Review of NEW DRAMATURGIES – Mark Bly

Routledge, 2020, 121 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Blurb

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

Author Blurb

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

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

Gilberto Conti and Tony Nardi on Multiculturalism in Brazilian and Canadian Theatre

On July 6th 2020, as part of a CATR seminar encouraging theatre practitioners across the world to share their work, I had a chance to talk to Gilberto Conti (Czechia / Brazil) and Tony Nardi (Italy / Canada). Our conversation drifted towards a timely topic: the history, development, and future of multicultural theatre. Many people are wondering how theatre can become more inclusive to reflect the changing communities of which they are a part. Gilberto and Tony both have such wonderful insights, I thought I’d post this for everyone to see. This conversation is an ongoing series of conversations hosted by CATR. Thank you to Bruce Barton and Natalia Esling at CATR for making this opportunity possible. Previous conversations can be found here.

CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF THEATRE RESEARCH (CATR)

ARTICULATING ARTISTIC RESEARCH SEMINAR
“ARTICULATIONS OF DIVISION AND UNITY: RE-EVALUATING PRACTICES OF ARTISTIC RESEARCH”

Date: July 6, 2020 via Zoom

Group C Discussion (Gilberto Conti / Tony Nardi / Edwin Wong)

Edwin: Gilberto, did you want to start? How does your project engage boundaries and division?

Gilberto: As a performer in puppet theatre and the Folia de Reis, I approach theatre from a practical perspective. I also study the theoretical aspect of theatre, but from a child, I’ve performed in the community theatre of Brazil. The Folia de Reis rite in Brazil reenacts the biblical journey of the three kings to Bethlehem. It’s a European tradition. But in Brazil, it also incorporates masks, songs, and other African and Indigenous elements. Like the theatre of Tony’s Italy, Brazilian theatre is full of stereotypes. And like theatre in Canada—where both Tony and Edwin call home—Brazilian theatre is a multicultural institution.

As a theatre researcher in Czechia, my project is to spread the word about Brazilian theatre culture all over the world. Here in Czechia, Brazilian theatre is too little known. As part of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR), I’ve also taken part in research groups in Shanghai and China to talk about Brazilian theatre. When people all over the world learn about Brazilian theatre—a theatre that lies at a crossroads between Indigenous, European, and African influences—they learn that culture belongs to no culture. Culture is the action and reaction of different peoples across borders. European culture is part of Brazil inasmuch as American culture is part of Europe.

Edwin: That’s a great point, Gilberto, that culture doesn’t belong to any one group. It’s something that’s being created by the interaction between many people. Tony, could you tell us about how your research engages boundaries and division?

Tony: In terms of boundaries and division (partition), my project engages the institutional boundaries that exist in, and have been illegally forced upon, performance media, actor training and funding agencies, which privilege the production of culture by the so-called two founding nations (i.e., culture produced in English and/or French or modelled after British and American standards of culture and performance ) at the expense of other cultural and linguistic communities, predicated on a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Official Languages Act and Official Multiculturalism––as constitutionally defined and mandated.

Cultural practices in Canada fall mainly outside the constitutional standard of 1) multiculturalism (Charter of Rights s. 27) and 2) the minimum standard (all constitutional provisions and Charter rights are minimum standards). Multiculturalism in Canada, as commonly understood and institutionally practiced, is less an official policy that fosters, protects and reflects the fact of cultural diversity in the production of publicly funded culture and more a descriptor for all non-English and non-French communities, the “special interests and treatment” and “accommodations” ascribed to them, and the culture they produce. The concept of multiculturalism has become, in practice, the catchall term that identifies and characterizes all things “ethnic” or “other” and deliberately differentiates them from the two- founding-nations cultural norm.

The production of publicly culture in Canada is essentially and institutionally a policy of division. This has created institutionally-driven cultural ghettos that have been erroneously ascribed to official Multiculturalism, when in fact they are the result of a misinterpretation and misapplication of constitutionally mandated multiculturalism. Under the rubric of Critical Race Theory, specifically the Interest Convergence tenet, multiculturalism has favoured publicly funded performances from members of the so-called two-founding nations at the expense of performances from all other communities.

Also, my treatment on the acting/writing “divide” also engages craft-based boundaries and divisions that at times have been used to separate actors from writers as if they were born in different worlds and practice radically different crafts. This divide widened with the development and rise of the auteur (God) director in the 20th century that at times supplanted the role of the writer and acted as a wedge between actor and writer (see actor Simon Callow’s Manifesto below from his 1985 book, Being an Actor).

Edwin: I love what you’re doing to promote a new vision of multiculturalism in Canadian arts Tony. I’ve often thought that theatre, whether in Canada or Brazil or Czechia, would benefit from being more diverse and reflective of the vibrant communities of which they are a part. As for my project and how it engages in boundaries and divisions, let me start by saying a few words about the project itself. I’ve written a book on a new theory of tragedy. It’s called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Protagonists, according to risk theatre, trigger catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events by making delirious, all-in wagers.

My project engages tradition because the genre I’m writing in—the theory of tragedy—goes back through Nietzsche and Hegel all the way back to Aristotle. It’s another voice in a long, ongoing conversation. But my project also creates division because it’s a separate and unique voice. Playwrights say: “The idea of tragedy was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach.” Risk theatre is a twenty-first century take on tragedy. It says: “The goal of tragedy isn’t pity and fear or colliding ethical positions or the Dionysian versus the Apollonian. The goal of tragedy is to incite anticipation and apprehension in the audience: anticipation for the hero’s wager and apprehension for how badly the foolproof plan will turn out.” To take the idea of risk theatre from page to stage, I’ve founded the world’s largest playwriting competition specifically for the writing of tragedy. It’s now in its third year (risktheatre.com).

This has been such a great discussion so far, I’m having so much fun! Let’s go back to you Gilberto. Could you comment on the common points intersection in our projects?

Gilberto: One thing that comes to mind immediately is how multiculturalism has a history of oppressing others. The Folia de Reis rite is such an example. It was from Europe and it was a vehicle to spread Catholic ideas in Brazil. Like how Tony puts it, in multicultural societies, often there is a dominant culture. Funny thing today is how things have turned. The previous “colonial” theatre of the Folia de Reis in turn is being supplanted by new religions and new cultures.

Edwin’s risk theatre project brings to mind the risk performers take in performing. We have a saying: “If you don’t feel cold in the stomach, don’t perform it.” Risk brings theatre to life. The theatre of the Folia de Reis is a street theatre, and the street theatre is unlike university or big budget theatre. It’s a community theatre where I remember how many performers who struggle with feeding themselves and their families must make a gamble in purchasing the masks and clothing for the show. I like how Edwin highlights how risk is an inherent part of performance.

Edwin: Risk is ubiquitous isn’t it? Turning to you Tony, where do you find a common intersection in our projects?

Tony: I see two main points of intersection with Gilberto. The first is my experience of community-based festivals and religious processions in Calabria (and in Canada within “Italian” communities), and the second, my experience of so-called “multicultural” performances in Canada in theatre, film and television. We perhaps intersect as well on the idea of actively preserving ––– through practice–– cultural expression and output that stem from so-called diverse/multicultural communities/practitioners. This is evident in Gilberto’s Folia study, and my interest in (and history with) performances that stem from “diverse” practitioners whose combined output reflects Canada’s multicultural makeup (without the need, however, to label the individual works as multicultural since no such works exist). Multicultural defines the sum of the parts and not the parts.

“Diverse” and “multicultural” (and the term “ethnic”), as presently and largely employed in Canadian media and scholarship, are segregationist terms; they exclude English- and French- Canadians as constituent parts of multiculturalism, as defined in Pierre Trudeau’s House of Commons speech in 1971 when he first introduced the policy of multiculturalism for all Canadians, and entrenched in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There is no such thing as a diverse or multicultural performance, unless we are defining both terms outside the constitutional standard, within a othering context, and through the lens of the so-called two founding nations. “Diverse” and “multicultural” are synonymous with and euphemisms for “other” and “ethnic.”

In Brazil and Calabria, religious-based festivals and performances are part of everyday life and set in actual everyday settings. The Folia de Reis and religious festivals in Calabria are performances of the people, by the people and for the people. From a professional, North American perspective, community-based performances can be looked upon as less than “professional” and not as relevant. They blur—and intentionally crisscross—a number of lines at once, between the onstage and offstage realities, the fictive and the real, the spectator and the spectated, life and art, etc., Living with these dualities—and with Brecht’s notion of the alienation/distancing effect—is a part of daily life, and normal. The professional mourners in southern Italy is a perfect example. They are in –– but not lost in –– character. They exist in a real life setting and perform within that setting. The “stage” is both undefinable and ubiquitous and tells multiple stories (e.g. in Calabrian culture, sitting at the kitchen table is perhaps the greatest communal activity and human experience. It is a home’s center of gravity, headquarters for all discussion, real-life drama and storytelling). These performances are often closer to the ideal that professional performances often strive to attain in traditional, Western professional settings. “All the world’s a stage” is not a metaphor in these two locations: performances exist in daily life and daily life is a performance. There is no estrangement between the spectator and performer even when they do not overlap. These festival performances stem from the people, and express and renew themselves through the people that participate as performers and/or spectators. The messiness of this type of performance is both multicultural and intercultural. They are not intentionally prescriptive multicultural performances but organically reflect a multi cultural community. Professional theatre, on the other hand, is often superficially multicultural, mainly in promotional sound bites, and “intercultural” by prescription, in which linguistic and cultural hierarchies, however, still exist and establish the working language –– for all.

The point of intersection between Edwin’s work and my own is that we’re both trying to redefine aspects of theatre practice for the present. Edwin has redefined the template for understanding tragedy; he has reconceptualized the tragedy template through his innovative risk theatre theory. I’m challenging misconceptions of multiculturalism and “multicultural” theatre. I’m also trying to address (bridge or remove) the age-old acting/writing divide in performance.

Edwin. I love this opportunity for the three of us to talk about the past, present, and future of multiculturalism in theatre. Much of our work revolves around the idea of theatre as a place where cultures can meet to create and share stories. I’d like to think about risk theatre as the contribution of a Chinese-Canadian theatre researcher into the continuing narrative of theatre performance and creation. Just as Gilberto talks about Brazilian theatre being a point drawing in Indigenous, African, and European cultures and Tony talks about different voices contributing to multicultural theatre in Canada, I attempt through my risk theatre project to add my multicultural voice to an old conversation called the theory of tragedy that has been going on for millennia. For theatre to be an essential part of their communities, the people in these communities have to both remember the old traditions and also to make new traditions as well.

We have one more question. Gilberto, could you share your thoughts on how the coronavirus pandemic has changed your outlook and theatre research?

Gilberto: How has it impacted me? First, I need to reinvent myself. Many of the congresses now are online. We see the rise of the video conference. Puppet video is possible by video. One positive aspect of the online world is that it’s good at connecting faraway people. A generation will change as we adapt to new technology. Having said that, some theatres are opening slowly in Czechia. Although there is change, I feel that theatre needs to be present. The Folia de Reis must be present to fulfil its mandate as a rite, as a cultural performance.

Tony: I have not had the time to reflect on this, namely because Covid has not changed my daily routine (writing my thesis) except that it has confined me to one space, home, in which the lines between work and home blur and overlap making it that much harder to dedicate focused time to research and writing. I did cancel however an in-person graduate course at York (acting for film directors) that I was scheduled to teach this summer. I declined the online option because, in the moment, I could not conceive how to adapt the in-person curriculum (exercises, etc.) to an online setting. Performance is reliant on presence, aura, and interaction within a physical context and setting. Even when captured on film, the performance must live and breathe in a physical space shared by other characters and spectators. Physical proximity and energy (including between actor and audience), in harmony or in conflict, are the “TNT” in drama and performance. I foresee a post-covid reality in which smaller venues and gatherings of people will increase in popularity, e.g. drawing room readings and theatre. We may be forced to reimagine and rearticulate theatre around the family kitchen table, after all.

Edwin: I read you loud and clear Tony. We’re evolved to have face to face interactions. Theatre harnesses the tools that millions of years of evolution gave us. We’ve only had thirty or forty years with computers and the virtual world. So there’s a big gulf to overcome!

As part of the risk theatre project, I run a playwright competition inviting playwrights from all over the world to write plays to explore the impact of the highly improbable. The competition is online, so not much changes there. Like Gilberto was saying, the online world offers a great opportunity to shrink the geographical divide.

In the past, we’ve flown in the winner to workshop their play in Victoria. We’re going to move the workshop online this year. So there’s a new challenge. But what I feel from talking with both of you is that all the people who are passionate about theatre are the theatre. Our ideas, passions, and will to bring theatre to life is theatre. These are difficult times, but your enthusiasm reassures me that, as long as we keep going—and we will—we’ll find a way.


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

JULY 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION

Out of 135 entries, 17 semifinalists remain to contend for glory of the $9000 first prize and four $525 runners-up prizes in the 2020 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION. THANK YOU to everyone for participating and CONGRATULATIONS to the semifinalists (plays will remain blind until jurors nominate the winner):

Paletas de Coco
The Forgotten Language of the Handshake
Raw: A Love Story
The Hunt for Benedetto Montone
Capital Punishment
Big Ed, the King of Swatsville
Waafrika 1-2-3
You are My Sunshine
Winter Wheat
The Value
Spin Moves
Lydia 2018
Children of Combs and Watch Chains
Gadson’s Folly
Edit Annie
Mercy Rising
The Blue Whale

Would that I could have started a competition where everyone would have been a winner. But, as it is, some yield glory so that others may win it. The situation reminds me of a passage in Homer’s epic poem THE ILIAD, considered by many—including Plato—to have been the first tragedy. Of course a playwriting competition is different than mortal combat on Scamander’s banks. But the ethos I find similar. In this passage, Sarpedon sums up the heroic code to his squire, Glaucus:

Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.

If it seems strange to bring up this passage in relation to the competition, perhaps that is a sign of how times and thought has changed between Homer and today. For the daring ones willing to take a chance, the 2021 competition is now open and accepting entries at https://risktheatre.com/

Stats, stats, stats!

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 14 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Singapore. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 20,175 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 2511 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help 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: Brown University, 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), 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 (Penticton), 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, Russian State Library, 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, 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.

Review of CIVIL WAR – Lucan (translated Matthew Fox)

Penguin, 2012, 537 pages, translated by Matthew Fox

Has there ever been a better time to read Lucan’s Civil War? It’s the story of the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Principate. It’s the story of a world gone mad where a young and brash Caesar takes on Pompey the Great, the grizzled war hero. One leader takes too many risks, the other, too few. One leader has the gods on his side, the other has Cato on his side. The world hangs in balance. No one knows who Fate and Fortune will favour. Though the outcome is uncertain, all the participants in this game of death wager all-in. This is Lucan’s Bellum Civile or Civil War, sometimes also called The Pharsalia, after the famous battle at Pharsalus where, under divided standards, Roman slew Roman.

The Good

The first century critic Quintilian hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Lucan is fiery and excited and most illustrious for his clever phrases [sententiae].” Lucan was Twitter before there was Twitter. Today, he would have broken the internet with his wit on fire:

Caesar could bear none better, Pompey no equal.
Which one took up arms more justly? Knowing that
is not allowed–a high judge acquits each one:
Gods favored the victor, but Cato the lost cause.

The unspoken thought here is that senator and stoic philosopher Cato is equal to the gods. Daring. The image of mortals rising up to challenge the heavens occurs in many of Lucan’s memorable images. Here, for example, he contrasts Caesar to Liberty personified. Guess what?–they are evenly matched:

Flee dire battles
and call the gods to witness that who persists in arms
no longer dies for you, Magnus. Like the losses
in woeful Africa, like ruinous Munda, and the defeat
by the bay of Pharos, so the greater part
of Thessaly’s conflict after your departure
is no longer for Pompey’s world-famous name
nor zeal for war, but it will be the matched duel
that we always have: Liberty versus Caesar.

And here Lucan warns the Emperor Nero (who, ironically, he is planning to assassinate in the Pisonian conspiracy) to be mindful where he sets up his heavenly throne: if Nero sets it in the wrong spot, he would unbalance the cosmos:

When your watch is through
and you seek the stars at last, your chosen court
of heaven will welcome you, delighting the pole.
You could hold the scepter, or you may like to mount
Phoebus’ flame-bearing chariot, range the earth–
unfazed by the change of sun–with roving fire;
whatever you please: each god will cede to you,
and nature will relinquish her right to you
to be what god you will, install your world throne.
But do not choose your seat in Arctic regions,
nor in warm skies inclined to adverse south winds:
from these your gaze on Rome would be aslant.
If you weigh on any one part of boundless space
the axle will feel the load. Keep your weight
to the middle: balance heaven.

There’s no need for gods in Civil War because mortals can take the immortals’ places.

The Bad

Lucan’s Civil War is full of gladiatorial spectacle. In this regard, it’s similar to other Silver Age Latin works. The tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, are also full of macabre scenes befitting of B-movie horror films. Maybe in some future age these scenes will come back into vogue. Here’s one of many such passages from Civil War:

That day offered
many marvelous forms of death upon the sea.
An iron claw swings quickly up onto a ship
and hooks Lycidas. He would have sunk in the deep,
but his comrades grab and hold him by the shins.
He is ripped to pieces, and his blood does not flow slowly
as from a wound, but floods everywhere from open veins,
and his soul that circulated through his various limbs
is absorbed by water. Nobody’s life has ever fled
through so large a passageway. His bottom half
took to death the limbs that had no seat of life.
But where the heaving lungs lay and the guts glistened,
there his fate was stalled; this half of the man
struggled a long time, till finally death got him all.

The Ugly

The speeches by the leading characters all seem to be spoken by the same voice: Lucan’s. They are all manic caricatures of their character types. Erictho, in conjuring the nether powers, becomes, not a witch, but the caricature of evil:

“If I call on you with a mouth that’s sinful
and polluted enough, if I never sing these songs
while still famishing for human entrails,
if I’ve often bathed a hacked-up breast
still full of soul divine and brains still warm,
if any infant whose insides and head I’ve laid
upon your platters would have lived if I had not–
obey me as I pray!”

Who talks like that? Or take the nihilistic Pompey. On the morning of the Battle of Pharsalus, he exhorts his troops thus:

“If all agree with this,” he said,
“and if the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.”

Who exhorts troops like that? Magnus becomes a caricature of fate. So too, the do-gooding Cato, exhorting the troops after the grievous loss at Pharsalus, becomes a caricature of virtue:

“You who have chosen to follow my standards
as the one safe thing, with unconquered necks
and unto death–train your minds on our great task,
the utmost toils of virtue. We are heading
for barren plains, the world’s burned-out wastes,
where Sun is too hot, water rare in the springs,
and dry fields crawl with deadly serpents.
The path to law and order is hard, and so is
the love of our fatherland, now falling to ruin.”

Some say that Cato and Pompey are the heroes of Civil War. I’m not so sure. They have become such concentrated versions of themselves that it’s hard to take them seriously. Caesar too is a caricature, but he is a caricature of action. He is Goethe’s Faust before there was Faust and Nietzsche’s will to power before there was a will to power. For example, when under siege and about to perish, Lucan’s Caesar is still acting and planning as though he was the besieger going forth conquering, and a conqueror. There is something attractive in his never say die mentality. The same cannot be said about the cardboard cutout characters Pompey and Lucan.

Fate and Fortune

A primary consideration in epic poetry from Homer to Milton is the antinomy between fate and free will. I published an article on fate and free will in the journal Antichthon. If you’re interested, it’s available here. In the Iliad, Zeus hold the scales of fate. If he holds the scales of fate, it would seem that fate bends to Zeus’ will. But it’s not so clear: when the scales of fate doom his mortal son Sarpedon, all Zeus can do is watch. Even though he holds the scales, the scales seem to operate on a higher level of agency. So too the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost can be seen continuing the discussion Homer began so long ago in the Iliad:

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.

Unsurprisingly, Lucan also explores the generic convention of fate and free will in Civil War. Instead of fate and free will, however, in Lucan it becomes the antinomy between fate and fortune.

In Lucan, certain events are fated. Roman civil war itself is fated. Rome had become too great. Civil war is the mechanism for nations to return to nature’s mean:

Great things rush to ruin: the powers that give bounty
have set this limit on increase. Not to any foreign
nations did Fortune lend her envy to use
against the people ruling on land and sea.
Made slaves of three masters, you caused the damage,
Rome, with fatal bonds of tyranny never before
loosed against the crowd. Foul concord! Blinded
by depths of greed! What use to unite your strength
to hold the world in common? As long as earth
shall light on sea and air on earth, and labors
keep the Sun revolving, night following day
through the same sum of signs, no pledge to reign
as peers will hold. All power is impatient of equals.

Unlike in Homer and Milton where fate is fate and free will is free will, Lucan’s fate is more like Virgil’s fate where–though it is true that certain events are fated to happen (such as founding Rome)–the actions of mortals and immortals can precipitate or delay fate. So, Virgil’s Juno says:

But I, great wife of Jove–who left no thing
undared, who tried all ways in wretchedness–
am beaten by Aeneas. If my power
is not enough, I shall not hesitate
to plead for more, from anywhere; if I
cannot bend High Ones, then I shall move hell.
I cannot keep him from the Latin kingdoms:
so be it, let Lavinia be his wife,
as fates have fixed. But I can still hold off
that moment and delay these great events.

There’s an echo of Juno in Lucan, through the mouth of Erictho:

The evil Thessalian, thrilled to hear her name
was famous and well known, responded, “If you’d asked
of lesser fates, young man, it would have been easy
to rouse unwilling gods and attain your wish.
My art can cause delay when the rays of stars
have marked one death, or even if all constellations
would grant one an old age, we can cut his years
in half with magic herbs. But once a series of causes
has descended from the world’s first origin
and all fates struggle if you want to change anything,
when the human race is subject to a single blow,
then Thessaly’s ilk admits it–Fortune is stronger.

Fate, in Lucan’s Civil War, is like fate in Virgil’s Aeneid: you can speed it up or put it off a few years, but the hour of doom comes sooner or later. But notice a strange tilt in Lucan. Whereas fate and free will are at odds in Homer, Virgil, and Milton, Lucan uses fate and fortune interchangeably: fortune is stronger than Erictho’s resources when fate decrees it must be so. This deserves attention.

Some of you may know about my theory of tragedy based on risk. I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. It is also profitable to analyze risk in Civil War. The world of Civil War is one that rewards risk takers. Two characters in Lucan’s epic get things done: Caesar becomes top dog and Cleopatra wrestles her kingdom back from her brother. What do they have in common?–both Caesar and Cleopatra throw risk to the winds. Lucan’s Caesar and Cleopatra are both daring, both reckless. They are risk takers, natural-born gamblers.

Cleopatra, for her part, sneaks into the palace to seduce Caesar:

Such a daring spirit she got from that first night
when our own generals lay wrapped up in bed
with Ptolemy’s incestuous daughter. Who
will not forgive your raving love for her, Antony,
when fire even consumed the hard heart of Caesar?

Caesar, for his part, also does what needs to be done, risk be damned:

But Caesar, reckless in everything,
thinks nothing is done if anything’s left to be done.

While the narrator in Civil War pays homage to Cato and Pompey, the gamblers come out ahead. In a way, Civil War says one thing, but does another. It keeps the reader guessing what the actual message is, if there is any message.

Skin in the Game

A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a fantastic book: Skin in the Game. Success, he argued, happens when you have skin in the game, when you have a stake in the outcome. Caesar and Pompey’s speech to the troops illustrates the importance of having skin in the game. Compare how they address their troops:

Pompey: If all agree with this
and the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.
. . .
I’d wish the first lance of this deadly war
would pierce this head, if it could fall without
upsetting the balance, or destroying our party.
For victory will not bring more joy to Magnus.
Today, once this massacre’s been committed,
Pompey will be a name that’s either hated
or pitied by all peoples. This final cast of lots
for everything will bring all evils on the vanquished.
All the guilt will fall upon the victor.

Caesar: Breaker of the world, in all my affairs the fortune,
soldier, the riches of battle so often longed for
lie at hand. There’s no more need for prayers.
Summon fate now with your sword! In your hands
you hold the greatness of Caesar! Today is the day
I remember was promised me at the Rubicon’s waves,
and looking forward to this we took up arms,
postponing our return for triumphs denied us
until today, which will prove, with Fate as witness,
who took up arms more justly. This engagement
will render the loser guilty. If for me you’ve assaulted
your fatherland with fire and iron, fight now
all the more savagely and with your sword
free yourselves from guilt. For if the other side
becomes the judge of war, no hand will be clean.
This struggle is not for me, but so that the lot of you
might be free, hold power over all nations,
that’s my prayer.

Pompey asks the senate troops to fight for God knows what. Caesar, on the other hand, gives his troops skin in the game. The troops, he tells them, fight for Caesar’s greatness. Not only that, they fight for the triumphs the senate denied them. And, on top of that, they fight for their freedom: if they lose, they will be punished as traitors. They fight for their lives and win. This is the power of skin in the game. Caesar knows the power of skin in the game. Pompey doesn’t. To me, this is one of the mysteries of Lucan’s Civil War: for all the narrator extols Pompey, Pompey is sure dense. With that sort of exhortation, of course he gets routed at Pharsalus.

A Note on the Translator’s Introduction

I was surprised to see this passage in the translator’s introduction:

Alexander was a notorious admirer of Homer and Achilles: Caesar, too, is possessed by the glorious myths of Troy. If history-as-narrative had derived from the deep stream of Homeric epic, history-as-action was also always driven by men who were avid readers of epic, fired by its prize of immortal glory for heroic exploits. But it is possible these great men are simply, but tragically, poor readers of epic, deriving from it the wrong lessons, deluded by false notions of the heroic. After all, Achilles’ rage was “destructive” and for himself it results only in grief and the noble gesture of pity for his fallen enemy, the fatherly king Priam. [emphasis added]

If Alexander and Caesar are poor readers of epic, then who is the good reader of epic, the one who can derive from epic the correct lesson?

In all likelihood, many readings of poetry, epic, and literature are possible. For those seeking immortal glory, the myths of Troy have their allure. And that is all. There is no lesson. I don’t think Homer was meaning to say: “Look, I said Achilles’ rage was “destructive,” look what it did to poor Priam. Please don’t be like Achilles. He’s not a good role model.” That’s what the translator’s introduction seems to say to me, that the translators are good readers of epic, and, as good readers, have correctly derived the lesson Homer was trying to teach readers, that attaining immortal glory for heroic exploits is wrong because of all the suffering it involves.

Epic is life transformed into immortal glory. Sure, there’s suffering and destruction, but that’s the price. Don’t believe me? Then take Helen’s words in Homer’s Iliad to heart (Helen to Hector):

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,
us two, on whom Zeus has set a vile destiny so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

Suffering is justified, says Helen, so that we can be remembered forever. So too the destructive civil war allows Lucan to make Caesar and Pompey into a song for the men of the future (narrator speaking):

O sacred mighty work of poet-seers,
you rescue everything from fate and grant
eternal life to mortal peoples. Caesar,
don’t be touched by envy of sacred glory.
For if Latin Muses have a right to make a promise,
as long as Smyrna’s singer endures in honor,
the future will read you and me: our Pharsalia
will live, not condemned to shadows in any age.

For so much destruction, we have Lucan’s Pharsalia, otherwise called Civil War. In future ages, those who seek eternal renown will add the name of Caesar to the roll-call of heroes who achieved immortality. And also in future ages, someone too will tell these glory seekers that they are poor readers of epic. But who will be remembered–the glory seekers or their critics? Would you rather be a good reader who is forgotten soon or a poor reader who is remembered forever?

I wanted to like Lucan’s Civil War more than I did. Lucan, if Fortune had vouchsafed you to write Civil War in your seventies, you would have outshone Virgil and rivalled Milton and Homer. But as it was, fate cut you down at age 25. Those whom the gods love die young.

Book Blurb

Lucan lived from AD 39-65 at a time of great turbulence in Rome. His Civil War portrays two of the most colorful and powerful figures of the age–Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, enemies in a bloody and convulsive struggle for power that severed bloodlines and began the transformation of Roman civilization. As law and order broke down, the anarchy that resulted left its mark on the Roman people forever, paving the way for the imperial monarchy. Matthew Fox’s verse translation brings Civil War to life for a new generation of readers while retaining the rhetorical brilliance of the original, creating a new definitive edition of this classic.

Author Blurb

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (A.D. 39-65) was the nephew of the philosopher Seneca and close friend of the young emperor Nero, until a poetic rivalry and possibly political differences led to their falling out and Lucan being banned from both reciting his poetry in public and pleading in the law courts. He was a prolific and popular poet, but his only work to survive is his Civil War, a trenchantly anti-Caesarean epic about the fateful struggle between the rival leaders Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, which ended in disaster for the Roman Senate at Pharsalus in 48 B.C., the battle which forms the poem’s dramatic climax. In A.D. 65, after the great fire had ravaged Rome and with much discontent against Nero simmering across the empire, Lucan joined the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor, which failed and resulted in the execution by forced suicide of many of those involved. Along with his uncle, the author Petronius, and many other prominent Romans, Lucan took his own life, reputedly dying while reciting defiant verses from his epic. Since antiquity Lucan’s poem has been read as part of the classical canon, alongside the works of Virgil and Ovid. Its influence on the literary tradition from medieval to modern times is considerable, while Lucan’s death created a legacy of literary-political martyrdom that fired the imagination of revolutionary thinkers from the Renaissance to the many revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Translator Blurb

Matthew Fox studied Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oregon and earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Classics at Princeton. He has taught classics, anthropology, humanities, and writing at Princeton, St. Peter’s College (NJ), Deep Springs College (CA), where he held the Robert B. Aird Chair in Humanities, and Rutgers University, and now teaches at Whitman College (WA). His research focuses on the classical epic tradition and ancient cultures of poetic and musical performance.

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

Edwin Wong Responds to Tony Nardi

As part of the 2020 AGM, the Canadian Association of Theatre Research brings together theatre researchers and practitioners from all over the world to share their ideas in the Articulating Artistic Research Seminar. The group is lead by Bruce Barton (University of Calgary) and Natalia Esling (University of British Columbia). This year’s participants bring a wealth of experience from five continents and include: Lisa Aikman, Megan Andrews, Bakare Babatunde, Gilberto Conti, Andrew Houston, Caitlin Main, Tony Nardi, Laine Newman, Gouri Nilakantan, Milena Radzikowska, Jennifer Roberts-Smith, Stan Ruecker, Shira Schwartz, and Edwin Wong.

We each prepared a statement of artistic research and uploaded it to the CATR site. Mine can be found here. Then we were assigned into subgroups. I was paired with Gilberto Conti, a theatre researcher from Czechia who specializes in the intersection of African, European, and Indigenous cultures in Brazilian theatre and Tony Nardi, a Canadian actor, writer, and director who specializes in Canadian multicultural theatre. This is a fantastic opportunity to see all the cool things people from all over the world are doing with theatre in a time of crisis. In our subgroup Gilberto was assigned to respond to my statement of artistic research and, in turn, I was assigned to respond to Tony. Here’s my response to Tony’s piece on multicultural theatre.

CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF THEATRE RESEARCH (CATR)

 

ARTICULATING ARTISTIC RESEARCH SEMINAR

“ARTICULATIONS OF DIVISION AND UNITY: RE-EVALUATING PRACTICES OF ARTISTIC RESEARCH”

 

Date: July 5, 2020

Place: Non-place

EDWIN WONG RESPONDS TO TONY NARDI

In his articulation of artistic research, Tony Nardi brings a wealth of experience to the table. It’s a humbling experience to hear the insights from an award-winning actor (two-time Genie Award winner plus many others), writer (James Buller Award winner and many others), director, and producer with forty-two years of experience in theatre, film, and television. The best part of Nardi’s articulation is that, after forty-two years, he continues to push the boundaries of research. In addition to his impressive resume, since 2016 he has been sharing his experiences with the next generation of artists at the University of Toronto and York University.

One way to respond to Nardi is to begin by recapping his articulation of artistic research to see the sorts of observations and questions that arise. Nardi beings by drawing attention to different dichotomies in performance media (defined as theatre, film, and television). The three dichotomies he identifies are practice (doing in the theatre) versus research (learning in the classroom), research by-way-of practice (which privileges knowledge) versus practice by-way-of-research (which privileges the show), and acting versus writing. These dichotomies remind me of the ancient Greek dichotomy between logos—a narrative or account—and ergon—deeds and actions.

Most of the time, logos and ergon are at odds. Logos is a discussion and narrative while ergon is action. Sometimes, however, logos and ergon come together. One example is Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic. By discussing justice (logos), Socrates performs the work (ergon) of guiding Glaucon out of the cave. With his experience on both sides of the table—as an actor and a writer—Nardi is become a synthesizer of dichotomies. “In the process of doing,” he writes, “practice and research are practically indivisible.” Similarly, he synthesizes the acts of writing and acting by drawing together common denominators: “the actor writes when they act and the writer acts when they write.” Are these words the beginnings of a book on acting theory by a Canadian that Nardi laments has not been written yet? I hope that they are. Such a book would go a long way to incorporating Canadian multiculturalism into Canadian performance. More on that below.

Nardi’s comments on the playwright combining writing and doing brings to mind Bob Dylan’s observations of Shakespeare’s creative process:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news [i.e. that he had won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature], and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Perhaps it is our age, so fascinated with specialization, that wants an artist to be an artist, and nothing else, that wants an actor to be an actor, and nothing else. But perhaps, as Nardi and Dylan write, not only is the artist a writer, but in writing is also an actor, director, stage manager, general manager, producer, and box office manager. Perhaps the writer-actor dichotomy is something that exists more in the public’s mind than in reality? I’d like to hear more from Nardi about how his students have benefited from his approach which breaks down the conventional writer-actor dichotomy in favour of a writer-actor synthesis. I am grateful to Nardi for expanding my sensibilities here. Up to this point I had thought of a writer as a writer and an actor as an actor. I enjoyed Nardi’s point that the best actors are also writers and vice-versa.

In the past, there have been influential researchers who have approached theatre from diverse perspectives. Aristotle—who has influenced seemingly everyone—approached theatre from a philosophy background. And Nietzsche—who counts among his disciples Strindberg and O’Neill—approached theatre from the perspective of a Greek and Latin classicist. Such diverse approaches bring to mind biologist E. O. Wilson’s notion of consilience (from con– and siliens ‘jumping’), that jumps in knowledge result when unrelated disciplines come together. In his articulation piece, Nardi talks about a consilience within the theatre disciplines—for example, his writer, in writing, also acts. I find this approach illuminating, and would like to hear his thoughts on how diverse perspectives outside of theatre can interact with and contribute to theatre research. Is there an opportunity here? In a way, could it be that the greatest actors or the greatest writers were also the most complete and multi-faceted human beings, able to draw into their art every facet of the human experience?

After talking about how he synthesizes the acting-writing and research by-way-of practice-practice-by-way-of research dichotomies in his teaching, Nardi addresses a third dichotomy: the stage-film dialectic. To Nardi—who is experienced performing on the stage and in front of a camera—the dichotomy between stage and film is false and unsupported by the actor’s point of view. In a memorable image, he argues that a stage actor can visualize the actual stage as a camera lens and a film actor can visualize the camera lens as a type of stage. For a film actor, for example, performing in front of  an extreme wide-shot lens is akin to acting before a large theatre while performing in front of a close-up lens is akin to acting in a one-on-one setting. To reinforce his point, Nardi draws attention to how there the film actor also performs in front of an audience: the 10-50 “spectators” of the film crew. Like a theatre audience, they are always watching. Some people do not consider the film crew to constitute an audience. Nardi disagrees.

Here I would like to offer a differing opinion. My specialty is risk. From the perspective of risk, each time the actor goes in front of the audience, the actor takes risk. Risk is what makes an event special. In a way, when a pianist goes in front of an audience, the audience is unconvinced the pianist can pull off the cascade of trills or the quick succession of arpeggios. There may even be some in the audience who desire the piano lid to come crashing down on the pianist’s fingers. The pianist senses this tension and attempts to overcome it. If the pianist takes risks and prevails, the audience’s reaction to being proved wrong is to erupt into applause. This tension, I believe, is real. The great Canadian performing artist Glenn Gould retired from the stage at the age of 31 because his nerves couldn’t handle the darker aspects of the performer-audience dynamic. He believed the audience wanted him to fail. And each time he performed in front of a live audience, he needed to overcome the audience, an act which he paid a price for in his health: ulcers, sleeplessness, stomach problems.

It may be similar in other performing arts. Comedians who have perform in sit-coms in front of  a camera and stage crew sometimes express a yearning to return to the live stage. On a live stage, there’s tension in the air. The audience is at the ready to heckle the comedian if the joke is flat or the delivery off. Popular sit-com comedians such as Seinfeld have expressed a desire to return to touring on the road, to being on stage at the comedy clubs. They describe the road experience in front of a live audience as being “honest.”

Perhaps live performances differ from a recorded performances in terms of the risks and rewards. Because there’s no take 2, the performer must go all-in on one moment and defy the audience’s dark wish. I’d love to hear Nardi’s thoughts on the risks or the psychology of performing in front of a camera (where multiple takes are possible) and in front of an audience, where there is only the moment, either to capture or to lose. To me, risk separates, to an extent, the live versus the recorded event. Perhaps one way to test out this idea is to compare recordings of live events with recordings made in the studio?

In the largest and concluding section of his articulation of artistic research, Nardi talks about “the ways and degree to which Canada’s multi cultures have impacted professional performances in Performance Media since the promulgation of the 1971 Multiculturalism Policy, the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the 1988 Multiculturalism Act.” As a first-generation Canadian whose parents were from China, this was fascinating. I had always taken it for granted that English and French dominated Canadian film and theatre. In his dissertation, however, Nardi exposes this practice as unconstitutional multiculturalism. When I read his paper saying that, someday, we could get some Canadian content in Cantonese (and other languages), I thought: “Cool.”

Unconstitutional multiculturalism happens when institutions misinterpret Canada’s policy of official bilingualism. When Canadian media institutions prioritize English and French over other languages such as Farsi, Korean, or Mandarin, Performance Media becomes almost a tool of propaganda which erases, rather than celebrates, cultures and ways of life. Nardi is changing the institutional misinterpretation of official bilingualism through his innovative research. The benefit will be new films and play that embraces performers’ cultural backgrounds, languages, and ways of life. This is a bold, welcome, and most timely initiative. I wish Nardi all the success in this crucial project. The world is changing, and the performance arts ought to change with it. Current events certainly seem to be playing into his call for a multiculturalist performing arts.

Nardi’s thoughts on the performing arts and multiculturalism are extremely thought-provoking. Many questions come to mind. Are we due for a 21st century theory of acting written from a multicultural Canadian perspective? And the plays that dominate regional theatres from British and American canons—while classics, do they also propagate dissonance between the theatre and audiences which are increasingly diverse? That is to say, are classic plays in some way agents of assimilation and integration? I remember in the days of the Roman Empire, theatre was a tool to bring peace to the conquered: in each vanquished city, the Romans would build a forum, baths, and also a theatre. Is part of the solution new plays, written by new 21st century theories of drama, performed according to 21st century theories of acting by performers who reflect the theatre community’s demography? If so, perfect: I’ve written a 21st century theory of drama in my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. I’d love to find a way to collaborate with Nardi to inaugurate a new and multicultural theatre in Canada.

– – –

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

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

pages 145-160 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

“Tragedy,” writes Wohl, “is the humanist genre par excellence, treating the questions that seem most profoundly to define mankind.” And therein lies a problem. How much do women partake in the world of mankind? On the one hand, Greek tragedy is filled with powerful and dynamic female characters: Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Medea in Euripides’ Medea, to name a few. But on the other hand, feminist scholars have been suspicious that tragedy builds up the female only to demolish her in the face of the male. The dramatic arc in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon-Libation Bearers-Eumenides trilogy–otherwise called The Oresteia–begins, for example, begins with the rule of woman and ends with the rule of man.

In addition to male writers’ questionable motives for creating powerful female characters, Wohl finds another facet of Greek tragedy disturbing. Greek tragedy, as a literary artifact of the ancient world, preserves the misogyny prevalent in a society where women could not vote, could not own property, could not represent themselves in court, were relegated inside the household, could not perform in the theatre, and could not even attend the theatre as spectators (this last point is a matter of debate). As an artifact of a misogynist society, characters in Attic tragedy frequently voice sexist musings, such as when Jason in Medea says: “It would be better if men found another way to bear children and there were no race of women.”

Because of the power imbalance between the male and the female, because tragedy was a mouthpiece of male playwrights, and because tragedy gives voice to the embedded misogyny of fifth century Athens, feminist critics such as Wohl have a love-hate relationship with tragedy. On one hand, tragedy, as the humanist genre par excellence which examines the hard-hitting questions that define mankind, is most beautiful. But as the mouthpiece of misogyny, tragedy is most ugly.

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

For a long time, writes Wohl, the scholarly tradition ignored the role of women in classical antiquity. That all changed in 1975 with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pomeroy looked to tragedy as a source of information about how women lived. Her groundbreaking book launched the first wave of feminism in Greek tragedy.

First wave feminism gave priority to Euripides’ plays. Euripides had a reputation for allowing his female characters to speak freely. In the comic playwright Aristophanes’ play Frogs, for example, the fictional character Euripides claims that he gave women a voice in his plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles were less useful.

The aim of first wave feminism was to extract the lives of real women from the tragic text. It is an empiricist approach that considered that the lives of real women are knowable. In first wave feminism, the female character was considered a sign that, properly decoded by a scholar, could shed light on women’s lives in antiquity. What did first wave feminism discover about real woman’s lives? It discovered that the freedoms women enjoyed differed city to city. Women did better in Sparta than Athens (ever notice that many of the powerful female protagonists in tragedy are, like Medea, foreigners?). And it discovered that in the higher social classes, a woman who was a whore may have had more freedom than a freeborn wife.

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

At some point, the authority of the author as a creator of meaning gave way to the view that the author does not create meaning. The creation of meaning became an interpretive act that the reader or theatregoer was responsible for. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” kicked off this view. If the author was not responsible for the message and the meaning of the text, it becomes harder to extrapolate the lives of real women on Euripides’ authority: after the death of the author, Euripides had no authority. A new approach was required.

The second wave of feminism began with Helene Foley’s 1981 article: “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” Instead of extrapolating the lives of real women from the text, second wave feminists explored the cultural concept of woman. This was the new approach after the death of the author, an approach where, as Foley writes: “The Athenian audience must have brought to their experience of the remarkable women of drama a way of understanding these characters which grew out of their psychological, religious, political, and social lives and problems.” The writer-creator was dead. The reader-interpreter is born.

By exploring the representation of woman in tragedy, second wave feminists learned about the society that created such characters. The Clytemnestras and Medeas, they concluded, were the creations of a deeply misogynistic society where the female was associated with disorder and the male with order. Tragedy seemed to say that, for a world to arise and to found civilization, the male must tame the female.

Second wave feminism also added an extra dimension to interpretation. While female characters in first wave feminism were considered to be signs of the lives of real women, second wave feminism added the notion that female characters could be signs as well as generators of signs. Mind you, they were still stuck in androcentric texts written by male playwrights, but this addition increased the range and depth of study, as it brought Aeschylus and Sophocles back into the fold. Because female characters spoke with less freedom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, first wave feminism had little use for either of them. They preferred Euripides. But when you consider that Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of the three pieces of “the big three,” it is a grievous loss. Second wave feminism welcomed back Aeschylus and Sophocles.

By allowing female characters to function as a generator of signs allowed feminists to study captivating female characters such as Clytemnestra. Second wave feminists such as Froma Zeitlin looked at how attention to fictional female characters within tragedy can tell us about the world of tragedy. Zeitlin found, for example, that empowered female characters such as Clytemnestra could generate signs. Clytemnestra is saying something by playing with feminine tropes–such as pouring a hot bath–when she destroys Agamemnon. Generating signs is a itself a sign of will. Although Clytemnestra generates signs, she never gets what she wants: the tragedy isn’t written around her. She could be the star. But she is only a blocker character. A male character, Orestes, is the star. Conclusion? Women are prominent in tragedy not for the sake of woman, but to illuminate the male world.

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

If first wave feminism tells us about the lives of real woman and second wave feminism tell us about the lives of women within tragedy, what does third wave feminist research tell us? Hint: do you remember the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street? Soon after the movie came out, if you went down to the trading floor, you’d see the brokers wearing suspenders. The funny thing is that they didn’t wear suspenders before the movie came out. What happened? Life imitates art is what happened. Third wave feminism’s breakthrough was the realization that the representation of women on the stage shapes the lives of women off the stage.

Third wave feminists include Victoria Wohl herself and scholars such as Barbara Goff (author of The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus and History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama) and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (author of Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic of Women and Feminist Theory and the Classics). While third wave feminists agree that tragedy shapes culture and society, they disagree on tragedy’s directive in doing so.

The disagreement between third wave feminists can be broken down into two competing camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, such as Wohl, believe that feminine resistance in Greek tragedy accelerates progressive social change. “By giving a public voice to those who were normally silent in the political arena,” writes Foley, “tragedy can open fresh perspectives on and restore some balance to a civic life and dialogue otherwise dominated by citizen males.” Pessimists such as Rabinowitz, however, find that heroines’ brief moments of glory reinforce male control over women. The function of tragedy, according to the pessimists, is to reinforce the status quo of male control of the female.

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

Is tragedy propaganda reinforcing the status quo? Or is tragedy revolution, the spark that ignites change? I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I create a play to reinforce male dominion over woman?” If they did, their plays would constitute propaganda. Propaganda plays fail to entertain. Anyone who thinks a propaganda play can be successful may want to look at Mussato’s Ecerinis. His tragedy schools theatregoers on the dangers of tyrants. It is not very good. Greek tragedy, however, is very good. For this reason, I don’t think fifth century dramatists were thinking: “How can I uphold the misogynistic status quo in my play?” as they wrote their plays. If they had this thought in mind, they would have written poor plays.

Was tragedy, then, revolution, a firebrand to ignite change? Tragedy was a civic festival sponsored by the city to celebrate the city. As one of Athens’ largest and most prestigious festivals, it would be an odd place to incite revolution. For this reason, I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I give a public voice to those who are normally silent?” If they had this thought in mind, they city would likely have removed their funding.

If they were neither reinforcing the status quo nor giving voice to the oppressed, what were the tragedians aiming to achieve when they wrote tragedy? According to my risk theatre theory of tragedy, when playwrights wrote plays, they were thinking: “How can I create the most thrilling play, one that will wow the audiences?” To create the most thrilling play, they made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. They chose risk because risk triggers the unexpected outcomes that wowed audiences. So Euripides tells us in the concluding lines of many of his plays:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Because there were two types of risk–upside and downside–two types of dramatists arose. The ones who loved to dramatize downside risk became known as tragedians. And the ones who loved to dramatize upside risk became known as comedians. But whatever type of dramatist you became, you explored risk because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk triggers what the audience expects, namely, the unexpected ending.

To thrill audiences, tragedians would place society’s most sanctified values at risk. “What would happen,” they asked, “if we explode society’s strongest bonds?” “What would happen,” they asked, “if we show how love makes us most vulnerable to hurt, destruction, and grief?” As tragedians formulated their questions, they found a fertile ground in the tensions between men and women. To exploit the full dramatic potential of these tensions, tragedians needed women who could go toe to toe with the men. In a way, because of fifth century prejudices against women, for women to be able to go head to head with men, the women of tragedy had to be better and more talented than their male counterparts. In turn, the men in tragedy are often less clever and capable, as they have the tailwind of an androcentric society to prop them up.

In a risk theatre feminist reading, it is out of dramatic necessity, not a benevolent desire to improve women’s conditions or a malevolent desire to oppress women, that we have dynamic characters such as Clytemnestra, Medea, and Phaedra. What do you get when you put together powerhouse female characters with hotheaded male characters? You get unexpected endings. It is this unexpected ending that drew audiences back to tragedy again and again. Powerful female characters, in this light, are born out of dramatic necessity, a literary artifact.

That we have powerhouse female characters, of course, does not mean that women on stage were men’s equals. On stage, women are equal to men in their desire, but not in their power. The power disparity between the male and the female is not unlike the difference in power between mortals and immortals, another fertile source of inspiration for tragedians. Consider this beautiful passage from Homer’s Iliad where the god Apollo reminds the mortal Achilles that man is not god:

Then Phoebus Apollo spoke to the son of Peleus saying, “Why, son of Peleus, do you, who are but man, give chase to me who am immortal? Have you not yet found out that it is a god whom you pursue so furiously? You did not harass the Trojans whom you had routed, and now they are within their walls, while you have been decoyed hither away from them. Me you cannot kill, for death can take no hold upon me.” 

Achilles was greatly angered and said, “You have baulked me, Far-Darter, most malicious of all gods, and have drawn me away from the wall, where many another man would have bitten the dust ere he got within Ilius; you have robbed me of great glory and have saved the Trojans at no risk to yourself, for you have nothing to fear, but I would indeed have my revenge if it were in my power to do so.” 

A few things are telling in Achilles’ response. To Achilles, the difference between mortals and immortals isn’t that one is wiser or better looking or longer lasting. The difference, to Achilles, is only in the quanta of power they wield: “I would indeed have my revenge,” says Achilles, “if it were in my power to do so.” The difference between mortals and immortals does not lie in their physical or mental qualities, nor in their aspirations, dreams, and desires. The difference is that one has more power than the other.

In Achilles’ interaction with Apollo, he plays the female: he is mortal, Apollo is immortal. If we apply Achilles’ rebuke to Apollo to the dynamic between males and females, what we get is the female saying to the male: “I would have my way, if it were in my power to do so.” I think this is what we get in tragedy. Just like Achilles in the face of Apollo, the female is, in tragedy, everything the equal to the male, except in power. In all her physical and mental qualities, and also in her aspirations, dreams, and desires, the female is the male’s equal. In this way, tragedy was a progressive art. But it was not progressive for the sake of women. It was progressive because it made for a more entertaining play.

A feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy opens the doors to new avenues of research. Does the changing power differential between men and women from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides signify a change between men and women in the real world? Does the power disequilibrium between mortals and immortals shed light on the disequilibrium between men and women in fifth century Athens? What happens when the power differential between mortals and immortals is mapped onto the relationships between men and women?  And what about the immortals themselves?–how is gender constructed in high Olympus? If, as Euripides says, the function of tragedy is to dramatize unexpected outcomes, how do playwrights exploit the tensions between men and women to supercharge risk? A ton of possibilities emerges from a feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy.

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

What’s next in feminist philology? If first wave feminism was to explore the lives of real women, second wave feminism to explore the “lives” of women in the text, and third wave feminism to explore the influence the text has on reality, perhaps fourth wave feminism will be to explore what our changing interpretations of women in antiquity say about us ourselves in modernity? In critiquing misogyny and bad practises in the ancient world, perhaps we also expose some of our own underlying deficiencies? If history is any indication, some of our best and most progressive ideas will be judged quite harshly in the coming centuries, if not sooner. Like in theatre, unintended consequences attend the most noble intentions.

One thing that Wohl points out is that, no matter the stature of women in the ancient play, she still exists in an androcentric text written by a male author. With playwright competitions such as the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/), we are seeing more and more new tragedies being written by female tragedians. In 2020, 89 male playwrights and 46 female playwrights entered. Although two-thirds of the entries this year were by male playwrights, this is much better than antiquity where 100% of the surviving plays are by male playwrights. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a bold new 21st century tragedy with powerful and dynamic male and female characters interacting within a gynocentric instead of an androcentric text? And what fun that would be for feminist scholars to critique. Soon.

Author Blurb

Victoria Wohl is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (1998) and Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens (2003).

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

June 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2020 competition is closed to entries (adjudication underway) but the 2021 competition is open to entries. 135 plays have come in from 4 continents (North American, Oceania, Europe, and South America) and 9 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, UK, NZ, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Brazil). The competition website is at https://risktheatre.com/. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 102
Canada 14
United Kingdom 8
Australia 4
New Zealand 2
Ireland 2
Italy 1
Portugal 1
Brazil 1

Of the American entries, 71 are from the east and 31 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (28 entrants). Go New York! Australia is also off to a good start, already exceeding last year’s entries. Canada finally awoke. We didn’t hit the 182 entries from 11 countries from last year. But that means the odds are better for all those who participated. Go playwrights!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 89 men and 46 woman. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know only 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). The times, they are a changing! Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 51 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Brazil. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 19,828 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 2369 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help 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: Brown University, 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), 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 (Penticton), 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, Russian State Library, 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, 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:

Stay tuned. Semi-finalists announcement late July. Finalists announcement early August. Winner announcement mid-August.

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

Review of The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

pages 61-359 in The Portable Chaucer, translated by Theodore Morrison, Viking 1949

Author Blurb

Chaucer is the cornerstone of English poetry, and he gave to the world exactly what a great poet should give: new types of fictional characters, new expressions of human feeling, and a unique personal style. This volume brings together some of the choicest riches from the heritage left us by this fourteenth-century genius, put into modern English by Theodore Morrison, who is himself a gifted poet. He has admirably succeeded in producing a faithful rendition of the original, recapturing Chaucer in all his earthy vigor and timeless humanity, while removing what to many readers is the obstacle of the Middle English idiom.

Translator Blurb

Apparently in the 1940s this was not a necessary section of the book.

The Canterbury Tales

What a splendid and vigorous work. When one of the Wife of Bath’s husbands recites to her night after night the stories of bad women (Eve, Delilah, Eriphyle, Deianeira, etc.,), she clocks him one and rips apart his book. When the drunk Miller tells a tale of a cuckolded carpenter, the Reeve–who is a carpenter–returns the favour by telling a tale of students who have extra-curricular fun with a dishonest Miller’s wife and daughter. Some of the travellers are too drunk to stay on their horses. The details of their adventures are quite graphic as well. Chaucer’s stories remind me more of Catullus poems about getting ‘radished’ than later English literature. While later English poetry becomes more refined, it loses Chaucer’s vital drive. If you like music, it is sort of like Baroque versus Classical: Baroque, while earlier, is much more rhythmically intense and forwards hurtling.

This was a fun book to read. I hadn’t expected it would be. The last book I had read from the Middle Ages was the Venerable Bede’s history of the church, and that was decidedly less entertaining. I think what makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales so vibrant is that the character types are instantly recognizable from the drunk cook to the greedy summoner to the assiduous student. Human nature has not changed all that much from the 1400s.

Chaucer’s characters represent a cross section of occupations in the Late Middle Ages. One fun exercise to see how things have changed since the 1400s is to see which occupations survived. Have you met the trades Chaucer encounters? Here are my answers, yours may be different:

Inn Owner – YES, I have met latter-day hoteliers
Knight – NO, I have not encountered any knights in my days
Squire – NO
Yeoman – NO (a yeoman is someone who owned land that would yield an annual income of 40 shillings. This is interesting, as in the feudal system they valued land by the income it rendered rather than the price of the land itself)
Prioress – NO, I have not encountered any prioresses
Nun – YES, I have never talked with a nun, but I have seen them abroad
Monk – YES, I have never talked with a monk, but I have seen one, and in my hometown
Friar – NO
Merchant – YES
Clerk – YES
Lawyer – YES
Franklin – NO, though the position is remembered in surnames, e.g. Benjamin Franklin
Craftsmen – YES
Cook – YES
Shipman – YES
Physician – YES (thank goodness they practise the modern variants of astrology and humorism)
Wife of Bath – YES
Parson – YES
Plowman – NO
Miller – NO
Manciple – YES, though they are called purchasers instead of manciples
Reeve – NO
Summoner – NO
Pardoner – NO
Canon -NO

Of the 25 common occupations in the 1400s, 13, or about half, are known to me. In several hundred years, perhaps half of today’s occupations will still be around. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? One thing that reading classics gives us is an appreciation of the larger picture. And Canterbury Tales, which continues to be read over 600 years later, is well-equipped to show us how some things have changed and how some things have stayed exactly the same.

The Canterbury Tales and the Art Form of Tragedy

One thing that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much from the 1400s to today is the popular reaction to the dramatic art form of tragedy. Two of the storytellers in Canterbury Tales tell tragic tales: the Monk and the Physician. The reactions of the other pilgrims to the Monk’s Tale gives you an idea of the general lack of appetite for tragedy at that time (Knight and Host speaking to Monk):

“Stop!” cried the Knight. “No more of this, good sir!
You have said plenty, and much more, for sure,
For only a little such lugubriousness
Is plenty for a lot of folk, I guess.
I say for me it is a great displeasure,
When men have wealth and comfort in good measure,
To hear how they have tumbled down the slope.
And the opposite is a solace and a hope,
As when a man begins in low estate
And climbs the ladder and grows fortunate,
And stands there firm in his prosperity.
That is a welcome thing, it seems to me,
And of such things it would be good to tell.”

“Well said,” our Host declared. “By St. Paul’s bell,
You speak the truth; this Monk’s tongue is too loud.
He told how fortune covered with a cloud–
I don’t know what-all; and of tragedy
You heard just now, and it’s no remedy,
When things are over and done with, to complain.
Besides, as you have said, it is a pain
To hear of misery; it is distressing.
Sir Monk, no more, as you would have God’s blessing
This company is all one weary sigh.
Such talking isn’t worth a butterfly.

The reaction to tragedy today isn’t much different. With so much storm and strife happening in life, people today echo the Host and the Knight’s cry: “Enough of tragedy, give us musicals and comedys!” This is a shame, as the art form of tragedy–by dramatizing the amazing twists and turns of fortune–is one of the greatest shows on earth. How can tragedy be repackaged so that people say instead: “More tragedy please!”

If you ask these same people who don’t like tragedy: “Would you be interested in seeing a show on uncertainty and chance?” they would say: “Yes!” The same events responsible for the storm and strife in life have created a groundswell of interest in the role uncertainty and chance play in life. All of a sudden, people are saying: “Wow, the unexpected sure has stolen us on us. How did this happen? I am interested in chance and the unexpected. Where can I learn more?” This is the ticket in repackaging and reimagining tragedy for the 21st century.

To me, tragedy is synonymous with the dramatization of low-probability, high-consequence events: they are one and the same. The only difference is that the Hosts and the Knights have no stomach for tragedy while everyone loves anything to do with uncertainty and chance. So why not repackage tragedy as a theatre of risk?

This is exactly what I’ve done in my new, 21st century theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” If you’re curious, ask your local library to carry a copy of my book on literary theory. It’s called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is the theatre that dramatizes what every theatregoer wants to see: the impact of the highly improbable. If you like the old name, call it tragedy. If you like the new name, call it risk theatre. They are one and the same. The king is dead, long live the king.

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

2nd Annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition – Jurors Start Reading

Hello Fellow Risk Takers!

Up to a few days ago, it was questionable if we’d break 100 entries in year 2. Maybe it was the coronavirus. Maybe everyone had become a Zoom hologram. Maybe there was tragedy fatigue. But with 2 days to go, a flood of entries came in that nearly washed me and Michael away. It’s awesome to say that, this year, 135 playwrights from Australia to Brazil and from the USA to the UK participated in this global competition. Go playwrights of the world!

What’s happened from last year to this year? My impression is that more playwrights are writing specifically for the competition. They are using the form of drama to explore the impact of the highly improbable. TERRIFIC! In this time of risk, I believe we have a moral imperative to come to an understanding of how low-probability events shape both the stage and life. It’s so rewarding to see theatre practitioners coming to the forefront of a worldwide drive to tame chance and uncertainty. By dramatizing risk, we tame risk.

To everyone who’s spreading the word about this unique, one-of-a-kind competition: THANK YOU! And a heartfelt THANK YOU to Michael Armstrong, Michelle Buck, Keith Digby, and the entire team at Langham Court Theatre. To all the playwrights who have participated—both this year and last year—THANK YOU. Stay tuned for more exciting news. Our international team of jurors from Australia, Canada, and the USA will name the semifinalists in late July and finalists in August. Like last year, we’ll reveal who the jurors are at the conclusion of the competition. For now, all I can say is that they are a top-notch crew.

You can find updates right here or at the competition website (see link below). If you’re interested in finding out more about the risk theatre theory of tragedy, here are YouTube links to presentations made last week at the National New Play Network (NNPN) and the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) AGM.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2MOP5C2Th8&feature=youtu.be

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WMQUIETWAY&t=4s

All best,

Edwin Wong

Blog: https://melpomeneswork.com/

Play Competition: https://risktheatre.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/edwincharleswong/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheoryOfTragedy

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/edwinclwong

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

NNPN Panel: WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: THEATER & CRISIS

nnpn edwin wong risk theatre

A whirlwind has carried me from morning to evening. Earlier today, I took part in a panel at the National New Play Network AGM. With the Great Quarantine locking everything down, the NNPN took their AGM online, hosting it on the Zoom platform. The focus of the AGM was the question on everyone’s minds: “How can theaters become essential to their communities?”  The panel I was on was called “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis.”

Jess Hutchinson at NNPN organized the panel. I was joined by dramaturgs and theatre researchers Carrie Kaplan, Sally Ollove, and Tanya Palmer. Maestro Julie Felise Dubiner moderating. The over 300 registrants restored my confidence in the future of theatre. For 90 minutes, we laid out our visions of tomorrow’s theatre.

Now this whole Zoom format is interesting. All the panelists and the moderator can see one another on the main Zoom box. Then there is a Q&A box that fills up with attendees’ questions. Pop, pop, pop, up they come in real time. If that’s not enough, there’s also a separate chatbox buzzing with a hundred comments from all the attendees. Some saying hello to one another. Others commenting on the panelists’ conversation. Some sharing interesting footnotes.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be inside a JS Bach Invention in six parts? Each voice in the Q&A box, in the chatbox, and the panelists’ voices sung out like a musical line in theatre’s eternal song. The name of our panel was called: “We’ve Been Here Before.” I can’t help but to think that this panel has happened before–with different panelists–in the past. And I can’t help but to think that this panel, sometime in the distant future, will convene again with different panelists. To have participated in the conversation for 90 minutes is such a trill, or, I mean thrill.

Here were my introductory comments at the panel:

My name is Edwin Wong and here’s my background. I approach theatre from the perspective of a classicist. In the ancient days, they too had this moment of pandemic. In 430 BC, a plague struck Athens, wiping out a third of its population. But the playwright Sophocles confronted the situation head-on with his plague play in 429 BC, Oedipus the King. He was not afraid to challenge the Athenians’ beliefs. Theatre today can also rise to such heights if we are courageous. Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria and David Konstan at Brown University taught me ancient Greek drama. My specialty is the theory of tragedy.

These days, I’ve set up an annual playwriting contest with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria, Canada. The Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition is the world’s largest contest for the writing of tragedy. Last year’s winning play was In Bloom by Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean. Through the competition, Langham Court offers the community a forum to explore the role of chance and the unexpected in theatre and in life. We fly in the winner for a workshop and staged reading. Langham Court is an essential part of our community because of the personal connections the competition fosters within our city of 370,000 and with playwrights around the world. I’m honoured to be working with competition manager Michael Armstrong, Langham GM Michelle Buck, and board member Keith Digby on this unique project.

The contest is based on my award-winning book on theory: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is tragedy reimagined as a theatre of risk. It’s risk, and not catharsis or a collision that drives the action. Because we’re surrounded by the impact of the highly improbable, the competition invites playwrights to write plays that dramatize unintended consequences and the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Audiences today clamour to learn more about the impact of risk. The theatre is a perfect stage to simulate risk. When theatres produce new plays based on modern theories of drama, theatres connect powerfully with community. To remember the past, we continue the conversation with the past by writing new theories and new plays.

But you say: “Who wants tragedy?—enough of tragedy, we cannot think of tragedy while living through it.” This sentiment is straight from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a story of fellow travelers exchanging stories. Whenever one of the travelers tells a tragedy, the rest of them put a stop to it. They say: “This is too sad, we insist you stop immediately!” People write to me all the time saying: “Why do you have a tragedy competition during this crisis?” But what I also see is this: people who have heard about my theory of drama based on low-probability, high-consequence events are fascinated and want to learn more. Here’s a thought. If you market a play as a tragedy, you’ll be met with disdain. But if you market a play as an exploration of risk, audiences will clamour for more. To me, tragedy and risk theatre are synonymous, the same thing. All of drama is the dramatization of risk, that’s why we have two genres: comedy to dramatize upside risk and tragedy to dramatize downside risk. But it’s not the same to audiences. And this brings me to my last point: the theatres which are essential to their communities will find creative ways to pitch their shows to audiences to pique their curiosity.

Brutal though this process of creative destruction has been, it also offers the courageous an opportunity to reshape, refine, and reimagine the theatre of tomorrow.

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