted in the idea of past as prologue, these models gave traders false assurances that they could wager all-in: every swan will be white and events progress forwards, inexorably, quiescently, in a predictable steady state. But, if time were a punctuated equilibrium and arrived in fits and starts like ketchup out a glass bottle, full of revolution, a world of hurt awaits. Taking the cue from Mill, Taleb called these unforeseen, unexpected, and catastrophic events black swans. Mainstream financial pundits, busy riding the boom, disregarded Taleb, whom they regarded as an eccentric voice crying out in the wilderness. But, without warning, the Great Recession broke out in 2008 to break each one of the world’s oldest and most decorated financial institutions. The timing of Taleb’s book—having come out the previous year— seemed prescient.

Though experts disavowed that such a catastrophe could be ascribed to as fleeting a notion as chance, Taleb’s ideas were backed by a badass image (a sinister swan) and hardcore math (attacking the venerable bell curve). When the media suggested that the Great Recession could be understood as a swan event, a low-probability, high-consequence event precipitated by, of all things, chance, a firestorm of controversy ensued. It was at this time that the term “black swan” to denote the impact of the highly improbable entered the popular consciousness.

Before there was Taleb, there was Shakespeare. Only Macbeth was not taken as a warning of the highly improbable, but rather, a warning of the dangers of confidence, ambition, and evil. Perhaps that was because people did not associate Shakespeare with probability theory, which, having been recently founded in the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy. Shakespeare, however, grasped with his playwright’s intuition the inordinate impact the highly improbable. Consider his use of the improbable elsewhere to generate fantastic outcomes: Desdemona, in Othello, dropping the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries or the letter-carrier, in Romeo and Juliet, being caught in the wrong house at the wrong time. Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—also warns of the impact of the highly improbable (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of curious improbabilities and now, when they are all the rage, is the time to talk about Shakespeare’s swans.

The Imperial Theme

Shakespeare’s understanding of the highly improbable and its dramatic applications can be illustrated through Macbeth’s interaction with Angus and Ross. Macbeth’s question: “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” is spoken from the viewpoint of his initial reality. In this reality, Duncan is his cousin and king. He will lay his life on the line fighting foreign kings and native rebels to defend this reality. In this reality, all swans are white. But the moment Angus and Ross confirm the second Witch’s pronouncement, Macbeth sights the black swan. A new reality opens, one in which he is king. It is the improbable that draws him to the existential fulcrum. In this reality, having seen the swan, he knows the impossible is possible. The plot pivots into the imperial theme.

Finding himself, unexpectedly, Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth muses: “Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.118-9). The greatest that lies behind is to be king. Not only have the Witches prophesied thus, Ross, in his fruitfully ambiguous phrase that the new thaneship is “an earnest of greater honour,” intimates that Macbeth could be named heir apparent, a declaration consonant with the system of tanistry used in medieval Scotland where the crown, not yet bound by primogeniture, would revolve between collateral branches of the leading families.

Why would the greatest lie behind? We perceive the past, not the future, as that which lies behind. “Leave the past behind,” we say. We perceive the future as that which lies ahead. “Look to the future,” we say. The future is something we see approaching. Our expressions reflect our biases. Since we fear uncertainty, we disarm it by putting it in plain view. To highlight the role of the unexpected, Shakespeare turns convention on its head by placing the future behind, rather than before Macbeth. The future now steals up to Macbeth with the result that, when it catches him, it takes him by surprise. The image highlights the elusiveness of chance: not only does it lie in the future, sometimes we cannot even see it coming.

The improbable event has so unseated Macbeth that he allows himself to consider murder. But the thought of murder is so abhorrent to his previous beliefs that his hair stands on end and his heart knocks against his chest (1.3.137-44). His last recourse to preserve his previous reality is, ironically, to trust chance: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.146.7). As soon as he considers it, however, Duncan names his son heir. Crushed by having the prospect of the crown presented and ripped away, Macbeth moves further towards murder with his “Stars, hide your fires” soliloquy (1.4.50). Within a day, Duncan will be dead, clearing the path for Macbeth to be invested at Scone. The imperial theme is complete.

The Engine of Suspense

After the first two swan events take place, two remain: Birnam Wood and the man not of woman born. When Macbeth faces his first setbacks, he seeks a fresh start and goes back to where it all began. He will seek the Witches. All they presaged has come to pass. They said he is Thane of Cawdor, and it was confirmed. They said he will be king, and he became king. They said Fleance would found the Stuart line, and Fleance proved hard to kill.

To show Macbeth the path forward, the Witches conjure three Apparitions. The first Apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Even without the Apparition, Macbeth knew Macduff would be trouble: Macduff had declined to attend both the coronation and the state dinner. The second and third Apparitions prove more helpful, setting in motion the last two low-probability, high-consequence events:

2 Apparition. Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies
And sleep in spite of thunder. Thunder

[Enter] : a child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

What is this,
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?

All.                               Listen, but speak not to’t.

3 Apparition. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. Descend[s].

Macbeth.                       That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good.
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom. (4.1.78-99)

Like the prospects of becoming thane and king, Macbeth finds the likelihood of either eventuality so low as to approach nil. His courage swells with apodictic certainty:

Macbeth. Bring me no more reports, let them fly all;
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? (5.3.1-4)

Exactly as Hecate predicts, Macbeth, consumed by certainty, begins reciting the Apparitions’ words like a novel mantra:

Hecate. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace and fear;
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (3.5.30-4)

He repeats it to the Doctor: “I will not be afraid of death and bane,” he says, “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.59-60). “Thou wast born of woman,” he says, gloating over Young Siward’s corpse (5.7.12). He becomes another of chance’s fools.

In addition to all the functions mentioned earlier—driving the action forwards, exploding and reshaping worldviews, and pivoting the plot—black swan events also fire drama’s engine of suspense. They are part of a metatheatrical game played between dramatists and audiences.

A funny thing is that low-probability events, while low-probability to the characters (who are invariably blindsided by them), are, from the audience’s perspective, high-probability events. When the second Apparition tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth understands that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of the opposing belief. They understand that a man not of woman born will certainly strike Macbeth down.

Similarly, when the third Apparition tells Macbeth that “until / Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill /Shall come against him,” Macbeth understand that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of another belief. They understand that, like a Houdini or a David Copperfield—Shakespeare will wow them by pulling off the impossible in plain sight. The moment the Apparitions speak, the theatregoers start trying to figure out how Shakespeare will accomplish the impossible. On the one hand, the playwright telegraphs cues to the audience, and, on the other hand, the audience tries to figure out these cues. This metatheatrical game between playwrights and audiences is drama’s engine of suspense. With a few cues, the dramatist stokes the fires of a thousand imaginations.

When the Apparition tells Macbeth that he will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Shakespeare is telegraphing to the theatregoers that it will happen. Since it is not immediately obvious how Shakespeare can accomplish this, the theatregoers try to figure it out. As they try to figure it out, they feel the thrill of suspense. “Am I on the right track?” thinks one. “This is how he will do it,” thinks another. In these thoughts is the magic of suspense, and its magic increases with improbability. To bring about a probable event only requires the skills of a probable dramatist. To bring about the improbable event requires the skills of a most improbable dramatist. In this way, when Macbeth responds to the Apparition by saying, incredulous: “That will never be,” the audience understands it two ways. On the one hand, Macbeth is saying that it cannot happen. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare saying to the audience through Macbeth: “If I pull this off, you will admit I am a dramatist of the most improbable skill.” And so, this game of suspense between dramatist and audience plays out.

As the endgame approaches, Malcolm closes on Inverness with the English forces to revenge his father. Shakespeare has a chance to locate the action. The English, being unfamiliar with the terrain, request a bearing:

Siward. What wood is this before us?

Menteith.                                  The Wood of Birnam.

Malcolm. Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The number of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us. (5.4.4-7)

In the cat and mouse game of suspense, this is the moment the audience has been anticipating. Shakespeare satisfies the audience in the following scene where the Messenger arrives, breathless:

Macbeth. Thou com’st to use thy tongue: thy story, quickly.

Messenger. Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do’t.

Macbeth.                       Well, say, sir.

Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

Macbeth.                       Liar and slave.

Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming.
I say, a moving grove. (5.5.28-37)

From two scenes earlier, they know that ten thousand march on Inverness. In any other play, the Messenger would have simply reported that troops approach under camouflage. In this play, however, Shakespeare plays up the improbability of the commonest of tactics to place the audience in check. He has brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

Though the improbable has, once again, happened, Shakespeare reminds the audience through Macbeth that their game is not done. The man not of woman born still lurks, undiscovered:

Macbeth. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none. (5.7.11-14)

The probable, most of the time, prevails over the improbable. The improbable, however, has one decisive advantage. The probable can occur many times, and that is all that it can be: probable. The improbable, however, only needs to happen once. So it was with the black swan and so it is with Macbeth. As the end approaches, Macduff finds Macbeth:

Macduff.                      Turn, hell-hound, turn.

Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Macduff.                      I have no words.
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.

Macbeth.                       Thou losest labour;
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.

Macduff.                      Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.3-16)

Checkmate. The improbable man is the man born from caesarean section. The suspense, building since the second sabbath, resolves. The audience feels entertained, having seen how Shakespeare brings to pass the highly improbable, and many times.

Tragedy is a compact between dramatist and playwright. Its structure consists of a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, foreshadowed and fulfilled. Tragedy showcases the playwright’s ingenuity in bringing about the highly improbable. Minor feats of improbability for minor playwrights and major feats of improbability for major playwrights. Such a reading interests us, who are today most interested in finding new ways to explore the unexpected, as more and more, we see that in life as in tragedy, the more improbable it is, the harder it hits.

Not Intended Consequences, but Unintended Consequences

Tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events to remind us how good actions can have bad consequences. Unintended consequences arise when the swan event happens because the world has been changed: though no one knows what to do, everyone must act quickly. When Sweno and the Thane of Cawdor see Macdonald revolting, they must act at once, risking all: there is a tide in the affairs of men. This all-in risk, in turn, further antagonizes the unintended consequences: the greater the risk, the further the risk taker’s resources are stretched beyond what the risk taker can cover. The risk taker stands naked in the rain. Actions made in the new world, made in haste and multiplied by risk, tend towards unintended consequences.

Macbeth’s quest for the crown is set against the backdrop of all the failed attempts on the crown. Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor dared, and lost their lives. Sweno dared, and was out ten thousand dollars. The opening action establishes that, in the world of this play, the highest risk enterprise is to reach for the crown. Despite the risks, however, the play also establishes Macbeth’s competency to fulfil the task. He was the one who thwarted the ingrates and upstarts, who, by all accounts, had been within a hair’s breadth. If they had been close, Macbeth, who was by far greater than them, could entertain higher hopes. Duncan, an armchair king, hardly stands in his way. From the outset, to kill a king is, paradoxically, presented as both the riskiest and the most assured task: riskiest because the others had failed and most assured because Macbeth is like no other. The deed needs to be fraught with risk to cement Macbeth’s daring. But the deed also needs to be most assured so that when the unintended consequences occur, the audience is surprised. This is the pleasure of tragedy.

Having seen what happened to Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth knows the risk of “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.27-8). In awe of risk, he changes his mind, telling Lady Macbeth they will go no further. “I dare do all that may become a man, he says, “Who dares do more is none” (1.7.38-9). Despite his ample resources and insider knowledge, Macbeth remains circumspect. He refuses to act unless every question mark is removed.

At this point, Lady Macbeth offers the failsafe of failsafes. In addition to the assurances they already possess, she proposes to frame Duncan’s chamberlains for the murder. She will ply them with wine so that they can access Duncan. Once murdered, she will smear them with royal blood and set their weapons—now the instruments of murder—next to them. Everyone will be in a deep sleep after the long day. When the murder is discovered, Macbeth will, in a fit of rage, murder the chamberlains. The truth will die with them. None will know. Her plan, being foolproof, convinces Macbeth. Every question mark disappears. “I am settled, “ he says, “and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.1.80-1).

They put the plan into action. As expected, it works perfectly. Macbeth become king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, drawing suspicion of murder on themselves. No one knows better. The play shows them controlling, taming, and mitigating the foreseen risks. But then play turns to the unseen risks in the unintended consequences of their actions, cascading one after another in a beautiful sequence of mischance.

Macbeth had wanted to become king. But he cannot become the type of king he had expected. The best he can do is to become a tyrant, a degraded form of a king. This is the first of the unintended consequences. Now he begins consorting with murderers. Friends must die, and Fleance too. But when he marks them with death, further unintended consequences result. To be sure, ghosts can be found in Shakespeare’s other plays. In the world of this play, however, ghosts are like Juvenal’s black swans: they do not exist. Now, for the first time, the undead rise:

Macbeth. Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murder is. (3.4.73-81)

Macbeth, too, could not have foreseen how Lady Macbeth, entrenched within her iron will, would crack under pressure. Nor could he have foreseen that the moment he masters stoicism, hardening himself to all perils, is the moment Seyton breaks the news:

Macbeth. I have supped full of horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton. The Queen, my lord, is dead. (5.5.13-6)

Lady Macbeth, too, generates unintended consequences. She had wanted to become queen. But she can only be a posthumous queen, a degraded form of queen: Seyton, as she dies, first addresses her thus.

How did Macbeth fall, Macbeth who removed every last question mark? Some say he fell because of overconfidence. If you believe he was overconfident, ask yourself if Shakespeare could have done any more than what he did to justify Macbeth’s confidence. He gave Macbeth the competence. He gave him insider knowledge. He gave him the best-laid plan. Why should Macbeth not have been confident? His confidence is grounded. He was confident, but did not fall as a result of confidence.

Others say Macbeth fell through uxoriousness. He should not have listened to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, however, had the foolproof plan. Her plan is shown to be successful. The suspicion of the murder falls on Malcolm and Donalbain. He was swayed by Lady Macbeth, but did not fall through uxoriousness.

Then, there are those who say he fell because of his ambition. The world of the play, however, encourages ambition. The throne is ready for a shaking. Macdonald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Sweno all sense a changing of the guard. Later Banquo—and perhaps Donalbain—entertain their own imperial themes. The king is a poor judge of character, easily deceived, and cannot take it to the field. God had already deserted him: he can only send his wounded to the surgeons, other kings heal their subjects by a divine touch. Macbeth was ambitious, but his ambition was justified.

If not confidence, uxoriousness, or ambition, why did he fall? I think he fell through chance, the unexpected, more things happening than what he thought would happen, black swans, uncertainty, unknown unknowns, and low-probability, high-consequence events, the effects of all of which were compounded by risk. While indiscriminate evil cannot explain why Malcolm should ask the troops to cut down the boughs of Birnam Wood, chance multiplied by risk can. By chance, Macbeth meets a man not of woman born. By risk, he dies. Had he not put so much on the line by killing Macduff’s wife, babes, and lord, the encounter may have been less grievous.

Chance and the unexpected appear to the mind as a gap in nature, as a vacuum where there should have been knowledge. The intellect is poorly designed to comprehend the dark night of chance: though the math to comprehend chance was available from antiquity, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that probability theory laid down its footings. The intellect strives at all times to prove that everything happens for a reason. Thought finds a world where the random element runs amok false and impenetrable. Thought abhors empty space, rails against wild things.

When the world confronts timid natures with accident and uncertainty, they feel pity and fear. Pity for the tolling of the bell and fear that they too are exposed. These natures, who needed to reassure themselves from chance, sought to contain it, some by devising simplistic explanations (overconfidence, uxoriousness, ambition, etc.,) and others by devising complex metaphysics (the forces of darkness and evil). With these objectively questionable and subjectively comforting explanations, they allayed their fears, saying to one another: “Be more modest in your ambitions,” “Do good,” and other like refrains, thinking that with a change in behavior, next time they could stop Birnam Wood. Their explanations are from the point of view that the mischance of men’s ambitions are caused by man, and not by chance.

When the world, however, confronts more ambitious and confident natures with accident and uncertainty, far from pity and fear, they feel wonder and awe, wonder at how an individual, so full of fire and the seed of greatness, could be struck down by chance, and awe for the smallness of man in the boundlessness of randomness. They see that the killing risks are not the risks they see, but the ones that cannot be seen until after. They see that greatness is not without risk, and that there is a price to live dangerously. These fiery natures Macbeth marshals forwards, into the unknown, into risk, into the dark night of thought, as though saying to them: “Friend, dare to live dangerously, and you too shall die. Why the fuss? I also died, who was better by far than you.”

To these souls on fire, the highest honour is to join Macbeth and the pageant of tragic heroes who, having climbed past every ladder, found a way to climb on top of their heads, ever higher, higher than Ida’s peaks and Icarus’ flight. For them, to live is to dare. But it may be that there are other readings, and that there are as many truths to Macbeth as there are hearts, some circumspect, some like fire, some obsequious, some firing out their chests like cannons, some lily-livered, some cold as iron, hard as rock.

Littlewood’s Law

Some find the concatenation of low-probability, high-consequence events in Macbeth beyond belief. How could one individual become thane, then king, fall into tyranny, lose his lady to madness, see the wood come up the hill, and then meet a man not of woman born? That this too is part of an all-too-human heuristic that shuns chance and uncertainty can be demonstrated through Littlewood’s Law.

J. E. Littlewood, a twentieth century Cambridge mathematician, believed that exceedingly improbable events happen more often than we anticipate. To demonstrate his hypothesis, he devised a thought experiment. First, he called these unanticipated events miracles. Next, he defined miracles as events a million to one against. Through the observation that we experience many events each day, he demonstrated that we encounter the highly improbable monthly:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.

In life, it is thought that we experience a handful of defining moments, moments full of miracle and wonder such as comings of age, marriage, and convalescence. The implication of Littlewood’s Law, however, is that these existential fulcra whereon life hangs in balance happen more often than we anticipate. Life, far from being a steady state with gradual change, is in a constant state of revolution. The moments of respite are as infrequent as the major upheavals are frequent. In this probabilistic existence, we find ourselves often standing, like Macbeth, outside the safety of circumscribed beliefs.

Macbeth, in dramatizing the crossroad between probability and life, not only illustrates that more things can happen than what we think will happen, but also that these more things happen more frequently than we allow. These strange concatenations of events in the play may be more emblematic of life than critics have allowed. Even in a world of pure good, and one in which the drives of ambition and confidence are constantly held in check, we should expect to see a Birnam Wood event, by chance alone, on the average, every month.

The Old Master

Part of the reason so few have based their readings of Macbeth around low-probability, high-consequence events is that such readings are inherently paradoxical. The low-probability event is only improbable to Macbeth. To the audience, it is a high-probability event. This paradox drives critics to look elsewhere for the play’s keys. Many have done exactly this, basing their reading around ambition, hubris, error, uxoriousness, or the insidious action of evil. It need not be so, as the paradox is easily resolved: it exists to generate suspense. Another reason, however, why so few have tried this reading is that it flies in the face of the old master, Aristotle.

Just as the intellect abjures the role of chance as a causal factor in life, it is perhaps fitting that the greatest of intellects would abjure the role of chance from the construction of the best of plots. Aristotle declares in the Poetics that tragedy dramatizes the sorts of thing that could happen. Tragedy deals with probable events:

It is also evident from what has been said that it is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kindsof things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. (1451a)

Not only should tragedy deal with the probable, he goes on to say that chance events, being signs of inferior plot construction, are to be avoided (1454a-b). The net effect of his condoning the probable and condemning the improbable was to preclude chance and the highly improbable from the discussion of tragedy. It is a shame.

Aristotle had reasons for banishing the improbable. He was trying to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had found tragedy to be degenerate and unceremoniously banned it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a-e, Republic 607b). To rehabilitate tragedy, Aristotle gave it a social function. To Aristotle, theatregoers seeing the consequences of characters’ actions onstage would better understand the consequences of their own actions offstage. For this stage to street transference to work, however, actions had to be repeatable. For actions to be repeatable, they had to be probable. If a flaw onstage would lead to a similar fall offstage, nine or ten times out of ten, then tragedy could fulfil its social function.

In rehabilitating tragedy, Aristotle turned tragedy into a distant early warning of poor character. For the next two thousand years we would talk about how irascibility led to the fall. The fall was precipitated by confidence, stubbornness, ambition, and other behavioral factors that the agent could change, and by changing, escape tragedy. By neutering the improbable, Aristotle rehabilitated tragedy.

Aristotle has ruled the roost for two thousand years. In new millenniums, however, we seek new truths. In this age of the unexpected, we seek and find, through Macbeth, a new truth for tragedy that speaks to the pervasiveness of the random element. From its dramatization of black swans, Macbeth gains its overwhelming impetus. By affirming how the unthinkable happens again and again, Macbeth touches all the themes of our day. What is more, tragedy is once more dangerous. When it is dangerous, it is exciting and fit entertainment for the highest natures.

The Great Race

In this reading of Macbeth, I have shown how the action pivots around the fulcrum of the low-probability, high-consequence event. By the advantage conferred by this force multiplying machine, with the lightest touch the dramatist can provoke characters to abandon belief systems and risk certain comfort on uncertain hopes. Risk unbound, in turn, leaves characters susceptible to the unintended consequences of their actions: the more risk they assume, the more susceptible they become to each tremor. All the meanwhile, the dramatist plays a metatheatrical game with the audience, creating suspense by dangling before the audience the prospect that he will bring about an event so rare and wild that any lesser dramatist would cringe at the attempt. From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

This concludes my study of probability in Macbeth. I needed to write this, because, to me, this play was like a great race in which runners would compete, and, in the course of the running, they would run across banana peels. Some of them they would see, and jump over in great leaps. Some of them they would not see, or see too late, and slip. The runner, who led by an overwhelming margin in the final stretch, slips by accident and is unable to cross the line. This same runner, while jockeying for position earlier, had also pushed last year’s winner into the ditch.

Now, listening to the commentators, I was surprised because they would never declare these falls as accidents. Instead they would say that this runner slipped because he ran too ambitiously or that that runner slipped because he ran with too much gusto. As for the frontrunner who never crosses, this, according to them, was to show that cheaters never prosper. If you saw the play as I do, would you not yourself have needed to say this, that it was not error, hubris, confidence, or justice that causes the fall, but that the fall results from something much simpler, namely that, in a course full of banana peels, more things may happen than what we think will happen?

This reading is based on my new theory of tragedy, which is laid out in my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, now in its third year. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

2021 CATR Canadian Association of Theatre Research Paper Proposal

Earlier this year, I had a chance to talk about my new theory of tragedy called “Risk Theatre” at the Canadian Association of Theatre Research (CATR) conference. Let’s see if risk theatre can make a second appearance at CATR next year. Here’s my 250 word proposal. If it’s accepted, it’ll end up as a 15 minute presentation. Fingers crossed!

Low-probability, High-consequence Events in Life and in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
If we look at theatre as a stage where low-probability, high-consequence events play out, it will help us understand today’s crisis. But this requires reimagining the way we interpret theatre. In life, when crises break out, they are often unforeseen and unpredictable. We have mental biases, however, that compel us to come up with simplistic explanations of how they could have been prevented. Our mental biases do not admit to the action of the random element. As a result of these biases, our sense of security is misplaced.
Interpreters of theatre, like the engineers and scientists who analyze what went wrong, have these same mental biases. They look at what went wrong and find simplistic explanations. “This character had hubris,” some say. “This one was too trusty,” others say. The play becomes a moral lesson. But what if dramatists were trying to say something else? What if they were dramatizing the effects of the unexpected?
I will demonstrate this idea by reading a play we all know—Shakespeare’s Macbeth—through the lens of probability. I will argue that Shakespeare creates a world in which Macbeth’s confidence is justified. The problem is not the plan, but rather the impact of the highly improbable. The play then ceases to be a moral lesson and becomes instead a warning that the improbable may impact us more than our biases allow us to believe. The art of tragedy, I argue, talks to us in times of crisis because it simulates the effect of unknown unknowns on the stage.
Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

OCTOBER 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is open to entries (https://risktheatre.com). 11 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 2 countries (USA and Australia). 7 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 11

Australia 1

Of the American entries, 10 are from the east and 1 is from the west. Of the entries from the east, 2 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 10 men and 1 woman. The imbalance is the starkest it’s been in the three years of the competition and brings to mind the ratio of male to female tragedians in the past. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 11 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and the UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 22,418 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2596 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: LA Public, Bibliothèque national de France, Russian State Library, Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Senate House Library (London), Brown University, CalArts, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado, 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, Okanagan College, Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, Azusa Pacific University, Biola University, CUNY, and Westchester Community. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

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/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

REVIEW of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Giridharadas

2019, Vintage, 288 pages

Giridharadas defines MarketWorld as “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” He has a beef with MarketWorld because of its inherent contradiction. In Winners Take All, Giridharadas points out the irony of how MarketWorlders donate money to rehab programs after raking in profits selling opioids (Purdue Pharma). Other examples include how MarketWorlders who own companies that target African Americans with more addictive menthol cigarettes give grants to help African Americans eat healthier in Harlem (Loews Corporation). Winners Take All is written as a tell-all exposé revealing the dark side of philanthropy all the way from Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century to The Clinton Global Initiative and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today.

The problem, according to Giridharadas, is that MarketWorlders become who they are by exploiting the masses. They harness the inequalities in the system to become the power brokers. And then they donate money to the causes that they support. They target a social and economic issue such as poverty, for example. But they never target the inequality itself that lies at the root of poverty. And that, writes, Giridharadas, is the heart of the contradiction: MarketWorlders create the problem, then ease their conscience by writing a cheque. Philanthropy in that guise is a sham. Today’s philanthropists donate, but they preserve the status quo that makes such donations necessary. Without the status quo, they wouldn’t have become rich. The rich have a blindspot when it comes to inequality. To illustrate his point, Giridharadas begins his book Winners Take All with a memorable epigram by Tolstoy:

I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible . . . except by getting off his back.

Solution One: Increase Taxes on the Wealthy

Because the rich will not address inequality, another group has to step up. Giridharadas proposes that the government is well suited for this task. The government, by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, can fund a greater array of social programs to alleviate inequality.

Although not mentioned by Giridharadas, one such program that would have wide support from both sides of the political spectrum, from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to economist Milton Friedman–the architect of Reaganomics–is a universal basic income program. Such a program would simplify government and do away with the stigma of receiving welfare, employment insurance, and many other government programs by doing away with income-tested benefits by providing an automated and perpetual income stream to each citizen irregardless of wealth or need. Universal basic income appeals to the right because it simplifies government, makes government smaller by rolling welfare, employment insurance, disability benefits, etc., into one program. And universal basic income appeals to the left because it satisfies the left’s mandate for government to look after people.

In Canada, many people during the Covid-19 pandemic have come to rely on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments. In the dialogue on what happens when the CERB program ends, some people have suggested instituting a universal basic income program. We will see.

Solution Two: Change Corporate Structures

Corporations exist for one purpose, and that purpose is to maximize shareholder value. “Greed is good,” runs the corporate mantra. If a company tries to place “doing good” ahead of “creating shareholder value,” shareholders will revolt and replace the board of directors. As Harvard business school professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer wrote in a seminal 2011 essay: “Creating Shared Value,” companies overlook the long-term good by maximizing shareholder value in day to day and quarter to quarter operations. What if a new type of corporation could be created, one where “doing good” was built into its charter along with “maximizing shareholder value?”

After working years in private equity, this is what Andrew Kassoy did: he came up with and enacted a plan to reform corporate structure. He devised a framework to convert existing companies or for startups to structure themselves as “B corps” or “benefit corporations.” B corps would pursue a dual mandate to enrich shareholders and pursue good. Notable B corps today include Kickstarter, King Arthur Flour, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Natura.

The largest B corp is the publicly traded education company Laureate Education with over 150 campuses in ten countries. It started trading on the Nasdaq in February 1, 2017 at $14 per share. Three and a half years later, it’s trading at $13.81, down 1.35%. I compared Laureate Education (LAUR) to other conventional (e.g. standard, not B corp) education companies trading on the Nasdaq. Perdoceo Education (PRDO) was at $9.78 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $11.81, up 20.76%. Lincoln Education (LINC) was at $1.96 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $5.34, up 176%. K12 (LRN) was at $19.53 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.93, up 48.13%. Finally, America Public Education (APEI) was at $24.40 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.84, up 18.2%. The difference in performance between the B corp Laureate Education and the others must be the inferred cost of “doing good.” The question, as always, is: “Do you invest in Laureate and let their board decide what is good or do you invest in the others and take the profit to use on what you yourself decide is good?” You cannot have your cake and eat it too: either you let Laureate do good at the cost of your return on investment or you invest in the other, more mercenary companies which will enrich you at others’ expense.

Solution Three: Ask the People You are Helping for Feedback

It’s ironic, writes Giridharadas, how the elites change the lives of those who need help without ever consulting them. The elites–who hail from the ivory towers and the gilded halls of private equity–look at social issues as corporate or academic issues: have a meeting, break down the problem into discrete quanta, insert each of these quanta into a PowerPoint presentation, put in into a chart, a graph, and connect the points. But, the greatest problems of our age are human concerns. Instead of turning the oppressed and the downtrodden and the unfortunate into a statistic and foisting your preconceived notion of what is good onto them, why not ask them what they want, ask them if they have ideas of how to better their world? If your goal is to help a village in Mongolia, it might be a good idea to do some ground reconnaissance in addition to your closed-door PowerPoint presentation.

This seems like a good point. Who knows the unintended consequences of bringing Western reforms to the far corners of the globe? I wish Giridharadas had taken his own advice in Winners Take All. He interviews many people and presents many points of view in the book. Unfortunately, all the critiques of capitalism he cites comes from CEOs, former presidents of the United States of America, private equity barons, and TED talks thought leaders. What does the street vendor in Vietnam think of inequality? What about the Mongolian miner working at the Rio Tinto copper mine? We don’t know. This not knowing the view from the ground brings me to my closing point: what are the roots of inequality?

The Roots of Inequality?

If you ask the power brokers in First World countries where poverty comes from, they will tell you that poverty arises from inequality. It started with Adam Smith’s economics. He told the butcher, the brewer, and the baker that self-interest makes the world go around. From Adam Smith to today’s corporations a line can be drawn: Smith’s self-interest has become the corporations “greed is good” mantra. As a result, some became rich and others became poor. The results are disastrous, they will say. And they will quote statistics that are hard to argue against, statistics such as how the top ten percent of people own ninety percent of the world’s wealth. Capitalism is the problem, the power brokers will say. And that is what they do say in Giridharadas’ book. Capitalism allows the few to get rich off the backs of the many.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in First World countries why they live in poverty, they might, to judge from movement such as Occupy Wall Street, say something similar. Capitalism favours the rich, who get rich by exploiting the poor. The rich, in turn, through lobbying and donations to political parties, fandangle new ways to avoid paying taxes and nurturing the society that made wealth possible.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in Third World countries why they live in poverty, they just might have something different to say than the folks in First World countries. Judging from the vitality, dynamism, and energy in the hustling and bustling markets emerging in Vietnam, China, Poland, and Hungary, less well to do folks in Third World countries may be welcoming capitalism’s market reforms. Their response may be the opposite to that of their counterparts in developed countries.

This is one of the reasons I was hoping that Giridharadas would have asked the people burdened by inequality all over the world for their feedback. I conjecture that First World folks are quick to blame inequality. And I conjecture that Third World folks are less likely to blame inequality. My question, and one that is valid, in my mind is this: is capitalism a First World problem? My gut tells me many folks outside the First World would actually welcome capitalism.  Why this divide?

What is Inequality?

My closing question is this, and I don’t think it’s a question that’s easy to answer. There are so many variables involved, the question is probably best thought of as a thought experiment. My question is this: is inequality an artifact of capitalism, or is inequality something else, a natural, sociological phenomenon?

For a second, let’s turn away from the financial marketplace. Let’s look at book sales, something that has attracted my attention since publishing a book last year. Each year, over three million books are released globally. Most of these three million books will sell a few hundred copies. Some will sell thousands and tens of thousands. But the book market, despite being made up of millions of books, will be dominated by a few best-sellers. Think Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown. In fact, the top 10% of best-sellers will be responsible for 85% of all books sold. If we extend this slightly, the top 20% of best-sellers will have captured nearly the entire book market, being responsible for 95% of the world’s book sales. Talk about inequality! But does anyone complain about the inequality of the book market? I think most people accept this as the way things are.

Did the distribution of book sales–the top 10% of the sellers own 85% of the market–remind you of another distribution I mentioned earlier in this blog? Earlier, citing Giridharadas, I wrote that the wealthiest 10% own 90% of the world’s wealth. In the markets, it appears a few winners take all. So too, in the book market, it appears a few winners take all. Is there a relation between the book and stock markets?

The Power Law Distribution

Although consumers believe they exercise autonomy in purchasing books, an emergent phenomenon can be seen if you plot book sales on a double logarithmic graph with the x-axis representing the sales rank (with each unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,) and the y-axis representing sales volume (again, with each vertical unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,). When sales rank and sales volume are plotted on a double logarithmic graph, a straight lines forms, descending on roughly a 45-degree angle from the top left to the bottom right of the chart.

Emergent phenomena are some of the coolest things. They are phenomena that appear on large scales, but not on small scales. The flight of starlings or the motions of schooling fish are emergent phenomena: like book buyers, they make individual decisions but the sum of their individual decisions can be modelled. When we see emergent phenomena, we see in social, economic, and natural systems a greater power at work, an invisible hand creating order from chaos.

If you plot on a log-log graph the number of people against their wealth, you will find that the miraculous happens: the data points will form a straight line with a similar slope to the book sales graph. Wealth–or inequality–obeys a power law distribution. What this says is that inequality is a natural phenomenon like all the other distributions that obey a power law. Besides book sales and income, the size of cities, the power of earthquakes, and the frequency academic papers are cited all obey power law distributions.

The power law hints at powerful forces shaping the quantities it measures. To determine the hidden mechanisms guiding the power law’s invisible hand, we have to conjecture. With book sales, for example, we can conjecture that the winning authors take all because of the influence of big publishers, word of mouth, the action of book clubs, the ability of social media to scale sales, the concentrating effect of bestseller lists, and so on.

Something similar can be done for income. We can conjecture, for example, a base point where people start off at similar incomes and wealth. By the action of chance, some will make more than others. Then we can add more variables: the ones with more can invest more, increasing their wealth at a faster proportion than those with less wealth. And perhaps those with minor wealth will choose to invest their money with a handful of winners, increasing the wealth of the handful of winners in much the same way as book buyers congregate towards a few best-selling titles. Then sooner or later, in this thought experiment, you end up with an income distribution that approximates that of the real world. Note that in this thought experiment, capitalism and inequality are not necessary hypotheses. The only necessary hypothesis is that, by random chance some will become wealthier.

In this view, capitalism and the markets are not responsible for inequality. In any given society–socialist, capitalist, communist, and agrarian, from the Bronze Age through to ancient Rome, the Industrial Revolution, up to modern times–the action of chance and the snowballing effect of social networks will create a winner take all distribution in wealth. You can redistribute the wealth through revolution or taxation, but you only reset the system for a duration: inequality, like the force of earthquakes and the size of cities, is a natural law built into the structure of society, any society. The moment the system is reformed, it starts working itself back into a critical state in a new guise.

The elites ascribe their position and wealth to superior intelligence and work ethic. The poor ascribe their position to the erosive power of capitalism and inequality. They are both fooled by randomness. If we can observe, from ancient to modern times, the distribution of income following a power law, then inequality is nature’s will. And how do you rebel against natural law? In ancient Rome, the Gracchi thought they had the answers. In revolutionary France, Robespierre thought he had the answers. Today, Thomas Piketty proposes his answers. But what is the answer? The answer, Giridharadas, is blowing in the wind.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

My Experience Workshopping and Directing Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE

Poster for Nicholas Dunn's THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Poster for Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

The more you read, the more ideas come to you. In the preparations leading up to the workshop and performance of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, winner of the 2nd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, I’ve been reading. Mark Bly’s book New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting inspired me to run the workshop around a series of questions. I would divide the play into thematic units and pose questions for the actors to explore. The questions would be mine; the answers would be theirs. You can see below how I’ve divided The Value into sections for the creative team to explore.

A concern, however, lingered: what if their answers diverged from my own ideas about the play? While reading George Sapio’s book: Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs the answer appeared. At the end of the book, Sapio  writes:

Bear in mind that the closer the play gets to opening night, the more redundant the director becomes, as well. I may catch hell for saying so, but it’s true. In the beginning, the actors follow the director’s ideas. They work with them, adjust to them, fine-tune them, and then make them their own. The director has the overall vision of the play and was chosen to direct because of that vision.

What a brilliant observation. Although it’s self-evident that the director has the overall vision of the play, Sapio’s words woke me up. I could start the workshop by communicating my vision of the play. This would establish a baseline around which we would explore The Value. My series of questions could be designed to tie back into my overarching vision of the play. By coming up with answers together with the actors may produce a more convincing reading. After all, it is the actors and not the director who will be presenting the dramatic vision to the audience. If the actors are themselves invested in the dramatic vision, they have skin in the game. Skin in the game, it’s all about having skin in the game.

That seemed to me to be a good start. If anyone is interested, here are my notes from the workshop. Enjoy!

My Vision of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value

Have you looked up the German expressionist painter E. L. Kirchner? He’s a real guy. 1880-1938. But Kirchner’s painting in the play, Summum bonum, is unattested. Summum bonum is Latin for “the highest good.” Philosophers from Cicero to Augustine and Kant have wrestled with the idea. The name of the play is called The Value and the dramatic fulcrum of the play is that the characters all try to value Kirchner’s painting. In other words, Dunn has them all trying to value “the highest good.” Brilliant. Through a crime drama—and a fun crime drama—Dunn explores a hard-core philosophical idea, namely the price that the highest good exacts on you. This exploration is the play’s kernel. How much is the highest good worth, in both dollar terms and human terms?

Through laborious training and sacrifice, Kirchner pays the price to create the painting. But notice that he doesn’t assign a price to it. Instead, he gifts it to McEvoy’s grandmother. The highest good changes hands the first time as a part of a gift exchange. We do not know what McEvoy’s grandmother gave in exchange for the painting, nor does it matter. It is enough to know that she did not give in exchange greenback dollars.

In Ian I see a clever, talented, and driven individual who didn’t get the opportunities most people enjoy. Society has crushed him down and spat him out. He’s been at the bottom too long. He’s willing to lay everything on the line to climb the food chain. And that means turning everything into cold, hard cash: he capitalizes on his relationship with Zoey, he capitalizes on this mysterious opportunity, he has a conscience, and for a second thinks about returning McEvoy’s heirloom back to its rightful owner, but he sells that out too. 

I think the play asks: “What if he gets millions? Will he have enough?” Or, once he climbs the food chain and gets his millions, will he then start feeling the poverty of a single-digit millionaire in the company of double- and triple-digit millionaires? He’s got the Midas touch.

In McEvoy I see a man haunted by the image of the highest good. He has insight into the value of art. He disagrees with Ian, who is quick to put a dollar figure onto the highest good. He understands the labours of the artist and the difficulty of valuing the aesthetic realm. With McEvoy, however, I think the play asks: “Is that a legitimate use of the highest good to keep it locked away?” Because that’s what McEvoy’s going to do. He can’t ever hang the painting. He can’t ever show it, or even let anyone know that he has it. What’s the value of the highest good if one person hoards it, locks it away in a cupboard?

In Zoey, I see a woman who’s willing to sell the highest good to create her own highest good. Her highest good is family. Whereas McEvoy looks at the highest good as something to possess and Ian looks at the highest good as something that can be converted into greenback dollars, Zoey understands that the value in the highest good is that others will pay money for it, and this money, in turn, can bring family back together. With Zoey, the play asks: “Can one give away the highest good to achieve a human good?”

So what’s my vision of the play? I think Ian, McEvoy, and Zoey each champion a certain truth about human value. I may have a position on who I like. And Dunn probably does as well. But Dunn doesn’t tell you what’s best. He invites you to consider these different standpoints on value. And that’s what makes this play extraordinary. A family person would understand Zoey’s position. An art lover would understand McEvoy’s position. And someone down-and-out for too long would see Ian’s point of view. My vision of the play is that no one’s right or wrong. They all take gambles and go all-in to get their heart’s desire. Their gambles are all reasonable, what someone in their position would do. But, just like in life, the unexpected happens. The crappy painting happens to be valued at $24 million. What were the odds? The unexpected throws down the best-laid plans of mice and men. Let’s see if we can capture this vision from page to stage.

Sections and Questions (divisions are my own)

1.1.1 IAN ALONE pgs. 1-3

Ian: “This is what happens…” Ian speaks similar lines on pg. 28, the flashback on p.64 and his closing lines. What’s going through his mind? Though he’s oppressed, beaten down, he feels a sense of destiny, like he was meant for something big. Born to lose but live to win. When he speaks these lines, he can sense his destiny unfolding. He speaks these lines with the fiery energy of destiny. Nothing will stop him. Nothing can get in his way. He is a character fascinated with himself. Can be played many ways. He reminds me of Shakespeare’s Richard III in his charisma.

1.1.2 THIS IS AN ART HEIST! pgs. 4-8

Zoey: “We pulled it off. Like, a heist! Like the guy in the, um, the Thomas Crowne affair.” Misdirection. In the “shitty newer one (Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo),” the characters overcome monetary issues to reunite. Brosnan could run, but he doesn’t: “Suppose I did run, then what would you have? Not the painting, not the $5 million, and not me.”  Moral of the story: Ian isn’t a billionaire playboy like Thomas Crown. This is a difference between theatre and the silver screen. Pg. 6, Victor’s first drink.

1.1.3 SO, WHAT’S IT WORTH? pgs. 8-12

Zoey: “Even a pawn shop has security—” Ian: “Yeah, probably better security than most museums. You’d be surprised.” How does Ian know so much about security? Ian: “Don’t use your phone.” A symptom of Ian’s fierce independence. He doesn’t want to be connected by phone. He doesn’t want to be connected by internet. He doesn’t want to be connected to the people who love him. He ran away to be by himself. Why is he so individualistic? Call this the Ian “fiercely individualistic motif.” 

1.1.4 IAN AND ZOEY pgs. 13-15

Zoey: “What, is this some kind of way of getting back at me?” This comment and back rubs and knowing looks. Something has happened between Zoey and Ian in the past, but what?

1.1.5 IT LOOKS LIKE A FIVE-YEAR-OLD’S FINGER PAINTING! pgs. 16-20

Victor sees mountains, deer, trees, and a cougar whereas the others see globs of colour. Is Victor seeing this for real? Ian: “We’re climbing the food chain. Tonight.” What does Ian mean when he says “climb the food chain?” Insatiable appetite? They discuss perceived value of painting. Pg.16, Victor’s second drink. 

1.1.6 BROTHER AND SISTER ALONE pgs. 20-25

Zoey: “He found him though. Put the guy’s face through a window.” Ian does the right thing and pursues vigilante justice in the case Zoey talks about. But he doesn’t do the right thing when McEvoy asks him to return the painting to the rightful owner. Why? Pg. 21, Zoey’s first drink.

1.1.7 ZOEY AND IAN ALONG pgs. 26-34

Ian: “This is what happens.” Then catches Zoey looking at him, looking at him at his moment of destiny. Zoey’s wager: I did this to be with you, for family. Ian’s declaration that “I left for me.” Recalls the Ian independence motif. Pg. 33, Zoey’s second drink. Pg. 34, Victor’s third drink.

1.1.8 MCEVOY CALLS AT DAWN! pgs. 34-35

Zoey: “Everyone has their issues.” What are Victor’s issues? Compare this play to Ibsen’s Ghosts or O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. In those two plays the playwright gives us the prehistory. But in this play, their prehistory is shrouded. Is there a dramatic advantage of shrouding the past? Pg. 35, Zoey’s third drink and Ian’s first drink.

1.1.9 LET’S TALK ABOUT RELATIVE VALUE! pgs. 36-42

Ian: “Right, it’s a chance! An opportunity. They’re rare, and sudden, and yeah, usually a gamble. But that’s how we get ahead. You afraid?” What do each of the characters wager and why?

1.1.10 MCEVOY ARRIVES! pgs. 43-50

Has anyone ever been so fascinated by something or someone as much as McEvoy with the painting? Think of Gollum and “my precious” from Lord of the Rings. Pg. 44, Zoey’s fourth drink: she’s ahead of Victor and Ian now! Divergences between the text and reality. The text points to Victor as the hard drinker. But in reality, Zoey drinks harder than Victor.

1.1.11 IT’S A SUMMUM BONUM BY E.L. KIRCHNER! pgs. 51-53

What’s the significance of the name, which translates to “the highest good?” How do we incorporate the irony of negotiating over the highest good into the action? Note how the highest good was the highest evil to the Nazis: like the expressionist art form of jazz, it was “degenerate art,” had to be destroyed.

1.1.12 LET’S TALK MONEY pgs. 54-59

Stage direction: “Victor dives to the floor and begins to gather the money stacks.” How do you picture this stage direction? Desperation, savagery, animal-like, or? Notice Victor’s affinity with the animal realm: he see coyotes in the painting, he talks about Lucky, his childhood dog, later, Ian refers to him as a runt. Irony of pricing out the highest good as though the highest good could be understood in terms of money. It can only be understood in terms of sacrifice, which is what all the characters do: Kirchner sacrificed himself to make it, Ian sacrifices Zoey to get the most value for it, McEvoy sacrifices his integrity to get it back… McEvoy: “I thought… thought you were something different.” Ian is a chameleon. What did McEvoy think Ian was, exactly?

1.1.13 WHAT?!? IT’S WORTH $24 MILLION? pgs. 60-61

The first act ends swinging on the dramatic fulcrum of the play: the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event.

2.1.1 FLASHBACK pg. 62

Ian: “…And we’ll just…see what happens.” Similar to opening lines. Is this spoken with a sense of destiny, when he expects the rays of the Fates too converge on that one moment?

2.1.2 I’M FUCKED! pgs. 63-67

Victor: “Whenever people are obsessed with something and something bad happens they always say: ‘That’s like Hitler’, or ‘it’s like the Nazis’ … These cartel assholes are like Nazis. About their money. They’re gonna murder me like the Nazis.” The irony of selling the highest good, the Summum Bonum portrait, to pay off the lowest of the low, the cartel assholes who are “like the Nazis.” The highest good, through the market process, is converted into the sustenance of the devil.

2.1.3 YOU REMEMBER LUCKY? pgs. 67-69

Does Victor identify with Lucky, looking at himself like a chained up dog? He also sees a coyote in the Kirchner. Affinity with animal world, he himself is savage, see 1.1.12.

2.1.4 PICK UP THE PHONE! pgs. 69-71

Zoey: “Wait, you don’t think there’s any chance that…” Victor: “What?” Zoey: “No. There’s no way.” Victor: “What?” What’s going through Zoey’s mind here?

2.1.5 NO SALE pgs. 71-73

Ian: “We caught a break! We caught that bit of fate, that kind of lucky chance that you can’t buy or, or work your way into. We caught it by accident. We have to use it!” This line ties into Ian’s opening and closing lines (“This is what happens”), full of a sense of destiny as a recompense for all he has suffered.

2.1.6 ZOEY’S REBUKE pgs. 74-75

Zoey: “This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it … I risked everything for you. Because we are kin … Well? what will you do?” Ian: “I. Can’t. Settle.” These lines break my heart. Why can’t Ian settle? Does it tie back to the opening epigram by cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins: “Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity”? That is to say, Ian cannot have, he can only want?

2.1.7 CAN A $24 MILLION PAINTING BE WORTH $60,000? pgs. 76-78

Was it fair for McEvoy to offer $60,000 for a $24 million masterpiece?

2.1.8 IT WAS GRANDMA’S PAINTING pgs. 78-79

Why did Kirchner give this to McEvoy’s grandmother? This painting was originally a gift. Does its transition from a gift (priceless) into a commodity (worth x dollars) change the nature of the painting? Is it more “mercenary” now? Is there a secret McEvoy has kept to himself?—he seems intimately aware of the painting’s history. McEvoy: “It [Summum Bonum] is humanity at its basest and its most glorious. It is Kirchner.” Why does McEvoy say that the painting is also humanity at its basest? Because of the painting’s association with the Third Reich?

2.1.9 APPEAL TO IAN’S SENSE OF JUSTICE pg. 80

How close is Ian to capitulating? Remember that in the case of Derek and the orphans, he had done the right thing, and at considerable expense to himself.

2.1.10 GIFTS THAT ARE WORTH EVERYTHING AND NOTHING pgs. 81-82

McEvoy: “You can’t auction it, you can’t advertise that you have it. You don’t know who to look for to sell it illegally. It is now only worth what someone like me can give and what people like you can find.” McEvoy, Zoey, and Victor all think Ian should close the deal at $60k. Is Ian’s case that he can get more than $60k a strong one?

2.1.11 GOODBYE MCEVOY pgs. 83-85

Ian: “You are what people see, what people think you are worth.” McEvoy: “You are what you do! What you do. Nothing more.” Ian talks of other people evaluating an actor’s actions. McEvoy talks of the actor reflecting on his own actions. Ian’s point recalls the behaviorist psychologists—led by BF Skinner—who thought the brain was a black box: what’s inside doesn’t matter. It’s a functional view of action. It’s how you appear to others that counts. McEvoy’s point recalls the state of the mind as it reflects on itself. It’s an expressionist view of the mind. Expressionism, after all, attempts to communicate the subjective state of the mind to an outside viewer.

2.1.12 FIGHT! pgs. 86-93

Zoey: “Just give it to them, Ian, Because it doesn’t matter. With a shit-load of money or none, you’re the same. You’re nothing. You’re no one.” Would Ian be nothing were he to get his millions? Say his plan works and, down the road, he gives Zoey and Victor their share. What then?

2.1.13 pgs. 94-95 THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS

His face becomes stern, confident, almost welcoming. His eyes alight, determined. He drinks in his new reflection. Ian: “This is what happens.” This ties in the beginning, middle, and end of the play with a sense of fate or destiny.

Special Bonus: Opening Comments Prior to the Show

Hi everyone, I’m Edwin Wong, thanks for joining us.

The second annual Risk Theatre Tragedy Competition is upon us! Today we present the winning play, Nick Dunn’s The Value. Risk theatre is a theory of tragedy I developed. I wrote a book on it. It’s like Aristotle’s Poetics, except, instead of pity and fear—which is so fifth century—risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action because risk is one bad ass 21st century idea. This competition promotes a new brand of tragedy, one where low-probability, high-consequence events thrill audiences, one where the characters pay the price when they are struck down by the highly improbable. When you see the play, think on your own life, and how you interact with the improbable.

Nick Dunn’s The Value, dramatizes risk and the impact of the improbable. There’s nothing like it that explores value in art—absolute value, perceived value, relative value, and intrinsic value—in such a sustained attack. An all-star cast will be performing the play. Anthony Gaskins plays Ian. Leslie Appleton plays Zoey, Vishesh Abeyratne plays Victor, Wayne Yercha plays McEvoy, and Ali Grams narrates. There’s so much action we have no time for intermissions. Running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes. The show is co-produced by Theatre Carpe Diem—thank you Kara and Anton—and streamed to you by The Canadian Play Thing—thank you Janet! This is Zoom, glitches are going to happen. Dropouts are going to happen. And we’re going to power on through because risk theatre is theatre in love with risk. Stay with us after the show for an audience talkback.

Nick, so glad you participated in the competition and congratulations on taking the $9000 prize. Did you want to say a few words about the play before we dive in?

– – –

What a fireworks way to end year two of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Onwards into year three!

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of THE GIFT: HOW THE CREATIVE SPIRIT TRANSFORMS THE WORLD – Lewis Hyde

Vintage, 2019 3rd edition (1983 original), 474 pages

In its Library of Congress classification, Hyde’s The Gift is filed under the heading of “economic anthropology.” I can see why it’s an economics book, but perhaps for a different reason than you think. Its structure reminds me of Bloomberg finance articles. Have you noticed how formulaic finance articles are? They begin with some eye-catching headline: “Bob Big Shot Banker Sees Gold Surging to $2500” or something equally dramatic. Next come the supporting arguments: uncertainty in the upcoming election is driving up the price of gold, geopolitical tension is driving up the price of gold, and so on. Then the article ends by hedging its own arguments: “But all bets are off if the good guy wins the election” or “But all bets are off if the peace settlement is negotiated in time.” Does this sort of structure seem familiar?

Like Bloomberg articles, The Gift begins with an enticing eye-catching headline: “Capitalism Destroys Art: Hyde and Artists Call for a Return of the Gift Economy.” The arguments follow, fast and furious. Art is a gift. To assign a market value to a gift destroys the gift. For this reason, artists languish under capitalism. Gift economies, however, increase the abundance of art. Look to the tribes of the South Sea Islands which circulated necklaces and armshells. Look to the potlatch ceremonies of indigenous North American populations who exchanged ornate copper plaques. Look to the embodied wisdom in folk tales that say: “To possess is to give.” And, for evidence of the fecundity of art in gift rather than market economies, look to the poems and lives of two American poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. Then, in a surprise move, Hyde concludes by saying that perhaps all bets are off: art and capitalism can coexist.

Finance articles make me smile. They’re articles which seem to say something but say nothing. By hedging their bets, the writer tries to have it both ways: heads I win (“I told you this would happen”) and tails I win as well (“I told you this might not happen”). The writer has no skin in the game: he’s already covering his tracks in case he’s wrong. For the same reason Hyde’s The Gift arouses my suspicions. He talks of the evils and excesses of the market economy, touts the wholesomeness of the gift economy, and ends by saying that although capitalism destroys art, capitalism is here to stay.

If his thesis, as the conclusion of the book seems to say, is incorrect and requires further examination, then what’s in it for the modern day artist?—the book makes it clear that there can be no returning to the widespread gift economies of old. Society is just too big now. Why should the artist read this book? In the foreword, Margaret Atwood writes: “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read The Gift.” But, having read the book, I am thinking that, if I wanted to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, the last book I’d want to read would be The Gift. The world it paints for the arts is dismal: art is a gift that the artist will never be paid full value for.

When I picked up The Gift, I was hoping for some kind of revelation into value in art and in life. The reviews and accolades the book received were of the highest order. I was hoping for something life-changing, something like Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’ Your Money or Your Life, a book I read twelve years ago which changed the way I look at labour. The Gift, I feel, fails to live up to its hype.

Art is a Gift

Hyde’s fundamental position is that art is a gift. It’s inspiration. We don’t will art to happen, it just happens. The ancients allegorized this inspiration into the image of the Muses who would visit the artist to infuse the artist with the divine vision. In more modern times, when Jack Kerouac advises artists to be “submissive to everything,” he’s telling them to think of themselves as a conduit for inspiration, rather than as the source of the inspiration itself. Because art is a gift and not a commodity, capitalism can’t quite put the correct value on art. And when it tries to value art, it destroys art in the same way as a gift is destroyed when one starts to calculate its value in dollars and cents. Or so Hyde argues.

Three objections to the “capitalism can’t value gifts” hypothesis come to mind. First: is art a gift? Second: if art is a gift, then are not many things other than art also gifts? Third: doesn’t the market circulate art further than the gift economy could?

It’s a romantic notion to think of the artist as a Byronic figure communing with nature in some distant cave. I get that. But is that the case? For a long time, the artist was thought of as a tradesperson, and looked upon the same way as we look at electricians, plumbers, and carpenters today. Except these artist tradespeople wouldn’t build houses. They would build songs to be sung at the liturgy. Think of JS Bach or Handel, who were employed to churn out new compositions for the faithful year in and year out. Other artists were expected to craft poems to recite at state festivals. Think of Sophocles and Aeschylus, poets who wrote plays year in and year out for the festival of the Greater Dionysia.

Is the production of art a gift created by a heroic Byronic artist tuning into the world spirit or is the production of art a trade? These days—as evidenced by Hyde’s position—art is pure inspiration, something that breaks all the rules like Jimi Hendrix’ guitar playing. It comes to you from the heavens. But, in the past, the creation of music was more like a trade. Young composers would spend years imitating the old masters in music guilds (the historical equivalent to the trade unions producing carpenters today) before creating something in their own style. Even in folk music up to the 1950s, you wouldn’t be expected to write new songs: if you were a folk singer, you were a tradesperson, working in the tradition, putting your spin on the songs passed down to you.

Wouldn’t artists be better served to think of themselves as tradespersons? It’s a more down to earth way of looking at yourself than seeing yourself as a lightning rod for divine inspiration. And this way, you can get paid some kind of standard market rate. Hyde has a point when he says it’s hard for Byronic hero type artists to be paid fairly: how much should you charge to be the lightning rod for divine inspiration? Baroque composers such as Telemann and Heinichen were considered to be tradespersons. It wasn’t until Beethoven and later that the cult of the divinely inspired artist arose. Maybe we should return to Baroque sensibilities where art is not so much a gift, but a trade.

Hyde, however, addresses this point. He posits that today there is low art and high art. By low art he means romance novels and perspective drawings used to illustrate architectural spaces. In some cases, artists may partake of both spheres, as in the case of the painter Edward Hopper, who would paint soulful night-scenes of American cities one day and produce paintings for magazines such as Hotel Management the next. Low art is art by the numbers, is machine art, is expendable art, is art that will be forgotten. High art, on the other hand, has soul and, like scientific discoveries and the other monuments of the creative spirit, will endure for all time.

I object to this sort of split between low and high art. This sort of distinction smacks of elitism, seems hoity-toity. If, say, romance novel such as Nora Roberts can sell millions of copies over and again, then, there is something of the creative spark in her artistry. Her work moves people. It is art. This point has been a matter of contention in my book club, of all places, for a long time. I’ve been trying to get us to read a romance novel. The response is: “Romance novels are beneath us.” To which I respond: “You know how hard it is just to sell a few hundred copies of a book? These writers are selling hundreds of thousands of copies. In a hundred years, I bet there will be university courses on the 21st century romance novel and people in the future will lament how underrated the best romance writers were. Some romance novels will even become classics.” Some people believe this may happen. Some don’t. The people who don’t believe it could happen also didn’t believe the Smithsonian Museum would stage a Bob Ross painting exhibition. Bob Ross is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. If you’re not familiar, Bob Ross is the TV painter who painted “happy trees,” “almighty mountains,” and “fluffy clouds,” the painter whose works were considered crass, banal, and derided as commercialized kitsch by the serious artists of the time.

If you’re looking for more examples of low art which makes high art blush, consider Andy Warhol’s Pop Art or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Beethoven spent four years at the end of his life composing 33 variations around Diabelli’s banal and run-of-the-mill waltz. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, they created art that appealed to mass sensibilities to make a few bucks. The legend surrounding the variations is that Beethoven refused to work with Diabelli’s Schusterfleck or “cobbler’s patch” theme until he found out how much Diabelli was paying. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, the commercialization of their gift does not seem to have impaired the soul or their art. Warhol is considered one of the 20th century’s preeminent artists and The Diabelli Variations one of the pieces the pieces amongst in the concert repertoire.

For a moment, let’s say with Hyde that art is a gift. What is more, let’s also say with Hyde that gifts are better off circulating in the gift rather than the market economy. Then the real question becomes: is art the only gift?  Let’s say there’s a gardener. She just has a knack growing plants. Her talent is a gift just as much as the painter’s or poet’s art is a gift. Should the gardener also circulate the fruits of her labours outside the market economy? Or let’s say there’s a dog or horse whisperer. He just has a knack with animals. His talent is a gift as well. People are dumbfounded at how he understand animals and animals him. Or let’s say there’s an athlete. She can skate and shoot the puck better than anyone else. She’s gifted. Now consider this: Hyde would have zero issues with hockey players, veterinarians, and farmers partaking in the market economy. Athletes, doctors, and farmers also have a gift. Why does Hyde only have an issue with artists partaking in the market economy? Is it because, at bottom, he feels that the market economy pays artists too little? I’m thinking that may be the real reason. Note that his two case studies of poets in the second section of the book are both poets that lived and died in penury: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound.

Either / Or, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie

In a typical either / or proposition that characterizes his book, Hyde writes:

But the artist who sells his own creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to see his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift.

Either the artist uses his gift or the artist commercializes his gift. If he uses his gift, he may not have anything to sell. If he commercializes his gift, he loses the soul of art. Grim indeed. But what of the artist who realizes he can adapt his gift to the market economy? That was the story of poet Leonard Cohen. He realized his gift was poetry. And he also realized he couldn’t make money selling his poetry. Not that he was unhappy selling his inspiration, there just weren’t buyers. But he realized if he set his poetry to song, he could make a living as a singer-songwriter. He adapted. Hyde’s artist is an idealist, all or none. The all-or-none artist can’t adapt, and become a bitter shell: case in point is Ezra Pound. Why not adapt your gift like Leonard Cohen? Most people would say the commercialization of his art in no way detracts from the soul of beauty.

David Bowie was another artist who found a way in capitalism. He securitized his art by inventing and issuing “Bowie bonds.” Investors would purchase bonds in $1000 denominations from Bowie. The bonds were backed by his music catalog. The royalties from his music catalog would pay investors 7.9% each year over ten years. The investors bought the rights to his royalties for a decade. At the end of the decade, Bowie would return the investors’ principal, and the rights to the catalog went back to Bowie. The investors would get a 7.9% income stream, and a chance to own the man who sold the world. Bowie would get $55 million up front, the amount of money investors poured into his Bowie bond offering. Does anyone think the lesser of Bowie’s music for having turned his gift into a commodity? Did this exchange somehow alter how people enjoyed his music?

Would Bowie and Cohen have been greater artists if they had avoided contaminating their gift with market forces? Would they have greater respect if they had lived in penury like Whitman and Pound? Gift exchange, to be sure, in potlatch ceremonies and the South Sea islands, is a splendid ceremony. In the past, if you had tried to sell Bowie bonds to fellow tribe members, you’d surely be run out. But today, we live in a market economy. If you try today to live within the marginal gift economy, you’ll be run out of society like Whitman and Pound. The artist would do well to live in and change with modern times. To me, Hyde’s position is idealistic and seeks a return to what is not there anymore.

Credibility

It’s more enjoyable to read a book when you feel that the author is an expert in whom you can believe. In a chapter called “The Bond,” Hyde argues that materialists treat life like a commodity. He cites a car company that knew of a safety defect but neglected to implement it due to the cost. Here’s the passage:

In a classic example both of cost-benefit analysis and of the confusion between worth and value, the Ford Motor Company had to decide if it should add an inexpensive safety device to its Pinto cars and trucks … In the end, however, Ford decided that benefits did not justify costs, and no safety feature was added to the vehicle. According to Mark Dowie, between 1971, when the Pinto was introduced, and 1977, when the magazine Mother Jones printed Dowie’s analysis of the case, at least five hundred people burned to death in Pinto crashes.

Reading this passage triggered my spider-sense. Elsewhere, Hyde cites sources in detail. No endnote here. And no mention of Dowie in the bibliography. Then there’s the hedge: “According to Mark Dowie.” Elsewhere in the book, people “declare,” “say,” or “explain” the facts. “According to” belies the author’s confidence. And then the final trigger was the qualification of the number of burning deaths as “at least five hundred people burned to death.” Either you are burned to death or not. I expected a whole number, not an indeterminate “at least five hundred.” If that many people perished, I found it amazing that Ford could continue to sell the car for so many years. I decided to do a quick Google search.

The results shook my belief in Hyde. According to the Wikipedia article—which I regard as a neutral source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Pinto)—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “27 deaths were found to have occurred between 1970 and mid-1977 in rear-impact crashes that resulted in fire.” That’s a big difference: 27 versus “at least 500” deaths. The Wikipedia article also discusses the legacy of Dowie’s analysis, the findings of which have been debunked in peer-reviewed law journals.

The Gift is now in its 3rd edition, copyright date 2019. Hyde’s gone through and revised the text. But it’s a shame that he didn’t include a footnote placing an asterisk next to Dowie’s claims. He could have at least mentioned that Dowie’s claims are open to question. Because there isn’t a note, I wonder how often Hyde’s facts are open to interpretation elsewhere in the book.

If You Talk about Money Supply, Please Include a Discussion on Inflation

Hyde asserts that the ideal loan which draws together people in the gift society is the interest-free loan:

In a society that recognizes the right to make a reasonable profit on capital, the equity rate is called the prime rate. Above the prime we have rates for speculators and suspicious strangers. Higher still, we have modern usury, loan sharking, theft by debenture. And below the prime we find various “friendship rates,” which fall to different levels for different degrees of friendship, until we return to the interest-free loan, the pure gift case.

The best loan, one that reinforces the human bonds in Hyde’s ideal gift society, is the interest free loan. By giving the gift of not charging interest, the relationship between creditor and debtor becomes equable. But is this true?

The Gift came out originally in 1983. In the 1980s, inflation in the US averaged 5.82% each year. In the decade prior, inflation averaged 7.25%. Einstein once said that “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.” In Hyde’s gift economy, debtors understand inflation—which compounds like compound interest—and creditors have no idea. Creditors, by not charging interest, give their wealth to debtors.

If a creditor in lends $1000 dollars on January 1, 1980 and receives back $1000 dollars on December 1, 1989, he will have lost close to half his money. Because of 5.82% inflation in the 1980s, $1000 in 1989 will only buy you what you could have brought with $567.97 in 1980. This is because of inflation: the $2 loaf of bread in 1980 will cost $3.52 in 1989. The creditor, if he wants to preserve his spending power in the face of inflation, would have to ask the debtor to pay back in 1989 not $1000, but $1760.67. But this, in Hyde’s book, is called usury, frowned upon in the gift society. I would have liked to see Hyde tackle the issue of inflation in his chapter on usury. It’s not as easy as saying: interest free loans preserve relationships. They don’t. Interest free loans ruin the creditor.

Later on in the chapter “Ezra Pound and the Fate of Vegetable Money” a similar issue arises: inflation should be a crucial element of the discussion. But it’s nowhere to be found. “Vegetable money” was Pound’s term for a perishable currency. Pound thought that a perishable currency would encourage the circulation, rather than the hoarding of money. You lose money by having money. Pound advocated German economist Silvio Gesell’s stamp scrip which would lose one percent each month. While inflation in the 1980s wasn’t as drastic—5.82% each year—it achieves the same result: by holding money, you lose money. I was looking forward to a discussion on inflation and Pound’s perishable currency. But inflation is nowhere to be seen. Inflation was the monetary phenomenon of the 1980s. That makes it even more surprising there is not one mention of inflation anywhere in the book.

Walt Whitman

The second half of the book contains two case studies in the gift society. The first looks at poet Walt Whitman. He gave himself to nursing soldiers back to health, teaching illiterate and rude young men to read and write, and writing poetry. These were his gifts to the world. But what did the world give back? Hyde ends the chapter on an enigmatic note. Whitman alone, unloved, and unappreciated finds solace in nature. Whitman believed in the gift society. But what did society give back to him?

Ezra Pound

In exploring the roots of Pound’s antisemitism, Hyde constructs a new portrait of the Jew as a modern incarnation of Hermes, at once the protector of thieves, god of commerce, messenger of the gods, and lord of roads. Was such a new portrait that plays on old caricatures really necessary? But let us suppose that, to explore Pound’s antisemitism, it was somehow necessary and justified. Then the next question: was is also necessary to reproduce Arthur Rackham’s illustration: “The Jew of Hawthorn Hedge” in the chapter on Pound? The illustration also plays on caricatures of Jewishness.

Closing Thoughts

In The Gift, Hyde tells the story of the gift societies of the old day, the societies where artists were cherished and received gifts in turn for sharing their gift of art. These gift societies gave way to market societies, gave way to capitalism, gave way to modern exchanges which no longer valued art and artists. In The Gift, Hyde has given a gift to all those disenfranchised with modernity: his gift is an idealized vision of an abundant past. I found this book to be imbalanced in its criticism of the market economy and its praise for the gift society. Remember, Bronze Age Greece was also a gift society. That didn’t prevent the Achaeans and the Trojans from ravaging their cultures and artists by waging the ruinous Trojan War. The funny thing, however, is that by destroying their cultures, they gave the singers of the future a song to sing for the ages. Perhaps the extinction of the artists—the best of the homo sapiens—under the market economy today will inspire a new epic song, one as big as The Iliad, the poem of force.

In today’s age, Hyde thinks that the artists cannot. I think that they can. And therein lies a quarrel. Hyde’s question, however, remains: why do so many artists fail to find recognition today? I think the answer is that in the old day, the village or the tribe would nominate one person to be the artist, one person to be the seer, and so many people to be farmers, hunters, and gatherers. In short, one did not choose a vocation, or at least did not choose in the same way as we think of it. At a young age, one shows strength: the tribe trains this person for the military life. Another person shows the spark of art: the tribe trains this person for the artistic life. In this way, they look after one another in a mutual compact. Today, however, we ourselves choose to be an artist or a politician or a cobbler. We have this freedom of choice. And we pay for this incredible freedom by sometimes being rejected. I think that, had Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound been born in an earlier age into a gift society, and they had spoken out against the values of the tribe and lived outside the tribal society, they would not have fared much different than they did in the market society in which they actually lived. Artists today fail to find recognition because they have taken risks to become an artist. Some will fail so that others can succeed. That is freedom’s price.

Don’t forget me. I am Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

THE VALUE, a Tragedy by Nicholas Dunn – 2020 Risk Theatre Winner

Later this year I’ll workshop and direct a staged reading of Salt Lake City playwright Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, the winner of the second annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Out of 135 great plays, jurors Kelli Fox, Anthony Giardina, and Anthea Williams nominated The Value for the grand prize.

This will be my first time workshopping and directing a play. Why am I doing this? I’m doing it to align myself with the risk theatre project. The project evolved in three phases, and in each phase I had to adapt, and in different ways. The first phase involved putting my thoughts into a form that could be shared. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected accomplished this. It was a good start. But insufficient: people needed a reason to read it. This led to the second phase of the project: The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. By creating an international competition around the book, I gave people a reason to read it. This was good. But insufficient. The goal of the risk theatre project is to invite people to consider the impact of the highly improbable. By dramatizing unintended consequences and the impact of low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, theatre could become a microcosm of life, could show us the possibilities. That was the goal of the risk theatre project: to show how intertwined life is with probability and chance. To accomplish this goal, not only was the book and the competition necessary, it was also necessary for me to direct the play to make risk palpable.

In the workshop and staged reading, I could focus on black swans, fat tails, the impact of the highly improbable, complexity, unintended consequences, low-probability, high-consequence events, probability, chance, and all else that falls under the rubric of risk. This would be a one-of-a-kind workshop and staged reading. With its laser focus, the bonds between drama, chance, and uncertainty would be revealed.

When the competition first started, I projected that, after ten years, risk theatre would become a household word. Hey–if you’re going to start something, you need to believe. Looking at things probabilistically (which is my favourite way of looking), I thought there would be a good chance that, after ten years, a few of the winning plays would have entered the canon. Once they became classics, they would–due to the “halo effect”–raise people’s awareness of the risk theatre theory of tragedy. Today I don’t believe that anymore. I think I was wrong.

Over ten years, it may be that many of the plays entered in the competition would go on to find success. Of this I’m sure. Powerful movers and shakers in the theatre world have heard of, and follow the competition. They like what they see from Gabriel Jason Dean (last year’s winner) and Nicholas Dunn. They talk with their friends who are also gods of theatre and at some point, something’s going to happen. But something else will also happen: over time, the ties that bind risk theatre to the winning plays would also fade. Risk theatre would become a footnote in the play’s history, one of its many accolades and prizes. I will be forgotten.

If I wanted people to associate the winning plays with risk theatre, I couldn’t wait for people to make the connection: “Ah, this is why this is a risk theatre play.” I would have to write essays and articles on why I thought these plays were paradigms of risk theatre. People would then discover these essays and articles in tandem with the plays. And then, and only then, would risk theatre gain traction.

Would you like to know a secret? It explains why I’m going about the way I do. I didn’t discover Sophocles’ Oedipus rex or Shakespeare’s Hamlet first. I discovered Aristotle, Nietzsche, and other writers who wrote about Oedipus rex and Hamlet first. It was Aristotle and Nietzsche who turned me onto drama. Just as the fame of Oedipus rex grew in tandem with Aristotle and is inextricably tied with Aristotle, perhaps the fame of The Value and the future winners of risk theatre will also grow in tandem with the risk theatre theory of tragedy. That would be my wish.

A question: what’s the difference between the best plays written today and the best plays written of the past? What’s the difference between Dunn’s The Value and, say, Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus? It’s not the theme, as each play examines an issue in depth: Dunn examines value in art and in life, Aeschylus justice, and Marlowe the limits of salvation in the face of a hardened heart. It’s not the writing, as each play has its purple passages, from Cassandra’s meditation on human frailty:

Alas for human destiny! Man’s happiest hours
Are pictures drawn in shadow. Then ill fortune comes,
And with two strokes the wet sponge wipes the drawing out.

to Faustus’ eleventh-hour plea:

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!-
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!-
Where is it now? ’tis gone: and see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

to McEvoy’s paroxysm of emotion as he lays eyes on the German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Summum Bonum:

Oh. I … I can’t believe it. Just how… The color, the looseness, the fluidity of line, the harsh–almost violent–application of hues. Vibrant and dark at once. It’s the blue… The blue raging against yellow… (sighs) No second-guessing. And it’s here. My god, it’s in this room.

If not the theme nor the writing, then what is it? The difference between the best plays written today and the best of the past is that there is a considerable body of scholarship examining yesterday’s plays.

When playwrights write, I don’t think their aim is to create a classic. Of course, I can’t be sure, but a thousand other things likely come to mind during the creative process than: “I must create a masterpiece that will endure forever.” Maybe there’s a character that’s been haunting the playwright’s imagination. “Will she fit into this play?” the playwright wonders. Maybe there’s a local theatre or artistic director that is looking for a certain type of play. Maybe the play has complex casting requirement and the playwright wonders if actors are available. Perhaps the playwright is concerned about raising with funds to workshop the play. There are a thousand things the playwright could be thinking about other than entering the canon. Classics are not consciously created. This begs the question then: how are classics created?

Achilles was a great warrior. But where would Achilles have been if Homer had not sung of his tale in The IliadWithout Homer, Achilles would have been forgotten. E. L. Kirchner was a great artist. But where would Kirchner have been were it not for McEvoy’s devotion? Without McEvoy, Kirchner’s renown would have been less. Convention has it that the author creates the classic. I wish to reexamine this. If Aristotle hadn’t written The Poetics, perhaps Sophocles’ Oedipus rex would not even have survived. In truth, while the artist creates the masterpiece, it is the interpreter who transforms the masterpiece into the classic. Canadian pianist-interpreter Glenn Gould transformed the works of Sibelius and Orlando Gibbons into classics. Catalonia cellist-interpreter Pablo Casals transformed Bach’s Cello Suites into a classic. If Casals had not wandered into a Barcelona thrift shop, the Cello Suites would have languished in obscurity. The relationship between the doer and the interpreter was succinctly captured by Alexander the Great when he visited Achilles’ tomb in 334 BC. He pronounced Achilles fortunate in getting Homer as the herald of his fame to posterity. Classic works of art are born when writers write about works of art.

Mind you, that someone thinks about and writes an essay or gives a talk on your work doesn’t always mean that your work is on its way into the canon. Far from it. But there’s two telltale signs that you’ve made it. The first is when you get roasted. And the second is when academics start speculating on the odds and ends in your work. What a delight it must be for artists (unless you’re Bob Dylan) to see people studying their works and to see critics staking their careers on conflicting interpretations. With that, let’s turn to The Value.

The Price is What You Pay, The Value is What You Get

Dunn announces that The Value will examine the idea of value–whether human, material, artistic, or societal–in a pair of opening epigrams:

Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. –Marshall Sahlins

and

… when the dominant myth is not “to possess is to give” but “the fittest survive,” then abundance will lose its motion and gather in isolated pools. –Lewis Hyde, The Gift

The first epigram hints that the play explores how characters react within the capitalist structure to the proposition of scarcity in the face of plenty. Ian fulfils this opening pronouncement as the play progresses. While the meaning of the second epigram isn’t as obvious as the first, it also foreshadows how the quartet of characters will react with one another.

Although I haven’t read Hyde’s book, I looked it up. I’ll run down to Munro’s Books to pick it up. It looks fascinating. The idea behind The Gift is that by giving we increase abundance and by self-interest we foster scarcity. Taken together, the quotes imply that it isn’t capitalism, but altruistic acts within the capitalist structure that make the land flow with milk and honey. Inversely, selfish acts within the capitalist structure strips away society’s riches, even should modern society be richly endowed. The idea behind The Gift resonates with me on a personal level: since establishing The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition three years ago, I find myself working harder and making more money for the express purpose of giving more money away in the competition. If I had been working for my own ends, I would have generated less abundance. Let’s see how these ideas play out in The Value.

In form, Dunn’s The Value is an example of what risk theatre calls a parallel-motion tragedy. The distinguishing feature of parallel-motion tragedies is that multiple protagonists strut their stuff on the stage. Parallel-motion tragedies entertain by dramatizing the feedback between different characters’ intentions. Feedback loops in turn bring about the unexpected ending. Examples of parallel-motion tragedies include Corneille’s Cinna and, more recently, O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.

Four characters acting at cross-purposes interact in The Value. There’s Ian, a tradesperson by day, perhaps one of these types who’s a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Perhaps he’s a failed electrician who wires low-voltage security systems. In the opening scene, we see him changing out of his work clothes. As he changes, he steps outside of himself, is no longer the tradesperson. He imagines himself meeting a lady at swanky party. In their imaginary conversation, he acts out their encounter:

Ian: What do do? Oh, I’m a… investor. An entrepreneur. I’m a banker. Wall street, you know, stock market bullshit, insider trading, fucking up people’s retirement, fraud, hookers, blow, typical American dream stuff…

As he goes on, he quickly ramps up from the likely to the unlikely. In a few words, Dunn conveys Ian’s primary trait: appetite. Ian wants more. And there is something uncanny about his appetite: what Wall Street trader, when introducing himself, brags about engaging in illegal insider trading? First impressions are critical, and in Ian’s first impression, he lets off that there is something crooked in his understanding of the American dream.

Then there’s Zoey, a few years younger than Ian. Her and Ian have had something in their past. Exactly what is left unspoken, but clear enough. What we do know is that while she screwed up, it was Ian who left:

Zoey: But you fucking left.

Ian: Yeah.

Zoey: You left us! That wasn’t an accident. That wasn’t a mistake. That was a choice. To abandon.

Ian: Of course I left. Why the fuck would I hang around? I’m not your caretaker, or your brother’s or anyone else–

Zoey: We depended on you.

Ian: You think I was gonna stay there forever, running dope or some whit my whole fucking life?

As the play progresses they address the unfinished business between them.

The third of the four characters is Victor, Zoey’s brother. Like the others, he’s a small time criminal. He’s underrated and belittled. The runt. His want of self-esteem marks his reactions to the others:

Victor: I’m fuckin’ sick of being pushed around.

Zoey: We all are!

Victor: I loved that dog. I coulda taken care of him. Isn’t that why we got him? God, I’m not a fucking idiot. Okay, I’m not stupid!

He’s volatile and explosive, the perfect character to put a twist into the action.

The final character is McEvoy, the museum curator. He’s the one who sets the play in motion by asking Ian to steal back a painting with an unusual provenance and name. The painting, by German expressionist painter Kirchner, had once belonged to McEvoy’s grandmother. Confiscated by the Nazis, it was to be destroyed as “degenerate” art. But it somehow survived. McEvoy requested the Kirchner exhibition for the museum. He got it. When the crates arrived, Ian happened to be wiring the security system. With his knowledge, he could steal crate #32. But since he was working at the museum, he couldn’t steal it himself. That’s where Ian brings in Zoey and Victor. He would tell them how to get in. They would steal it. They would split the money. The catch, however, is that McEvoy and Ian never agreed beforehand to a price. This crack gives Dunn a springboard into examining not only the value of art, but the value in knowing what is enough.

Risk theatre argues that the fundamental structural unit of tragedy is the troika of temptation-wager-cast. Something motivates the character to act. To fulfil the heart’s desire, a wager is formulated: the milk of human kindness for the crown would be the example from Macbeth. Then the die is cast. That’s the point of no turning back. In a risk theatre reading of The Value, one of the first things we’d do is to analyze characters’ motivations in terms of how they formulate their wagers. What they’d be willing to lay on the line is telling.

In Macbeth, one of risk theatre’s paradigm plays (the other being Aeschylus’ grandiose and belligerent Seven Against Thebes), the witches tempt Macbeth. In The Value, it is McEvoy who tempts Ian by asking him to steal the painting in crate #32 (which is incidentally, if you’re from Salt Lake City, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz’ retired number). For Ian–as for Macbeth–the payout is uncertain. To cash in, he has to take risks:

Zoey: You know, there seems to be an awful lot of guesswork in you plan here tonight!

Ian: Right, it’s a chance! An opportunity. They’re rare, and sudden, and yeah, usually a gamble. But that’s how we get ahead.

That’s what Ian’s after: to get ahead. As we see in the opening scene where he pretends to be a high-roller, Ian’s tired of himself, tired of who he is. “We’re climbing the food chain. Tonight,” he says with an exclamation point. Ian bets that McEvoy will pay them out and that Zoey and Victor can steal the painting. It’s a pretty good bet. There’s no hubris involved. Anyone in Ian’s position would have made the same wager.

For Zoey, it’s not about money or climbing the food chain. For Zoey, it’s a chance to start afresh with Ian after their former turmoil and separation:

Zoey: I just… I know that… I hurt you and I don’t know–I don’t know if–

Ian: Don’t… don’t worry. It’s me.

(He sits on the edge of the bed, closer to her. Pause.)

Zoey: I was glad when you asked me. I’m glad that you trusted me to do this. It feels good to do this together. To go all “whatever” on these motherfuckers.

Her bet is that the heist will bring her, Ian, and her brother back together into a family unit. Again, it’s a likely bet: she is attracted to Ian and Ian to her.

More mercantile aspirations guide Victor. Whereas for Ian, the money represents the chance to “climb the food chain,” for Victor, money is simply what it is. Hellhounds on his trail, the heist gives him the chance to pay back debts beyond his more honest abilities.

If more mercantile aspirations guide Victor, less mercantile aspirations guide McEvoy. Kirchner’s painting Summum Bonum (“the highest good” in Latin, more on its fascinating name below) has haunted McEvoy’s imagination since a child. The painting belonged to his family, was stolen from his grandmother. To possess it again is to reconnect with his family and that sense of fascination, wonder, and awe. He bets that Ian, for a price, can help him. But at what price? And so, we come across the kernel of Dunn’s tragedy:

McEvoy: This piece. This is the one, the only one, that… that I would go to such lengths to acquire. Not for any kind of monetary justification or, or, or prestige associated with possession. But for, for reasons that… motivations that I doubt the three of you could comprehend.

Zoey: What do you mean by that?

McEvoy: I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have thought of doing this for anything off the wall. This is the only one I would even think–

Ian: I get that, but why?

McEvoy: I’m not interested in the price.

Ian: I am.

The painting over which they’re negotiating is called Summum Bonum, or “The Highest Good.” Clever. How much is the highest good worth?

The real-life Kirchner–the founder of the artistic movement Die Brücke (The Bridge, an allegorical bridge from old to new) along with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff–was, just like Dunn’s Kirchner, a painter in pursuit of a new artistic mode, a painter searching for an impulsive reaction to life. Primitivism rather than clinical technique underlie his paintings. A Google search brings up many of Kirchner’s works. There’s a Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915) and a late-period Archers (1935-37). One of his paintings, Berlin Street Scene (1913) sold for $38 million in 2006. But no record of a painting Summum Bonum comes up.  While the painter Kirchner and his mode of expression are real, perhaps the painting at the center of The Value is Dunn’s invention? It would be an ironic twist on the characters’ attempts to negotiate a price–they are negotiating a price for ostensibly a painting, but really, they are arguing about what the highest good is worth. The title of the painting, if it is Dunn’s devising–and even if it isn’t–immeasurably deepens the play’s philosophic stage. The title is a brilliant device.

Ian, Zoey, and Victor have no idea what they’ve stolen. They know it’s a painting. They know it’s in crate #32. They know McEvoy wants it. But here’s the kicker: Ian and McEvoy had never agreed to a price. It was one of those: “If it gets done (and I’m not sure it will), let’s talk about it then” transactions. This allows Dunn to launch into a discussion of value in art and in life.

The discussion of value begins in the motel room where the thieves are holed up. They try, at first unsuccessfully, to get onto the internet. Their ignorance of what a powerful plaything they’ve stolen complicates things. To them, Kirchner’s Summum Bonum looks similar to the thrift-store landscape painting in their room. Even after they get onto the internet, without the artist’s name and the name of the painting, how would you search? The thieves start speculating:

Victor: I had a paint by numbers book as a kid that looked like this. Remember Zoey? That’s what this looks like! You think this is worth thousands of dollars?

Ian: Tens of thousands.

They start speculating on two threads: 1) the painting is valuable enough to make it into the museum and 2) the painting is valuable enough for McEvoy to hire them. On that hunch, Victor guesses that, even though it looks like “a five-year-old’s finger painting” it’s worth thousands. Ian, more in tune with the risk McEvoy has taken in requesting the exhibition and hiring them, guesses that it must be worth “tens of thousands.” For good measure, even though Victor believes it’s only worth thousands, he also adds that rich folks will likely offer them a premium. To Victor, that’s how the rich and famous work:

Victor: Yeah, these rich pricks spending all this money on shitty art you can’t do nothing with. They’ll probably pay more than it’s worth, right? I’ll be he would. I’ll bet.

To Victor and Ian, the painting has a perceived value: McEvoy wants it, wants it bad. McEvoy wanting it gives the painting value. To both Ian and Victor, the painting is without any intrinsic value: it’s a “piece of shit,” as Victor puts it. By going on perceived value, all they can conclude, however, is that “they’ll probably pay more than it’s worth.” But, with perceived value, the question comes back: what’s it worth?

That’s the best the trio can do until they get the internet working. Once they connect, it’s still a problem though: it’s hard searching for an image without knowing the artist and the name of the piece. Zoey comes up with the idea:

Zoey: We just find a way to compare it to something else out there that has a dollar sign attached. If the search is, you know, generic enough it shouldn’t matter, right?

They see something that looks similar, an expressionist painting from the same era:

Ian: Right here. Right here. Let’s see… 1909 modern expressionist… blah, blah, blah, at Phillips de Pury, New York… sold to… some asshole for sixty thousand dollars.

By comparing Kirchner’s piece to others of a similar vintage, they’re able to establish the relative value of Summum Bonum: if a similar painting sold for sixty thousand, then it too should fetch a similar amount. While perceived value is based on perception, relative value is based upon comparing like specimens. Perceived value and relative value are just the beginning. There are other means as well. As they compare and contrast art pieces to determine its relative value, they then stumble onto a third means of valuation:

Victor: Holy shit! Sixty grand. For a picture! This guy has that kind of cash?

Ian: He’s stuffed up, believe me. And as bad as he wants it, he knows it’s gonna cost him.

Zoey: What if it’s worth more than that? It could be couldn’t it? Or what if it’s worth less?

Victor: Worth less?

Ian: It could be, I don’t know. How can you tell with these? But with the risk we took, and what it is, yeah, I think we can make that work.

In this third means of valuation, Ian wants to be compensated not for the work of art itself, but for the troubles he’s taken to obtain it. Ian comes close to a kind of absolute means of valuation: they are to be remunerated for their time planning and executing the heist as well as for danger they put themselves into. If they are caught, there could be jail time, community hours, and lost opportunities elsewhere. They are to be remunerated for the next best thing they could have done that night, had they not carried through the heist. There is an opportunity cost of the next best thing that is lost when they chose to break into the museum. In this third means of valuation, the painting is like a diamond buried deep in the ground. Its worth is to be understood absolutely in terms of the resources that are required to extract it from the ground: equipment, labour, some sort of safety premium from the dangers in excavating, remediation of the mine, and so on.

In the negotiation, McEvoy sits across the table from Ian. Their physical, cultural, and social differences couldn’t be starker. Ian is tough; McEvoy is scholarly. Ian labours with his hands; McEvoy works behind a desk. Ian lives on the fringes of society; McEvoy comes from an old family which receives gifts from painters of renown. These differences manifest themselves in the negotiations.

To McEvoy, Summum Bonum is priceless. That’s its perceived value–not too useful for exchange. Relative value also fails as a means of establishing worth. To McEvoy, it’s one of a kind, there’s nothing like it:

McEvoy: The painting is more than, than just pigment and canvas. It is blood. It is… It is feeling. It is hope and despair. It is humanity at its basest and its most glorious. It is Kirchner. It is refugees and prisoners and graves. It is my family. It is mine!

That leaves absolute value. He will pay not for the painting–which is priceless–but for the services rendered in obtaining the painting:

McEvoy: But, but we never discussed–I mean, we only agreed that–

Ian: We agreed I could get it, and you could pay for it.

McEvoy: I–Pay you for the act of doing it! And when we talked, it was only you. Just you, no one else!

Ian: Yes.

McEvoy: You said that was on your end. That it doesn’t–

Ian: It doesn’t. I’m not talking about the number of people, I’m talking about the deal. The exchange. For the painting, prized, prestigious, an appropriate price.

McEvoy: (getting heated) And what do you deem appropriate? You, what? Broke a window? Disabled a security camera?

Both McEvoy and Ian agree that the painting should be valued in absolute terms–a good start. For doing the deed, McEvoy is prepared to pay $20k. When Ian balks, McEvoy increases the offer to $25k. At this point, Ian counters with $70k, anticipating that McEvoy will settle at $60k, which he does. McEvoy, however, has $25k on hand. He’ll have to round up another $35k, and come back the next day. This delay gives a chance for the unexpected to creep into the play. Just after McEvoy leaves, the headline of the heist breaks. They see it on the computer. And they see that the headline announces a fourth method of valuation. The market value of the painting, the headline announces, is $24 million.

The market value is the price an object of exchange can fetch on the open market. An open market is one in which all the buyers have equal access. The painting, of course, can no longer be sold on the open market: it has been stolen. So, it’s not quite worth its market value any more. But it likely can fetch more than the $60k McEvoy and Ian agreed to.

When McEvoy returns a little later, impossibly with the $60k, Ian drops the atom bomb: the price has jumped up to approach the market value. Ian doesn’t even name the price. It simply is beyond what McEvoy could ever hope to raise. McEvoy counters with another basis of valuation, the concept of net present value. Net present value is the idea that certain money today is worth more than uncertain money tomorrow. And, what is more, net present value takes into account the value net of all considerations, a major one which is the painting no longer exists on the open market. The range of buyers has dwindled. And whoever buys it will never be able to sell it on the open market, or even display it:

McEvoy: You can’t auction it, you can’t advertise that you have it. You don’t know who to look for to sell it illegally. It is now only worth what someone like me can give and what people like you can find.

Ian: People like–

McEvoy: It won’t be millions, I promise you.

Ian doesn’t bite. Maybe we won’t get $24 million. But he’ll take his chances. McEvoy, sensing defeat, tries one last time to draw the negotiation back to the painting’s absolute value, the price it takes to acquire it:

McEvoy: Sixty thousand for the, for, for your services. For your…access. For the act of, or acquiring it. Not for the painting itself. The painting is what am after, not you, and sixty was the price that you named.

McEvoy’s last-ditch plea falls short against Ian’s obdurate power play. He’s sent packing, and the play pivots from an examination of artistic value to an examination of human value.

A central tenet of risk theatre is that tragedy examines the opportunity cost of choice. When we choose, we lose the next best thing we could have done. The opportunity cost of choice is expressed in tragedy through the hero’s wager: for a chance to obtain the heart’s desire, the hero must lay down something dear, something human. The pivot to human value allows Dunn to explore the human price Ian is willing to pay to climb the food chain. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, is a valuing mechanism. By dramatizing the hero’s wager, we learn what our humanity is worth. Shakespeare did it in Macbeth. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? Who knows? The milk of human kindness–otherwise the emotion of compassion–isn’t like milk, which can be bought for $4.69 for a gallon. But in Macbeth, we find out that the milk of human kindness is, in fact, worth a Scottish crown because that’s what Macbeth antes up for a chance at the crown. In The Value, Dunn sets up a similar wager. This wager invites the audience to consider what human relationships are worth. It is questions such as these that make tragedy the greatest show on earth.

If Ian’s wager is that he can go up the food chain, Zoey’s is that, by participating in the heist, she can make Ian feel her love. Despite their lovers’ hurts, Ian is her man; Ian is family, family in the same sense that the characters in The Fast and the Furious franchise (who also live outside society) understand family: family is a sacred obligation:

Zoey: Family means … where you come from, who your people are, what you have to do to make it. Those bonds are…they’re sacred.

In the same way, as, say, Abbie Putnam in Desire Under the Elms wagers that her sacrifice can make Eben feel her love, Zoey puts her and her brother Victor at risk by trusting Ian. But when she senses that Ian won’t settle for $60k, she rebukes him, and explosively:

Zoey: My turn. And listen how easy this is, to communicate, when the concept is plain and simple. This is about need. The three of us need money. And the three of us need each other. Those are the things we need to survive. You know that, don’t you? That we need each other? I thought you did know that–finally–but maybe you forgot again when McEvoy told you what we had. But the painting is nothing. It’s fucking splotches of color on cloth. Soon, one way or another, it’ll be gone. And when it disappears it makes no difference. But I’m here. You’re here. And that does make a difference. It doesn’t have to disappear. It can stay. You’re right. This is opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as fulfilling as wanting it. I came here for you. I did this for you. I risked everything for you. Because we are kin. Now we can sell this stupid useless thing to McEvoy, make his fucking life complete, and walk away with enough money to go somewhere, somewhere different, and start over. I need that. You need that.

Ian: Zoey…

Zoey: You need me. The question is, do you know it. Do you finally know it? If you do, you’ll sell the painting and we’ll be unstuck. If you don’t this is it. This is the last time we see each other. This isn’t a hustle it’s the goddam truth. So make this right. There. See how straightforward that is?

In this explosive rebuke, Zoey hits upon a fundamental tenet of risk theatre: material items have a dollar cost and spiritual concerns have a spiritual cost. One cannot buy spiritual concerns and other affairs of the heart with money. One cannot put a dollar value on spirit, the all-too-human, heartache, longing, joy, and courage. These human concerns can only be exchanged for other human concerns. Tragedy exists, argues risk theatre, to dramatize this truth. It is a counter-monetary art.

The painting exists in the realm of spirit, in the realm of the all-too-human. It’s true value, as McEvoy argues, is to be measured in terms of the sacrifices Kirchner underwent to create it:

McEvoy: And you’ll never appreciate it for what it represents, and what it cost–beyond money–for the artist who achieved it. You do not know who he was, what he endured. The hours of study and practice, of the pressure required to be the one to create it.

In the end, Kirchner paid the price by committing suicide. The true value of the painting exists in the realm of spirit insofar as Kirchner gives up his life to give it life. Whether $20k, $60k, or $24 million, cash is an inappropriate means of valuing Summum Bonum, the highest good. But if Ian exchanges the Kirchner to make the family whole, he would recognize its true value. Kirchner gave his life so that other lives may be made whole. Is this not a beautiful conceit and the very soul of drama?

Tragedy, says risk theatre is about a gamble, a wager, a bet. Ante up for a chance to win. Go all-in. Make a delirious bet. Dunn’s characters go all-in, each of them. The bet is good, argues risk theatre. Why would rational characters deliberately sabotage themselves by making a stupid or boastful bet that attracts the wrath of the heavens? And so, we see that the bets Dunn’s characters make are reasonable. But something happens. This is tragedy, after all. Something happens, says risk theatre, because of risk. Risk is the pivot. Characters, says risk theatre, trigger the highly improbable because they take inordinate risks. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when the thieves discover what they’ve stolen in a low-budget smash and grab: a $24 million dollar modern classic, thought to have been lost forever. What were the odds? They were surely low. But the consequences rock Zoey, Victor, Ian, and McEvoy’s worlds. And the audience is left asking a question we would do well to ask ourselves: “How do you price Summum Bonum, the highest good?”

In answering this question–and this is how I’ll direct the play–I’ll take the side of McEvoy: its true price is the human price Kirchner paid to paint it. Everyone who assigns it a cash value gets it wrong: that’s the tragedy. McEvoy understands its true price, but cannot unlock its value. If he obtains the highest good, he’ll lock it up in a cabinet-prison, bringing it out every so often to feel its power. He’s a hoarder. That’s his tragedy. Ian, who understands the price of everything but the value of nothing, can’t get it right either. He doesn’t know who he is, what he has. He’s a pretender, standing on one peak, already envisioning himself on the next. He would do well to hear an old story between writers Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Joseph Heller. The story takes place at a private Shelter Island party, hosted by a Wall Street banker:

Kurt: Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel CATCH-22 has earned in its entire history?

Joseph: I’ve got something he can never have.

Kurt: What on earth could that be, Joe?

Joseph: The knowledge that I’ve got enough.

That Ian doesn’t get it that Zoey and Victor can get him “enough” is his tragedy. Zoey, unlike the others, can unlock the value of the highest good: the price Kirchner paid to paint it is the cost of what it takes to reunite her family. Give up the painting and make the family whole. That’s a legitimate use of the highest good: Kirchner’s sacrifice makes good her broken family. Suffering for suffering. Just as risk theatre theory predicts, human concerns can only be paid in the currency of blood, sweat, and tears, either our own, or that of others. The highest good can only be exchanged for other intangible goods that also are of the highest order. These are the human, all-too-human goods. But she lacks the power to make it happen. That’s her tragedy.

“What can the highest good get you?” That question, I think, encapsulates the reasons why the jurors nominated The Value for the grand prize. I feel its power. Now the task is to take this message from the page to the stage.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Almost Freedom 45

You don’t know your value until you put it on the table. Here’s a story, a true story that played out this month. I work construction. I’m a project manager on a team that builds highrises, hospitals, schools, old folks’ homes, you name it. At the beginning of August, I gave my notice: I would stay on as long as the company wanted, but not past February 2021, the completion date of my current project. Why? I’m 45. There are many years left to build buildings.

Here’s the reason: when you talk to the old timers, they’ll tell you all the things they wish they’d done different. None of these things involves working more hours at the office or working longer. There’re books for me to read. Maybe another book for me to write. There’s my work in theatre. There are my hobbies: kickboxing, cycling, running, the gym. And now yoga and backpacking. I work because of a fear of running out of money. But you don’t need that much to achieve your dreams. And, more often, when you have more, it prevents you from achieving your dreams.

Look at Cus D’Amato. He invented the peek-a-book style of boxing. He coached three heavyweight champions of the world, including Mike Tyson. Every day, he did what he loved. By all accounts, he led the best of lives. When he died, all he had in his name was the station wagon he used to drive his fighters to the gym. I would like to be more like him. He didn’t worry about the money. He worried about doing exactly what he needed to be doing. That’s why he has a legacy.

When I gave notice, however, my boss made me an unexpected offer. This is the part about not knowing your value until you put it on the table. Here was the offer: a) full-time too much?–then go to part-time, you decide how many hours a week and which days, b) over 10% raise, and c) work from home or remotely. For the last month I’ve been torn. Some friends say: “It’s an incredible offer, you have to at least try it.” Other friends say: “If you can, get the hell out.” My friends outside the construction industry would be more likely to give the former advice. My friends in the industry, however, would tend to give the latter advice. This last month, the decision’s been tearing me apart. To go for legacy on a threadbare budget or to sell my soul for a measure of comfort? Or could I do both?

In October, I start part-time. The tragedy is that understanding comes after choice, sometimes many years and decades after.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of Axiom Seymour Oceanweave P55+ Cycling Panniers

Axiom Seymour Oceanweave P55+

Axiom Seymour Oceanweave P55+

My twenty plus year old Serratus panniers finally wore out (on the bottom of the photo, they used to be black). They were maybe 17 litres a side for 34 litres of combined carrying capacity. I cycle to get groceries once a week, and I found that two 17 litre panniers plus a 25 litre backpack did it most of the time, but on weeks where I was getting bulky items, another trip would be required. I’d also like to put more weight into the panniers rather than in the backpack. It’s just a more comfortable ride not having milk jugs and tubs of ice cream on your back. And it would be nice being able to lie apple pies down flat. They don’t like being jostled around when placed on their side. Yes, there is room for me to eat a little healthier. But at least I burn some of it off cycling. So, I was looking for a large set of panniers. But the catch was that I was also looking for a lightweight set of panniers. No four pound panniers, thank you.

The choices came down to Tailfin’s SL22, Ortlieb’s Back-Roller City, and Axiom’s Seymour Oceanweave P55+. Tailfin’s SL22 is the lightest of the bunch: 1200 grams and fully waterproof. But $380 (CDN) for a set. They hold 22 litres per side for 44 litres total storage. Like the Tailfin SL22, Ortlieb’s Back-Roller City is a roll-top pannier, meaning you fold the top to close it. The Back-Roller City holds 20 litres per pannier for 40 litres total storage and weigh 1520 grams. They are Ortlieb’s lightest 40 litre panniers and are fully waterproof. Axiom’s Seymour Oceanweave P55+ holds a combined 55 litres. Since they are a drawstring closure with a top flap that buckles down with two adjustable straps, it is easy to overload them for 55+ litres of storage. Like the Ortliebs, they also weight 1520 grams (3.35 pounds) for a pair. But they hold much more than the Back-Rollers. In Canada, the Ortliebs cost $170. The Axioms are also priced at $170 a set. They are both much less than the Tailfin SL22, which, at $380, are over double. What an incredible premium to be lightweight.

The first bag at the local bike shop (LBS) I saw was the ubiquitous Ortlieb Back-Roller City. For being fully waterproof, it was lighter than I thought. The roll-top design, however, does not allow much room for overpacking. Three rolls and then buckle down is standard. For larger loads, you could get away with two rolls. That’s not very much extra room. And, while 20 litres a side is spacious, it’s not spacious enough to lay an apple pie or a black forest cake down flat. On top of this, I like to leave panniers on the bike. Not only does my bike do club rides, it’s also a commuting bike and a grocery bike. The Ortliebs, with their distinctive design and enduring popularity may be a target for thieves. I never saw the Tailfin SL22 (not stocked at the LBS, mail order only), but it is also a roll-top design. With an extra litre a side, it wasn’t going to be much bigger than the Back-Roller City panniers.

When I saw the Axiom Seymour Oceanweave P55+, I thought: “Wow, this is big!” With the drawstring closure and the flap that buckles down with adjustable straps, you can pile another foot of stuff on top of their nominal height. Here’s a photo of a 4 litre milk jug with a 750 ml bottle of wine sitting on top of it. It’s always hard in photos to see exactly how big things are, but this gives you an idea. These are deep panniers. If you overloaded the pannier to maximum capacity, you can pile another foot of groceries above the top of the bottle of wine. Of course, at this point, you’re going to have weight and balance problems driving the bike!

Axiom Seymour Oceanweave P55+

Axiom Seymour Oceanweave P55+

I bought the Axiom Seymour Oceanweave P55+ panniers. They are incredibly light for a 55 litre pannier. Part of this is that they are water-resistant, not waterproof. Axiom has a Monsoon line, also made from their Oceanweave fabric, but thicker. It is fully waterproof. But heavier. If I need to transport something in heavy rain for more than twenty minutes, I’d put it in a plastic grocery bag or a dry sack. Easy. The Axiom Seymour Oceanweave panniers come in 22, 35, and 55 litre (per pair) sizes. They will appeal to people looking for a no-nonsense and lightweight pannier that can be left on the bike without too much fear of theft. The Oceanweave fabric is also a selling point.

Ever go down to the beach of the docks and see busted up fishing line floating around? The fishing line that all sorts of otters and turtles get themselves stuck in? Fishing line floats up all the time in the beaches and docks around Vancouver, where cycling gear company Axiom is based. But what we see on the beaches is just a fraction of the problem. There’re football field sized masses of fishing line floating in the oceans. Now fishing line is made with polyester threads. So are bicycle panniers. This got Axiom’s brand manager Andrew Belson thinking: could fishing line be recycled into material to make panniers? This was the beginning of a five year R&D project to create Oceanweave, a textile made from reclaimed fishing nets.

In the end, Belson and Axiom Gear found a way to recycle fishing line to make the Oceanweave fabric at a cost just a fraction more than what it would have cost to have made the material new. The important thing, however, is, that 75% less crude oil is used to produce Oceanweave than to produce new fabric. And, what is more, now there is an incentive for companies to go out to “harvest” these football field sized masses of fishing line floating in the oceans. This is win for marine life (which gets stuck in the nets), people hoping to make a difference by cleaning up fishing line (there’s now an economic incentive to collect it), and environmentally conscious cyclists.

What I hear is that backpack makers, clothing companies, and other companies that use fabrics have been in touch with Axiom to enquire about their Oceanweave fabric. Oceanweave has only been around for three years. Maybe this is the start of something great? Well, each time I use my panniers, I can have that feel good feeling.

Oh yes, I should add the mounting mechanism is first class. The rack clips adjust to different diameter rack tubes with the turn of a screwdriver. Lots of adjustment is possible. Easy, takes seconds to adjust. The distance between the rack clips is, unlike on Ortlieb and other panniers, not adjustable. If Axiom were to have made it adjustable, they would have needed to add bars for the clips to slide back and forth. This just means more weight. I like Axiom’s lighter design. I had no issues with heel strike while cycling. The panniers were mounted onto a conventional looking Blackburn EX-1 rear rack. On the bottom of the bag, there’s an adjustable arm that slides onto the rack tube to prevent the bag from bouncing around. This is adjustable with a Phillips screwdriver as well. It worked fine for me, and it will likely work fine for you as well. In a few weeks, I’ll be swapping out my Blackburn rack for a Tubus Airy rack. I expect this to work just fine as well. The Oceanweave line of panniers is not only a great product, but a great story as well. A good buy. Now I can have my apple pie and eat is as well.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of NEW DRAMATURGIES – Mark Bly

Routledge, 2020, 121 pages

Reading Bly’s book was a special treat. Here’s the story of how I came across his wonderful book. The National New Play Network (NNPN) invited me to speak at their “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis” panel earlier this year. The panel took place during the pandemic and was live-streamed on Zoom. With over 300 people watching, I must admit I was a little nervous. But it was well worth it: one of the folks tuning in was Mark Bly. Sometimes fortune smiles on you. He was interested in what I had to say and got my contact info from Jess Hutchinson, NNPN’s engagement manager. Mark and I struck up a dialogue and exchanged books: I sent him a copy of my theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and he sent me New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for the 21st Century Playwriting.

In New Dramaturgies, Bly presents nine exercises to unleash the beast within the playwright. Are you too focused on writing about personal experiences? No problem. Try “Bly’s myth exercise” and see if your writing takes on a more universal and timeless perspective. Are you experiencing writer’s block? No problem. Try “Bly’s sensory writing exercise” and see how touch, smell, taste, hearing, and the other senses unlock a train of words, rolling and rambling over one another. Are you worried that the forward momentum of your play has stalled? No problem. Try “Bly’s character’s greatest fear” exercise and kickstart the action. As Holly Hepp-Gálvan, one of Bly’s former students, puts it, these exercises “not only get writers writing” but “set them on fire.” The excellent thing about this book is that Bly gives you successful applications of his exercises by his former students, many of which have become top names on the stage and on the screen. That way you can see the exercise in motion. I love it.

When I was younger, I thought to name something after yourself was a prideful thing, something to be avoided. With this mindset, if you were starting a car company, you would name the company after an agile animal such as “Jaguar” instead of naming it after yourself like how Henry Ford did. Now I’m older, I’ve changed my mind. Putting your name on your work gets you skin in the game. When your name is on it, you tell the world you stake your reputation on its quality. Your name, after all, is on it. For example, if you were considering two similar gyms, which one would you instinctively trust more: “The Forge World Class Gym” or “Tom Yankello’s World Class Gym”? Why this digression? All the playwriting exercises in the book are in Bly’s name: “Bly’s music memory exercise,” “Bly’s Einstein’s dreams exercise,” and so on. I like that. Bly has skin in the game. When he says his exercises work, he has a stake in it: his name.

I think of this book as a series of nine studies or études, similar to the Etudes Liszt and Chopin wrote for the piano. Like Liszt and Chopin’s Etudes, they are short exercises that work on specific techniques. And just like Liszt and Chopin, Bly has condensed many years of learning into these Etudes. Although it’s a short book, it’s long on the gems. Here’s one concept Bly recounts (quoting neuroscientist Eagleman) that fascinates me to no end:

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is the moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

When I read this, an epiphany struck me: the third death is the death I fear. Why had I never thought of this before?–a good reason to pick up Bly’s book.

How has New Dramaturgies influenced me? It’s taught me that dramaturgs approach the text unlike academics. My teachers in the classics taught me: if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. You’re not allowed to question concepts, ideas, and realities that lie beyond the text. For dramaturgs and playwrights, however, it’s different. They need to ask the questions that academics shun. They need to ask what drives the characters, and–if the answer isn’t in the text–they need to come up with their own answers. This reminds me of a series of conversations I had with director, playwright, and actor Tony Nardi. He explodes the writer/actor dichotomy by arguing that a writer, in writing, acts and that an actor, in acting, writes. Bly’s book has taught me that fascinating insights happen when you go beyond the text by asking questions such as what a character’s greatest fear or pleasure is. When an actor acts or when a critic interprets, their performance is more powerful when they go beyond the text. When writers go beyond the text, the become actors. And when actors go beyond the text, they become writers.

The series of playwright exercises in New Dramaturgies gave me a crucial insight for which I am very grateful. As part of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, each year I workshop the winning play. As the jurors get closer to announcing the winner, I’ve been thinking of how to run this year’s workshop. I saw how Bly’s exercises, by focusing on a fundamental aspect of playwriting, allowed the play as a whole to become what it must be. Then it occurred to me: the fundamental aspect of playwriting I would focus on in the workshop would be risk. In the risk theatre workshop, we would ask questions such as: what is at stake, why a character goes all-in on an uncertain outcome, why characters up the ante, the role of the unexpected, and so on. Many times, when you’re working on a problem and can’t come up with an answer, if you keep reading, the answer will come to you. Such was the case reading New Dramaturgies.

Book Blurb

In New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting, mark Bly offers a new playwriting book with nine unique play-generating exercises. These exercises offer dramaturgical strategies and tools for confronting and overcoming obstacles that all playwrights face. Each of the chapters features lively commentary and participation from Bly’s former students. They are now acclaimed writers and producers from media such as House of Cards, Weeds, Friday Night Lights, Warrior, and The Affair, and their plays appear in major venues such as the Roundabout Theatre, Yale Rep, and the Royal National Theatre. They share thoughts about their original response to an exercise and why it continues to have a major impact on their writing and mentoring today. Each chapter concludes with their original, inventive, and provocative scene generated in response to Bly’s exercise, providing a vivid real-life example of what the exercises can create. Suitable for both students of playwriting and screenwriting, as well as professionals in the field, New Dramaturgies gives readers a rare combination of practical provocation and creative discussion.

Author Blurb

Mark Bly has worked as a dramaturg, director of new play development, and associate artistic director for the Arena Stage, Alley Theatre, Guthrie Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, and Yale Rep, producing over 250 plays in a career in theatre spanning more than 40 years. Bly has dramaturged Broadway productions and has been credited as being the first production dramaturg on Broadway for his work on Execution of Justice. Bly has also served as the Director of the MFA Playwriting Programs for the Yale School of Drama, Hunter College, and Fordham/Primary Stages in a nearly 30-year Teaching Artist career. He is the editor and author of The Production Notebooks: Theater in Process Volumes I & II. Bly is an active freelance dramaturg and was the recipient of the LMDA’s G.E. Lessing Award for Career Achievement in 2010 and in 2019 was honored by The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival with its most prestigious award, The Kennedy Center Medallion of Excellence.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.