Category Archives: Reading List – Plays

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.

Lysistrata – Aristophanes

As part of the ‘final kick’–to borrow a term from long distance running since this has been a long distance project– been reading comedies, histories, and philosophies. Why?–the goal in the final chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price is to define tragedy by setting its worldview in opposition to the other genres. On the weekend I read Four Plays by Aristophanes. The Clouds and The Bird are translated by Arrowsmith, Lysistrata by Parker, and The Frogs by Lattimore. The translations are quite liberal. For example, at some points extra lines are added so that a modern reader can ‘get’ the joke. This edition is more for modern readers interested in guffaws rather than historians researching the cultural milieu of Aristophanes. The comprehensive footnotes, however, justify the translator’s liberties and explain what was in the original text.

The other thing that was going on during the weekend was the referendum in Greece. You know, the one where the Greece votes on whether it should accept the terms of the ECB/IMF bailout. As I read Lysistrata, I couldn.t help thinking how a popular play it could be if it were to be restaged today. Well, maybe not in North America. But it could provide some comic relief in Greece and Europe.

Synopsis of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Actually, it might make more sense to begin with what’s been going on in Greece.

Events Leading up to the Greek Referendum

Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza party, became prime minister of Greece in January 2015. He campaigned on an anti-austerity platform. Austerity had been imposed on Greece by the European Commission, the IMF, and the ECB as part of two earlier bailout packages in 2010 and 2011. Loans of 240 million Euro were given to Greece at extraordinary low interest rates (2-3% when the best rates Greece could get in the open market ranged from 10-15% on average) in exchange for promises to get its finances in order. The getting its finances in order included cutting back pensions, laying off government workers, and raising taxes: in other words, austerity.

Tsipras and his finance minister, Varoufakis, have been saying that you cannot cut spending and hope to grow the economy. That.s true: it would be very hard to cut spending to produce more!

Facing off against Tsipras and Varoufakis are German chancellor Merkel and her finance minister Schauble. They’ve been saying that if going to be lending money, of course it comes with strings attached. That.s true: if tax dollars collected from Europeans are sent over to Greece so that Greece can pay its pensioners and its’s bills, the lender should be expected to see an excel spreadsheet every so many months showing how the structural reforms in the economy are improving things. Otherwise it would be just bailout after bailout. What.s the point?

To this, Tsipras and Varoufakis reply that they want to see things get better as well. Austerity is hard and who wants to be in perpetual austerity! They would like to get rid of debt by spending more. They like to cite Roosevelt’s New Deal in which government measure stimulated the economy into firing on all cylinders. Once the Greek economy is going, then they can slowly pay back their creditors.

But the thing is that other EU members have very recently gone through painful bouts of austerity. Italy, Ireland, and Portugal have gone through austerity in the last five years and now have come out ahead. Why should Greece get a better deal, say Merkel and Schauble. The EU is a rule based community. If Greece gets a better deal, then why couldn.t Italy, Ireland, and Portugal have gotten better deals? They made it, after all.

Then there is all the finger pointing. Varoufakis, a university professor, has taken to lecture his European colleagues on what he perceives to be economics. One look at Schauble and you can tell the grumpy bastard doesn.t need a Varoufakis lecture. Here.s a telling anecdote on how poisonous their relationship has become: as they emerged from another failed negotiation, one said, ‘Well, we agree to disagree’. When the other emerged, he retorted, ‘We don.t even agree to disagree’. Basically, you can see why their negotiations aren.t going anywhere!

In the meanwhile, people are suffering from the uncertainty all over the place. Money that could be invested into different ventures to make the world better (cleaner energy, cure for cancer, better sliced bread, etc.,) is fleeing into safe haven bonds. Credit controls are playing havoc with the ability to Greek consumers to get basic necessities.

Synopsis of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

The comedy Lysistrata was produced in 411 BC. Later on in that year, the century old democracy in Athens (funny thing, one of the reasons why the Greek people think they deserve better bailout terms today is because they gave democracy to the world back in the ancient days…) would be overthrown in an oligarchic coup. Also, in 413 BC, the Sicilian Expedition went awry. Over two hundred ships lost in an ill-conceived venture. It was like the loss of the Spanish Armada for Phillip II of Spain years later. So Athens was going down in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. It was not a good year. In fact, it was even worse back then in Greece than it is now. A few years after Lysistrata, Sparta conquered Athens. At least the creditors aren’t invading. At least not a military takeover!

The central character in the play, an Athenian woman by the name of Lysistrata, calls a meeting of women from all over Greece affected by the Peloponnesian War. She calls the meeting to organize a sex strike: unless the men can agree to a truce, no sex for anyone!

The predictable comic elements don’t deter from its ability to draw out laughter. The ribald women complain that they just want to get laid. The men walk around trying to conceal their swollen members (during the negotiations: ‘is that a concealed weapon you’re carrying under that toga?’). The women attempt to get past Lysistrata’s watchful eye, making up lame excuses if they’re caught: ‘I have to pop home to get my weaving…’. Sure you do. So do I!

But in the end, the sex strike works and they sign the peace accord to END THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR!


Do you know where I.m going with this, diligent readers? If the negotiations between the Troika and Syriza are in tatters, maybe what needs to happen is for the men and women of Europe (it would have to be men and women because some of the politicians today, unlike in ancient times, are women: Merkel, Lagarde, etc.,) go on a sex strike until their elected politicians are able to come to terms with one another!

Hmm, who would this effect most? That would be too prurient for me to report in my PG13 blog!

Ah, that.s what I love about the ancients! The stuff they write is too old to go out of style! I should have my own referendum. Yes or No: is Lysistrata is the best solution to the Greek debt crisis?

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work by reading Thalia’s works.

Deep Simplicity – Gribbin

Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity by John Gribbin

Charlie Munger.s fabulous coffee table volume Poor Charlie’s Almanack tipped me off to Gribbin.s latest work. There.s a list of books he recommends, and Deep Simplicity made his cut. Who.s Munger? For the assiduous readers who don.t know (and for the ones who do know, let me refresh your memory), he.s Warren Buffett.s long time partner and co-CEO of mighty Berkshire Hathaway. been reading about Buffett here and when Munger has something to recommend, I listen.

I was glad to see the recommendation and was pleasantly surprised by the publication date of 2005. Having grown up reading Gribbin.s titles such as The Big Bang, Schrodinger’s Cat, and so on, I wasn.t sure if he was still active. The topic also excited me. As the subtitle indicates, it.s on order and chaos. Davies’ book The Cosmic Blueprint that I had recently finished covers similar ground. Here is the link to my blog review. Why the fascination with chaos and order, you ask? Well, literature and drama are perpetually in that turbulent state between chaos and order. Sometimes order breaks down into chaos but most of the time order results from chaos. And even amidst the chaos of creative words, there may be the simplicity of a deeper underlying order. To me, science is on the cutting edge and its theories provide useful conceptual models through which literature can be understood. Think of science as providing different lenses through which words can be read.

In addition to science, lately been fascinated with book design, since, well, I am in the midst of putting one together. Let.s see how Deep Simplicity is put together.


On the cover of Deep Simplicity is a photo of tree rings on the top half and taxicabs on the lower half:

Deep Simplicity Cover Art

Deep Simplicity Cover Art

As we will soon see, chaos theory explains why traffic jams happen. Traffic jams–like earthquakes, the stock market, mass extinctions, avalanches, and a gazillion other phenomenon–obey a power law. When a phenomenon obeys a power law, it means there is a relationship between the frequency at which it happens and its magnitude. Stock market collapses obey a power law. That is to say, if you plot all the little downdrafts (sell in May and go away) and big collapses (Black Monday 1987, Tech Bubble 1999, Great Recession of 2008, and so on) with x-axis being the magnitude and the y-axis showing the frequency, everything would line up along a nice line. What kind of graph would you use?–a log-log graph where the scale of both x and y axes are represented logarithmically, that is to say instead of units of 1, 2, 3, 4… you have ten to the power of 0 (=1), ten to the power of 1 (=10), ten to the power of 2 (=100), ten to the power of three (=1000), and so on (hence ‘power’ law as ten raised to the power of x). Now, if this doesn.t surprise assiduous readers, I don.t know what can. That stock market collapses obey a power law means that they are built into the system. You can.t legislate them away and even if you do, another trigger will pop up somewhere else. That stock market collapses obey a power law means that you can throw out all of classical economics. If that doesn.t get your attention, I don.t know what will. If you don.t believe me, read the book. Also read Mandelbrot–who applied power laws to economics in the 1960s and, more recently, Taleb, who, as a ‘philosopher of uncertainty’ has been trying to spread the gospel. If you put data points on a log-log chart, and a straight line forms, it.s telling you that the process is systemic. But enough of that. Traffic jams obey a power law. So there.s a photo of jammed up taxicabs. I see that. But the tree rings are more mysterious. I don.t quite get that. So let.s say I.m only half satisfied with the cover. The cover should be immediately or at least fairly immediately comprehensible.

Deep Simplicity Back Blurb

Praise for Deep Simplicity:

“Gribbin takes us through the basics [of chaos theory] with his customary talent for accessibility and clarity. [His] arguments are driven not by impersonal equations but by a sense of wonder at the presence in the universe and in nature of simple, self-organizing harmonies underpinning all structures, whether they are stars of flowers.” The Sunday Times (London)

“[Gribbin] breathes life into the core ideas of complexity science, and argues convincingly that the basic laws, even in biology, will ultimately turn out to be simple.” Nature magazine

Since this copy of Deep Simplicity is a library hardback (interlibrary loan from Saltspring Library, surprised that GVPL does not stock!), the back blurb isn.t what I.m used to. To find the ‘traditional’ back blurb, one must turn to the inside flap of the dust jacket:

Why do traffic jams seem to happen for no apparent reason? Can major earthquakes be predicted? Why does the stock market have its ups and downs? How do species evolve? Where do galaxies come from? What is the origin of life on Earth? What if all these questions had a single answer?

Over the past two decades, no field of scientific inquiry has had a more striking impact across a wide array of disciplines–from biology to physics, computing to meteorology–than that known as chaos and complexity, the study of complex systems. Now astrophysicist John Gribbin draws on his expertise to explore, in prose that communicates not only the wonder but the substance of cutting-edge science, the principles behind chaos and complexity. He reveals the remarkable ways these two revolutionary theories have been applied over the last twenty years to explain all sorts of phenomena–from weather patterns to mass extinctions.

Grounding these paradigm-shifting ideas in their historical context, Gribbin also traces their development from Newton to Darwin to Lorenz, Prigogine, and Lovelock, demonstrating how–far from overturning all that has gone before–chaos and complexity are the triumphant extensions of simple scientific laws. Ultimately, Gribbin illustrates how chaos and complexity permeate the universe on every scale, governing the evolution of life and galaxies alike. As profound as it is provocative, Deep Simplicity takes us to the brink of understanding life itself.

The back blurb gets my attention. It.s a bit long though. Maybe for hardbacks that is the norm though. And if I were writing it, I.d mention the power law right away. But maybe that was a conscious decision not to so that the reader wouldn.t be scared away.

Deep Simplicity ‘About the Author’

John Gribbin trained as a astrophysicist at Cambridge University and is currently Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex. His many books include In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, Stardust, Schrodinger’s Kittens and The Search for Reality, Fitzroy (with his wife, Mary Gribbin), and The Scientists.

I really like this ‘about the author’. Quick and to the point. Authoritative but not pretentious.

Deep Simplicity Structure

Here.s the contents:

Introduction: The Simplicity of Complexity xvii

1 Order out of Chaos 3

2 The Return of Chaos 40

3 Chaos out of Order 74

4 From Chaos to Complexity 110

5 Earthquakes, Extinctions, and Emergence 145

6 The Facts of Life 187

7 Life Beyond 214

One can tell a lot from the contents. Do you see anything, assiduous readers? Chapters are about 30 pages: nice & manageable. In the opening chapters, he lays the groundwork with chaos and order duelling for supremacy. After the groundwork has been laid, he moves on to complexity and provides examples in chapter 5 ‘Earthquakes, Extinctions, and Emergence’. This is the axis. Then the book turns to the close: the chapters bringing together chaos, order, and complexity and the their relation to the formation of life on earth.

You should be able to look at the chapters and see the narrative flow, even in a non-fiction work: it all tells a story.

Deep Simplicity and Gravity

All this focus on the structure of the book! Well, I.m going to share with you one interesting story Gribbin recounts. It is so interesting, that when Einstein heard about it for the first time, he stopped right in the middle of the street in awe. Gamow was recounting it to him and they happened to be crossing the street. Cars had to go around them. Here it is: gravity actually has negative energy. Yes. Negative. Here.s the though experiment. For it to work, you have to believe in the conservation of energy. I hope that isn.t a problem! So let.s say there.s the earth. And then there.s a brick floating in space far away. Let.s say the earth and the brick have a net energy of zero. Now the brick gets pulled to earth by earth.s gravity. It comes through the atmosphere and then accelerates and hits the ground. Well, when it falls down, it.s getting energy from somewhere. Because hey, if you lift the brick, it takes energy! Well, where does it get the energy from? It gets it from the gravitational field of earth. This means that in the celestial balance sheet, the gravitational field of the earth incurs a debit equal to the amount of kinetic energy that was transferred to the falling brick. Now what happens when you apply this to the whole universe? This was the part that amazed Einstein… Drum roll… The net energy of the universe is zero, zilch, nada. The energy/mass (energy and mass are one and the same, right?) of the universe is exactly balanced out by the negative energy of gravity. I.ll leave you to ponder this. Yes, there are more ramifications…

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work by reading widely. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all books lead to drama! Wow, who would have guessed!

Cinna and the Complex Plot (Corneille)

Within the genre of tragedy there are three sub-genres, one of which is the tragedy in parallel motion. Full details on the other two sub-genres in a future blog, so keep tuning in, diligent readers! What gives away the tragedy in parallel motion is that, in this type of play, many tragedies are all happening simultaneously, or, happening in parallel motion, as it were. Hamlet is a tragedy in parallel motion. There.s the main tragedy, that of Hamlet. And then there.s the stories of Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Claudius, and Laertes which play out in parallel to the main event. King Lear is also of this type where the tragedy of Gloucester plays out alongside Lear.s downfall. Cinna, by Pierre Corneille, is an exceptionally fine example of tragedy in parallel motion because, unlike Lear and Hamlet, Corneille gives each of the four main characters (Augustus, Cinna, Emilia, and Maximus) equal weight. In this sense, they are like four planets of equal mass revolving in parallel motion around a common centre of gravity. In the other examples, the motions are more lopsided than parallel as Hamlet and Lear have much more mass than the shadow tragedies playing in the proximate background.

As usual, I.m reading from a mighty Penguin edition with a detail from The Knight and his Page translated by super duper John Cairncross:


Here.s the back blurb with shout line and author introduction:

‘You suffer by the death of such a man. Avenge it by another’s, blood for blood’

The three plays in this volume demonstrate the full range of Corneille’s dramatic genius, from tragi-comedy and political drama to exuberant fantasy. The Cid (1636), his masterpiece set in medieval Spain, depicts a young knight torn between his duty to avenge his wronged father and his love for the daughter of a sworn enemy. Portraying a Roman nobleman’s plot to kill the tyrannical Emperor Augustus, Cinna (1640) reflect events in seventeenth-century France as Cardinal Richelieu moved to establish Louis XIII as its absolute ruler. And in the highly unusual comedy, The Theatrical Illusion (1636), a magician reassures a despairing father that his long-lost son is still alive–and proceeds to conjure up the young man’s amorous adventures in an elaborate play within a play.

John Cairncross’s clear, vibrant translation is accompanied by an introduction discussing the ways in which Corneille explored concepts of free will and inner conflict in his works. This edition also includes a bibliography, notes and separate prefaces and summaries for each play.

If The Cid ‘bursts but once upon the world / And their first blow displays their mastery’, Cinna, produced four years after The Cid, makes up in form, structure, and polish what The Cid had in elemental force. Dismayed at the reaction of Cardinal Richelieu and the French Academy’s criticism of the structure of The Cid, Corneille composed Cinna in response. Cinna is more perfect in the same way as corporate rock bands in the 70s were ‘more perfect’ than the 60s experiments in sound. I.m thinking of bands like Boston and Journey: heavily produced, formulaic songs, and catchy tunes meant for the radio. Not that these are bad things. Between you and me, I think Journey is the best (who doesn.t sing along to Wheel in the Sky, Don.t Stop Believing or Faithfully?). Listening to them always reminds me of dimly lit bars with the smell of smoke and cheap perfume in the air. For the same reason Cinna is good in the way corporate rock can be good, Cinna can also be criticized for being lacking the same way corporate rock is lacking: ie that last iota of creativity.

What I want to share with you today, however, is just how professionally Cinna is put together. It.s creativity is hidden in its structure, in how it all meshes together. While the characters aren.t as memorable as the Cid, the structure is put together with the finest joinery. There are four main characters: Augustus, Cinna, Emilia, and Maximus. As if to demonstrate the futility of expectation, they are only allowed to misjudge one another’s motives. Accordingly, the play jumps from one unintended consequence to the next, ultimately demanding the most unintended of all consequences to bring the freight train of chance judgments to standstill. Augustus is mistaken about his adopted daughter. He thinks by heaping gifts on Emilia, she will forgive him for the loss of her father (whom he had proscribed). He is mistaken. She retains Cinna to avenge her father. He is mistaken about Livia. He believes his wife loves the crown and not the man. He is mistaken about his trusted lieutenants. By heaping honours upon them, he thinks to secure their loyalty. Far from gratitude, Cinna and Maximus plot treason. That he gives means to those who would bring about his fall and cannot listen to those who care for him are the unintended consequences of Augustus’ actions.

Next is Cinna. He trusts Maximus, his friend and fellow conspirator. He is mistaken. When Maximus discovers Cinna is romancing Emilia, he betrays the conspiracy in a jealous fit to do away with his rival. Regarding Emilia, Cinna is doubly mistaken, once before the conspiracy is exposed and again afterwards. Before the conspiracy is exposed, Augustus summons Cinna and asks him whether he should restore the republican government. Surprised that the question should come up at this time, Cinna advises him to hold onto empire, putting himself into an ethical quandary as he advocates the very thing that justifies the conspirators. His position baffles Maximus–why risk the assassination attempt when Augustus is ready to stand down? What Maximus does not know–not yet, at least–is that Emilia has bound Cinna by an oath to bring Augustus down; the conspiracy is merely a pretext for revenge. As the ethical quandary gives Cinna second thought about the attempt, he goes to Emilia seeking understanding. Instead of understanding, he finds her heart hardened against him. After the conspiracy is exposed, Emilia once again baffles expectations. Having discovered the plot, Augustus passes sentence on Cinna. Cinna is prepared to die. Though a capital crime, the tradition of restoring republican governments was honoured in the hearts of Roman patriots. He would die with honour. At the last second, however, Emilia storms in, revealing that he had done it all to win her hand. Her revelation takes away the argument that his actions were borne out of a moral duty to Rome. That he loses himself and all he holds dear in the pursuit of happiness is the unintended consequence of Cinna’s actions.

Then there is Maximus.  He trusts that Cinna has led them into a dangerous undertaking in the name of liberty.  He is mistaken.  The conspiracy was formed so that Emilia could avenge her father.  He is also mistaken when it comes to Emilia.  Having found out the underlying reason why Cinna wanted to assassinate Augustus, he comes up with a plan: by feigning his death and exposing the conspiracy to Augustus, he could do away with Cinna and whisk Emilia away in safety.  He could not foresee, however, that Emilia would prefer to die with honour than to live in shame.  That he reveals himself to be a jealous imbecile is the unintended consequence of Maximus’ actions.

Finally there is Emilia.  She is the spoiler, more erred against the erring.  But even she could not foresee the clemency of Augustus.  In revealing her role in fomenting treason, she had anticipated a capital sentence from her stepfather.  The failure to anticipate the clemency of Augustus is a miscalculation she shares with Cinna and Maximus.  But her miscalculation is the play’s keystone.  While Augustus was more than ready to sentence Cinna and Maximus according to expectation, his stepdaughter’s confession stops him in his tracks.  That Augustus restores Maximus, raises Cinna, and blesses Emilia and Cinna’s marriage is the unintended consequence of Emilia’s actions.  With the clemency of Augustus, there are no more unintended consequences as the enigmatic portrait of empire is complete. Empire is a form of state wherein absolute clemency buys absolute power. The beauty of Cinna is that each of the unintended consequences propels the play towards the most unintended of all consequences: that treason would be rewarded with clemency. The human face of empire.

There you have it diligent readers! And if you made it to the end of the blog you really are a diligent reader! One surprising thing about the wonderful Greater Victoria Public Library (GVPL) that I learned today. I was finishing parts of today.s blog there and needed to sneak a peak at Cinna. Easy, right?–I.m at the main branch. That.s true, I found a copy. But did you know that in the whole library there.s only one copy of a translation of Corneille? I would have thought there would have been multiple copies, you know, maybe not a copy at each of the regional branches but there would be more than one copy for all the, what, seven or eight branches of the GVPL! Perhaps a sign that not everyone these days is into Melpomene’s work. But hey, I am! And until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I will be Doing Melpomene’s Work.

The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary

It.s funny how the mind seems wired to detect meaningful coincidence, or, in other words, synchronicity out of the jumble of everyday events. Or perhaps it.s good at detecting them because there are meaningful coincidences in our lives! Synchronicity or Littlewood.s Law, you decide! Today I was at Russell.s Books striking out looking for various history titles (Machiavelli, Ibn Khaldun, and Amiannus Marcellinus). But in the Classics section, there was a slender title The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary. It so turns out last weekend, there was a Globe & Fail article by Kate Taylor entitled: We Need to Speak Out About Sexism in the Arts:

If you go to the theatre tonight, you will probably see a play that was written by a man and directed by a man. If a major art show is on your to-do list this weekend, it will probably feature the work of a male artist. If you go to a Hollywood movie, you’ll notice when the credits roll that the director is a man and so are all the screenwriters. Despite all the liberalism of the practitioners, the arts are a really sexist place. Women tend to be equally or overrepresented in theatre schools, film programs and art colleges, but once they graduate they find their male colleagues have more luck launching successful creative careers and are more likely to be offered leadership roles in arts organizations, while the women may find themselves ghettoized in supporting roles such as stage management, marketing and communications.

So, I had been thinking on the question on why there are so few female artists already when I stumbled upon The Tragedy of Mariam. While I could recall female poets (Sappho), composers (Southam), novelists (Kingsolver), and painters (Kahlo…but of course, being in Victoria one must remember to mention the mighty Carr!), I could not think of one female playwright. Instead of walking home with books by male historians, I walked home with a tragedy by Elizabeth Cary.

This is the Broadview edition. They must be a specialty publishing house; haven.t run across them before. There.s a Julia Cameron photograph of ‘Ophelia’ on the cover:


It.s a rather haunting photograph, especially if this is Shakespeare.s Ophelia that she has in mind (which the flower on the lapel would seem to suggest). The face is relaxed, but some tension is visible in the neck. And with the mouth partially agape, the image looks more like a mask. The back blurb reads:

First published in 1613, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry is the first play in English known to have been authored by a woman, and it has become increasingly popular in the study of early modern women’s writing. The play, which Cary based on the story of Herod and Mariam, turns on a rumour of Herod’s death, and it unfold around the actions taken by the patriarch’s family and servants in his absence. In part a critique of male power, the play sets gender politics in sharp relief against a background o dynastic conflict and Roman imperialism.

I can.t wait to read this play. To be honest, I had not thought the first play I would run into by a female dramatist would be a tragedy. Here.s why. In a way, to me tragedy is at once the hardest and easiest type of drama to compose. It.s easy because the themes come pre-generated from either myth or history. If writing comedy, chances are you have to fabricate all the characters and situations from scratch. With tragedy, you can use myth or history and here Cary has turned to Josephus The Wars of the Jews and The Antiquities of the Jews for the material. It.s harder because it.s emotionally taxing. To bring beautiful characters to life and then to savage them without mercy so that all their best intents come to nothing seems to me to require an emotional distance. Goethe recounted this to Eckermann in his Conversations with Eckermann: he could never be a tragedian of the first rank because he lacked the final bit of detachment and emotional distance necessary to put the tragic into tragedy. I had always thought women in general to be more emotionally aware than men. To me, that would be an impediment to writing tragedy seeing that tragedy requires a sense of detachment.

But hey, it.s so much better to challenge our presuppositions rather than to reaffirm them! I.m glad The Tragedy of Mariam caught my eye at Russell.s Books and I.m looking forward to the read. It.s billed as being in the Senecan style, so it should be a gusher. That it.s Senecan is also a minor surprise, seeing that Marlowe in the 1590s had revolted against the classical Senecan model of drama to launch what may be called the ‘tragedy of the individual’ with his productions of Tamburlaine and Faustus. These in turn paved the way for Shakespeare. So it.s interesting that in 1613 Cary would have went back to a Senecan model (which is what inspired plays such as Gorboduc written in the generation prior to Marlowe and Shakespeare). A bit of an atavism. Stay tuned for more, diligent readers! Mariam versus Herod, what will happen? Until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I will be testing the limits of Doing Melpomene.s Work.

Goethe & Schiller Bromance: Egmont & Don Carlos

Two fisted play reading today–Goethe.s Egmont in my left hand and Schiller.s Don Carlos in my right hand! Who would have thought? It.s a strange coincidence that brings them together. I.m writing on psychological errors or slips that lead to unexpected outcomes in Paying Melpomene’s Price: Risk and Reward on the Tragic Stage (at least that.s the name of the book today, the title changes daily!). It so happens that Posa.s slip and Alba.s slip had been classified together as the type of error that results when we use the ‘if I were you, I would do this’ mental construction. What happens is that Posa thinks he understand Carlos because ‘if I were Carlos, surely I would do this…’ and Alba thinks he understands Orange because ‘if I were Orange, surely I would do this…’.  Of course, Carlos and Orange both behave contrary to expectation because Posa is not Carlos and Alba is not Orange. And so Posa and Alba.s strategy turns into tragedy. But that.s not what I.d like to share with you, diligent reader today. What I.d like to share is the striking similarity of subject and perspective in Egmont and Don Carlos. It really is striking. I hit myself for never noticing it before. But sometimes, it.s hard to raise things above the conscious threshold unless it.s really right there in front of your nose. Which is–by good ol’ good luck–the case today.

You may know that Goethe and Schiller were the best of friends. A bromance of genius. Not only that, it was an artistically fruitful union. They exchanged notes and encouraged one another. They were also joint editors of a literary journal founded by Schiller, Die Horen. Contributors included Schlegel, Herder, and the von Humboldt brothers. They corresponded with quite an exalted crowd. Lots was going on. So, at first, I had thought that the parallels between Egmont and Don Carlos were naturally due to their many discussions and correspondences. Wrong. Schiller premiered Don Carlos in 1787 and Goethe finished Egmont the following year. It was only after Goethe had finished Egmont that they met for the first time. And it would have to wait to the next decade before they would begin their friendship in earnest. It.s sure inconvenient when the data undermines our expectations, isn.t it? But, one can see from the parallels why they would become friends. So, ‘what are the parallels’, you ask? Well, dear reader, here they are!

First there is the subject matter. The Beeldenstorm or Iconoclastic Fury was raging through the Low Countries. Here.s what it looked like:



Kreuz_von_stadelhofenThe Protestant Reformation was in full swing. Protestants–and, if riots were anything like the ones today, trouble making bums–were going around abusing Catholic images and ransacking cathedrals. This did not please Philip II of Spain, who was bringing together the forces of the Counter-Reformation. This is the point of contact between the two plays. While Don Carlos ends on the April day before Alba is dispatched to quell the Beeldenstorm raging through the Low Countries, by a happy coincidence Egmont begins with Alba fast approaching Brussels on an August morning.

The brotherhood of man, the price the oppressor pays to maintain the status quo, and the price the liberator pays to lift off the oppressive yoke: both playwrights use the Beeldenstorm as a launching point into similar themes. Not only that, they achieve a unity of thought. There is a dawning brotherhood of man that transcends religion and nationality, even though its moment only arrives the day after tomorrow: the old guard represented by Philip in Don Carlos and Alba in Egmont yet rail against the dying light. There is also a price that the oppressor must pay to maintain the status quo, and that price is the bond between the father, steeped in tradition, and the son, who feels the animal spirits of innovation. In Don Carlos, father sacrifices son to the Inquisition. In Egmont, Alba triumphs over Egmont, but not before Egmont passes the torch of Enlightenment onto Ferdinand, Alba.s son. Finally, there is in both plays a bittersweet ending for the heroes who die in uncertainty of the outcome and are only vouchsafed a posthumous day of celebration. How.s that for uncanny parallels in two independently written plays which were concurrently written?

I wonder how much their similar worldviews, or, I should say rather, Weltanschauungen, contributed to their friendship? It.s good that it did, because, if I remember correctly, it was Schiller who prodded Goethe to take up and finish the monumental second part of Faust. Goethe had relegated the work to the scraps bin because, well, it was just too monumental: the marriage of Classicism and Romanticism, the journey of a man over an entire life, the struggle for redemption. And, of course, the almighty and all mystical Ewig-Weibliche or eternal-feminine that is called to save Faust at the last second. Just thinking about how dedicated Goethe and Schiller were to Doing Melpomene.s Work gives me the goosebumps. Remember, Goethe was also a full-time politician and scientist as well! So with that thought, until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I am doing my part in Doing Melpomene.s Work.

Don Carlos by Schiller (trans. Sy-Quia & Oswald)

Two days, two posts in the ‘Plays Read’ section: I am on fire Doing Melpomene.s Work! Diligent readers will remember from yesterday.s blog on Ibsen.s Peer Gynt that your blogger confessed he would have had more to say but for the fact that it was his first read and hence first impression of Peer Gynt. Well, diligent readers, I am happy to say that Don Carlos is a play been reading for years: this is perhaps my sixth read. At least that.s what my memory says. Which–if I am to judge from what my friends who have known be a long time have to say–can be out in left field sometimes! Fortunately, none of them are here to correct me today, so the seventh read it is? Or did I say six? No matter–suffice to say, I.m quite familiar and fond of Don Carlos.

This is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, and here.s what the back blurb has to say:

Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas, deal with the timeless issues of power, freedom, and justice. Both plays dramatize periods of crisis in sixteenth-century Europe, and in doing so reflect Schiller’s passionate engagement with the great themes of his own age–justice, power, freedom of conscience, legitimacy of government.

A youthful work, Don Carlos (1787) shows the victory of the forces of reaction over the representatives of a new age. Mary Stuart (1800) shows the struggle of the Scottish queen in the last days of her life, not only for freedom but also for peace with her conscience, and that of her English rival, Elizabeth I, with the challenge of ruling justly. A vivid imaginative experience when read, these plays, with their starkly contrasting characters and thrilling confrontations, also demonstrate Schiller’s brilliant stagecraft.

And, here is a bonus image for diligent readers!–


By the way, that.s Mary Stuart on the cover, not Don Carlos!

I like the guarded praise on the back blurb: ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas’. It couldn.t be ‘two of literature.s greatest historical dramas’. Or even ‘two of German literature’s greatest dramas’. I have this feeling that whoever wrote the back blurb almost felt like writing ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas written near the turn of the nineteenth century which deal with imperial power struggles’. Or something like that. At least it is honest. There are problems with these plays. They are great. But a circumscribed greatness. I went on to find the images, and one authority calls the plays, ‘fast paced, tense, eloquent, and philosophical’. Fast paced compared to what, a snail? got to be kidding me.

Philosophical, yes. But fast paced, no. The dramatic fulcrum tying together the power struggles of Carlos, Philip, Elizabeth, Eboli, Alba, and Domingo is the cat and mouse recognition scene where Carlos and Eboli sound each other out. It takes over 300 lines for this to happen! I could go out and order pizza to go, come back, and they would still be disputing things! Shakespeare would have had Desdemona drop a handkerchief and it would have taken zero lines to accomplish something similar. In fact, Schiller–who was a Shakespeare fanatic–does have Carlos drop a handkerchief elsewhere. It.s likely that Schiller was fresh from reading Othello as Eboli.s fable about the pearl.s worth is also found in Othello. Compare:

Eboli: Love is the price of love.

It is the only diamond I possess

That I must either give away or hide;

Much like the merchant, who, to spite a king,

And since the whole of Venice could not pay,

Returned his pearl to the enriching sea

Rather than fix a price beneath its worth.


Othello: Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…

So Don Carlos is too long. Like Euripides, it is too rhetorical. Too much is accomplished through the dialogue and speech. More could be accomplished through stagecraft. There is too much thinking going on. But of course, not reading the blog to hear me rant!

Here.s the question. And it is a good question. How does one become familiar with a play? Through reading it many times? Yes, multiple reads give more clarity. But to really become familiar with a play (short of producing it), you have to subject the play to almost a scientific method. Come up with a hypothesis. And then reread the play having in mind that you are testing out the hypothesis. Reading a play without having an hypothesis of the play is like going for a walk. Go out for enough walks along the same route and, no doubt, you become sort of familiar with the path. But, if you go on a walk and measure the steps from this point to that point or pull out the watch to confirm if the same bird if flying by at the same time, then, you really get to know the secrets of the whole trail. Try this next time you read something read before. If you have a hunch, see if the text corroborates your feeling.

On this read of Don Carlos, I was interested in the question of the Marquis of Posa and how he gets his plan so wrong. And not only that, how can he get his plan so wrong and surprise the audience with his ‘wrongness’ at the same time. His plan is to usher in the Enlightenment, bring down the Inquisition, sweep tyranny off of the Low Countries, and to save and unite Elizabeth and Carlos. Oh yes, and he must martyr himself to achieve these goals. Which isn.t a bad deal, since he.s getting quite a large return on investment for the life of one Marquis! But of course his plan screws up. He sacrifices himself to pass the torch of the Enlightenment to Don Carlos, crown prince. But Posa misjudges Carlos’ motives. Posa thinks with his mind and guesses that Carlos thinks the same way. But in fact Carlos thinks with his heart so that when Posa passes the torch to him, he drops it:

Marquis: No!

This I did not foresee. How could I know

That you, led on by generosity,

Would be more sly and subtle in your schemes

Than I by thinking? I forgot your heart,

And all my clever structures fall to nothing.

Okay, so this is how he get it wrong. But why is this a surprise for the audience? Or, we should start with why this should be a surprise for the audience. It should be a surprise for the audience, because if it weren.t, the play would be no fun! No suspense if it is guaranteed that he would be successful. So Schiller has to somehow counterbalance Posa.s likelihood of success (high) with his eventual failure. How Schiller does this is by making Posa a great psychologist. He has met Eboli two times, yet has figured out all her secret drives and motives. On his first meeting the a very guarded King Philip, he reveals to him all his most inner thoughts. You.d think that if he were able to do this, he would have his childhood friend Don Carlos completely figured out. You.d think. But when second guessing all-too-human actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions, there is always a chance one can be mistaken. You can chart out the paths of billiard balls with mathematical precision, but consciousness is not a phenomenon; it is a sort of epiphenomenon whose path cannot quite be ascertained with precision. Schiller makes use of this to throw down Posa.s plan. So, on the one hand, Posa is good at deciphering people.s inner psychologies. But since this is an art and not a science, he can be mistaken. Schiller makes use of this. Posa is mistaken when it comes to Don Carlos. And so, that is how he gets his plan all wrong. I like how Schiller builds up our confidence in Posa.s keen insight into other people.s psychologies only to have that skill fail him at the end when he needs it the most.

By asking a question or testing a little hypothesis on this read through of Don Carlos, I was able to understand a little more of Schiller.s dramatic art. Next time you have an opportunity, diligent readers, try out this technique and I.m sure it will reveal a precious pearl lodged in between the crevices of the words which you had not seen before. Enjoy! And until next time, I am, as I always am, Doing Melpomene.s Work.

Peer Gynt by Ibsen (Translated Peter Watts)

Finally, a post that.s not in the ‘Watercooler’ section where it seems that been spending all my time! After thoroughly enjoying Ibsen.s The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, and the one and only Hedda Gabler (who, I.m not afraid to say, I find sort of attractive), I decided to tackle Peer Gynt. According to the blurb on the back of this nice Penguin edition:

Peer Gynt, his greatest play in verse, was also to be Ibsen’s last. After its publication in 1867 he abandoned poetry to concentrate on realistic plays in prose. However, with its predecessor, Brand, it established Ibsen’s reputation as a playwright. Its relaxed gaiety complements the harder-hitting earlier work, and may be seen as a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life.

The irresponsible, lovable Peer is based on a semi-legendary character of the mountains. Norwegian folklore, with its malevolent and ugly trolls, plays a larger part in his adventures that satire: social comment is present–the caricatures of types and nationalities are self-evident–but it is as light hearted and genial as the rest of the play.

The cover art, which shows Forest Troll by Kittelson is fantastic as well. Since I always like to reward diligent readers with pictures, I slaved away to find an image:


Did you know that most of my knowledge on art is from looking up artists on Penguin editions whose images catch my eye? Isn.t the technique superb? Not technically demanding but imaginatively demanding to have come up with the concept: a visual representation of the pathetic fallacy. Simple but ingenious.

Okay, so I got away from the watercooler to do some real reading related to Doing Melpomene.s Work. But unfortunately not much happens in this play. What?–‘It covers Peer Gynt.s whole life’, you say, ‘how could you say that not much happens?’. Well, you are correct diligent reader! Let me put it another way. I don.t understand much of what.s happening. Well, did I understand anything? You can be the judge.

So Peer Gynt is one of the character.s from Asbjornsen.s Norwegian Fairy Tales. I get that. He spends a lot of the time in the woods. The trolls he encounters are interesting. If you are in Greece and in the woods, you will likely encounter, Pan, drunken satyrs, centaurs, and other sort of jolly creatures. If you are in Britain and in the woods, you will likely encounter dainty fairies, little pixies, and other sorts of things read about in Midsummer Night’s Dream. not usually drunk but they practice magic are are very often clever and mischievous. Well, it so turns out that the Norwegian woods are populated by trolls. They are ugly, have claws, and are cannibals. Well, maybe not cannibals if they are a different species than humans. But they do eat humans. And from Peer.s interactions with the Woman in Green, maybe they are not an entirely different species! So, it strikes me that what is out there in the woods can be taken as a reflection of national character. Someone smarter than I am can figure out what this signifies. Why would Mediterranean wildlife be half-animal and half-human and fond of drink, British wildlife be magical and fond of mischief, and Norwegian wildlife be ugly and brutal?

The troll world must be some sort of counter-humanity, a perspective from which humanity can be judged (seeing that it is hard to judge and part of the thing that.s judging):

Old Man: What is the difference between trolls and men?

Peer Gynt: As far as can see–none at all. Big trolls will roast you, and little trolls claw you; and we’d be the same–if only we dared.

Old Man: True; in that, and in other respects, we’re alike. But morning is morning and evening is evening, and one huge difference stands between us…I’ll tell you, now, what the difference is: Outside among men, where the skies are bright, there’s a saying ‘Man, to thyself be true’; but here among trolls, the saying runs: ‘Troll, to thyself be–enough.’

The outside saying of ‘Man, to thyself be true’ reminds me of the ancient Greek injunction to ‘know thyself’ (gnwthi seauton). Well, it strikes me that part of ‘knowing oneself’ is to know one.s own appetite. So it leads to both wisdom and excess. The troll saying to ‘be enough’ seems a clarion call for simplicity, especially as the Old Man follows up by extolling a simple and homely way of life. This hits home for me in this age of excess. McMansion houses, faster cars, endless consumption: what is ‘enough’? Have we forgotten the word ‘enough’? How we would make our lives so much richer by saying ‘enough’! I was reading a Credit Suisse 2014 Global Wealth Report. Net income is what you have if you were to take the value of all your assets (house, car, book collection, etc.,) and subtract all your liabilities (mortgage, line of credit, etc.,). Assiduous readers love games. So let.s play a game. How much net income do you think you would need to have to be wealthier than 50% of the world.s population? The answer is $3650 USD. That.s really not very much. Let.s continue. If you wanted to be in the top decile of the world (top 10%) of wealth how much do you think you would need? No cheating. $77,000 USD is what you.d need. Anybody close. Okay, to be the in the top 1%. Three guesses. If you said $798,000 USD you got it. Everyone I know is doing better than 50% of the world.s population. Most of the people I know (let.s say 80% or 4 out of 5, same as the number of dentists that recommend Trident gum) have a net worth of over $77k. And maybe one out of twenty people I know is in the top 1% of the world with net worth north of $798k. But everyone I know says they don.t have enough. Well, I wonder what the rest of the world would say to us?

A hint at the ending comes during the episode with Anitra. Peer Gynt at this stage in life (he goes through many changes) become, of all things, a prophet. With one of his devotees, Anitra, he misquotes the last words of Goethe.s FaustTeil Zwei, saying ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns an’ (the Eternal-feminine leads us on) instead of ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan’ (the Eternal-feminine draws us higher’. Of course, Peer Gynt is getting duped by Anitra, who runs away with all his wealth. But at the end, he is saved from the diabolical Button Moulder by the love of Solveig, whom he had abandoned years earlier. Sort of like how Gretchen or Margaret redeems Faust at the end of Goethe.s play. So, Ibsen is doing something interesting here. But since this is only my first impressions of the play, I haven.t much more to say. Only that it.s piqued my curiosity! But perhaps you know the secret… Someone out there probably knows! Odds are there are people who have written their theses on this topic and staked their entire careers on defending their positions!

What else did I notice? Well, the blurb on the back that I quoted mentioned something about the play being ‘a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life’ (it strike me that this statement could appear just about on the back of any book). Well, as you know, I.m sensitive to drama as being an exploration of how much our values cost. The exploration of the cost of happiness in Master Builder was one of that play.s most enchanting themes. It was good to see it on display in Peer Gynt as well:

How lavish is Nature, how mean is the spirit;

how dearly man pays for his birth, with his life.

The very opposite of the spirit of entitlement that rages across the first world today. I like it.

Reading this play, I.m reminded of Glenn Gould who loved Bach. He loved the inventions, counterpoint, fugues, and canons. But the free formed fantasias he loved less, or not at all. Peer Gynt is like a free flowing fantasia. It is on a huge scale: the life of a man. It is not so much held together by form or dramatic unity as by the character of Peer Gynt. It must have been an incredible challenge for Edvard Grieg to find a musical idiom and form by which to set the play to music in his Peer Gynt Suites.

Reading Peer Gynt has been a humbling experience. Although I.m used to reading drama, it reminds me of how, if I read outside tragedy (which is very familiar), I can easily lose my way. In fact, unless one is familiar with a genre (history, romance, comedy, biography, and so on), it.s in general hard to understand what one is reading. Certainly, you understand the words. But reading is more active than comprehension. You have to anticipate where the author is taking you. And, for me reading Peer Gynt, I was absolutely unprepared for what was to come. So, I understood the words. But the greater meaning is still dull to me. It.s like if I were to read a medical textbook. Certainly I.d know the words. But it would be hard comprehending the unity of the the author.s message. Maybe one day I.ll return to Peer Gynt. It takes about five or six readings of even simpler plays to really begin to ‘get it’. But there.s so much more out there that never read. Even from Ibsen When We Dead Awaken and Enemy of the People are sitting on my bookcase silently awaiting the right moment.

There you have it, dear readers: my first impression of Peer Gynt. Until next time, I will be doing what I know how to do best. So, regardless of whether my best will be good enough, until next time I am Doing Melpomene.s Work.