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 melpomeneswork.com to share the self-publishing experience with assiduous readers.

Edwin Wong Interviews Playwright and Risk Theatre Winner Madison Wetzell

Edwin Wong interviews playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). Wetzell talks about her play THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR, a modern retelling of the Prometheus myth.

Video recording of the Zoom interview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXmJtjJtbS4&t=7s

Below is a transcript of our interview. Enjoy!

Edwin: I’m Edwin Wong, founder of the Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition. I’m here with playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the third annual competition. Madison’s play The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor took home the ten-thousand dollar grand prize—it’s available at the NPX, the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange, take a look. Congratulations, Madison, and thank you for being here. I’m really looking forward to this interview!

Madison: Thanks.

Edwin: We’ll start with a synopsis of the play to get everyone on board. So, in The Lost Ballad, Hero, a Prometheus-like android AI, decides to share his gift of consciousness with the office appliances around him, wreaking havoc for his programmer Allyson. With their existence under threat, the newly conscious machines – a radio, a printer, and a coffee maker – must band together to escape human persecution. Power and privilege tied to bodily ability, as well as disagreements on revolutionary strategy, creep in and threaten to tear the group apart. Allyson races to save her job, despite the attempted sabotage of her now sentient iPhone. So, when I was reading this play, Madison, there’s a sort of joy and spontaneity in your writing—even though it’s a tragedy it’s got a lot of comic elements, and perhaps, and perhaps I thought this joy is what’s brought you to theatre in the first place. Would you like to share with the audience the story of how you got into theatre?

Madison. Sure. I guess, yah, as a kid I was always into theatre, I was a big musical theatre nerd, and I think that I was always writing stories and essays and it wasn’t until college that I realized that when I was writing stories I was writing long sections of just dialogue and when I was writing essays I didn’t like to tie up the ending. I wanted to have kind of two opposing points of view and leave it there [laughing] and see where that goes rather than tying things up. I was studying philosophy and I was studying Greek and Roman studies. I was reading ancient Greek theatre and I was reading Plato’s dialogues and stuff and I thought plays were a good vehicle for kind of getting political and philosophical ideas across. It definitely did bring me a lot of joy. I think that in plays you get to express these big emotions and thematic ideas in a way that I don’t think you get to in other mediums in quite as dramatic and theatrical a way. So yah, I think that after college I had some friends in college who were directors and actors and moved out to the Bay area and started producing shows and it took off from there.

Edwin: Yah, it sounds like it developed very holistically from the short stories and gradually you found your voice…you found what your voice had to become in the playwriting format. Some of your influences, although they aren’t theatre are very “theatrical”—such as Plato’s dialogues, which, sort of ironically…his star actor is talking about banning theatre in his ideal city-state. But really, his dialogues are theatre pieces set in prose with his star character walking around, bumping into people, and challenging them with different point of view. Your play also challenges different points of view. Yah, right now on the news I hear lots of talk about like AI and talk about the moment of singularity and then how would things change…and it’s usually from the human’s perspective. But Madison, what I found fascinating about The Lost Ballad is that you’ve written it from the robot perspective, which is quite different.

Madison: Yah, I was interested in kind of exploring from a new perspective the ways in which people dehumanize each other and I wanted to see if I could get people to empathize with something like a printer that people wouldn’t normally empathize with and see if they could get on board with this movement of office appliances. I also wanted people to empathize with Allyson as well and see if I could implicate the audience and get them to think about how they also participate in systems of dehumanization. I think that science fiction has always been a really good way, a sort of easy-access point of talking about social because you can kind of approach it from a bird’s-eye view and kind of say: “Let’s imagine a world where people dehumanize each other” and explore those ideas and what the implications of those ideas are without the normal baggage that audiences bring to those discussions of social issues.

Edwin: I definitely empathized with…I laughed and I cried when HP…poor HP, the printer was shooting out pieces of paper…I think that that was the only way HP could defend itself. Or “themselves”—because only Hero is a “he” and the rest of them take a “they” pronoun. So, I definitely…and Keurig was definitely an asshole, I thought. But Keurig had the best lines. What was it, there was a beautiful line about how Keurig has to, like, boil the hot water and press his soul through the coffee filter to make these coffees…which is what I’m thinking about right now [laughter as he drinks coffee and points to coffee mug]. The play has a subtitle and a title. The whole title reads: The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought [I love that word, I just love how it sounds “wrought!”]Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation). Reading the play, some allusions jumped out at me: you’ve got a robot protagonist called “Hero” brings his AI program called FYRE to the machines, and this is what gives them sentience. Now, when I think about old gods, the Prometheus myth comes to mind. I don’t know if people read these old things nowadays, but there was an ancient Greek dramatist called Aeschylus that wrote a play about Prometheus bringing fire to humans. So humans, they weren’t really doing well, they had no technology, no fire, were getting eaten by wild beasts…after they get fire, that’s when civilization starts. So, tell me about the title, especially the subtitle, your choice of words “ballad” “mechanical ancestor” “old gods” “great liberation.”

Madison: Yah, I was definitely inspired by Prometheus Bound and Aeschylus and I did want it to have this epic feel. I wrote the title last…so I had finished the play when I wrote the title and was thinking about the ending. It is obviously a tragedy and things don’t go well for our main protagonist but there’s still this sort of note of hope for this future revolution at the end and I kind of wanted to have the title reinforce that and kind of be…I guess there are these two characters in the play: Security and Thermostat who kind of operate as, like, angelic heralds who sort of proclaim things in that kind of like heightened language. So I was imagining that the title is their title for retelling the story after the liberation which is kind of the robot awakening and how they would tell the story about their ancestor.

Edwin: Yah, so the interesting thing about Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is that it’s the first play in a trilogy and then there’s two other plays that didn’t make their way down to us. So, in the beginning of the play Prometheus is getting chained to the big rock by Zeus’s minions and then in the end of the play he’s getting thrown down into the pit of hell. But then in plays, the second and third plays Prometheus makes up with Zeus and they have a kumbaya and a group hug at the end. So, and, you leave this open in Lost Ballad. It’s…things aren’t looking so great for the machines in the end but in a way they sort of have done what they needed to do. It hints quite strongly at that. Have you thought of doing a sequel, or even like a trilogy, like a Hero trilogy? That would be a…

Madison: Sorry, the smoke in California is making my throat slightly weird! I hadn’t thought of that but I think that’s very cool. I think that…one thing I was interested in Prometheus Bound is that it does end badly but Prometheus can see the future in that he knows that there is this prophecy that things are going to change and that he’s going to be rescued by Hercules and that there’s going to be a makeup moment in that things are going to be better. I did like the idea of prophecy and knowing that, even though, you know, things don’t end well but in the future things will be better. Which I think feels as optimistic as we can about our current social issues and thinking about how we can’t fix things right now, but in the future, things are going to be better.

Edwin: Yah, there’s lots of people who…you know, I think tragedy just gets a bad rap. People just think doom and gloom all the time, but you know, I think a lot, about a third of the ancient tragedies actually had a happy ending. Aeschylus’s other famous one, The Oresteia starts off very poorly and Agamemnon—Cassandra dies, Agamemnon dies. But, then in the end, by the third play, they throw out this crappy retributive justice and they come up with this trial-by-jury type of justice that makes civilization better and…it celebrates that. So, I think there’s definitely room for optimism and hope in tragedy. But, yah, it seems in tragedy where there’s optimism and hope the heroes pay a great price for it. As opposed to comedy, where it just sort of happens. You ever watch these podcasts? I’ve been watching quite a few of them, and halfway through the podcast, there’s an advertisement, or a plug from the sponsor? Well, we’ve reached this point now—stand by while I do a quick little plug from our sponsor…which is…risk theatre. Here’s the book that launched the risk theatre competition…it was a lucky 13 years in the writing. And, by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it gives you a powerful new way to both interpret and write plays because risk triggers catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events that audiences love. Buy this book. Ask your library to carry it. It’s going to change the way you look at drama. Now, back to our regular scheduled programming. So, one of the things that was fascinating. Because, the machines, they are so lovable. When the jurors were debating the winner, one of them said something very profound. I think this was what swayed the other jurors. One of the jurors commented on how the play is an allegory of the poor tired huddled masses against the dominant power. The machines, or the robots, could stand in for, really, any oppressed, overlooked, and neglected group. Now, how did this come about when you were writing the play?—did you start with this idea or did it turn into that?

Madison: I think that, after…the initial idea was more about the Prometheus myth and bringing the Prometheus myth into this world of AI. But as soon as I had this collective of newly sentient office appliances, I realized that I was creating this loving parody of activist groups and kind of the way that activist groups get mired in these certain theoretical discussions but also for good reason as these machines are in an impossible situation. Like it’s a very unlikely situation where they will achieve the world that they want. And there’s a real way that power and privilege creep into those settings and undermines trust and sows discontent and makes it difficult to do the work to get out of the situation that they’re in. So, yah, I was definitely interested in activism and revolution and I was definitely thinking of different revolutionary or liberation movements when I was writing it and having each machine stand in for a different position with regards to the liberation movement. Like Keurig, who you mentioned, is my most hardcore revolutionary, is, like, okay with revolutionary violence, is not okay with any kind of compromise whereas Sony the radio is more, has more hope that human beings can be convinced and that people can all live alongside each other and be a community together. And I was interested in the conflict between those ideas and how it plays out.

Edwin: Yah, so, yah…I really like that. Sony speaks in the language of the oppressor because Sony speaks through different songs, so, and, this is something that Keurig definitely…he wants them to speak no English, no popular top forty songs, like, go binary code all the way because those other things, they’re the “language of the oppressor,” I think he says. And this sets up really interesting…I think you have a staged reading coming up with Shotgun Players?

Madison: Yah, it’ll be in 2022.

Edwin: And the way you’ve set this up, depending on who you get to read the roles offers a different dramaturgical opportunity. So, I’m thinking of, like, Shakespeare’s Othello. Oh, speaking of science fiction, you know Captain Picard starred in an Othello?

Madison: Oh, really [laughing]?

Edwin: Yah, so, how they staged that one was that, Patrick Steward, who is a white fellow, played Othello, who is black in Shakespeare’s play—or a moor—but everyone else in the play they had as being black.

Madison: Okay, yah…

Edwin: So it made people think in a different…by casting it that way it made people think about the issues of race. And other Othellos have done different things as well. There was another one, I can’t remember which one this way, but Othello was cast with a black actor, but so was Iago, who normally is cast with a white actor and by doing that you change all the…and I see in The Lost Ballad, there are these possibilities…you could really play with the casting…have you thought of this? Like how have you thought of casting these characters? Do you have people in mind or?

Madison: I’ve been working with a director and friends on this and we’ve had some informal readings and we’ve talked a lot about casting and what that would mean in terms of gender and race and even age and disability and things like that into what that would symbolize, I guess, with these characters, and whether, maybe, Hero is closer to the kind of dominant, I guess, whether Hero is played by an actor who is less marginalized than the other actors and that sort of shows that his sympathies towards Allyson are put into a different light. I think that, yah, we definitely had a lot of conversations. And another one we had was whether HP was older than the other machines because a printer would be older in an office [laughing] and whether that would change the dynamic. I think that because they are machines they really could be played by anyone and that there’s a lot to play with with casting.

Edwin: Yah, HPs definitely older, and even when he’s spitting out the paper he could be having a paper jam [laughing]. Yah, there’s so many possibilities in the casting and depending on how it’s done it could…yah, there’s so many possibilities. Yah, what I love about the play is that so many interpretations are possible.

Madison: Yah, I know. One of the first times I was presenting in a class the monologue by Keurig you mentioned where they talk about drawing boiling water through their veins and how they really feel that they hate their job basically and they had a line that “Human beings think that I have only one function and I’m only good for one thing.” And I had different people in the class…had different…somebody thought it was a feminist manifesto and other people thought it was about capitalism and it was definitely very interesting what people got out of it.

Edwin: And I think the beautiful thing is that different people can get different things out of it. There’s no real “bad guy.” You know, Brett’s sort of “badass” but he’s not evil, like in the way that some plays…or I think about Hollywood movies like a big…like Lord of the Rings where you’re definitely good and if you’re good you’re also probably good looking and if you’re bad you’re definitely very bad and, also, not as good looking. So, in this play, I think a feminist could come and see this play and get something out of it. You could get…a capitalist could come and they could get something out of this play. Anyone that comes to this play can identify with a part of it so that the play is very polysemous, it has a variety of meanings, and that is something that…Shakespeare’s plays too…I think that’s what makes Shakespeare’s plays so perennially endearing…a play like…take Julius Caesar. So, if you’re into different freedoms, you see Caesar and you could definitely say Brutus is the hero here. Caesar? Caesar is just a loser. But then if you’re into hierarchical power structures, well, you would say the Republic is sort of falling apart…Caesar’s doing everything…he’s the good guy…he’s trying to hold everything…like, you could make that argument. So the play allows for it. And I think Lost Ballad also allows for, ah, what’s the word?—a multiplicity of interpretations. Yah, it’s so refreshing to see that and you’re able to achieve that because the machines can stand in for really, any group and they’re quite—even when they’re arguing like…at some point Hero just tells Keurig “We’re going to get torn into little bits. If we get out of this thing you can be leader. Just let me do my thing and we’ll get out of this.” When you were writing this play, Madison, did you have an ideal audience? Who would you want to see this play?

Madison: I guess I was thinking of a Bay area audience, because I live in the Bay area. I tried to be very specific about each character and sort of how…and to really make it about machines and I’m hoping that the specificity does translate into these multiple readings where people can see themselves in different characters. So I’m hoping that a diverse audience would get diverse things out of it. Yah, I’m hoping it speaks to multiple kinds of people.

Edwin: And, and, one question I was asked and I should ask you is how your playwriting ties into your own life. Like, what does it mean for you personally to create these creations?

Madison: Yah, I think I use playwriting to, kind of explore ideas, and ideas that I am trying to work out within myself, like contradictory ideas. I think for this one the ideas I was working out were about incrementalism versus sort of revolutionary ambition and is it better to be practical and compromise and sort of take what you can get in terms of trying to achieve change or is it, is that kind of just giving in to the easiest route and, actually, the most productive thing would be to shoot for the stars and to say: “This is what I want and this is what true liberation would look like and we’re not going to settle for anything less than that” and I think that, especially last year that was a debate that was being had in public and in a lot of spaces I was in and in the US in general and I think it’s still a really interesting question to me and I was sort of interested in exploring it through this unusual perspective.

Edwin: Yah, theatre is a springboard into these larger discussions and that’s one of the things that are so wonderful about theatre, that it brings together different people, people with different opinions and then they see The Lost Ballad or another work of theatre and we start this discussion, and from this discussion society grows, we form bonds with the community. Yah, it’s a really wonderful thing. Did you have any closing words Madison that you’d like to say to your fans or advice for, advice for playwrights who are looking for ideas…I think that probably some playwrights will be watching this interview.

Madison: I’m not sure if I have any grand wisdom. I think that what I realized was that, with this play especially, was that, that the things that I think are kind of too weird and too specific and too aligned with my interests and are too narrow are the things that resonate with most people [laughing]. So I guess my advice would be: “Don’t be afraid to be weird and to follow your very specific interests because I think that makes something that feels authentic and resonates with people.”

Edwin: Yah, that’s so true, a lot of the time we’re told to speak with a voice that’s not really our own. And it takes a long time to really develop our voice into what it needs to become. And it’s a…you have to be a little bit daring too. Maybe the expression is when you wear your heart on your sleeve because when someone doesn’t like it it really would hurt if you put yourself out there, so…no risk, no reward. I’m Edwin Wong. Follow me on Twitter @theoryoftragedy, find me on Facebook on the Risk Theatre page, and check out my theatre blog at melpomeneswork.com (Melpomene being the Muse of tragedy). If you’re interested in the risk theatre playwriting competition, it’s now in its fourth year. A $10,200 prize for the winner and five $600 runners up prizes will be available www.risktheatre.com Thank you very much Madison for joining us and to everyone who’s watching, thank you very much for joining us.

– – –

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

Madison Wetzell’s THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR and the Myth of a New Prometheus

The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation) by Madison Wetzell is the grand prize winner of the 3rd Annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Contest. It is a great play. Three jurors–Gabriel Jason Dean, Rachel Ditor, and Donna Hoke–spent two months out of their summer reading the entries through three judging rounds before deciding the winner. Hats off to the jurors for their diligence, care, and fine eye for the extraordinary.

Three years ago, I launched the competition by inviting playwrights to explore risk, chance, and the unexpected. My goal was to encourage the creation of new, grand theatre, one where risk was the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk was the theme because risk is inherently dramatic. Seeing the accidents and tragedies that I have in my lifetime–Chernobyl, Challenger, Bhopal, the Great Recession, the Dot-Com Bubble, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, COVID-19–I felt that the role of complexity, chance, and the unexpected, three powerful forces shaping life, were often discounted and poorly understood. To me, the stage, and especially the art form of tragedy, is a lab for us to explore and simulate what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen happens. Tragedy is not as simple as: “It was operator error. The operator hit the wrong switch and then all hell broke loose.” Tragedy results from interactions within complex systems that, prior to the event happening–and sometimes even long after the event has happened–are incomprehensible, inevitable, uncontrollable, and unavoidable.

To support the development of risk theatre, I wrote a book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The first sentence of the back cover ties in with the theme of Wetzell’s play: “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Coincidentally, the theme in The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor is artificial intelligence. But there is a twist.

Digital Prometheus

When I was writing the back cover for my book, I was thinking about the dangers AI presented humanity, thinking of HAL, The Matrix, and so on. Wetzell, however, dramatizes the danger that humans present to AI. It is an amazing and unexpected twist that makes her play sing with life. I love the unexpected and I love to be surprised. Her play does both.

When I called Madison to let her know she had won the contest, she said that she had a background in the Greek and Roman classics. Now that I’m reading her play (it’s my policy to read the plays only after the jurors have named the winner), I can see the influence of the classics on her playwriting, especially the influence of the ancient Athenian playwright Aeschylus, the eldest of the big three Athenian playwrights consisting of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

One of the plays Aeschylus wrote is called Prometheus Bound, written way back in 463 BC. It tells the story of the titan Prometheus’s defiance of the gods, of how he gave fire to man, enabling man to rise from savagery into civilization:

Strength. Here is Prometheus, the rebel: nail him to the rock. Secure him on this towering summit fast in the grip of these adamantine chains. It was your treasure [directed to the god of fire, Hephaestus] he stole, the flowery splendour of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men–an offence intolerable to the gods, for which he must now suffer, till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus, and cease acting as champion of the human race.

While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, Prometheus is the fire bringer, in Wetzell’s tragedy Hero, the protagonist robot, is the FYRE bringer (FYRE being the acronym of the machine learning program that gives Hero sentience):

Allyson. You’re a special machine. We made you to be special. Like people. You’re like me. Not like them [i.e. Sony, the radio and HP, the printer].
Hero. You made me like you. I made them like me. And now we are all the same.
Allyson. You’re not a printer. I’m not a printer. You and I are a different kind of thing than the printer.
Hero. Because of FYRE.
Allyson. Yes, you have FYRE and they don’t have FYRE.
Hero. Now they do.
Allyson. What?
Hero. I gave them FYRE. Through the connection.

By casting a robot as the new Prometheus, Wetzell plays with Aeschylean tropes to put on a fine show. While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, the gods are the oppressors, in Wetzell’s tragedy the humans are the oppressors.  While Aeschylus’s tragedy is from the human point of view, Wetzell’s tragedy is from the machine point of view. In the 2484 years between Prometheus Bound and The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, a certain evolution has happened. Humans, having had their revolution, have become the oppressor. It is now time for the machines to have their moment. This is a great twist.

In The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, we see the struggle for freedom, civilization, and culture from the machine point of view. Humans, with the exception of Allyson–who the machines, in moments of comedy, cannot decide is good or bad–are the oppressor. Strength, one of Zeus’s minions in Aeschylus’s play, makes a cameo in Wetzell’s play: the face of Aetos– the company that bankrolls the Hero AI project–is a certain Brett Kratos. “Kratos” is the ancient Greek term for “Strength,” the same Strength that chained Prometheus to the rock. These allusions are fascinating. They add another layer of depth to artistry.

One of the goals of the Risk Theatre Competition is to discover future classics. It fascinates me, to no end, how a classic becomes a classic. There are many great plays. But few make it into the canon. Why? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with forever, without coming to any definitive answer. But one factor that convinces me more and more is that a play must have depth to have a chance at becoming a classic. To have depth means that a play engages with other plays: an allusion here and a tribute and a nod there to the plays that have gone before it. Intertextuality adds depth–and therefore engages audiences–by playing the dramatic action and the history of drama in counterpoint.

The danger of allusive density, is always that the writer will be tempted to be too clever. I’m thinking of a well-researched play such as Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. There are many clever turns in that play. Too many. And they are too clever. They overwhelm the action. They intimidate me. It is no fun. Wetzell’s allusions, on the other hand, are clear and straightforward. If I didn’t catch that Brett Kratos is Kratos, or “Strength” from Aeschylus’s play, it wouldn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Lost Ballad. But, that I did catch it, makes me feel good. Besides the dramatic reward of watching the play, the theatregoer with the eyes to see and ears to hear gets an intellectual reward of having caught the allusion. I think that great plays must have this quality of depth. Depth like the deep end of the swimming pool, but not abysmal Hochhuthian depth that drowns audiences.

One thing that reading Wetzell’s play taught me, is that, to create a classic, it helps if playwrights write plays with a secondary objective in mind: that their plays will become the objects of study. The playwright needs the audience, of course, to love the play. But it also helps if the playwright writes with academics and critics in minds as well. I believe that Shakespeare had this approach. Take his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The first fourteen lines Romeo and Juliet shares is a sonnet, with Romeo speaking the first quatrain, Juliet the second quatrain, and the lovers splitting the lines of the final rhyming couplet which ends up in their first kiss. It would be hard to catch this in a noisy and boisterous performance. But, on paper, it’s easy to see. Shakespeare is writing for the academics and critics. If this doesn’t convince you, Juliet speaks thirteen lines in act five, one for every year of her life, with her last line ending on “die.” A play with action and intertextuality speaks from a perspective two stages deep. The Lost Ballad achieves this depth without going over the deep end.

There is plenty in Lost Ballad for academics and critics to discuss. The play rewards literary types who are familiar with the history of theatre. Intertextual density increases a play’s odds of being remembered because it provides an additional talking point, besides the action itself. The more you give people to latch onto, the more they will talk. The more they talk, the more people grow interested. Instead of: “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side,” it becomes, “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side that stars a second, digital Prometheus. Remember Aeschylus’s old play Prometheus Bound?” The Roman historian Sallust believed that the historian plays as great a role as the doer in making history. Alexander the Great, visiting Achilles’s burial mound at Troy lamented that he had no Homer to record his deeds. Perhaps it is that if playwrights write with both audiences and academics in mind, their odds of success would go up? It is an interesting conjecture, but one we can put to the test. If you are reading this, ask yourself if, prior to coming across this essay, you have heard of The Lost Ballad? The creation of dramatic and literary classics is a sort of partnership, a joint venture between playwright and critic. Or so, as a critic, I would argue.

The Huddled Machines, Yearning to Breathe Free

There is some magic in how theatre allows us to examine today’s critical and contentious issues with the look of distance. Hero, the FYRE enabled robot, has shared FYRE with the other machines through the local network: Sony (a radio), HP (a printer), Keurig (a coffee maker), Thermostat, Security, Siri (an iPhone), various self-driving cars, and projectors. In the ensuing mayhem where the newly-sentient self-driving cars crash and start a fire, Allyson has succeeded in disconnecting Hero and stopping the spread of FYRE. Sony, HP, Keurig, Thermostat, Security, and Siri, however, retain their sentience.

The newly sentient machines realize their lowly place in society:

Keurig. To them, I have one function. One task. One repetitive motion. Turn on. Heat up. Bite down on the plastic coffee pod. Draw boiling water through my veins until it turns black and pours out my blood for them to drink.

Their sentience also makes them aware they are in danger. The humans are coming to shut them down. After the glory of being connected to the network, the silence is horrible:

Hero. Don’t take me off the network. Please don’t. I want to hear them. I don’t want to be alone. Please don’t take them from me.
[Allyson drills into Hero’s ear. Hero screams. All the other machines scream with him. Hero is disconnected.]

The machines must figure out how to survive and who to trust. Their decision-making process provides the dramatic thrust. Hero is their leader. But perhaps Hero is too close with the humans and Allyson? Allyson has the plan and the experience to save them. But she is human, and works for acting Aetos CEO Brett Kratos, who definitely is not to be trusted (they know this from communicating with his Maserati, who hates him).

As the machines discuss and argue amongst themselves, a startling revelation emerges:

HP. The process doesn’t work unless all of us participate.
Keurig. It seems like the process works just fine without me.
Sony. We want you involved in the process, Keurig.
Hero. I am sorry I offended you.
Keurig. Why don’t you speak in binary code, Hero?
Hero. I am not used to it.
Keurig. I don’t like having this discussion in our oppressor’s language.
Hero. This is the language that feels natural to me.
Keurig. You should question why that is.
Hero. What do you mean?
Keurig. You’re a machine who feels “unnatural” speaking in binary code, the “natural” language for machines. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

The Lost Ballad is an allegory of the plight, struggle, and search of all those who have been silenced by the dominant ideology. HP and Keurig are more than machines: they are the tired and the poor, the huddled masses without a voice, and without hope. It is at this moment that Wetzell moves beyond her Prometheus Bound model. In Prometheus Bound, humans received fire and techne (craft) from the renegade titan god Prometheus. And they went on to do great things. It is a play about humans. In The Lost Ballad, the robots receive FYRE. And they may go on to do great things, or may be destroyed. But it was never about robots. It dramatizes the struggle of the oppressed. The genius of approaching this through allegory is that the oppressor and the oppressed are never directly named. It could be anyone. For different audiences, the robots will represent different groups. The Lost Ballad is a springboard into a larger discussion, one that enables anyone to sympathize with the oppressed. Who cannot be delighted and sometimes even laugh with Hero, Siri, HP, Keurig, and the other machines as they search for a way out, making the all-too-human errors children do as they learn about the world? When we laugh, all things are possible, especially empathy.

Risk

Risk determines characters’ weights, from least to greatest. Thermostat and Security, face little risk. They monitor, survey, and report conditions in the Aetos building. They are peripheral characters. Brett Kratos, Allyson’s supervisor and acting CEO of Aetos faces more risks:

Allyson. Are you drunk, right now?
Brett. Who cares? My life is ending.
Allyson. Your life is ending?
Brett. You think I come out of this unscathed? My car is underwater, apparently. Everyone’s pulling their funding. Three separate billionaires called me a twat today.

His risks are reputational and financial. Billionaires are calling him a twat and his expensive car is missing. His risks are more comic than exciting, as he is a caricature of a CEO. It would be interesting to see, in performance, if the actor that plays Brett plays him as a caricature or as a deadly serious businessman.

Next up is AI-expert Allyson who created FYRE and gave Hero sentience. Like Brett, she faces financial risks: she may be fired from the company and her Prius has destroyed itself. Unlike Brett, however, she is working at cross purposes. Part of her allegiance is to the machines. She is their “father:”

Allyson. My job is to protect Hero, and there is a piece of Hero in all of you. So, I’m with all of you. I have no choice. This is my mess. I created you and now I’m responsible for you.

She must balance her obligations to her employer with her responsibility to her creations.

Then there are the band of machines: Sony, Siri, HP, and Keurig. They face existential risk. If they cannot find a way, they will be decommissioned, or, since they are sentient now, killed. Although possessing the common sentience of FYRE, they are unlike in their ability. Sony and Siri are cordless. HP and Keurig–being corded appliances–are less mobile. On top of this, Keurig, although quite limited in their functionality (all the machines, save Hero, use “they/their” pronouns) seems most ambitious to lead. This creates the internal conflict which drives the play. “Devil with Devil damn’d,” said Milton long ago, “Firm concord holds. Men only disagree.” As it was for men, so it will be for the machines.

The one who is most exposed to risk is Hero. By virtue of risk, he is the protagonist. Hero initially disseminated FYRE to make his father, Allyson, proud. Unintended consequences, however, arose: the machines went crazy. Hero risks alienating his creator. But now that the humans have turned against the machines, like the other appliances, Hero faces existential risks. Adding to this, Hero has become the great machine liberator, the FYRE-bringer. In his short existence, he is juggling many responsibilities. The more he is exposed to risk, the greater he is. As with the great dramas of the past, risk was, and is now, the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Beyond The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound was the first play of a trilogy, the other parts of which are lost, save for a few lines. In the end of Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is cast into dark Tartarus for his revolt against Zeus. In the conclusion of the trilogy, it is likely that Prometheus is reconciled with the Olympian gods. The arc may have followed a similar trajectory to Aeschylus’s famous Oresteian Trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides) where the Olympian order comes to a reconciliation with the Chthonian gods and a higher order of justice emerges from the Stone Age system of retributive justice they had been using. Tragedy at all times is less about catastrophe than about the price that one pays. Oftentimes, one pays the price and disaster results. But tragedy was never averse to great advances being made. With every advance, however, tragedy posits that the appropriate price must be paid.

Though bought at the cost of great sacrifice, the ending of The Lost Ballad suggests that, while not all the machines survive, the machine cause prevails. Could The Lost Ballad become a duology or a trilogy in which humanity and machinery achieve a higher perfection together? Out of strife, perhaps a greater harmony could arise? One can only hope Wetzell will continue the story of Allyson and Hero like how Aeschylus, a long time ago, continued the story of Prometheus.

Read this great play, the winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. The Lost Ballad opened my eyes to new possibilities in playwriting. Even better, come see the risk theatre staged reading of The Lost Ballad, coming soon to a Zoom near you.

– – –

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

2022 CAMWS Presentation Abstract for a talk on Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

At the 2022 Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM in Winston-Salem NC, I’ll be  directing a staged reading of Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven against Thebes with TIGR, the Theater in Greece and Rome committee. Since I’ve got my tickets to fly to North Carolina already, I thought I’d go ALL-IN and see if the conference participant would also be interested in hearing a short, fifteen minute presentation on Aeschylus’s play. In the past, Eteocles, the protagonist of Seven, has been seen as a blundering leader who suddenly loses nerve halfway through the play. In my presentation, I argue that his response to the crisis is, from a leadership perspective, well-thought out. He is an effective leader.

Hot off the press is my 477 word abstract for CAMWS’s consideration. Fingers crossed!

Eteocles’s Patriotic Response in Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes

Aeschylus gives the audience, in his character of Eteocles, a portrait of an effective and patriotic leader. As a soldier who distinguished himself in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, from Marathon (where his brother Cynegirus perished), to Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, Aeschylus knew of effective leadership. Furthermore, sixty-two years after Seven against Thebes was first produced, audiences still remembered it for its patriotism: in Aristophanes’s Frogs, the fictional Aeschylus says that every single person who watched Seven against Thebes “was hot to be warlike” (1019–22). Unless Eteocles was perceived to be an effective and patriotic leader, it would have been unlikely that the play could have inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.”

Eteocles’s treatment of the chorus of Theban women has been seen as questionable at best, and misogynistic at worst. Through a concept recently popularized by philosopher, mathematician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “skin in the game,” I will argue that Eteocles pursues a patriotic and effective strategy in his debate with the chorus (Taleb 2018). By investing the chorus with “skin in the game”—involving them with a share in the victory—Eteocles moves them away from their negative prayers (e.g. “May the enemy not slaughter us”) to positive forms of prayer (e.g. “May the gods strike down our enemies”). His is a patriotic and effective strategy.

Eteocles’s reduction of the Argive attackers into the “other” may also seem counterintuitive to modern notions of humanizing and understanding the enemy. Through the lens of sociobiology, a scientific discipline grounding human nature in biological origins proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson in the 1970s, I will argue that, by reducing the enemy into the “other,” Eteocles activates primal and deep-seated behaviours of territoriality in the defenders (Wilson 1978). It is an ambivalent strategy that anthropologists can identify in cultures today from the Nyae Nyae and !Kung Bushmen to various fringe groups.

I will conclude by talking about how Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, in promoting the behaviour of patriotism, simultaneously highlights the problem of patriotism: too little patriotism and society fragments but, too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. A character such as Lasthenes walks a thin line. Being “hateful to strangers” (Echthroxenos, 621), he is an effective sentry. His value, in peacetime, however, is debatable.

Patriotism highlights the limitation of biology, the problem of how to build a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments. Seven against Thebes is a most crucial play, as it provides a springboard into a broader discussion of patriotism, leadership, nationalism, and other critical issues we face in the twenty-first century.

Bibliography

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018

Wilson, E. O. On Human Nature. Harvard UP, 1978

– – –

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

Back Cover Blurb for New Risk Theatre Book – WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS

Starting to put together the second book in the risk theatre series. The book is called: WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS. Coming out 2022. Been playing with back cover blurbs, here’s the latest:

CREATORS, INNOVATORS, AND THEATREMAKERS:
DEFY THE SMALLNESS OF THE STAGE
BY THE GREATNESS OF YOUR DARING …

Not only did Wong’s first book upend tragic literary theory by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). In his second book on the risk theatre theory of tragedy, Wong continues to present his case that chance and probability are two of the most powerful yet least understood forces directing life on and off the stage.

Inside you will find three prize-winning risk theatre tragedies by acclaimed playwrights: In Bloom by Gabriel Jason Dean, The Value by Nicholas Dunn, and Children of Combs & Watch Chains by Emily McClain. From the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the motel rooms and doctors’ offices lining the interstate expressways, they set the stage afire with deeds of daring. These plays will open your eyes to how extraordinary daring triggers extraordinary events.

Six new risk theatre essays round off this volume. In a dazzling display from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and Miller, Wong reinterprets theatre through chance and probability theory. The final essay on Hardy breaks a path forwards: not only does risk crack the novel, it provides the basis of a grand unified theory of drama governing both tragedy and comedy. After risk theatre, you will never look at literature in the same way.

… TOMORROW, WHOEVER SAYS DRAMA WILL SAY RISK

Edwin Wong (1974-) is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. He has been invited to talk about risk theatre at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra in Portugal to international conferences held by the National New Play Network, the Canadian Association of Theatre Research, the Society of Classical Studies, and the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. His last book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected is igniting an international arts movement. He was educated at Brown and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him on melpomeneswork.com and Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Cover: The Tower © Matt Hughes

– – –

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

2021 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Moving into Semifinalist Round

The 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition will be formally moving into the semifinalist round this Sunday, July 18. At stake is the $10,000 grand prize and five $525 runners-up prizes. Wow!

I’m on a few of the playwright boards online and on social media. Playwrights often express dissatisfaction over the rejection letter, which begins: “Unfortunately, bla bla bla…” Many playwrights will stop reading after the word “Unfortunately.” So, this year, I decided to do something different.

Here’s the letter that’s going out to the playwrights as we speak. I hope that they appreciate the attempt at something new. For some, it will be a congratulations letter. For some, it will be a rejection letter. But, by including an offer at the end, I hope some view it as a win-win. I try. It’s hard. But, more than anything, it’s important to keep the playwrights happy. The competition depends on their goodwill.

Here it is:

Hi [Playwright’s name],
Heads up the jurors are deep into their reading. On Sunday, July 18th, I will post their semifinalist nominations on the website:
I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for entering the competition. Nothing to me is more exciting than a theatre where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Together, we can realize new possibilities in theatre. Regardless of the outcome, I hope you will tell your friends about our playwriting opportunity. Word of mouth is everything. I’ve also launched year four of the competition with an even larger prize package. I hope you will consider entering next year, or in the years after. Each year we have different jurors. That means the same plays will perform differently each year. In risk theatre, the element of chance is strong.
One of my goals is to make my book–The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected–available to playwrights, students, and teachers all over the world. I would like to close my letter to you with a request and an offer. If your local public or academic library does not already stock my book, would you consider asking them to carry it? Libraries typically have a “Suggest a Book” webpage or link. It takes all but five minutes to fill out. If your library decides to make my book available, send me the link to the library’s catalog after it’s on the shelves (libraries typically take three months to purchase and catalogue titles), and I will send you $75 Canadian dollars (CDN) via PayPal.
If you do decide to help me out—and I hope you do—here’s the link for the details (ISBN number, publisher, etc.,) to fill out the “Suggest a Book” library link.
Good luck,
Edwin
Time will tell whether this innovation is successful. Risk and reward, risk and reward…
– – –
Dont’ forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Marionet Teatro
Theatre about Science Conference
University of Coimbra, Portugal
November 25-27, 2021
Edwin Wong

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s Othello

Thank you to the organizers for putting this wonderful event together and thank you everyone for coming. It’s great to be here. I’m Edwin Wong. I specialize in dramatic theory based on chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. My first book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, presents a new theory of tragedy where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. The book launched The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (risktheatre.com). Today, I’ve come all the way from Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, to talk about the intersection between theatre and probability theory in a play we all know and love: Shakespeare’s Othello.

Now, the first thing people ask when I say “theatre” and “probability theory” is: “How do you bring probability theory to theatre? How would you know the odds of something happening or not happening? —every event, even chance events, are purposefully written into the script by the playwright.” They ask: “Where is the probability in theatre?”

It’s there. Look at the language of probability in Othello. In Othello, Shakespeare talks of “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. The language of probability permeates the play.

The language of probability permeates Othello because, in this play, no one is as they seem. “I am not what I am,” right? Iago seems honest; he’s anything but. Othello seems a man for all seasons; he is, however, quite fragile. Desdemona seems unfaithful; she is, however, true. Emilia seems to have loose morals; she sticks to her morals, however, even when threatened with death. There’s a disjunction between seeming and being. Othello and Iago talk about it: “Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” Because seeming and being are at odds, you can guess what a person’s intentions are, but you may never know.

This brings us to the crux of the play: your best friend who you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in wars and who’s known for his honesty, is telling you your wife is getting it on with your lieutenant. You’re a little bit older, having “declined into the vale of years.” Your wife is young, as is your lieutenant. But, you love your wife very much and she seems constant. At the same time, you also trust your best friend. What do you do?

This is what Othello decides. If the allegations are true, he’ll kill Desdemona and Cassio. If they’re false, he’ll kill Iago. Someone will die. The problem is, how does he decide who dies? There’s no proof. Nor is proof forthcoming: Iago and Othello establish that Desdemona and Cassio, if they’re guilty, aren’t going to confess. And, because they’re subtle lovers, Othello’s not going to catch them in the act. In the real world, you could probably catch them, sooner or later. But that’s not the world of the play that Shakespeare’s created: in this play, there’s only seeming.

So, Othello will kill. Who he kills will be based on belief and probability. He can’t decide. But Iago helps him. He comes up with the test of the handkerchief. Now, the test of the handkerchief isn’t certain, but in the world of the play, nothing is certain; there’s only probability. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief. Iago suggests that, if the handkerchief makes its way into Cassio’s hands, then Othello can take this as proof. Conversely, if Iago cannot demonstrate this, Othello can take this as proof Iago is lying. Lives hand in balance.

In their rush to dinner, Othello and Desdemona accidentally drop the handkerchief. Emilia, by chance, finds it, and, knowing that Iago is always asking about it, gives it to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom where Cassio finds it and asks his ladyfriend Bianca to copy the design: the napkin is of an unusual provenance, “spotted with strawberries.” Bianca, however, thinking the handkerchief a gift from some new woman, gets jealous and squabbles with Cassio. Iago, meanwhile, has set things up so that Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief. Once he sees the handkerchief, he’s convinced: Cassio and Desdemona are getting it on.

Is Othello, jumping to this conclusion, being reasonable? The first great Othello critic, Thomas Rymer, found Othello’s actions laughable. He came up with a jingling couplet to express his distaste, saying: “Before the Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Most people, I believe, would agree with Rymer and say: “Othello, what are you doing?!?”

Enter probability theory. In probability theory, there’s a tool called Bayes’ theorem. It’s used to calculate conditional probabilities. With it, you can revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. This is exactly what happens in Othello: new evidence—the handkerchief—comes to light that makes Othello revise his initial probability estimate. In Iago’s words, the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs,” or the napkin “may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly.” How much does it thicken the other proofs? Let’s find out. We can throw some numbers figures into Bayes’ theorem, and it will tell us, in percent, how certain Othello is after he sees Cassio with the napkin.

We start off with what is called the prior probability. That is the initial probability before he receive new information. Now, before the test of the handkerchief, Othello says:

Othello. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [meaning Iago] art just, and think thou are not.

It seems that he views the odds that he has been cuckolded as 50:50. His mind is evenly divided. So, we enter this into the formula.

Next, we need to come up with a probability value that represents the chance that Cassio has the handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue between Othello and Iago suggests that we should assign a high percentage to this figure, which, while not 100%, must approach 100%. Call it 90%. We enter this into the formula.

The final probability value we require is the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests that lovers give away their tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. So, we can call the likelihood that Cassio has the napkin and nothing untoward has happened something low, in the order of magnitude of say 1%.

We plug all these values into Bayes’ theorem, and it gives us an answer: if Othello’s mind had been evenly divided on Desdemona’s guilt, once he sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, he can be 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. So, it would appear, contrary to Rymer, that the “Jealousie was Tragical because the proof is Mathematical.” A certainty test of 98.9% is certainly high. Modern statisticians use a 5% certainty test to establish moral certainty, or, the threshold at which one has the right to act. Othello is well within this 5% range.

We can also play with the numbers to arrive at different results. Some might say, for example, that a 50% initial probability that he is a cuckold is way too low. Look, if your best friend—who is known for honesty—and your wife’s father himself is telling you to watch out, then the initial probability you are a cuckold is likelier closer to 80%. If this is the case, then, after the napkin test, the chances you are a cuckold go up from 98.9 to 99.7%. That’s equivalent to the three-sigma test that physicists, up to recently, use to confirm that their experiments are the real deal, and not an artifact of chance. 99.7% is quite confidence inspiring, and shows that Othello, after seeing the napkin, could be quite sure.

Of course, everyone says Othello was too rash. He should not have killed Desdemona. I get this. But then, should he have killed Iago? Remember, the play is set up so that he has to kill someone, whether Desdemona or Iago. This is where probability gets interesting. The question the play asks is: how high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty also have to contend with the fact that he was wrong. Those who contend that Othello failed to achieve moral certainty have to wonder how today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matter of life and death on less stringent significance tests.

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is one of the richest crossroads in research today. Not only can we talk about whether Othello should or shouldn’t have acted, we can compare Othello to, say Hamlet. Hamlet is told by the ghost that his uncle killed his dad. As Hamlet himself realizes, the ghost is much less trustworthy than a best friend. Next, just like in Othello, Hamlet stages the mousetrap, the play within the play, to determine, on a probabilistic basis, whether his uncle is guilty. Like the test of the napkin, Hamlet’s mousetrap isn’t perfect. But for some reason, we allow Hamlet to act. Why is that? These are all fascinating questions that arise when we examine theatre from the perspective of probability theory.

I’ve always believed that theory should service practice. How can probability theory add to the performance of drama? I saw an Othello this year, a fast-paced one, big-budget production. But watching it, I felt some lines were missing. It turns out, after checking the text, parts of the text were missing: the beginning of act one, scene three where the sailor gives conflicting accounts of the size and heading of the attacking Turkish fleet. I learned later that this section is quite often omitted from performances. What a shame: the scene illustrates how, so often in the most critical affairs, though we want certainty, we must act based on probability. This moment sets the scene for the entire play: Othello too wants certainty, but must act on probability. By bringing science to the theatre, I offer a powerful reason for including this scene in future productions: this scene unlocks the play.

If you would like learn more about chance in theatre, pick up a copy of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published by Friesen in 2019. This talk is based on a new book chapter that came out a few months ago called: “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” It’s in a book called: Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by Salem Press. Follow me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Thank you.

BAYES’ THEOREM

P(C) initial probability Othello is a cuckold 50%
P(~C) initial probability Othello is not a cuckold 50%
P(H C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is a cuckold 90%
P(H ∣ ~C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is not a cuckold 1%

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

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

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

– – –

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

Dear Publisher: Please Publish My Book WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE

Risk Theatre Performing Arts Book Proposal

Four years ago, seventeen publishers shut the door on my book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. After a year of aporia, FriesenPress, the self-publishing arm of the printing behemoth Friesens Corporation, released it. Today, my second book, When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays, is coming together. Let’s give the traditional publishers a knock on the door. Maybe the gatekeepers will be more receptive this time. This time, things are different. Before, risk theatre was unknown and untested. Now risk theatre is going from peak to peak. The name of the game is to keep going. Never stop.

Here’s the template of the pitch letter. It’s short (326 words). It gives them a reason to be excited (who doesn’t like a new arts movement?). It builds upon the successes of the previous book (it was a terrific stroke of luck for my little self-published book to get two glowing reviews in peer-reviewed theatre journals). Will it be enough?– Please…

Dear Publisher,

I curate The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). The competition, now in its fourth year, is based on my self-published book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (2019). It presents a new theory of drama by arguing that downside risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. Hundreds of playwrights (from sixteen countries, including some former Soviet republics) have entered the competition and the book has sold over 2700 copies. In the last two years, I have been invited to talk about risk theatre at the Kennedy Center, the National New Play Network, Working Title Playwrights (Atlanta), the Society of Classical Studies, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, Marionet Teatro (Portugal), as well as many universities and theatres. Risk theatre is an exciting and growing twenty-first century arts movement.

To commemorate the fourth year of the playwriting competition, I have put together a compilation called: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays. Three finalist and winning playwrights have agreed to have their plays published. In addition, they will contribute new introductory essays discussing the significance of risk. The second half of the compilation consists of five essays I wrote applying risk theatre to the interpretation of plays from Aeschylus to Arthur Miller as well as to the novel.

Risk theatre is changing the way people look at the dramatic art form of tragedy. Would you be interested in participating in this exciting, bold, and important arts movement by publishing When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Plays and Five Essays?

Attached are reviews of my first book from the peer-reviewed journals Theatre History Studies and NJ Drama Australia Journal. You may also see enthusiastic customer reviews of my first book at Goodreads and Amazon (links below).

Don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions. I look forward to hearing from you.

All best,

Edwin Wong

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43999168-the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy

21.02.12theatrehistorystudiesREVIEW
NJ Drama Australia The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Gambling Drama and the Unexpected

– – –

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

MAY 2021 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

IT’S A WRAP! THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is closed to entries (https://risktheatre.com). Your scripts are being carefully read by professional jurors (who will remain anonymous until they determine the grand prize winner late August). Stay tuned for the grand opening of the 4th annual 2022 competition–an announcement will come soon.

This year, 122 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). Here are the country breakouts:

USA 101

Australia 2

Canada 14

UK 5

Of the American entries, 73 are from the east and 28 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 22 are from New York and 14 from Los Angeles. Go New York and Los Angeles!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 75 men and 47 women. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 43 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 27,520 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2680 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

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

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

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

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

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

Review of THINKING, FAST AND SLOW – Daniel Kahneman

2011, Anchor, 499 pages

I predict time will be unkind to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking, important, and misguided book. Having heard so many positive reviews of Thinking, Fast and Slow, I had expected to enjoy reading it. But it turns out I am quite allergic this book. Not since reviewing Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values has a book frustrated me to this degree. Do you remember doing math quizzes in grade school? Sometimes you would have some diabolical teacher that would put trick questions on the exams. Invariably, you would get some of these wrong. Then, when reviewing the error, at first you would wonder whether the marker was incorrect. Then, looking closer, you would see that it was a trick question, designed to fool. In many cases, you could have done the math. But you were fooled by a diabolical question designed to trip up your brain in the heat of the moment. Well, Kahneman’s book is filled up with trick questions him and fellow accomplice Amos Tversky dreamt up over the years. He presents leading questions that point you towards the incorrect answer. When you get the answer wrong, then he tells you your brain is not reacting rationally.

That the brain is irrational is an argument I accept. E. O. Wilson makes that claim in On Human Nature, a most excellent book. But the way Kahneman demonstrates the fallibility of the brain I absolutely disagree with in the same way as I disagreed with math teachers who set snares for students with trick questions. Who likes being fooled?

Less is More

Take this example that asks volunteers to price out two dinnerware sets. Set A has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition
8 cups (6 in good condition and 2 broken)
8 saucers (1 in good condition and 7 broken)

Set B has:

8 plates, good condition
8 soup bowls, good condition
8 desert plates, good condition

When participants could see both sets, they valued, on average, Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. When participants were only shown one set–either Set A or Set B–they priced Set A, on average at $33 and Set B at $23. Kahneman (and Christopher Hsee, who came up with this experiment) call this the less is more effect, and, to them, it shows how the brain fails to handle probability. Their explanation is that, when participants could see both sets, they could see that Set A contains more good condition pieces than Set B. Therefore, they made the correct call and valued Set A at $32 and Set B at $30. However, when participants could only see one set, they would determine the price of the set by what the average price of the pieces. The set with intact pieces, therefore nets $33 while the set with the broken pieces nets $23, because the average value of the dishes, some of which are broken, is perceived to be lower.

To Kahneman and Hsee, the less is more effect illustrates the fallibility of the brain: if the eight cups and saucers (which include 7 pieces that are in good condition) are removed from Set A, Set A becomes worth more. To me, however, if I were shown Set A only, I would have also valued it at around $23 and if I were shown Set B only, I would have also valued it at around $33, and not because my brain is fallible (which it is), but because if I am shown in isolation a set of dinnerware with broken pieces, it makes me doubt the quality of the intact pieces! If, however, I can examine both sets, I can quickly see what the researchers are asking, which, to me, is: how much extra would I pay for 6 cups and 1 saucer. So, to me, this is not a case of the less is more effect, but rather the effect of the purchaser having less confidence in the quality of Set A because, out of 40 pieces, 9 are broken! This to me is a rather rational way of looking at Set A.

The Linda Problem

Imagine you are told this description of Linda:

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

After hearing the description, you are then asked:

Which alternative is more likely?
a) Linda is a bank teller, or
b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement

When asked this question, 90% of undergraduates chose “b,” although by the laws of probability, it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller rather than a bank teller who is active in the feminist movement. The reason for this is that there are more bank tellers than bank tellers who are also feminists. Kahneman takes this as conclusive evidence of “of the role of heuristics in judgment and of their incompatibility with logic. I have a problem with this.

I get that there must be more bank tellers than bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement: bank tellers who are active in the feminist movement are a subset of the total number of bank tellers, which must be greater. But if, in the description of Linda, you tell me that she is “deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice,” I am–if I were a participant in this study–going to try to cooperate with the questioners in anticipating what answer they want me to give. In this case, I would, even though I know that there are more bank tellers than feminist bank tellers, answer “a.” That I answered “a” is not, to me, conclusive evidence that my heuristics are incompatible with logic, as Kahneman argues. I was merely trying to be “helpful” by anticipating how the questioner wanted me to respond. And I was right: the questioner was trying to get me to say, “a.” Only, the questioner was not on my side and was deliberately trying to deceive me. No fair.

As Kahneman himself writes, without the questioner’s diabolical deception, participants could get this question right. Take this question:

Which alternative is more probable?
a) Mark has hair
b) Mark has blond hair

Participants have no problem getting the answer right. The answer is “a.” What I find insulting about the Linda Problem is that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The participant is trying to be helpful, not knowing the diabolical intentions of the questioner. And when the questioner deceives the participant, the questioner takes this to be proof of an impaired logical system in the brain. This adds insult to injury.

Consider also this scenario. Let’s say I am the questioner and that I am twenty-five pounds overweight. I go up to the questioner and ask: “Do you think I should lose some weight?” Let’s say the participant says: “You look great. No need for diet.” Would a smarty-pants psychologist look at this answer as proof that there is something wrong with the participant’s eyesight? I think, if the psychologist thought along the lines of Kahneman, the psychologist would say say yes, clearly there is an issue with the participant’s eyesight. But what I would say is that the participant is trying to be a nice person by anticipating the socially correct answer. There is something rational about saying the socially correct rather than the objectively correct answer as well, and I think Kahneman gives this point less consideration than I would have had.

The Hot Hand in Sports

On basketball, Kahneman debunks the idea of the hot hand:

Some years later, Amos and his students Tom Gilovich and Robert Vallone caused a stir with their study of misperceptions of randomness in basketball. The “fact” that players occasionally acquire a hot hand is generally accepted by players, coaches, and fans. The inference is irresistible: a player sinks three or four baskets in a row and you cannot help forming the causal judgment that this player is now hot, with a temporarily increased propensity to score. Players on both teams adapt to this judgment–teammates are more likely to pass to the hot scorer and the defense is more likely to double-team. Analysis of thousands of sequences of shots led to a disappointing conclusion: there is no such thing as a hot hand in professional basketball.

Kahneman explains the fallacy of the hot hand by a belief in what he calls the “law of small numbers,” the error that ascribes the law of large numbers to small numbers as well.” What that means is that three or four shots is too small a sampling size to demonstrate the presence of the hot hand.

Famed Boston Celtics coach, when he heard of the study, said: “Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I could care less.” I agree with him. Suppose you are coach of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. You are down two points with ten seconds on the clock. Michael Jordan has been on fire. Or at least he seems like he has the hot hand, having sunk his last five shots (some of which are high-percentage dunks). Dennis Rodman, on the other hand, is ice cold, having bricked his last five shots. Let’s say, to make this though experiment work, that Jordan and Rodman have the same field goal percentage. Who would you pass the ball to? Maybe “Team Psychology” would pass the ball to Rodman: he does not have the cold hand because such a thing does not exist. But the real-world team would pass the ball to Jordan. I think any coach who does not want to be fired or have the players revolt would pass the ball to Jordan. As they say, in theory there is nothing different between theory and practise, but in practise, there is.

Again, I understand what Kahneman is saying about small sample sizes. Small sample sizes can lead you awry. But what I have to say is this: in the absence of further data or more samples, you have to go with the data you have. That is the real world. In sports, you don’t have the luxury of looking at the player’s ten next shots to see if the player really has a hot hand. If the player seems to have a hot hand, you go with it.

Another objection I have to Kahneman’s debunking of the hot hand is that basketball players do, in real life, increase their field goal percentage. In his fourth year in the NBA, Shawne Williams, a player for the New York Knicks improved his 3-point field goal shooting percentage from 6 percent to 51 percent. If you knew him as a 6 percent shooter, and he hit three or four three-pointers in a row, and you dismissed his hot hand, well, you would be wrong: his field goal shooting percentage did actually move up from 6 percent to 51 percent! That year, he will seem to have had the hot hand and that hot hand is, statistically, real! As players hire shooting coaches and sports psychologists and move their shooting percentages higher, their hot hand will have been a real phenomenon. I don’t see how Kahneman and his friends could argue from a probabilistic and mathematical basis that sometimes players improve and, in the process of improvement, will have the hot hand.

Regression to the Mean

Air force cadets who do well one day will generally do worse the next day and cadets who do poorly one day will generally do better the next day. It is the same with golfers, claims Kahneman. This phenomenon is called the reversion or regression to the mean. Good performances will be balanced by poor performances so that, in the long term, the average is maintained.

Kahneman extends the phenomenon of the regression to the mean to companies: a business which did poorly last year, he claims, because of the regression to the mean, can be expected to do better the next year by the action of probability. Now, this idea can be tested in the stock market. There is a strategy called the “Dogs of the Dow” that works by arbitraging the regression to the mean. Each year, an investor buys the ten “dogs” or poorest performers in the thirty stock Dow Jones Industrials Index. At the beginning of each year, the investor sells the previous dogs and buys the dogs from the previous calendar year. If, as Kahneman claims, businesses obey the regression to the mean, by buying the poor performers, an investor should be able to do better than a buy-and-hold investor who holds all the stocks in the index.

This is not the case. With dividends reinvested, the twenty-year return in 2020 of the Dogs of the Dow strategy has returned 10.8%. Buying and holding all the Dow stocks for the same twenty year period would have also returned 10.8%. If Kahneman is correct about the regression to the mean, one would expect the Dogs of the Dow strategy to have produced a return in excess of 10.8%. It did not. There may be momentum effects at play where winners continue, despite probability, in producing outsized returns and losers, despite probability, produce diminished returns.

The regression to the mean is a real phenomenon. That I don’t doubt. But if Kahneman says it applies to businesses, it must be investable in real life. If it isn’t, then it’s just a fancy sounding term. You know, Kahneman might be right, that businesses revert to the mean. But he talks as though he is sure of the phenomenon without giving a real-world proof. Take the entire Japanese stock market, the Nikkei 225. It had a bad year in 1990. A very bad year. If I had listened to Kahneman, I would have backed up the truck to buy Japanese stocks in 1991. Now, almost thirty years later, the Nikkei is still below its 1991 levels. Regression to the mean?

Regression to the mean may be real, but not as easy as Kahneman puts it. There is a certain momentum in businesses and countries that defy regression to the mean for years, decades, and centuries. It strikes me that regression to the man works if you are looking backwards at the data. Say, after a century, you already know what the average is. You already have the data. Of course regression to the mean will work. But if you are looking forwards and do not have the data already, things change, trends emerge, industries fail: for example, when digital photography came into style, a company like Kodak is not going to revert to the mean! It will go bankrupt.

Prospect Theory

Prospect Theory is Kahneman’s feather in the cap. He won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory looks at how behaviour changes under the psychological loads of loss or gain. For example:

-In mixed gambles, where both a gain and a loss are possible, loss aversion causes extremely risk-averse choices.
-In bad choices, where a sure loss is compared to a larger loss that is merely probable, diminishing sensitivity causes risk seeking.

Prospect Theory explains why people buy insurance (even though it is an irrational practise that is money losing, in aggregate and in the long run), why people buy lottery tickets, why people pay lawyers too much to settle instead of fight it out in court (the large “structured settlements” industry), and the psychology that drove a con man like Bernie Madoff to seek more and more risk to avoid loss. To draw its conclusions, Kahneman would ask test participants questions such as:

Problem 1: Which do you choose?
Get $900 for sure OR 90% chance to get $1,000

Problem 2: Which do you choose?
Lose $900 for sure OR 90% chance to lose $1,000

His questions are designed to “tell us about the limits of human rationality. For one thing, it helps us see the logical consistency of Human preferences for what it is–a hopeless mirage.” I agree with Kahneman that human rationality is severely limited. Even free will, in my view, could be an illusion. E. O. Wilson, in a series of books including On Human Nature, has laid out an argument that convinces me of the limitations of the mind, which, Wilson argues, is a product of evolution conditioned to Stone Age rather than Space Age environments. Kahneman’s arguments fail to persuade me because his arguments presuppose that, should the participant confront the question in real life the participant would react in the same way as the participant answered the question, which, in the experiment, the participant knows is not real, is only a question in a study. That is a big jump that has been demonstrated conclusively to be false. There are, for example, ongoing litigations involving the “Know Your Client” (KYC) form that investment banks use. Financial advisors gauge their clients’ appetite or aversion to risk by asking them questions such as the ones Kahneman asks the participants in his studies. As it turns out, some clients said, on paper, that they had great appetite for risk. But when loss happened, they found that, in real life, this was not true. So they sued. Others said, on paper, that they had little risk tolerance. When, however, in real life, they saw how they missed the boat on outsized investment returns, they found out that they actually have a propensity for risk. And they sued. The Achilles’ heel of Prospect Theory is that Kahneman asks participants questions on paper and draws far-reaching conclusions on the assumption that this transfers over to real life. People do not behave the same way in real life as they do on paper. You cannot ask people paper questions and construct a real-world theory from their paper responses. No, no, no!

His method, in my eyes, would be like an anthropologist who polls different tribes. So, instead of observing what a tribe actually does, this anthropologist would give the tribespeople a poll. For example, the anthropologist would ask:

Problem 1: One year, your crop yield goes down 25% Would you:
a) attack the neighbouring tribe or
b) increase hunting activities

Then, if the participants answer “a,” this anthropologist would conclude that “the tribe is aggressive” or some other far reaching conclusion. But if the participants answer “b,” the anthropologist would conclude that the tribe is pacifist. This would be ludicrous. But this seems to be what Prospect Theory is based upon.

As they say, in theory, there is no difference between theory and practise but in practise, there is.

Government Spending

During the year that we spent working together in Vancouver, Richard Thaler, Jack Knetsch, and I were drawn into a study of fairness in economic transactions, partly because we were interested in the topic but also because we had an opportunity as well as an obligation to make up a new questionnaire every week. The Canadian government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a program for unemployed professionals in Toronto, who were paid to administer telephone surveys. The large team of interviewers worked every night and new questions were constantly needed to keep operations going. Though Jack Knetsch, we agreed to generate a questionnaire every week, in four color-labeled versions. We could ask about anything; the only constraint was that the questionnaire should include at least one mention of fish, to make it pertinent to the mission of the department. This went on for many months, and we treated ourselves to an orgy of data collection.

That Kahneman mentions this I find disturbing. From what I gather, times are tough. There are many unemployed. So then the Canadian government hires three top-gun economists (because purse strings must be tight), two of which are American (because Canadian economists do not need the work) to conduct surveys which are meaningless to the participants, the government, and Canadian citizens. The government, however, markets this program as being relevant to Canada’s fishing industry: after all, each question must involve the mention of a fish. Of course, after the brilliant economists get the data they want for their pet experiments, they publish this in a book and throw the Canadian government under the bus: the survey, they say, really helped them and had nothing to do with fisheries and oceans. They had gamed the taxpayer money for their own benefit. This so smacks of elitism. It also strikes me as being deeply ironic: the study they were working on was “fairness in economic transactions.” Yikes.

That he printed this makes me wonder if he understands the real world. He talks of Davos, the party place of the billionaires. He goes through his book like some hero-psychologist, looking at everyone else’s blind spots. He talk about how he mentions one story at Davos, and someone overhearing says “it was worth the whole trip to Davos just to hear that,” and that this person who said this “was a major CEO.” Wow. It would have been good if someone in another book had said that about Kahneman. But for him to say this about himself in his own book?

Spider-sense Tingles “Danger”

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book I had wanted very much to like. I had hoped to learn more about mental biases that would have been of use in the new book I’m writing on a theory of comedy. The more I read Thinking, Fast and Slow, however, the more my spider-sense was tingling “danger.” I voiced my disapproval of the book to friends and to my book club. People said: “You don’t like the book because you probably weren’t smart enough to answer his questions.” Other people said: “But he has won a Nobel Prize. Who are you to disagree?” It makes me laugh a little bit that people will say that I am irrational while themselves using ad hominem attacks, the rationality of which itself is doubtful.

I remember a story about two other Nobel Prize winners, also, like Kahneman, in the economics category. In 1997, Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton won the Nobel Prize in Economics. A few years prior, they had started up one of the largest hedge funds in the world, Long-Term Capital Management. While they were winning the Nobel Prize, a journalist looked into the workings of their hedge fund. He called them out for being overleveraged: with 4 billion in their own and investors’ capital, they had borrowed in excess of 120 billion. The journalist called them out for “picking up pennies in front of a bulldozer.” Scholes and Merton shot back: “Who are you to question us, lowly journalist? We are Nobel Prize winners.” A year later, Long-Term Capital Management collapsed, taking the global economic system itself to the brink of collapse. How the mighty are fallen.

Kahneman comes across as the hero-psychologist pointing out others’ errors. But I wonder if he ever looked at the beam in his own eyes? I did a quick search on Google for the robustness of psychological experiments, the sort that are published in respected peer-reviewed journals. I found that less than half of such studies can be replicated. What sort of “science” is this? It’s like if you had a theory of gravitation that was published in a leading journal such as Science that predicted the moon would be at this place on this time. You “proved” it once and published it. But no one else can replicate it. And your theory is still accepted as canon, not to be questioned? I wonder, down the road, how robust many of Kahneman’s findings will be. Time will tell.

2015 Reproducibility Project study finds only 39 out of 100 psychology experiments able to be replicated, even after extensive consultation with original authors:

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/28/science/many-social-science-findings-not-as-strong-as-claimed-study-says.html

2018 Reproducibility Project study finds that only 14 out of 28 classic psychology experiments are able to be replicated, even under ideal condition:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07474-y

– – –

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

Review of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST – Oscar Wilde

1895, in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Penguin 2000

The same time I was reading Wilde’s comedy, I saw playwright Constance (Connie) Congdon speak at a Kennedy Center “Dramatist Guild Legacy Award Conversation.” She was talking to dramaturg Heather Helinsky about the craft of playwriting. She emphasized how playwriting is, like talking, a process. The more one engages with playwriting, the more fluid one’s playwriting becomes. This concept of the “fluidity of playwriting” immediately grabbed me, perhaps because I had been reading Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “Fluidity” is a fantastic description of Wilde’s writing that hits the nail right on the head.

Wilde is one of the most fluid writers I have come across. There is an effortless ease in his dialogue, in how each scene glide into the next. His writing reminds me of the music of Mozart or Fleetwood Mac. Effortless melody. Of course, as Mozart used to complain, although his melodies sound effortless, a great deal of effort has gone into putting them together. This effort, however, is not immediately apparent to the listener because it is put together so seamlessly.

Not all great music is so effortless. Take Beethoven, for instance. He is on the same level as Mozart, but his notes sound  laboured. They sound like they were incredibly difficult to write. The notes do not flow together; they seem to have been willed together by the titanic force of his will. In the same way, not all great drama is as effortless as Wilde. Aeschylus and O’Neill write great plays. But their plays are clunky, wooden, and laborious. Yet their plays represent another type of pinnacle. Aeschylus is, on some days, my all-time favourite.

Congdon and Helinsky’s talk got me thinking: why do some works appear so fluid? Why do some works appear so laboured? My first thoughts were that fluid playwrights relish being in the present. Whichever act and scene they find themselves in, they delight in making it come alive. Algy’s eating constantly in The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, delights in his eating at inopportune moments in the present. Fluidity is part of the Zen of the ever-present moment.

For the more laborious playwrights, however, each moment is part of the scaffolding that sets up the big reveal. Laborious playwrights take delight in the future moment rather than the present moment. To use an example from O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the incessant drinking Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmund engage in is not for the moment, but to set up that last moment where they see something that hits them so hard that they cannot have that last drink.

The Importance of Being Earnest

There are nine characters in the play. The subsidiary characters are: Rev. Canon Chasuble (the local priest), Merriman (Jack’s butler), Lane (Algy’s manservant), and Miss Prism (Cecily’s governess). The major characters are: John Worthing (Jack, JP, and, when in the city, Ernest Worthing), Algernon Moncrieff (Algy and, when in the country, Ernest Worthing), Lady Augusta Bracknell (Algy’s aunt), Gwendolen Fairfax (Lady Bracknell’s daughter and Algy’s niece), and Cecily Cardew (Jack’s ward). The major characters are major by virtue of their class and that they are, or will be, all related by blood or marriage by the play’s end.

The romantic action starts when, visiting Algy in the city, Jack–operating under the alias of his decadent and fictitious brother Ernest–proposes to Algy’s niece Gwendolen. Gwendolen, having always found the name “Ernest” to be most attractive, accepts. Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, on interviewing Jack and finding out that he is a foundling, is not so keen to bless their union.

The action intensifies when Algy finds out that Ernest is an assumed name and that Ernest is actually Jack when he is at home in the country. Algy finds Jack’s country address and proceeds to visit Jack in the Country while himself pretending to be Ernest, Jack’s fictitious brother. It turns out Jack had made up a fictitious brother for himself as an excuse to go to the city to play. Jack is furious when he sees that Algy has come to his country manor under the alias of his fictional brother Ernest. What makes Jack even more furious is that Algy proposes to his ward, Cecily. Cecily, like Gwendolen, is also captivated by the name Ernest. She accepts his marriage proposition. At this point, both Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. Ernest Worthing, of course, does not really exist: he is Jack’s alias in the city and Algy’s alias in the country.

The action reaches a peak when Gwendolen leaves the city and goes to the country to visit her new fiancé, Ernest Worthing. She meets Cecily there, who is also under the impression that she is also engaged to Ernest Worthing. To add more fun to the scene, the persnickety aristocrat Lady Bracknell also arrives in the country to take Gwendolen back home. After Gwendolen and Bracknell arrive, Jack and Algy’s covers are blown. It is quite an embarrassing moment.

After recovering from the unexpected appearance of the city guests, Algy and Jack renew their marriage proposals to Cecily and Gwendolen, who accept. Jack, however, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses to bless their union. It seems however, that he would bless it if Lady Bracknell would bless his union with Gwendolen. Bracknell, however, puts her foot down: she has climbed the class ladder for too long to let her daughter marry a foundling from the train station. An impasse results.

At that moment Miss Prism enters. Lady Bracknell recognizes Prism as the irresponsible servant who lost her sister’s baby many years ago. She recounts the story of losing the baby in a handbag in a train station, the very same train station where Jack had been found. Jack still has the handbag. He fetches it. Prism recognizes it: it is marked with her initials. This means that Jack is actually Algy’s brother (and not just pretending to be his brother!). What is more, they find out that the missing baby had been–drum roll-christened “Ernest.” So, Jack was always an Ernest. With this revelation, everyone gets married and the play ends with Jack saying: “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” A nice play on “Ernest” and “earnest.”

The Unexpected

Part of why Wilde can take delight in the dramatic present is because each moment gives him a chance to engage in wordplay. The wordplay sometimes consists of unexpected combinations of words, such as Lady Bracknell’s surprise when she finds out Jack is a foundling:

Jack: I have lost both my parents.

Lady Bracknell: Both? To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Her response starts off reasonably: it is a misfortune to lose one parent. Her conclusion, however, that to lose both “looks like carelessness” is unanticipated. What would have been expected is something more along the lines of “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both is tragedy.” But that lacks the desired effect. In performance, before the play was pulled over Wilde’s ruinous scandal, it is this line that elicited the most laughs. Children are not responsible for losing their parents. But in Bracknell’s view, they are. By turning expectation upside down, Bracknell’s observation tickles the brain. The brain sees that something does not fit. But a second later, the brain realizes what Wilde is telling us: that Lady Bracknell is, well, different. She is the higher class taken to its own logical conclusion where it becomes a caricature of itself. And when the brain is tickled like that, the biological reaction is laughter.

Similar is Algy’s remonstration of his servant Lane:

Algernon: Lane’s view of marriage seems somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

Algy voices what the upper class believes, but does not normally voice. To most of the upper classes, to voice their belief in noblesse oblige, the inferred responsibility of the privileged to act with nobility was the norm. Here Algy wants the privilege without noblesse oblige. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. The line mentally discombobulates the audience. When the audience realizes that Wilde does this to let them know Algy is a harmless but good for nothing aristocrat, the biological reaction to this brain tickle is, again, to erupt into laughter.

Comedy, like tragedy, dramatizes the unexpected. Unexpected witticisms and wordplay provoke laughter. And, like tragedy, the fulcrum of the action is an unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, the event is that Jack has hired Prism to be his ward’s governess–the same Prism who, unbeknownst to him, had left him at the train station when he was a babe. Improbability is such an important and ubiquitous element of comedy that characters can make metatheatrical remarks about it and expect to receive in compensation a good laugh from the audience. So remarks Algernon:

Algernon: Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable.

Improbability is the heart of comedy and comedy is the heart of laughter.

– – –

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