Category Archives: Reading List – Plays

An Enemy of the People – Ibsen

1999, Dover, 96 pages

Book Blurb

In this powerful work, Ibsen places his main character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, in the role of an enlightened and persecuted minority of one confronting an ignorant, powerful majority. When the physician learns that the famous and financially successful baths in his hometown are contaminated, he insists they be shut down for expensive repairs. For his honesty, he is persecuted, ridiculed, and declared an “enemy of the people” by the townspeople, including some who had been his closest allies.

First staged in 1883, An Enemy of the People remains one of the most frequently performed plays by a writer considered by may the “father of modern drama.” This easily affordable edition makes available to students, teachers, and general readers a major work by one of the world’s great playwrights.

Author Blurb

Widely regarded as one of the foremost dramatists of the 19th century, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) brought the social problems and ideas of his day to center stage. Creating realistic plays of psychological conflict that emphasized character over cunning plots, he frequently inspired critical objections because his dramas deemed the individual more important than the group.

An Enemy of the People as Risk Theatre

Most Ibsen plays fit the risk theatre mold well, and An Enemy of the People is no exception. In this play, Dr. Stockmann, as chief medical officer, investigates incidents of typhoid and gastric fever in a coastal Norwegian tourist town. Dr. Stockmann wants to keep the town safe. Risk theatre looks at the dramatic action as a gambling act consisting of three parts: temptation, wager, and cast. That the doctor wants to keep the town safe represents the “temptation” phase of the tragedy. His concerns motivate him to act.

Dr. Stockmann conjectures that the illnesses arise from the contaminated waters at the local municipal baths. When the test reports confirm his fears of an infusoria infestation, he takes action to rehabilitate the baths. He will publicize his findings in the local blue-collar newspaper, The People’s Messenger. The town authorities who skimped out on the design and implementation of the water supply to the baths (one of whom is Stockmann’s brother) will be in hot water. Reputations will be destroyed. But the doctor is an idealist:

Dr. Stockmann: Who the devil cares if there be any risk or not! What I am doing, I am doing in the name of truth and for the sake of my conscience.

So, according to the risk theatre model, Dr. Stockmann makes a wager: the town’s well-being and the reputation of some of the townsfolk for the truth.

Like most wagers in popular tragedies, Stockmann has a high degree of confidence that he will be successful. He will publish his findings in the paper. Some municipal officers will go down. But the baths will be repaired and lives saved. He has the support of the paper. He has the support of the working class folks, who secretly want to see the wealthy authorities pay. This is class warfare.

Dr. Stockmann has every expectation of success. But–you know the drill now–a low-probability, high-consequence event happens which upsets his best-laid plans. This happens when the mayor, his brother Peter Stockmann, turns the tables against him. Peter begins a fear campaign: if the news gets out, the lifeblood of the town will run dry. The repairs will be prohibitively expensive. The baths will be shut down for years. The local economy will tank. House prices will crash. The blue-collar workers will lose their jobs.

Peter’s fear campaign works. Instead of being called the town’s saviour, in a vicious town meeting, Dr. Stockmann is branded “an enemy of the people.” He is fired from his post as medical officer and loses his practice. His daughter loses her job as a schoolteacher. His two sons are suspended from school. His house is vandalized, all the windows are broken.

To be Free of Conflict You Need to Have No Friends / Family

Reading An Enemy of the People reminded me of a passage from Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. In this book Taleb talks about how whistleblower types are hindered by the risks to friends and family:

It is no secret that large corporations prefer people with families; those with downside risk are easier to own, particularly when they are choking under a large mortgage.

And of course most fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond don’t have the encumbrance of a family that can become a target of, say, evil professor Moriarty.

Let us go one step further.

To make ethical choices you cannot have dilemmas between the particular (friends, family) and the general.

Celibacy has been a way to force men to implement such heroism: for instance, the rebellious ancient sect the Essenes were celibate. So by definition they did not reproduce–unless one considers that their sect mutated to merge with what is known today as Christianity. A celibacy requirement might help with rebellious causes, but it isn’t the greatest way to multiply your sect through the ages.

Financial independence is another way to solve ethical dilemmas, but such independence is hard to ascertain: many seemingly independent people aren’t particularly so. While, in Aristotle’s days, a person of independent means was free to follow his conscience, this is no longer as common in modern days.

Intellectual and ethical freedom requires the absence of the skin of others in one’s game, which is why the free are so rare. I cannot possibly imagine the activist Ralph Nader, when he was the target of large motor companies, raising a family with 2.2 kids and a dog.

An Enemy of the People reminded me of this passage because Dr. Stockmann has to ultimately decide not between his welfare and his principles (he can willingly die a martyr to truth), but has to decide between the welfare of his family and the truth. His family is the weak point.

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

Drama Versus Novel – Macbeth and Moby-Dick

Each art specializes in expressing a facet of nature. Rhythm, for example, belongs to the musical arts. The painted arts, of course, can convey rhythm as well. Looking at Géricault’s Epsom Races, one cannot but hear the familiar three beat signature of racing horses:

Géricault, Epsom Races (Course D’Epsom)

But motion is properly the property of music. Colour belongs to the painted arts. Of course music can also have “colour” or “scene:” for example, Liszt’s tone-poems has scene and Davis’ “King of Blue” has colour.

Now what about prophecy? I guess this isn’t really a facet of nature, but a facet of the supernatural. But which art owns the rights to prophecy? Well, let’s put it to the test! There’s two similar prophecies in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. Here we have drama and novel trying to do the same thing.

Contestant #1 Drama (Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

In this scene, the witches call up apparitions who prophecy to Macbeth:

SECOND APPARITION. Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!

MACBETH. Had I three ears, I’d hear thee.

SECOND APPARITION. Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn

The power of man, for none of woman born

Shall harm Macbeth. [Descends]

MACBETH. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?

But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,

And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live;

That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,

And sleep in spite of thunder.

[Thunder. THIRD APPARITION: a Child crown’d, with a tree in his hand.]

What is this,

That rises like the issue of a king,

And wears upon his baby-brow the round

And top of sovereignty?

ALL. Listen, but speak not to ‘t.

THIRD APPARITION. Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him. [Descends]

MACBETH. That will never be:

Who can impress the forest; bid the tree

Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!

Rebellion’s head, rise never, till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom.

Contestant #2 Novel (Melville’s Moby-Dick)

Ahab and all his boat’s crew seemed asleep but the Parsee; who crouching in the bow, sat watching the sharks, that spectrally played round the whale, and tapped the light cedar planks with their tails. A sound like the moaning in squadrons over Asphaltites of unforgiven ghosts of Gomorrah, ran shuddering through the air.

Started from his slumbers, Ahab, face to face, saw the Parsee; and hooped round by the gloom of the night they seemed the last men in a flooded world. “I have dreamed it again,” said he.

“Of the hearses? Have I not said, old man, that neither hearse nor coffin can be thine?”

“And who are hearsed that die on the sea?”

“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee:–a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”

“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”

“And what was that saying about thyself?”

“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”

“And when thou art so gone before–if that ever befall-then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?–Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”

“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom–“Hemp only can kill thee.”

“The gallows, ye mean.–I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;–“Immortal on land and on sea!”

Both were silent again, as one man. The grey dawn came on, and the slumbering crew arose from the boat’s bottom, and ere noon the dead whale was brought to the ship.

Moby-Dick is narrative; Macbeth is dramatic. But which one does prophecy better? Both passages give me the chills because it’s quite obvious in both instances that the low-probability event that they laugh off is precisely what’s going to kill them.

Well, there’s more economy in drama. It takes Melville 362 words to convey what Shakespeare does in 201. Another dramatist might even have been able to do it in less. Shakespeare is known to be quite verbose (when you’re that good with words, why not?). Winner: dramatic art.

But, while drama is more frugal and to the point, there’s a third voice in the narrative version, the voice of the narrator. In Shakespeare, the witches and Macbeth converse: that’s it. In Melville, there is the main dialogue between Ahab and the Parsee, and the narrator adds the details of the shark’s tails and the description of the men’s silence after Fedallah prophecies. Of course, the director of the drama could invite the audience to see these supratextual details in the stage directions or the setting. Here I think that the writer is superior to the dramatist in that the writer has more control over the reader’s interpretation. The dramatist is at the mercy of the director. So, while it’s not the case that narrative art is richer, but it is the case that narrative art retains greater control of the artistic product. Winner: narrative art.

What about from the viewpoint of suspense? It’s patently obvious that Ahab is going to be seeing dual hearses that someone is going to bid the tree unfix his earthbound root. What both Shakespeare and Melville are doing is setting up their audience’s expectations by saying: “Stay tuned, just wait to see how I pull this off!” From the perspective of suspense, the narrative and dramatic arts come to a draw. But I’ll have to give this one to the dramatic arts because, Melville, to make the scene more “dramatic” borrows from drama: the exchange between Fedallah and Ahab is recited verbatim and could be part of a play.

Of course I say this because I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work and not the work of the Muse of narrative art.

Wit – Margaret Edson

Wit Back Blurb

In this extraordinary play, Margaret Edson has created a work that is as intellectually challenging as it is emotionally immediate. At the start of Wit, Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a renowned professor of English who has spent years studying and teaching the brilliantly difficult Holy Sonnets of the metaphysical poet John Donne, has been diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. Her approach to her illness is not unlike her approach to the study of Donne: aggressively probing and intensely rational. But during the course of her illness–and her stint as a prize patient in an experimental chemotherapy program at a major teaching hospital–Vivian comes to reassess her life and her work with a profundity and humour that are transformative both for her and the audience.

Wit Author Blurb

Margaret Edson lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she is an elementary school teacher. Between earning degrees in history and literature, she worked in the cancer and AIDS unit of a research hospital. Wit is her first play.

Cover Art

Cover Art Wit

Cover Art Wit

W;t Review

Well, the other day (actually a year ago!), English professor TS was chatting about modern works. He specializes in 18th century gothic novel, but the conversation turned to present day drama. Was there anything that caught his eye that had been written/performed lately? By ‘lately’ the last thirty or so years was meant. He said that yes, there was a play by Edson that he had read called Wit or W;t. It was powerful and left a lasting impression on him. That day, I put it on the reading list. The local library didn’t have a copy, but luckily they do interlibrary loans. It turns out the Vancouver Island Regional Library had a copy they were willing to lend to the rival Greater Victoria Public Library.

Warning spoilers ahead!

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I like how the play is set in one act without intermissions. I like that the play is short, under two hours. As Vivian says: ‘I’ve got less than two hours’. Yes, the play is metatheatrical with lots of lines spoken directly to the audience. Lots can be said in two hours.

Here’s the synopsis: Vivian suffers terminal ovarian cancer. She volunteers to try out an experimental chemotherapy regime, more for the benefit to the research than herself. Because she is an academic specializing in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, she examines her situation through the lens of literature. Ultimately, she finds it hard to swallow Donne’s ‘And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die’. In an ironic twist, one of her doctors was one of her students. As she dies, her life becomes intertwined with Donne, who was also grappling with ‘salvation anxiety’ in the Holy Sonnets. For her, though, part of the answer lies in kindness, human kindness. The ending is surprising. You’ll have to read (or see it) to find out. It’s worth it.

I like the dialogues. And the monologues. They are rich because Edson draws from her own experiences. How exactly the Holy Sonnets ties into Vivian’s death is not clear to me. But that’s what makes the play art: the uncertainty. I hope Edson (maybe she has already) comes up with a sophomore effort after Wit.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Capitalism and Freedom Part Four – Friedman

Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

Part three of this blast from the past looked at The Role of Government In a Free Society. In that chapter, Friedman argues that small government is conducive to individual freedoms. The more the government looks after people–even with seemingly benign programs such as retirement pension plans–the less freedom a people have. Remember that the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) isn’t free (except perhaps for the first generation of recipients). The contributions come out of your and your employer’s pockets. If there was no CPP, you would have been able to spend your money as you saw fit.

Incidentally, the last company I worked for had a defined benefit plan. They gave the employees the option to opt out of the plan; employees who opted out would have the deduction for the pension plan removed from their paycheques. That is to say, they would receive a larger paycheque. I opted out and invested the money in investments of my own free choosing. Expanding CPP (that is all the talk these days) is fine. But why not make it so people can also opt out of it? That way, those without investment knowledge would be covered and those wishing to manage their own retirement portfolios would be able to do so.

While a fan of small government, Friedman believes that government does some things better than the private sector. First, government is a rule maker and umpire. Second, government coins and regulates the value of money. With this, we turn to chapter three: The Control of Money.

Friedman on The Control of Money

Our task in this and the following chapter is to steer a course between two views, neither of which is acceptable though both have their attractions. The Scylla is the belief that a purely automatic gold standard is both feasible and desirable and would resolve all the problems of fostering economic co-operation among individuals and nations in a stable environment. The Charybdis is the belief that the need to adapt to unforeseen circumstances requires the assignment of wide discretionary powers to a group of technicians, gathered together in an ‘independent’ central bank, or in some bureaucratic body. Neither has proved a satisfactory solution in the past; and neither is likely to in the future.

The gold standard is undesirable because the amount of money in a society would be dependent on the ability of that society to extract, refine, and produce gold. Friedman doesn’t mention this, but this brings to mind ancient Athens. Why was Athens able to attain hitherto undreamt levels in literature, art, science, and philosophy? Was it because of their democracy? Maybe. But it was more likely because they had unlimited money in the form of the silver mines of Laurium: 20,000 slaves toiled there daily in the 5th century. So, a gold or a silver standard can positively or negatively affect a state, depending on its mineral wealth.

The central bank is undesirable because, in attempting to resolve crises, it often makes the problem worse. Friedman blames the Federal Reserve System for exacerbating the Great Depression.

I find these shoulda woulda arguments on the Great Depression only half convincing. Arguing that ‘this made things worse’ or ‘this made things better’ is at best a thought experiment. To do a controlled experiment in economics, you’d need to set up an alternate-earth to see the actual effects of differences in policy. The failure of shoulda woulda arguments is that they are not tested against their unintended consequences. I much prefer economists to make projections into the future based on their models and hypotheses. While it would be hard to determine whether their forecasts are right because they were right (they can nail the prediction and still be dead wrong), at least they have to face up to the unintended consequences of their policies. This seems more honest than the ‘I told you so’.

Friedman On the Dispersal of Power

A liberal is fundamentally fearful of concentrated power. His objective is to preserve the maximum degree of freedom for each individual separately that is compatible with one man’s freedom not interfering with other men’s freedom. He believes that this objective requires power to be dispersed.

While Friedman is talking about the dangers of concentrating the power of regulating money in the government, the need to disperse power got me thinking about the amalgamation of municipalities.

Victoria, or Greater Victoria, is composed of many separate municipalities: Saanich, Esquimalt, Langford, Sooke, and so on. There has been talk for many years about amalgamating the municipalities. There would be significant cost savings to streamlining everything: fire, police, garbage, landscaping, and so on, especially for the smaller municipalities such as View Royal, which has a population under 10,000. There would also be benefits to businesses. Building inspectors from each of the municipalities all follow the BC Building Code, but they interpret the clauses differently. Amalgamating the municipalities would mean a construction company would know what to expect no matter where the construction site was located.

I’m a fan of amalgamating the municipalities. So much waste in having little dukedoms spread over the place, duplicating services. I guess here I disagree with Friedman: I favour efficiency over freedom.

Friedman On Inflation

In the present state of our knowledge, it seems to me desirable to state the rule in terms of the behaviour of the stock of money. My choice at the moment would be a legislated rule instruction the monetary authority to achieve a specified rate of growth in the stock of money. For this purpose, I would define the stock of money as including currency outside commercial banks plus all deposits of commercial banks. I would specify that the Reserve System shall see to it that the total stock of money so defined rises month by month, and indeed, so far as possible, day by day, at an annual rat of X per cent, where X is some number between 3 and 5. The precise definition of money adopted, or the precise rate of growth chosen, makes far less difference than the definite choice of  particular definition and a particular rate of growth.

By ‘growth in the stock of money’ I take it that Friedman means ‘inflation’. How times have changed since he wrote those words in the early 1960s! Today the bogeyman is deflation and we are lucky to achieve a 2% rate of inflation. From 1984-2015, core inflation has averaged 2.22% As of October 2015, core inflation is at 2.1% and dropping. No wonder the 1960s were a decade of change: at 5% growth, every 20 years, the society is 100% changed (5% * 20 years = 100% change). People speak of ‘change’ today. But at 2% growth and under, how much change can you have? Countries like India and China, which are growing at >7%: now there’s possibility for change (and revolution if you’re not careful).

In the quote on inflation, I take it that Friedman wants the mandate of the Federal Reserve to be limited to maintaining inflation rather than full employment. Today, the Federal Reserve (and also the Bank of Canada) has a dual mandate: target inflation and full employment. I’m not sure about this, but the argument seems to be that if monetary conditions are stable, let private enterprise figure the employment part out. That sounds reasonable to me.

The thing I don’t quite get is why a 3-5% rate of inflation was targeted in the 1960s and why a 2% rate of inflation is desirable today. Why do we need inflation at all? Is inflation and growth the same thing?–i.e. if the GDP rises 3%, does inflation also rise 3%? I don’t think so. Is inflation built into the system to prevent people from hoarding money (because it eats away at non-invested savings)? Or?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and, believe it or not, Doing Melpomene’s Work, like economics, is a study of how people behave in a dog eat dog world where resources are limited.


Othello (Iago?) – Shakespeare

I’ve always referred to Othello by Shakespeare as Iago because Iago dominates Othello. Iago drives the action; Othello is like a piece of driftwood, although he gets one of the best lines (as he breaks up a fight): ‘Keep up you bright swords, for the dew will rust them’. But the problem of the play is deeper than the title. Iago is the problem. Why is he such an asshole?

Now, I’m offering a reward to anyone who can convince me why Iago is such an asshole. It’s a question that’s eluded generations of theatregoers. Othello is my least favourite Shakespeare tragedy because I can’t figure it out. Coleridge ascribed Iago’s bad nature to ‘motiveless malignity’. While that has a nice jingle, it doesn’t explain much. Other Shakespeare villains at least have convincing explanations why they’re bad. Take Macbeth: he’s tempted by the crown. But what’s Iago tempted by? I’m not sure. The closest Shakespeare villain that’s bad just for the sake of being bad is Richard III. But at least he has some motivation: he’s getting back at nature for being born deformed (that’s the motive Shakespeare gives him).

Bad Iago

How is Iago an asshole? His wife, Emilia, seems like a nice lady. This is how he addresses her:

Iago (to Cassio): Sir, would she [Emilia] give you so much of her lips

As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,

You’ll have enough.

Desdemona: Alas, she has no speech.

Iago: In faith, too much;

I find it still, when I have list to sleep:

Marry, before your ladyship, I grant,

She puts her tongue a little in her heart,

And chides with thinking.

Emilia: You have little use to say so.

Iago: Come on, come on; you are pictures out of doors,

Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens

Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,

Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.

Here’s another one:

Emilia: I have a thing for you.

Iago: A thing for me!–it is a common thing–

I’ll leave it up to your capable imagination what a ‘common thing’ is. Hint: Emilia’s reaction is ‘Ha!’ and I don’t think she’s amused!

What else does ‘Honest Iago’ do? Well, he leads Roderigo on. Roderigo has a crush on Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Iago promises him access to Desdemona and takes all his money and jewels. Basically he bankrupts him for the fun of it. He has no intention on going through with his promises.

Iago gets Cassio drunk, with the result that he loses his job. He also stirs the pot between Roderigo and Cassio, hoping that one will kill the other. He gets Othello all jealous so that he suspects Desdemona of infidelity. When he succeeds at this, he urges Othello to kill Desdemona. Desdemona had never done him injury, and is his wife’s best girlfriend.

Basically Iago screws everyone over that he can.

Iago’s Motives

Shakespeare doesn’t leave Iago entirely without motivations. Iago complains that he was passed over for a promotion. He wanted to be lieutenant but Cassio got that position. But as Othello’s ancient, he’s second in command. He also believes that Othello has slept with his wife. But he doesn’t give a reason. And there’s nothing in the play between Othello and Emilia that would suggest anything inappropriate has taken place. Then at other times, he says that he enjoys playing the asshole just for the fun of it.

Despite his insidious actions, none of the other characters can see through him. As the play’s reader, I find that frustrating: usually someone suspects something. Everyone calls him ‘Honest Iago’ and trusts him with all their secret concerns. That’s how he can get up to such great mischief: he knows everyone’s secret wishes and desires.

His motivations, to me, are unconvincing. He has motivations. But it’s like meeting someone who’s late for a meeting. If they have one excuse, it might just be real. If they have a bunch of excuses, they’re full of it. Iago, with his many excuses, seems like he’s full of it. But that leaves the question: why is he such an asshole.

The characters don’t seem to know either. When everyone’s dead in the end, and they question Iago as to his motives, this is what he says:

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.

From this time forth I never will speak word.

I went through a whole play just to hear a character tell me that he won’t say what the whole play was about! Frustrating! So, if anyone knows Iago’s secret, let me know!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I have real motives for Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Gotz von Berlichingen – Goethe

Besides his Faust (which is read and hardly performed), most of Goethe’s plays languish. Egmont (for which Beethoven composed the overture), Torquato TassoGotz von BerlichingenIphigenia: these are hardly household names like Oedipus rex or Death of a Salesman. It’s a shame, because I rather like Goethe’s plays. They are simple in expression (usually concerned with freedom), forward driving, full of impetuous characters (including powerful female roles), and full of his wit. They read almost like fairy tales. I would cross the road to see a Goethe play. One which I’ve been meaning to read is Gotz von Berlichingen.

Before the bionic man, there was Gotz, the man with the iron hand. Gotz was based on an actual Gottfried (Gotz) von Berlichingen. He lost his right arm to enemy fire and had a prosthetic hand made up which could hold reins, a shield, or even a quill. Considering that he lived from 1480 to 1562, the technology must have been quite amazing! Gotz was a knight, mercenary, and writer. He left behind an autobiography which Goethe used as source material for the play. Gotz is a popular figure who captures people’s imaginations up to the present day. Sartre used him as a character. And there are various German movies starring Gotz. One came out in 2014 and there were also ones in 1955 and 1979. The 1979 movie is available on YouTube. I watched a few minutes and it looks good!

The Iron Hand of Gotz

The Iron Hand of Gotz

Since the library didn’t have a copy of Gotz, I was able to find a copy online here. It’s a beautiful 1885 translation (unknown translator) published by George Barrie. It’s illustrated by ‘the best German artists’. It is nice. I miss books like that. Usually books are all words. Seeing the pictures reminds me of reading children’s books when I was a child. They should do that more often.

Gotz von Berlichingen Illustrations

Gotz von Berlichingen Illustrations

Götz von Berlichingen: The Play

Yes, I can do umlauts: on the Mac an umlaut is made by pressing option+u. For those of you typing in foreign languages, it’s handy to put the character viewer in the menu bar. It looks like this and you can choose to put it in the title bar by selecting the option in keyboard preferences in system preferences:

Keyboard Viewer

Keyboard Viewer

Once you have the view up, press option, and it will show you all the different characters the keyboard can make!

Back to the play. One of the things I like about Goethe plays is the exuberance of the characters. They are full of living energy. Take this example between Gotz and the grateful monk:

Martin: Let me request your name.

Goetz: Pardon me—Farewell! [Gives his left hand.

Martin: Why do you give the left?—am i unworthy of the knightly right hand?

Goetz: were you the emperor, you must be satisfied with this. My right hand, though not useless in combat, is unresponsive to the grasp of affection. It is one with its mailed gauntlet—You see, it is iron!

Martin: Then art thou Goetz of Berlichingen. I thank thee, Heaven, who hast shown me the man whom princes hate, but to whom the oppressed throng! (He takes his right hand.) Withdraw not this hand: let me kiss it.

Goetz: You must not!

Martin: Let me, let me—Thou hand, more worthy even than the saintly relic through which the most sacred blood has flowed! lifeless instrument, quickened by the noblest spirit’s faith in God.

Goethe is also the master of coming up with little aphorisms such as:

Goetz: Where there is most light the shades are deepest.


Goetz: If your conscience is free, so are you.


Goetz: Not a word more. I am an enemy to long explanations; the deceive either the maker or the hearer, and generally both.

The last one reminds me of excuses people make for coming late to work. If it is a real excuse, it is short and simple (e.g. ‘oh, traffic was bad’). If they are lying, they make long explanations: the traffic was bad and then the car died and then my kid was sick and then my mom called and the dog barfed and on and on…

Now, have you ever heard of someone accusing a writer that he is rhetorical? I’m thinking of Euripides: he’s often accused of being rhetorical. I’ve never really understood what that really means. Looking up ‘rhetorical’ in my new Shorter Oxford English Dictionary yields this:

  • 1 Orig., eloquent, eloquently expressed. Later, expressed in terms to persuade or impress; (freq. derog.) expressed in artificial, insincere, or extravagant language. lME.
    • b Designating a rhythm of prose less regular than metrical. rare. e18.
    Rolling Stone The article lacked description, interpretation and evaluation; in short, rhetorical criticism.

    rhetorical question a question, often implicitly assuming a preferred (usu. negative) answer, asked so as to produce an effect rather than to gain information.

  • 2 Of, pertaining to, or concerned with the art of rhetoric. lME.
    G. Phelps The author’s command of the rhetorical devices.
  • 3 Of a person: apt to use rhetoric. m17.
    J. Dennis The rhetorical author…makes use of his tropes and figures…to cheat us.


I used to always think ‘rhetorical’ meant ‘using rhetoric’ or lots of arguing. But then, characters argue in Aeschylus and Sophocles as well but Aeschylus and Sophocles aren’t accused of being ‘rhetorical’. But after reading more and more Goethe, I think I understand. ‘Rhetorical’ means that you can hear the author arguing a point through a character. You never hear Aeschylus or Sophocles or Shakespeare’s own voice in their plays. At least I don’t. But, reading Euripides, sometimes I get the feeling I hear more Euripides than the characters! It is sort of the same in Goethe, though I mind it less because it seems like we share a similar perspective on a lot of things. Take this passage, for example. Is this Gotz speaking or is the Goethe speaking?

Goetz: To the health of the emperor!

All: Long lie the emperor!

Goetz: Be it our last word when we die! I love him, for our fate is similar; but I am happier than he. To please the princes, he must direct his imperial squadrons against mice, while the rats gnaw his possessions. I know he often wishes himself dead, rather than to be any longer the soul of such a crippled body.

I think I hear a bit of Goethe in there. Egmont in another one of his plays talks a similar way too. So, this is what I learned today: when you hear a writer talking in his own voice, he is being ‘rhetorical’. Believe it or not, it’s taken me over ten years to figure this great mystery out!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.



Back Blurb Revision

Books on self-publishing give pointers on writing the back blurb: that’s the short introduction on the back cover of books. This is how a book sale works. The customer comes into the bookstore. If the cover art/design is appealing, the customer will pick up the book. If it isn’t appealing, then all is lost. But the customer doesn’t buy on the basis of the cover art. It’s the back blurb that makes the sale. The back blurb is like the elevator pitch: you have 15 seconds of the customer’s time: make it happen. Why do they need to read your book?

My friend TS was in town last week. He’s an English professor and we got talking into how it’d be cool if I could test out some of my ideas at the college where he teaches. Give a lecture or something like that. What he wanted was a short description of what I was working on to present to the department. I thought, ‘I should revise the back blurb and send it to him’.

Revised Back Blurb (with Shout Line)


Tragedy is a high stakes game where gamblers stake the milk of human kindness for a crown (Macbeth), the immortal soul for mortal glory (Dr. Faustus), or happiness for distinction (The Master Builder). By playing the game, heroes expose themselves to risk: a dead man’s hand or a queen of spades lurks in the cards. This is the idea of the risk theatre.

Paying Melpomene’s Price is about the risk theatre. The risk theatre sells heroes its benefits at a dear cost. Oedipus saves Thebes, but pays the price in doing so. Because relief is purchased by exile, love is purchased by blood, and power comes at the cost of the soul, tragedy is a valuing mechanism. It assigns a tangible value to intangible human qualities: the milk of human kindness may be exchanged for a crown. In an increasingly monetized world, tragedy restores value to humanity because its transactions are not measured in dollars and cents, but blood, sweat, and tears.

This book is written for students of tragic art theory looking for a philosophy of tragedy that celebrates the innate value of life. It is also written with dramatists in mind: in these pages is a neoclassical working model of drama. With its template, the dramatist can bring the idea of risk theatre to the stage. It is also written for those dismayed in the monetization of all things: the risk theatre puts the human back in humanity.

Old Back Blurb

The loss of a sense of value in a world where everything has become monetized has led to a reexamination of the tragic art form as a means of reclaiming human value. What if tragedy were a marketplace? What if it were like one of the great bourses in New York or Frankfurt, except anger and ambitions change hands instead of stock certificates? What is more, what if Melpomene’s price is not something to be paid in dollars and cents, but the terms of payment are all-too-human things such as faith, the milk of human kindness, or even the soul of a man.

This book is the meeting of Aristotle’s Poetics with Smith’s Wealth of Nations. It paints a picture of the hero as a gambler willing to lay down his life in gage for the great reward. It will help you conceptualize how the hero rediscovers human value by playing the high stakes game in the ludic theatre. Written for dramatists, theatregoers, and students of tragic art theory, there are detailed examples of how tragedy can be conceptualized not as a destructive medium, but as a celebration of the spiritual wealth which resides in each one of us.

Written by a lifelong connoisseur and student of the theatrical arts, this comprehensive study breaks down tragedy into its constituent parts: the hero’s wager, the myth of the price you pay, and the role of the unexpected. They myth of the price you pay provides the philosophic underpinnings of tragedy: you get something for something, nothing for nothing, and sometimes nothing for something. In the hero’s wager is the dramatization of the myth of the price you pay. Finally, the role of the unexpected generates the thrill of theatre. In breaking down tragedy into its constituent parts, it builds them back up to argue that tragedy is the greatest show on earth.

Edwin Wong is an expert on theatre and literary theory. He has written and lectured widely on the subject. He graduated with a BA in Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Victoria and a MA in Classics from Brown University. Check out his theatre blog at: His favourite tragedy is Macbeth and his favourite tragedian Aeschylus.

The new back blurb is 40% shorter. It gets to the point quicker. And it offers specific examples right away instead of talking about generalities. These are things that the style guides have been talking about. What do you think–is the new back blurb better?

The Prologue in Comedy

Diligent readers will recall that comedy has been on the reading list of late. There’s the Old Comedy of Aristophanes (446-386 BC), the New Comedy of Menander (341-291), and the Roman comedies of Plautus (254-184) and Terence (186-159). Next up will probably be Moliere, Congreve, and Shakes. The purpose of reading comedy is to see how it handles the theme of the unexpected. Of course, reading comedy is also a delight unto itself! Just finished reading Terence’s The Eunuch where a young man disguises himself as a eunuch to go in the whorehouse. You can just imagine what happens! Of course, some of the things are politically incorrect to laugh at nowadays. Women, for example, are frequently ravished, and when they find out they are actually freeborn, they get married to their ravishers and everyone rejoices. But some jokes maintain their timelessness. For example when the head mistress complains that her incompetent champion needs a champion himself:

Thais: You must talk to him firmly.

Chremes: I will…

Thais: Prepare yourself for action [aside] Good heavens I’m lost. What a man to defend me! He needs a champion of his own!

The Prologue

One thing that sets apart the comedies of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence is the presence or absence of a prologue. Terence uses the prologue to give credit to his Greek predecessors and defend himself from critics. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to The Eunuch:

If there are people who try to please as many and hurt as few honest men as possible, the poet begs to announce himself one of their number. Furthermore, if someone has thought something too harsh has been said against him, he must realize that this was not an attack but an answer, for he launched the first assault. For all his competence as a translator, his poor style of writing has turned good Greek plays into bad Latin ones. He is also the man who has just given us The Spectre of Menander, and in his Treasure made the defendant state his claim to the money before the plaintiff puts his won case…

Plautus uses the prologue to set the scene and lay out the argument. Frequently a divinity addresses the audience. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Amphitryo delivered by Mercury:

The scene is laid in Thebes. That is Amphitryo’s house. He comes of an Argive family. His wife is Alumna, daughter of Electrus. At the moment, Amphitryo is commanding the Theban army; Thebes is at war with the Teleboians. Amphitryo went away leaving Alumna pregnant. Jupiter…well, you know, of course, how-what shall I say-broad minded he has always been in these affairs, what a wonderful lover he is, when he comes across something he fancies…

Menander uses the prologue in much the same way as Plautus. Here’s an example from Old Cantankerous delivered by Pan:

Imagine, please, that the scene is set in Attica, in fact at Phyle, and that the shrine I’m coming from is the one belonging to that village (Phylaeans are able to farm this stony ground). It’s a holy place, and a very famous one. This farm here on my right is where Knemon lives: he’s a real hermit of  man, who snarls at everyone and hates company…

Aristophanes does not use prologues. What is to happen develops as a matter of course from the action. Here’s the beginning to The Clouds:

Strepsiades: Yaaaahhuuuuu. Great Zeus Almighty, what an endless monster of a night it’s been! Won’t the daylight ever come? I could have sworn I heard the roosters crowing hours ago. And listen to those slaves. Still snoring away! By god, things around here were a long sight different in the good old days before this war! Drat this stinking war anyway! It’s ruined Athens. Why, you can’t even whip your own slaves any more or they’ll desert to the Spartans. Bah. [pointing to Pheidippides] And as for him, that precious playboy son of mine, he’s worse yet. Look at him, stretched out there sleeping like a log under five fat blankets, farting away. All right, if that’s the way you want it, boy, I’ll snuggle down and fart you back a burst or two. Damn! I’m so bitten up by all these blasted bedbuggering debts and bills and stables-fees, I can’t catch a wink.

So, the play will be about his son and debts. But this is known not by prologue, but by action and dialogue.

Which is Best?

Which style do you like best? No prologue (Aristophanes), prologue to hear dramatist venting (Terence), or prologues that give out the argument of the play (Menander and Plautus)? If you ask me, the best is Terence: with prologue but prologue is not about events in the play. It is best just because it’s fun seeing him dig up dirt on rivals. And acknowledging his debts and sources is always excellent as well. Second best is Aristophanes: no prologue. In both Terence and Aristophanes’ cases, the plot develops organically from the action. Drama is from the Greek verb dran ‘do, act’. The natural function of drama then is to do or act, not narrate, which is what a prologue does. If I had wanted narration, I would have read a novel, not seen a play. So, having said this, least best is the prologue in Menander and Plautus which tells the audience what will happen instead of acting out what will happen. It is least best because narration is foreign to the function of drama. Why would Menander and Plautus used the clumsy prologue than? Perhaps they were unsure of the sophistication of their audiences, the capacity of their audiences to follow the action. The prologue would have solved this. Aristophanes wrote in Athens for an Athenocentric audience: they likely shared a similar point of view so the danger of being misunderstood was low. Menander and Plautus likely wrote plays which would have been performed throughout the wide Hellenic world: more danger of misunderstanding. So that might be a reason why. Not that I forgive them for this indiscretion to the spirit of drama, though.

Other Examples of Art Doing Things Contrary to Its Nature

Lately there seem to be some movies fascinated by stills. So if prologues in drama is a drama wanting to be a novel, stills in movies is a sign of a movie wanting to be photography (a still instead of a moving image). One movie that had a lot of breathtaking stills was Snyder’s 300. Though breathtaking, the cinematic experience allows motion: motion is its natural element whereas the frozen frame is the natural element of photography. Why confuse the two?

A common feature of medieval art is the speech scroll or the banderole:

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Here is a visual representation of Psalm 14, ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’. The banderole quotes the psalm, non est Deus. But this is a painting, whose function is not to narrate speech. The painter could have depicted the man trampling the bible or doing some other act visually to indicate this. The purpose of painting is to capture the imagistic heart of a moment. The banderole, being speech, takes away from the image and is contrary to the nature of the visual representation.

The other day, I was watching Kurosawa’s The Idiot (his adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel) with MR and MA. One thing that got my attention was Kurosawa’s use of text to get the audience up to speed on the prehistory and argument of the movie. Again, I thought, ‘if it is a movie, why couldn’t this be done through the action proper?’.

In each for of art, there must be a telos: its proper function. When art observes its telos, it is in order. When art exceeds its telos, what is it-out of order, perhaps?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have been Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Amphitryo – Plautus

The goal this morning was to read 3 plays by the Roman comedian Plautus: AmphitryoThe Pot of Goldand A Three-Dollar Day. The first two I had before; the last was brand new. What a day! I got through the first play: Amphitryo. The other two will have to wait till later tonight or tomorrow. That’s ok though. I got in a good session painting my walls. I’ve been living here 8 years now and painting has been on the ‘to do’ list for the last year. Painted a hallway and half of the open loft area. Ah, the sweet smell of paint: a reminder of childhood, moving to a new house, the feel of ‘freedom’ in being able to choose the colour of the bedroom.

Of the ancient Greek and Roman comedians, Plautus is my favourite. Aristophanes’ themes are too fantastical. Plus he’s sort of vulgar for people with puritanical sensibilities. Too many references to bodily functions. And too many references to carrots and radishes. If Aristophanes is too fantastical, Menander is too formulaic. Maybe that’s why the ancients considered Menander to be second only to Homer: like Homer working in the oral tradition, the writing of Menander is also rather formulaic. Plautus is just right. It’s fantastical enough to generate suspense. But the characters are formulaic enough that it’s easy to follow (e.g. the clever slave, the spendthrift son, the kind hearted courtesan, and so on). No Being John Malkovich here thank goodness. An easy but entertaining read. Just my cup of tea after a day of physical labour.

Who’s Plautus?

Here’s the back blurb from the Penguin edition translated by Watling:

The plays of Plautus (c.254-184 B.C.) are the earliest complete works of Latin literature we possess. Plautus adapted for the amusement of Roman audiences the Greek New Comedy of the fourth century. His wit is clever and satirical and his entertaining portrayal of slaves firmly set the style for the ‘low’ characters of Elizabethan comedy, of Moliere, and many others.

Another reason why it’s so nice to be reading Plautus is that it’s like an encounter with an old friend. In 1st year Latin class at UVic, the edition Professor Bradley used was the ‘Cambridge Latin Course’. To teach students Latin, the reading book used dumbed down excerpts from Plautus’ Amphitryo and The Pot of Gold. They were entertaining back then, even in their simplified versions. I remember the thrill of ‘getting a joke’ in Latin. For me, Plautus is forever associated with those ‘good old days’.

That Plautus reminded me of the ‘good old days’ made me think: in your different stages of life, did you encounter books you would read that made perfect sense to read at that time but at any other time would have been an unappealing read? Today, I think if I read Hesse’s Demian or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther for the first time, I wouldn’t like them that much at all. But I remember stumbling on those book in my late teens and they were dynamite reads that changed the way I looked at the world.

Other books, however, seem less vulnerable to, what shall I call it, ‘time selection’, maybe? Homer’s Iliad was good back then (early twenties) and I think if I were to read it for the first time today (40 years old) it would just be as dynamite. Plato I didn’t like at all back when I was younger, but he seems to be growing on me as I get older.

Ah the occupation dangers of being a writer! Not only do you have to find the right reader, it may be that your right reader has to be in a certain stage of life to appreciate what you’ve written as well!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and revisiting Plautus has made Doing Melpomene’s Work a joy today!

Plays and Fragments – Menander

Last week on the reading list was Aristophanes, writer of Greek ‘Old Comedy’ in the 5th century. Up this week is Menander, a writer of Greek ‘New Comedy’. The goal of going through Aristophanes and Menander is to see how what comedy treats the unexpected. Given that certain unexpected outcomes provoke laughter, the hypothesis is that the unexpected trumps expectation in comedy.

The Edition of Menander

Always a delight to be reading another fine Penguin edition of Menander: Plays and Fragments. Clear text (and larger too in the newer printing), expert introductions balanced between the needs of a layperson and a student, and dependable translations. Translated by Norma Miller. Here’s the back blurb:

Menander (c. 341-291 B.C.) was the foremost innovator of Greek New Comedy, a dramatic style that moved away from the fantastical to focus upon the problems of ordinary Athenians. This collection contains the full text of Old Cantankerous (Dyskolos), the only surviving complete example of New Comedy, as well as fragments from works including The Girl from Samos and The Rape of the Locks, all of which are concerned with domestic catastrophes, the hazards of love and the trials of family life. Written in a poetic style regarded by the ancients as second only to Homer, these polished works – profoundly influential upon both Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terene, and the wider Western tradition – may be regarded as the first true comedies of manners.

Menander Cover Art

Menander Cover Art

When the blurb mentions that New Comedy moves away from fantastical elements, it is referring to to Aristophanes’ crazy themes: cities built by the birds in the clouds or sex strikes by the women to bring about an end to the Peloponnesian War. What had changed in a 100 years? Well, Aristophanes had written for an Athenocentric audience. While Menander hailed from Athens as well, he wrote for a more cosmopolitan audience. Between Aristophanes and Menander’s day, travelling theatre troupes had sprung up and comedy was being performed all over the Hellenistic world thanks to the Hellenizing efforts of Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The age of fiercely independent local city-states was gone. The age of empire had arrived. As a result, culture would also be international, and a playwright would have to be writing for an international audience. As such, the material would have to be reduced to its lowest common denominator: family issues and stock characters (the crafty slave, the young lovers, the grumpy old man, etc.,). It’s sort of like sitcom in the TV era: what were formerly local dialects gives way to a version of spoken English that is at once intelligible in the deep South to Boston burbs.

Menander and the Unexpected

The first three plays in the edition are: Old Cantankerous, The Girl from Samos, and The Arbitration. The first play is complete, the second is almost complete, and the third, to put it kindly, is a glass half full. As the edition progresses, plays become more and more fragmentary until only the fragment remains.

If a pattern can be drawn from the first three plays, it is that they revolve around familial life. In Old Cantankerous, a young man is trying to woo the grumpy old guy’s daughter. In The Girl from Samos, a young suitor gets his girlfriend pregnant. And in The Arbitration, a domestic quarrel results when the wife gives birth five months after the marriage.

Here’s how the plot makes use of the unexpected in these plays. In Old Cantankerous, the grumpy curmudgeon falls down a well. Who should save him but the young suitor? In The Girl from Samos, the father overhears that the father of his baby is actually his stepson whom he had left home alone with his stepmother. It’s sort of a Potiphar’s wife theme. But what had happened is that it wasn’t his child at all: his stepson had gotten the next door neighbour’s daughter pregnant, and when the baby was born they ‘lent’ it to his wife so that his stepson could have a proper marriage with the girl next door. In The Arbitration, the husband rejects his wife when she gives birth five months after marriage. But the recognition token carried by the baby indicates that the husband IS the father of the baby: he had raped the mother during a drunken festival before the marriage.

Beside the very different outcomes, the unexpected occupies a central position in the comic and tragic view of the world: things are unpredictable. When tragedy engages the Potiphar’s wife’s theme, the outcome is completely different. In Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, the father (Theseus) leaves his stepson (Hippolytus) with his stepmother (Phaedra). The unexpected takes place. But, unlike The Girl from Samos, there is no happy outcome. So while comedy and tragedy both rely on the unexpected as a plot driving device, somewhere they take a different turn.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I am Doing Melpomene’s Work and having a good laugh at the same time.