A big thank you to reviewer Ho Lin and the team at Foreword Clarion for a happy four-star review of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. While many reviews have written about my book’s focus on gambling acts and risk, this is the first review to mention that tragedy is–in the risk theatre interpretation–a thermodynamic process that plays out the Second Law of thermodynamics on the stage. The stage of tragedy starts off in a state of high potential and ends up (as the heroes perish) in a state of lower potential. Fuel is converted into heat. After the death of a Faustus, Macbeth, or Oedipus, the world seems an emptier place, a place with less potential. In addition, I like how Lin touches on the book’s many detours into topics such as the Maginot Line, the heliocentric theory of the cosmos, and so on. If I may be allowed to ‘review the reviewer’, I find this an extremely well-rounded review. If I didn’t know the book, this is the review I’d like to have read to help make up my mind whether this was the right book for me.
Here’s a link to the Foreword Clarion review, which is also reprinted below. The Foreword Clarion review is almost good enough to make me forget about the much more lukewarm review from Blue Ink which found that my scholarly analysis is “sometimes wildly off the mark.” But hey, you can’t win them all. The best you can do is to go all-in and hope for the best. Like Faust, we strive, we err, and we continue.
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected
Friesen Press (Feb 4, 2019) (332pp)
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a piquant, far-reaching study of tragedy as an art form.
Defining the nature of theatrical tragedy is a formidable task; everyone from Aristotle to Nietzsche has taken a crack at it. In his stimulating The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, Edwin Wong posits a fresh approach based upon the modern ups and downs of the stock market.
Tragedy, the book argues, can be seen as the ultimate in risk theory. Overconfident or desperate heroes make calculated gambles, resulting in unexpected, high-consequence results. In this wide-ranging treatise, Wong analyzes dozens of examples, from Oedipus Rex to Death of a Salesman, to find compelling evidence that explains why certain tragedies have more lasting power than others.
The study focuses on the structure, philosophy, and poetics of tragedy. This risk theory is at its most convincing when it comes to structure, noting that the genre is characterized by three movements: the protagonist encountering temptation; a wager on a favorable outcome (most often involving life and limb); and a metaphorical cast of the dice, in which the protagonist makes his gamble and endures the subsequent results. In modeling this, supporting references and plot points are pinpointed from classic tragedies. The book further delineates different approaches, from “frontloaded” variants (which begin with a bang and end with introspection) to “backloaded” versions (in which cataclysmic outcomes are saved for the climax).
Tragedies are further segmented by their scope (involving a single hero and “risk event,” or a series of unfortunate events ensnaring numerous characters). Fascinating side topics, including the invention of the concept of money and how it led to tragedies being boiled down to the price of life itself, are covered, and the book invites consideration of the commonplaces of tragedy, from the supporting characters who influence protagonists’ decisions to the influence of the supernatural. This work moves toward a final comparison of tragedy with other major genres and disciplines that demonstrates how they also reflect the human condition.
Such analyses run the risk of being dry, but this is engaging work. It pulls passages from classic plays in a generous way and serves as a fun primer on tragedies in general, as well as a bracing presentation of its theories. Ranging musings tap into heliocentric theories of the universe, historic disasters such as the French Maginot Line in World War II, and how the action in a tragedy mirrors the second law of thermodynamics. These heady detours don’t always cohere with the book’s grand theories, but their multidimensional approaches are lively and thought-provoking.
Making the case for risk theory as a new definition for tragic theater, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a piquant, far-reaching study of tragedy as an art form.
HO LIN (May 28, 2019)
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’ve been doing Melpomene’s work.