Category Archives: Reading List – Books

Review of NEW DRAMATURGIES – Mark Bly

Routledge, 2020, 121 pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Blurb

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

Author Blurb

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

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

Review of CIVIL WAR – Lucan (translated Matthew Fox)

Penguin, 2012, 537 pages, translated by Matthew Fox

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

The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad

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

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

The Ugly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fate and Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skin in the Game

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

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

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

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

A Note on the Translator’s Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

But come now, come in and rest on this chair, my brother,
since it is on your heart beyond all that the hard work has fallen
for the sake of dishonoured me and the blind act of Alexandros,
us two, on whom Zeus has set a vile destiny so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

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

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

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

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

Book Blurb

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

Author Blurb

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

Translator Blurb

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

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

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

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

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

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

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

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

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

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

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

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

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

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

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

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

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

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

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

Author Blurb

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

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

Review of The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

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

Author Blurb

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

Translator Blurb

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

The Canterbury Tales

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

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

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

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

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

The Canterbury Tales and the Art Form of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of “Tragedy and Materialist Thought” – Hugh Grady

pages 128-144 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

What is Grady’s Materialism?

Grady comes from a line of critics that include Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton. Like Williams and Eagleton, he approaches tragedy from a political perspective. “Materialism” to Grady is a combination of three strands of theory that began in the 1980s: American new historicism, British cultural materialism, and international feminism. Marx and Engels themselves used the term “materialism” to describe their method of analysis, and, in the end, these three strands can be traced back to the founders of Marxism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “dialectical materialism” as:

The Marxist theory of political and historical events as due to the conflict of social forces caused by humans’ material needs and interpretable as a series of contradictions and their solutions.

In this article, Grady argues that materialists who deny that tragedy has a universal meaning go too far. Materialists have denied the view that tragedy has an unchanging and static form because such as view smacks of right wing conservative political views. Materialists, by definition, espouse left wing Marxist political views. Materialists who deny tragedy’s universal significance, argues Grady, do disservices to the Left, as it surrenders the art of tragedy to the Right. If materialists can allow that tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill has a universal function, the Left can wrest the discourse of tragedy back from the Right. Underlying Grady’s view is the belief that materialist thought can decode tragedy’s secrets:

Materialist thought, I believe, if it is redirected, is a major, probably the major vehicle through which to rethink tragedy for the twenty-first century.

If tragedy does not have a universal significance, it at least appears to have a transhistorical dimension: it springs up in fifth century Athens, in the English Renaissance, in the neoclassical French writers, the German romantics, and finally arrived in America with Miller and O’Neill. How can materialism, which denies tragedy’s universal significance, take into account tragedy’s transhistorical dimension? Grady grapples with this question in this article.

Look to Hegel

If Marx’ struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is Hegel made political, then perhaps there is also some kind of universal, transhistorical, and Hegelian dynamic at play in tragedy. Or so Grady argues. Grady finds this dynamic in tragedy in the collision between two problematic forms of rationality. Hegel’s model of synthesis and antithesis provides the bridge for the Left to incorporate tragedy’s transhistorical dimension into a new theory or materialism.

Grady illustrates Hegelian dialectic at work in tragedy through Shakespeare’s King Lear:

The play seems to follow a more Hegelian pattern, posing two problematic forms of rationality against each other, enacting the defeat of tradition by modernizing instrumental reason, only to show the subsequent collapse of instrumental reason. At the end of King Lear, especially, the audience is teased, made to imagine hope and despair, as Cordelia and Lear appear now to have lived, now to have died. The space is created for a new form of rationality, which would be neither of the other two. But the space is, as it were, blank, not filled in, symbolized but not enunciated in discourse. In short, the dialectic is a negative one, never arriving at a final synthesis, but certainly going beyond its two previous stages.

To Grady, when this Hegelian dialectic plays out at critical junctures in history, tragedy becomes possible. In fifth century Athens, as mythos (stories) gave way to logos (rhetoric), tragedy became possible. In the English Renaissance, as instrumental reason was replacing the Great Chain of Being, tragedy became possible.

Grady’s argument here is of interest, as he arrives at roughly Nietzsche’s position on the birth of tragedy through Hegel, an avenue that Nietzsche would not have taken. It appears in scholarship that you can arrive to the same place by different avenues.

Materialist Thought and Tragedy

For Grady, tragedy arises during a cultural and political changing of the guard. In fifth century Athens, traditional wisdom was giving way to logic and rhetoric. In Renaissance England, feudalism was giving way to modernity. And in our own time, religion is giving way to a post-religious society.

When this cultural sea change occurs, the definition of good and evil is blurred. In a materialist interpretation, tragedy, says Grady, helps us “to assess and understand good and evil in a post-traditional world.” Tragedy, in materialist thought, dramatizes how difficult it is to stand upon the firm ground of good and evil, right and wrong. By problematizing morality, tragedy invites us to ponder how societal changes impact traditional moralities. When we revaluate all values, tragedy is there, dramatizing, in a Hegelian dialectic, the struggle between old and new.

First Question for Bushnell

This Blackwell edition, being a guide for students and available “on the desk of every reference librarian at the college and university level” would surely present a balanced perspective to students? So far, the book chapters have been left leaning. Grady’s article, for example, debunks right wing perspectives. But the attacks are directed to a book over a hundred years old and already falling into discredit by the 1950s. I would be interested in seeing a more balanced perspective, with some contrasting viewpoints of tragedy from the right. My question for Bushnell: why does this companion to tragedy give voice to the left and not the right?

First Question for Grady

Grady shows how materialism offers a superior way of looking at tragedy and debunks conservative points of view. On the materialist side he primarily cites: Michel Foucault (The Order of Things 1966), Raymond Williams (Modern Tragedy 1966), Jonathan Dollimore (Radical Tragedy 1989), and Terry Eagleton (Sweet Violence 2003). On the conservative side, he has A. C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy 1904) and E. M. W. Tillyard (no specific work, but was active in the 1940s and 50s). The conservatives hold that tragic heroes, because human nature is everlasting and unchanging, fall victim, over and over again, to an equally everlasting and unchanging idea of evil. When heroes go to the dark side, they upset the play’s internal moral order.

The materialist view denies all this because, first of all, human behaviour is a product of social structure. Nurture over nature. Because human behaviour is a product of society, evil likewise, far from being fixed, changes over time. What is more, tragedies, argues Grady, dramatize the changing of the guard, insofar as moral orders are concerned. The two great flowerings of tragedy (5th century Athens and Renaissance England) both occur in ages where one moral code was giving way to the next.

My first question for Grady: why not pit Eagleton and the other materialists against more recent conservative adversaries? Grady pits Foucault (1966), Williams (1966), Dollimore (1989), and Eagleton (2003) against E. M. W Tillyard (who, as he admits, does not directly write about tragedy) and A. C. Bradley, a bag of bones who wrote Shakespearean Tragedy in 1904. The tale of the tape shows a heavyweight pitted against a dead guy. I mean, who’s going to win? And, if more recent conservative critics are nowhere to be found, then the question becomes: is the bogeyman of conservative criticism is a straw man?

Second Question for Grady

To Grady, tragedy is about morality. If you’re on the left, tragedy dramatizes the clash between socially constructed moral values (the correct view). If you’re on the right, tragedy dramatizes the clash between everlasting and metaphysical moral values (the incorrect view, as good and evil are transient social constructs). If you don’t believe tragedy is about morality, you don’t get it. Chaucer, for example, writes that tragedy dramatizes “the fickleness of fortune” in the world. Chaucer, according to Grady, doesn’t get tragedy because the medieval world had separated common human experience from the misfortune of the great. I would trust, however, the instincts of Chaucer–a preeminent artist–over the instincts of an academic. Perhaps Chaucer “gets” tragedy and it is the academics who do not “get” it?

My second question for Grady is: what if tragedy is not about morality? What if both the right and the left are mistaken? What if there’s a new paradigm?–instead of morality, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. This is the point I argue in my 2019 book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In my reading, each dramatic act of tragedy is a gambling act. Tragedy makes risk palpable. By the high stakes action, heroes trigger unexpected outcomes. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, tragedy is a theatre of risk. This theatre of risk entertains by showcasing the impact of the highly improbable. These risk acts can be good or bad, but the point is not that they are good or evil, but that they are high risk gambles that trigger unexpected outcomes.

Tragedy has long been an intersection point for human intention and chance outcomes. For some reason, scholars have passed this over. When Chaucer and others point to chance, they are pooh-poohed. Let’s see what the tragedies actually say. In the ending to many of Euripides’ plays, Euripides has the chorus tell the audience that the point of tragedy is to dramatize the unexpected. Take the ending of Bacchae:

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

Then compare this to Chaucer’s understanding of tragedy, taken from the Monk’s tale of the tragedy of Croesus:

Thus hanged at last was Croesus the proud king,

His royal throne to him of no avail.

Tragedy is no other kind of thing,

Nor can lament in singing nor bewail,

Except that Fortune ever will assail

With unexpected stroke the realms that are proud;

For when men trust in her, then will she fail

And cover up her bright face with a cloud.

And then look at the ending of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Horatio sums up the action:

And let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world

How these things came about. So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

Professors and philosophers enjoy looking at moral issues. But playwrights are not professors and philosophers. Playwrights, I think, are primarily concerned with writing an exciting play. And risk, rather than morality, is the dramatic fulcrum because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk is inherently dramatic because it triggers the unexpected ending. As we can see from the passages from as varied sources as Euripides, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, risk and the unexpected is a cornerstone of tragic writing.

Are playwrights thinking about risk and exciting plays, or are they thinking about the Hegelian dialectic and how instrumental reason clashes with tradition as they write their plays? Risk theatre, I think, presents a new and welcome apolitical and amoral interpretation of tragedy, and one grounded in the process of playwriting, which, first and foremost, strives to create a captivating play that has the audience on the edge of the seat.

Third Question for Grady (and also Raymond Williams)

Grady writes:

Tragedy is a concept that has been falsely universalized over and over in its long critical history, both in its guise of designating a particular set of perceptions and feelings and in naming a literary genre of differing times and places. Raymond Williams eloquently wrote on this issue, “Tragedy is … not a single and permanent kind of fact, but a series of experiences and conventions and institutions.”

My question for Grady (and Williams), is whether they would say the same thing about comedy, philosophy, and history. Like tragedy, these three other genres also came to us from ancient Greece. Certainly tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy are products of the time: English Renaissance tragedy is not modern tragedy. But when authors write comedy, philosophy, history, or tragedy, do they not take part in the conversation and tradition of that genre as well? If there is nothing universal about tragedy, how could, say, Anouilh rewrite Oedipus (The Infernal Machine) in the twentieth century? Just as comedy is about laughs and the us/them mentality, philosophy is about categorizing and understanding nature with the categories of the mind, and history is an inquiry into an event, it strikes me that one should be able to look at tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill and identify a common denominator because we identify all these works as tragedy.

Grady proposes a solution: “Tragedy, we might say, is universal in its exploration of human suffering.” But, what if, instead, a more primary consideration is that tragedy is universal in its exploration of downside risk? The suffering is secondary, and risk is primary. Most playwrights (unless it is Howard Barker) do not start by saying: “I want to make characters suffer,” but rather “I want to thrill audiences by dramatizing the impact of downside risk, of how, when the hero least expects, Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill.” Risk is primary; suffering is secondary.

Fourth Question for Grady

Grady debunks the notion that tragedy presents a moral world order by drawing attention to Nietzsche:

Tragedy reveals the disorder inherent in human nature underneath the ego’s Apollonian appearances. This is particularly true of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, with its critique of Apollonian rationality and its assertion of the reality of power and desire.

Nietzsche did not give priority to either the order affirming Apollonian or the order denying Dionysian: both are parts of a larger whole. So, I would ask Grady why he gives priority to Nietzsche’s Dionysian over the Apollonian. Both the Apollonian and the Dionysian are world orders, albeit incomplete. It is in their clash that the true nature of reality emerges.

Fifth Question for Grady

Grady see tragedy as the product of colliding and problematic rationalities. When a newfangled instrumental reason collides with traditional reason, tragedy emerges. Grady argues that tragedy was popular in fifth century Athens and Renaissance England because, in both these time periods, a new instrumental reason was displacing the old traditions (in Athens it was the rise of rhetoric and in Renaissance England the possibility of post-religious society).

My question to Grady: if it is true that tragedy arises during a societal changing of the guard, then why, in the 2600 years from the origin of tragedy to today we only have two great flowerings of tragedy? Is Grady’s theory of tragedy statistically robust? Perhaps it is if in the last 2600 years there has only been two major paradigm shifts. That cannot be true by any stretch of the imagination. For Grady’s argument to hold, he would also have to explain why, during other sea changes in society–of which there have been many in the last two millennia–tragedy did not arise.

First Question for Bradley and Tillyard

Grady writes that it was supposed that Shakespeare was a traditionalist since Bradley and Tillyard demonstrated that the malicious characters in Jacobean tragedy practised instrumental reason, the rationality of the voices clamouring for change. My question for Bradley and Tillyard: why is it that we must fight over the classics to own them and control them? This scholarly wrangling reminds of how, back in the old day they used to fight over the bodies of the saints. By possessing such artifacts, the possessors could benefit themselves and hinder enemies. Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, for example, dramatizes the fight over Oedipus’ corpse.

Scholars fight over the right to claim the classic texts. While most of us no longer fight over saints’ bones and ancient relics, it surprises me, in this so-called enlightened age, how we continue the same sort of behaviour fighting over the classics like they were the bones of old saints. Playwrights, most of the time, are thinking: “How can I create an entertaining play that will thrill all sorts of audiences?” rather than “How can I demonstrate the superiority of traditional or avant-garde rationalities?” Scholars, by ascribing traditionalist or liberal viewpoints to playwrights, turn playwrights into versions of themselves.

A playwright who makes risk the fulcrum of the action is not a priest who makes morality the fulcrum of the action. And a playwright who presents fruitfully ambiguous points of view is not an academic who breaks down these viewpoints into definitive for/against positions (which often coincide with their own views). Playwrights are, first and foremost, entertainers. They are aiming to tell a good story, that is all.

First Question for Raymond Williams

Scholars have questioned why tragedy could not arise in the Middle Ages, but had to wait until the early modern period of Shakespeare’s time. They frequently cite the Monk’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to support how people just didn’t get tragedy in the Middle Ages.

In this article, Grady talks about how tragedy critic Williams explains the failure of tragedy to emerge in the Middle Ages and the emergence of tragedy in the early modern period. Grady quotes Williams as saying: “The dissolution of the feudal world allows tragedy to reunite what the medieval era had separated, common human misfortune and the misfortune of the great.”

I just happen to be reading the quintessential work of literature in the Middle Ages: the very same Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. And, as if by some coincidence, the same day I was reading the passage from Williams, I read this passage from the Knight’s tale:

Thus man and woman also, foe and friend,

In either term, in youth or else in age,

Must die, the king as truly as the page;

One in his bed, and one in the deep sea,

One in their open field, their ends agree.

There is no help; we go the common way.

All things must die, it is but truth to say.

It cannot profit any soul alive

Against this everlasting law to strive.

Having read this passage in the Knight’s tale, I would like to ask Williams who his authority is that says in the Middle Ages that common human misfortune is in a different category than the suffering of the masters of the universe.

Author Blurb

Hugh Grady is Professor of English at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (1991), Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (1996), and Shakespeare Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from “Richard II” to “Hamlet” (2002). He is editor of Shakespeare and Modernity: From Early Modern to Millennium (2000) and co-editor (with Terence Hawkes) of Presentist Shakespeares (2007). His newest book is Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics (2009).

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

Review of DEEPWATER HORIZON: A SYSTEMS ANALYSIS OF THE MACONDO DISASTER – Boebert and Blossom

Harvard UP, 2016, 300 pages

Do Not Name Your Well After a Cursed Town Destroyed by Capitalism

When you’re planning to drill 5.5 kilometres down from sea level into the payzone where explosive, scalding gases charged at 14,000 psi are waiting to blow up your rig, you would think you’d name the well something auspicious. You know, something like “Lucky 7.” But no, BP decided to name their well “Macondo.” Macondo is a cursed town which was destroyed by capitalism. With a name like that, you’re just asking to be struck down.

Do Not Celebrate Mission Accomplished Too Soon

On the day of the blowout, BP and Transocean VIPs came aboard the rig to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s stellar safety record: zero lost time in seven years. Less than an hour before the blowout, they were finishing up a meeting. The last topic was a question tabled by the BP vice-president: “Why do you think this rig performs as well as it does?”

The scene from Deepwater Horizon’s last day reminds me of the plays the ancient Greek wrote. When Agamemnon, the Greek king comes home after winning the Trojan War, he feels confident enough to tread the purple as he alights from his victorious chariot. This act–not unlike the VP asking: “Why is this rig so great?”–seals Agamemnon’s doom. Have we not learned that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident?

I think we all could benefit from going to the theatre once in awhile. Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, two plays where the hero is most confident before the fall, are recommended watching for MBA candidates, engineers, and systems analysts. These plays dramatize real-world risks that the equations and formulas don’t tell you: do not celebrate mission accomplished too soon. In fact, even after the mission is accomplished, keep your celebrations lean. Some of the things they don’t teach at business school they teach at a theatre near you.

The Edge

During drilling, a dangerous event known as a “kick” happens when pressurized hydrocarbons enter the well. They shoot up the riser and blowout the rig. To isolate the hydrocarbons from the rig, drillers keep a column of mud between the rig and the hydrocarbons. The weight of the mud in the well, which can vary from 8.5 to 22 pounds per gallon, counteracts the pressurized hydrocarbons at the bottom of the well.

Mud used to be just that: mud. Today mud is a base fluid mixed with a heavy mineral such as barite. Too little mud, and the hydrocarbons can come up the riser. Too much mud, however, results in another dangerous situation called “lost returns.” The diameter of the well varies from three feet at the top down to just less than a foot at the bottom. The sides of the well are fragile. If the weight of the mud is too heavy, it breaks apart the sides of the well, and the mud is irrevocably lost beneath the sea bed. When the mud is lost beneath the sea bed, the hydrocarbons can enter the riser, blowing out the rig.

Boebert and Blossom refer to the art of keeping a well safe as staying on the right side of “the edge.” When a well control situation such as a kick or lost returns happen, the risk of going over the edge rears its ugly head. They quote Hunter S. Thompson on what it means to go over the edge:

Hunter S. Thompson likened the transition of a situation or system into disaster to what can occur when a motorcyclist seeking high-speed thrill rides along a twisting, dangerous highway:

“The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

Complexity or n(n-1)/2

After a well is drilled, the rig caps the well. At a later date, another specialized rig comes to set up the well for production. To cap a well is a complex procedure with many moving parts. To illustrate how adding tasks to the procedure quickly increases the complexity, Boebert and Blossom site a fascinating formula:

Planning for the abandonment of Macondo was extremely complex. The fundamental source of that complexity was a phenomenon well known to systems engineers: the number of potential pairwise interactions among a set of N elements grows as N times N-1, divided by 2. That means that if there are two elements in the set, there is one potential interaction; if there are five elements, there are ten possible interactions; ten elements, and there are forty-five; and so forth. If the interactions are more complex, such as when more than two things combine, the number is larger. Every potential interaction does not usually become an actual one, but adding elements to a set means that complexity grows much more rapidly than ordinary intuition would expect.

I find complexity fascinating because it leads to “emergent events.” Emergent events, write Boebert and Blossom, arise “from a combination of decisions, actions, and attributes of a system’s components, rather than from a single act.” Emergent events are part of a scholarly mindset which adopts a systems perspective of looking at events. Boebert and Blossom’s book adopts such a model, which is opposed to the judicial model of looking at the Macondo disaster. The judicial approach is favoured when trying to assign blame: the series of events leading to the disaster are likened to a row of dominoes which can be traced back to a blameworthy act.

Unlike Boebert and Blossom, I study literary theory, not engineering. But, like Boebert and Blossom, I find emergent events of the utmost interest. I’ve written a theory of drama called “risk theatre” that makes risk the pivot of the action. In drama, playwrights entertain theatregoers by dramatizing unexpected outcomes or unintended consequences. These unexpected outcomes can be the product of fate, the gods, or miscalculations on the part of the characters. But another way to draw out unexpectation from the story is to add complexity. That is to say, if there are two events in the play, there is one potential interaction; if there are five events, there are ten possible interactions; ten events, and there are forty-five. The trick for playwrights is this: how many events can you juggle and keep the narrative intact?

Luxuriant Retrospective Position

“Luxuriant retrospective position” is Boebert and Blossom’s term for “armchair quarterback.” They acknowledge that the project managers, drillers, and engineers were not operating from a luxuriant retrospective position. Many of them were doing the best that they could with an incomplete understanding. Often, when I read books breaking down disasters, the writers point fingers from their armchair perspective. This, to me, smacks of the same hubris they assign to their targets. It is like saying you would have a military historian rather than Napoleon fighting all your battles because the military historian can see things that Napoleon could not. It is quite decent of Boebert and Blossom to acknowledge how they are looking at things from hindsight.

I’m writing this in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. In a year down the road, the books will start hitting the shelves telling us what we did wrong, telling us how we could have saved lives, and telling us how, if we had looked at things rationally, we could have done so easily. Many people will read these books, and parrot them. Will you be one of these people? Who would you rather fight your wars, the general Napoleon, or the historian Edward Gibbon? Who would you rather manage your money, John Meriwether (architect of a doomed hedge fund) or journalist Roger Lowenstein (who wrote a book exposing the errors of the doomed hedge fund)? Would you rather have BP’s team run the oil rig, or Boebert and Blossom? If you had said Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, think again. Can those who understand backwards also act forwards? There is actually a story, a true story of how Napoleon appointed the mathematician Laplace to be the minister of the interior. Laplace, like Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, would have taken a scientific approach to administration. Good, you say? No. Napoleon fired him for “carrying the spirit of infinitesimal into administration.” There is a tragedy in how those who understand backwards cannot act forwards.

Book Blurb

On April 20, 2010, the crew of the floating drill rig Deepwater Horizon lost control of the Macondo oil well forty miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Escaping gas and oil ignited, destroying the rig, killing eleven crew members, and injuring dozens more. The emergency spiraled into the worst human-made economic and ecological disaster in Gulf Coast history.

Senior systems engineers Earl Boebert and James Blossom offer the most comprehensive account to date of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Sifting through a mountain of evidence generated by the largest civil trial in U.S. history, the authors challenge the commonly accepted explanation that the crew, operating under pressure to cut costs, made mistakes that were compounded by the failure of a key safety device. This explanation arose from legal, political, and public relations maneuvering over the billions of dollars in damages that were ultimately paid to compensate individuals and local businesses and repair the environment. But as this book makes clear, the blowout emerged from corporate and engineering decisions which, while individually innocuous, combined to create the disaster.

Rather than focusing on blame, Boebert and Blossom use the complex interactions of technology, people, and procedures involved in the high-consequence enterprise of offshore drilling to illustrate a systems approach which contributes to a better understanding of how similar disaster emerge and how they can be prevented.

Author(s) Blurb

Earl Boebert is a retired Senior Scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.

James M. Blossom gained his engineering experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the General Electric Corporation.

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

Review of “Tragedy and City” – Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub

pages 109-127 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author(s) Blurb

Deborah Boedeker is Professor of Classics at Brown University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek religion, poetry, historiography, and especially the confluences among these areas. Recent publications include essays on Euripides, Herodotus, Simonides, and Sappho, as well as a number of edited volumes, including Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (1998, with Kurt A. Raaflaub) and The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire (2001, with David Sider).

Kurt Raaflaub is David Herlihy University Professor, Professor of Classics and History, and Director of the Program in Ancient Studies at Brown University. His main areas of interests are the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece and the Roman Republic. His most recent publications include The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (2004), an edited volume of War and Peace in the Ancient World (2007), with Josiah Ober and Robert Wallace. He is currently working on a history of early Greek political thought in its Mediterranean context.

“Tragedy and City”

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, political interpretations of Greek tragedy were the rage. Aeschylus’ tragedy Suppliants (from 462 BC and set in Argos) says something, scholars argued, about Athens’ political ties with Argos. Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus rex (set during a plague in Thebes) says something, scholars argued, about the plague of 430 BC in Athens “The character Oedipus,” they said, “is based on the Athenian statesman Pericles.” Some scholars went so far as to claim that tragedians would advocate specific political policies through their plays.

In this article, Boedeker and Raaflaub argue that these political interpretations derive their authority from the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes’ 405 BC hit Frogs. In Frogs, the god Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a tragic poet to save the city: “I came down here for a poet … so that the city may survive and keep presenting its choral festivals. So whichever of you is going to give the city some good advice, that’s the one I think I will bring back.” By “whichever of you,” Dionysus refers to Aeschylus and Euripides, who proceed to argue over who benefitted Athens more (Sophocles is also in Hades at this point, but the competition is beneath his dignity). Scholars cite this duel as evidence of tragedy’s political function.

While allowing that tragedy has a civic function, Boedeker and Raaflaub suggest a middle ground in this article:

We maintain [that] the plays generally were not created to support or oppose a specific person, policy, or decision. Whatever he may have thought personally about such issues, in our judgment Aeschylus’ purpose in Eumenides was not primarily to recommend a treaty with Argos [in Suppliants] or the restoration of the Areopagus Council’s powers [in Eumenides].

Plays would explore political themes, but would stop short of advocating one standpoint over another. A good example Boedeker and Raaflaub cite is Aeschylus’ tragedy Persians. The tragedy dramatizes the aftereffects of the Battle of Salamis from the Persian perspective: it is a grievous loss. The cause of the loss is Xerxes’ hubris in bridging the Hellespont to join Asia and Europe, two land masses nature had ordained in her unwritten laws to keep apart. While the play is conventionally read as a patriotic piece celebrating Athens’ victory, Boedeker and Raaflaub ask: does the play have a tacit political purpose? In 472 BC, Athens was trespassing in the other direction into Asia, attempting to take control of the Anatolian coast. The play, while not advocating foreign policy, asks the Athenians to consider their actions in light of Xerxes’ trespass in a subtle, unspoken manner.

The Process of Artistic Creation

Classicists are gifted in analysis. They come up with their conclusions and support their arguments after long and careful deliberation. They pick their words carefully and precisely. When they see artists use political terms or language in their works, classicists ascribe to the artists this same level of analysis and precision. If a poet, for example, writes about a political decree, the poet must have a position on what it takes to formulate decrees. If the poet writes about decrees, the poet has thought about decrees the same way a classicist would have, were the classicist to have published an article on decrees. Nothing is chance. Innuendoes in the text are deliberate. But is this the case?

What Boedeker and Raaflaub argue, and I think that it is an excellent point, is that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why? The answer is simple: poets and creative writers are not classicists. In fact, poets and creative writers are quite the opposite. They write under inspiration from the Muses. Some of the time, the idea comes to the artists so quick that they can’t jot it down fast enough, and what they’ve left unwritten is forgotten. Inspiration is like that dream you had this morning when you said: “That was so vivid, I will never forget it.”

But then, why do the writers and poets so frequently talk about politics or contemporary events? The reason is that it’s in the air. As they work on their creations, the things they hear on the streets, in the barbershops, and at the markets get incorporated into their works. In addition to asking classicists and philosophers what works of art mean, we can also ask the artists how they create. This gives us a valuable second opinion. In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, artist Bob Dylan talks about how he incorporates everyday experiences into his works:

You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you.

Are tragedians writing plays with hidden political meanings for future classicists to examine? Dylan also offers scholars a word of warning in his 2016 Nobel Prize speech:

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

This goes to show, if you ask a classicist whether a play has a political dimension, the classicist will answer as though the playwright were a classicist. But if you ask an artist if a play has a political dimension, the playwright might answer different.

The moral of this story is that we measure others with the same scales we measure ourselves. This works if “We” is equal to “Them.” But if it is “Us” and “Them,” then, when we measure them as if they were us, misunderstandings arise. Perhaps what we really need is a classicist who is also an artist.

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

PS this has been a fun review to write: I was a student of both Boedeker and Raaflaub (a husband and wife team), and, additionally had a chance to help TA one of Raaflaub’s Roman History classes. What an amazing experience those Brown years were. The glory days where I stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants. Sometimes I have to shake my head to believe I was actually there, it was so much like a dream.

Review of WHY BOB DYLAN MATTERS – Richard F. Thomas

2017, HarperCollins, 358 pages

Book Blurb

Classics professor and renowned Dylanologist Richard F. Thomas makes a compelling case for moving the iconic singer-songwriter out of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and into the pantheon of classical poets, based on his wildly popular Bob Dylan seminar at Harvard.

Author Blurb

Richard F. Thomas is the George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard University, a Bob Dylan expert, and the creator of a freshman seminar at Harvard on Bob Dylan. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Dylan and Transfiguration

In a 2012 interview with Mikal Gilmore, Dylan says: “I went to a library in Rome and I found a book on transfiguration.” This is one of the most interesting points in the book, as Dylan never makes it clear what transfiguration actually is. The dictionary definition of transfiguration reads:

transfiguration: 1) The dazzling change in the appearance of Jesus when on a mountain with three of his disciples (Matthew: 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36); a picture or representation of this. Also, the church festival commemorating this event, observed on 6 August. 2) The action of transfiguring or state of being transfigured; metamorphosis.

Dylan tells Gilmore that he’s been transfigured, but when asked what he means by transfiguration, Dylan is characteristically recalcitrant. Instead, he gets Gilmore to read some passages out of Ralph “Sonny” Barger’s book–cowritten by Keith and Kent Zimmerman–Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. The pages Dylan has Gilmore read concern the motorcycle death of a Bobby Zimmerman.

The interesting thing is that Bob Dylan was born Bob Zimmerman. And like the Bobby Zimmerman of the book, Dylan too had a horrific motorcycle accident in Woodstock. A puzzled Gilmore then asks Dylan: “Are you saying that you really can’t be known?” Dylan replies enigmatically:

Nobody knows nothing [of course Dylan is a fan of the double negative]. Who knows who’s been transfigured and who has not? Who knows? Maybe Aristotle? Maybe he was transfigured? I can’t say. Maybe Julius Caesar was transfigured. I have no idea. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe Dante. Maybe Napoleon. Maybe Churchill. You just never know because it doesn’t figure into the history books. That’s all I’m saying.

Gilmore presses further, and, like Iago in the Shakespeare play, all Dylan says in response is: “I only know what I told you. You’ll have to go and do the work yourself to find out what it’s about.”

If I were to hazard a guess, Dylan has a powerful imagination. Most people, when they listen to a folk song, they don’t hear or understand the words. They just like the music. Then they’re those people who are more analytic. They hear and understand the words. On the next level up, there are the people like Thomas, Harvard professors who analyze the words and their meaning. Then there are the few who become part of the tradition. Their imaginations are so powerful, they enter and live out and are part of the songs they sing. Transfiguration, if I were to hazard a guess, is Dylan taking on the personae of the people and places he sings about. It’s a process of metamorphosis.

If you ask Dylan, he wasn’t born in Minnesota. He was born in Rome. And he had the wrong parents. What is more, he wasn’t born Bob Dylan. He was born Robert Zimmerman. One of his favourite lines from Rimbaud is: “Je est un autre” (“I is someone else”). In a Halloween performance, he tells the audience that he’s wearing his Bob Dylan mask. He has a fluid personality that he reinvents. Perhaps “he” even is too concrete a word for a man who sings, in a song released a few weeks ago, that “I contain multitudes.”

When Dylan saw Buddy Holly a few days before the plane crash, he recalled that:

Then, out of the blue, the most uncanny thing happened. He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.

Compare this to what Dylan said decades later in 1997, after the release of his comeback album Time out of Mind: “On some night when lightning strikes, the gift was given back to me and I knew it … the essence was back.” And then compare that to how he describes his songs as something “that has been there for thousands of years, sailing around in the mist, and one day I just tuned into it.” There is no Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is a conduit, a lightning rod for the Muse of song that sometimes comes to him and sometimes deserts him. When Dylan says “transfiguration,” he means that the Muse has come to him, inspiring him to take on the spirit that once moved Homer, Virgil, Dante, Woody Guthrie, and the other singer of tales.

The songs that Dylan sings have a life of their own. Through the centuries, they find different hosts: one time they would find expression through Ovid, another time through Dante. In these modern times, they speak through Dylan. When Dylan says he’s transfigured, I take it to mean that he’s taken on the persona through which the tradition can speak out. In the 60s he was the folk singer, the original hobo. In the 70s he became the rock star. In the 80s he became the preacher. In the 90s he went back to his storytelling roots. And most recently, he’s been the mouthpiece of the Great American Songbook. Each time he changes, that’s when he’s transfigured and infused with a new jolt of energy just like that time when Buddy Holly zapped him in the 60s or in the 90s when lightning struck and the gift was given back.

I say all this about transfiguration because I’ve experienced it as well, once. I was in my early twenties. I found a book about transfiguration. There actually is no such book. But there are books that can transfigure you, and I think that that’s what happened to Dylan in Rome: he found a book he felt such an affinity towards it changed his life. The book that transfigured me was Homer’s Iliad.

I read the book in three days. Skipped out of my college classes. Didn’t eat. Didn’t sleep. Everything in it made sense to me. I grasped it all at once, and intuitively. Homer relates in the book how everything happens over and over, how the heroes duel again and again in an eerily similar sequence. I got it all: the power of fate, even over the gods. It all clicked: the fatalistic heroes who were caught in the hierarchical power of the heroic code, a zero-sum game. “When my time comes,” they say, “I’ll breathe my last. But until that time comes, I am.” I was struck by the theodicy of the poem: we suffer to become a song for the singers of the future. I was transfigured, transported into a heroic world that had more sense than today’s wild world.

When we are transfigured, we enter into the world of literature or the world of the song. But there is no point explaining the experience of transfiguration to the non-believers. The non-believers will say we cannot experience what has happened so long ago: the long ago was stranger than we think. We can only experience what we thought it was like. But Dylan, I argue, would say different. At the end of the song “Duquesne Whistle,” he tells us that we come back again and again in an eternal recurrence:

The lights of my native land are glowin’

I wonder if they’ll know me next time around

I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing

That old oak tree, the one we used to climb.

I’ll see you down the road, the next time you come around. It could be tomorrow or a thousand years from now. Homer, Achilles, Dylan, Catullus, and the Jack of Hearts are all incarnations of their underlying forms and archetypes. They have been, and will be, again and again, transfiguring and metamorphosing in an unbroken dance.

Why Bob Dylan Matters

“Why Classics matter” has been a rallying cry in Classics departments for some time now, so it’s of little surprise that a classicist would call his book on Bob Dylan Why Bob Dylan Matters. In the words of Thomas:

This is also a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities. We live in a world and an age in which the humanities–the study of the best that the human mind has risen to in art, music, writing, and performance–are being asked to justify their existence, are losing funding, or are in danger of losing funding. At the same time, those arts seem more vital than ever in terms of what they can teach us about how to live meaningful lives.

I’ve always been of two minds when I see the question framed in this way: “Why the Classics matter,” “Why religion matters,” “Why the humanities are important,” and so on. In one way, I see that it’s a natural question to ask, and one that will draw viewers. But in another way, I don’t like the question, because it’s asked from a standpoint of weakness. In ages where the Classics, religion, and the humanities were strong, no one would frame the question that way. Their importance would be axiomatic. No justification required. So the book title, while appealing in one way, is distasteful in another in that it presupposes that Bob Dylan–like the Classics, religion, and other institutions under fire of late–needed the help of academics. Bob Dylan is just doing fine.

Painting Blood on the Tracks

There isn’t enough material on Bob Dylan’s affinity with the Classics to fill an entire volume. Thomas gets around this by integrating his own growing fascination with Dylan over the years into the book’s narrative. Thomas was born in 1950. Dylan, born in 1941, was nine years his senior, the right age to have influenced young Thomas. For example, Dylan’s first original album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan would have come out when Thomas was thirteen. That’s about the right age when your ears are alert for brave new songs to follow.

Some of these non-Classical asides are gems. When talking about Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, Thomas quotes Dylan giving props to a painting teacher he had found in New York in 1974:

I was convinced I wasn’t going to do anything else, and I had the good fortune to meet a man in New York City who taught me how to see. He put my mind and my hand and my eye together in a way that allowed me to do consciously what I unconsciously felt . . . when I started doing it the first album I made was Blood on the Tracks.

To illustrate the principles of fine arts in songwriting, Thomas quotes the lyrics of “Simple Twist of Fate:”

A saxophone someplace far off played

As she was walkin’ by the arcade

As the light bust through a beat-up shade where he was wakin’ up

She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate

And forgot about a simple twist of fate.

The Hibbing High Years

Did you know Dylan, then called Robert Zimmerman, grew up in small town Minnesota? He was born in Duluth and grew up in Hibbing, where he attended Hibbing High. As you would expect, Thomas covers Dylan’s membership in the Hibbing High Latin club as well as the escapist sword and sandal movies popular at this time. While Hibbing lacked many of the cultural perquisites of future world-historical figures, it gave Dylan two things: a performance venue at the Hibbing High auditorium–a gorgeous 1805 capacity facility where he would play with his band The Shadow Blasters–and a desire to get out. Dylan would later capture his boyhood memories in song:

They all got out of here any way they could

The cold rain can give you the shivers

They went down the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee

All the rest of them rebel rivers.

The Mesabi iron range–one of the world’s largest open pit mines–was a source of wealth in Minnesota, and one of the reasons why Hibbing High had such a grand auditorium. The mine must be awe-inspiring: it is also a topic in one of Springsteen’s songs of desolation “Youngstown.”

Dylan and Catullus

One of Thomas’ aims is to discuss not so much Dylan’s direct allusions to the writers of antiquity but rather the techniques of storytelling Dylan uses that go back to the ancient writers. One of my favourite points of discussion was how the Roman poet Catullus and Dylan use similar techniques. Thomas compares, for example Catullus poem 11:

You who are ready to try out

whatever the will of the gods will bring

Take a brief message to my old girlfriend

words that she won’t like.

Let her live and be well with her three hundred lovers,

Not really truly loving them

but screwing them again and again.

to Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello:”

If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier

She left here last early spring, is livin’ there, I hear

Say for me that I’m alright though things get kind of slow

She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so.

From the 1st century BC to 1975, the poem is a messenger. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Closing Thoughts

The aim of the book was to connect Dylan with the pantheon of classical poets. One question the book left me with: does Harvard Classics professor Richard F. Thomas perhaps enjoy Dylan even more than the classical poets? Perhaps…

There’s more to Thomas’ book than what I’ve described. He goes into Dylan’s set lists, Dylan’s affinity with the road-weary Greek hero Odysseus, and Dylan’s Nobel Prize. This is a book that I’ll be rereading down the road. Would that all books by Harvard professors were such a delight.

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

Review of “Tragedy and Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan” – Julia Reinhard Lupton

pages 88-105 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Julia Reinhard Lupton is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where she has taught since 1989. She is the co-author of After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (with Kenneth Reinhard, 1992) and the author of Afterlives of the Saints: Hagiography, Typology, and Renaissance Literature (1996) and Citizen-Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (2005). She is the founding director of Humanities Out There, a nationally recognized educational partnership between the University of California, Irvine and local schools.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

I remember a funny moment in a third-year drama class Professor Laurel Bowman was teaching. She was talking about Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and she listed on a PowerPoint slide the things she wanted to cover: comparing Oedipus to the Athenian statesman Pericles, comparing the plague in the play to the plague in Athens, narratological approaches to interpreting the play, and so on. The next slide had the heading: “What we will not be talking about,” and under the heading, with a big cross through it, were the words “Freud and psychoanalysis.” This drew a laugh from the students. Freud and psychoanalysis, in vogue for so much of the twentieth century, have fallen out of favour.

Psychoanalysis entered the mainstream in 1899 when Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. In this work, he grounded the phenomenon of the unconscious mind that writers such as Dostoyevsky and Hamsun and philosophers such as Nietzsche had begun exploring on a scientific and medical basis. Though psychoanalysis was developed to treat mental disorders, because Freud used literary texts–primarily Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet–to introduce his ideas on the unconscious, repression, fantasy, and neurosis, psychoanalysis also became a vehicle to interpret literature. “Putting the character on the couch,” as Lupton calls it.

The Basis of Psychoanalyzing Literary Persons

Lupton identifies four directions in psychoanalytic literary criticism that Freud launched with his comments on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are: character analysis, hermeneutics, narrative structure, and the dynamics of the psychoanalytic situation (how the unconscious brings about catharsis).

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Character analysis is the act of putting the character on the couch. It is, as Lupton describes, what “unfolds between the poles of brute personification or impersonation.” In English that means pretending that the character is a real person you could psychoanalyze. Of course, the character is not a real person, but hey we can look over this small detail, right? In the old day before psychoanalysis, character analysis would be a study of a character’s conscious motives and intentions. In psychoanalytic criticism, character analysis consists of looking at the unconscious or repressed neuroses that influence action.

Hermeneutics is the study of hidden meanings. Psychoanalytic interpretation, according to Lupton, “follows the operations by which meanings are transformed and redistributed in their passage between conscious and unconscious planes, replacing the search for latent contents with the dynamism of rhetorical transformations.” In English that means proposing that each thought and action in drama plays out on a dual stage: the conscious stage and the unconscious stage. For example, when Lady Macbeth says:

Come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull

Of direst cruelty

She could be wishing for more power and capacity. Or, there could be a hidden, hermeneutic meaning underlying her words. Perhaps her language breaks out as an ejaculation of repressed desires. In the old day before psychoanalysis, the study of hidden meaning consisted of looking at allusions to other works, the significance of metaphors and images of light, darkness, or colours, repetition, allusion, and other literary devices. In the old day, the study of hidden meanings was grounded to the text and its relation to other texts. Psychoanalysis freed up interpretation and looked for hidden meaning between the text and Freud’s discoveries in the unconscious realms of dreams and inhibitions.

Lupton’s third point of discussion–narrative structure–consists of mapping milestone events in the medical practise of psychoanalysis onto dramatic milestones in the plot. It was Freud himself who provided future critics the initial cue when he wrote: “The action of the play is nothing other than the process of revealing, with cunning delays and ever-mounting excitement–a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis–that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, but further he is the son of the murdered man and of Jocasta.”

One of the theorists who took Freud up on the psychoanalytical approach to narrative structure was Jacques Lacan. Lacan turns to Sophocles’ play Antigone and, using psychoanalysis on the plot, traces how all of Antigone’s actions return to one defining moment: her troubling declaration of her single-minded devotion to her brother:

Antigone: Had I had children or their father dead,

I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen

In such a case to cross the states’ decree.

What is the law that lies behind these words?

One husband gone, I might have found another,

Or a child from a new man in first child’s place,

But with my parents hid away in death,

No brother, ever, could spring up for me.

Here, Antigone says that she would have risked all for her brother. But not for her children or husband.  In Lacan’s analysis, Antigone’s subsequent actions can all be traced back to this one shocking pronouncement. What is more, in this announcement, Antigone reveals how she is the living personification of the incestuous union between Oedipus and Jocasta.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, structural interpretations consisted of looking at elements of the plot and comparing them with other plots in the same genre and with how plots unfold in different genres. The difference in psychoanalytic structural readings is that, in a psychoanalytic structural reading, the structure of the text is compared with the medical process of psychoanalysis.

The fourth and final direction psychoanalytic criticism has taken, according to Lupton, is to demonstrate how drama brings about Aristotle’s catharsis–the purging of pity and fear through pity and fear–in the audience. In this way, Freudian thought is an extension, and not a replacement of Aristotle’s Poetics.

If the narratological or structural approach of psychoanalysis identifies the root cause for a character’s behaviour, the fourth direction of psychoanalytic criticism called “transference” shows how the structure of tragedy has a social function: to cure the audience of pity and fear. Lupton here turns to the work of Lacan again. On Antigone’s terrifying decision to honour her brother, but not her children or husband (were she to have children and a husband), Lacan writes:

Through the intervention of pity and fear . . . we are purged of everything of that order. And that order, we can now immediately recognize, is properly speaking the order of the imaginary. And we are purged of it through the intervention of one image among others.

In the old day before the psychoanalysis of literary texts, we had all heard about Aristotle’s theory that tragedy purges the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. This was not new. It was never, however, entirely clear what Aristotle meant by the process of catharsis. The contribution of psychoanalysis is that it provides us with a mechanism of tragedy brings about catharsis. It is brought about by transference:

Transference in its imaginary function encourages us to identify with characters at the level of ethos or character–the function of pity as com-passion or sym-pathy that forms one strand of catharsis in Aristotle’s famous formula. Transference in its symbolic and real dimensions, however, locates us in contradictory places within the mythos of the drama, and the mythos of our lives, corresponding to the fear or terror that wrenches us out of imaginary identification with a character and forces us into contact with the unconscious plot and repressed words that shape our desire.

Hermeneutics, narrative structure, the dynamics of the psychoanalytic position, and catharsis: Lupton has identified these four areas as the major points of psychoanalytic criticism.

Psychoanalysis and Citizenship

Lupton ends her essay with a surprising discussion bringing together psychoanalysis and the question of citizenship. Politics and citizenship are thought, generally, to lie outside the realm of psychoanalysis, which examines not the state, but the interior workings of an individual’s unconscious. That Lupton’s question occurs, however, is less surprising if we consider the political aim of this Blackwell companion to tragedy. Here’s how the back cover blurb reads:

The companion is based on the premise that the genre of tragedy is inseparable from history, insofar as it was born in the Greek city-state, and its life has been intertwined with the fate of dynasties, revolutions, and crises of social change.

Since tragedy dramatizes the emergence of democratic sensibilities, the triumph of citizens, and the institution of citizenship over monarchs, tyrants, and despotic rule, then there should be overlap between the unfolding political and psychological action. A psychoanalysis of the dissolving kinship ties holding together monarchies and tyrannies is possible, argues Lupton, where the political and psychological action overlaps.

Psychologically, argues Lupton, both Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Aeschylus’ Oresteia move from pre-Oedipal to Oedipal formations. In the beginning of both plays, the father figure character–Agamemnon in the Oresteia and King Hamlet in Hamlet–perishes. The son–Orestes in the Oresteia and Hamlet in Hamlet–must assume a new relation to the phallus.

In Hamlet, Hamlet assumes a new relation with the phallus and finds a new sense of citizenship in his friendship with Horatio. And in the Oresteia, Orestes assumes a new relation with the phallus by bringing about the trial that transfers the adjudication of murder from the family to the state. In Lupton’s reading, the singular force of repressed and hidden neuroses in an individual can explode onto a national level.

The Future of the Psychoanalysis of Literary Persons

Have you ever read Freud? He is a beautiful stylist. He writes deliberately with clarity and focus. Take this passage. It is beautiful to read:

If that is the case, the gripping power of Oedipus rex, in spite of all the rational objections to the inexorable fate that the story presupposes, becomes intelligible . . . The Greek myth seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he has felt traces of it in himself. Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in phantasy, and this dream-fulfillment played out in reality causes everyone to recoil in horror.

His writing makes me want to believe him, to believe his story. Now compare Freud with one of his followers, Lacan:

[Antigone invokes] a right that emerges in the language of the ineffaceable character of what is–ineffaceable, that is, from the moment when the emergent signifier freezes it like a fixed object in spite of the flood of possible transformations. What is, is, and it is to this, to this surface, that the unshakeable, unyielding position of Antigone is fixed . . . To put it in the terms of Lévi-Strauss–and I am certain that I am not mistaken in evoking him here, since I was instrumental in having had him reread Antigone and he expressed himself to me in such terms–Antigone with relation to Creon finds herself in the position of synchrony in opposition to diachrony.

While Freud was the soul of concision, Lacan is anything but. Here is what I think Lacan is saying:

In burying her brother, Antigone invokes an immutable and unique right. While the world changes around her, the right she invokes is timeless and knows no change. By anchoring herself to the timeless, immutable, and unique right, Antigone herself becomes timeless. To put this in the terms of one of the gods of my field, by this act of invocation Antigone freezes the ever-flowing stream of language while Creon is swept away by the changes. I know Lévi-Strauss is correct in saying this because it is I, Lacan, myself who encouraged him to reread Antigone. Without me, he probably would have overlooked this important finding.

The way Lacan presents himself makes me want to disbelieve him and, what is more, run away as fast as I can.

Lacan, and many of these other practitioners of psychoanalytic criticism remind me of the quants on Wall Street who, from time to time, trigger flash crashes with their financial alchemy. They take an idea, even a viable idea, and dress it up in the finery of mathematics. They flash their equations and formulas to the doubters to silence them. They’re dangerous, because their equations and formulas, even though dependent on many unproven assumptions, have the seeming of certainty. So too the language of the psychoanalytic critics after Freud reminds of the mathematical models and algorithms of the quants. Dense language raises suspicions that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

I think, if psychoanalytic criticism is going to revive in the future, its practitioners will have to rediscover Freud’s gifts as a stylist. Freud’s followers liked reading Freud, but would Freud have loved reading his followers?

Freud’s Error

Psychoanalysis rests on two emotions: love and jealousy. In a letter to his friend Fliess, Freud lays down the emotional basis of psychoanalysis: “I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood.” Tragedy became useful to Freud when he saw in Oedipus rex an unmistakable reference to this belief:

In the very text of Sophocles’ tragedy there is an unmistakable reference to the fact that the Oedipus legend originates in an extremely old dream material, which consists of the painful disturbance of the relation towards one’s parents by means of the first impulses of sexuality. Jocasta comforts Oedipus–who is not yet enlightened, but who has become worried on account of the oracle–by mentioning to him the dream which is dreamt by so many people, though she attaches no significance to it–

“For it hath already been the lot of many men in dreams to think themselves partners of their mother’s bed. But he passes most easily through life to whom these circumstances are trifles” (Act iv. sc. 3).

Jocasta’s words seem to anticipate Freud and psychoanalysis. But do they?

Let’s consider the entire passage. The Corinthian messenger has arrived, and tells Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne: his father has died. Since he’s left Corinth a long time ago, Oedipus begins to question the prophecy that he would kill his father. But he still fears the other half of the prophecy that said he would sleep with his mother:

Oedipus: But my mother’s bed, surely I must fear–

Jocasta: Fear?

What should a man fear? It’s all chance,

chance rules our lives. Not a man on earth

can see a day ahead, groping through the dark.

Better to live at random, best we can.

And as for this marriage with your mother–

have no fear. Many a man before you,

in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed

Take such things for shadows, nothing at all–

Live, Oedipus,

as if there’s no tomorrow!

Oedipus: Brave words,

and you’d persuade me if mother weren’t alive.

But mother lives, so for all your reassurances

I live in fear, I must.

As Freud notes, Jocasta is attempting to comfort Oedipus, who has becoming increasingly agitated. Characters in tragedy use a stock device to comfort one another. Tragedy’s stock consolation is formulaic, taking this form: “Not to you alone has this suffering come. Many others have also suffered this.” In antiquity, the consolation was such a commonplace it was called the non tibi hoc soli “not to you alone” consolation. It was popular enough for Cicero to write about it (an effective consolation, though some spit it out) and for Timocles to base a theory of tragedy around it.

The non tibi hoc soli consolation is a commonplace of consolation in tragedy. Examine the chorus’ consolation to Theseus, who has discovered his wife has committed suicide:

Theseus: What misery is mine! I have suffered, luckless man that I am, the greatest of woes! O fate, how heavily you have fallen upon me and upon my house, an unperceived blight sent upon me by some avenging power! Nay more, it is the very destruction of life!

Chorus: My lord, it is not upon you alone that these ills have come: you have lost a trusty wife, but so have many others.

Consider as well Danaus’ consolation to his daughters when they feel the heartbreak of exile: “Pure Apollo, too, who, though a god, was exiled once from heaven.” The pang of exile has not come to the Danaids alone: even the gods felt it. And, for a more recent example, turn to Claudius’ consolation to Hamlet on the death of his father:

Claudius: ‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,

To give these mourning duties to your father;

But you must know, your father lost a father;

That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere

In obstinate condolement is a course

Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief.

Again, note the formulaic “not to you alone” expression of consolation. Hamlet should feel consoled, once he realizes that he’s not the only one who has lost a father. The consolation works by diluting grief by the pain of others. When the sufferer suffers, there is something in their suffering that wants to exalt itself as the greatest burden that has ever been experienced. The sufferer, with this weight of burden, wants to be the king of pain, wants to take this pain as a proof against existence, wants to cry out: “Look on me, and see what wrongs I have suffered!” The commonplace of consolation brings the sufferer back to the ground. “Your sufferings,” it says, “are not at all unique. Bear it with the others.”

Now, let’s return to the scene where Jocasta is consoling Oedipus. Oedipus is worried that the prophecy that he would sleep with his mother may be fulfilled. If Jocasta were to console Oedipus with the stock non tibi hoc soli (“not to you alone”) consolation of tragedy, it would come out something like this: “You’re not the only one, Oedipus, who’s slept with his mother. Many others have slept with their mothers.” Can you see the problem here?

The first problem of using the stock consolation is that Oedipus hasn’t slept with his mother–at least that’s what Jocasta and Oedipus both believe at this point. Unlike the other sufferers in tragedy who have lost a wife or a father, Oedipus is worried about something conjectural. And the second problem of using the stock consolation is that it just sounds bad. It’s completely inappropriate, as Oedipus doesn’t want to sleep with his mother. What Sophocles has to do is to alter the stock consolation to fit the action. And so he adds a twist. The consolation, like Oedipus’ fear, has to become conjectural. To make the consolation conjectural, Sophocles places it into the realm of dreams, rendering it thus: “Many a man before you, in his dreams, has shared his mother’s bed.”

Freud thought that Jocasta’s consolation was an universal acknowledgement of a son’s jealousy of his father and love of his mother. Far from it. That would have been the last thing Jocasta would have wanted to convey to Oedipus at this critical moment. Her consolation, in my analysis, takes the form that it does because Sophocles takes the commonplace of consolation the audience expects to see and gives it a little twist to make it work in his play. That’s all. It isn’t some gnostic and universal declaration of the Oedipus complex. It’s taking and adapting the commonplace of consolation so that it makes sense. There’s nothing really complicated or profound in her consolation at all. Freud has overanalyzed the line, and beautifully, I might add.

We often take literature to be more profound than it actually is. Most of the time, if you ask artists, they’re not thinking about universal truths, hidden meanings, or creating a legacy to persevere through time. They’re just trying to make things fit. I think Milman Parry showed us this when he analyzed the oral tradition behind Homeric epic. He argued that Homer and the bards in the epic tradition composed on the fly. They drew on formulaic groups of words to fit the metre in which they were reciting their poems. So, when they used these formulas–such as “Rosy-fingered Dawn” or “Cow-eyed Hera”–that doesn’t mean that they thought Dawn was rosy-fingered or that Hera was cow-eyed or that the sea was wine-dark or that Achilles was swift-footed or that Menelaus was loud. They were just looking for a way to finish the line in the correct metre. We can see this in the instances where Achilles is said to be “swift-footed” even when he’s sleeping.

So too, Jocasta’s consolation to Oedipus is like one of these Homeric epithets–with one exception. Sophocles, unlike the Homeric rhapsode, isn’t composing on the fly. Sophocles has time to adapt. Here’s what happens: Oedipus is upset. The audience is expecting Jocasta to console him. Tragedy uses a stock “not to you alone consolation.” But the stock consolation doesn’t work. So, Sophocles adds a line “in his dreams” to make it work.

There you have it. Was Freud correct in that Jocasta’s line anticipates psychoanalysis? Or am I correct in thinking Sophocles has modified the commonplace of consolation? A good test for Occam’s razor.

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

Review of ARGUMENTS FOR A THEATRE – Howard Barker

1993 (2nd ed.), Manchester University Press, 183 pages

Book and Author Blurb

Howard Barker’s reputation as a major European dramatist has been forged over 20 years’ work both in major state theatres like the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in the independent theatres, particularly through The Wrestling School, an innovative company dedicated to the performance of his work. Always controversial Barker’s drama makes demands on its audience as a first principle; it is characteristically tragic, poetic, emotional, and by the imaginative power of its situations and the metaphor and poetry of its form, draws theatre beyond its conventional range. Over a period of years Barker has moved towards defining his aims and methods, beginning with the how celebrated manifest Fortynine asides in 1985. His strategy is to change the habitual relations between stage and audience, to encourage a different way of experiencing theatre, and to liberate its particular strengths from ideological restrictions which have aggregated over years of Stanislavskian and Brechtian practice.

In this collection of essays, lectures, aphorisms, Barker elaborates his concept of a Theatre of Catastrophe, a form of tragedy without reconciliation, and locates his expectations in the experience of theatre rather than its moral content. Also here are short, searching pieces on individual performances by actors, notes, on productions drawings and poems which are oblique but illuminating reflections on a changing theory.

Howard Barker’s best-known plays are Scenes from an Execution, The Castle, The Possibilities, The Bite of the Night, and The Europeans.

Argument for a Theatre

What is tragedy? To Barker, modern tragedy is a “Theatre of Catastrophe.” The theatre of catastrophe is Barker’s term for his brand of tragedy. Conventional tragedy could have a message, whether as a mouthpiece of a national morality or as the tragedian’s personal pulpit. Tragedies put on by overfunded state theatres, writes Barker, serve to reinforce the national conscience. Tragedies put on by ideologues, writes Barker, serve as tragedians as personal pulpits. Both degrade drama’s purpose which is that it does not have a purpose. Barker’s tragedies will have none of this nonsense.

Tragedy, to Barker, is a conduit for the beauty of language. It is amoral. It rejects politics, conscience, and the populist culture. Pure tragedy must do away with the authority of the author-playwright. Works such as Roland Barthes’ 1977 essay “The Death of the Author” and Adrian Page’s 1992 volume The Death of the Playwright loom over Barker’s thinking. In the theatre of catastrophe the audience too is a playwright and, in narrative authority, equal to the playwright and actor. If anyone has authority in the theatre of catastrophe, it is the actor who is elevated to an exalted status by the beauty of language and suffering.

If people come to the theatre of catastrophe, and exit saying: “I learned something,” then Barker has failed. If people come to the theatre of catastrophe, and exit saying: “I agree, the meaning was clear,” then Barker has failed. If people come to the theatre of catastrophe, and exit saying: “That was a great solution,” then Barker has failed. These objectives are for rival theatres. These objectives smack of the critical theory of Brecht and Shaw, humanist theatre, or the political theatre that was popular in the decades leading up to the 1980s. Barker wants audiences leaving his theatre to leave feeling uncertain. “After the tragedy,” he writes, “you are not certain who you are.” I think what Barker really wants—but stops short of saying—is for an audience to see one of his shows and rise up and riot, tear up the furniture, and exit in disgust. Sort of like the public’s reaction to Brecht’s 1929 play The Baden-Baden Lesson on Consent. I wonder if Barker has ever achieved this? I think the trick to this is that you have to get people into your theatre who do not like you, and this is somewhat hard to do, as most of the public coming to your shows are fans, and since they’re expecting grotesque violence and terrible things happening with bodily fluids, they won’t mind. Here’s an example of Barker’s language (from the prologue to The Bite of the Night) :

Clarity

Meaning

Logic

And Consistency

None of it

None

I’ll take you

I’ll hold your throat

I will

And vomit I will tolerate

Over my shirt

Over my writs

Your bile

Your juices

I’ll be your guide

And whistler in the dark

Cougher over filthy words

And all known sentiments recycles for this house.

Barker is a bit of a walking contradiction. For a writer so focused on ambiguity in his playwriting, his lecture prose is lucid and to point. He writes in a direct blunt aphoristic style. It has moments of profound beauty as well, such as this passage: “The status of comedians has never been higher. In my latest play, The Last Supper, laughter has become so artificial, so mechanical, that it has ceased to be attached to human beings at all, and drifts over the landscape like a storm cloud, discharging itself over battlefields and banquets alike.” His aphoristic style is perfect in the Twitter age. For a writer who writes such long plays, three, four, or even five hours long, his book on the theory of drama is delightfully short, 183 pages in total. For a writer so set against political plays, he sure writes a lot about politics and its wants. For a writer so set against conventional morality, he sure writes a lot about conventional moralities and their discontents. When I was young, I listened to heavy metal music. This style of music railed against religion. It railed against the outdated church. When I was young—and perhaps still today—I listened to this heavy metal music. Now, however, when I think back on the singers and the bands, I think: “If you have truly surpassed and grown beyond religion, you guys sure use up a lot of lyrics talking about angels and demons, scaling the golden wall of heaven, and doing battle with the priests. If truly you had risen above, perhaps you would not sing so much of the old ways.” Barker sort of reminds me of this contradiction in heavy metal music. It’s sort of like Marx’ controversy: for someone who despises capital so much, he sure spends a lot of time and energy focused on it.

While tragedy for Barker has no meaning, it has a feeling. It is a theatre of pain, of insoluble complications. Tragedy is for “cultures secure enough to tolerate the performance against collective wisdom.” Here is an echo of Nietzsche—another great stylist—who also believed that tragedy was for the strong, for those who had not only the strength of conviction, but the excess in strength that delighted in challenging and overthrowing their own convictions. By dramatizing unpredictable patterns of behaviour, Barker generates moral uncertainty. Barker dramatizes, for example, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in his play On the Divine. In Barker’s play, just as in the Bible, a ram is caught by its horns, and Isaac is spared. But in Barker’s play, instead of sacrificing Isaac out of pure faith, Abraham uses philosophy to justify the sacrifice of his son. For using philosophy he is rebuked by the God character, played by Benz, who in turn, after chastising Abraham, is killed by Isaac. The God character dies.

The death of the God character is deliberate, and one senses when Barker comments on the scene: “There is, perhaps, nothing sacrilegious in the liberal climate of contemporary Christianity” that, if he could have, he would have even went further than having Isaac kill God. Unlike Aristotle, who wanted pity and fear, Barker wants anxiety: his theatre of catastrophe is a theatre for an age of anxiety, a theatre where the capacity of the actor to waylay audience expectations and to convey the pain of irreconcilable alienation reigns supreme. Barker does not want audiences to be entertained, but to be wrung out like rag dolls.

I wonder what sort of audience comes to the theatre of catastrophe? Are there limits to how popular the theatre of catastrophe could be? I could see the theatre of catastrophe being popular with the cognoscenti who say: “Not another revenge tragedy, I want something to tickle my senses.” But how many cognoscenti are there? Even in this “liberal climate of contemporary Christianity,” how many theatregoers, believers or nonbelievers, would go to see God die on stage? Barker is on his way to entering the canon. But will he? Many plays that enter the canon also have an element of popular appeal, something that Barker seems allergic to. Time will tell.

Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe Model of Tragedy

-poetry and metaphor

-speculation on behaviour

-psychological unreliability

-complex syntax

-long speeches

-the eruption of alternative discourses within the speech

-moment

-the gaol

-the spoiled landscape

-the cemetery

-pain at the insubstantiality of values

-melancholy

-non-therapeutic

-non-enlightened

-constant digression

-accumulation of feelings

-complication

-irresolution

-disintegration

-impossibility

-requires external funding

Wong’s Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

-beauty desired, but not required

-speculation on the worth of human values

-the psychology of ramblers and gamblers

-accessible language and ideas

-stichomythia

-the eruption of gambling images and metaphors within the speech

-objectives

-the casino

-the no-limit tables

-the dead man’s hand

-overcoming the smallness of existence by the greatness of daring

-anticipation and apprehension

-commiseration

-higher sensibility of the impact of the highly improbable

-straight line and goal

-repercussions of the gambling act

-unpredictability

-the best-laid plans of mice and men fall short

-low-probability, high-consequence events

-an outcome that while not impossible, defies all odds and expectations

-internally funded, has skin in the game

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