Author Archives: Edwin Wong

About Edwin Wong

I'm Doing Melpomene's Work by writing a book on how the art form of tragedy functions as a valuing mechanism. "The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected" is due for release 2019 and examines how heroes assign value to their human assets in their high stakes games. In 2015 I started the blog to share the self-publishing experience with assiduous readers.

How to Set Up an International Playwriting Competition

Edwin Wong
45th Annual Comparative Drama Conference
Rollins College
Orlando, Florida

Hi Everyone. Thank you for coming. I’m Edwin Wong and I bring to you five years’ experience curating an international playwriting competition. In 2018, I set up the annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. Each year, it awards $14,000 in cash. We workshop the winning play and publicly stage it on Zoom. Lots of people ask how they can start their own playwriting competition. Today, I’ll share what I’ve learned. It’s easy. You need: 1) a website, 2) word of mouth, 3) a partner theatre, 4) jurors, and 5) money. The talk is divided into five talking points.

Point one. Set up your webpage. I picked up a “WordPress for Dummies” book, bought the domain from GoDaddy along with their managed WordPress solution. For a person without experience, setup took a week of minor hairpulling—I still have my hair. The webpage costs $350 a year. This includes security and a secure HTTPS site. Once you get over a thousand monthly visitors, hackers find you. You can take a look at the website right now, it’s at Theatre spelled the proper way. I use a plugin called ninjaforms to register playwrights’ info, collect PDF scripts, and process PayPal. If you want to have someone create the website, allow $2,500. That’s point one.

Point two. Word of mouth. How do people learn about your competition? There’re many playwriting organizations that will advertise gratis. I get the most hits from Dramatists Guild, followed by Playwrights’ Center,,, Patrick Garbridge’s listserv called Playwright Binge, Women in the Arts & Media Coalition, and the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and LinkedIn are helpful, especially Facebook, where there’re lots of playwright groups. On Facebook, Risk Theatre has its own business site. It takes time to grow the number. After five years, is getting 12,000 hits a year. That’s point two.

Point three. The partner theatre. The first hitch that I encountered when contacting playwriting guilds was: “Who are you and how can we trust you?” To publicize the competition, they wanted me to partner with a theatre. This is where you pound the pavement. Theatres are selective. It’s not enough to have a fully-funded competition. The focus of your competition has to fit with their mandate. For example, I was into high level talks with a university; I would endow three $2000 scholarships and the theatre department would host the competition. But it fell through when “risk” didn’t fit the faculty’s research interests. You also want to be selective with your partner with. Reputation is everything and once you partner up, your names are linked. Hint: you’ll have your best luck pitching to artistic directors and general managers specializing in new plays. That’s point three.

Point four. How should scripts be submitted and evaluated? Consider checks and balances to keep things fair. Risk theatre, for example, asks for blind scripts. Also, I sub out the jurors; I don’t read scripts myself. We’ve had jurors from New Zealand, UK, Canada, and USA. Jurors’ identities are revealed after the competition. Here’s the system: in round one, the scripts are randomly divided between three jurors (there’re one to two hundred entries each year). That means each juror gets fifty odd scripts. Of these fifty, each juror nominates seven into the next round. The seven plays juror one nominates gets passed to juror two, the seven juror two nominates gets passed to juror three, and the seven juror three nominates gets passed to juror one. In the next round, each juror nominates two of the seven into the finalist round: the two juror one nominates gets passed to juror two, the two juror two nominates gets passed to juror three, and the two juror three nominates gets passed to juror one. After this, I arrange a Zoom meeting where the jurors meet to decide the grand prize winner. If you’re interested in becoming a juror, let’s talk; I’m always looking for jurors and the evaluation period takes place during the summer break. That’s point four.

Point five. The finances. Risk theatre charges $49 per entry. This is where the money goes. Jurors receive a $40 honorarium per script read, so of the $49—because the semifinalists and finalists are read multiple times—roughly $45 goes to the jurors. Through the $40 per script honorarium, the competition has been able to attract top talent: Yvette Nolan, Kelli Fox, Anthony Giardina, and others. Many of the jurors ask to be connected with the playwrights after the competition is over. It’s rewarding to see how competitions can be places for actors, dramaturgs, directors, and playwrights to connect.

Then, because the object of the competition is to encourage people to think of theatre as a stage of risk, I send each entrant a copy of one of my two books. That costs $25. So, after the $49 entry fee, each entry actually costs the competition $21 ($49 – $45 – $25 = -$21). Many people ask that the entry fee be dropped. I could do this, but don’t, for a specific reason: the risk theatre competition has a specific agenda. Even with the entry fee, about 10% of the entries don’t fit the criteria. If the entry fee were to be dropped, we’d received thousands of entries, with many more unrelated to the agenda. The entry fee gives playwrights skin in the game. I look at the competition as a joint venture between myself and writers who are fascinated with the idea of theatre as a stage to simulate low-probability, high-consequence events. The entry fee is a ballast that will determine how many entries you get.

If you have an entry fee, you’ll get fee-shamed. I receive emails saying: “Why do you have a fee? Does your theatre also charge actors to audition?” Those are the friendly ones. People talk to you like you’re Voldemort or a Bond villain. Judas has had better days: instead of $49, the competition might as well charge thirty silver pieces. That’s why, if you set up a competition, it’s good to have a clear goal and purpose. Know why you’re doing it. One thing I’ve learned from the competition is that people who’ve made it, and not just people in the theatre world, but anyone who’s done something, must have gone through so much.

From the cash prizes to the workshop, hiring dramaturgs and actors (who are paid $30/hour), the competition costs over $20,000 each year. I fund it out of my own pockets, which I make as a plumber in the construction industry. People say: “Apply for grants.” I’ll never apply for grants. If I need to do something, I open up my own wallet. How you fund your competition will be major decision. Out of your own pocket means never worrying about the funding being renewed.

Think of the prize structure. With Risk Theatre it’s $10,500 for the grand-prize winner and five $700 prizes for the runners-up. It was set up like that because $10,500 has an impact. And with the number of entries, playwrights who believe in themselves have a good chance: last year’s winner entered every year before finally winning. I’d like to give a shoutout to the winners:

2019 Gabriel Jason Dean with In Bloom, a play about a journalist who cheats the truth in pursuit of a higher good.

2020 Nicholas Dunn with The Value, a play about the price that we are willing to pay, and how much the price costs.

2021 Madison Wetzell with The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, an adaptation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound with robots, a modern twist, and a robopocalpyse.

2022 Franky Gonzalez with That Must Be the Entrance to Heaven, a boxing play about risk going awry when four Latino boxers go all-in in a system that’s rigged.

Franky’s play That Must Be the Entrance to Heaven will have its world premiere at Urbanite Theatre (in Florida) this coming June. I’ll be watching the progress with bated breath: can a play where risk is the fulcrum of the action fill the seats? If the risk theatre template of playwriting can help playwrights and theatre find new audiences in this risk age, I’ll be so happy.

Consider supporting playwrights beyond the competition. Last year ago, I published the first two winners and one of the semifinalists in the first ever risk theatre anthology. If you’re interested in seeing what we’re doing—and I hope some of you will be—here are some complimentary copies of our two books. The first one, from 2019, lays out the idea of risk theatre, the blueprint. And the second, from 2022, is an anthology of plays from the competition. These are free copies, come up and grab one after.

There you have it, the basics of setting up your own international playwriting competition: website, partner theatre, advertising, jurors, and financials. I’ll close with a tip: it takes time to get things going. Risk theatre is in its fifth year and it’s only now that things are starting to pick up. In this game, success isn’t measure in days, weeks, or months, but in years and decades. Keep going. Thank you.

Oh…if down the road you have any questions, I’d love to help, it’s easy to find me.

Bio: Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” by David Konstan and “independent and provocative” by Robert C. Evans for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books and many essays on this topic. In 2022, he received the Discoveries Award from the Ben Jonson Journal and has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Review of THE TWO CULTURES – C. P. Snow (introduction by Stefan Collini)

1993, Cambridge UP, 180 pages

Most thought-provoking read this year. Novelist and chemist C.P. Snow’s 1959 THE TWO CULTURES. He talks about the divide between the sciences and humanities. What he found was that his humanities friends would roll their eyes when they found out his science friends hadn’t read Dickens or Shakespeare. But his science friends would roll their eyes when they found out that his humanities friends didn’t know about the second law or couldn’t explain “mass” or “momentum” (as a novelist and chemist, he moved between both crowds).
So far, the humanities/science divide isn’t too controversial. But then when he starts talking about the industrial revolution, that really changed how I think. I had always thought bad of the industrial revolution, from reading Blake (“dark Satanic Mills”), Thoreau (Walden), Dickens (Hard Times), Hardy (Far from Madding Crowd), and Austen (Sense). They all idealized the countryside, the old agrarian life.
Snow’s take is that factories were taking people in hand over fist because life in the fields was much more horrible than life in the factories. That idea blew up my mind. Then he blew up my mind some more with how he tied the Industrial Revolution into his two cultures thesis: the scientists and engineers at the time never thought of the Industrial Revolution as a bad thing, they were busy inventing things for it. But the humanists portrayed it as the worse thing in the world by combatting it with the image of the pastoral idyll. I thought: “Damn! It IS two cultures!”
His take is controversial. But I haven’t thought this hard in a long time. And since these are transcripts from the 1959 Rede lecture series, it is quite readable.
I wonder now if E. O. Wilson’s CONSILIENCE (where he advocates bridging together humanities and sciences in a great jump fowards) was a reaction to Snow’s THE TWO CULTURES. One of the great things about reading is discovering the archaeology of ideas. Today is a good day.

– – –

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

Review of Cataract – John Berger (illustrated by Selçuk Demirel)

2012, Counterpoint, 64 pages

Cataract by John Berger (illustrated Selçuk Demirel)

I’m fine. Really. Never better, as I like to say. But here’s a story that led me to this small but tall book. It begins several years ago. I kept wiping my glasses, the right lens. Under some conditions, it seemed like they were a little bit dirty, ever so slightly hazy. The vision was still fine for reading and for distance. I never thought much of it, and ascribed it to the glasses, which, from the wiping, had been scratched up slightly. At the last eye exam, I mentioned it to the optometrist, who said it was due to a “floaty” which would likely melt away. What is more, the vision in my right eye was actually testing better, which was surprising. It turns out that improved vision is one of the warning signs of a cataract, something I would learn later. Oh, to give you a frame of reference this all started happening in my 40s. The immediate events that led up to this story took place a month or so ago, just after turning 48.

I’m a cycling commuter. Last month, I was out on a ride going through town. It was a clear and dry day, but cold. It was winter. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, but it had snowed recently. The roads, as usual, were beaten up from all the snow plows. As I was riding along, I hit a huge gash on the road that chattered my teeth, made my heart skip a beat, and blew out my front tire. By using one of my nine lives, I managed to stay upright (whew!). My first thought was “What the hell?!” I looked back, and saw the huge gash in the road, the one that I had failed to see. Then I knew it was time to make an appointment to see the eye doctor.

I practise a lot of psychological warfare with myself. Everything is always good. When it is not, I delude myself. For instance, over the last decade, I’ve been riding over more rocks and gashes in the road. Instead of blaming my eyesight, I’ve been blaming the lack of upkeep on the roads (although in the back of my mind, part of me knows that it might not be the roads but that I’m just not seeing, and hence, avoiding, all the hubcaps and screws and rocks and crap on the road). But after that scare last month, the Jedi mind tricks just weren’t going to do it anymore. It was time to make an appointment to see an optometrist.


In the province of British Columbia, Canada, regular optometrist visits aren’t covered by provincial healthcare. Visits are over $100. But if you have a referral from your family doctor, the price goes down. So it was a multistep process. First a phone appointment to my doctor. Then the doctor faxes a referral to the optometrist. The cost goes down to $60. Bingo!

At the optometrist, they do a bunch of tests with fancy machines, each of which must be $30k+. In one machine, you stare at a dot straight ahead of you. When you see flashes of light in your peripheral vision, you hit a button. It is like a video game. Another machine blows out a puff of air into your eye which causes you to recoil. A third machine scans and takes photos of your eyes. The detail of these 3d photos is really amazing. One wonders how optometrists used to do it just a few decades ago without all this technology.

At the end of the appointment, the optometrist says: “Your eyes are good but you have the beginnings of a cataract. I’ll refer you to a really good cataract surgeon to see if surgery is the right solution for you.” He can get me an appointment in five months. I’d like to think if cataract surgery is required, this would be covered by BC Medicare. I’ll find out soon.

Books, Books, Books

When dealing with the unknown, books are always a good resource. The local library had three books specifically dealing with cataracts:

  1. Cataract Surgery: A Guide to Treatment (2015 by two optometrists, Paul E. Garland and Bret L. Fisher)
  2. Cataract Surgery: A Patient’s Guide to Treatment (2020 by two optometrists, Robert K. Maloney and Neda Shamie)
  3. Cataract: Some Notes after Having a Cataract Removed (by John Berger)

It was sort of surprising there were only three books on cataracts at the Greater Victoria Public Library (which serves a population of 400,000). But it turns out, three is pretty good. The two books by the eye surgeons are short (under 100 pages), filled with diagrams, and give lots of information about the options available. Seeing that people reading them may be suffering from cataracts, that is good that they are short and printed in a decently large font!

From the two professional books, one learns about how the cataract is an opaque spot in the lens, and all the different methods for chipping or lasering out the existing lens and putting in a new synthetic lens. The cool thing is the new lens can also be formed to compensate for near- or far-sightedness. Many people, after having cataract surgery, find they have to wear glasses less often, or not at all.

Another reassuring thing is that the rate of success is 99%, or close to. A decade ago, I considered getting Lasik surgery to get vision up to 20-20 without glasses. But when the literature claimed a 95% satisfaction rate (which sounds quite good), I was like … hey, that means that 1 out of 20 people were not satisfied (dry eyes, lack of night vision, etc.,). With vision being so critical, I declined. Good thing I did. It turns out that when you get cataract surgery, the surgeon has to perform some kind of calculated calculation on how strong to make the synthetic lens. There are many variables and fudge factors in the critical calculation. If one has had Lasik, it makes the calculation that much more difficult. But it can be done, and often successfully.

The John Berger Book

From the science books, I learned much. But then there was this book by essayist John Berger. He talks about his personal experience. His fears. How his eyes dimmed. How, after the surgery, he recovered and whites became white again. The crispness of the colours came back. The Berger book is VERY short. On each of the facing pages, there’s a bit of text and an accompanying line illustration.

Berger can write. He has an imaginative voice that makes the process of losing and rediscovering vision a work of art. The book took all of ten minutes to read and left me wanting more. Many of the pages contained mostly blank space. There are two or so pages of beautiful, inspired writing.

If you have cataracts, or are wondering what it is like to have cataracts, this book conveys the psychological impression better than the science books by eye doctors (which are also excellent and written with passion in their own right). But this book is also too short. It left me wanting more. But those two or so inspired pages of writing make it worthwhile to check out. And the line drawings giving life and personality to the eye and the faculty of vision are both utterly profound and exquisitely simple.

A beautiful clothbound book. My feeling is that it is too short. If you’re going to make something called a “book”–even a short one–it has to be at least an hour read. It’s like a blog. Blogs at 1000 words are pretty good. But, even if you are a genius blogger, a blog with 10 words doesn’t cut it. But hey, maybe this isn’t a “book,” but a work of art. In that case, it is fine.

Author Bio:

John Berger was born in London in 1926. He is well known for his novels and stories as well as for his works of nonfiction, including several volumes of art criticism. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time, was published in 1958, and since then his books have included the novel G., which won the Booker Prize in 1972. In 1962 he left Britain permanently, and he lives in a small village in the French Alps.

Selçuk Demirel was born in Artvin, Turkey, in 1954. He trained as an architect and moved to Paris in 1978, where he still lives. His illustrations and books have appeared in many prominent European and American publications.

Cataract by John Berger (illustrated Selçuk Demirel)

– – –

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

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

So You Want to Be a Writer?—Six Secrets to Success with Edwin Wong

Edwin Wong VWS Victoria Writers' Society at Russell Books

Victoria Writers’ Society VWS
Russell Books
February 1, 2023 7pm

 So You Want to Be a Writer?—Six Secrets to Success with Edwin Wong

Victoria Writers Society. Friends on Zoom. Good evening! How’s everyone doing? Tonight, I’m sharing with you what I’ve learned since my first book in 2019 to starting my third book. These are tips you can take home with you. This talk is for all of you who have the urge and the nerve to write a book.

First, a word about what I write about. I write about the intersection between theatre and risk. Macbeth, Oedipus, and low-probability, high-consequence events. Theatre and risk is my gig. My books are how-to books. They inspire writers to write great plays. I just read my friend Michael Poole’s play. It’s called Baldy: Redux. I said, “Damn, Michael, that’s a fine play. Especially the explosive opening.” He replied, “Glad you like it, I rewrote the opening after reading your book.” My books are damn good. Filled with insights on writing. My books will give you a different perspective on theatre. After reading them, you’ll never look at literature, or risk, the same way. Both titles are available right here at Russell Books in the theatre section. Check them out.

Let’s dive into the six secrets to writing success.

It’s a half an hour talk, with questions after. The talk is divided into six five-minute sections. They are:
1) to write, you have to have something to say
2) to write, you have to have patience
3) to write, you have to amuse yourself
4) to write, you have to have a real job
5) to write, you have to handle the criticism
6) to write, you have to write

Point one, to write, you have to have something to say. Lots of people want to become writers. Writing, however, is hard. Harder than people think. Have you heard the joke about the brain surgeon and writer Margaret Atwood? Atwood and the brain surgeon were at a dinner party. The surgeon had just retired, and struck up a conversation with the writer. She asks him, “What will you do now that you’re retired?” He replied, “I’m going to become a writer.” Then he asks Atwood, “What will you do when you retire?” She replied, “I’m going to become a brain surgeon.” The moral of the story is that writing is hard. It’s like picking up a whole new career. So, to write, you have to have something to say. You have to want it bad enough.

My first book took thirteen years. That’s a long time. It’s a big commitment. That’s why, to write a book, you have to have something to say. When you have something to say, your message is concentrated. You need this. For when you become famous. You got to think ahead. You ever heard anyone talking about someone famous saying: “They do this and that.” No. The power of famous writers and famous people is concentrated. It’s “Stephen King, the horror writer.” It’s “Margaret Atwood, the writer of The Handmaid’s Tale.” In my own writing, I stick to the theme of risk in literature. In the last four years, I’ve written two books, a refereed article, and thirteen book chapters all on the same theme. What I find is that this gives me a fighting chance. Einstein, he came up with the Theory of Relativity. Curie, she discovered radium. You have to concentrate your power and focus so that people can find you and talk about you. Even when you concentrate your forces, it’s hard. Just recently, my work on risk got mentioned in a book by TEDx speaker and NYT bestseller Michele Wucker. Unless I had put all my eggs in one basket, it wouldn’t have happened. So, to write, you have to have something to say, and really ONE thing to say. You have to concentrate your forces on the ONE thing you’re passionate about. You got to go big or go home.

Point two: to write, you have to have patience. Ever heard of psychiatrist Carl Jung? He was one of the founders of psychoanalysis. He had something to say. He came up with the theory of synchronicity. Synchronicity is a coincidence that’s so uncanny that it couldn’t have been caused by chance. Instead, it’s the mysterious world of archetypes talking through what appears to be chance. Or so he argued. One time, a reluctant patient who didn’t believe his hocus-pocus was recounting to him a dream about a golden scarab. It just happens, in some mythologies, the scarab is a symbol of rebirth. At that moment, a June beetle, a golden-coloured scarab-like insect, started tapping on the window. Jung opened the window, caught it, and handed it to his patient as she was recalling her dream. “Like this one,” he said. She was astounded. She became a believer. To Jung, the moment marked the patient’s rebirth. What were the odds that, at the moment of the patient’s rebirth, the symbol of rebirth should appear in a dream and at the window? This was a chance that was not chance, but something that proves underlying, more profound connections. Good story, right? Let’s go on.

When I was a kid, I’d hang out at my friend Emily’s house. Her parents had interesting books, one of which was Jung’s Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. In it, he talks about synchronicity. He tells the story about the scarab. When I read it, I thought he just came up with synchronicity then and there. Amazing. What I didn’t know was that it took him decades to get his story right. If you go back to his first conjectures on synchronicity, they’re pretty bad. It took him sixteen years to put together his full-blown theory of synchronicity. He didn’t get it on his first try. Nor on his second. He spent decades figuring out how say it, and never stopped working on it. So, to write, you have to have patience. It takes a long time.

Looking back on my first book, I was writing, but I hadn’t figured out how to say it. I was talking, but wasn’t finding the right words, driving, not knowing where I was going. It wasn’t until some years later in a conversation with playwright Donald Connelly that he gave me the right words. He said to me, “I like your theory of tragedy in which risk becomes the dramatic fulcrum of the action.” I had been saying the same thing, but he expressed in one line “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action” what was taking me two or three pages to say. I thought: “Damn! That’s good. I couldn’t have said it better myself.” Like Jung, who took over sixteen years to figure out how to express his ideas on synchronicity, it will take you time to figure out how to say it. Time going on the road. Time going to conferences. Time talking to people. Time getting criticism. Time getting feedback. Many of the essays I’m writing for Salem Press, I’ve been fortunate enough to get great feedback on from Alan. It makes a huge difference. It’s when you get feedback that you see how others see your ideas, and often it’s not the same way you see your own ideas. So, this is point two, to write, you have to have patience. Also, for ideas to catch on, it takes years. Success for writers isn’t measured in months, but in decades. Many times, fame even comes posthumously. I host an international theatre competition called risk theatre ( It’s in its fifth year and only now starting to gain traction. So, this has been point two: to write, you have to have patience. Fame is a long game.

Point three: to write, you have to amuse yourself. Remember, writing is the long game. To play the long game, you’ve got to keep yourself amused. Here’re some tips to keep yourself entertained. Ever notice in movies, directors often throw in Easter eggs, homages to classic movies? It could be the grain of the film, the sepia tone. The book equivalent is the font. Go through your favourite books. The ones that inspired you. Learn about fonts. Identify the fonts your favourite writers use. Set your book in that font. It’s a nice Easter egg. It’s a nice way to pay homage to your heroes. Both my books are set in Berling, a classic old-face design by Karl Erik Forsberg with generous proportions and slightly inclined serifs. This is the same font Nassim Nicholas Taleb used in his first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. That’s the book that inspired my theory of literature. Check out fonts. Find a way to amuse yourself and have some fun.

Here’s another one. Ever heard of the boxer Mike Tyson? When he avenged his friend Muhammad Ali’s loss by beating Larry Holmes, he stood over Holmes arms akimbo, with the hands on the hips and elbows turned out. To the crowd, it seemed a spur of the moment thing. But it was a tribute to Battling Nelson, who, in a fight in 1909 knocked out Dick Hyland in the twenty-third round and stood over him in the same pose, as if saying: “This one’s done, who’s next?” To be part of history, you have to recreate history. For those with the eyes to see, Tyson was becoming part of history. It must have been fun practising that pose prior to the fight. Flash forward to today. Ever heard of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche? Have you seen that old black-and-white profile photo of him? Walter Kaufmann used that photo for the cover of his famous book on Nietzsche. The photo always filled me with wonder. For my third book, I’m recreating that photo. But with myself in Nietzsche’s pose. Cool, right? I love amusing details like this. Get a headshot. You never know when you need it. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Mike Routliffe (who did the headshot for this event) and just a few days ago, Hollywood photographer Clayton Cooper. There’s some great talent in town.

Have you heard the saying, from boxing, that “You gotta be the champ before you can become the champ?” Writing’s a test of endurance. You have to believe in yourself. One way to increase your endurance and have some fun is to get hypnotized. Has anyone tried hypnotism? I found a hypnotherapist, who, surprisingly was a friend from construction, Harmony Shaw. I called her up and we caught up on old times. Then she asked, “What would you like to come in for, do you need to quit smoking or find a better life balance?” I said, “I need you to hypnotize me to write with bad intentions.” She was like, “What the?!?” I said, “No, listen, I’ve become a writer. I heard that the famous boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato, used to hypnotize his fighters to hit with bad intentions. Well, I want to write with bad intentions.” If she hadn’t of known me, she would have thought I was crazy. But since she did know me, she knew I was crazy.

Here’s how hypnotherapy works. In the first session, the hypnotherapist takes notes of the message you’d like to hear. Then, during the next session, she puts you into that state, you know, either in the morning when you’re awake but not awake or at night as you’re drifting off. It’s an hour session. The hypnotherapist’s goal is to keep you in that dawning or that twilight state. I was skeptical. I went in after a crappy day at work and my mind was far away. But if Cus did it to Tyson, I would do the same thing. She starts. She says: “You hear the clock ticking on the wall. You hear the janitor mopping in the next room.” Pretty soon, I was getting nappy. Then I could hear her saying: “You’ll write with bad intentions. Your words will persevere longer than the pyramids of Egypt. People will write PhDs on your unfinished fragments. Your ideas are as fundamental as the constants of nature.” I remember thinking: “Damn—this is sounding fine!” So she goes on. And then, it comes to an end, but too quickly. After, I said, “Harmony, that was five minutes. I thought it was supposed to be an hour.” She smiled and motioned with her eyes to the clock on the wall. I looked. Then I was amazed. She’s in town, look her up if you want to take your game to the next level and have some fun. Harmony Shaw. Great lady.

We’re still on point three: to write, you have to amuse yourself. Perhaps these boxing anecdotes aren’t doing it for you. Ever heard of the writer Albert Camus? You know, the guy who won a Nobel Prize? Well, he was a skeptic. A rational mind. He didn’t believe in no hocus pocus. But you know what they found in his papers after he died?—I was surprised to learn this. They found an elaborate astrological chart. He had hired an astrologer to cast his chart! But that’s not even the fascinating part. You know what his specific question was? It was: “When shall I achieve literary immortality?” Damn. This one, I haven’t done yet. I’m a skeptic as well. But we’re still on point three: to write, you have to amuse yourself. You have to make it interesting. If anyone knows an astrologer, I need that contact.

Point four: to write, you have to get a job. In 2022, from writing and speaking, I made $5,000. Some years, it’s less. For a long time, I worked as a plumber. For a long time, I hid that. At conferences, I’d be introduced as an “independent scholar.” I hate that term. In the last few years, I’ve introduced myself, at academic conferences, as a plumber. It always gets a few eyebrows. Some take me less seriously. Some take me more seriously. The best comment I’ve had from a proper scholar is that: “I wish I could be doing what you’re doing.” Then I realized not having to worry about tenure and the politics of academia gives me freedom. And a different flavour to my work: I don’t have to put together a massive critical apparatus with footnotes in five languages. People who’ve read my books comment on my hassle-free language and the abundance of construction metaphors. It’s like that because my literary ideas are tested on the job site. Having a job outside of writing gives my writing a unique voice.

Writing is a hard gig. $5000 barely puts food on the table, and $5000, for writing, is a decent achievement. Plumbing, however, is a great gig. It puts food on the table. High school diploma gets you in. You sign up, work ten months of the year, go to school for two months. The government pays for your school and you collect employment insurance (EI) while you’re at school—you’re paid to go to school. At the end of four years, you get your ticket and, with a union outfit, will be making $85k. There are possibilities to advance: shop steward, lead hand, foreman, general supervisor, project manager, estimator. With a high school diploma, you can clear six figures, easy. Plumbing is the biggest thing that’s allowed me to write. I started plumbing 1996. Shout out to those along the way who gave me a chance: Chris Bridgeman, Peter Desaulniers, Tor Hansen, and Gord McClaren. If you’re working a day job, yes you can write. That’s one of the reasons why my first book took thirteen years. A lot of it was written on the bus. I had over an hour commute each way to work. Believe it or not, so that I would have more time to write, instead of taking the 70, which would have been faster, I took the 72, which does the milk run.

What I’m saying, is, to pursue your dreams, it’s good to have a real income. If you have something to say, you’ll find a way.

Point five: to write, you have to handle the criticism. You know dogs, they mark their territory. They whizz a little bit to say, “Hey, this is who I am, this is where I come from, this is mine.” Well, writers are like dogs. Except they don’t whiz on the grass. They whiz on their books. They whiz on every page of their book to say, “Hey, this is mine.” But every so often, another dog comes along and whizzes all over your book. In writer’s talk, we call that a bad review. How do you handle the bad review? Some say not to take it personal. Of course, it’s easy for anyone who’s not getting the bad review to say that! “Oh, you were wearing your heart on your sleeve and someone’s ripped it out, torb it to shreds, and trampled up and down on it? Well, just don’t take it personal.” You ever get that?

In all seriousness, you need the bad reviews: if your book has a hundred five-star reviews, it looks suspicious. You need a few bad ones to make it look legit. Check out these reviews of Donna W. Hurley’s translation of Roman historian Suetonius’ The Caesars on Amazon:

Laurie: five stars “I like this product very much.” [This is pretty meh.]
Jacob G.: five stars “Needed this book for class.” [This is also meh.]
[now check this out] Anna in Texas: one star “Pure Filth! I have to say this is the filthiest book I have ever read my whole entire life and I am 60 years old. If any of this is true then the Caesars were the worst low lives that ever walked the face of the earth. I wanted to know what was happening in Rome during the time of Jesus’ birth, life and death on the cross. I never imagined how bad it must have been, again, if any of this book is true. The reason I question the validity of what Suetonius wrote is that I don’t see how he could have known such detailed information about each of the Caesars and their particular vices. And, even if he did, why write about it? I would not recommend this book to anyone and I am tearing my copy to shreds and throwing it in the trash where it belongs.

Hot damn! That’s the review money can’t buy: it’s just helped you sell a hundred thousand copies. One day, you’ll get some vicious review. Some big dog’s going to come around and whiz all over your book.  What do you do? I’m not sure, but here’re some options. 1) ignore. This is professional, if somewhat meh. 2) treat it as a godsend. As the review from Anna in Texas makes clear, there’s no such thing as bad publicity and often the best publicity is bad publicity. 3) fall into a state of depression. This is a tough one, especially if one of your heroes pans your book. It happens. My condolences. 4) write back something witty to the reviewer. One of my friends got a review saying his writing was “worse than imitation crab.” Now, each time he gets a good review, he emails it to that reviewer and writes in the subject line “Better than imitation crab?” I love this. And no, he’s never received a reply back. 5) take it as fuel to write the next great American novel. This is the “Michael Jordan” or “Lance Armstrong” psychopathic approach to criticism.

Here’s a little secret about myself. In a room, I’ve always felt small. You know, some people, they enter the room, and they take over. They got presence. They command the stage. Well, I’m the opposite. In life, no one sees me. A few months ago, we went to Maude’s, I was going to get a round of shots. Trying to get the waitress’s attention, to no avail. Buddy sitting beside me just shook his head. He said: “Ed, no one sees you.” He put up his hand, smiled a golden smile, and the waitress was over lickety-split. I was like, “Damn.” Some people just have it.

In life, I never had it. 150lbs, 5’7” (on a good day 5’7”). But when I’m writing, it’s like I’m 100’ tall. I’m like Napoleon on the plains of France. You know, sometimes life gives you some gifts that confirm what you think you know, but weren’t sure. Well, here’s a story, true story. Last year I was in North Carolina talking about risk at Wake Forest University. After the conference dinner, we were standing around chatting. So, I get introduced to this woman: “Hey, this is Edwin Wong, he directed the play the other night.” She said: “Oh…I’ve read your stuff.” Then she looked me up and down. You know the look. And she said, and I’m not kidding you, “I always thought you’d be taller.” That’s my favourite compliment of all time because it confirms what I always felt when I’m writing. In life I was nothing, but on the page, I’m so much larger than life. That’s why I write. I’m marking out my territory in a way I couldn’t do in life. But what do you do when you’ve marked out your territory and some other dog comes along? Some dogs fight back. Other dogs roll over. I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet. And perhaps there’s no right answer. But it’s something that’s good for us in the writing community to talk about. The bad review is something that’s actually, in a way critical: it wasn’t until after I started getting bad reviews that I actually felt like I was starting to make it.

With that in mind, what’s a talk without some free swag? Here’re some complimentary copies of my book. If you’re interested—and I hope you are—come up afterwards and pick one up. If you don’t enjoy the books, please, do your best impression of Anna from Texas and leave me a review on Goodreads or Amazon. I would appreciate that so much. Any review is great. The worst is the oblivion of no review. Sometimes you get happy reviews. I remember, in 2019, Joy reviewed my book for VWS, it was one of my first reviews and I was so happy to see it.

Point six, last point, short point: to write, you have to write. Sounds simple. But it’s difficult. There’s even a podcast called that addresses this point. They end every podcast by saying: “You’re out of excuses, now go write.” Thank you to Elaine Tan for the link. A lot of times, people feel they need to do all this prep before they start writing. I used to be like that. It’s an awful habit. If you start reading great writers, you’ll become attracted into the orbit of their thoughts. And you’ll never break free to find your own voice. To write, all you need to do is to start writing. Push away all those other books. Sounds hard right? But no, it’s really easy. Because we had point one: to write, you have to have something to say. If you have something to say, you’ll find a way. What is it that you’re passionate about, something only you could say? That’s what you write about. And with that, I am finished with what I have to say. If you’ve enjoyed my talk find me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy or Facebook at edwinclwong. Thank you.

– – –

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

Review of The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen – Edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster

2011 (2nd edition), Cambridge UP, 297 pages

This isn’t a review of the entire volume but rather my reactions to two passages from the Companion, the first from the first essay “The Professional Woman Writer” by Jan Fergus and the second from the penultimate essay “Austen Cults and Cultures” by Claudia L. Johnson. In general, I enjoy the Cambridge Companion series. It’s a trustworthy place to turn for a synoptic view of what’s going on in the field. The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen is no different, and the central trio of essays “Class” (by Juliet McMaster), “Money” (by Edward Copeland), and “Making a Living” (by David Selwyn) were illuminating and enjoyable. Unfortunately, I seem to have gotten an allergic reactions the first and penultimate essays. Here’s why.

“The Professional Woman Writer” by Jan Fergus

Fergus’ essay starts off well enough. Then this train-wreck passage happens:

All writers, known or unknown, who wished to obtain payment for a novel had four options for publishing: (a) by subscription; (b) by profit-sharing; (c) by selling copyright; and (d) on ‘commission’, a system whereby the author was responsible for paying all the expenses of publication while the publisher distributed the copies and took a commission on all sold. Austen most frequently employed this last form, also known as publishing for oneself. The closest equivalent we have to this method is to employ a ‘vanity press’–that is, to pay for printing one’s own works–or to self-publish on the Internet. Such ‘published’ works are neither reviewed by the media nor sold in shops. By contrast, in Austen’s lifetime a book published on commission was perfectly respectable, as likely as any other book to be reviewed and sold.

Jane Austen is a hero in today’s self-publishing community: she dared to get it done, and became one of the greats. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing. Austen did it. Nietzsche did it. Today, novelist Brandon Sanderson’s doing it. He’s sold over 20 million books. He could publish with any publisher. During the pandemic of 2020, however, he decided to self-publish. He launched a Kickstarter campaign promising four novels through 2023. $33 million poured into his self-publishing project, breaking the Kickstarter record. His books are reviewed. His books are loved. His books are sold in shops. He wins awards. Like Jan Fergus–who used to teach as Lehigh University–Sanderson teaches at Brigham Young University. But, according to Fergus, Sanderson isn’t a respectable writer because he self-publishes. You’ve got to be kidding.

Today we think of Austen as a classic. Same way as we think of Shakespeare as a classic. But, truth of the matter is, the nineteenth-century novel and Renaissance theatre were both, in their heydays, considered low art. Shakespeare’s theatres were located in destitute and desperate areas of town. And the novel, in Austen’s own day, wasn’t a classic. Instead, it was the opposite of classic: it was low art. Just check out Michel Foucault’s historical account of the novel in his Madness and Civilization to get a better idea of how the novel was historically perceived. But low art is great. It’s real. High art is difficult. For example, I seldom listen to Schoenberg or Cage or other practitioners of the intellectual classical music. But I enjoy the “low” modern classical style employed by composers such as Hans Zimmer in movie soundtracks. Nothing wrong with low. Low will become tomorrow’s high. Who know, maybe Sanderson will be the Austen of the 23rd century. To Fergus, Austen seems always to have been high art. From day one. I wonder if this is strictly true or whether, like Shakespeare, Austen became a classic over the long course of time. It almost seems like Fergus is justifying why Austen belongs to the scholars.

What I don’t appreciate is the shade Fergus throws on self-published authors. It was really unnecessary.  It would have been easy enough for her to say Austen self-published. Period. But she goes on to say that Austen’s self-publishing is different than today’s self-publishing. She goes on to put publishing by self-publishers in quotes to indicate that it is not real publishing. She goes on to say that self-published works aren’t reviewed or sold in stores. But that’s not true. Consider these reviews of a self-published academic title. One is by an international media outlet and the other four by peer-reviewed academic journals:

Click to access 2022.09.03%20Kohn%20on%20Wong.pdf

If Broadway WorldThe Journal of American Drama and TheatreTheatre History StudiesClassical Journal, and NJ: Drama Australia don’t cut it, then what does? Self-publishing has many advantages over traditional publishing. The self-published author can keep their books in print indefinitely; with traditional presses, once a book is out of print, it is done. The self-published author controls the cover art; with traditional presses, many an author has fallen into a state of shock seeming the cover art assigned to their book. The self-published author is free from the politics of academia; with traditional presses, although no one says it, everyone knows you can only say certain things.

Why is self-publishing in Austen’s day great and self-publishing in this day and age so bad? That’s the question I’d like to ask Fergus. And if self-publishing was so respectable in Austen’s day, why didn’t Austen put her own name on her book, whose author credit simply appears as “By a Lady”? I really don’t appreciate the great ones in academia talking down like they’re so high and mighty to the common writer. Academics talk about how bad the class struggle was in 18th century England, yet they repeat the same thing with their notions of “aristocratic writers” (published by Cambridge University Press) and self-published “peasant-writers.” They say academia is transparent, without an agenda except pure learning. Essays like this suggest otherwise. No one like to be talked down to. They talk much about power and the abuse of power and authority in academic writing. Is this legitimate use of academic authority? An essay that takes away the common person’s hero (Austen is a hero in the self-publishing community)? No thanks. This is so much like the conservatory musician that turns up a nose at the streetcorner musician. There’s lots of talent out there in unlikely places. For years, Loreena McKennitt played on the streets before CBC invited her up to their studio, more for a story than anything (i.e. “how do you lug around that huge harp?”). But when she played in the studio, the phones lit up with people asking who that self-published artist was.

It’s disappointing when academics use their authority to say that when our heroes self-publish, it really isn’t self-publishing in the same sense that we do it. Not only disappointing, but unacceptable.

“Austen Cults and Cultures” by Claudia L. Johnson

I was still reeling from Fergus’ comments against self-published writers and then this from the essay on “Austen Cults and Cultures”:

Even though lectures by academic Austenian scholars are featured at Jane Austen Society and Jane Austen Society of North America conferences, and even though JAS’s Collected Reports and JASNA’s Persuasions often publish a tremendous amount in the way of sheer information, most academics I know take a rather dim view of these galas, where enjoyment rather than hermeneutic mastery is assumed to be the reward of reading, where reading is sociable rather than solitary, and where the stuff of erudition itself seems so different [. . .] The process by which academic critics deprecate Austenian admirers outside the academy is very similar to the way, as Henry Jenkins has shown, Trekkies, fans and mass media enthusiasts are derided and marginalized by dominant cultural institutions bent on legitimizing their own objects and protocols of expertise. But there is an important difference: unlike Star Trek, Austen’s novels hold a secure place in the canon of high as well as popular culture.

Geez. Star Trek’s been big enough and around for long enough and enough big names have participated in it that it will become a classic in a hundred years. It doesn’t take a big stretch to imagine that, to understand the 20th century properly in a hundred years, knowledge of Star Trek will be useful, not only to remember our fascination with space, but to remember how progressive low culture could be: Captain Kirk’s crew consisted of people from all sorts of different cultures and nations (and species!) working together. Why elevate Austen by bashing down Star Trek? It was really an unnecessary move that alienated rather than inspired me.

And what’s up with this bashing of the Jane Austen societies? I read a few articles in Persuasions (the JASNA journal) and they seemed okay. The articles appear to be from a combination of independent scholars and academics. For example, Jackie Mijares’ essay on jointure in Sense and Sensibility was informative and well-researched ( Sure, it is not ground-breaking hoity toity like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s scholarly masterpiece “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” that JSTOR says has been cited 299 times by eminent scholars. But when I read the Sedgwick essay, I found that her Austen is definitely not my Austen. It was just weird, like from outer space. And even some other works by proper Austen scholars (e.g. not in the Jane Austen society or self-published) are just plain bad. For example, everyone quotes John Dashwood’s income in Sense and Sensibility as £10,000 per year. When I started adding up the numbers, I was getting to £5,000 to £6,000 tops. The scholars were quoting Gene W. Ruoff, a proper academic scholar. I began second-guessing myself. So I finally got Ruoff’s book to see how he was doing the calculation. Well, it turns out he interprets a slight turn of phrase to imply that John has a grand monumental unstated income stream that is greater than all of Norland Park! And it’s quite clear why he does this: to make John into more of a bad guy. So hey, maybe it’s not just the stuff from JASNA that doesn’t meet the highest hermeneutical standards: much of the proper academic writing on Austen is just as lacking. When I dug further, I was relieved that at least one scholar, Alistair Duckworth, calculated John’s income at the £5-6,000 range.

I would say that there is a lot of good (and bad) articles in the JASNA journals and also a lot of good (and bad) articles in proper peer-reviewed highbrow proper academic journals, the sort that Johnson publishes in. The view of academia I get from these essays is that it is a member-only club that owns its objects of study, which it does better than anyone else due to its superior hermeneutic techniques. But is that true? Take psychoanalytic or Freudian approaches to interpreting literature. These approaches are still prevalent in the academic literary community. In the psychiatry and the sciences, however, they’ve long abandoned and moved beyond Freud. In other fields, they’re using bronze and iron tools. But, in literary theory, stone tools are still the norm. And this is superior hermeneutics? You have got to be kidding. I don’t think English departments “own” Austen more than any other group.

I don’t know. I think I’d rather go to a JASNA convention than a serious supercilious conventions that the contributors to the Cambridge companion go to. At least the JASNA convention would be fun and inclusive rather than this egalitarian vibe I’m getting from the high and mighty scholars of Cloud-cuckoo-land.

Cambridge University Press: it’s time for a third edition, one with some humility, please. All this stuff brings to mind an old song, maybe you’ve heard of it. It goes something like this:

Ah, you’ve been with the professors and they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been though all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well-read, it’s well known
But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

– – –

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

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.


Review of Aristophanes’ Men and Their Horses (Knights) – Mike Lippman and Wilfred E. Major

2022, Theran Press, 124 pages
Preface by Jeffrey Henderson and Introduction by Robert Holschuh Simmons

Knights, or Men and Their Horses

Knights is a comedy written by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes. It’s a political satire lambasting the Athenian general Cleon. Translations are hard to come by. It’s not in the Meridian edition (which contains Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata, and Frogs). It’s not in the Penguin edition (which contains Lysistrata, Acharnians, and Clouds). It’s not in either of the Oxford editions (which contain Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly-Women, Wealth, Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Frogs). A new Oxford edition translated by Stephen Halliwell, however, came out this year and it does contain Knights. At the time of writing, only the hardcover is available, and Oxford would like USD $115. So it is more or less unavailable to mere mortals. I’ll check it out later when it’s available in paperback. In Aristophanes’ back catalog, Knights, perhaps along with Wasps–another play attacking Cleon–seems to get the least love. Knights is available in the Loeb edition (translated by Jeffrey Henderson, who writes the preface for the Lippman-Major translation). But the Loeb editions are geared towards scholars rather than performers (they are parallel texts with the Greek original and an English translation on facing pages). Lippman and Major’s translation is one of the few available, and the best one to stage a production around. That this was a translation made with performance in mind is made clear in the acknowledgements, where the translators thank the team that performed a staged reading at a classics conference in 2020.

To give you an idea, here’s a passage from the Henderson translation (1998) followed by the Lippman-Major:

Second Slave. Well then, our best option is to make for some god’s image and kowtow.
First Slave. What do you mean, “immmage?” Say, do you really believe in the gods?
Second Slave. Sure.
First Slave. What’s your evidence?
Second Slave. Because I’m godforsaken. Isn’t that enough?

compared with,

Nicias. Then given the situation, best option for the two of us
Is to go and get ourselves some y’olde tyme religion.
Demosthenes. Like ancient Greek religion? Do you really believe any of it?
Nicias. I surely do.
Demosthenes. What proof do you have?
Nicias. Well, the gods hate my guts. Isn’t that proof enough?

The Henderson translation preserves the repetition of “gods,” e.g. “do you really believe in the gods? (theoús)” and “Because I’m godforsaken” (hotiē theoīsin echthrós eim’, literally “Because I’m an object of hatred to the gods”). The Lippman-Major translation goes for a more direct attack. The reference to “olde tyme religion” is to Bob Seger’s 1979 song “Old Time Rock and Roll.” The reference connects the audience to the comedy in the same way as so many references in Aristophanes would have connected the comedy with the original audience. “The gods hate my guts” also carries a visceral punch. The Lippman-Major translation strives for a lively, visceral, punchy quality that is alive.

Choice of Title

As to the choice of calling Aristophanes’ play Men and Their Horses, Simmons, who writes the introduction, says:

The original play was titled Hippeis in Greek, which translates literally to Knights. The title of this translation, Men and Their Horses, is a way for the play’s translators to make the more literal translation of the play’s name more accessible to a contemporary audience, which–if it thinks of knights at all–thinks of them as wearing shining armor and jousting at Renaissance faires. The Greek word hippeis, like the English word “knights,” means, at its root, someone who operates from a horse, and typically a horse that the operator owns.

This is all well. I wonder, however, how easy it would be for someone looking for the play to find it? The easiest way of searching for something is to type the words into a Google search. But how many people looking for Aristophanes’ Knights know to type into Google “Men and Their Horses”? And would a Google search of Knights bring up Men and Their Horses? I tried and it doesn’t show up in any of the eleven pages of results that Google found. Googling “men and their horses” directly brought up many pages about horses, but wasn’t able to find the book. Perhaps this is due to the newness of the book, which came out earlier this year. The distribution appears limited, again, perhaps due to its newness. I found it on B&N, but couldn’t find it on Amazon. As I’m in Canada, it’s easier to order from Amazon (which ships domestically) than B&N (where it’s coming from the States). If B&N stocks it, why not Amazon?

The Comedy Wordmill

In line with giving the audience a taste of what it was like to have experienced an Aristophanes play, the language and characters have been updated. Paphlagon, the barbaric tanner from Paphlagonia, who is the comic representation of the real-life Athenian politician Cleon, is called “The Drumpf,” who, in turn, stands in for American politician Donald Trump. The Sausage Seller, in turn, has been updated into Hot Dog Man.

The songs sung by the chorus are also updated to be sung along to modern songs such as “The Halls of Montezuma,” “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Beer for My Horses,” and others. For example, one of the choral songs can be sung to Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” It runs:

The Muses know when to tell you,
Know when to scold you,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to pun.
You never count on Muses
When you’re writing for the scholars,
Only some who write are funny,
When the scripts are done.

The playful and inventive language is truly one of the gems in this translation. To me, one of the great things about comedy is how, in laughter, comic poets play with language in unexpected ways. This translation has fun with the language with Drumpf, for example, saying: “It should make all those haters shut up for good. As long as we remember my unpresidented election win.” This is comic gold.

The Evolution of Comedy

Reading Men and Their Horses got me reflecting on comedy, and the evolution of comedy. In Aristophanes’ time, the dramatic art form of comedy was still developing. I would argue that comedy didn’t achieve what it was meant to be until the times of Plautus. For example, Shakespeare and other writers can emulate Plautine comedy with great fanfare (e.g. The Comedy of Errors). Emulators of Aristophanes are less common. And, even Aristophanes, after Knights and Wasps, seems to have moved away from these biting and brutal satires for other types of comedy. I wonder why that is?

I also wonder if Cleon was personally in attendance. And I wonder if Men and Their Horses were staged, how Donald Trump would react, if he were in the audience. I guess it is one thing to be roasted, but another to be viciously lampooned. Reading this play brings to mind Molière’s Those Learned Ladies (Les femmes savantes). Like Knights, it is a work by a comic genius. In Those Learned Ladies, Molière savagely attacks preciosity (an affected manner of speaking popular at that time) and satirizes pedantry. But, unlike, say The Would-Be Gentleman, another play he wrote where he pokes fun at human nature, I always thought Molière was too strong in his attacks in Those Learned Ladies. While the “villain” in The Would-Be Gentleman is a likeable doofus, there is the sense that the “villains” in Those Learned Ladies are idiots, plain and simple. What is more, it is quite apparent that Molière really does not like the antagonists in Those Learned Ladies. I think the degree of animosity detracts from the humour. In the same way, because it is so clear that Aristophanes really doesn’t like Cleon (who is the butt of the jokes), it takes away from what the play might have been, if the anger did not seem so personal. Perhaps it is for this reason that Aristophanes shifted gears shortly after Knights.

There seems to be a line between being mean-spirited and being funny. Perhaps I didn’t put that right. One can be mean-spirited and be funny. Or one can be funny without being mean-spirited. Think of live, stand-up comedy. A stand-up comic can say hurtful things to the person in the front row, and this could be funny to the audience. Or a stand-up comic can say funny things, but with a kind-hearted approach. Both are funny. But I think some audiences would prefer the comic who is funny and kind-hearted at the same time. Perhaps for this reason Aristophanes changed gears shortly after Knights. But this remains a conjecture, if an interesting one.

The Hot Dog Stand is Open for Business

In Men and Their Horses, Lippman and Major have translated the experience of what the original audience felt into contemporary English. To recapture the verve of the original is a fantastic achievement,  a new benchmark in the translation of comedy. After 2,500 years, the hot dog stand is back in business. This is the type of translation that will make comedy great again.

– – –

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

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Review – 2022 Vitus Vitesse EVO CRX SRAM RED eTap Road Bike

If you’re looking for a world-class, UCI certified mid-life crisis road bike, read on! This is a review of my new Vitus Vitesse CRX EVO CRX bicycle fitted out with the top-tier SRAM RED eTap AXS groupset. I ordered it sight-unseen from Chain Reaction Cycles at the end of March 2022 and it arrived from the UK two weeks later. From mid-April to December this year, I’ve logged 4500km on it.

About Me

I’m 48. I ride to commute and for pleasure. My commuting bike, fitted with carrier and mudguards is a 2014 custom Marinoni Sportivo Ti. It’s still my winter and commuting bike. And I’m still doing a few kms on it: I don’t own a car. Sold my car in 2010 and never looked back. Best decision of my life. Whenever I need a car, I rent or borrow one. This is the way to go both in terms of finances (I think a car, once you factor in gas, insurance, repairs, and replacing it every decade or so, is really costing $600-$800 each month) and fitness / health. No need for a gym membership when you’re a bicycle commuter. It strikes me as so ironic the folks (and I know a few) who drive to the gym to do half an hour on the stationary bike.

I ride 7-8000 km per year, averaging 26kph on commutes and 31kph on club rides. My goal with the new bike is to average 33kph+ on club rides next year. Maybe. It’ll be hard but achievable. A little less pork chops and pie might help. I also enjoy kickboxing, weight training, and running. But the running knees are starting to give out. They are good up to 7km, but start tweaking over that. It’s a bummer. The Marinoni is an endurance bike, with a more relaxed geometry. Because I hate stretching, I am not the most flexible. So, I was worried I could ride an all-out road-race bike. It turns out that this is no problem. As you can see in the picture, the stem is slammed.

On the Vitus fitting chart, a 5’7″ rider (70kg) fits a size small or medium frame. I went with the small. Manoeuvrability is nice. I also like lighter and that feeling of sitting “big” on the bike–it’s hard to describe, but you probably know what I mean. My Marinoni is closer to a medium, and is plenty stable. But it also feels big sometimes. Having ridden the Vitus for awhile, I think I could have even went with XS, even though it is only recommended their XS for riders up to 5’5″. If anything, if you go for something a little undersize, you could always swap in a longer stem, easy. But since it was an online purchase, I didn’t want to take the risk. If I was buying locally, I probably would have went with the smaller XS frame.

Not My First Choice

Because I was worried about the racy geometry, my first choice was a Canyon Endurace. Similarly outfitted, it would have been about 15% more. But it has better brand recognition. But 2022 was one of the years of the global bike shortage. When I found one on the Canyon site in my size, I spent a little too long configuring the build. By the time I hit “buy,” someone else snagged it. The last one in the world. What luck. But the Vitus was still available. I actually like the look of the Vitus better, with the dropped seatstays and the clean look. And it was still in stock. All-in, with taxes, customs, and shipping, it came to $10,300 (before taxes, custom, and shipping, it was $7800). The bike is a great deal. A Specialized Aethos similarly outfitted would come to $17,000, all-in. The Specialized is a superior bicycle, but not $7000 better. And I doubt there would be any real-world benefits in performance for an enthusiast rider such as myself.


The shipping was surprising quick: two weeks. The big box came with a big hole punctured in the side. The FedEx guy told me to accept it and take a photo noting the damage. It looked like a forklift went through the box. Fortunately, the bike was undamaged. But the battery charger had fallen out. Chain Reaction Cycles was a pleasure to deal with. They responded right away: “Buy a battery charger locally, take a picture of the receipt, and we will reimburse you,” they said. Easy. Assembly was a piece of cake: install seat, seatpost, and tighten together the stem and handlebar. It took about half an hour, and could have been much faster if I wasn’t also drinking coffee and in awe of the bike. To me, this was an unjustifiable purchase. The Marinoni does everything that I need already. But I wanted a lightweight race bike with disc brake and that new electronic shifting everyone was talking about. The Marinoni is outfitted with rim brakes and a mechanical (and beautifully chromed) Campagnolo Athena groupset.


This is my first electronic groupset. It is pretty cool. Perfect shifts each time. It shifts perfectly under load. You know, if you shift too late on a hill with a mechanical derailleur, you get that awful “clunk clunk crap” sound. Well, with the electronic shifting, I can shift under load with full confidence. And it shifts quick. I love it. In the future, it is electronic for me all the way. Mind you, I have no problems with the Campagnolo mechanical shifting. On the higher gears, it takes a few seconds now to shift. It’s getting a little worn out from riding in the rain for eight years now. The CR2032 batteries in the handlebars seem to last forever. Haven’t changed them yet; they are supposed to last a couple of years(!). The rechargeable batteries in the front and rear derailleur I charge on the first of every month. And on the 15th of every month, I swap the front battery to the rear (the rear derailleur gets the lion’s share of shifts, especially with the SRAM design, which has a 48/35 in the front and a wide 10-33 in the rear cassette; the idea is to stay in the big front chainring as long as possible). The sound of electronic shifting is very satisfying.

One crappy thing was that on the SRAM RED AXS shifting was that the chain was dropping when going onto the small chainring in the front. This is very annoying, as the chain gets stuck between the ring and the frame, which not only scratches the frame, but is a pain to pull out. Adjusting the chain catcher helped, but not very much. My Marinoni doesn’t have a chain catcher, and the chain has NEVER fallen off shifting into the smaller ring in the front. It turns out that the front derailleur cage was either poorly assembled, or had shifted during shipping: it was installed a few millimetres higher than recommended. It took me a month to finally figure it out, mostly by watching YouTube videos. It was an easy five-minute fix loosening and retightening a few bolts. But while I didn’t know, it was quite unnerving, as I thought it would be like this forever! Since adjusting everything many months ago, no more dropouts. Whew! So that’s one thing to watch out for when ordering a bike by mail.

I’ve been following this disc brake debate. Some say they’re great. Some say rim is just as good. The only way to decide is to ride both. To me, disc is the way to go. Victoria, Canada is a place full of rolling hills. On the hill routes, my hands get tired just holding onto the brakes when riding rim brakes. With disc brakes, you have one-finger stopping power. This is rad. I love it. The crappy things they say about disc brakes are true too. When riding in the wet, they can get contaminated with oils on the road and then you have to clean them with isopropyl alcohol. I rode a few times in the wet with the new Vitus, but, for the most part, will ride it only when it’s dry(-ish). I’ll save the Marinoni for the weather days. Changing the disc brake pads is a pain as well. I can get them so that there’s no disc brake rub, but it takes me awhile. Maybe I’ll get better. But with rim brakes, changing the pads takes five minutes and you’re done: the clearances are MUCH more forgiving. But count me in as a disc brake convert.

Is the Vitus faster than the Marinoni, which is 1.1kg (2.2 pounds) heavier with a more relaxed geometry? Accelerating from a stop or out of a corner, yes, absolutely. The power transfer feels instantaneous. Going up long hills, yes, absolutely. It’s like night and day. Once up to cruising speed on flat or rolling terrain, I’m not so sure there’s a big difference. Definitely not a 1kph difference. Perhaps a difference in tenths of a kph. The new Vitus has given me new PBs on a lot of Strava segments. But not all. There are still a few where I’ve had the (fractionally) faster time on the Marinoni. So yes, because the Vitus is stiffer (carbon vs. ti), more aggressive (race vs. endurance geometry), and lighter (1.1kg), it is faster. But unless you’re doing a longer climb or laying the power down from a standstill or going around a corner to break away, the difference is marginal. I was hoping, for this much money, the bike would just shoot out like a rocket automatically. I was mistaken: to go fast, you still have to lay down the pain.


I swapped out the crappy seat that came with the bike with a nice Selle Italia SLR boost saddle. Also sold the stock Reynolds AR29 wheels that came with it and picked up an ultralight Hunt Aerodynamicist 32 wheelset (carbon spokes, 1200 grams!). This is my first experience with tubeless tires. So far, no flats. Every three months I top off the magic juice in the tires with Stans Sealant. Maybe I will get better with time, but it is a mess. Not entirely converted by the tubeless technology, but no real complaints either (besides having to top it up). Instead of a spare inner tube and pump, I carry when riding the Vitus tubeless plugs and a CO2 cartridge. Time will tell. The one nice thing about hookless (the Hunts are tubeless and hookless) is the nice flat profile between the tire and the rim. With hooked rims, the tire sits on the rim like a bulb: at the point of contact the tire flares out. With hookless, the transition between the rim and tire is flush. Aesthetically, it is quite pleasing. And yes, I am finding with tubeless I have to pump up tires more frequently, say once a week. With inner tube, I can get away with going two weeks–and sometimes three–between pumping up the tires.

I also tried out a Ritchie negative 25 degree stem (with the stem slammed). But that was too much. It hurt my back. So went back to the Prime stem (which is +6 degrees). All-in, the bike weights 7.38kg (16.3 lb). I could get it a little lower by getting a RED cassette and chain (even though marketed as a RED groupset, it ships with a FORCE cassette and chain, this is fairly common in the industry). Almost forgot, also swapped out the setback seatpost for an in-line seatpost. For aesthetic reasons: the inline seatpost just looks so much cleaner.

What I Really Like

It’s hard to see in the photo, but the Vitus Vitesse comes with an aero handlebar: the top of the handlebar is bladed. Where it connects to the stem, it is round, just enough room to put on the Garmin mount and a light. It is also ever so slightly “V” shaped, with the vertex of the “V” towards the rider. It looks badass. It’s also a short drop into the drops. At the ends of the drops, the handlebars flare out a touch (you can see it a bit in the photo), so you know where you are on the drops. This is the first bike where I actually prefer to be in the drops than the hoods. These are my favourite handlebars, ever. Both in terms of looks and feel.

I also love the brake adjustment on the brake levers. For people with small hands, the option to have the brake levers closer to the handlebar is a godsend. It’s safer. There’s no such adjustment on the Campy Athena brake levers; I wish there was. The option makes descending more fun.

The electronic shifting is fun too. You can set it up to automatically shift for you, so that when you switch between the big and small chainring in the front, it automatically moves a few gears on the rear cassette so that it’s a smoother jump. I played with turning on and off the sequential shifting, but now have it engaged. There are also different modes of sequential shifting available. Options. I like options. They are the closest thing to a free lunch.

Oh, did I mention the dropped seatstays, which are ever so lean, are gorgeous. A nice contrast to the massive, muscular downtube. Beautiful.

What I Don’t Like

The paint job isn’t the smoothest. There appear to be thinner parts and some overspray in other areas. You can feel it. You can really tell the difference when it’s up against one of those cost-is-no-object superbikes. The Specialized Aethos in black, for example, has some kind of sparkles in the paint that you can hardly see unless you’re looking right at it. But, from a distance, it really makes the bike sparkle.

One of the cables for the brakes also rubs against the bike when turning the handlebars. It also rubs away the paint. So I put a piece of black tape there.

No big issues, but just a few things to be aware of. At this price point, you can’t have it all.

In Conclusion…

It was a foolish decision to spend so much on a bike. Especially since I had another one. But it was worth every dollar. I’m finding that I’m loving riding this lean and mean machine. And that’s worth something. After purchasing it, I’m also finding there are advantages of getting what some would consider a “no-name” bike. Vitus is the house brand of Chain Reaction and Wiggle Cycles, one of the world’s largest cycling companies. They sell factory direct. So the savings. One big advantage of having a Vitus bike is that you can actually park it downtown and not have to worry about it being stolen: the Vitus name is unknown to (most) thieves. If I had bought one of those Pinarello or Specialized or Trek bikes, I’m not sure I could park it downtown. So the Vitus is sort of a stealth bike where you get 99% of the performance at 60 or 70% of the price. If you’re looking for performance on a budget, this one’s a contender. Shortly after I picked up the Vitus, another member of the club also took the plunge. That tells you something.

– – –

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

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [2019] and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre [2022]) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.


Orlando, Here We Come! – Risk Theatre 2023

Yeah! Just got accepted into the Comparative Drama Conference in Orlando, Florida, March 30 to April 1, 2023. The Comparative Drama Conference is an international, interdisciplinary conference founded by Dr. Karelisa Hartigan at the University of Florida in 1977. Every year, approximately 200 scholars are invited to present and discuss their work in the field of drama and 2-4 new plays receive a staged reading. The conference draws participants from both the Humanities and the Arts. The papers delivered range over the entire field of theatre research and production. Over the past 40 years, participants have come from 32 nations and all 50 states. Each year a distinguished theatre scholar or artist is invited to address the participants in the Keynote Event.

Here’s a copy of my proposal and bio that I went in a few months ago:

How to Set Up an International Playwriting Competition


Have you ever wanted to take a dramatic theory from the page to the stage? One way to do this is to create a playwriting competition. In 2018, I did exactly this. I had a new theory of tragedy identifying the dramatic fulcrum as a low-probability, high-consequence event. After teaming up with a local theatre, I launched the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition ( The competition awards $14,000 in cash prizes each year in addition to running a workshop and staged reading for the winner. The competition is now in its fifth year.

Over the years, people have asked me for advice on how to set up a playwriting competition. In this talk, I’ll go over the logistics from partnering with a theatre to setting up the website, finding jurors, funding, and getting the word out. I’ll also share with you the lessons I’ve learned along the way. In every way, it’s been an amazing journey. The competition has opened doors for me and introduced me to new friends and experiences along the way. I’d love to share my story with you. Bring your questions.


Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” by David Konstan at NYU for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books and over a dozen articles and book chapters on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, and has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

– – –

The nice thing about this acceptance is that it shows that the Risk Theatre Competition–now in its fifth year–has reached a certain stage in its development. I’ve proposed talks on how I set up the competition at different conferences in prior years, but there was little interest. With people I’ve known, run across, and chatted with in the past, however, there always was interest: “How did you set this up?” has always been a common question. But, until the competition got into its fifth year, it didn’t have enough “street cred” to interest conference organizers. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences at the Comparative Drama Conference in 2023. And the experience has taught me a critical lesson: when you have a dream, persistence over time is the key. Success isn’t measure in months and years, but in decades.

Keep going, friends. Never stop.

– – –

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

Review of Franky D. Gonzalez’s THAT MUST BE THE ENTRANCE TO HEAVEN

Edwin Wong here, founder of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. I’m delighted to announce that Dallas playwright Franky D. Gonzalez’s boxing play: That Must be the Entrance to Heaven or, The Dawn Behind the Black Hole is the winner of the 2022 competition. The prize includes $10,200 in cash and a workshop culminating in a staged reading over Zoom. The competition is going strong, now in its fifth year ( Its goal is to invite playwrights to dramatize risk, otherwise known as unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events. In 2018, I founded the competition because I’m fascinated with risk. Risk shapes our lives. Risk shapes our lives because it is not what we think will happen, but what we least expect that has the greatest impact. It’s not the calculated risks that matter, but rather the uncalculated risks. Lots of people don’t get that. They think they can do away with risk with insurance, diversification and hedging strategies, clever planning, and so on. To remind people of the true power of risk, there is a dramatic art form in theatre known as “tragedy.” In two books—The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (2019) and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre (2022, cowritten with past winners)—I overturned the traditional reading of tragedy that has a hero make a mistake and lose all. In the risk theatre reading, the hero actually has quite a good, foolproof plan. But then something unexpected happens: an unforeseen chance event like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or meeting a man not of woman born. Because the hero has taken on too much risk, the hero is exposed to the highly improbable. It’s the opposite of the old folk saying to “keep some powder dry.” Because the hero has “burnt up every last match,” when the shit hits the fan, well, the hero is done like dinner. Now, it is easy to write two books about how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. But does the risk theatre theory of tragedy work on the actual stage? That question remained unanswered. And so the competition. The cool thing about the risk theatre theory is that the competition will be the proof of the pudding. If the competition, in the next thirty years, can produce a number of plays that enter the canon—that is to say, plays that will stand shoulder to shoulder with Aeschylus, Shakespeare, O’Neill, and the other tragedians of repute, then it can be said that risk theatre works. Literary theories, just like scientific theories, must go through the chicane of the scientific method.

Every year I sit in anticipation, praying that one of the risk theatre winners or finalists can take their play to the next level: audiences queueing in long lines, sold out shows, people talking in the streets. But to take it to the next level is hard. First, the play must be great. It must be unique. From the inception of the competition to this day, there have been great winners and great plays, beginning with Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, to Nicholas Dunn’s The Value and Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor. And now Gonzalez’s That Must be the Entrance to Heaven. But, for a play to make it, it has to be more than great. At this point, luck is involved. The right person has to hear about it. They have to have time to explore it. Then the right theatre has to hear about it. Someone has to take a chance on the play. Should we produce a Shakespeare or an Ibsen or a Miller that is guaranteed to sell out so many seats or take a chance on a new play? There are many obstacles. To put it in terms of probability theory—another pastime of mine—there are many paths to failure, and few paths to success. One way, however, to increase a play’s chances is to write about it. And that is what I’m going to do here. I’m going to write about Gonzalez’s That Must be the Entrance to Heaven as though it were already a classic, as though it had already entered the playwriting canon. And yes, if I were writing an essay on Shakespeare or Sophocles, it would go without saying that there are going to be spoilers. So, too, there will be spoilers in this essay.

Although by no means equal repute attends those who write about the great playwrights and the great playwrights themselves, those who write about the great playwrights also play an important role because one of the things that makes a play great is the volume of discussion and scholarship behind it. That this is a boxing play itself is a topic that can lead to discussion. When I think of theatre, boxing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Theatre is perceived as a high art. Boxing is perceived to be a low art. The people that partake of theatre likely do not cross over with the boxing community. The same is true vice-versa: the theatre isn’t the place where you would expect to bump into Arturo Gatti, Mickey Ward, Floyd Mayweather, Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns, or the other fighters that Gonzalez references in his play. Gonzalez, by putting together boxing and theatre, is bringing together different worlds with different outlooks not only about life, but about each other.

There is a quartet of main characters in Entrance to Heaven: Edgar, Juan, Manuel, and Armando. They’ve all sacrificed big time for a shot at the title. Edgar is an undocumented fighter who’s fighting to stay in the country. He’s also fighting for the memory of his mother, who died getting him into the country. Juan is fighting to keep his family afloat, to make good all his broken promises he made to his wife and his child. Manuel is fighting to emerge from his brother’s shadow, a former five-division and  pound-for-pound champ. Armando defected from Cuba and left his family to become world champion. They all have ghosts. Family members who no longer talk to them or have passed away. Entrance to Heaven, in this light, is about the price you pay. The weight of your dreams like a gravity crushing you down. What happens in the play is beautiful and unexpected: it is when they fail and fall short of their dreams that they feel the lightness of an inner peace.

The first and most crucial question that must be asked is: how do you play the quartet of boxers? Option #1: you play them as characters that the audience feels sorry for. There would be many ways to defend this reading: the characters lack resources. The characters have had poor upbringings. They face inequality. Their education has been less than stellar: one of the Latino characters cannot speak Spanish for which he is mercilessly attacked by a boxer who is good enough to teach him how to count in Spanish. If only someone would help them. Option #2: you play them as fiercely proud individuals for whom no quarter is asked, and none given. They box because that is who they are. No apologies. The boxers are Latino “overmen” who overcome obstacles on their way to their title shots. Option #1 is the more humane reading, but takes away their dignity. Option #2 is full of the spirit of Ares, but glosses over inequality. The character Juan seems to encourage option #1 (he is truly tired of getting punched on his granite chin). The character Manuel, with his no-holds-barred relentless forwards-moving trash-talking style encourages option #2. The true way to play the play, probably lies somewhere in between options one and two. But the wonderful thing about Entrance to Heaven is that it encourages the discussion. The path to the canon lies through controversy.

As it happens, I enjoy both theatre and boxing. Four years ago, I started kickboxing. Last August, I started going to the boxing gym. I used to think the MMA (mixed martial arts) and the boxing gyms were dangerous places, full of savage people. They were places where you had to watch yourself. Now I think different. There are, indeed, savage folks in these places. You can tell just looking at their muscles what they can do. The people with the ripped muscles that are really defined where they connect to the bones are always deadly. There is something about how the muscles connect to the bones that defines how hard someone can hit. The people who are big, but move quickly are perhaps the deadliest. There are brawlers. And then there are assassins, the ones who set traps for you. Fighting some of these people is like playing chess. I used to be nervous going to class. I still am. But after getting to know the people, I came to realize this is their home. This is where they belong. Some of them are amateurs. Some are pros, or at least semi-pro. They make money fighting, coaching, and promoting. It is their life. What I also realized is that the MMA and boxing world is quite diverse. Women champions can make as much as men: think Rhonda Rousey. In UFC, the current heavyweight champ, Francis Ngannou, left Cameroon to pursue his dream. When he started training in France, he was homeless. Now he’s world champ. Look at the referees, fighters, and announcers: they’re from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions. Fighters of all religions, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or others, train side by side. Though they don’t talk about inclusivity, they are inclusive. But they are not known for that. That is too bad. Take a look at your local theatre. I am sure they talk of welcoming and friendship. But how diverse are they? If yes, then great. If not, perhaps they could take a page from the MMA and boxing community. I’m not saying that the fighting community is perfect, but what I am saying is that there is much for communities to learn from one another. When Entrance to Heaven enters the canon, another way I foresee it encouraging different communities to come together is that scholars studying it, scholars who are used to academic references, will have to take a deep dive into boxing to properly analyze it. They will have to watch footage from some of these fights Gonzalez talks about in his “references” section: the action in the play is modelled after specific real-life fights. Who knows, perhaps no one will remember Eubank or Klitschko or Corrales if Gonzalez had not brought them into his play. Don’t laugh. I remember a story of Cus D’Amato training a young Mike Tyson, telling him that one day no one would remember the great boxer and (at that time) world celebrity Jack Dempsey unless they talked of him. Tyson laughed. He couldn’t believe it. But that came true. The only reason I know about Dempsey and started reading about him is because I heard about him through Tyson always bringing him up. Fame works in strange ways.

I should talk about Entrance to Heaven and risk. The point of the competition is to encourage dramatists to dramatize risk. There is plenty of this in Entrance to Heaven: each of the characters is “all-in.” And then, because they have taken on inordinate risk, the unexpected happens. In the case of this play, the unexpected is the realization of the price our dreams exact upon us. Be careful what you wish for. Dreams are funny; they sometimes leave you with nothing. They are full of fire on the way, but after the fires have burnt out, all that remains is smoke and burned out remnants. The thing about risk that Entrance to Heaven taught me most, however, was how much personal risk the playwright undertakes to write an honest play. Just like in Albert Camus’ The Plague where the leading quartet of characters—Rambert, Rioux, Tarrou, and Grand—are aspects of Camus himself, I can’t but imagine that the prizefighters Edgar, Juan, Manuel, and Armando are reflections of Gonzalez. Their struggle is his struggle. Entrance to Heaven is a play full of the most convinced courageousness. It took courage to write it. It makes the play beautiful because it is human. I can’t be sure that I’m right, of course. But, from having followed Franky’s star the last four years and having chatted with him a handful of times, the likelihood is high (here’s a link to an interview we did in 2022 He has that same drive and ambition his fighters have. I know that because he is one of the few playwrights to have entered the Risk Theatre Competition each year. Sometimes he was be close. When he didn’t take the grand prize, he kept going. Like they say in boxing, you have to keep going because you never know how close you were.

I have read and also seen a reading of another of Gonzalez’s plays, Paletas de Coco. It was a finalist in one of the previous years. It’s about a playwright searching for an absent father. It too was a courageous play that opened my eyes to how risk doesn’t have to be internal to the action. Risk is also beautiful when you can tell the writer has taken risks or wears his heart on his sleeves. The risk in Gonzalez’s plays that is really different than what other people are doing is that there isn’t a separation between his art and his life. They are a unity. Bravo. Usually when playwrights write close to home, they lock their work in a vault, only to be produced so many years from now. Think of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night: O’Neill said no performances or publication until twenty-five years after his death. Gonzalez, unlike O’Neill, is putting himself out there, right here, right now. For that reason, it feels like I am witnessing something truly unique and wonderful. I read a lot of plays and Gonzalez is the only living writer I know who breaks down the divide between art and life so relentlessly. I feel he encourages this self-identification in his plays as well. For example, he names one of his fighters Juan David Gonzalez. The dramatic effect of this identification is that when the fighters talk about their dreams and their sacrifices, the audience (or reader) also wonders how much Gonzalez has sacrificed to get to where he is. This double identification deepens the stage and makes risk more palpable. One gets the feeling that Gonzalez talks about risk because he has walked the walk. During our interview, I remember him telling a story of how he went out on a limb, going all-in and using his own money to self-produce a play. I thought: “Here is someone who will go far because he believes in himself and has something to say.”

Another feature of That Must be the Entrance to Heaven that stands out is its language. Stylized. Often, tragedies are written in a rhythmic language that sets it apart from speech. Greek tragedy favours speech in iambic trimeters; Shakespeare likes blank verse. Gonzalez, as well, has adopted a unique playwright’s cant to express his ideas. Each line averages five words. A few are shorter, some are a few words longer. Here’s an example:

Armando. I have come to learn a deep truth.
Every human being,
Whether the mightiest emperor
Or the lowest of nobodies
Is born with a tremendous weight
Pressing down on their souls.
We call that weight our Dreams.
And this life
The whole of our existence
Is spent trying to force that weight
That chimera, that Dream, from our souls.

Each line contains an image or an idea. By setting the lines in quick succession, he builds up great crescendos in thought. For example, Armando’s first six lines builds up to “We call that weight our Dreams.” Then, following that pronouncement, he builds up again to another pronouncement on the effect of our dreams. His technique fascinates me. It really allows devices like repetition to shine. For example:

Juan. I kept losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
And losing.
Until my promises
Turned into lies.

The repetition and brevity of each line really allows the concluding pronouncement of “Turned to lies” to hit home. There, too, is risk in the language, of repeating a statement seven times before the taking it home. If, on the stage, the actor pulls it off, it will hit home. In language as in life, no risk, no reward.

Dramatically, That Must be the Entrance to Heaven brings to life a tour de force in risk and unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events: nothing goes according to plan. I suspect that is why the jurors nominated the play as the 2022 winner. From what I can see on social media, there is great interest in this play: it is the first winning play from the competition that will have a full production (in 2023, next year). Wow. The action promises to be breathtaking. It would be fascinating to have actors with a boxing background play the parts. They could reenact the sequences in a theatre of the great fights Gonzalez draws from: Gatti vs. Ward, Klitschko vs. Joshua, and others. This is the play can make boxing fans out of theatre fans. There is so much in boxing that is theatrical. In one of the Gatti vs. Ward fights, Mickey Ward hit Gatti with one of his trademark liver shots. The shot that makes other fighters black out and crumple to the canvas. I remember that moment to this day. Gatti doesn’t go down. He looks at Ward with such eyes, eyes that say: “Bro, why did you have to hit me so hard??!?” Ward, in turn, doesn’t go in for the kill. He looks at Gatti looking at him. Time in the ring is frozen. They say boxing is a low art. But this moment reminded me of the most beautiful moment in all of literature, when time stands still in the Trojan War back in the old days. Achilles finally meets Hector. The war around them, all the chariots and spears and dust and yelling pauses. On the battlefield it is only them. They chat like friends as they kill one another. Somewhere, far away, Andromache is pouring a hot bath for Hector. He will not require it. The whole scene is unbelievable. All the cosmos stands still for them. But, even though it is unbelievable, it is the most believable thing ever, because it is the most beautiful moment in literature. In That Must be the Entrance to Heaven, during the fights, I experienced this same relaxation of time. It is beautiful. It is seldom that I have seen it in drama. It will take most talented actors to bring this effect about, which, like all the most beautiful moments in art, is the most fragile of things. If it can be pulled off, this will be a play to be remembered, for all time.

For me, what opened my eyes the most was what the play taught me about risk. Not risk as I had been thinking about it. But risk in terms of how much great writers take in drawing from their own lives to produce the most honest and beautiful literatures and dramas. Read and see Gonzalez’s plays. We are witnessing a writer that comes along once a generation. From the black hole, a star is born. But, don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

– – –

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

Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and “independent and provocative” (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [2019] and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre [2022]) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy ( Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

The Dramatic Fulcrum of the Action

Risk is inherently dramatic. This can be demonstrated through a familiar example. If you drive through town at thirty miles an hour, following the rules of the road, little drama results. If, however, you drive through town at a hundred miles an hour, drama lies in wait around every corner. You will, with Shakespeare’s Brutus, say: “Fates, we will know your pleasures” (Julius Caesar 3.1.98). The reason is that, by weaving through traffic at inordinate speeds, you are taking maximum risk. Around every hairpin turn, you dance on the edge. An unexpected pothole or a blowout at thirty miles an hour is manageable. At a hundred miles an hour, a deer leaping out of the woods is less manageable. Risk is inherently dramatic because it exposes you to unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events. The more risk you take, the more you expose yourself to loose gravel, fresh tarmac, drivers around you deviating from the line. At high enough speeds, the hand of God could strike from any direction.

Because risk is inherently dramatic, playwrights have made, in many tragedies, risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is going too fast trying to solve the riddle of the regicide. By taking on inordinate risk, Oedipus triggers the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event: he finds out that he himself is the regicide he seeks. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet are going one hundred miles an hour too fast. As a result, they die when the post is delayed: when risk is elevated, one letter can make the difference between life and death. In Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains, husband and wife Jim and Della Young find out that the more risk they take to become parents, the more reality twists and forks in unexpected paths.

Action is what triggers the risk events that audiences look forward to with anticipation and apprehension. Drama, from the Greek drān is “to do” or “to act” (LSJ s.v. dráō). By killing Duncan, for example, Macbeth triggers unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. In other words, it is by the act of casting the die that the die is cast. In this essay, however, I want to look at the verbal components of risk. The first verbal component of risk is the use of words and speech to highlight, accentuate, and draw attention to impending risk events. The second verbal component of risk involves using dialogue to draw taut the string of suspense. Finally, the third verbal component is where words themselves perform actions. Let us explore the ways of performing risk by saying words.

The Very Firstlings of My Heart

One way to signal to the audience that events of great daring are forthcoming is to tell them. Macbeth, for example, announces his intentions before storming Macduff’s castle:

MACBETH. Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits.
The flighty purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done. (4.1.143–48)

Antonio in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi also tells the audience to watch out for dramatic fireworks. Before risking all on a doubtful reconciliation with the Cardinal, who has murdered his wife and children, he announces the enormity of his task:

DELIO. What course do you mean to take, Antonio?
ANTONIO. This night I mean to venture all my fortune—
Which is no more than a poor, ling’ring life—
To the cardinal’s worst of malice. (5.1.60–63)
In the event that the audience missed Antonio’s first declaration, Webster has Antonio repeat himself a few moments later. He is definitely throwing caution to the winds:
ANTONIO. Come, I’ll out of the ague;
For to live thus is not indeed to live.
It is a mockery, and abuse of life.
I will not henceforth save myself by halves;
Lose all, or nothing. (5.4.45–49)

By daring to “venture all my fortune” and wagering to “lose all, or nothing,” Antonio signals that he is on the verge. Because he has taken on inordinate risks, he can no longer cover his position, leaving himself exposed. The scene, therefore, is set for the low-probability, high-consequence event to surprise the audience. The audience will not be disappointed: as Antonio sneaks into the Cardinal’s chamber, he will be struck down by the very friend who has come to save him.

Because audiences are unaware when the risk event takes place, playwrights give audiences a heads up that the dramatic fulcrum approaches: anticipated moments are memorable moments. In the past, the cue took the form of highly artificial forms of speech. Though Macbeth is ostensibly talking to Lennox when he says: “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand,” his words really are thoughts spoken out loud for the benefit of the audience. The same is true when Antonio tells Delio “This night I mean to venture all my fortune.” It is spoken as a sort of soliloquy. Certainly, when Hamlet says to himself: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” it is part of a soliloquy proper (4.4.64–65). In an age, however, where more naturalistic patterns of speech are preferred, the playwright can embed the announcement in dialogue. McClain adopts this technique in Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Della, rejected at the adoption agency, lights the dramatic wick when her nurse, Esther, tells her of a promising but unlicensed fertility clinic:

ESTHER. I can give you his contact information. But you have to promise me that you won’t mention my name or how you found out about him to anyone. Not your husband, not anyone! I could lose my nursing license!
DELLA. Esther, of course not. I won’t say anything. I just—I’m ready to try something different. My current treatment isn’t working and I—I can’t look back on this as another opportunity I screwed up by being overly cautious. (155)

Ostensibly, Esther shares with Della her contact at the unlicensed fertility clinic. The audience, however, hears a dramatic subtext in their conversation, hears Della throwing caution to the winds. When the audience hears her go risk on, they sit on the edge of their seats, expecting the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event to happen at any moment.
Because risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, playwrights have at their disposal various ways of drawing attention to the impending risk event. A direct method involves having characters say that they are going all-in by speaking their thoughts out loud in a soliloquy or an aside. Alternatively, the declaration of risk could take place indirectly in the dialogue between characters. Either way, through speech and voice, the audience is primed for what is to come.

The Dialogue of Rising Risk: Stichomythia

Not only can words signal risk, words can also themselves set off risk. A common example of how speech elevates risk is stichomythia, from the Greek stíchos “line of verse” (LSJ s.v. stíchos) and mūthos “speech” or “talk” (LSJ s.v. mūthos). In stichomythic speech, two characters exchange rapidly alternating lines while voicing antithetical positions. In Sophocles’ play Antigone, after Creon sentences Antigone to death, Haemon (Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé) attempts to persuade Creon to change his mind. Stichomythia begins as Haemon’s attempt breaks down:

CREON. Why, you degenerate—bandying accusations,
threatening me with justice, your own father!
HAEMON. I see my father offending justice—wrong.
CREON. Wrong?
To protect my royal rights?
HAEMON. Protect your rights?
When you trample down the honors of the gods?
CREON. You, you soul of corruption, rotten through—
woman’s accomplice!
HAEMON. That may be,
but you will never find me accomplice to a criminal.
CREON. That’s what she is,
and every word you say is a blatant appeal for her—
HAEMON. And you, and me, and the gods beneath the earth.
CREON. You will never marry her, not while she’s alive.
HAEMON. Then she will die…but her death will kill another. (831–43)

In alternating lines, the characters lay down antithetical standpoints. While Creon emphasizes his position of authority as king and father (“your own father,” “my royal rights,” “You will never…”), Haemon points out that Creon, by sentencing Antigone to death for burying her brother, is going against what the gods want, which is for the dead to be buried. By rapidly alternating the dialogue between antithetical positions, stichomythia raises, through words and speech, tension to the point of breaking.

Though an artificial device to raise the tension, stichomythia, by closely approximating patterns of speech in everyday life, is a versatile device. Consider, for example, how easily it makes the transition from ancient to modern drama. Here is an example from Gabriel Jason Dean’s play In Bloom. Dean’s play examines power, imperialism, and privilege. In this scene, British-Indian professor Kashi Jones awards American writer Aaron Freeman the prestigious Sommerville Prize, but not before asking the hard questions before a packed Cambridge auditorium. As she presses and Aaron resists, the dialogue goes stichomythic:

AARON. Doctor Jones, I gotta be honest, I’m feeling a bit sabotaged up here.
KASHI. I’m sorry, but I hope you’ll understand. I can’t let your achievements or your confessional book get in the way of asking important questions.
AARON. Are you Hindi?
KASHI. I suppose you mean Hindu.
AARON. OK. Yes, I beg your pardon. Hindu. Are you?
KASHI. I don’t see how this is relevant.
AARON. Come on. You read my book. You know everything about me. Are you Hindu?
KASHI. Culturally yes. Spiritually no.
AARON. Are you Muslim?
AARON. You’re an Indian woman, living and working in Britain, judging by your last name, Doctor Jones, you’re probably married to a Brit, which I think means you know a thing or two about imperialism—
KASHI. Mr. Freeman!
AARON. And your work is about women in Afghanistan. What qualifies you to tell their stories? You’re not Afghan.
KASHI. I’m not a storyteller. I’m a scholar.
AARON. So academics get a pass?
KASHI. No, that’s not what I’m saying—
AARON. Is my perspective on this irrelevant becasue I’m not brown…enough? (48)

As Kashi and Aaron spar over right, privilege, social justice, identity politics, and cultural appropriation, the risk of their debate exploding increases. Stichomythia, by allowing two antagonists to concentrate their positions in the alternating lines, takes them towards a point of no return. With each line, they dig in, raising the stakes. The rising pitch is unsustainable: something will give, and, when it does, the repercussions will be consequential.

How to Make Risk with Words

Risk is associated with physical actions. In Pierre Corneille’s The Cid, for example, the Count makes risk by performing the physical act of a slap. Don Diego, who has received a promotion, meets the Count, who feels the promotion was his. They argue:

THE COUNT. The honour then was due to me alone.
DON DIEGO. Who was not given it deserves it not.
THE COUNT. Deserves it not! I?
THE COUNT. Your impudence,
Reckless old man, will have its due reward.
[He gives him a slap.]
DON DIEGO [drawing his sword]. Go on and take my life after this slight—
The first at which my line has bowed in shame.
THE COUNT. And what, old weakling, could you hope to do?
DON DIEGO. O God! my failing strength abandons me! (222–30)

The physical act of the slap marks the moment the die is cast. A chain reaction of events ensues: Don Diego’s son, bound to defend his father’s honour, will to duel the Count to the death. Unfortunately, Don Diego’s son is also betrothed to the Count’s daughter. The physical act of the slap is the trigger of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.
Although risk is associated with action—a slap, casting the die, crossing the Rubicon, dropping the gloves—in his 1962 book How to Do Things with Words, philosopher J. L. Austin defined and explored a class of words which are performative in nature. Utterances such as “I do” (during a marriage ceremony), “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” (while dedicating a vessel), “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother,” (in a will), or “I bet you sixpence,” argued Austin (1968, 5), are activities that are done with words. Because these utterances constitute actions, he called them “speech acts” (Austin 168, 40). As risk is associated with action, speech acts make it possible to make risk with words.
Nicholas Dunn, in his play The Value, makes risk with words. Nickel-and-dime criminals Ian and Zoey discover that the painting they stole is a modern masterpiece worth much more than tens of thousands they were hoping for. They have a buyer that can give them, right here and right now, tens of thousands. Zoey wants to take the buyer’s certain offer. Ian wants to hold out for more, but could wind up with nothing. Zoey, preferring the bird in hand and tired of Ian’s “woulda,” “coulda,” and “shouldas,” issue him an ultimatum:

ZOEY. No! Ian, no one understands when you talk like that! If you’re after more money just fucking say it!
IAN. I’m not talking about money! You guys think money is the end of all this, but it’s not. It never is! I been hustlin’ my whole life and it just bets me to the next one and the next one. This is about means. This is about access. About power. About the ability to go up. Beat. ZOEY looks at VICTOR, who remains shrunken against the wall.
ZOEY. Did that make any sense to you?
VICTOR doesn’t reply. She turns back to IAN.
ZOEY. My turn. And listen how easy this is, to communicate, when the concept is plain and simple. This is about need. The three of us need money. And the three of us need each other. Those are the things we need to survive. You know that, don’t you? That we need each other? I thought you did know that—finally—but maybe you forgot again when McEvoy told you what we had. But the painting is nothing. It’s fucking splotches of color on cloth. Soon, one way or another, it’ll be gone. And when it disappears it makes no difference. But I’m here. You’re here. And that does make a difference. It doesn’t have to disappear. It can stay. This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it. I came here for you. I did this for you. I risked everything for you. Because we are kin. Now we can sell this useless thing to McEvoy, make his fucking life complete, and walk away with enough money to go somewhere, somewhere different, and start over. I need that. You need that. [Pause]
IAN. Zoey…
ZOEY. You need me. The question is, do you know it. Do you finally know it? If you do, you’ll sell the painting and we’ll be unstuck. If you don’t this is it. This is the last time we see each other. This isn’t a hustle, it’s the goddamn truth. So make this right. There. See how straightforward that is?
There’s a soft know on the door. Beat.
ZOEY. Well? What will you do?
Pause. Another knock.
ZOEY. Ian? [Beat]
IAN. I. Can’t. Settle. (128–29)

Ian’s “I. Can’t. Settle” is a performative utterance. It commits him to a course of action. It is the exact opposite of saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony. By saying it, he irrevocably rejects Zoey. By a toss of words, the die is cast; there is no return. It is like a slap. By performing risk with words, Ian triggers unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events: Zoey, speechless, exits and goes deep into the underworld to find another buyer for the painting, one who will leave Ian with nothing. In the speech act, the word is equivalent to the physical act. With speech acts, one makes risk by saying words.

Why Risk?

In drama, the relationship between words and risk is threefold. First, words may be used to announce that the risk event is imminent. When Hamlet says: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” he is telling the audience that he is ready to take on danger, and the unexpected events that come with danger. Second, words may be used to set off the risk event. Stichomythia, by rapidly alternating between antithetical positions, is a verbal device that quickly escalates tension. Third, words may be used in lieu of actions to perform risk. A class of performative utterances—“I dismiss,” “I convict,” or “I bet” (Austin 1968, 152–57)—are able to engender risk the same way as physical acts. Speech acts are spoken with power.

Today is a fascinating time to explore risk because risk is the basis of my new theory of tragedy. I introduced my theory in a 2019 book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In this book, I likened the thrill and rising action of theatre to the delirious wagers gamblers place at the no-limit tables. The book then became the centrepiece of an international playwriting competition inviting playwrights to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action ( The response was overwhelming: playwrights from seventeen countries have participated. Then, in early 2022, the second risk theatre book came out: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. The second book is an anthology. It brings together a sampling of plays from the competition: Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, and Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Along with the plays are six new essays on the intersection between theatre, probability theory, chance, and risk. These essays respond to the criticisms of the first book—that it had too little engaged with existing theories of drama—and lay out a new path forwards for writers, students, and teachers to engage with risk. By bringing together risk theatre plays and risk theatre essays, the goal of the book is to bring together the practice and theory of drama in a new unity.

The first four years of the competition have brought about two milestones: playwrights discovered they love working with risk and audiences discovered interpretations based on risk unlock drama. These are still the early days of exploring how risk functions as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Much of the grunt work is still to follow. This essay on how voice and speech on stage anticipates and triggers risk events represents a start, the next leg of the journey into researching risk on stage. Many pathways, and unexpected, are opening up. Let us see where they lead.


Austin, J. L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford.

Corneille, Pierre. 1975. The Cid. In The Cid, Cinna, The Theatrical Illusion, translated by John Cairncross, 23–109. London: Penguin.

Dean, Gabriel Jason. 2022. In Bloom. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 5–80. Victoria: Friesen.

Dunn, Nicholas. 2022. The Value. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 77–146. Victoria: Friesen.

McClain, Emily. 2022. Children of Combs and Watch Chains. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 143–97. Victoria: Friesen.

Shakespeare, William. 1984. Julius Caesar. Edited by Arthur Humphreys. Oxford: Oxford.

– – -. 2016. Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Shakespeare.

– – -. 2015. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Sophocles. 1984. Antigone. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 33–128. New York: Penguin.

– – -. 1984. Oedipus the King. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 129–251. New York: Penguin.

Webster, John. 1997. The Duchess of Malfi. In Six Renaissance Tragedies, edited by Colin Gibson, 243–347. Houndmills: Palgrave.

Wong, Edwin. 2019. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Victoria: Friesen.

Wong, Edwin, Gabriel Jason Dean, Nicholas Dunn, and Emily McClain. 2022. When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. Victoria: Friesen.

Edwin Wong is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. In 2019, he launched the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition ( The competition invites playwrights around the world to explore risk. He is also the author and coauthor of two books examining the intersection between theatre, chance, and probability theory: The Risk Theory Model of Tragedy (2019) and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre (2022). He was educated at Brown University and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

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