Seven Risk Theatre Playwriting Exercises

WORKING TITLE PLAYWRIGHTS
RISK THEATRE MASTER CLASS WITH EDWIN WONG
FEBRUARY 13/20 2021

SEVEN RISK THEATRE PLAYWRITING EXERCISES

Hi everyone, Edwin Wong here and I’ve got an awesome master class on risk theatre for you. This master class started when playwright and risk theatre finalist Emily McClain put me in touch with Amber Bradshaw, the managing artistic director at Working Title Playwrights, the leading new play incubator in the Southeast. Thank you to Emily, Amber, and Working Title Playwrights for this wonderful opportunity to connect. It’s great to see y’all here. Thank you for coming!

Here’s the story of risk theatre. Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. One of the purposes of theories of tragedy is to answer the question: “Why do we find tragedy so alluring when it is full of sorrow and suffering? Why are we not, instead, disgusted by it” My answer is that tragedy fascinates because it dramatizes chance and uncertainty. By making risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it keeps audiences in thrall.

While researching probability theory in 2006, the spark of risk theatre occurred. I fed the spark, and, by inaugurating an international drama competition in 2018, the spark became a flame. The contest is now in its third year and awards over $12k in prize money each year. Then, by launching my book in 2019, the flame became a fire. Today, we’re going to set fire to the flames. Theatre is hungry, like fire.

When Amber was asking me to write a little blurb on the class, I thought of continuing the fire metaphor. I was going to create a tagline for the class that read: “Throw more fire into your work instead of throwing more of your work into the fire!” I didn’t have the guts to write that. But, behind the joke is a kernel of truth: my playwriting exercises will put more fire into your work.

I’ve written seven brand new exercises for you to harness the dramatic possibilities in chance, risk, and the unexpected. I’ve modelled these exercises after the playwriting exercises in Mark Bly’s 2020 book: New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting. Bly’s book has helped me out many times, and it’s an honour to use his book as a template. Today’s exercises are adapted from my 2019 book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In today’s three hour session, I’ll present the exercises. After I present each exercise, we’ll have time to discuss for ten or so minutes before moving on to the next one. Halfway through the session we’ll have ten minute coffee break. In next week’s session, you’ll bring back your responses, and we’ll look at them together. Next week is also a three hour session, so we’ll have time for ten or eleven responses, selected from a lottery process. Chance is, after all, our theme.

Tragedy today has a bad rap. It’s a gloomy, depressing show about kings and queens. No one is lining up to see that. But if we transform tragedy into risk theatre and sell this idea to audiences and theatres, tragedy will come back into vogue. The public’s demand for chance, uncertainty, and the unexpected is insatiable because the problems and possibilities of our time are encapsulated in the concept of risk. When life give you risk, make risk theatre. Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. To make the audio clearer for everyone, I’ll put myself on mute now and I’ll toggle the microphone back on when I’m speaking. 

1          Wong’s “All Eggs in One Basket Exercise”

Have you heard of the expression “to go all-in?” It’s a gambling term. When a gambler goes all-in, the gambler stakes everything on the outcome of one roll, or one card, or one hand. In other words, all the eggs are in one basket. When all the eggs are in one basket, strange things happen. Strange things happen because the gambler has taken on risk. Risk has an uncanny power to multiply the risk taker’s position many times beyond what the risk taker can reasonably cover. It sets up the gambler for a catastrophic failure. These catastrophic failures interest audiences because they are inherently dramatic.

This playwriting exercise came to me when I was reading Paul Lyons’ collection of short stories called: The Greatest Gambling Stories Ever Told: Thirty-One Unforgettable Tales of Risk and Reward. Gamblers, by biting off more than they could chew, seemed to change the fabric of reality: by risk, they connect together all the strands of their life into a defining and explosive moment. Let’s talk about two of these stories: Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid.

The gambler Hermann in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades discovers the secret to the game of faro (there is never any doubt that the secret is good, even though he gets it from the ghost of the Countess Anna Fedotovna who is a ghost because he’s killed her: in drama we overlook these “details.” Take, for example, Sophocles’ play The Women of Trachis, where Deianeira receives a potion from a dying centaur her husband’s just shot). Back to the story. The secret is to bet everything on the first night on the three card, to do the same thing the second night on the seven, and on the third night on the ace. The first night, he bets 47k rubles on the three. Tchekalinski, the banker, comments that the highest stake is typically 175 rubles. The next night, he bets 94k rubles on the seven, and wins. And the final night, he places 188k rubles on the ace, or what he thought was the ace. The ace wins, but it turns out Hermann had somehow misplaced his bet on the queen of spades, which, in defiance, seems to wink at him. He goes insane.

A similar, and even more concentrated scenario plays out in Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid. In the movie (where the Kid plays out the final hand with greater skill than the novel), the Kid places all his eggs in one basket on the final poker hand. The Kid thinks that his full house has finally beat Lancey “The Man” Howard, who could be holding possibly nothing or perhaps a flush or straight flush. If the Man has nothing or a flush, the Kid wins. If the Man, however, has a straight flush, the Man wins. The odds in a two-handed game of poker, however, of a full house falling to a straight flush is 45,102,784:1 against. Accordingly, the Kid bets all-in, even borrowing $5000 Depression-era dollars to multiply his winnings. But, when the Man does have the straight flush, the Kid is out $15k. How much is that worth? Well, if we look at the prologue to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, that’s the exact price of a two-storey, seven-room house in that era.

Now let’s translate this “all eggs in one basket” scenario to the playwriting world. Consider Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. For eight years, Nora bets all in on her husband’s love and understanding. Like the Cincinnati Kid, she holds a full house. But when it comes time to show her hand, she sees that, far from a full house, all she has is a doll house, and that is enough to break her heart. She bet, like Hermann in Pushkin’s short story, on the king of hearts, but finds, she’s placed all her hopes on a king of spades.

The Exercise

In the “All Eggs in One Basket” exercise, the playwright will place a character in some sort of high-stakes situation. The character really wants something very badly. To get it, the character must go all-in. There can be no plan-B. It is all-or-nothing. Finally, say how the high-stakes situation gets away from the character’s controlling grasp. In 250 words, report back to the group next week the risk event, and how the outcome defies the character’s expectations. If the response reads like a play synopsis, you’re on the right track.

2          Wong’s “Exercise in Human Foibles”

Have you noticed that we all have certain foibles that motivate us to take risk? Generally, we are risk-off. We have been brought up that way. We have been told from childhood that “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Folk tales also reinforce the need for moderation: Aesop has a tale of a boy who gets his hand stuck in the jar trying to take out more than his fair portion of nuts (“The Boy and the Filberts”).

Risk-off characters are stable. For risk theatre, we need risk-on characters. How do we coax characters to turn up the risk, to flip the switch from risk-off to risk-on?

Have you heard of this stock called GameStop, ticker GME on the New York Stock Exchange? It’s been lighting up the news lately. I have a fascination for stock market bubbles: the Dutch Tulip Bubble in the 1600s, where tulips would sell for the price of waterfront mansions; the South Sea Bubble in which Isaac Newton lost a fortune, famously lamenting that he could “calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people;” the Roaring Twenties; the Dot-Com Bubble; and many more. These bubbles are the object of much study. It was while reading Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria—a book short in length but long in the wit and dry humour—that this exercise occurred to me. In reviewing three centuries of financial bubbles, Galbraith identifies triggers where previously rational and risk-off market participants would engage in irrational and risk-on speculation. It occurred to me that not only normally risk-on types of characters, but also nominally risk-off characters—with the right motivation—may be inspired to engage in dangerous speculation.

Myself, I love risk-on types of characters: Faust, Joan of Arc, Don Rodrigo. But these brash characters are not to suitable for all audiences, who tire of their larger-than-life excess. Sometimes audiences enjoy characters with constant, loving, and noble natures who value reflection and prudence over risk. Othello is such a character. His “constant, loving, noble nature” makes him ill-suited for crimes of passion. Shakespeare, however, triggers Othello’s speculative tendencies by putting him “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

The Exercise

In the “Exercise in Human Foibles,” the playwright will take a mild-mannered character—one of their own or a character from a well-known play—and describe, in 250 words, how a mild-mannered nature can be encouraged to risk everything. In this exercise, you will concentrate on triggering the character’s all-too-human foibles. The emotions of greed, love, jealousy, and anger, are all proven triggers. Or you can focus on different human drives. The drive to keep up with the Joneses is identified by Galbraith as one of the factors that incite financial euphoria: even mild natures cannot stand watching neighbours get ahead.

3          Wong’s “Taking a Page from History Exercise”

One of the best pieces of advice in university was given to me by Leslie Shumka. She, in turn, got it from Keith Bradley. The advice: “Read widely, especially outside your field.” At the time, I was young, and didn’t understand. But it stuck in my head, as Leslie’s tips were usually helpful. That it came from Bradley also helped the idea stick. He was one of the gods in the department who was alternately feared and worshipped by the students, and perhaps by some of the other professors as well. He was the preeminent expert on Roman slavery, and we always thought of him as a terrific atheist, since his position was that Christianity played an absolute zero role in making slaves’ lives better. I always found it ironic that he left Victoria to finish his career at a Notre Dame, a Catholic university. At any rate, we always paid attention to what he had to say. But, at that time, I was busy reading more and more things in my field. “Why would I want to read stuff that has nothing to do with me?” I thought.

In time, I would understand. If you only read within your field, you’ll be reading what everyone else is reading and when you create, chances are you’ll be creating things similar to the things your colleagues are creating. When audiences see your shows, they may notice generic similarities in theme, plot, and image. If you want to create something that truly stands out, you have to read widely. You’ll be inspired by new ideas and find new connections. When the young Bob Dylan moved to New York in the early 60s, he would spend his days in the public library. While everyone else reading the most recent newspapers, Dylan would read the papers from the 1800s. His favourite papers were the ones from the Civil War period. You can hear this influence in his songs Nettie Moore or ‘Cross the Green Mountain. Reading widely gives him a unique take.

One of my favourite genres outside drama is history, especially the philosophy of history. The biological metaphor of nations undergoing birth, growing pains, maturity, consolidation, and decline in the German historian Oswald Spengler. The process of an eternal recurrence in the Hellenistic historian Polybius. The study of power in the Greek historian Thucydides, power that could even change the meanings of words and language.

This exercise arose while reading the historians. I noticed that they start their histories at some explosive point in time. Herodotus isn’t talking about a random section of history, but the Persian Wars, the greatest of wars up to that period of time. Thucydides one-ups Herodotus—by his time, the Persian Wars seemed like a minor skirmish—now the most badass conflict is the Peloponnesian War. Homer is even more specific. He doesn’t start at a random point in the Trojan War, but at that moment when Agamemnon insults Achilles, a slight that will result in the death of thousands, both Greek and Trojan alike.

The Exercise

In the “Taking a Page from History Exercise,” you’ll think like a historian. Come up with a historical setting and tell the group, in 250 words, the dramatic potential of this setting. Many of the most memorable plays find their inspiration from history. Macbeth is inspired by Holinshed’s Chronicles. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is set during the Salem witch trials. Many other opportunities are also possible: scientific revolutions, the unintended consequences of great inventions, or historical pivots. The focus of this exercise isn’t a plot or the characters, but to focus on the setting itself, to find a setting out of which risk develops organically. Many possibilities present themselves here. Did you know, for example, that Sophocles’ Oedipus rex is set in a plague and was produced during a time of plague? The Crucible as well, while set during the witch trials, speaks to more contemporary events: the communist witch hunt. So too, Macbeth, while dramatizing eleventh century English-Scottish relations, speaks to the audience about King James, a Scottish king wearing the English crown.

This sort of historical distance is a useful asset to dramatists who wish to speak on current events without touching their audiences’ raw nerves. Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Miller were successful. Less successful was the ancient Athenian playwright Phrynichus. He wrote a moving play on the sack of Miletus, a sister city of Athens. It moved the audience to tears. But because the trauma of losing a sister city was too fresh, the state fined him 1000 drachmas, not a small amount, as 1000 drachmas could keep a family of four going for a year. In addition, they forbid the play from ever being produced again.

4          Wong’s “Birnam Wood Exercise”

Low-probability, high-consequence events are great fun because they’re part of a metatheatrical game between dramatists and audiences. By metatheatrical I mean the dramatist is talking directly to the audience. The game is played like this: the dramatist drops a hint of some impending low-probability event. The audience picks up this hint and starts trying to figure out how the dramatist will bring it about. The challenge is that, because the event is low-probability, it is hard to bring about.

This game of suspense is fun because it gives the audience skin in the game: they’re invested in the outcome as they try to piece together the clues. They watch the unfolding action with more attention. The game is likewise fun for the dramatist. It opens up fun devices such as misdirection or delay. The game also invests dramatists to use all their skills, as bringing about the impossible or the highly improbable is like pulling off a magic trick.

I don’t remember exactly where I got this idea from, it’s been so long. But it occurred to me when I was reading a book or an article by Alfred Hitchcock. He was talking about suspense as a game between the writer and the audience. Around the same time, while reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, it struck me how Hitchcock had nailed it on the head. You can know exactly what will happen, but it’s still full of suspense because you don’t know how the dramatist will get there. Trying to guess how the dramatist gets there is all the fun.

The great fun in Macbeth is trying to figure out how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and how Macbeth will run across a man not of woman born. I think that the audience—as soon as they hear about Birnam Wood, and about the man not of woman born, and Macbeth’s protestations that it couldn’t happen—think the opposite: that it will happen. And it does happen: Birnam Wood comes when Malcolm orders his troops to camouflage themselves with branches cut down from the wood and Macbeth meets the man not of woman born when Macduff tells him he was born by C-section. Each time I see this—even though I’ve seen it a thousand times—I think “Ah—this is great!” And I think of what a great joke the messenger missed when he told Macbeth that the wood is coming. He could have said: “The copse are coming! The copse are coming!” (thank you to David Konstan for that funny). Well, if nobody is laughing, this is why I am leading a master class on tragedy, and not comedy! For a more detailed analysis of Macbeth, click here.

I was wondering if I should bring up Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, a play that even classicists hardly read. I think I will, because it illustrates better than anything else how, even if the outcome is known to all, a great dramatist can generate suspense. Bear with me, it’s tricky to explain, but, I think, if you follow along, you’ll be amazed how Aeschylus pulls it off. For a more detailed analysis of Seven, click here.

Civil war rages in Thebes, fought between Oedipus’ two sons. Thebes has seven gates. One son, along with six captains, defends Thebes, one at each gate. Another son, along with six captains, lays siege to Thebes, one at each gate. The worst-case scenario happens if brother confronts brother at the final gate. The Greeks had rituals to purify spilt blood. They had no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood, which would release demonic spirits called the Furies. You don’t want the Furies to come out. The worst-case scenario only happens at the final gate, because, if the brothers meet before the final gate, they could substitute another captain. Oh, and another thing, the captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations. That is to say, all the gate assignations are random.

The audience knows that the brothers will kill each other. The action is part of the stories they’ve known since childhood—their myths. How this will happen in the play, however, they do not know. Okay. So the way Aeschylus sets this up is that each captain bears a shield emblazoned with a fantastic heraldic device. After the captains are assigned their gates, you can tell from the images on the shields who the gods favour—through the crack of probability and chance the gods reveal their will. In the play, we see the events unfold from the point of view of the brother defending the city. Starting from gate one, all the shield matchups overwhelmingly favour him. If the attacker carries an image of, say, the fire-breathing dragon Typhon on his shield, just by coincidence the defender has the image of Typhon’s slayer on his shield. This is a sign that the gods favour your cause. From gates one to six, by some amazing coincidence, the matchups so overwhelmingly favour the brother defending Thebes that the audience forgets that, each time a set of captains goes to the gates that isn’t one of the brothers, the odds of the worst-case scenario that brother confronts brother at gate seven goes up. And that is precisely what happens! As things get subjectively better and better, they are, in reality, getting objectively worse and worse. I love this play so much because there is no other play that works suspense so well. On the one hand, the fated outcome is getting more and more objectively likely, but, on the other hand, things are going so well it subjectively appears it could never happen. In antiquity, this play was an audience favourite, produced again and again. I can see why. I wish this play would come back into the canon. I’ve championed this play tirelessly in my risk theatre vision of tragedy.

The Exercise

In the “Birnam Wood Exercise,” the playwright will take a modern day prophecy and say, in 250 words, how, on first appearances, it could not happen, but then find a back door through which it comes to pass. Modern day prophecies can be all sorts of things. It can be the Titanic, the ship that could not be sunk. It could be the Great Depression: a few weeks before it broke out, the celebrity Yale economist Irving Fisher was telling the world that stocks had reached “a permanently high plateau.” It could be the behemoth oil rig Deepwater Horizon, with all its blowout preventers, blind shear rams, and sundry failsafes. In tragedy, there’s always a sliding door, a letter, a handkerchief.

In this exercise, the playwright finds the simplest strategy possible to communicate to the audience that the catastrophic event that can’t happen will happen. The focus is on simplicity. Usually when I tell people about how the impossible happens because Macduff was born by C-section, they groan a little bit. The technique you use to bring about the impossible doesn’t have to be realistic. The audience isn’t looking for that. But what the audience is looking for is that you play this game of suspense with them. With this one, make it simple, even if unrealistic. This is a good one to fight the urge to be clever. The C-section trick in Macbeth elicits groans, but hey, Macbeth is still a pretty good play.

5          Wong’s “O’Neill’s Fog Exercise”

I live on the banks of Esquimalt Harbour, in Victoria, Canada. My “harbour” is really a mud flat that’s different at all times of the day. When the tide’s out the shore recedes 200 metres. When the tide’s in, it looks like you’re looking into the ocean, but, until you get 300-400 metres out, it’s only 2-3 feet deep. In fact there’s an island a couple of hundred metres from shore that you can walk out to, even in high tide. Zodiacs drive all the way in and I’m always surprised their engines don’t bottom out. One cool thing around here are all the different birds: swans, eagles, vultures, gulls, herons, and my favourite, kingfishers. They’re a small bird, the size of my fist. They hover 20-30 feet above the water and will do a 90 degree dive straight in to fish. Daring. The other cool thing out here is the fog. The fog is mysterious, a visual analogy of risk, uncertainty, and the unknown.

One day, I took a photo of the Esquimalt Harbour fog and posted it on Facebook. Chicago playwright Mike McGeever commented on how Eugene O’Neill uses the fog as a barometer of risk: Long Day’s Journey into Night starts in the clear day. As the fog rolls in, Mary dissolves into morphine’s embracing haze. By the end of the play, the fog blankets everything and Mary is all but lost. As I started reading O’Neill’s earlier plays, I realized that O’Neill had been experimenting with the fog trope for at least twenty years, if not even further back. In Annie Christie, his 1921 Pulitzer winning play, there it is on the docks, the fog, full of uncertainty and foreboding, a sign that something will happen.

Risk theatre is meant to be an entertaining theatre, theatre that moves inexorably forwards towards the low-probability, high-consequence flashpoint. All the resources of theatre—language, character, plot, acting, directing—must be used to drive the action forwards. A sometimes overlooked resource to heighten the tension is the stage direction or the recurring device that signals: “Fasten your seatbelts, something is about to happen.”

These devices of stage directions are short gestures that go a long way. Any fans of German cinema here who remember Das Boot, a West German WWII movie from 1981 written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen? The film follows the crew of the submarine U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic. A handful of times, before a major malfunction, the camera pans towards the instrument cluster and zooms in, for a split second, on a round dial. All the eye can see in this flash is that the dial is marked “Tiefenmesser” and it records the depth of the sub. The further to the right of the dial is, the deeper the sub is. Towards the extreme right, the dial goes into the red. Before the major malfunctions, Petersen will have the camera zoom in and show the hand going into the red. Inevitably, sometimes seconds, sometimes a minute after, an engine will explode, the sub will take water, they lose steering. This motif reminds me of O’Neill’s fog, an early warning sign that something will happen. In the script, it would be a line: “Zoom in on the bathometer.” This line is worth every word, and so much more.

While we don’t have a camera in theatre, this sort of motif can be embedded in stage directions: in can be highbrow, like O’Neill’s fog or Petersen’s Tiefenmesser, or it can be lowbrow like the headband in Rambo. Do you know the headband scene in Rambo?—before he gets into action, he has this red headband that he ties on. Now, whether highbrow or lowbrow, however, stage directions can communicate that something is about to happen. The motif can also be built into the dialogue. In Nicholas Dunn’s play The Value, one of the winners of the Risk Theatre Competition, the protagonist, a character with a sense that he was meant for something greater says, at three pivotal moments: “This … is what happens … .” When workshopping the play, we gave the line a beat and emphasized the deictic quality of this, that this this was pointing to a foreboding sense of a greater destiny revealing itself. The playwright, who is a basketball fan, encouraged Anthony Gaskins, the actor who played this character, to think of the line as something similar to the chalk toss ritual that basketball superstar Lebron James does before games. He chalks his hands and claps his hands together, puffing up the chalk into a cloud. The line became one of the focal points of the play, something spoken by a character to make the audience feel a sense of wonder and awe. It was very good.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will take an existing play—any existing play, whether by the playwright or another playwright—and identify an event that the audience expects will occur. It could a conflict between characters that leads up to a fight. It could be a relationship headed towards an inevitable breakup. It could be the moments where a brother and sister, separated by the contingencies of war for many years, run into each other again. After identifying this event that the audience expects will occur, the playwright will come up with a motif that heralds that something will happen. The motif is to be embedded in the stage directions. It could be a musical motif, a fog horn, the Tiefenmesser, a headband, the chalk toss. If not strictly a stage direction, it should be something that stands in as a stage direction: for example, the moments that the protagonist in Dunn’s The Value says: “This is what happens … .” This motif should be a device that can recur so times in the play before it becomes hackneyed. If it occurs once, the audience can’t tell the signal from the noise. Not yet. Twice the audience starts to catch on. Three times is perfect. Four risks becoming hackneyed.

6          Wong’s Exercise in Dramatic Indeterminacy

Great plays generate great controversy. Think of Sophocles’ Antigone: who is right—Creon, who represents the state, or Antigone, who represents tradition? Think of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—is Nora justified in leaving her husband and children? Here’s a question: would you find Antigone more or less great if the balance inclined definitively towards one or the other? That is to say, if Sophocles had written a play where Creon is right and Antigone is wrong, would it be a better play or a worse play? And the same with A Doll’s House. Is Ibsen’s original play better, or version created in response to the censors who wanted the play to be morally definitive? How much of a play’s greatness comes from the controversy it generates, its ambiguity?

Controversy is possible because of indeterminacy. Critics who take Antigone’s side will pull out quotes that support her position and critics who take Creon’s side will find that Sophocles has given them backup as well. The French playwright Jean Anouilh famously put this principle to work in an adaptation of Sophocles’ play which was performed February 6, 1944 in Paris during the occupation. Both the Free French and the Nazis were in attendance, and both applauded the ending. The legend of this balancing act lives on whenever people talk about this performance.

If indeterminacy is desirable, how do we add it into our plays? This exercise came me to while reading biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. He’s the scientist who cracked how ants communicate with each other. Ants have a remarkable ability to communicate with one another by using up to twenty signals to signal danger (get away), danger (come help), opportunity, and kinship. He hypothesized that they communicate through pheromones, or smell. The breakthrough involved biologists, mathematicians, chemists, social scientists, and artists. Biologists to understand that the ants have scent glands, mathematicians to model diffusion rates, chemists to isolate the molecules of scent, social scientists to model behavior, and the arts to create the narrative. To Wilson, every jump in knowledge involves the combination of unlikely disciplines. To jump to a higher understanding in playwriting, we’ll take a page out of Wilson’s playbook and bring together two unlikely fields:  mathematics, probability theory, philosophy, and playwriting. Hey, this is risk theatre. It’s different. New blood.

One of the great debates in Shakespeare’s Othello is whether Othello, from his own point of view, had enough information where he could reasonably judge whether he has been cuckolded. In other words, does he achieve what philosophers call moral certainty, moral certainty being that degree of probability so great as to admit no reasonable doubt? Modern statisticians use a one to five percent significance test as a threshold of moral certainty. That means, once they’re 95 to 99 percent certain that the result is not due to chance, they act; they publish their results. Until recently, physicists used a 0.3 percent significance test before they would announce a discovery. That means they’re 99.7% certain that the observation is the real thing rather than a fluke event. Recently, while searching for the Higgs boson, they upped the threshold to 99.99994%.

Does Othello achieve a measure of moral certainty? From a risk theatre perspective, this is the pivot of the play. Some say yes. Some say no. This indeterminacy makes the play great. With a formula called Bayes’ theorem, we will see how much of moral certainty Othello achieves. Bayes’ theorem gives us a way to revise probability estimates as new information becomes available. It’s really cool. First, tell me, based on Iago’s accusations, from the point of view of Othello, that is to say, if you were Othello, what’s the percentage chance you would think you’ve been cuckolded by Desdemona and Cassio when Iago first tells you about it? This number we’ll call the prior probability. We take into account Iago’s reputation for honesty and other hints in the play. We know from the play that it is not enough for Othello to act on.

Next, we take the new data: the handkerchief. From Othello’s point of view, what are the odds that he is a cuckold if he sees Cassio with it? Then, finally, one more piece of information, again, from Othello’s point of view: what are the odds that he is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with the napkin?

P(C H): posterior probability Othello is cuckold after seeing Cassio with napkin
P(C): prior probability Othello is cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(~C): prior probability Othello is not a cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(H C): probability Othello is a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin
P(H ∣ ~C): probability Othello is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin

Here’s what the formula looks like:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

And here it is inputted with what I felt to be the probabilities::

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the 99.99994% percentage (a 1:3.5 million chance that the finding is due to chance) standard while searching for the Higgs boson, it’s in line with what modern statisticians would consider the threshold of moral certainty. The important thing to note, is that, playing with the numbers gives Othello different confidence levels. This fruitful ambiguity is what allow these discussions to happen. To me, that’s what makes this play fascinating: you could argue both sides persuasively. For a more detailed look at Othello, click here.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will go through Shakespeare’s Othello with an eye on how Shakespeare constructs probability in the play. Focus on Shakespeare’s language of moral certainty he uses in the play: “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. After analyzing the construction of probability, the playwright will assign probabilities to populate Bayes’ theorem to determine Othello’s degree of moral certainty, or lack thereof. Then the playwright will propose one way in which Shakespeare could have revised the play to increase Othello’s moral certainty and one way in which Shakespeare could have decreased Othello’s certainty. Finally, the playwright will conjecture the effect of increasing and decreasing Othello’s degree of moral certainty on the audience’s reception of the play. We use Bayes’ theorem in this exercise not because we require mathematical precision, but as a springboard into thinking about certainty and ambiguity.

In this exercise, the playwright asks: does Shakespeare get it right? Or can Othello be improved by making the guilt more or less certain? Would it have been better for Shakespeare to have created a play where certainty could have been achieved absolutely? Finally, after exploring indeterminacy in Othello, the playwright will relate to the group a way of applying indeterminacy into one of the playwright’s own plays. The purpose of this exercise is to find ways of generating controversy. Where there is controversy, audiences and critics will keep talking about your play. Where there is certainty, the debate quickly ends. That’s no fun. Indeterminacy is a great tool to captivate audiences.

7          Wong’s Exercise in the Price You Pay

Why is it hard to write tragedy? To this complicated question, I offer a simple answer: few dramatists have the heart to do to the character what they must: that is, complete obliteration. The tragic life is nasty, brutish, and short. Tragedy is an extremist art. Consider Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. All the poor guy wants to do is to lift the plague. He’s the king and it’s killing all his people. Look what Sophocles does to him. He strips him of his kingdom, takes away his crown, takes away his family, his dignity, and even his eyes. Is it not a bit much? Consider Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear is a doddering old fool. Look what Shakespeare puts him through. Is it not too much? When Lear says: “I will do such things— / What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth,” I always wonder whether this is Lear or Shakespeare talking. I think the “terrors of the earth” is what Shakespeare does to Lear, not the other way around. The dramatist who can write successful tragedy is a scourge who calls down the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting protagonists.

In a conversation with Friedrich von Müller, German statesman, scientist, novelist, and dramatist Friedrich Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describes the tragic as the scenario which admits of no solution and no compensation. The loss must be terrible, absolute, and irrevocable. The second the tragedian offers any sort of compensation—a sort of victim’s services package—to the wounded protagonist, the tragic disappears.

Goethe himself could not rise to the occasion. At the last hour, Faust is saved. So too Egmont, though he dies, he finds compensation knowing that his death will incite the revolution that frees his people. As a result, he could not attain the heights the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the big two of Marlowe and Shakespeare reached. Goethe knew it too. He just couldn’t make himself do it. He didn’t have the heart. “The mere attempt to write tragedy,” he said in a letter to Schiller, “might be my undoing.”

In the last century, Arthur Miller was able to rise to the challenge in All My Sons. I am sure when Miller told his friends what he was working on, he wasn’t saying: “I drive a horrible man to commit suicide for killing twenty-one pilots,” but rather said, “I drive the best of fathers to suicide for doing what he thought was best for the ones he loved the most.” The former would have been too easy. The latter not many can pull off. The best sign you’re onto true tragedy is, when you tell your friends the plot, their eyebrows go up as in: “You’re kidding me, you did what to your protagonist?” For a more detailed look at All My Sons, click here.

One way to make it easier to inflict the terrors of the earth is to think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism. You put on one scalepan what the protagonist wants the most. In the case of Macbeth, it’s the crown. In the case of Joe Keller, it’s a business to hand down to his sons. In the case of Oedipus, it’s to raise the plague. On the opposing scalepan, you place what the protagonist must give up. In the case of Macbeth, it is compassion, or the milk of human kindness. In the case of Keller, it is his integrity. In the case of Oedipus, it is his precocious innocence.

Tragedy becomes terrible—and terrible is a good quality in tragedy—when both sides of the scale are heavy. Think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism for human ambitions and values. Characters must pay the price to obtain their wants. This idea of tragedy as a valuing mechanism I got from the economists and their idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the idea that, in choosing, there is a cost: one loses the next best alternative, the next best alternative is forsaken in selecting the best alternative. One cannot have cake and eat it too. One cannot have $10k cash and 25 shares of GameStop stock, one has either $10k cash or 25 shares of GameStop. When one chooses one or the other, the second choice is lost and, by choosing, one falls under the sway of a higher power, either towards reward or ruin. In risk theatre characters can have either a golden calf or a God.

How does this exercise help to unleash the tragic spirit? By looking at tragedy as a weighing mechanism, it becomes easier to inflict the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting heroes because, by looking at the exchange mechanically, you depersonalize the transaction. You’re not doing this to a nice person; you’re merely balancing accounting identities.

In economics, an accounting identity is just something that is simply true. The simplest one is probably: Assets = Liabilities + Equity. A tragic identity can be expressed similarly: Assets = Liabilities + Opportunity Cost with Assets being what the hero wants, Liabilities being the questionable things the hero has done along the way, and Opportunity Costbeing the good things the hero has given up along the way. By looking at the exchange though the eye of economics, you depersonalize the terrors of the earth. You become an economist, an accountant. It’s hard to lay Willy Loman off. He’s worked for you for a lifetime. He’s a person. But if you look at him mechanically, look at him like a businessperson, like an accountant or an economist, Willy’s just another line item. It’s easier to do to him the terrors of the earth. This is perhaps the hardest of the exercises. I don’t know if playwrights, so full of humanity, compassion, and the kindred spirit have what it takes to engage with the dark side of the force.

Economics is called the dismal science because it confronts the problem of scarcity. Tragedy too, is a world of shortages. There are too many kings and too few crowns. Tragedy is the dismal art. The dismal science and the dismal art: it is a match made in heaven. The opportunity cost concept in the economic sciences leads to tragic entanglement in the dramatic arts.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will, in 250 words, present the cost of opportunity. Take a character you’ve created, and frame the choice they must make in terms of opportunity cost. What do they want? Is it a crown, shares of GameStop, or a Broadway production? What are they willing to give up for what they want? Is it the milk of human kindness, integrity, or love? And what will trigger the character to have to pay? In All My Sons, Keller wants a good life for his sons. To get his sons the good life, he gives up his integrity. The trigger happens when he discovers that the twenty-one pilots who died because of him were, in a way, all his sons too.

In this exercise, you will find out if you have what it takes to do to your characters the unspeakable things that Miller did to Keller, that Shakespeare did to Lear, that Sophocles did to Oedipus. This, of all the exercises, is perhaps the hardest. Even Goethe was not up to task. It requires a rare and beautiful ruthlessness to cast your beautiful creations into the pit.

There you have it: seven playwriting exercises to help you put more risk, chance, and fire into your writing! Remember, when life gives you risk, build a theatre of risk. If you build it, they will come.

You can find me on Twitter, my handle is @TheoryOfTragedy. You can also find me on Facebook  at https://www.facebook.com/edwincharleswong and LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/in/edwinclwong. The Risk Theatre Competition page is at https://risktheatre.com and you can also find competition updates on the Facebook “Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition” page. Don’t worry about taking notes, all the exercises will be posted on my blog at: https://melpomeneswork.com/workingtitleplaywrights/. Follow my blog, there’s always something new and interesting coming out. Go to https://melpomeneswork.com/ and enter your email under “Subscribe to Blog via Email.” Feel free to share the blog link with all the exercises with all your colleagues and ask your local library to make my book available, it is a terrific resource! If, down the road, you find these exercises have helped you, write me, I’d love to hear from you and I’m easy to find.

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

A Risk Theatre Reading of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS

I don’t know why it is, but every time I reach out for something I want, I have to pull back because other people will suffer. (16)[1]

In the mid-1940s, the American century was dawning. The daybreak of Pax Americana had arrived. From January to November 1947, All My Sons ran for 328 performances.[2] Arthur Miller went from being a famous person nobody knew, to being a famous person everybody knew. In dramatizing the possibilities and problems of an upstart world order, Miller became an overnight sensation.

Pax Americana brought peace to the conquered by releasing the animal spirits of the economy, long bottled up in wartime rationing and a decade of depression and dust bowl. No more gloom. Opportunity and prosperity lay on every horizon line. Amidst the go-fever of a new superpower firing on all cylinders, one voice dissented. It was the voice of Miller asking whether the American dream was a zero-sum game.

In All My Sons, money is the measure of success. Money is everywhere. It represents the American dream. The choice to make money, however, comes at a cost. When one chooses to make money, one loses the next best alternative that one could have pursued, had one chosen otherwise. The negative part of choice is known as opportunity cost. Opportunity cost illustrates the cost of choice because it presents choice as an either/or rather than a both/and proposition.

All My Sons dramatizes the cost of the American dream, its entry fee, the yearly dues, and the ongoing expenses. It does so by following characters as they make choices in pursuit of the dream. By making, through opportunity cost, the characters pay for their decisions, Miller exposes the true price of Pax Americana.

The minor characters understand opportunity cost. Having chosen, they reflect on the forsaken alternatives, and are left with “a wisp of sadness” (6). Their tragedy anticipates, augments, and amplifies the tragedy of the Keller family—Joe Keller, or simply Keller, Kate Keller, otherwise known as Mother, and Chris Keller. The Kellers fail to understand opportunity cost. They are the sort of people who think that they can have their cake and eat it too. In the end, however, Miller destroys them. In their destruction, they pay for their devotion to the ideals of the American century.

For the orthodox interpreters who consider that the fall of heroes through hubris brings about a catharsis of pity and fear through pity and fear, or, that the tragic arises when irreconcilable ethical positions collide, All My Sons could take a position of pride alongside the tragedies of old. But, for the young guns who understand the opportunity cost concept, who seek farsighted interpretations for the new century, tragedy is, first and foremost, a valuing mechanism. To the rebel interpreters, patriotism goes through a price discovery process. It is on sale. Its price is measured in terms of the opportunity cost of all the things that are left behind in choosing it. The emotional effect of tragedy is wonder and awe. Wonder at how much Keller pays. And awe over how faraway, so close he was to pulling off a fast one. To the new interpreters, pity and fear were barbaric relics left over from past ages.

Show Me the Money

The Second World War is over. America has won. In the postwar boom, new industries, professions, and opportunities rise up:

Keller [shakes his head]. All the kind of business goin’ on. In my day, either you were a lawyer, or a doctor, or you worked in a shop. Now…

Frank. Well, I was going to be a forester once.

Keller. Well, that shows you; in my day, there was no such thing. (7)

It is a time of rapid urbanization and rising social mobility. The young move to the new metropolises of Cleveland and New York to stake their claims. On stage right, the baby boom that will redefine demographics and drive demand for the next century is taking place: in the space of three years, Frank and Lydia Lubey have three babies. In the postwar boom, the business of America is business. To partake in this world of business, money is the currency of exchange, the symbol of the dream, the projection of Pax Americana.

In All My Sons, money is ubiquitous. Money seals the deal between men and women: “Oh Annie, Annie,” says Chris to his fiancée, “I’m going to make a fortune for you!” (36). “You wanted money,” says Keller to Mother, “so I made money” (76). Money is the sign of social approval. “He’s got money,” says Sue to Ann when she finds out Ann is engaged to Chris (44). Money makes all the difference. When she met Jim, her future husband, his wallet was threadbare. She was, however, already a nurse. Money laid the groundwork for future strife:

Sue. It makes all the difference. I married an interne. On my salary. And that was bad, because as soon as a woman supports a man he owes her something. You can never owe somebody without resenting them. (44)

Money is how fathers demonstrate their love to sons. “What the hell did I work for?” Keller asks his son Chris. “That’s only for you, Chris,” says Keller, referring to his factory where everything from aircraft cylinder heads to pressure cookers and washing machines are built, “the whole shootin’-match is for you!” (17).

In the postwar boom, money is the new measure. Net worth is the measure of an individual and gross domestic product the measure of a nation. How much has one contributed to society? The answer lies in the bankbook. The bigger the better. Public projections of the bankbook start with the family house. In the opening description of the set, Miller describes the monetary attributes of the Keller house alongside its physical attributes: it is a two-storey, seven-room structure hedged in with tall poplars and a porch that extends into the yard six feet. To build it cost fifteen thousand (5). Like the height of the poplars and the porch that extends six feet, money has a dimension. It is measured in dollar units. In addition to the family house, secondary projections of the bankbook include the new cars and fridges (36). To own a house with a driveway, a new car, and fridge is the sign of a made man.

To comport oneself to life in the new dream, one must understand how money works. Besides the obvious material applications, money can buy human, all-too-human values. It can buy allegiances. Keller finds out that, not only has Ann returned after a three-and-a-half-year absence, her brother George is also on the way, and unexpectedly. George could be a danger: Keller had ruined his father. To win his allegiance, he proposes to fast-track George on the road to riches. George, having just joined the bar, is a new lawyer. He is in the beginning stages of building a clientele. Keller can help:

Keller. You say he’s not well. George, I been thinkin’, why should he knock himself out in New York with that cut-throat competition, when I got so many friends here; I’m very friendly with some big lawyers in town. I could set George up here. (48)

The allure of money may entice even Steve Deever, Ann and George’s father, the man Keller ruined:

Keller. I like you and George to go to him in prison and tell him. … “Dad, Joe wants to bring you into the business when you get out.”

Ann [surprised, even shocked]. You’d have him as partner?

Keller. No, no partner. A good job. [Pause. He sees she is shocked, a little mystified. He gets up, speaks more nervously.] I want him to know, Annie … while he’s sitting there I want him to know that when he gets out he’s got a place waitin’ for him. It’ll take his bitterness away. To know you have a place … it sweetens you. (49)

Relationships are defined by money, and Keller has figured out how to create winning relationships.

A fundamental relationship is the one between husband and wife. Here too, the successful relationship is grounded on an understanding of money. Jim, learning that Ann is engaged, offers monetary advice:

Jim [To Ann]. I’ve only met you Ann, but if I may offer you a piece of advice—When you marry, never—even in your mind—never count your husband’s money. (25)

Those who understand the advantages of money in the postwar world are lauded and those who fail to understand censored. Money is the basis of a new morality:

Keller. Goddam, if Larry was alive he wouldn’t act like this. He understood the way the world is made. He listened to me. To him the world had a forty-foot front, it ended at the building line. This one, everything bothers him. You make a deal, overcharge two cents, and his hair falls out. He don’t understand money. Too easy, it came too easy. Yes sir. Larry. That was a boy we lost. (77)

The goal of this new morality is to have children and pay off the mortgage. “That big dope next door,” says Mother, “who never reads anything but Andy Gump has three children and his house paid off” (61). Social causes, politics, and standing up for one’s beliefs are impediments, unwanted distractions to the patriotic goal of making money and babies:

Mother [reading his thoughts]. She got pretty, heh?

George [sadly]. Very pretty.

Mother [as a reprimand]. She’s beautiful, you damned fool!

George [looks around longingly; and softly, with a catch in his throat]. She makes it seem so nice around here.

Mother [shaking her finger at him]. Look what happened to you because you wouldn’t listen to me! I told you to marry that girl and stay out of the war!

George [laughs at himself]. She used to laugh too much.

Mother. And you didn’t laugh enough. While you were getting mad about Fascism Frank was getting into her bed. (61)

Against the monetization of all values is a competing ideal. But it lies offshore on the distant fronts. Chris saw a fleeting glimpse while he commanded a company in the war:

Chris. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of … responsibility. Man for man. You understand me?—To show that, to bring that on to the earth again like some kind of monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would make a difference to him. (36)

But, as Chris adds, back at home there was no place for the things that come “out of a love a man can have for a man” (36). Before his company could come back from the war, they were already all dead. They had not been selfish enough. When, on the distant fronts, the dream of the brotherhood of man died, the American dream lost its last adversary.

The American dream is the dream of prosperity. It is the dream that tames the proud. It channels the grief of the widows and orphans, the frustrations of the veterans, and the energy of the emerging nation to create the wealth of nations. It is transacted in greenback dollars. It recorded its successes privately in bankbooks and publicly in the proliferation of factories, stone houses, automobiles, refrigerators. It sees material abundance as its highest good, and, in doing so, eschews brotherhood, the “love a man can have for a man.” Instead, it elevates self-interest as its new good.

Self-interest became the new creed because it creates prosperity. So argues the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith. “It is not,” says Smith, “from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”[3] In Smith’s economic philosophy, the formula to maximize national prosperity in the aggregate is for each individual to maximize individual prosperity. The greater good of a unit is dependent on all the butchers, brewers, and bakers thinking about themselves first. When individuals put others’ interests before their own, frictional losses diminish the aggregate potential of the unit. So the air mask procedure on an airplane: individuals maximize the group’s welfare by putting on their own masks first. So the zipper merge in traffic: when two lanes coalesce into one, the whole queue moves faster if each driver, in an act of self-interest, advances to the head before merging. In crucial applications, self-interest draws a line between life and death:

Chris. You remember, overseas, I was in command of a company?

Ann. Yeah, sure.

Chris. Well, I lost them.

Ann. How many?

Chris. Just about all.

Ann. Oh, gee!

Chris. It takes a little time to toss that off. Because they weren’t just men. For instance, one time it’d been raining several days and this kid came up to me, and gave me his last pair of dry socks. Put them in my pocket. That’s only a little thing … but … that’s the kind of guys I had. They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other. I mean that exactly; a little more selfish and they’d’ve been here today. (35)

While Chris’ company died because they put self-interest second, Keller takes the opposite approach. He champions self-interest. While others wind one another up like tinker toys, Keller gets ahead by considering his own interests. When, for example, Ann expresses her appreciation to Keller for offering to help set George on his feet, Keller corrects her:

Ann. That’s awfully nice of you Joe.

Keller. No, kid, it ain’t nice of me. I want you to understand me. I’m thinking of Chris. [Slight pause] See … this is what I mean. You get older, you want to feel that you … accomplished something. My only accomplishment is my son. I ain’t brainy. That’s all I accomplished. Now a year, eighteen months, your father’ll be a free man. Who is he going to come home to, Annie? His baby. You. He’ll come, old, mad, into your house.

Ann. That can’t matter any more, Joe.

Keller. I don’t want that hate to come between us. [Gestures between chris and himself] (48-9)

Keller thinks of his self-interest first and foremost. He is the ideal citizen, the new model patriot showing the others how to live the dream. Or is he? That is the question Miller considers.

The Opportunity Cost of Choice

Opportunity cost is the notion that choice involves a negative component. The negative component is that, when the best alternative is chosen, the next best alternative is forsaken. Choice is decision and, embedded in the etymology of the term decision, is the opportunity cost concept. The English term comes from the Latin verb decidere, itself a combination of the prefix de– in its privative sense of “removal” and the verb caedere “to cut.”[4]When one decides one literally “cuts off” or “cuts away” the flotsam of competing alternatives.

Economists, in examining the problem of scarcity, have formulated the clearest exposition of the opportunity cost concept. Economics is called the dismal science because it sees an impoverished world, a world where there are too many mouths, and too little to eat. There are too many sick, and too few cures. There are too many kings, and too few crowns. The task of economists is to manage resources that are in a perpetual short supply. To do this, they developed opportunity cost as the basis of an economic theory of choice to allocate inadequate resources.

Smith proposes opportunity cost as a basis for decision making in his 1776 treatise The Wealth of Nations. To find the underlying framework for decision making, he peels away the complexities of developed economies by reconstructing the primitive economy of early hunter-gatherers. Exchange, he finds, is informed by the opportunity cost of production. He illustrates the concept by the example of the one beaver and the two deer:

In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days’ or two hours’ labour, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s labour. (1.6.1)

When a hunter prepares a beaver, the hunter has lost the opportunity to prepare two deer. The opportunity cost of preparing a beaver is the loss of two deer. Conversely, should the hunter prepare two deer, the hunter loses the opportunity to prepare one beaver. With this simple example where there is one input (labour) and two outputs (beaver and deer), cost enters into the theory of choice: with a given input, it is either one beaver or two deer. In the real world, the inputs are more, the outputs are more, and the costs more grievous than animal skins. But the results are the same: you cannot have your cake, and eat it too.

If economics is the dismal science, then tragedy is the dismal art. Tragedy, like economics, sees a world of privation where, to gain x, one gives up y. In All My Sons, the characters confront opportunity cost. Take Ann. In the prehistory of the play, she had been engaged to Larry Keller, an army pilot. He died in the war. At the same time, her father, Steve, and Larry’s father, Keller, were tried for selling cracked airplane cylinder heads to the Army Air Force. They were accused of welding over hairline fractures and passing off the heads as good. Twenty-one pilots died. Keller was exonerated. Steve, however, was convicted. Ann is incredulous that her father should have been so base:

Keller. Annie, the day the news came about Larry he was in the cell next to mine … Dad. And he cried, Annie … he cried half the night.

Ann. [touched]. He shoulda cried all night. (33)

She disowns him:

Keller [to Ann]. The next time you write Dad …

Ann. I don’t write him.

Keller [struck]. Well every now and again you …

Ann. [a little ashamed, but determined]. No, I’ve never written to him. Neither has my brother. (31)

Her indignation comes at a cost, the cost of her shame. Her awkward interaction with Frank, who enquires about her father, highlights the price she pays. She cannot answer his simple question: she has no idea how he is (28-9). Polite society questions one who has disowned one’s own. She buys her indignation at the cost of her shame.

Economists use opportunity cost to price out goods and services. In the primitive economy, the cost of a beaver is two deer because two deer represent the opportunity cost of one beaver. In the developed economy, the cost of a house call is ten dollars because it compensates Jim for the next best thing he could have done, had he passed on the house call, which, in a moment of levity, would have been to drive Sue to the beach. While economists use opportunity cost to price out goods and services, Miller uses opportunity cost to price out the human. In the mad money world of All My Sons, it is either your money or your life.

From the perspective of opportunity cost, the case of Jim is illuminating. He is an early prototype of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, a play which would come out two years later. Willy, after getting lost in the dream, exposes the brutal paradox of opportunity cost in complex economies. In a brutal insight as he chats about life insurance with Charley, Willy realizes that it is his money or his life:

Charley.  I’ve got some work to do. Take care of yourself. And pay your insurance.

Willy. Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.[5]

Willy can have the dream, but at the cost of his life. Jim is not there yet, but he is getting there. In All My Sons, Jim wants to be a good husband. He also wants to follow his calling. He discovers that his wants present him with an either/or proposition:

Jim. One year I simply took off, went to New Orleans; for two months I lived on bananas and milk, and studied a certain disease. It was beautiful. And then she came, and she cried. And I went back home with her. And now I live in the usual darkness; I can’t find myself; it’s even hard sometimes to remember the kind of man I wanted to be. I am a good husband. (74-5)

When Jim reflects on his choice, he realizes the value of all he left behind. In this way, Miller makes opportunity cost the dramatic pivot through which characters pay the price.

Miller specifies the price Jim pays. From Sue, we learn that medical researchers make twenty-five dollars a week and doctors ten dollars per house call (10 and 44). During the course of the play (which takes place on a Sunday), Jim calls on at least three patients—Mrs. Adams, Mr. Hubbard, and an unnamed patient with a headache. He has made, at minimum, thirty dollars. In one day, Jim makes more than he would have in a week as a researcher. At this rate, he could make $210 a week, over eight times the amount of a researcher.

From an opportunity cost perspective, an inference may be drawn: $185 dollars per week—the difference in pay between a researcher and a doctor—is the remuneration Jim receives each week for having given up his dreams. Put another way, $185 per week is the price he pays to be a good husband. To add insult to injury, it appears that his services as a doctor are superfluous. His patients—who think they are dying—are, in fact, well. “Money,” says Jim in a moment of resignation, “Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything” (73). In complex economies, it is no longer the opportunity costs of beavers and deer, but rather those of dollars, cents, and dreams.

Jim’s domestic tragedy sets the scene for Keller’s tragedy. One evening during the war, Steve—Keller’s erstwhile partner—rang, frantic. They were manufacturing aircraft cylinder heads. There was a fault in the process. A batch came out with a hairline fracture. To Keller, it was either his business or his integrity. He has a choice: disclose that the process is faulty or weld the fracture. The former could put them out of business. The latter could endanger lives. He instructs Steve to pull out his tools.

The next morning, Keller calls in sick. But he does not have the flu. He is sick with the enormity of his decision. He is worried. When worried, he sleeps (41). By the time he returns to work, the heads have shipped. He thinks that the army quality control will catch the defect. By that time, he will have corrected the process. Before he can blink, however, 121 heads have gone in and 21 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks have crashed. The defect is traced back to the shop. Keller and Steve are arrested.

If Keller is convicted, he will lose his business. If he is exonerated, he will save his business. In his mind, he has done wrong by instructing Steve to cover up the cracks. But he knows a loophole: the evidence of telephone conversations is inadmissible in court:

George. Dad was afraid. He wanted Joe there if he was going to do it. But Joe can’t come down … he’s sick. Sick! He suddenly gets the flu! Suddenly! But he promised to take responsibility. Do you understand what I’m saying? On the telephone, you can’t have responsibility! In a court you can always deny a phone call and that’s exactly what he did. They knew he was a liar the first time, but in the appeal they believed that rotten lie and now Joe is a big shot and your father is the patsy. (54-5)

Keller is confronted with a choice. The opportunity cost of his business is forsaking the next best alternative, the ties that bind him to his neighbour and business partner. For the sake of his sons, he chooses the business.

Whereas Ann and Jim make their choices and pay, Keller thinks that he can have both his money and his integrity. He believes that, without repercussions, he can ship out the heads. He believes, that, without repercussions, he can make Steve the fall guy. For some time, he succeeds. After his exoneration, he comes back into town the cock of the walk, with the result that “fourteen months later I had one of the best shops in the state again, a respected man again; bigger than ever” (30). He brags of his bravado to Ann: “Every Saturday night the whole gang is playin’ poker in this arbor. All the ones who yelled murderer takin’ my money now” (30).

In the world of tragedy, it is a crime against the natural law of opportunity cost to have your cake and eat it too. There may be free lunches in comedy, a world of abundance.[6] But this is no comedy Keller is in. He is in a tragedy, the dismal art regulated by the dismal science. In the ancient world, the gods would ensure that the price is paid. In the modern world, the new gods are the forces of economic science. Opportunity cost is the avenging god. With bravado, Joe “McGuts” Keller can delay nemesis, but, like the tragedies of old, only for so long.

Masters of Reality

The Kellers are the masters of reality, manipulating reality to avoid paying their existential dues. Each of the Kellers—Mother, Chris, and Keller—pursues a complementary strategy that, while cunning, falls short. Opportunity cost is there lurking, biding its time, like the neighbourhood kids:

Keller [laughs]. I got all the kids crazy!

Chris. One of these days they’ll all come in here and beat your brains out. (13-4)

Mother knows the truth, knows that Keller ordered Steve to ship the cracked heads, knows that Keller framed Steve. She knows that, for his choices, there is a price to be paid. Three years ago, her son Larry flew on a mission. He never returned. Even though he never flew a P-40—the airframe into which the heads were mounted—in her calculus, if Larry were dead, Keller is the murderer. But no. God is on her side. God would not allow it. “God does not,” she says, “let a son be killed by his father” (68). God will lift the burden of opportunity cost from her.

If God exists, Larry will return. That is a mother’s faith. Until his homecoming, she devises alternate means to sustain her faith. Her neighbour, Frank, is an astrologer. In astrology, there is a prodigy known as a “favorable day.” On one’s favorable day, death looks away. “The odds are a million to one,” says Frank, “that a man won’t die on his favorable day” (66). Larry had went down on November 25th. To find out if November 25th was Larry’s day, Mother has Frank cast his horoscope. It turns out that it was his day. The chances are 999,999:1 that he is alive. The apple tree further validates her. The morning of the play, it was blasted down by the wind. It was blasted down because it was an abomination. Memorials are for the dead.

But Mother only buys time. She is fooled by randomness, confusing the static in the starways and the blasts of wind for a signal. God is not on her side. The universe feels no sense of obligation. In a show of dramatic irony, it is her insistence that Larry is alive that forces Ann to produce Larry’s suicide note. It is this note that undoes the Kellers’ mastery of reality.

Chris, unlike Mother, does not know the truth, does not know Keller ordered Steve to ship the heads, does not know Keller framed Steve. He is a dreamer, has not reached the jaded age. He weighs reality in the scales of his inexperience. In his inexperience, the only measure he knows is that of the responsibility of “man for man,” and so he judges all hearts (36). Into his heart will not enter that Jim could choose a bigger bankbook over being a better benefactor to humanity. Into his heart will not enter that Keller could choose the business over his responsibility to fellow human beings.

With his depth of conviction, Chris is persuasive. Every few years, he tells Jim he would be happier helping the sick by being an underpaid researcher rather than an overrated doctor. His persuasiveness alarms Sue, who, worrying about the size of Jim’s bankbook, asks Ann to move away with Chris (44). His persuasiveness also convinces George to disown his own father:

Chris [sits facing George]. Tell me, George. What happened? The court record was good enough for you all these years, why isn’t it good now? Why did you believe it all these years?

George [after a slight pause]. Because you believed it … That’s the truth, Chris. I believed everything, because I thought you did.

His conviction casts a reality distortion field. Keller cannot be guilty because he is the best of fathers. If he were guilty, the court would have determined so. But he is fooled by his goodness. The depth of his conviction never penetrated below the surface simplicity of his inexperience.

Now Keller: not only does he know the truth, he has fabricated the truth. He is the interior dramatist. If the neighbourhood kids have heard disturbing rumours, he will create a spin:

Keller. Actually what happened was that when I got home from the penitentiary, the kids got very interested in me. You know kids. I was [Laughs] like the expert on the jail situation. And as time passed they got it confused and … I ended up a detective [Laughs.]

Mother. Except that they didn’t get it confused. [To ann] He hands out badges from the Post Toasties boxes. [They laugh.] (29)

What federal penitentiary? Nothing is amiss. He manipulates reality: he is a detective, the cellar his jail.

So too, when George questions Keller’s innocence, Keller distorts reality. He reiterates how Steve was a small man who “never learned how to take the blame” and reinforces his position with a litany of examples (63). There was the time Steve almost burned down the shop and blamed the mechanic. There was the time Steve lost money on an oil stock and blamed Frank (64). There is a pattern here, argues Keller: Steve did wrong in shipping the heads and, because he was a small man, blamed Keller. Though Keller can win over some of the people most of the time, he cannot win over the iron law of opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost rears up in the explosive conclusion to act two when the Kellers’ contrasting realities collide. Chris finally tells Mother that, come hell or high water, he will marry Ann, Larry’s fiancée. Mother, however, cannot accept Larry’s death. Cornered, she says things to Chris it were better not to say:

Mother. Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father. Now you see, don’t you? (68)

She draws her line in the sand. If she loses hope, she will kill herself (22). Her last ditch gambit, however, comes at a tremendous cost. She preserves her hope by admitting, in so many words, that Keller has been guilty all along.

After her burst, she exits, leaving Chris to confront Keller. Keller confesses. He was responsible for the heads. He knew lives were at risk. But he did it for Chris, did it to save the business. Chris rebukes him and, having surfeited his rage, exits in despair.

Keller and Mother regroup. She suggests that it is time for him to pay. Between the horoscopes and revisionist narratives, the past is catching up:

Mother. I think if you sit him down and you … explain yourself. I mean you ought to make it clear to him that you know you did a terrible thing. [Not looking into his eyes] I mean if he saw that you realize what you did. You see?

Keller. What ice does that cut?

Mother [a little forcefully]. I mean if you told him that you want to pay for what you did.

Keller [sensing … quietly]. How can I pay?

Mother. Tell him … you’re willing to go to prison. [Pause.] (76)

Keller will have none of it. Chris will forgive him. “I’m his father and he’s my son,” he says, “and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head” (77). Family will lift the burden of opportunity cost from him.

As Mother draws her line in the sand, Ann will not stand by idle. She has come 700 miles to marry Chris. She will prove to Mother that Larry is dead. She has a letter, a letter from Larry, his suicide letter. It is the atom bomb of letters. In it, Larry tells Ann not to wait. Larry has heard Keller and Steve have been charged. “Every day three or four men never come back,” he says, “and he sits back there doing business.” “I could kill him,” writes Larry (83). But instead of killing Keller, he kills himself, flying into the void.

After Chris reads the letter to Keller, Keller realizes the game is up. Keller had been put out when he was ten years old. He had lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. To ensure his sons would have an easier life, he has avoided paying his opportunity costs. He avoided the cost by framing Steve, by perjuring himself, and by distorting reality. He tried to get around the cost by making money, passing the business on to Chris, helping George set up, and welcoming Steve back into the business. He came so close to having his cake, and eating it too.

When it started unravelling, Keller could still count on the support of his good son, his dead son, the younger, perfecter son who understood the cost of a buck. But the letter strips him of his final hope. After he reads the letter, Mother, with a dark premonition, cuts in:

Mother. Larry was your son too, wasn’t he? You know he’d never tell you to do this.

Keller [looking at letter in his hand]. Then what is this if it isn’t telling me? Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were. (83)

The letter brings the masters of reality back down to earth. The Kellers thought they could dream the dream, and live it too. But they could only delay the day of reckoning. Mother loses her religion. Her faith that Larry would return was bought at the cost of God and the stars. For her, the stars will forevermore wander random pathways, silent, dumb. Chris, on the other hand, buys experience at the cost of his worldview where the money is clean, the courts are just, and the fathers are like Jesus. Then, there is Keller. He buys a better future for his family at the cost of his integrity. In the dog-eat-dog world of tragedy, it is either responsibility to family or responsibility to humanity, but not both. The Kellers were only mortal gods, building houses of cards.

The Dismal Art

Tragedy, like economics, is a dismal art. Tragedy is an economics of the final resort that examines the opportunity cost of being alive. While participants in hunters’ markets, farmers’ markets, and stock markets come together to value beavers and deer, fruits and vegetables, and stocks and bonds by the opportunity cost concept of one beaver for two deer, patriots come together on the marketplace of the tragic stage to value their devotion to the new ideals of Pax Americana. Economists price goods. Dramatists price dreams. To define the price, both identify what is given up in exchange.

To price out intangible assets, one turns to tragedy because tragedy is a valuing mechanism for human assets. Economists can tell you a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but not how much the milk of human kindness costs.[7] To find out how much the milk of human kindness is worth, one turns to tragedy. In a world of privation, where the shortfalls are perpetual, there are no free lunches, only opportunity costs. Because of the opportunity cost mechanism, tragedy establishes the price of the all-too-human as the next best alternative that is given up in exchange.

The function of drama as a valuing mechanism is unique to tragedy. Miller could not, for example, have priced out the cost of the dream if he had set the action in a comedy. Comedy is a world of plenty. There is no opportunity cost in comedy: it is a world of free lunches. Compare the father Micio in The Brothers, by Roman comedian Terence, to Keller:

Micio. He dines and wines and reeks of scent: I pay for it all. He keeps a mistress: I shall pay up as long as it suits me, and when it doesn’t, maybe she will shut his door on him. He has a broken door-lock; I’ll have it mended. He has torn someone’s clothes; they can be repaired. (344)[8]

Both Micio and Keller provide for their sons. In the world of comedy, the limit of Micio’s largesse is whether “it suits me.” Micio, flush with cash, effortlessly provides for his son. For Keller, however, to provide for his sons in the world of tragedy, he must feign illness, lie, perjure himself, put his reputation on the line, throw his neighbours to the wolves, and endanger the lives of others’ sons. The brutality of tragedy is what makes it a great valuing mechanism.

As a valuing mechanism, Miller uses it to explore the price patriots pay to live the American dream. What is the cost of being a good husband? To become a good husband, one gives up the dream of true research. What is the inverse cost, the cost of being a researcher? That cost works out to be the additional income of $185 per week that is lost when one gives up the general practice. What is the cost of a mother waiting for her son? Her other son picks up the tab. “We’re like at a railroad station,” says her other son, “waiting for a train that never comes in” (21). What is the cost of solidarity with fellow human beings? The cost of solidarity is life; the war kills those not greedy enough of their lives. What is the cost of standing up for justice? The cost is the ties that bind together families. What is the cost of saving an engagement? The cost is turning a blind eye to a father-in-law’s crimes. What is the cost of becoming practical? The cost of practical society life is to watch “the star of one’s honesty” go out (74). What is the cost of money? Money, in All My Sons, comes at the price of integrity. What is the cost of being a good father? The cost is your life, all your sons will spit you out.

In All My Sons, each time the subsidiary characters are confronted with several alternatives, they choose one, eliminate the others, and are left with a certain “wisp of sadness” (6). The wisp of sadness is the surface manifestation of the invisible hand of opportunity cost at work. Keller, however, wants it all, choosing—simultaneously—the best of every alternative. Every time the future proliferates and forks, he is there having his cake, and eating it too. But opportunity cost is an iron law. It will find a way through the sliding door of chance.

By the efficient mechanism of opportunity cost, Miller asks how much runaway patriotism costs. Uncle Sam had made it the patriotic duty of each American to make money. All My Sons, however, steps back and dramatizes how, behind every beautiful thing—the smiles and the “attaboys,” the long driveways and the mansions on the hill, the new fridges and the fast cars—lay some kind of pain. In dramatizing the cost so beautifully, it caught the imagination of a new generation of theatregoers and created, in the process, the uncreated conscience of American patriotism.

[1] Arthur Miller, All My Sons (New York: Penguin, 2000). Text references are to page numbers of this edition.

[2] Christopher Bigsby, introduction to All My Sons, by Arthur Miller (New York: Penguin, 2000), xxiv.

[3] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books I-III, ed. Andrew Skinner (London: Penguin, 1999), 1.2.2.

[4] Oxford Latin Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. “decido.”

[5] Miller, Death of a Salesman, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Penguin, 1999), 74.

[6] On comedy as a world of plenty, see Edwin Wong, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected (Victoria, Friesen Press, 2019), 234-6.

[7] On tragedy as a valuing mechanism, see Wong, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, 79-110.

[8] Terence, The Brothers, in The Comedies, trans. Betty Radice (London: Penguin, 1976).

– – –

Thanks for reading. This series of readings are based on my new theory of tragedy, called risk theatre. Risk theatre understands tragedy as a valuing mechanism, and makes risk, chance, and uncertainty the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Reviews of my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, are available here. Risk theatre is the basis for the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. Other readings in this series include essays on MacbethOthello, and Seven Against ThebesWhen the world gives you risk, make risk theatre.

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

JANUARY 2021 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). 24 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 3 countries (USA, Australia, and Canada). 4 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 21

Australia 1

Canada 2

Of the American entries, 17 are from the east and 4 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 8 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 14 men and 10 women. Nice to see! 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 19 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and 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 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 23,674 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 2639 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), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), 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:

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

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Playwrights explore chance in its many guises. To create a play, playwrights collide want, will, and intention with accident, chance, and fortune. In the no-man’s land between accident and intention, drama arises. Where accident intensifies the protagonist’s will, comedy results. Where accident eclipses the protagonist’s will, tragedy results. Chance is a playwright’s plaything because uncertainty, being unknown, is inherently dramatic.

In the tragedy Othello, Shakespeare explores chance by asking: “How high a degree of probability must one attain to have a sufficient basis for judgment?” Shakespeare sets the backdrop by crafting characters who are not what they seem. Their actions, reputations, and speech belie their being. When seeming and being are at odds, certainty goes out the window. Only the uncertain parts and probable fragments are left behind. In this world, there is no knowing, only thinking:

IAGO. My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO. I think thou dost. (3.3.119-20, emphasis added)

The play follows Othello as he pieces together broken probabilities, looking for the chance event so convincing that it rules out every doubt. He looks for a tattered proof known as moral certainty.

Je Est Un Autre or “I is Another”

Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in . . .
Your beds! (2.1.109-13)

“Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none” (3.3.129-30). But that is not the case here. By cleaving apart seeming and being, Shakespeare creates a setting to explore chance. In Othello—to take poet Arthur Rimbaud’s memorable idea, Je est un autre (“I is another”)—each character is also “another.” Appearances deceive. When characters seem to be such, but are, in reality, another, understanding and certainty become best guesses. By cleaving seeming and being, Shakespeare takes the audience into a world of probability, a world where there is a chance of being correct and a chance of being incorrect. In this indeterminate world, characters weigh probabilities, form plans “probal to thinking” (2.3.333), and search for moral certainty, the probability that is so high that, even though uncertain, is called by the name of certainty. The tragedy is that even moral certainty is less than certain. Like bells in the parlours or men who might seem none, moral certainty only seems to be the real thing.

Iago seems honest. His epithet is “Honest Iago.” “Honest Iago,” says Othello, “My Desdemona I must leave to thee” (1.3.295-6). Roderigo entrusts him with his wealth and fastens each hope to him (1.3.363-80). Desdemona confides in him (3.4.133-41). “I never knew,” says Cassio, “A Florentine more kind and honest” (3.1.40-1). Iago’s seeming, however, belies his being. “I am not what I am,” he says, “but seeming so” (1.1.59 and 64).

Desdemona seems dishonest. “I do beguile,” she says, “The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (2.1.122-3). “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see,” warns her father Brabantio, “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.293-4). “Swear thou art honest,” demands Othello, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” (4.2.39-40). Her seeming, however, belies her being. She is a true heart.

Emilia seems bawdy. “She’s a simple bawd,” says Othello (4.2.20). In between Cassio’s kiss and his suspicions of her infidelity, Iago remarks her services are for the common use:

EMILIA. I have a thing for you.

IAGO. You have a thing for me? it is a common thing—

EMILIA. Ha? (3.3.305-7)

Though seen as a bawd who would sell great vice for a small price, she ends up buying virtue at the cost of her own life, at the last standing between Iago’s maleficence, Othello’s rage, and Desdemona’s helplessness, exposing the wickedness of both her husband and Othello. Not even Othello’s sword can silence her virtue:

EMILIA. Thou hast done a deed [He threatens her with his sword.]
—I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known
Though I lost twenty lives. Help, help, ho, help! (5.2.160-2)

Her surface appearances belie her core values. By judging her by her surface appearances, Iago, who knew her best, seals his doom.

Othello seems a man for all seasons. The assembled Venetian senate regales him as “all-in-all sufficient,” “a nature whom passion could not shake,” and one whose virtue lay beyond “the shot of accident” (4.1.264-8). He is of such steadfast repute that, when Emilia inquires whether he is jealous, Desdemona replies: “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.30-1). His seeming, however, belies his being. In reality, he proves insufficient, full of passion, and most susceptible to accident and chance.

So too, in the play’s macrocosm, the invading Turkish fleet seems sometimes smaller, sometimes larger. And, whether larger or smaller, sometimes it seems to bend for Rhodes, and sometimes for Cyprus. Its size and trajectory belie its intentions (1.3.1-45). Though the senate would rather act on certain, rather than probable intelligence, because the enemy projects a false gaze more full of seeming than being, the senate must act on probabilities. So too, Othello, Roderigo, Desdemona, and the other characters looking on at the grand pageant must hazard the probability of being caught on the wrong side of seeming and being.

In this play populated by topsy-turvy Je est un autre types, Iago presses the confusion forwards. Iago is an obsequious go-getter. His primary weapon is dissimulation. To enrichen himself, he plays panderer to Roderigo, though he panders nothing. To rise up the chain of command, he devises a way to cashier Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. He will persuade Othello that Cassio cuckolds him. To this end, he employs a series of strategies. When convenient, he spreads rumours that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s younger wife. He starts with Roderigo:

IAGO. Lechery, by this hand: an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together. Villainous thoughts, Roderigo: when these mutualities so marshal the way, hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, th’incorporate conclusion. (2.1.255-61)

and then moves to Othello:

IAGO. I lay with Cassio lately
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs—one of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate
That gave thee to the Moor!’ (3.3.416-28)

If there is a kernel of truth Iago can explode into reckless speculation, he will do so:

IAGO. She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks,
She loved them most.

OTHELLO.                     And so she did.

IAGO.                                                   Why, go to, then:
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father’s eyes up, close as oak—
He thought ‘twas witchcraft. But I am much to blame,
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.

OTHELLO. I am bound to thee for ever. (3.3.209-17)

When all else fails, Iago practices psychological warfare. Through insinuation, he gets Othello to convince himself. Conclusions drawn when one convinces oneself root more firmly than persuaded proofs:

IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO.                    He did, from first to last.
Why dost thou ask?

IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.

OTHELLO.        Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

OTHELLO. O, yes, and went between us very oft.

IAGO. Indeed?

OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO. Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
What dost thou think?

IAGO. Think, my lord?

OTHELLO. Think, my lord! By heaven thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.94-111)

Despite the rumours, speculations, and insinuations, Othello sees, or believes he sees, Desdemona’s true heart:

OTHELLO. What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me,
I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. (3.3.341-4)

Beginning to suspect foul play, he retains enough good sense to demand proof from Iago, telling Iago to provide proof, or his life:

OTHELLO. Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof, [Catching hold of him]
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! (3.3.362-6)

Nothing improper has transpired, and, as a result, Iago has no proof, cannot come up with a proof. He reaches an aporia. But, in a twist of fate, chance provides Iago proof.

A Handkerchief, Spotted with Strawberries

Desdemona has on her person a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. It is of an unusual provenance. Artifact like, it was sewn by an ancient sibyl during moments of inspiration. Hallowed worms spun its threads and maiden’s hearts stained its cloth. It was given to Othello’s mother to charm his father, and damnation to her if she lost it. She, however, saw it in her safekeeping until she died, at which time she gave it to her son. He, in turn, gave the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries to Desdemona (3.4.57-77).

Halfway through the play, Desdemona takes out the kerchief to wrap Othello’s head. He has a headache. It falls off. In their haste to meet dinner guests, they forget the napkin. Emilia, having been asked by her husband many times to steal it, chances upon it. She gives it to Iago, unaware of why he should want it (3.3.288-332). Through the accident of the dropped napkin, Iago has an opportunity to bolster his flagging argument.

Once he has the handkerchief, Iago can produce the wicked proofs required by Othello. He begins by planting the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom. Next, he tells Othello he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with it. This, in turn, prompts Othello to ask Desdemona for the napkin. She cannot produce it, and, fatally misjudging the gravity of the situation, asks Othello to reinstate Cassio. This drives Othello into a huff, who finds it incredulous that Desdemona not only has the appetite for another man, but also has the appetite to demand from him his favour.

At this point, Othello is getting a bit run down. His epileptic attack as he visualizes the intertwined lovers is a physical analogue of his broken internal state. Even now, however, standing in his mellow-fading glory like a black Caesar, he demands proofs. As he recovers from the epileptic attack, Iago provides verbal and ocular proofs, one by cunning, and the other by another stroke of chance.

Iago arranges for Othello to overhear his conversation with Cassio. While getting Othello to believe he is questioning Cassio about Desdemona, he actually asks Cassio about Bianca, a strumpet overfond of Cassio. In hearing Cassio tell Iago of his extracurricular activities with Bianca, Othello believes Cassio refers to Desdemona. Then, in a second twist, as Othello eavesdrops, Bianca comes out of nowhere to rebuke Cassio. Cassio had found the handkerchief in his chamber, and, appreciating the design, had asked Bianca to make a copy. Bianca agreed, but, on second thought, believing the handkerchief to be a gift from a rival, now finds it beneath her dignity to do any such thing. That Bianca appears at this moment surprises Iago, who had planned many things, but not this godsend. When she rebukes Cassio, Othello draws the conclusion that, first of all, Desdemona was in Cassio’s chamber, and, second of all, Desdemona has given Cassio the handkerchief as a token of her affection. Though Bianca does not mention Desdemona, it is a short leap for Othello, a general accustomed to making snap judgements on the field of battle, to conclude that Cassio’s hobby-horse is none other than Desdemona:

BIANCA. Let the devil and his dam haunt you! What did you mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now? I was a fine fool to take it—I must take out the work! A likely piece of work, that you should find it in your chamber and know not who left it there! This is some minx’s token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse; wheresoever you had it, I’ll take out no work on’t!

CASSIO. How now, my sweet Bianca, how now, how now?

OTHELLO. By heaven, that should be my handkerchief! (4.1.147-56)

Who else but Desdemona could have left the napkin there? The scene with Bianca and Cassio convinces Othello. He resolves to kill them both. He has proof. Or so he thinks.

If Emilia had—as Iago requested—stolen the napkin, the tragedy would have taken on a more ominous tone: the sound of good and evil clashing. But that is not what happens. The sound of good and evil clashing is dull. Emilia, rather, finds the napkin by chance. Chance is more interesting. That she finds it by chance leaves the audience with a sense of wonder and awe: wonder at how impartial chance should have become Iago’s partisan and awe over the extraordinary consequences that follow.

At one moment chance saves, sending a storm to drown the Turkish fleet. But in the next moment, chance casts down, putting the napkin into the wrong hands. Chance’s fantastic nature makes it a wonderful dramatic pivot. Othello himself, a crack storyteller, engages chance to woo Desdemona by telling her the stories of “battles, sieges, fortunes,” “most disastrous chances,” and of “moving accidents by flood and field” (1.3.131-6). These accidents he lives to tell, but the tale of the dropped napkin another will tell.

Chance fascinates because every eventuality lays within its grasp, given enough time. But even given its myriad combinations and permutations, some eventualities are more probable, some, less so, and others implausible unto impossible. This feature of chance—that some probabilities are more likely and others less so—allows Othello to draw fatal proofs.

Five Sigma Events, Significance Tests, Moral Certainty, and Iago’s Gambit

In the character Othello, Shakespeare has created a sceptic to rival Sextus Empiricus. For Othello, it was not enough that Iago was the most honest of Venetians. Nor was it enough that Iago had stood shoulder to shoulder with him, comrades-in-arms on the front lines. It was not even enough that Desdemona’s own father warned him to be wary. Othello, after all, had heard the wise Duke rebuking Brabantio for acting on circumstantial evidence:

DUKE. To vouch this is no proof,
Without more certain and more overt test
Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him. (1.3.107-10)

Othello will not be a brash Brabantio. He will demand a certain and more overt test:

OTHELLO. Make me to see’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life! (3.3.367-9)

Now Iago is in a jam. Othello demands proof, or his life. Iago cannot make Othello see it, as there is nothing to see. Othello himself, likewise, is in a jam. He must judge a covert crime, and, having judged, kill. He can count on neither Desdemona nor Cassio to fess up: unchaste eyes must never name the things unchaste hearts cannot do without. When Iago proposes the test of the napkin, however, Othello has a path forward:

IAGO. But if I give my wife a handkerchief—

OTHELLO. What then?

IAGO. Why, then ’tis hers, my lord, and being hers
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.

OTHELLO. She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that ? (4.1.10-5)

In Iago’s gambit, the napkin will stand in for her honour. Since Desdemona is honourable, the likelihood that she gives away the token of her honour is low. Because it would be an outlier event to see the napkin in the hands of another man, if it is seen, the likelihood is high that the observation is significant. The test of the napkin—coupled with both Iago and Brabantio’s warnings—may constitute, therefore, a sort of proof that, while not absolute, demonstrates infidelity beyond a reasonable doubt. This probabilistic proof that “the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on” is the best proof available in the indeterminate world of the play. The idea that random chance may—or may not—engender absolute truth is the powerful idea Shakespeare plays with.

Though it was not until 1668 that philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz formally associated probability with certainty by arguing that, given a sufficient probability, a degree of moral certainty could be achieved, it is clear that Shakespeare was already thinking along these lines in the opening years of the seventeenth century. Probability is in the air. Mathematician Jacob Bernoulli in the late seventeenth century would quantify these thresholds: something possessing 1/1000 a fraction of certainty (0.1%) would be morally impossible, whereas something possessing 999/1000 a portion of certainty (99.9%) would be morally certainty. The standard is flexible. Modern statisticians use anywhere from one to five percent significance tests to establish certainty. Different fields likewise require different levels of certainty. When physicists used a sensitivity of three sigma to validate discoveries (corresponding to a 99.7% chance that the result is real and not by the action of chance), they found that, because their work involved a multitude of data points, they would arrive at many discoveries which would be later proved spurious. Accordingly, when searching for the Higgs boson, they adapted a five sigma threshold. This threshold translates to a 99.99994% confidence level: the chance that the discovery is an anomaly is roughly 1 in 3.5 million. Even with a five sigma sensitivity, however, the chance that the observation is a fluke and not the real thing remains. Moral certainty is a subjective and pragmatic standard. Too low a threshold results in false discoveries and too high a threshold results in no discoveries. The question is: does Othello achieve moral certainty and, if so, to what degree?

The first great critic of Othello, Thomas Rymer, found the proof of the handkerchief so implausible as to be risible. To Rymer, Othello was acting without any kind of certainty, let alone moral certainty. In 1693, he voiced his misgivings in a jingling couplet: “Before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Everyone knows that Michael Cassio is the great arithmetician of the play, not Othello. Perhaps Othello had miscalculated the odds?

What Iago wants is for Othello to assemble all the information—the warning from Brabantio, the accusations from Iago, Cassio’s frequent associations with Desdemona, Desdemona’s importuning, and so on—so that the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs” (3.3.444, emphasis added). Probability theory in the time of Shakespeare and Rymer was in its infancy. That is not to say, however, that Othello could not intuit conditional odds: that is, in effect, what he does. So too, without formal probability theory, Iago well knows that many less plausible proofs may add up into one great proof, saying: “This may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (3.3.432-3).

The formal calculation of conditional probabilities lay in the future. That future arrived in 1763 when Bayes’ theorem was posthumously published. Thomas Bayes was a mathematician and Presbyterian minister. His contribution to probability theory was a formula to calculate conditional probabilities, a way to revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Iago’s hypothesis that many lesser proofs constitute one great proof. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Rymer’s couplet, to see whether Othello’s proof be mathematical, and, if so, to what extent.

To determine the posterior probability—that is to say, the revised probability that Othello has been cuckolded after the test of the napkin—we require four probability values. The first two values are P(C), the initial or prior probability that he has been cuckolded, and P(~C), the initial or prior probability that he has not been cuckolded. Before Iago’s gambit, Othello’s opinion on whether he has been cuckolded appears evenly divided:

OTHELLO. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [Iago] art just, and think thou art not. (3.386-8)

Given what he says, we can assign a value of 0.50 (with 0 representing an impossibility and 1 representing a certainty) to P(C)and a similar value, 0.50, to P(~C). The odds he has been cuckolded are 50:50.

The third probability value is P(H C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue suggests Othello believes that, next to catching the lovers in the act, the test of the handkerchief is a great proof. The value of P(H C), while not 1 (which is an absolute certainty), must approach 1: perhaps 0.90, representing a 90% chance, is reasonable.

The final probability value is P(H ∣ ~C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests true hearts give away telltale tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. As a result, the likelihood of P(H ∣ ~C) is quite low, having an order of magnitude of 0.01, or a 1% chance.

Here is what Bayes’ theorem looks like when solving for P(C H) or the posterior probability that Othello is a cuckold, should he see his napkin with Cassio. The formula takes into account his initial, or prior belief, and revises it to take into account the test of the napkin:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the five sigma standard (99.99994%) used in high energy physics, its significance falls within the one to five percent tests used by modern statisticians. The napkin brings him to a point of moral certainty, the degree of probability one must attain to act. The jealousy was tragical because the proof was mathematical.

Is Othello correct to believe that he has caught the lovers in his mousetrap? That, I think, is the question Shakespeare invites us to ask. The answer—like many answers in the great plays—is fluid. Some may argue that P(H ∣ ~C)—the odds that Desdemona gives away the napkin and is true—is too low at 1%. People with the truest hearts, may, some of the time, give away treasured tokens as though trifles. Changing P(H ∣ ~C) from 0.01 to 0.10 (from 1% to 10%) would decrease Othello’s confidence level from 98.9% to 90%. There is now a 10% probability that what he sees is a pageant of chance rather than a proof of infidelity. Others, however, would argue that starting from a 50% prior probability of being a cuckold is egregiously low. Given the constant goings-on between Cassio and Desdemona as well as warnings from both Desdemona’s father himself and the most honest person in the room, Othello’s initial belief, or the prior probability P(C), that he has been cuckolded should be much higher, perhaps closer to 80%. Now, even with P(H ∣ ~C) at 0.10, Othello can still be 97.3% certain he is a cuckold. If P(H ∣ ~C) stays at the original 0.01 and the prior probability Othello is cuckold rises from 50% to 80%, the posterior probability of being a cuckold after a positive napkin test rises to a confidence-inspiring 99.7%, equivalent to the three sigma threshold used by physicists until rather recently.

By cleaving seeming and being in twain, Shakespeare invites the audience to explore probability and its ramifications. Would different ages, ethnicities, and sexes input different values into Bayes’ theorem? How high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty must also contend that, in the final examination, he was wrong. Those who contend Othello failed to achieve moral certainty would do well to wonder how yesterday and today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matters of life and death on less stringent significance tests. Othello makes us wonder: should graver actions demand higher levels of certainty? Not only that, it also makes us wonder if our interpretations of Othello reveal something about ourselves. Do we allow Othello to judge after receiving a tip from an honest source and catching the culprit in the mousetrap? And would these same people who say no to Othello allow Hamlet to judge after receiving a tip from a possibly dishonest (and diabolical) source and catching the culprit in another sort of a mousetrap?

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is the one of the richest crossroads in interpretation today. Through a twist of chance, Shakespeare takes Othello from good to great: since chance is indeterminate, interpreters of the play will forever debate whether Othello achieves moral certainty, and to what degree. Othello makes us think on the role of chance in theatre and in life.

Whether Heads of Tails, Chance always Prevails

In this essay, I have argued that chance and probability form a basis of interpretation. In Othello, Shakespeare represents chance in the form of a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. The action pivots around the errant handkerchief because its journey gives Othello the proof that Iago could not provide. Chance supplies the proof because it is made up of probabilities, some common, some uncommon, and others so uncommon as to stand outside the prospect of belief. For Othello, it stood outside the prospect of belief that the handkerchief could have went from Desdemona, to Cassio, and then to Bianca, unless Desdemona were untrue. To Othello, Iago’s extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence, and, through chance, he witnessed an extraordinary proof. Whether or not this proof achieves a point of moral certainty, however, will be a point of debate forever, as chance is, in the last examination, subject to uncertainty. Othello, read through the lens of chance, makes for great reading for pollsters, jurors, insurers, high energy physicists, ethicists, medical researchers, and anyone else corroborating theories based on many observations: there is always a risk that what appears certain is only a statistical anomaly that has the seeming of truth.

From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk. And what better for today’s days of risk than to look at tragedy as a theatre of risk? When life gives you lemons, make all of theatre a theatre of risk and you will see not only the play, but all of life, through new eyes. “O vain boast, / Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now,” says the one who has seen the power of chance in all its guises, sometimes raising up, and other times casting down (Othello 5.2.262-3).

In Othello, Shakespeare has drawn a moving portrait of the empire of chance in its limitless power. When want, will, and intention collide with accident, chance, and fortune, no matter how strong want, will, and intention are and how unlikely accident, chance, and fortune were, chance finds a way. Some thought that the gods were fate. Others thought that politics or character was fate. But, really, chance is the rebel fate. Certain proof of this lies in the great mystery of tragedy, the mystery of how, whether heads or tails, chance always prevails.

_ _ _

If you have enjoyed this reading of Othello, here is a link to a reading of Macbeth from the perspective of chance. Those interested in the role of chance in ancient drama may want to click here. These “risk theatre” readings are derived from arguments in my book presenting a new theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Ask your local library to carry a copy! Risk theatre is more than theory. It is also the basis of the largest playwriting competition in the world for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. The competition brings together playwrights, writers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and audiences to explore the many guises of chance and uncertainty. Click here for more info on the competition. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil

DECEMBER 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). 22 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 3 countries (USA, Australia, and Canada). 5 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 20

Australia 1

Canada 1

Of the American entries, 16 are from the east and 4 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 7 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 13 men and 9 women. The 13:9 ratio is the closest the competition has come to equality in its first three years. Nice to see! 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 9 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and Australia. 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 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 22,983 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 2632 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), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), 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:

– – –

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

Men and Women of Destiny from Helen of Troy to Cus D’Amato

Types of Individuals and Subtypes

In the Judgement of Paris, three goddesses vie for the Golden Apple. A mortal, Paris, decides who gets the Golden Apple. Not knowing what type of individual Paris is, each goddess bribes Paris according to the basic human drive she represents. Aphrodite offers sensuousness. Athena offers wisdom. Hera offers power. Three goddesses vie for the Golden Apple because there are three basic individual types: epicures, sages, and suits.

Epicures, sages, and suits: each person falls into one of these three broad categories of people. In each of these categories are various subcategories. Among the epicures there are different pleasures. Among the sages the branches of knowledge are various. Among the suits, power take on different faces. There is the face of a CEO, the one wearing cuff links on a crisp shirt. There is the face of a mob boss with the clean shorn head. There is the face a Queen who plays one suitor against another. These are the faces of temporal power. But there is yet another, rarer, face of power. There is the atemporal face of power, the call of destiny. This is power in the dative case. It is in the dative case because it is power to those for whom the world is not enough. Whereas the industrialist, the boss, and the politician project their power for reasons they grasp, those to whom destiny calls project their power for reasons they do not fully grasp. It calls. They follow. The results are larger than life.

Achilles and Agamemnon

If Paris were the first epicure of the Western world, then Achilles and Agamemnon were the first suits. But they were suits of different types. Agamemnon wore the temporal face of power. The sceptre he carries is a visual analogy of his face of power. Achilles power is different. Like Agamemnon, he is a fighter and a nobleman. He is greater as a fighter and lesser as a nobleman. But this isn’t what differentiates them. The power he projects is atemporal. He is more a mystic. Achilles understands something that Agamemnon and the other warriors can hardly comprehend, and that is the call of destiny:

My mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.

We know the other heroes can hardly comprehend Achilles because Homer records their reaction:

So he [Achilles] spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence
in amazement at his words. He had spoken to them very strongly.

Then, as now, people are wary when individuals start talking of a destiny. Those to whom a higher task was not vouchsafed have only heard the distant rumour of destiny, most often spoken by fools and lunatics.

Achilles’ words can be read literally, or as an allegory. Read literally, his twin destinies provide the pivot of the poem. When he comes back to the field, the poem will be sung forever, but he will die quick. Read allegorically, his words speak to those whom destiny has called. His words say to them that destiny comes at a great price. Achilles will pay the price, and so will those who follow him.

Helen: Woman of Destiny

It is a shame Achilles and Helen never meet in the Iliad. They would have much to talk about. Besides Achilles, Helen is the only other character who understands the weight of destiny. During one of the fifty-one or so days in the Iliad, the tide (as it so often does) turns, this time against the Trojans. Hector goes back to fortress Troy to placate the gods. While inside, he runs into his brother Paris and his sister-in-law Helen. Helen, seeing Hector gore-covered and weary–weary of war and weary of worry–placates him:

Yet since the gods had brought it about that these vile things must be,
I wish I had been the wife of a better man than this is [Paris],
one who knew modesty and all things of shame that men say.
But this man’s heart is no steadfast thing, nor yet will it be so
ever hereafter; for that I think he shall take the consequence.
But come now, come in and rest on this chair, my brother,
since it is on your heart beyond all that the hard work has fallen
for the sake of dishonoured me and the blind act of Alexandros [an alternate name for Paris],
us two, on whom Zeus set a vile destiny, so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

Her strategy of placating Hector is fascinating. First, she denigrates herself and Paris, for whom many excellent Trojans have died. Then there is the epic cop-out, similar to the one Agamemnon uses when many excellent Achaeans die because he slighted Achilles, their best warrior. Agamemnon blames Zeus as well for blinding his wits the moment he slighted Achilles. So too, Helen blames Zeus for their “vile destiny.” But then–and this is the fascinating part–she adds a metaphysical justification for why Zeus had set a vile destiny: he did so to make them “into things of song for the men of the future.” Why is this fascinating? Helen could not have known that Homer, centuries later, would memorialize their lives in the Iliad. How then was Helen able to make this statement? She was able to because she felt destiny calling her forwards.

While Achilles’ sense of destiny highlights the sacrifice that destiny demands, Helen’s sense of destiny highlights two separate facets of destiny. First, destiny takes place within a tradition. No one feels destined to do something that has never been done before. Destiny calls you to take your place in a long line of others who have had the same calling. In the case of Helen, she understood that the Trojan War was a great war, and, just as the bards in her day recounted the wars of old, the bards of the future would recount her story. Destiny is seeing beyond the present day. It is a higher awareness. While the others can only see the day-to-day contingencies of war, destiny calls Helen to join the great ones in the days of yore. What is more, we can see another aspect of destiny in the example of Helen. Those who hear destiny’s call are not for their time: they are born posthumously in the future times when their destiny is fulfilled. Every time Troy is sung, Helen lives. Such is the destiny of those made into things of song for the men of the future. Destiny is not a phenomenon of this world and this time, but a thing for another world in the times to come.

Philip II of Macedon, Olympias, and Alexander the Great

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “destiny” as:

The predetermined course of events; that which is destined to happen; the fate of a particular person, country, etc.; the ultimate condition; a person’s lot in life.

If destiny is “predetermined,” a “fate” hurtling toward “the ultimate condition,” it would seem that it is congenital, something written in the stars or woven by the Fates, and not something learned. Or is it? Could destiny be a learned asset? The case of Alexander suggests the feeling of destiny can, like the assets of emotional intelligence or geometry, be taught.

Alexander, from a young age, was told by his mother Olympias that it was his destiny to conquer Persia, the reigning world-power. So too he was told by his father Philip: “My son, ask for thyself another kingdom, for that which I leave is too small for thee.” From the iron sense of destiny imparted on him by Olympias and Philip, we can see why he would rebuke his soldiers, exhausted from his never-ending campaigns: “Go home, and tell them you left Alexander to conquer the world alone.”

In Alexander it is possible to see how destiny can be taught. Destiny is like that unattainable peak. We may never get there, but destiny is also the belief that we can. Alexander never achieved the kingdom he sought. But by believing in destiny, he went much further than could be expected or even imagined.

We are held back so often from our true capacities from our own beliefs. Destiny in the Alexandrian sense is a belief in oneself that allows one to transcend what was thought possible. Destiny as a tool to achieve the impossible reminds me of the story of martial artist and movie star Tony Jaa. Have you seen the staircase fight scene in The Protector, the one where Jaa ascends a series of grand staircases in leaps and bounds, all while taking out a small army or martial arts mercenaries? Well, the whole four-minute sequence was done in one shot, and it includes some serious gravity defying leaps that were done without wirework. How was this possible?

While growing up, Jaa watched wuxia wire fu shows such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes. In these shows, the old masters practised a gravity-defying discipline called “quinggong.” They could ascend sheer rock faces in a bound, run across lakes, and jump over fortress walls. In the movies, actors achieved these effects with trampolines and wirework, hence the name “wire fu.” Jaa, however, wasn’t aware of this. He thought quinggong was for real. And he practised his leaps and bound every day. He never got to the point where he could fly. But, if you watch The Protector, he gets halfway there. That is the advantage of destiny. By believing the impossible, you may not get there, but you will go further than how far people tell you is possible.

Incidentally, if you found it unlikely that a child could believe in quinggong, I believed it was possible until my mid-teens. To “practise” quinggong, I would jump off all sorts of things, stairs, balconies, and, in one case, a second storey window (fortunately my legs are robust!). I never got to Jaa’s level, but one time, in grade ten, they tested the basketball team’s standing vertical jump. In this test you stand with both legs planted on the ground and jump as high as you can. Your vertical jump or “vert,” as we called it, was the distance between the ground and your feet as maximum elevation. Most of the guys had a vert between 12-18 inches. My vert at age 15 was 24 inches. The average standing vertical (e.g. stationary, not running) jump of adult NBA players today is 28 inches. This was quite an impressive result. Even if you don’t believe in destiny, belief is a game changer. The feeling of destiny is belief multiplied by infinity.

In the case of Alexander, we see that destiny can be a learned attribute. Not only that, we see that the men and women of destiny have an affinity for one another. On visiting the grave of Achilles, Alexander said: “Oh fortunate youth, who found a Homer to proclaim thy valour!” Out of a hundred people, there is likely less than one who feels the call of immortality. It is looked on by others as a strange aberration. Perhaps it is for this reason that we can see how intrigued those who feel destiny’s allure are with one another.

Julius Caesar: “The Die is Cast”

The Rubicon, a small stream 300 kilometers north of Rome, marked the point where returning governors would have to take leave of their legions. Governors could roam with their legions north of the Rubicon. In Italy proper–the area south of the Rubicon–only elected officials could maintain armies. So it was in the dying days of the Roman Republic.

When Caesar was 31, he saw a statue of Alexander. Seeing the statue put Caesar in to a state of reflection. At 31, all Caesar had to show for himself was a quaestorship while at that same age Alexander had conquered the known world. Like Alexander, Caesar also wanted immortality. Later on, he would one up Alexander. While Alexander could only marvel how Achilles had a Homer to write of his deeds, Caesar would become his own historiographer, writing both The Gallic Wars and The Civil War. Such is the call of destiny. If help is not forthcoming, one must go at it alone.

Through Caesar we can see the incredible appetite for life that makes the man of destiny: the lavish games he put on, the unending wars of conquest that he brought home after all the enemies had been conquered, the massive feats of engineering he took on. But the one element of destiny with Caesar that fascinate me most is in 49 BC when he took the thirteenth legion across the Rubicon and started the Civil War. In particular, the thing that interest me most is what Caesar said as he crossed the tiny stream: alea iacta est “The die is cast.”

When Caesar says that the die is cast, he refers to the moment one offers oneself, almost as a sacrifice, to destiny. Destiny transcends the natural processes of this world, it is a metaphysical mood. Who, in the final examination, knows the difference between the call of destiny, madness, and megalomania? When one hears destiny’s call, one must, like Caesar at the Rubicon, either accept or reject the call. And if one accepts the call, one gives oneself up to higher and indeterminate powers. One becomes thrall to the unknown. Caesar, in a brilliant image, equates this unknown quantity to the randomness of the die.

There is some magic in destiny. It may call you to immortality. But, even though it calls, you may or may not get there. And whether or not you get there is beyond your control, no matter how great your resources and ingenuity. This is Caesar’s contribution to our discussion of destiny.

The Jews: A Destined People

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. Deuteronomy 14:2

With the Jews, we can see the effect of destiny on an entire people. God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah establishes the Jews as a people chosen for a greater destiny. Having a greater destiny is awesome, but we can also see that with great power comes great sacrifice: as soon as God chooses the Jews as his people, he also tells them how they must comport themselves. To be the people of destiny, there are many commandments and restrictions to follow. From the history of the Jews, we can make a general inference regarding destiny: destiny declines when discipline decays. To have a destiny means to comport oneself to the highest standards.

Because the covenant includes a whole race of people, we can see the effect of destiny on many people, many of whom we don’t typically see as being involved with destiny. Sure, we see Alexander and Caesar as people of destiny, but the covenant also involves Joe the plumber in the conversation. The first thing we notice in the history of the Jews is that it is extremely hard to live up to the demands of destiny. The nation would rather live free, would rather live under the golden calf than bear the burden of destiny. Destiny is an incredible weight.

The second thing that we notice, however, is that despite its weight, destiny compels those who feel its allure–if they don’t destroy themselves–to outperform. How many Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, or Jebusites do you know today? And how many Jews do you know today? Of the tribes living in the Promised Land, only the Jews trace an unbroken line from biblical times to the present day. We can see from the history of the Jews how destiny makes it believers robust so that, against long odds, they prevail.

In the history of the Jews, we can also observe a third facet of destiny: to have a destiny sets you apart from others. The effect of professing that one has a destiny is to be, by others, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes scorned, and at other times persecuted. If one has a destiny, one searches out for others that are also marked by destiny. At the same time, if one has a destiny, one is marked as an object of contempt by the ones who are without their own destiny. There is something of human nature in this.

Nietzsche: A Philosopher in between Destiny and Madness

From the 1870s, Nietzsche knew that his task (die Aufgabe, as he endlessly referred to it) would be all-consuming, and that it would involve him exploding the boundaries of his professional credentials as an Altphilologe, a classical philologist of ancient Greece and Rome. From the early 1880s, his destiny became ever clearer: he would change the world forevermore with his revaluation of all values. Writing to Paul Lanzsky in 1884, he claimed that Thus Spake Zarathustra was “the most significant book of all times and of peoples that ever existed.” In 1887, although he was still (and would be until long after his death) a nobody, when an earthquake struck Nice on February 23 and the hotel where he was staying had collapsed, he observed: “It will be an advantage for the posterity to have a pilgrimage less to make.” These statements go beyond the sorts of statements made by most people. In Nietzsche we see the relationship between destiny and madness. For many, destiny calls, and madness comes running up. These anecdotes, by the way, are from philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jasper’s introduction to Nietzsche, which I reviewed here.

For many years, it was thought that syphilis drove Nietzsche mad. That diagnosis is now disputed. The current belief is that he succumbed from a slowly growing right-sided retro-orbital meningioma, or, in other words, a brain cancer behind the right eye. Left untreated, the tumour displaced his right frontal lobe giving him a frontal lobotomy. A meningioma on the right side can lead to headaches on the right side, blindness in the right eye, visual disturbances, mania, and paranoia, all symptoms which Nietzsche experienced. Consider this report from Resa von Schirnhofer who visited Nietzsche in August 1884 at Sils-Maria:

As I stood waiting by the table, the door of the adjacent room on the right opened, and Nietzsche appeared. With a distraught expression on his pale face, he leaned wearily against the post of the half-opened door and immediately began to speak about the unbearableness of his ailment. He described to me how, when he closed his eyes, he saw an abundance of fantastic flowers, winding and intertwining, constantly growing and changing forms and colors in exotic luxuriance, sprouting one out of the other. “I never get any rest,” he complained, words which were implanted in my mind. Then, with his large, dark eyes looking straight at me he asked in his weak voice with disquieting urgency: “Don’t you believe this condition is a symptom of incipient madness?”

There is a biological foundation to destiny’s call. In Nietzsche’s case, we can see how, in the months leading up to his collapse in January 1889, even as he felt more certain that he would complete his task and assure his place in the pantheon, the biological factor–the cancer that would lobotomize him–was also growing. It is easy to speculate that his euphoria and his madness have a common physical root: the meningioma displacing his frontal lobe. The feeling of the certainty of destiny may be the results of a physical aberration of the brain rather than a metaphysical call from a higher power. It may even be that, one day in the future, the sociobiologists will identify a gene behind destiny’s call. We will see.

Cus D’Amato and Mike Tyson

It took the oldest heavyweight champ to make one of the most insightful comments on the youngest heavyweight champ. At 45, George Foreman defeated Michael Moorer in 1994 to take the crown. At the other end of the age scale, at 20 years of age Mike Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in 1986 to become the youngest champ. Although they were both active at the same time, they never fought. Years later, when asked why the fight never happened, Foreman said he wanted nothing to do with Tyson and Cus. That was a great comment as it shows how Foreman recognized so much of Tyson’s legacy was the product not of Tyson, but of his trainer, manager, and foster parent Cus D’Amato. Despite how often–to this day–Tyson talks up Cus, including writing a book Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato, so few understand that there could be no Iron Mike without Cus D’Amato.

D’Amato lived life for a singular purpose: to train heavyweight boxing champions of the world with the peek-a-book style of boxing he pioneered. Like Bruce Lee, it was more than about the fights. It was a way of life in which the end goal is to be remembered forever. To this end, D’Amato studied the ancient classics and history–Homer, Achilles, Alexander, and Caesar–and applied their limitless ambition to the sphere of boxing, the sweet science. He immersed himself in psychology, arguing that the ring is where the superior character prevails. He also took up philosophy to increase his odds, familiarizing himself with the works of Nietzsche and Machiavelli. D’Amato himself knew no limits. He fought the mob, and the mob backed down. He took his peek-a-boo style, disparaged for its mechanical soul and awkwardness in attack, and produced not one, but three heavyweight hall-of-famers: José Torres–the first Latin American light heavyweight champ–Floyd Patterson–the champ between Rocky Marciano and Ali–and Mike Tyson.

D’Amato felt that he had a destiny, and this feeling drove him to perform, and to get his fighters to perform (from Mike Tyson’s recollections):

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

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

Like the previous examples, we can see in the case of D’Amato that destiny involves appetite, a belief, and a euphoria going beyond reason that borders on lunacy.

In the life of D’Amato, we can see how all-consuming the call of destiny is. Though he managed three heavyweight world champs, when he died, all that he had to his name was his station-wagon that he used to drive his fighters to the gym. This reminds me of the story of another fighter, one from the ancient times:

When he [Alexander the Great] divided his revenues among his friends, while preparing his Asian campaign, and Perdiccas asked him what he retained for himself, he answered, “Hope.”

To those whom destiny calls, money is not legal tender. Glory is legal tender. In another anecdote, D’Amato uses money to get Tyson’s interests, and, at the right time, tells him it’s not about the money, but about a greater purpose: immortality:

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

D’Amato met Tyson when Tyson was thirteen. Tyson could hardly read at the time. He had just started learning how to read as a precondition of weekend boxing sessions with Bobby Stewart, his juvenile detention counsellor, a Golden Glove champ who had fought on the undercard in the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle.” Stewart was a Cus D’Amato fighter and the link between Tyson and D’Amato. Once D’Amato took on Tyson, in addition to the physical training, he kindled Tyson’s interest in history and philosophy and got Tyson reading about Achilles, Alexander the Great, and Nietzsche. By sixteen, Tyson got it:

Even at sixteen years old, I believed that all the heroes and gods of war–Achilles, Ares, and all these gods, and all the old fighters–were watching me and I had to represent them, I had to be bloodthirsty, and gut-wrenching. I realized through Cus that we were fighting for immortality. Nothing else mattered than being worshipped by the entire world. When Cus talked to me about immortality he wasn’t just talking about me, he was talking about himself too. I wasn’t just fighting for my glory, I was fighting for his too. Nobody loved boxers and boxing more than Cus. He devoted his whole life to service, first to the poor Italians in his neighborhood in the Bronx and later to all the wayward kids like me, and Patterson and Kevin Rooney and Joe Juliano and on and on and on. We trained hard, we fought hard, but it was worth every minute.

Looking back decades later, many years after the belts and the limelight, Tyson would look back at it all from a retrospective position and say:

Cus’s friend the CBS boxing consultant Mort Sharnik wanted to do a program about Cus before he died. In one of the interviews for the show, he asked Cus if he thought about his legacy and the whole point of his life. Cus said, “All I want to do is make one small scratch on this big rock before I go. I want them to know that Cus D’Amato was here.” You got it, Cus. Now there are two scratches on that rock, side by side. And whenever anyone remembers Mike Tyson, they’ll know the name of Cus D’Amato too. Until the end of time.

People think of Mike Tyson as a savage. And he is. Recently, when Tyson went back into the ring at age 54 to face Roy Jones Jr., Joe Rogan interviewed Tyson. Rogan was so intimidated by Tyson’s physical presence, that he had a new table made up for his podcast, one which placed another two feet between him and his guest. In this way, Tyson is like one of his idols: Achilles. Achilles was also a savage, but also capable of the highest poetic expression: while Diomedes and Odysseus speak with power, only when Achilles talks is the audience stunned into silence. Tyson’s words on fulfilling D’Amato’s legacy are among the most beautiful I have read, in any language.

The story of D’Amato and Tyson shows the social side of destiny: it’s not enough to go at it alone. Destiny is a combination of drive, character, luck, and, above, all, love. Their story is the story of a young boy learning from the old master. As a fan of Homer, I’m so happy to see how the old stories continue to inspire–in places where one would have least thought.

The Faces of Destiny

These are the faces of destiny. From Achilles, destiny is about the price that you pay. From Helen, destiny is a higher level of awareness. From Philip, Olympias, and Alexander the Great, destiny is a sense of wonder that can be passed from generation to generation. From Caesar, to accept destiny is to place yourself in the hands of a higher power. From the Jews, destiny is an intolerable harness that allows believers to go further than the rest. From Nietzsche, destiny is a mental state with a biological foundation closely related with madness. From Cus D’Amato and Mike Tyson, destiny is the love between two driven individuals. And from all these types, destiny has always been appetite for life.

Through these portraits of destiny, we can see how the people of destiny are intrigued by one another, and learn the trade of destiny by researching one another. If you are touched by destiny, learn from the others the lightning has struck. Make yourself indispensable to the heritage within which you work, and your odds of being remembered increases. Today, no one can study Jack Dempsey, Battling Nelson, Joe Gans, and others without going through Tyson’s interpretation of them. Tyson has made himself indispensable. So too, no one can study Schopenhauer, Plato, or Hegel today without going through Nietzsche’s interpretation of them. Nietzsche has made himself indispensable to the tradition.

Those who do not feel destiny will look at those struck by destiny as aberrations. But those who have been struck will look at them as the greatest models. “If I were not Napoleon,” said Napoleon, “I would be Alexander.”

 

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

sine memoria nihil

Review of Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity – Karl Jaspers

1936, English translation 1965, Johns Hopkins UP, trans. Charles F. Wallraff and Frederick J. Schmitz, 509 pages
Originally published as Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens

Reading this book is a serious undertaking. It’s a book about a philosopher (Nietzsche) by a philosopher (Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism). It is well-researched, covering Nietzsche’s published materials, unpublished fragments, and letters. In this work, Jaspers reveals the ties between Nietzsche the man and Nietzsche the philosopher. From Nietzsche’s correspondences with musician Peter Gast, theologian Franz Overbeck, classicist Erwin Rohde, his mother, his sister, and others, Jaspers paints a portrait of a lonely individual, somewhat timid, a social misfit, yet extraordinarily polite, and, above all, one bound by the consuming idea of his task: the revaluation of all values.

To Jaspers, Nietzsche’s solitude was a function of the importance Nietzsche attributed to his task of revaluing values, and how his contemporaries could not come along with him: for them, to succeed in the world, they had to also subscribe to morality, Christianity, the idea of Germany, marriage, political correctness, having the right friends, and holding the right views–even if all these notions were based on false values. Some could watch Nietzsche railing against these false values. But it was painful watching him destroy his career. Even though some could watch, no one could come with him. He had to go it alone. Perhaps his friends who watched from a distance were right. When Nietzsche collapsed in 1889, he was nobody and many of his friends were important somebodies. As Jaspers recounts, Nietzsche was self-publishing his books. There were no readers. He was admitted to the Basel asylum as a civilian, denied access to any special treatment or services. The tables have turned now, as many of the somebodies of Nietzsche’s time are only today remembered in their connection with Nietzsche.

In the revaluation of all values, Nietzsche turns the world on its head, much like how Christianity turned the Roman world and values on its head with its “first shall be the last and the last shall be the first” credo. In place of the soul, Nietzsche gives us the will to power. In place of God, Nietzsche gives us the superman. And in place of metaphysics, Nietzsche gives us the eternal recurrence. The will to power is the will to live dangerously, the will that yes “Yes.” The eternal recurrence is the sense of déjà vu, except with a much more badass name. And the superman is the individual who, with the highest form of the will to power, can say yes and affirm all of existence, both its best moments and its darkest. The superman is the individual with an appetite for life. Here I wrote a piece in an honest jest of Freddie Mercury as a modern-day superman.

Jasper’s book, lovingly written, but not to the point of worship–for example, while extolling Nietzsche’s breathtaking insights, singles him out for the crudity of his logical forms and method–is easier to read than Nietzsche himself. But it can be a tough slog for lay readers. The nice thing, however, is that Jaspers quotes so much of Nietzsche that it is a pleasure to read. Nietzsche–as Nietzsche himself described–is, along with Heinrich Heine, the best of the German stylists. His turns of phrases–whether one understands them or not–are beautiful to read. Take for example this turn of words where he talks about his process of overcoming: “Shake me together with all the tears and all the misery of mankind, and I must always rise to the top, like oil on water.” His images are powerful because they are full of action. What is more, his images and aphorisms are fascinating because they’re the sort of things I wish that I could write but know I can’t. There’s something uncanny in how he sees the world. Like how he describes his favourite philosopher (the pre-Socratic Heraclitus), there is, too, in Nietzsche, “a gap in his nature.”

For All His Power, Nietzsche Could Not Foresee His Own Demise

In 1881, while walking through the forest by Lake Silvaplana, the idea of the eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche. In 1883, the idea of the superman and the will to power dawned on him, and he recorded the discovery in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1888, he was overjoyed, feeling the task of merging these three concepts into a grand unified philosophy close at hand. By merging metaphysics with mysticism, he would overcome nihilism. God is dead; long live the superman. But there was a problem: Nietzsche realized the eternal recurrence may be indefensible and the will to power unprovable. To put the plug in nihilism, he would have to demonstrate the mechanism through which the eternal recurrence recurred and establish why nature would will to power.

Jaspers recounts some of Nietzsche’s joyous letters of 1888, that great year, but not great in the sense that Nietzsche foresaw. Nietzsche felt himself close to that secret of the grand unification. Glimpses of the solution were coming to him. Soon, he would grasp the whole:

But the decisive symptom of the new condition is a euphoria which appears only occasionally in the course of the year but is constant during the last months. This tone is softly heard first in letters to Seydlitz (Febr. 12, ’88): “The days here come along with an impudent beauty; there never was a more perfect winter.” To Gast he writes (Sept. 27, ’88): “Marvelous clarity, autumnal colors, an exquisite feeling of well-being on all things.” Later on: “I am now the most grateful person in the world–of an autumnal mood in every good sense of the word: this is my great harvest time. Everything is easy for me, everything turns out well for me.” “I am now of the absolute conviction that all has turned out well, from the very beginning; all is one and has one purpose” (to Gast, Dec. 22, ’88).

For all his powers of insight, little did he know, he would come to harvest his sorrows. Less than two weeks after his December 22nd letter to Gast, he would collapse into an insanity from which he would never emerge, dying of pneumonia twelve years later.

It fills me with wonder, how faraway so close he was. And I wonder how many of us too will be struck down, faraway so close to fulfilling our task.

What Nietzsche Can Do for You

There’s so much to read these days. Why should you read Nietzsche, or, for that matter, read Jaspers reading Nietzsche? Like no other writer, Nietzsche inspires. One of the best things about Jaspers’ book are the glimpses of how Nietzsche’s contemporaries saw him through their correspondences. From the letters and correspondences, you can see how Nietzsche inspires even the greatest minds. In Nietzsche, they see the traveler, going it alone, ascending the most dangerous peaks. In that moment, how could they not be filled with awe and wonder? Here, for example, is Erwin Rohde, one of the preeminent classicists (or Altphilologen as they are called in Germany) of the nineteenth century, and author of Psyche (still in print today) writing to Nietzsche. They became acquainted while studying under Friedrich Ritschl, one of the gods of philology:

“To me it seems at times like a defection that I am unable to join you in fishing for pearls in those ocean depths and must instead amuse myself and take a childish delight in gudgeons and other philological vermin” (Dec. 22, ’71). “And so I feel again as I always did when I was together with you: for a while I am elevated into a higher rank, as though I were spiritually ennobled” (Dec. 22, ’79).

When one reads Nietzsche, one is filled with the radiance of life and possibility. Perhaps it is because Nietzsche was constantly striving to rise out of the pit of nihilism that one descends into once God is dead that he charges his writing with an infectious purpose and drive that touches all his readers. It was the case with me. Nietzsche was that distant star that I have followed for so long. If you are looking for your calling, read Nietzsche. Your destiny will beckon. Whether you can follow is another question.

I first encountered Nietzsche in my early teens through his book: The Birth of Tragedy. In that book, he said things like: “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world can be eternally justified.” Imagine the effect of this on a teen who was used to reading Hardy Boys novels and watching He-Man cartoons. Nietzsche, compared with everyone else, spoke with such immortal purpose. I was hooked. I decided that I too, would write a theory of tragedy, which, after reading Nietzsche, seemed the highest of all human endeavours.

To prepare myself for the task, I enrolled in Greek and Roman Studies: Nietzsche, before the classicists threw him out and the philosophers welcomed him, had started out as a classicist. At UVic I studied under Laurel Bowman, and at Brown, under Charles Fornara and David Konstan. Because Nietzsche was also published in a peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate, I thought I would do the same, and wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Then, later, after two failed attempts, I succeeded in combining probability theory with literary theory and produced a new theory of tragedy based on risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Finally, to take my theory from page to stage, I inaugurated the world’s largest playwriting competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year.

All this from a spark that shot off the embers of Nietzsche’s thought. It has been a whole life of inspiration. I promise you too, that you will be inspired if you read Nietzsche. Is that a good enough reason to pick up Nietzsche over some other writer?

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

Author Blurb

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), a founder of existentialism, studied law and medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and received his M.D. degree in 1909. He taught psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, and philosophy at the University of Switzerland. His books include General Psychopathology, also available in paperback from Johns Hopkins.

Book Blurb

Nietzsche claimed to be a philosopher of the future, but he was appropriated as a philosopher of Nazism. His work inspired a long study by Martin Heidegger and essays by a host of lesser disciples attached to the Third Reich. In 1935, however, Karl Jaspers set out to “marshall against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man they had proclaimed as their own philosopher.” The year after Nietzsche was published, Jaspers was discharged from his professorship at Heidelberg University by order of the Nazi leadership. Unlike the ideologues, Jaspers does not selectively cite Nietzsche’s work to reinforce already held opinions. Instead, he presents Nietzsche as a complex, wide-ranging philosopher–extraordinary not only because he foresaw all the monstrosities of the twentieth century but also because he saw through them.

NOVEMBER 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). 14 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 2 countries (USA and Australia). 6 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 13

Australia 1

Of the American entries, 11 are from the east and 2 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 3 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 11 men and 3 women. 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 9 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and Italy. 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 22,746 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 2605 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), Universitätbibliothek der Eberhard Karls (Tübingen), 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 THE ILIAD OR THE POEM OF FORCE – Simone Weil

pages 182-215 in Simone Weil: An Anthology, trans. Mary McCarthy, ed. Sian Miles, Penguin, 2005

The Classics

In the Greek and Roman studies, I had two loves: Homer’s Iliad and tragedy, particularly those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. I admired the Iliad for Homer’s look of distance. He tells the story of a great war. Each of the combatants realizes the war is a zero-sum game ending in death, yet they persevere. The point?–to exchange the commodity of honour on the battlefield by killing, or being killed. The purpose of such a life?–to become immortal, become an object of song for future generations of singers to sing. The funny thing is by dying they succeeded.  I admired Aeschylus and Sophocles’ tragedies for a similar reason. Though their protagonists suffer terribly, they understand suffering to be a natural part of existence. There was never a need to explain suffering away. We are not gods. Therefore, we suffer, and terribly. Attempts to justify suffering and evil seemed to me contrived. In Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I found a beguiling theodicy: suffering and misery transform mortals into immortals. We are not remembered for our happiness.

In my student days up to the present day, I would read all the secondary material on epic and tragedy. In later years, I would be fortunate enough to add to the material myself: a new theory of tragedy based on risk and an article on fate and free will in epic. From time to time–not often, but often enough–the footnotes and bibliographies in this secondary material would mention an essay with a most curious name: L’Iliade ou le poème de la force (The Iliad or The Poem of Force). At the time, I never sought it out to read, but the name haunted me. What did Simone Weil mean by ‘poem of force’? So intriguing…

The idea of force fascinates me, and many others. Nietzsche turned force into a fundamental drive behind all other drives in his will to power. Bob Dylan devoted an album–Love and Theft–to examining force and power. Rush did the same in their album Power Windows. Last month, I ran into another article mentioning Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force. It was time. I ordered a copy of a Penguin anthology of her works. I’m glad I did.

When Writing about Force, One Must Have Force

One of my complaints in the classics was that I’d read or hear so many people without force talking about some the most forceful personalities the world has known. I remember one time there was a presentation on Caesar. It was delivered in this monotone and uninterested voice, completely devoid of passion. I remember wondering why someone would study and research Caesar who was so devoid of the spirit of Caesar. The eye sees the sun because it has in it that spark that is the sun’s fire. How can one see Caesar who doesn’t have in their eye the gleam of fire lighting up Caesar’s eye? Reading Weil, there was no danger of this. From the first sentence, force permeates her essay. Her concentration of power is amazing. To read Weil is to be in the presence of greatness. Consider her opening paragraph:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

In a tripartite construction (hero…subject…centre), the first sentence boldly announces force is the protagonist in the Iliad. It is not Achilles. It is not war. It is not rage. It is force. There is no buildup to this discovery. It is stated point-blank in one sentence, and the opening sentence. The second sentence, in another tripartite structure, provides examples of force. The language is direct and ornate at the same time. Then the third sentence slips into the passive voice, a construction frowned upon by writing experts who prefer the active voice, the voice of doing rather than being done to. In the third sentence the human spirit is ‘shown to be modified’. But here too, there is a reason. The passive voice shows the overpowering force of force over the human spirit, which, in the passive construction, is being held in thrall. The passive construction highlights the helplessness of the human agent in the face of force. Brilliant. Then the concluding couplet: ‘For those dreamers…’ and ‘For others, who powers of recognition are more acute…’. In the closing couplet, Weil makes it plain that she is aware that there is another way to look at the work, an opposing reading. She also makes it clear, in most forceful language, where she stands. Force, for those with the eyes to see, is the eternal mover upon which a philosophy of history can be built. She died, I think, too young to fulfil her destiny. Who has the greatness to take her up where she left off? Do such people still exist today?

Her power blew me away. On my first reading of The Iliad or the Poem of Force, I had been working on a paper. Reading her essay made me throw my paper out and start anew. It was embarrassing how she could say in hundreds of characters what I needed hundreds of words to make clear. It is seldom that I encounter such a powerhouse. The last encounter I had with greatness of the highest level was five years ago reading Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience.

Force is Simplicity

Though the essay is short, Weil picks her examples for maximum effect. Her familiarity with the Iliad comes through in how effortlessly she comes up with the perfect example to describe each of the faces of force. To Weil, a religious-anarchist thinker, force is the motivating power shaping history. She once told Trotsky once that he was mistaken. It was not class struggle, but force that would decide the future. I’m also reading Karl Jasper’s critique of Nietzsche right now, and I can’t help but wonder if Weil was familiar with Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will to power was the underlying drive. For Weil, however, force is something that comes and goes. It is with us one moment, and gone the next:

Still more poignant–so painful is the contrast–is the sudden evocation, as quickly rubbed out, of another world: the faraway, precarious, touching world of peace, of the family, the world in which each man counts more than anything else to those about him:

“She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace
To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing
A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle.
Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,
Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles’ arm.”

Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.

Weil accomplishes so much with so little. So too Homer. Andromache pour Hector a bath. We don’t know what’s going through her mind. Then the narrator interjects: Hector’s already dead. The effect is not unlike something Dylan pulled off more recently in ‘Cross the Green Mountain:

A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.

Both poets step back and let the readers weigh the human impact of death. Weil’s genius is in her short turn of phrase ‘then as now’. It is a poignant reminder that she is critiquing a poem of war during a time of war–the first year of the Second World War. When the world gives you force, it is a good time to examine force.

Why We Read the Greats

Weil doesn’t make for the easiest reading. So why read Weil? It’s worth it reading the greats because they can give you insight into unrelated problems you’re working on that you can’t think through. The greats have a different perspective. Whether you agree or not, to follow along their argument, your mind is working on a different pitch, sometimes just trying to keep up and other times contorting itself to unravel the strange intellectual knots. As the mind goes through these motions, sometimes it can catch a glimpse of something else that it’s been working on from this new angle, and from this new angle, find a breakthrough.

One of my interests has been the relation between fate and chance. In a paradoxical way, they seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin. Fate is chance with the benefit of hindsight (thank you AB for that catchy turn of phrase). I’ve been writing about how chance and fate are intertwined in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I hadn’t, however, figured out how chance and fate in the Iliad was intertwined. I had a feeling it might be, because, to me, chance and fate is invariably linked in tragedy, and, the Iliad, although classified as epic, is also understood by some–including Plato–to be the prototypical tragedy. But, the Iliad thus far had defeated my attempts to unify the two forces of chance and fate. They just seemed too far apart. In the Iliad it was like how Weil described: force is the ruling power, and determinate force could allow no room for chance to function. Even in Patroclus’ funeral games, where several of the contestants slip, the slip is shown not to be accidental (e.g. by chance) but is, to those in the know, caused by the gods.

While I was reading Weil, part of my brain must have been thinking about chance and fate. But her writing was making me think hard, and when she quoted this passage, the answer came to me:

Even to Achilles the moment comes; he too must shake and stammer with fear, though it is a river that has this effect on him, not a man. But, with the exception of Achilles, every man in the Iliad tastes a moment of defeat in battle. Victory is less a matter of valour than of blind destiny, which is symbolized in the poem by Zeus’s golden scales:

“Then Zeus the father took his golden scales,
In them he put the two fates of death that cuts down all men,
One for the Trojans, tamers of horses, one for the bronze-sheathed Greeks.
He seized the scales by the middle; it was the fatal day of Greece that sank.”

By its very blindness, destiny establishes a kind of justice.

In a flash it came to me: Zeus may have rolled dice to determine the fates of the Greeks and the Trojans. Chance and fate in the Iliad are intertwined as well. Even though I’ve known the passage with Zeus and his scales for a long time, I needed to read Weil to think it through. It must have been her words bringing together “blindness” and “destiny.” It’s moments like this that make reading the greats worthwhile.

The Loveliest of Mirrors

The Iliad is a poem of force. Force makes all those who fall under its dominion things. But the Iliad is beautiful because, in the process of becoming a thing, the people of the Iliad remember friendships, think of moms and dads faraway, and contemplate what life that could have been. Despite the go-fever of war, every so often, they recover the soul. There is a spattering of these precious moments, moments where the war-machine Achilles and Priam, the king of kings, come together to cry, Achilles for the father whose son he has slain and Priam for his son who Achilles has slain. And that, to Weil, is what makes the Iliad that poem the poems among.

In Weil’s own time, factories and war too would sap the soul and turn people into things. But Weil too in her own time would see souls, for an instant, break free of force. And in these moments, she would see again Andromache drawing a bath for Hector, already dead. And in these moments, I am sure, she was drawn back to all that is the Iliad, the loveliest of mirrors. We are the creatures of force, yet, in that great moment, for an instant, we rise above before force reasserts its crushing power. Weil’s mirror too, is also the loveliest in that she was writing on a poem of war during a time of war, and it may be, that we will never understand the Iliad like how she understood it, until we find ourselves looking at it, like Weil, from a time of war. Today, critics like myself living in Canada, are only peacetime critics.

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

Author Blurb

Simone Weil was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century: a philosopher, theologian, critic, sociologist and political activist. This anthology spans the wide range of her thought, and includes an extract from her best-known work ‘The Need for Roots’, exploring the ways in which modern society fails the human soul; her thoughts on the misuse of language by those in power; and the essay ‘Human Personality’, a late, beautiful reflection on the rights and responsibilities of every individual. All are marked by the unique combination of literary eloquence and moral acuity that characterized Weil’s ideas and inspired a generation of thinkers and writers both in and outside her native France.

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.