After years of wandering through the lowlands, it seems that the Risk Theatre project these days is travelling from peak to peak! As of July 6, 2018, Friesen Press has been retained to bring the title Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected to the light of day. This, along with inaugurating the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition with Langham Court Theatre earlier this year, is a milestone event in the Risk Theatre project. Good students of the Classics will be familiar with the divide between logos (thought) and ergon (action) or theoria (theory) and praxis (doing). Sometimes–actually most of the time–you have one without the other, and this just doesn’t quite cut it. Now risk theatre fulfils both sides of the dichotomy. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition takes care of the praxis or ergon aspect of the project. And the book: Tragedy is Risk Theatre encapsulates the logos or theoria side of the dichotomy. This is a major milestone and a happy moment.
I had originally thought that Friesen Press was an independent boutique publishing house. It turns out that they’re owned by Friesens Corporation, a major book printer headquartered in Manitoba, Canada. Friesen Press seems to be the self-publishing arm of Friesens Corporation: the corporation takes care of printing major titles such as the Harry Potter series or the Oxford Dictionary, and the press serves the need of emerging authors.
Friesen Press caters to emerging authors looking to self-publish. The press serves authors looking to self-publish who are looking for support. It’s like a one stop shop that takes care of editing, indexing, book layout, graphics design, distribution, marketing, and you name it. If you wanted, you could subcontract out all these specialities and probably save a few dollars at the cost of some more headaches and legwork. And if you’re interested in getting hands on producing the book, that’s what you’d go for. For example, that’s what Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of a book that I’ve learned a lot from–Early Retirement Extreme–did. He taught himself how to typeset with the LaTeX program, did the illustrations, took care of the promotion, etc., But then again, he’s a sort of Renaissance man who rails against specialization. He likes to do his own renovations, make his own soap, and get hands on. And actually, if I had the time, I’d probably like to go more hands on. But with the part-time plumbing gig, doing the PR for the tragedy competition, and editing the book, it makes sense right now to sign on with a one stop shop.
I did, however, practise some due diligence before signing on. Island Blue Print also caters to self-publishing authors. For a run of 100 books, they quoted $9.76 per unit to print (softcover, 5.5″x8.5″, 270 pages). Friesen’s quote came in a little lower, at $9.25, but this is based on 200 pages of text. It’s hard to tell how many softcover pages the 67,000 words translates into, but both the quotes are in the same ballpark. It was similar with the indexing quotes. Independent indexers were quoting anywhere from $800 – $2000. Friesen’s came in at the mid-range, just over $1400.
In the beginning, I was actually leaning towards Island Blue. That would mean hiring one person to typeset, one person to design the front and back cover, another person to index, getting my on ISBNs, taking charge of publicity and distribution myself, etc., But one thing that I learned quickly was that a lot of these separate trades would have to be on the same page. And there is a sequence to do everything in, a sequence with which I wasn’t very familiar. For example, the book designer that Island Blue recommended likes indexers to embed the index within the Word document. But I quickly found out indexers like to use their specialized indexing software and don’t like embedding indexes in Word. And then there’s the issue of compatibility: what if the book designer has technical issues with converting the embedded Word index into InDesign, the program of her choice? So the more I thought of it, the more it made sense to go to a one stop shop. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about these issues and would be able to focus on reading the proofs, which, the more I think about it, will be an eye busting task.
Friesen’s offers four different publishing paths for authors: Launch, Classic, Signature, and Masterpiece. They’re priced from $1999 – $14,999. I went for the basic Launch package. The more deluxe packages offer more support, multiple rounds of editing, more revision rounds, and better publicity and distribution. Here’s what the $1999 Launch path offers:
The indexing would be an adder number on top of the $1999. So all in all, considering that Friesen’s will also take care of the distribution, it’s a pretty good deal. And, the appealing thing is that you, the author, can maintain control over the availability of the book. If you’re doing an academic title with a traditional press, chances are that they’ll print off a run of 400 copies. Most of them will end up in academic libraries. The title will be in print for five years. And then it’s out of print. If you go the self-publishing route, your title can stay in print for as long as you want it to be in print: you own the rights and have the option of buying the electronic files. This is a very big plus.
Well, it clocks in at just over 67,000 words. A decent sized book considering that a monograph is about 40,000 words and a really big monograph or a smallish book weighs in at 50,000 words. Tragedy is Risk Theatre is made up of an introduction and nine chapters.
The process at Friesen should take between 6-8 months. Things always seem to take a little longer than estimated, so it should hit the shelves at the beginning of 2019. Mark that date on your calendar!
Did I try going the conventional publishing route? You betcha! I sent out letters of inquiry to six publishers and one agent. What I learned is that this process is lots of work. Everyone wants the letter in a different format. Some want short letters. Some want small essays. Here’s a copy of a letter I sent to a literary agent:
About Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected
When Arthur Miller looked back on writing Death of a Salesman, he lamented that: “there was no model I could adapt for this play, no past history for the kind of work I felt it could become.” Today’s dramatists have little desire to write tragedy based on yesterday’s outdated models. Today’s literary critics share the playwrights’ concerns. Terry Eagleton begins his 2002 book, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, by saying, point-blank: “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject.” While Aristotle’s Poetics laid out a brilliant model of tragedy’s structure and purpose, it had been around for over two thousand years. Today’s critics tire of rehashing the same hackneyed arguments on catharsis, pity and fear, and the tragic flaw over and over. Tragedy needs a new model in touch with twenty-first century values to captivate the public imagination as it once did in the days of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Tragedy is Risk Theatre fills the need by presenting an exciting and unique brand of tragedy. As the title suggests, this new model of tragedy is called risk theatre and it takes its inspiration from a surging public interest in chance, uncertainty, and the failure of models to predict unexpected outcomes.
In 2001, the hedge fund manager, Nassim Taleb, shocked the world by writing Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. In his scathing Wall Street critique, he argues that economists imperil the financial system because the fail to recognize that it is ultimately chance, and not their economic models, that moves the markets. In 2007, Taleb followed up with The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and exploration of the incredible impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. The timing was perfect: the Great Recession was just around the corner. Since then, his books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into 36 languages. He has ignited surging interest in the philosophy of uncertainty, a new field of inquiry, which asks: “What happens when more things happen than what you expect will happen?” Risk theatre capitalizes on this growing interest in the unexpected by merging Taleb’s work with the established art form of tragedy. They are a natural match, since tragedy specializes in dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events.
Risk theatre posits that the tragic stage is a casino where gamblers come to play at the no limit tables. This is the “risk” element of risk theatre: before the dice is thrown or the cards revealed, the protagonist’s desired outcome can only be understood imperfectly as odds for or against. One difference, and a critical one, between actual gambling halls and the stage or risk theatre is that on the tragic stage, money is a counterfeit currency. Only the human currency of values, emotions, and beliefs are legal tender on the tragic stage. For this reason, for a chance to wear the Scottish crown, characters such as Macbeth ante up the milk of human kindness, not a thousand or even a million dollars. Macbeth, like the Wall Street analysts who Taleb remonstrates, is smarter and better equipped than his adversaries. The odds are in his favour. But, like the Wall Street analysts, Macbeth overestimates his ability to predict the future and underestimates the impact of low-probability events. After all, what are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? But when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Macbeth, like the overleveraged speculators during the Great Recession, comes face to face with the high-consequence event and loses all. Risk theatre promises excitement: its thrill is the same sort of pleasure the spectators huddled around the table experience when they watch the final match poker match between the “Cincinnati Kid” and Lancey “The Man” Howard. The Kid goes all-in knowing that he has played his hand by the book and that the odds are with him. But when Lancey makes the wrong move at the right time, the Kid loses everything.
Depending on their starting point, theories of tragedy highlight different aspects of tragedy. Hegel’s theory of tragedy, for example, by focusing on the moral collisions in tragedy (exemplified by the clash between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone), highlights the ethical element of tragedy. Or, in another example, Aristotle’s Poetics, by focusing on the fall of the protagonist (exemplified by Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex), highlights how tragedy elicits the feelings of fear and pity in the audience. Risk theatre, by focusing on gambling acts in tragedy (exemplified by Macbeth wagering the milk of human kindness for the crown), highlights the price heroes are willing to pay. Instead of drawing attention to the ethical elements of tragedy (such as Hegel’s theory), risk theatre directs our attention towards the opportunity cost of choice: either the milk of human kindness orthe crown, but not both. And instead Aristotle’s pity and fear, the tragic emotions of risk theatre are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation of the low-probability event and apprehension over the high-consequences. Risk theatre speaks to today’s audiences by aligning tragedy with public interest in low-probability, high-consequence events. Like Hegel and Aristotle’s theories, risk theatre can be applied to a wide variety of tragedies from ancient to modern times to produce exciting and fresh interpretations of classic plays for today’s audiences.
Tragedy is Risk Theatre contains a theoretical framework of tragedy, and analyzes the price characters are willing to pay in tragedies from Aeschylus to Miller to learn what our humanity is worth. In addition, Tragedy is Risk Theatreprovides today’s dramatists with Miller’s missing model, the model Miller lamented not having when he began working on Death of a Salesman. To guide the reader through the structure, idea, and practical application of the risk theatre brand of tragedy, the book’s nine chapters are divided into three parts. Part one examines risk theatre’s structure. Part two examines the philosophy of tragedy. Part three examines the poetics of risk theatre.
Risk theatre is based on a tripartite structure which reflects the insight that each dramatic act of tragedy is also a gambling act. It begins with the hero’s temptation. The hero is enticed to want something or to do something. In Death of a Salesman, for example, Loman is tempted by the success of Charley and his brother to pursue the American dream. After the hero’s temptation comes the wager. For a chance to live out the American dream, Loman antes up his dignity. After the wager comes the moment where the die is cast. After Loman signs the mortgage, he’s locked in and there’s no turning back. The low-probability, high-consequence event is his realization that, thanks to his life insurance policy, he’s worth more dead than alive. Temptation, wager, and cast constitute the basic structural unit of risk theatre. Depending on the dramatists’ goals, the basic structural unit can be configured differently. The different configurations are also discussed in part one of the book.
Readers interested in the philosophy of tragedy can turn to the second part of the book. Risk theatre is grounded on the principle of opportunity cost: the cost of what’s chosen is the next best alternative. Opportunity costs surround us in life. When we choose to buy a gallon of milk, we lose the opportunity to spend the money on a jug of juice. For Macbeth, the opportunity cost for a shot at the crown is his compassion; for Loman, the opportunity cost to pursue the American dream is his dignity. As they roll the die, they place human values at risk. By considering opportunity cost, risk theatre differentiates itself from other philosophies of tragedy. Other theories consider the ethical, political, and social aspects of tragedy. Risk theatre considers tragedy’s economic aspects. By looking at the price the protagonist is willing to pay, risk theatre answers the question of human worth. If a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, how much is the milk of human kindness worth? Well, according to Macbeth, it’s worth the Scottish crown. By dramatizing the tragic cost of desire, risk theatre reveals the limitations of measures such as “net worth” or tools such as the “cost benefit analyses” to capture human worth. By expressing worth in terms of human value rather than dollars and cents, risk theatre revolts against the commoditization of life and its values.
Dramatists wishing to create new risk theatre plays can turn to part three, which contains examples from tragedies of all periods help dramatists work through two problems: 1) how to motivate protagonists to take great risks, yet remain lifelike and 2) how to introduce the low-probability, high-consequence event into the play convincingly. To motivate protagonists to go all-in, dramatists through the years have resorted to seven commonplaces strategies: 1) proud heroes who are idealists, 2) secondary characters who love to give advice, 3) starring roles filled by characters who have access to surplus political, military, social, or economic capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) heroes who claim to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) unstable and volatile dramatic settings (e.g. war, revolution, and plague). Likewise, to incorporate the low-probability, high consequence event into the play, dramatists have access to a wide variety of replicable techniques. Unintended consequences may arise as a result of being overpowered by fate or the gods. They could also arise from the fallibility of human knowledge and errors in judgment. Tight coupling (leaving small margins for error) and the feedback between the characters can also lead to unexpected results.
The author, Edwin Wong, graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree and from Brown University with a master’s degree in the Classics. During both degrees, he concentrated on ancient theatre. The peer-reviewed journal Antichthon published “The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad,” his study on Homer, a poet whom Plato considers to be the first tragedian. He has presented on risk theatre at the University of Calgary in April 2017 and has forthcoming lectures scheduled in January and February 2018 at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting in Boston and the University of Victoria. In addition, he is in continuing high-level talks with the Langham Court Theatre, University of Victoria Fine Arts Department, and the Playwright’s Guild of Canada to inaugurate an annual risk theatre playwright competition. It would be set up similar to the successful University of California, Santa Barbara STAGE International Script Competition. The STAGE competition challenges playwrights to write new science and technology plays, awards the top entrants with cash prizes, and produces the winning play. From the theory to the production, Edwin Wong is committed to the success of risk theatre.
Looking at tragedy as an existential wager between the protagonist and the world is a new approach that solves age-old questions. One question asks: “Why do audiences delight in tragedy, despite its unhappy themes?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “The thrill of tragedy is the same as the thrill of gambling. Just as audiences delight in watching gamblers go all-in, they delight in watching heroes up the ante.” Another question asks: “Why are the leading roles skewed towards kings and queens, as in King Oedipus, the Duchessof Malfi, Prince Hamlet, and so on?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “Characters are drawn from the higher classes because they have to have sufficient social, political, or economic capital to ante up.” Beginning from a simple observation—tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events—Tragedy is Risk Theatrepromises to revolutionize the interpretation and production of tragedy to return the art to the days when it was the greatest show on earth.
Market and Competition
The marketing for the book can be pursued on three different levels. First, as a theory of tragedy, the book appeals to literary theorists and students of literature and drama. The academic crowd will be interested in seeing a fresh approach to tragedy, one that goes beyond the usual discussions on the tragic fall, pity and fear, and the tragic error. Second, as a working model of tragedy, the book appeals to playwrights, actors, and theatregoers. The annual risk theatre competition will create a steady and ongoing interest in the topic. Third, as a new art movement tying together the fields of economics and risk management with gambling and theatre, the book capitalizes on the current public interest in uncertainty, unintended consequences, and low-probability, high-consequence events. This third crowd is the most diverse, and consists of risk managers, scientists, economists, and others who are interested in uncertainty. The goal of staging the winner of the risk theatre competition is to create sufficient buzz to kick-start interest.
Many well-written studies examine the political, social, anthropological, philosophical, and literary facets of tragedy. Political and social interpretations can be found in Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic(Blackwell 2003) or Raymond Williams’ Modern Tragedy (Stanford UP 1966). They look at how tragedy, by questioning norms, can incite political and social change. Anthropological approaches can be found in Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy, Myth, and Mystery (Indiana UP 1962) and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (Michigan State College Press 1953). These approaches call attention to the ritual elements embedded in tragedy. Philosophical approaches are exemplified by Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy(Doubleday 1968) and Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (Insel 1961). They draw on an illustrious pedigree of thought, from Plato to Aristotle and from Hegel through to Nietzsche. Finally, literary approaches such as A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (Macmillan 1904) consider the merits of tragedy as a self-contained work of art. Tragedy is Risk Theatre differentiates itself from the crowd by examining tragedy from an economics perspective. It is a novel approach.
The only other title that approaches tragedy from an economics perspective is George Thomson’s Aeschylus and Athens (Lawrence & Wishart 1941). In this valuable study, Thomson blames the death of tragedy on the rise of coinage, which spread from Asia Minor to Greece in the century prior to Aeschylus. Tragedy, argues, Thomson, promoted egalitarian values in fifth century Athens by mediating the conflict between tribal custom and aristocratic privilege. The proliferation of coinage in Athens, however, gradually created a new class of profiteers more interested in exploiting slaves and subjugating neighbours than promoting egalitarian ideals. Tragedy, no longer able to mediate the class struggle between the profiteers and the oppressed, lost its impetus and died. While Tragedy is Risk Theatre also approaches tragedy from an economics perspective, it looks at the price an individual hero is willing to pay rather than the role of money in class struggle.
The art of tragedy has fallen into neglect. Dramatists lack a modern model of tragedy. Critics tire of rehashing the same old Aristotelian precepts over and over. Risk theatre offers playwrights and critics a compelling new model by calling attention to the casino-like elements of the tragic stage, a place replete with high stakes wagers, unexpected outcomes, and unintended consequences, a place where the low-probability, high-consequence outcome happens. Every time.
1 TEMPTATION, WAGER, AND CAST
On tragedy’s structure. Risk theatre, taking its cue from games of chance, begins with the hero’s temptation, proceeds to hero’s wager, and finishes with a roll of the die. The hero pursues a hazardous enterprise, stakes his values, beliefs, or relationships on its success, and goes past the point of no return. Risk theatre has a tripartite structure. Example of its tripartite structure in well-known tragedies from ancient to modern times.
2 TEMPO AND TRAGEDY
On tragedy’s structure. By positioning the fundamental components of temptation, wager, and cast at different intervals in relation to one another, the playwright can alter the tempo at which the drama unfolds. “Frontloaded” dramas set the temptation, wager, and cast at the beginning of the play: the play ends in reflection. “Backloaded” dramas set the temptation and wager at the beginning, and the cast towards the ending: suspense results. “Gradual” tragedies set the components at equidistant intervals: the focus is on the interplay between characters.
3 FORMS OF TRAGEDY
On tragedy’s structure. Different forms of tragedy arise should the dramatist dramatize the fundamental unit of temptation, wager, and cast once, in recurring cycles, or concurrently. “Standalone” tragedies, such as Macbethdramatize the cycle once. “Perpetual motion” tragedies, such as the Oresteia, dramatize the fundamental unit in recurring cycles. “Parallel motion” tragedies, such as Cinna, dramatize multiple characters going through the cycle of temptation, wager, and cast at the same time.
4 THE MYTH OF THE PRICE YOU PAY
On the philosophy of tragedy. Risk theatre argues that tragedy is based on the idea of opportunity cost: the cost of choosing one alternative is the loss of the next best alternative. Macbeth can have the milk of human kindness or the crown, but not both. One may receive something for something, and nothing for nothing (as Lear likes to say), but never something for nothing. By looking at the opportunity cost of choice, tragedy creates an alternative marketplace to value life in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. What is the price the protagonist is willing to pay?
5 FOUR PRINCIPLES OF COUNTERMONETIZATION
On the poetics of tragedy. Tragedy revolts against the monetization of life, a phenomenon that began with the invention of coinage in the sixth century BC. As the proliferation of coinage made it possible to value life in monetary terms (e.g. murder could be exonerated by paying “blood money”), tragedy arose in revolt to argue that human values must be understood in terms of the price we are willing to pay for them in blood, sweat, and tears. As a result, the stage of tragedy is an alternative marketplace where heroes price out existence. Four principles of how dramatists can reclaim human values through the art form of tragedy.
6 THE ART OF THE ALL-IN WAGER
On the poetics of tragedy. For risk theatre to thrill audience, heroes must take on inordinate risks. Audiences don’t come to see heroes make nickel and dime bets. They come to see them wager all-in. Examples of the seven “commonplaces of tragedy” from a variety of plays showing how dramatists motivate heroes to take on extraordinary risks in a convincing manner. The seven commonplaces are: 1) proud and egocentric protagonists, 2) trusted advisors goading protagonists on, 3) starring roles filled by kings, queens, and others having an abundance of military, economic, or social capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) passions running white hot, 6) heroes claiming to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) curtain rises to scenes of adultery, murder, plague, war, and famine.
7 “THE BEST-LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN”
On the poetics of tragedy. Heroes who are smarter, stronger, and better equipped than their adversaries play to win. They don’t expect to lose. It’s the dramatist’s task to waylay them with the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. From the ancient deus ex machinato the modern use of feedback and tight coupling, strategies dramatists employ to waylay heroes reflect the changing conception of chance, probability, and randomness through the ages. A brief survey of changing conceptions of chance.
8 US AND THEM
Tragedy may be defined by contrasting its worldview with philosophic, historic, or comic worldviews. Tragedy and comedy, as opposed to philosophy and history, are ex-ante arts. Philosophy and history are ex-post arts. Ex-ante arts feature characters who do not know the outcome. Ex-post art features outcomes that are already known: the aim is to explain how the outcome turned out the way it did. Tragedy differentiates itself from comedy in that the former operates in a closed system, while the latter operates within an open system. Closed systems are closed in the sense that resources are scarce; they are bound by the second law of thermodynamics. Open systems are open in the sense that resources are boundless.
9 WHY RISK THEATRE TODAY?
A discussion of the lexical instability of the term tragedyfrom ancient Greece to today. The fruitful ambiguity of the term allows room for many competing interpretations of tragedy from “a story of wicked kings” to “a poem of praise.” This same ambiguity allows tragedy to be reinterpreted as risk theatre today. A discussion of why, from stock market crashes to artificial intelligence, risk is a hot topic today. Just as ages preoccupied with psychology produced psychological theories of tragedy, today’s age of risk produces the risk theory of tragedy.
What I learned from this exercise of sending out query letters is that, when you’re talking with the presses, you have to have something to negotiate with. If you’re writing the next blockbuster, you can ask them to take a chance on you. But tragic literary criticism is not likely going to be a blockbuster text. I’d imagine even a blockbuster text from an internationally known author on tragic literary theory (Eagleton, for example), would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies. If you’re writing a scholarly or academic title (which is sort of what Risk Theatre purports to be), the presses expect you to have the right credentials: tenured or tenure track professor at a major university. The university presses are backed by the universities, so money isn’t a problem. Their mandate is to further knowledge. But you need the right credentials to get in. And these are credentials I lack. So, what I learned is that well, I have nothing really to negotiate with. And when you’re negotiating from a position of weakness, chances are you’re not going to be successful.
But I guess, the important thing in adversity is to press on. After all, when Nietzsche got booted out of academia, he started writing books on “culture” and “modernity” that classicists weren’t supposed to write (he started off not as a philosopher, but as a Classicist). No one would publish these strange titles. He was ridiculed by the leading Classicist of the day, Wilamowitz. What did Nietzsche do? He went the self-publishing route and financed his first few books from a meagre university pension. He didn’t end up doing to badly, eh? Who even remembers Wilamops today?
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.