Category Archives: On Writing

Risk Theatre Major Milestone – Book at Proofing Stage

Friesen Press sent back the first proofs of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected on Friday, October 5, right on schedule. Four files came in the package: 1) hardcover PDF (e.g. dustjacket), 2) softcover PDF, 3) interior pages of the book called the “book block,” also PDF, and 4) another version of the interior pages of the book on a special Word file that’s linked to the PDF book block. Here’s the softcover PDF–I had asked for something spare, authoritative, and easy to read from a distance:

TRTMOT_SC_18-10-04

 

The revision process is straightforward. Changes to the text and light formatting (adding or deleting bold and italics) are done on the Word document. Any other changes such as adjusting tabs, paragraphs, charts, page / footnote numbers, size of fonts, and inserting / deleting headings must be done on the PDF documents. You open the PDF file on Adobe Acrobat Reader, select the comment tool, set the sticky note where the change is to occur, and type in the instructions for the designer.

For example, I wanted a subject reference on the top left hand corner of the back cover. To do this, I put a little comment note on both the soft- and hardcover on the top left hand corner of the back cover and left the following instructions: “Insert subject reference DRAMA/LITERATURE.” Altogether, it took me a week and a half to finish the revisions to the first proof. The exercise clocked in at thirty hours, give or take.

I began with the Word document. 147 changes in the text, which is, at this point, hard to believe. There were many minor corrections from converting my original Word document into Friesen’s special Word document. For example, some of the subheadings needed to be capitalized throughout. Same with the running headers. Also, paragraphs were broken up inadvertently. This accounted for maybe 30 of these 147 changes. Next were the corrections to maintain consistency. When quoting footnotes, they were referred to sometimes as 279n.14 (this would refer to page 279 note 14). At other times, there would be a space, as in 279 n.14 or 279 n. 14. The manuscript was written over a period of ten years, so my own conventions evolved. Also in this category is consistency in orthography, especially for the ancient Greek names. For example, is is “Eteocles,” “Eteokles,” or “Eteoklus?” Making everything consistent accounted for maybe 20 of the 147 changes. Next were the changes to improve the flow. When reading the manuscript, some of the lines seemed to stick. For example, in the discussion of Othello, the proof read: “Iago claims to feel slighted because Othello passed him up for promotion.” This seemed to stick, and, to improve the flow became this: “Iago claims to feel slighted because Othello has passed him over for promotion.” These improvement to flow accounted for 90 or so of the 147 changes. Reading the text aloud helps with improving flow: if you can say it, then you can read it. Then there were the embarrassing errors. There were two or three of these. Honestly, through all the revision rounds, it was surprising to seem them. Subject-verb agreement, for example. The proof read: “Eteocles draws a lot and interpret the tale of the tape.” Of course, it should read that he interprets the tale of the tape. One thing I learned from this exercise is that a lot of work goes into making an error free book. Errors can be so persistent…

After I revised the Word document, next up was the PDF document of the book. 140 changes were posted into the PDF document through the comment tool. Changes to the PDF document were of a more cosmetic nature than the changes to the Word document. I wanted, for example, the vertical bar in the text to indicate a blockquote removed. I thought footnotes at the beginning of each chapter should be enumerated from 1, instead of being numbered consecutively from the first to the last chapter. Things like this. In the conversion process from my original Word document to the book proof, lots of little unforeseen things pop up which don’t appear quite right. For example, verse quotes easily fit onto a line in a Word document. But if a verse is quoted in a book proof, sometimes it runs into the next line (the book page is narrower and if it’s a blockquote, it will be also indented in from the left margin). So, if a verse quote ran into the next line, I wanted a short tab to indicate that the verse was being continued from the previous line. All little things. But all the little things add up. The feeling correcting proofs is not unlike going camping during mosquito season.

I’ve sent the proof back to Friesen. Their designer will take three weeks to incorporate the revisions into the text and send back a revised set of proofs. Then I’ll review and if they’re good, I’ll sign them off and the indexer can start. If I notice anything else, there will be another revision round, which will have to be paid for as an extra: my self-publishing package “Launch” only includes the first revision round. I feel that I’ll have to pay for one additional revision round to get everything to the point where it needs to be.

One interesting thing that I learned is that Library and Archives Canada no longer supports Cataloguing in Publication or CIP data for self-published titles. This is a major loss, as it identifies a self-published title as being self-published immediately. CIP data appears as a few lines on the copyright page and it helps libraries out by spelling out the author’s biographical information and the book’s call number. CIP data also goes out to booksellers and libraries to facilitate the book distribution process. The reason for the lack of support is lack of funding. You know, I think a lot of writers would pay Library and Archives Canada for CIP data to include on the copyright page. Why not make this something that can be paid for? If there’s been budget cutbacks, theyt could even charge a hefty number, say $150 or $250. Even for their massive bureaucratic juggernaut, that should cover the clerical work involved in producing a few lines of text and entering them into the national database. Then at least self-published writers would have the option of getting CIP data. Right now, there’s not even the option. And yes, I’ve emailed Library and Archives Canada to ask them to consider charging self-published authors for this service. Let’s see what they say.

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

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy – First Review (Friesen Press)

Here’s the first review! Note the book title has changed. I’ve taken the reviewer’s suggestions and written a new coda. Onwards!–

Editor’s Manuscript Evaluation

Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

By Edwin Wong

Overview

This study of a “new working model of tragedy” celebrates the art form of theatrical tragedy and asserts that the time is now for its revival. The author posits that in the absence of a clear and consistent definition of tragedy, a new framework for understanding the centuries-old medium, called ‘Risk Theatre,’ gives it modern relevance.

Introduction

This is a fascinating exploration advocating for the resurgence of the classical art of tragedy in these tumultuous times. I really enjoyed learning about the history of this art form, its way of defining itself in contrast to other arts, its particular closed structure, and its dependence on a worldview that centres instability and sorrow. I was particularly drawn in by the examples you gave of how tragedy has been used to speak truth to power. I admire your passionate dedication to this quest of “restoring the greatest show on earth to its rightful throne” even though, as you note, others before you “have tried and failed” to do so. You’ve made a near-bulletproof argument for tragedy’s rebirth under the name of Risk Theatre.

Since it is clear that a great deal of work has already gone into this exceptionally well-structured study, I am in the happy position of having to search for nits to pick. To be honest, I have little to offer in terms of suggestions for structural changes, and what feedback I have is largely built on connecting a couple of final dots before the book goes to print.

I will begin with just a couple of broader points for you to consider, though they are meant as options not prescriptions for mandatory change. I then look more closely at the writing itself before offering my suggestions on how to move forward with the project to prepare for publication.

Content

Many of the manuscripts I review are in the early stages of development, and an editorial evaluation like this would typically include lengthy suggestions for adjustments to help bring out a project’s strengths. As mentioned above, this is not the case here, since study is already of high quality and the manuscript’s structure is clear and intuitive. As such, I have only a few suggestions for its content and form.

My main concern is that the connection between tragedy and the modern moniker you propose, Risk Theatre, isn’t always clear. Diverging away from the central theme—that Risk Theatre as a viable way of reviving this classical art form—provides a great deal of background information (about, for example, how and why tragedies are structured the way they are), which is essential to your argument but that run the risk of being distracting. Digressing too often or too far from the central theme can confuse readers, but I don’t think that these diversions are at all tangential. On the contrary, they’re key to understanding your thesis.

What I would like to see, then, are some stronger links made and reinforced between classical tragedy and neoclassical risk theatre throughout the volume. You do a great job of affirming how they intertwine at both the beginning and the end of the book, but in the middle (chapters 4-8) the focus on risk theatre’s role in resurrecting tragedy can feel obscured. To put it simply, I sometimes forgot how risk theatre factored into the discussion, and had to flip back to earlier chapters to remind myself. I think that clear and straightforward statements answering the question, “What is the implication of this for risk theatre?” at key intervals, such as after the discussion of countermonetization for example, would mitigate the problem of readers feeling disconnected from the book’s thesis or confused about the relevance of these discussions.

The only other element that felt like it was missing for me in this wide-ranging discussion was how tragedy’s modern iteration, Risk Theatre, might be ‘used’ (for lack of a better word) by modern audiences. I was left wondering if you see a role for this art form in, for example, political critique, social movements, or the like. You made such great, explicit connections between classical tragic productions and their environment and contexts, and I wondered what you thought about the role of Risk Theatre in society at large. It feels to me like you don’t believe it’s a neutral medium, but this wasn’t commented upon directly. Consider adding a discussion of this in the final chapter, ‘Why Risk Theatre Today?’ I think a few extrapolations about how this medium can interact with the modern world would go a long way toward further solidifying your central argument that “its time is now.”

Finally, I found that the end of Chapter 9 closes a little too abruptly, and it could be restructured slightly with the addition of a concluding section. A couple of paragraphs that reiterate for the last time why Risk Theatre deserves your advocacy would remedy this feeling of being left hanging.

Writing and Editing

Your writing style, particularly its logical progression, is incredibly satisfying. Your academic experience is evident in the way that you structure the discussion: outlining theory, zooming in to demonstrate with precise examples from myriad classical texts, then reiterating the implications of those examples for your study. Often I found myself asking a question, only to quickly note that you’d gone on to answer it in the next passage. This is the mark of a writer who anticipates his audience’s needs and seeks to fill them proactively. The style comes across as exceptionally professional and has the kind of gravitas needed from a writer positing a brand new theory. Not only is your tone confident, but you’ve ‘shown your work’ so to speak; you explain how you came to each assertion with impressive clarity.

The only thing that was lacking for me, in terms of the writing itself, was a little more of your personality. It’s evident that this manuscript has been a labour of love for you, and it’s fascinating to me when people have such niche interests. I simply wanted to know more about why Risk Theatre grabs you. The most compelling arguments, to me, are those whose champions can articulate why the object of their attention is so meaningful to them personally. Consider inserting yourself into the story just a little more. The preface could be a place for this.

Finally, while I had essentially no concerns about the book’s mechanics. My only note is to please be aware that the following passage is repetitive and should be revised:

• Page 260: “Risk theatre is tragic theory for today’s risk age because the stories of Macbeth, Eteocles, and Oedipus force us to examine the meaning of risk, the likelihood of the unexpected, and the impact of unintended consequences. In short, risk theatre is a tragic theory for today’s risk age [this phrase is repeated from the first line in this passage]. Like Nietzsche’s psychological theory of tragedy or Hegel’s mechanistic theory, risk theatre emerges today—if not by my hand, then I would think by another’s hand—because its time is now.”

Should you wish to ensure accuracy with regards to the manuscript’s technical side, you may wish to consider a final proofread, although your book is in great technical shape.

Next Steps

Your task at this point is to work through the manuscript to make any changes you feel are appropriate based on this evaluation and other feedback you have received. Focus on larger changes first, like ensuring that there are explicit connections made between the elements of tragedy discussed in depth throughout the book and the central theme of Risk Theatre as a viable, modern way of revitalizing the art form. From there, it should be in great shape to move forward.

Your publishing specialist can answer any questions you have about the next steps.

BISAC and Search Keywords

One of the ways that book buyers will be able to find your book online is through searching keywords on sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. These words serve as flags for online databases. You can choose up to seven keywords to help guide people to your book. Some good examples are main ideas, characters, and themes. What would a potential readers search for on Google to help them find your book? You can have a maximum of seven keywords, but they can have up to twenty characters each (this is because some keywords are phrases, i.e. “Good Versus Evil”).

  • Cast
  • Countermonetization
  • Myth of the price you pay
  • Risk Theatre
  • Temptation
  • Tragedians
  • Wager

BISAC Codes

Book Industry Standards and Communications codes (BISAC) are numbers that represent book categories. Whereas the search keywords are to help the reader locate your book, the BISAC codes are in place to help the retailer or book seller know in which section to stock your book. You are allowed a maximum of three codes for any given book, and they are sorted in order of relevance.

The following codes stand out to me as most appropriate for your book. If you would like to review them, the full list of BISAC codes is available here: http://bisg.org/page/BISACEdition

DRA000000     Drama     General

PER011030      Performing arts     Theater / Playwriting

PER011000      Performing arts     Theater / General

Conclusions

This is a great project that I am certain will be highly valued by the theatre community, particularly those who struggle to justify the relevance of staging classical productions. You’ve given them a solid argument to take forward about the modern relevance of this ages-old format. The manuscript is already in great shape, and I hope this feedback will give you clear direction on where to go from here to give the book a final polish.

I wish you all the best with the rest of the publishing process and continued success as a writer.

Sincerely,
Your FriesenPress Editor

Book Update – More Milestone Dates!

One of my favourite Nietzsche quotes is “I like to travel from peak to peak.” Well, that’s not exactly the quote, but that’s how I remember it. The quote actually runs: “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak; but for that, one must have long legs.” In the last couple of weeks, it’s felt like the project has been going from peak to peak. Sure, there’s still lots of time for unexpected events to put a wrench in things (after all, this is the premise of risk theatre), but while the going’s good, I’ll take it! So, assiduous readers, here are the most recent milestones.

Final proofread complete! A good friend, Mark Grill, took on this duty. He’s edited articles that have appeared in top journals such as Science and Nature so it was a bit of a coup for me that he took this on. He’s got a comparative literature degree from the University of Chicago so much of the material would have been familiar to him. He got the manuscript on July 30 and turned it around by August 11–blazing quick. I was very happy with his work. He really has a gift for editing and proofreading. For example, there were a few foreign words in the text. One was Trauerspiel, which I had translated in quotes beside it as “mourning plays.” Of course, Trauerspiel in German is singular. Trauerspiele would be the plural. He noted and caught all sorts of little things like this. I was grateful to the point where I wrote him up a glowing recommendation, which runs like this:

Mark proofread my 70,000 word book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, a complex and dense work on chance, uncertainty, and the tragic theatre in under two weeks. I accepted nearly all of his suggestions. He has the rare x-ray eyes to uncover the most direct way of expressing thoughts with words. His proofreading was absolutely thorough and invaluable. He will be able to do the same for you at a highly competitive price point. Highly recommended.

I was particularly happy with the use of ‘x-ray’. The playing of one of my favourite pianists has been called ‘an x-ray interpretation of Bach’. I always liked that line. The pianist, is, of course, the inimitable Glenn Gould.

The author blurb and book blurb are complete! A big thank you to Keith Digby and Sarah Milne for some really great suggestions that added kick to the presentation. Here’s how the book blurb reads:

WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT, BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO DUNSINANE HILL

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly complex world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, puts us face to face with the far-reaching implications of our actions by simulating the profound impact of highly improbable events.

In this book, classicist Edwin Wong shows how tragedy imitates reality: heroes, by taking inordinate risks, trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Not only does Wong reinterpret classic dramas from Aeschylus to O’Neill through the risk theatre lens, he also challenges dramatists to create tomorrow’s theatre. Because today is an age of unprecedented risks, we need compelling, high-stakes tragedies to capture the growing unease with today’s risk-takers who are hurling us into an abyss of unintended consequences.

And here’s how the author blurb reads:

Edwin Wong founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition with Langham Court Theatre to align tragedy with the modern fascination with uncertainty and chance. It is the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy. He is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated on ancient theatre. His other research interests include epic poetry, where he has published a solution to the contradiction between Homeric fate and free will by drawing attention to the peculiar mechanics of chess endgames. He has lectured in Canada and the USA on risk theatre and welcomes opportunities to speak. He currently lives in Victoria, BC and blogs at melpomeneswork.com. The competition website can be found at risktheatre.com.

Wow, I could really get used to addressing myself in the third person! Caesar also referred to himself in the third person in his histories: The Gallic Wars and The Civil War. They’re quite fun to read, as every time you read: “And then Caesar put on his red cape to bolster the flagging morale of the troops on the right flank…” you know that, well, Caesar is giving the air of impartiality but he’s really just talking about how great he is! And the kicker is I think he really enjoys it!

The title has changed again! Now the book is called: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The old title was: Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The new title better expresses the idea that this is a theory of tragedy.

Font has been chosen! Going with Berling, the same font that Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets was set to. Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was the book that set me off on this journey. It was at the Providence, RI Borders Bookstore (in the Providence Place Mall) that I first saw this book in the winter of 2006. I was working on my thesis and hey, what better thing to do to procrastinate than to go to the bookstore and look at other books! Well, this book was sitting in the economics section and it stood out as sort of a ‘renegade’ title: Taleb was part of Wall Street, but he also railed against the tools Wall Street was using to measure risk. Remember, these were the days right before the Great Recession. His title would prove to be quite prescient in light of the train wreck right around the corner. Well, it was after encountering this book that it first occurred to me that tragedy dramatizes well-thought out plans that go awry in quite unexpected ways. In other words, tragedy could be conceived of as a theatre of risk. It dramatizes and simulates risk on the stage. It was too late, of course, to rewrite my thesis. But it was then that I knew I had to start from scratch. Again (I’ve been trying to come up with a theory of tragedy since 2000; this is attempt 3). So, it is a little tribute to Taleb that my book will also be set in the typeface of his first book. Fitting.

The proofread text has been sent to Friesen Press where the Microsoft Word document will be transferred into Adobe InDesign, LaTeX, or some other typesetting system (not sure which software Friesen uses). From there, I have one revision round, or one chance to catch any final errors that are still in the text or arise when the Word document is typeset. Once I approve that, they’ll start generating the index. Friesen’s is saying first printing January 2019 (six month process). But really, this date should be able to be pushed back to November or December. I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much left. Let’s say the typesetting and revision round takes us to end of September (that’s a month and a half). The index takes a month. This takes us to the end of October. The cover design can be done concurrently with indexing. So, the package will be ready to go to the printers by the end of October. From there, the lead time for a small run would be what…one month? That sets us in December. Of course, December is a peculiar month, full of holidays and time off. We shall see.

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

Risk Theatre Major Milestone – Signed up with Friesen Press

After years of wandering through the lowlands, it seems that the Risk Theatre project these days is travelling from peak to peak! As of July 6, 2018, Friesen Press has been retained to bring the title Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected to the light of day. This, along with inaugurating the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition with Langham Court Theatre earlier this year, is a milestone event in the Risk Theatre project. Good students of the Classics will be familiar with the divide between logos (thought) and ergon (action) or theoria (theory) and praxis (doing). Sometimes–actually most of the time–you have one without the other, and this just doesn’t quite cut it. Now risk theatre fulfils both sides of the dichotomy. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition takes care of the praxis or ergon aspect of the project. And the book: Tragedy is Risk Theatre encapsulates the logos or theoria side of the dichotomy. This is a major milestone and a happy moment.

Friesen Press

I had originally thought that Friesen Press was an independent boutique publishing house. It turns out that they’re owned by Friesens Corporation, a major book printer headquartered in Manitoba, Canada. Friesen Press seems to be the self-publishing arm of Friesens Corporation: the corporation takes care of printing major titles such as the Harry Potter series or the Oxford Dictionary, and the press serves the need of emerging authors.

Friesen Press caters to emerging authors looking to self-publish. The press serves authors looking to self-publish who are looking for support. It’s like a one stop shop that takes care of editing, indexing, book layout, graphics design, distribution, marketing, and you name it. If you wanted, you could subcontract out all these specialities and probably save a few dollars at the cost of some more headaches and legwork. And if you’re interested in getting hands on producing the book, that’s what you’d go for. For example, that’s what Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of a book that I’ve learned a lot from–Early Retirement Extreme–did. He taught himself how to typeset with the LaTeX program, did the illustrations, took care of the promotion, etc., But then again, he’s a sort of Renaissance man who rails against specialization. He likes to do his own renovations, make his own soap, and get hands on. And actually, if I had the time, I’d probably like to go more hands on. But with the part-time plumbing gig, doing the PR for the tragedy competition, and editing the book, it makes sense right now to sign on with a one stop shop.

I did, however, practise some due diligence before signing on. Island Blue Print also caters to self-publishing authors. For a run of 100 books, they quoted $9.76 per unit to print (softcover, 5.5″x8.5″, 270 pages). Friesen’s quote came in a little lower, at $9.25, but this is based on 200 pages of text. It’s hard to tell how many softcover pages the 67,000 words translates into, but both the quotes are in the same ballpark. It was similar with the indexing quotes. Independent indexers were quoting anywhere from $800 – $2000. Friesen’s came in at the mid-range, just over $1400.

In the beginning, I was actually leaning towards Island Blue. That would mean hiring one person to typeset, one person to design the front and back cover, another person to index, getting my on ISBNs, taking charge of publicity and distribution myself, etc., But one thing that I learned quickly was that a lot of these separate trades would have to be on the same page. And there is a sequence to do everything in, a sequence with which I wasn’t very familiar. For example, the book designer that Island Blue recommended likes indexers to embed the index within the Word document. But I quickly found out indexers like to use their specialized indexing software and don’t like embedding indexes in Word. And then there’s the issue of compatibility: what if the book designer has technical issues with converting the embedded Word index into InDesign, the program of her choice? So the more I thought of it, the more it made sense to go to a one stop shop. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about these issues and would be able to focus on reading the proofs, which, the more I think about it, will be an eye busting task.

Friesen’s offers four different publishing paths for authors: Launch, Classic, Signature, and Masterpiece. They’re priced from $1999 – $14,999. I went for the basic Launch package. The more deluxe packages offer more support, multiple rounds of editing, more revision rounds, and better publicity and distribution. Here’s what the $1999 Launch path offers:

    • Hardcover, Softcover, and eBook Editions of Your Book
    • Editor’s Manuscript Evaluation (up to 60,000 words)
    • 2 Member Support Team (including dedicated Account Manager)
    • Up to 70% Royalty
    • 100% Copyright Ownership
    • Non-Exclusive Contracts
    • 3 ISBNs & Barcode
    • Up to 6 Promotional Copies (5 Softcover, 1 Hardcover)
    • Custom Book Cover
    • Custom Interior Layout
    • Black & White or Full Color interior
    • 1 Revision Round
    • Electronic Book Proof
    • 1 Hour Promotional Strategy Consultation
    • Marketing 101 Toolkit
    • 1/8 pg Placement & Summary in the FriesenPress Book Catalogue
    • Print Distribution: available for purchase through over 39,000 booksellers & the FriesenPress Online Bookstore
    • Lifetime eBook Distribution: FriesenPress Online Bookstore, Amazon.com (with ‘Look Inside!’ Submission), Google Play Books (with ‘See Inside’ Submission), and Apple iBooks
    • Digital Rights Management (optional)

The indexing would be an adder number on top of the $1999. So all in all, considering that Friesen’s will also take care of the distribution, it’s a pretty good deal. And, the appealing thing is that you, the author, can maintain control over the availability of the book. If you’re doing an academic title with a traditional press, chances are that they’ll print off a run of 400 copies. Most of them will end up in academic libraries. The title will be in print for five years. And then it’s out of print. If you go the self-publishing route, your title can stay in print for as long as you want it to be in print: you own the rights and have the option of buying the electronic files. This is a very big plus.

The Book Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

Well, it clocks in at just over 67,000 words. A decent sized book considering that a monograph is about 40,000 words and a really big monograph or a smallish book weighs in at 50,000 words. Tragedy is Risk Theatre is made up of an introduction and nine chapters.

The process at Friesen should take between 6-8 months. Things always seem to take a little longer than estimated, so it should hit the shelves at the beginning of 2019. Mark that date on your calendar!

Did I try going the conventional publishing route? You betcha! I sent out letters of inquiry to six publishers and one agent. What I learned is that this process is lots of work. Everyone wants the letter in a different format. Some want short letters. Some want small essays. Here’s a copy of a letter I sent to a literary agent:

About Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

When Arthur Miller looked back on writing Death of a Salesman, he lamented that: “there was no model I could adapt for this play, no past history for the kind of work I felt it could become.” Today’s dramatists have little desire to write tragedy based on yesterday’s outdated models. Today’s literary critics share the playwrights’ concerns. Terry Eagleton begins his 2002 book, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, by saying, point-blank: “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject.” While Aristotle’s Poetics laid out a brilliant model of tragedy’s structure and purpose, it had been around for over two thousand years. Today’s critics tire of rehashing the same hackneyed arguments on catharsis, pity and fear, and the tragic flaw over and over. Tragedy needs a new model in touch with twenty-first century values to captivate the public imagination as it once did in the days of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Tragedy is Risk Theatre fills the need by presenting an exciting and unique brand of tragedy. As the title suggests, this new model of tragedy is called risk theatre and it takes its inspiration from a surging public interest in chance, uncertainty, and the failure of models to predict unexpected outcomes.

In 2001, the hedge fund manager, Nassim Taleb, shocked the world by writing Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. In his scathing Wall Street critique, he argues that economists imperil the financial system because the fail to recognize that it is ultimately chance, and not their economic models, that moves the markets. In 2007, Taleb followed up with The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and exploration of the incredible impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. The timing was perfect: the Great Recession was just around the corner. Since then, his books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into 36 languages. He has ignited surging interest in the philosophy of uncertainty, a new field of inquiry, which asks: “What happens when more things happen than what you expect will happen?” Risk theatre capitalizes on this growing interest in the unexpected by merging Taleb’s work with the established art form of tragedy. They are a natural match, since tragedy specializes in dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events.

Risk theatre posits that the tragic stage is a casino where gamblers come to play at the no limit tables. This is the “risk” element of risk theatre: before the dice is thrown or the cards revealed, the protagonist’s desired outcome can only be understood imperfectly as odds for or against. One difference, and a critical one, between actual gambling halls and the stage or risk theatre is that on the tragic stage, money is a counterfeit currency. Only the human currency of values, emotions, and beliefs are legal tender on the tragic stage. For this reason, for a chance to wear the Scottish crown, characters such as Macbeth ante up the milk of human kindness, not a thousand or even a million dollars. Macbeth, like the Wall Street analysts who Taleb remonstrates, is smarter and better equipped than his adversaries. The odds are in his favour. But, like the Wall Street analysts, Macbeth overestimates his ability to predict the future and underestimates the impact of low-probability events. After all, what are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? But when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Macbeth, like the overleveraged speculators during the Great Recession, comes face to face with the high-consequence event and loses all. Risk theatre promises excitement: its thrill is the same sort of pleasure the spectators huddled around the table experience when they watch the final match poker match between the “Cincinnati Kid” and Lancey “The Man” Howard. The Kid goes all-in knowing that he has played his hand by the book and that the odds are with him. But when Lancey makes the wrong move at the right time, the Kid loses everything.

Depending on their starting point, theories of tragedy highlight different aspects of tragedy. Hegel’s theory of tragedy, for example, by focusing on the moral collisions in tragedy (exemplified by the clash between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone), highlights the ethical element of tragedy. Or, in another example, Aristotle’s Poetics, by focusing on the fall of the protagonist (exemplified by Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex), highlights how tragedy elicits the feelings of fear and pity in the audience. Risk theatre, by focusing on gambling acts in tragedy (exemplified by Macbeth wagering the milk of human kindness for the crown), highlights the price heroes are willing to pay. Instead of drawing attention to the ethical elements of tragedy (such as Hegel’s theory), risk theatre directs our attention towards the opportunity cost of choice: either the milk of human kindness orthe crown, but not both. And instead Aristotle’s pity and fear, the tragic emotions of risk theatre are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation of the low-probability event and apprehension over the high-consequences. Risk theatre speaks to today’s audiences by aligning tragedy with public interest in low-probability, high-consequence events. Like Hegel and Aristotle’s theories, risk theatre can be applied to a wide variety of tragedies from ancient to modern times to produce exciting and fresh interpretations of classic plays for today’s audiences.

Tragedy is Risk Theatre contains a theoretical framework of tragedy, and analyzes the price characters are willing to pay in tragedies from Aeschylus to Miller to learn what our humanity is worth. In addition, Tragedy is Risk Theatreprovides today’s dramatists with Miller’s missing model, the model Miller lamented not having when he began working on Death of a Salesman. To guide the reader through the structure, idea, and practical application of the risk theatre brand of tragedy, the book’s nine chapters are divided into three parts. Part one examines risk theatre’s structure. Part two examines the philosophy of tragedy. Part three examines the poetics of risk theatre.

Risk theatre is based on a tripartite structure which reflects the insight that each dramatic act of tragedy is also a gambling act. It begins with the hero’s temptation. The hero is enticed to want something or to do something. In Death of a Salesman, for example, Loman is tempted by the success of Charley and his brother to pursue the American dream. After the hero’s temptation comes the wager. For a chance to live out the American dream, Loman antes up his dignity. After the wager comes the moment where the die is cast. After Loman signs the mortgage, he’s locked in and there’s no turning back. The low-probability, high-consequence event is his realization that, thanks to his life insurance policy, he’s worth more dead than alive. Temptation, wager, and cast constitute the basic structural unit of risk theatre. Depending on the dramatists’ goals, the basic structural unit can be configured differently. The different configurations are also discussed in part one of the book.

Readers interested in the philosophy of tragedy can turn to the second part of the book. Risk theatre is grounded on the principle of opportunity cost: the cost of what’s chosen is the next best alternative. Opportunity costs surround us in life. When we choose to buy a gallon of milk, we lose the opportunity to spend the money on a jug of juice. For Macbeth, the opportunity cost for a shot at the crown is his compassion; for Loman, the opportunity cost to pursue the American dream is his dignity. As they roll the die, they place human values at risk. By considering opportunity cost, risk theatre differentiates itself from other philosophies of tragedy. Other theories consider the ethical, political, and social aspects of tragedy. Risk theatre considers tragedy’s economic aspects. By looking at the price the protagonist is willing to pay, risk theatre answers the question of human worth. If a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, how much is the milk of human kindness worth? Well, according to Macbeth, it’s worth the Scottish crown. By dramatizing the tragic cost of desire, risk theatre reveals the limitations of measures such as “net worth” or tools such as the “cost benefit analyses” to capture human worth. By expressing worth in terms of human value rather than dollars and cents, risk theatre revolts against the commoditization of life and its values.

Dramatists wishing to create new risk theatre plays can turn to part three, which contains examples from tragedies of all periods help dramatists work through two problems: 1) how to motivate protagonists to take great risks, yet remain lifelike and 2) how to introduce the low-probability, high-consequence event into the play convincingly. To motivate protagonists to go all-in, dramatists through the years have resorted to seven commonplaces strategies: 1) proud heroes who are idealists, 2) secondary characters who love to give advice, 3) starring roles filled by characters who have access to surplus political, military, social, or economic capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) heroes who claim to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) unstable and volatile dramatic settings (e.g. war, revolution, and plague). Likewise, to incorporate the low-probability, high consequence event into the play, dramatists have access to a wide variety of replicable techniques. Unintended consequences may arise as a result of being overpowered by fate or the gods. They could also arise from the fallibility of human knowledge and errors in judgment. Tight coupling (leaving small margins for error) and the feedback between the characters can also lead to unexpected results.

The author, Edwin Wong, graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree and from Brown University with a master’s degree in the Classics. During both degrees, he concentrated on ancient theatre. The peer-reviewed journal Antichthon published “The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad,” his study on Homer, a poet whom Plato considers to be the first tragedian. He has presented on risk theatre at the University of Calgary in April 2017 and has forthcoming lectures scheduled in January and February 2018 at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting in Boston and the University of Victoria. In addition, he is in continuing high-level talks with the Langham Court Theatre, University of Victoria Fine Arts Department, and the Playwright’s Guild of Canada to inaugurate an annual risk theatre playwright competition. It would be set up similar to the successful University of California, Santa Barbara STAGE International Script Competition. The STAGE competition challenges playwrights to write new science and technology plays, awards the top entrants with cash prizes, and produces the winning play. From the theory to the production, Edwin Wong is committed to the success of risk theatre.

Looking at tragedy as an existential wager between the protagonist and the world is a new approach that solves age-old questions. One question asks: “Why do audiences delight in tragedy, despite its unhappy themes?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “The thrill of tragedy is the same as the thrill of gambling. Just as audiences delight in watching gamblers go all-in, they delight in watching heroes up the ante.” Another question asks: “Why are the leading roles skewed towards kings and queens, as in King Oedipus, the Duchessof Malfi, Prince Hamlet, and so on?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “Characters are drawn from the higher classes because they have to have sufficient social, political, or economic capital to ante up.” Beginning from a simple observation—tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events—Tragedy is Risk Theatrepromises to revolutionize the interpretation and production of tragedy to return the art to the days when it was the greatest show on earth.

Market and Competition

The marketing for the book can be pursued on three different levels. First, as a theory of tragedy, the book appeals to literary theorists and students of literature and drama. The academic crowd will be interested in seeing a fresh approach to tragedy, one that goes beyond the usual discussions on the tragic fall, pity and fear, and the tragic error. Second, as a working model of tragedy, the book appeals to playwrights, actors, and theatregoers. The annual risk theatre competition will create a steady and ongoing interest in the topic. Third, as a new art movement tying together the fields of economics and risk management with gambling and theatre, the book capitalizes on the current public interest in uncertainty, unintended consequences, and low-probability, high-consequence events. This third crowd is the most diverse, and consists of risk managers, scientists, economists, and others who are interested in uncertainty. The goal of staging the winner of the risk theatre competition is to create sufficient buzz to kick-start interest.

Many well-written studies examine the political, social, anthropological, philosophical, and literary facets of tragedy. Political and social interpretations can be found in Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic(Blackwell 2003) or Raymond Williams’ Modern Tragedy (Stanford UP 1966). They look at how tragedy, by questioning norms, can incite political and social change. Anthropological approaches can be found in Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy, Myth, and Mystery (Indiana UP 1962) and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (Michigan State College Press 1953). These approaches call attention to the ritual elements embedded in tragedy. Philosophical approaches are exemplified by Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy(Doubleday 1968) and Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (Insel 1961). They draw on an illustrious pedigree of thought, from Plato to Aristotle and from Hegel through to Nietzsche. Finally, literary approaches such as A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (Macmillan 1904) consider the merits of tragedy as a self-contained work of art. Tragedy is Risk Theatre differentiates itself from the crowd by examining tragedy from an economics perspective. It is a novel approach.

The only other title that approaches tragedy from an economics perspective is George Thomson’s Aeschylus and Athens (Lawrence & Wishart 1941). In this valuable study, Thomson blames the death of tragedy on the rise of coinage, which spread from Asia Minor to Greece in the century prior to Aeschylus. Tragedy, argues, Thomson, promoted egalitarian values in fifth century Athens by mediating the conflict between tribal custom and aristocratic privilege. The proliferation of coinage in Athens, however, gradually created a new class of profiteers more interested in exploiting slaves and subjugating neighbours than promoting egalitarian ideals. Tragedy, no longer able to mediate the class struggle between the profiteers and the oppressed, lost its impetus and died. While Tragedy is Risk Theatre also approaches tragedy from an economics perspective, it looks at the price an individual hero is willing to pay rather than the role of money in class struggle.

Chapter Outline

PREFACE

The art of tragedy has fallen into neglect. Dramatists lack a modern model of tragedy. Critics tire of rehashing the same old Aristotelian precepts over and over. Risk theatre offers playwrights and critics a compelling new model by calling attention to the casino-like elements of the tragic stage, a place replete with high stakes wagers, unexpected outcomes, and unintended consequences, a place where the low-probability, high-consequence outcome happens. Every time.

1          TEMPTATION, WAGER, AND CAST

On tragedy’s structure. Risk theatre, taking its cue from games of chance, begins with the hero’s temptation, proceeds to hero’s wager, and finishes with a roll of the die. The hero pursues a hazardous enterprise, stakes his values, beliefs, or relationships on its success, and goes past the point of no return. Risk theatre has a tripartite structure. Example of its tripartite structure in well-known tragedies from ancient to modern times.

2          TEMPO AND TRAGEDY

On tragedy’s structure. By positioning the fundamental components of temptation, wager, and cast at different intervals in relation to one another, the playwright can alter the tempo at which the drama unfolds. “Frontloaded” dramas set the temptation, wager, and cast at the beginning of the play: the play ends in reflection. “Backloaded” dramas set the temptation and wager at the beginning, and the cast towards the ending: suspense results. “Gradual” tragedies set the components at equidistant intervals: the focus is on the interplay between characters.

3          FORMS OF TRAGEDY

On tragedy’s structure. Different forms of tragedy arise should the dramatist dramatize the fundamental unit of temptation, wager, and cast once, in recurring cycles, or concurrently. “Standalone” tragedies, such as Macbethdramatize the cycle once. “Perpetual motion” tragedies, such as the Oresteia, dramatize the fundamental unit in recurring cycles. “Parallel motion” tragedies, such as Cinna, dramatize multiple characters going through the cycle of temptation, wager, and cast at the same time.

4          THE MYTH OF THE PRICE YOU PAY

On the philosophy of tragedy. Risk theatre argues that tragedy is based on the idea of opportunity cost: the cost of choosing one alternative is the loss of the next best alternative. Macbeth can have the milk of human kindness or the crown, but not both. One may receive something for something, and nothing for nothing (as Lear likes to say), but never something for nothing. By looking at the opportunity cost of choice, tragedy creates an alternative marketplace to value life in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. What is the price the protagonist is willing to pay?

5          FOUR PRINCIPLES OF COUNTERMONETIZATION

On the poetics of tragedy. Tragedy revolts against the monetization of life, a phenomenon that began with the invention of coinage in the sixth century BC. As the proliferation of coinage made it possible to value life in monetary terms (e.g. murder could be exonerated by paying “blood money”), tragedy arose in revolt to argue that human values must be understood in terms of the price we are willing to pay for them in blood, sweat, and tears. As a result, the stage of tragedy is an alternative marketplace where heroes price out existence. Four principles of how dramatists can reclaim human values through the art form of tragedy.

6          THE ART OF THE ALL-IN WAGER

On the poetics of tragedy. For risk theatre to thrill audience, heroes must take on inordinate risks. Audiences don’t come to see heroes make nickel and dime bets. They come to see them wager all-in. Examples of the seven “commonplaces of tragedy” from a variety of plays showing how dramatists motivate heroes to take on extraordinary risks in a convincing manner. The seven commonplaces are: 1) proud and egocentric protagonists, 2) trusted advisors goading protagonists on, 3) starring roles filled by kings, queens, and others having an abundance of military, economic, or social capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) passions running white hot, 6) heroes claiming to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) curtain rises to scenes of adultery, murder, plague, war, and famine.

7          “THE BEST-LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN”

On the poetics of tragedy. Heroes who are smarter, stronger, and better equipped than their adversaries play to win. They don’t expect to lose. It’s the dramatist’s task to waylay them with the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. From the ancient deus ex machinato the modern use of feedback and tight coupling, strategies dramatists employ to waylay heroes reflect the changing conception of chance, probability, and randomness through the ages. A brief survey of changing conceptions of chance.

8          US AND THEM

Tragedy may be defined by contrasting its worldview with philosophic, historic, or comic worldviews. Tragedy and comedy, as opposed to philosophy and history, are ex-ante arts. Philosophy and history are ex-post arts. Ex-ante arts feature characters who do not know the outcome. Ex-post art features outcomes that are already known: the aim is to explain how the outcome turned out the way it did. Tragedy differentiates itself from comedy in that the former operates in a closed system, while the latter operates within an open system. Closed systems are closed in the sense that resources are scarce; they are bound by the second law of thermodynamics. Open systems are open in the sense that resources are boundless.

9          WHY RISK THEATRE TODAY?

A discussion of the lexical instability of the term tragedyfrom ancient Greece to today. The fruitful ambiguity of the term allows room for many competing interpretations of tragedy from “a story of wicked kings” to “a poem of praise.” This same ambiguity allows tragedy to be reinterpreted as risk theatre today. A discussion of why, from stock market crashes to artificial intelligence, risk is a hot topic today. Just as ages preoccupied with psychology produced psychological theories of tragedy, today’s age of risk produces the risk theory of tragedy.

What I learned from this exercise of sending out query letters is that, when you’re talking with the presses, you have to have something to negotiate with. If you’re writing the next blockbuster, you can ask them to take a chance on you. But tragic literary criticism is not likely going to be a blockbuster text. I’d imagine even a blockbuster text from an internationally known author on tragic literary theory (Eagleton, for example), would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies. If you’re writing a scholarly or academic title (which is sort of what Risk Theatre purports to be), the presses expect you to have the right credentials: tenured or tenure track professor at a major university. The university presses are backed by the universities, so money isn’t a problem. Their mandate is to further knowledge. But you need the right credentials to get in. And these are credentials I lack. So, what I learned is that well, I have nothing really to negotiate with. And when you’re negotiating from a position of weakness, chances are you’re not going to be successful.

But I guess, the important thing in adversity is to press on. After all, when Nietzsche got booted out of academia, he started writing books on “culture” and “modernity” that classicists weren’t supposed to write (he started off not as a philosopher, but as a Classicist). No one would publish these strange titles. He was ridiculed by the leading Classicist of the day, Wilamowitz. What did Nietzsche do? He went the self-publishing route and financed his first few books from a meagre university pension. He didn’t end up doing to badly, eh? Who even remembers Wilamops today?

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

149th Annual Meeting Abstracts – Society for Classical Studies

Very exciting, last week the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) posted all the 149th Annual Meeting Abstracts! Here they are. It’s going to be a busy week in Boston in January 2018. There looks like there’s a really interesting panel on ‘Approaching Risk in Antiquity’. Talks of calculating risk at gaming tables, what ‘risk’ meant, and so on. Cool! Your truly will be speaking at the ‘Agency in Drama’ panel. The panel’s presided over by Helene Foley from Columbia University. She gave a talk at the University of Victoria as part of the Lansdowne Lecture series back in 2003. The Greek & Roman Studies Course Union got to take her out to dinner at Romeo’s Restaurant after the lecture. I remember everyone was excited to hear her speak, and it was nice to chat with her in an informal setting after the lecture. The undergraduate years were the good old days for sure. The other speakers at the ‘Agency in Drama’ panel are Mary Dolinar (Wisconsin-Madison) ‘The Agency and Power of the Dying Alcestis’, Jonathan Fenno (University of Mississippi) ‘Electra’s Living Death in Sophocles’ Electra‘, and Caleb Simone (Columbia) ‘Choreographing Frenzy: Auletics, Agency, and the Body in Euripides’ Heracles‘. We’ve been requested to circulate our papers amongst ourselves by mid-December to ensure a lively discussion. Time to start writing! Here’s a link to my SCS abstract, pasted below:

Edwin Wong

Independent Scholar

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

Session/Panel Title:

Agency in Drama

Session/Paper Number

9.4

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work. See you at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting!

Reaching Out to Famous Writers – Taleb

Have you heard of Nassim Nicholas Taleb? He’s the author of Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the MarketsThe Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly ImprobableThe Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Well, he’s a self-described renegade ‘philosopher of uncertainty’ who has set his sights on destroying the bell curve. It turns, out, that the familiar bell curve, which incidentally graced the ten Deutsche Marks bill along with a picture of its originator, Carl Friedrich Gauss, is a deceptive fraud. It focusses our attention on the normal distribution of events, whether the weather, earthquakes, or stock market prices. The ‘hump’ on the bell curve represents the normal distribution of events, the events that are likely. Well, Taleb argues that the unlikely events, represented by the ‘tails’ on the left and right side of the bell curve, is what actually shapes our lives. Who cares if there are no earthquakes for 50 years?–when the earthquake hits, it alters lives. Who cares if the stock market goes up for 10 years?–it’s when it collapses in the 11th year that wrecks folks’ retirement dreams. And so on.

It was in 2007 when I first ran into Taleb’s books. Fooled By Randomness and then The Black Swan. I was living in Providence, RI at the time, and they had a big Borders bookstore in Providence Place Mall (remember those days?). Fooled By Randomness was in the economics section, and, since I was looking for something to read that wasn’t related to my MA thesis, I picked it up. Well, it was a life changing book. After I read it, it occurred to me that you could devise a whole theory of tragedy (that was what I was trying to do) looking at tragedy as a sort of ‘risk theatre’ where the unexpected rules over heroes’ lives. The unexpected outcome, like Euripides likes to mention in the closing riposte of many of his plays, dominates our lives. The heroes make their plans looking at the hump on the bell curve. But they aren’t looking for the tail event to happen. They’re caught off guard and perish. Well, I spent the next ten years connecting this idea to the art form of tragedy. If it’s one lesson I learned, it is that, to come up with something worth pursuing, read outside of your chosen field. If you’re reading what everyone else is reading, you’ll likely start from the same standpoint and end up in the same place. But if you’re reading outside of your field, then, sometimes, you can find something different.

Well, now that the manuscript is completed (I was wondering for a long time whether it could be completed), it’s time to start reaching out to get some reactions. It turns out that Taleb now is quite famous, but not quite famous enough that it’s impossible to find his email address. He has a website, which, to my surprise, includes his email address. I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll try reaching out to him.” You know, the interesting thing is he’s always talking about black swan events, but he’s never talked about the art form of tragedy, which I’m convinced now is a dramatization of black swan events. The black swan problem is a problem of induction. You can see a thousand white swans over the course of a thousand years and safely declare that there are no black swans. But inductive logic is very fragile. You just need to see one black swan (as they did in Australia), and all your thousands of years of thinking you’re right goes into the wastebasket. Another bird, the turkey also has a problem of induction: it thinks the farmer is a friend because every day the farmer brings food. But come Thanksgiving, things change, and it’s this change that has a big effect on the turkey’s life. So, back to the email: I decided I’ll write Taleb, thank him, and ask him what he thinks about my tragedy as ‘risk theatre’. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Mr. Taleb,
I’ve been inspired by your books and wanted to share my story with you. It was in 2007 that I first came across The Black Swan in a Borders Bookstore in Providence, RI where I was finishing a MA at Brown University on ancient Greek tragedy. After reading it, I began to see the tragic theatre as a place which dramatized the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. For example, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane hill is a low-probability event. But when it happens, it has high-consequences. Or take Oedipus from Sophocles’ play. The chances that the oracle is right (he will marry his mother and kill his father) is a low-probability event: he has taken every safeguard to ensure it won’t happen. But when it does happen, it has high-consequences. Have you ever thought of tragic theatre as being a place where heroes take risks, and, as a result, are susceptible to ruin?
I did. I’ve spent the last ten years working on a new theory or tragedy called “risk theatre.” Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. My theory posits that, in the tragic theatre, heroes are gamblers. They have skin in the game and leverage themselves 100:1, thereby exposing themselves to tail risk. So, although heroes are smarter, stronger, and devise the best-laid plans, the unexpected ruins them. I argue that the tragic theatre is a school for risk because it shows how, the more confident we are, the more we’re in danger. In today’s age where we are surrounded by GMOs, artificial intelligence, and mutual assured destruction ideologies, we can learn a thing or two about risk (mis-)management from ancient theatre.
I recently finished my book: Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and now I’m shopping for a publisher. I’m writing first of all, to thank you for your inspiring books, and second of all, to ask for your reaction on the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk.
Sincerely,
Edwin Wong.
Well, Taleb’s website claims that his email backlog is sitting at 10 months. Stay tuned, assiduous readers, it’s just a blink of the eye away!
I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Low Probability High Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes

Going to Boston in January 2018

If at first you don’t succeed, try again! Though my proposal for the Shakespearean Theatre Conference was rejected, my proposal to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Boston went through. Cool. I get to talk about my favourite tragedian, Aeschylus. And I also get to talk about my favourite tragedy, his play Seven Against Thebes. From what I remember, it’s a big conference. Hellenists and Latinists from all over the world converge on a hotel and fill it right up for the better part of a week. At any given time, there’s ten or twenty sessions going on, and they cover everything to do with the Greek and Roman world. There’s a ballroom filled with exhibitors: publishers with their books, travel agents (offering guided tours of Greece and Rome), and salespeople hawking software systems. Circus atmosphere. And lots of professors meeting up with their old buddies. And lots of boozing. One of my friends is a manager at Fairmont Hotels. The hotels circulate amongst themselves a report of how all these different organizations behave when they hold their conferences. The report on the Society for Classical Studies says that we’re a mild-mannered and generally well-behaved bunch that like the sauce. I can’t deny that, last time, to my amusement as I walked past the bar, this one old professor wearing a tweed suit happened to have one too many and fell off his barstool. His colleagues were picking him up, and trying not to laugh as they asked if he was okay. This is going to be fun! I’m looking forward to going.

 Lionel Pearson Fellowship

The last time I was there, the Society for Classical Studies was still known by its original name which was the American Philological Association. Philology is the study of languages and their development. I guess because the term “philology” overlaps with “linguistics” they finally decided to change it. Or perhaps the acronym “APA” created confusion because the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association uses the same abbreviation?Anyway, in 2004, I was one of the four finalists for the Lionel Pearson Fellowship. The winner got to study for a year in England or Scotland. That year they annual meeting was in San Francisco and they flew all the finalists down for the interviews. There were four of us. They sat us down together in a room. There were three judges. And for what seemed like a long time, they would ask us questions about the Greek and Roman world. I thought I was prepared. But, as I listened to the other finalists, it dawned on me that there are some exceptionally bright and well spoken students out there! I remember wondering thinking how they could be so knowledgeable. It was an eye opening experience. After the interviews, they gave us maps and set the finalists through the city to to a team building treasure hunt. And that night we had dinner together with the judges. The winner that year was Lauren Schwartzman, and from her performance during the interview (which I witnessed firsthand), that’s who I would have put my money on! Funny thing, the next year when I started at Brown, one of my colleagues was Robin McGill, who had won the Pearson Fellowship the year before.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

They were looking for a 650 word abstract and here’s my successful proposal:

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven Against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven Against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

I must say it’s an art in itself writing these abstracts and proposals. I’m still learning. What I like about this proposal are the catch terms such as “low-probability, high-consequence” and “we are in the most danger when we are most confident.” Successful proposals are the ones in which the writer can get the reader to remember some catchy phrase (e.g. low-probability, high-consequence). Another technique would be to make a bold statement (e.g. we are in the most danger when we are most confident) that causes the reader to pause. Of course it helps if they pause and decide that they agree with your bold statement!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work by commenting on Aeschylus’ masterpiece, Seven Against Thebes.

Didn’t Go To Waterloo (2017 Shakespearean Theatre Conference)

My proposal “How Much Is the Milk of Human Kindness Worth?”to speak at the Second Shakespearean Theatre Conference at the University of Waterloo got shot down. Too bad, it’s sort of a neat conference that runs alongside the famous Stratford Festival. The reason for the rejection turns out to be the flood of submissions the organizers received: 50% more than in 2015 (it’s a biannual conference). It turns out that a quarter of the submissions were rejected. Doing a quick run on the numbers, there were 85 papers this year. That compares to 60 or so papers delivered at the 2015 conference. A Shakespeare resurgence is on our hands, all aboard!

One of the organizers offered some constructive feedback, which I’m thankful for:

  1. keep trying. A lot of times it’s a hit and miss with how your title fits into the sessions.
  2. sketch a critical context. In other words, tie in what you’ve done with what has been done.

I already have a date marked down in my calendar to submit another proposal at the end of 2018 for the 2019 Shakespearean conference. Time flies, that’s just a year and a couple of months away! The feedback on the critical context is especially helpful. I should read up on modern theories of drama and see how I can tie “risk theatre” with what other folks are doing. Research time! That is actually great, because I’ve been spending so much time going through Carla DeSantis’ (the editor) comments and rewriting sections of Tragedy Is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected that I haven’t had much of a chance to read as much as I’d like to. The rewrite is substantively complete now, so a chunk of time has freed up.

Onwards and upwards!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and, since I didn’t meet my Waterloo, I will continue to do Melpomene’s work.

Conference Proposal

Seven Against Thebes Conference Proposal

Here’s another conference proposal. It’s on Aeschylus little known play Seven Against Thebes. It’d be a good idea to keep a record of the proposals and organizers’ reactions to get an idea of their selection criteria. I’ve been trying to do a couple of things in these proposals. First: tailor the presentation to the theme of the conference. That means custom tailoring each proposal. Second: be realistic how much a 20 minute talk can cover. 20 minutes goes by like nothing. It’s good to narrow down the topic to a laser focus. Third: present the proposal in such a way that I’m offering the audience something useful. I have to make it so that it’s worth their time to come see the presentation.

A word to other conferencers out there: if you can’t expense travel to your university, consider applying for a credit card with travel perks. I applied for a TD Bank Aeroplan Visa Infinite card. By the time you read this, there may be other deals out there. The Aeroplan Visa Infinite came with a one year fee waiver and a free short haul flight in North America. Amenities include trip cancellation and medical insurance. Not a bad deal!

Here is the proposal for your review, assiduous readers:

To the Organizers of the 2017 xxx:

My name is Edwin Wong and I’d like to present about tragedy in an age of risk. I approach tragedy from a Classics background in ancient theatre (MA, Brown University). The idea of risk theatre is an exciting new conceptual framework of tragedy. Here is my proposal for your consideration.

Risk Theatre: Tragedy in Today’s Age of Risk

Like Metatheatre and Epic Theatre, Risk Theatre is a theory of drama. It is a new theory of tragedy for today’s age, an age filled with extraordinary and calculated risks, an age of Fukushima, bioengineering, and leveraged assets. It is an age of both super drugs and superbugs. Risk is ubiquitous and risk theatre presents theatregoers with a new critical tool.

Risk theatre posits that each dramatic act in tragedy is also a gambling act. In each tragedy, the protagonist makes a wager. In Seven against Thebes, Eteocles wagers that, by interpreting the scout’s report, he can save the city and avoid the worst case scenario: encountering his brother and shedding kindred blood. With seven besiegers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the odds are with him.

But Eteocles ends up, against all odds, confronting his brother. Seven, in this way, is a lesson in risk management. The play speaks out to the dangers of calculated risks and is a reminder to today’s masters of the universe who, in the name of progress, gamble with the fate of the world. Just as in theatre, in life more things can happen than what we expect will happen. By looking at tragedy as a gambling act, risk theatre offers a new theoretical framework to approach tragedy.

Thank you for considering my proposal. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

Edwin Wong.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and now I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by going on the road.

Conferencing Time! Hear All About Risk Theatre!

Well, the manuscript is finished and awaiting the editor’s big red pen. That means it’s time to change gears. It’s conference time. Time to get out there and spread the word around: risk theatre is the new game in town!

Anyone who knows a good site/database with a calendar of upcoming academic conferences please forward a link. After searching around (mainly by Google search), I found a promising looking conference to submit a paper proposal. They’ll send out acceptance letters in late February, fingers crossed! Here’s how the proposal letter looks:

408-1602 Quadra Street

Victoria, BC V8W 2L4

 

January 16, 2017

To The Organizers:

My name is Edwin Wong and I would like to propose a 20-minute paper to talk about how Macbeth speaks to contemporary audiences. I approach Shakespeare from a Classics background in ancient theatre (MA, Brown University). Here is my proposal for your consideration:

How Much is the Milk of Human Kindness Worth?

Two changes in the Shakespeare quatercentenary offer new creative options in the staging of Macbeth. One: life has become more monetized. Today actuaries set a price on mortality and measure an individual’s place in the Chain of Being by net worth. Two: the downside impact of man-made risks has gone up. They feared the plague, the storm at sea, and other natural risks. We fear Fukushima, bioengineering, leveraged assets, and other calculated risks. Macbeth addresses both these changes.

Each dramatic act in Macbeth is an act of gambling. In the play, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness for the crown. By staking milk for the crown, he demonstrates how some things are to be bought by human assets, not cash. Life has value and buys things cash cannot. The play demonstrates how life is not to be valued by an actuarial table, but by the limits of its desires. The play speaks out against life’s monetization.

Macbeth is also a lesson in risk management. Macbeth’s plan is good. But instead of becoming a king, he dies a tyrant. The play speaks out to the dangers of calculated risks. The play is a reminder to the modern masters of the universe, who, in the name of progress, gamble with the fate of the world: more things can happen than what they expect will happen. Birnam Wood is always coming to high Dunsinane Hill. My paper considers how performances of Macbeth, by concentrating on gambling acts and risk, can speak to the preoccupations of contemporary audiences.

Thank you for considering my proposal. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

Edwin Wong.

Did my best to write an attention grabbing title and fit as much as I could (but not too much) into the 200-300 word proposal. How does it sound?

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