How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

How to Perform Risk by Saying Words

The Dramatic Fulcrum of the Action

Risk is inherently dramatic. This can be demonstrated through a familiar example. If you drive through town at thirty miles an hour, following the rules of the road, little drama results. If, however, you drive through town at a hundred miles an hour, drama lies in wait around every corner. You will, with Shakespeare’s Brutus, say: “Fates, we will know your pleasures” (Julius Caesar 3.1.98). The reason is that, by weaving through traffic at inordinate speeds, you are taking maximum risk. Around every hairpin turn, you dance on the edge. An unexpected pothole or a blowout at thirty miles an hour is manageable. At a hundred miles an hour, a deer leaping out of the woods is less manageable. Risk is inherently dramatic because it exposes you to unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events. The more risk you take, the more you expose yourself to loose gravel, fresh tarmac, drivers around you deviating from the line. At high enough speeds, the hand of God could strike from any direction.

Because risk is inherently dramatic, playwrights have made, in many tragedies, risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is going too fast trying to solve the riddle of the regicide. By taking on inordinate risk, Oedipus triggers the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event: he finds out that he himself is the regicide he seeks. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet are going one hundred miles an hour too fast. As a result, they die when the post is delayed: when risk is elevated, one letter can make the difference between life and death. In Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains, husband and wife Jim and Della Young find out that the more risk they take to become parents, the more reality twists and forks in unexpected paths.

Action is what triggers the risk events that audiences look forward to with anticipation and apprehension. Drama, from the Greek drān is “to do” or “to act” (LSJ s.v. dráō). By killing Duncan, for example, Macbeth triggers unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. In other words, it is by the act of casting the die that the die is cast. In this essay, however, I want to look at the verbal components of risk. The first verbal component of risk is the use of words and speech to highlight, accentuate, and draw attention to impending risk events. The second verbal component of risk involves using dialogue to draw taut the string of suspense. Finally, the third verbal component is where words themselves perform actions. Let us explore the ways of performing risk by saying words.

The Very Firstlings of My Heart

One way to signal to the audience that events of great daring are forthcoming is to tell them. Macbeth, for example, announces his intentions before storming Macduff’s castle:

MACBETH. Time, thou anticipat’st my dread exploits.
The flighty purpose never is o’ertook
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done. (4.1.143–48)

Antonio in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi also tells the audience to watch out for dramatic fireworks. Before risking all on a doubtful reconciliation with the Cardinal, who has murdered his wife and children, he announces the enormity of his task:

DELIO. What course do you mean to take, Antonio?
ANTONIO. This night I mean to venture all my fortune—
Which is no more than a poor, ling’ring life—
To the cardinal’s worst of malice. (5.1.60–63)
In the event that the audience missed Antonio’s first declaration, Webster has Antonio repeat himself a few moments later. He is definitely throwing caution to the winds:
ANTONIO. Come, I’ll out of the ague;
For to live thus is not indeed to live.
It is a mockery, and abuse of life.
I will not henceforth save myself by halves;
Lose all, or nothing. (5.4.45–49)

By daring to “venture all my fortune” and wagering to “lose all, or nothing,” Antonio signals that he is on the verge. Because he has taken on inordinate risks, he can no longer cover his position, leaving himself exposed. The scene, therefore, is set for the low-probability, high-consequence event to surprise the audience. The audience will not be disappointed: as Antonio sneaks into the Cardinal’s chamber, he will be struck down by the very friend who has come to save him.

Because audiences are unaware when the risk event takes place, playwrights give audiences a heads up that the dramatic fulcrum approaches: anticipated moments are memorable moments. In the past, the cue took the form of highly artificial forms of speech. Though Macbeth is ostensibly talking to Lennox when he says: “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand,” his words really are thoughts spoken out loud for the benefit of the audience. The same is true when Antonio tells Delio “This night I mean to venture all my fortune.” It is spoken as a sort of soliloquy. Certainly, when Hamlet says to himself: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” it is part of a soliloquy proper (4.4.64–65). In an age, however, where more naturalistic patterns of speech are preferred, the playwright can embed the announcement in dialogue. McClain adopts this technique in Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Della, rejected at the adoption agency, lights the dramatic wick when her nurse, Esther, tells her of a promising but unlicensed fertility clinic:

ESTHER. I can give you his contact information. But you have to promise me that you won’t mention my name or how you found out about him to anyone. Not your husband, not anyone! I could lose my nursing license!
DELLA. Esther, of course not. I won’t say anything. I just—I’m ready to try something different. My current treatment isn’t working and I—I can’t look back on this as another opportunity I screwed up by being overly cautious. (155)

Ostensibly, Esther shares with Della her contact at the unlicensed fertility clinic. The audience, however, hears a dramatic subtext in their conversation, hears Della throwing caution to the winds. When the audience hears her go risk on, they sit on the edge of their seats, expecting the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event to happen at any moment.
Because risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, playwrights have at their disposal various ways of drawing attention to the impending risk event. A direct method involves having characters say that they are going all-in by speaking their thoughts out loud in a soliloquy or an aside. Alternatively, the declaration of risk could take place indirectly in the dialogue between characters. Either way, through speech and voice, the audience is primed for what is to come.

The Dialogue of Rising Risk: Stichomythia

Not only can words signal risk, words can also themselves set off risk. A common example of how speech elevates risk is stichomythia, from the Greek stíchos “line of verse” (LSJ s.v. stíchos) and mūthos “speech” or “talk” (LSJ s.v. mūthos). In stichomythic speech, two characters exchange rapidly alternating lines while voicing antithetical positions. In Sophocles’ play Antigone, after Creon sentences Antigone to death, Haemon (Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé) attempts to persuade Creon to change his mind. Stichomythia begins as Haemon’s attempt breaks down:

CREON. Why, you degenerate—bandying accusations,
threatening me with justice, your own father!
HAEMON. I see my father offending justice—wrong.
CREON. Wrong?
To protect my royal rights?
HAEMON. Protect your rights?
When you trample down the honors of the gods?
CREON. You, you soul of corruption, rotten through—
woman’s accomplice!
HAEMON. That may be,
but you will never find me accomplice to a criminal.
CREON. That’s what she is,
and every word you say is a blatant appeal for her—
HAEMON. And you, and me, and the gods beneath the earth.
CREON. You will never marry her, not while she’s alive.
HAEMON. Then she will die…but her death will kill another. (831–43)

In alternating lines, the characters lay down antithetical standpoints. While Creon emphasizes his position of authority as king and father (“your own father,” “my royal rights,” “You will never…”), Haemon points out that Creon, by sentencing Antigone to death for burying her brother, is going against what the gods want, which is for the dead to be buried. By rapidly alternating the dialogue between antithetical positions, stichomythia raises, through words and speech, tension to the point of breaking.

Though an artificial device to raise the tension, stichomythia, by closely approximating patterns of speech in everyday life, is a versatile device. Consider, for example, how easily it makes the transition from ancient to modern drama. Here is an example from Gabriel Jason Dean’s play In Bloom. Dean’s play examines power, imperialism, and privilege. In this scene, British-Indian professor Kashi Jones awards American writer Aaron Freeman the prestigious Sommerville Prize, but not before asking the hard questions before a packed Cambridge auditorium. As she presses and Aaron resists, the dialogue goes stichomythic:

AARON. Doctor Jones, I gotta be honest, I’m feeling a bit sabotaged up here.
KASHI. I’m sorry, but I hope you’ll understand. I can’t let your achievements or your confessional book get in the way of asking important questions.
AARON. Are you Hindi?
KASHI. I suppose you mean Hindu.
AARON. OK. Yes, I beg your pardon. Hindu. Are you?
KASHI. I don’t see how this is relevant.
AARON. Come on. You read my book. You know everything about me. Are you Hindu?
KASHI. Culturally yes. Spiritually no.
AARON. Are you Muslim?
KASHI. No.
AARON. You’re an Indian woman, living and working in Britain, judging by your last name, Doctor Jones, you’re probably married to a Brit, which I think means you know a thing or two about imperialism—
KASHI. Mr. Freeman!
AARON. And your work is about women in Afghanistan. What qualifies you to tell their stories? You’re not Afghan.
KASHI. I’m not a storyteller. I’m a scholar.
AARON. So academics get a pass?
KASHI. No, that’s not what I’m saying—
AARON. Is my perspective on this irrelevant becasue I’m not brown…enough? (48)

As Kashi and Aaron spar over right, privilege, social justice, identity politics, and cultural appropriation, the risk of their debate exploding increases. Stichomythia, by allowing two antagonists to concentrate their positions in the alternating lines, takes them towards a point of no return. With each line, they dig in, raising the stakes. The rising pitch is unsustainable: something will give, and, when it does, the repercussions will be consequential.

How to Make Risk with Words

Risk is associated with physical actions. In Pierre Corneille’s The Cid, for example, the Count makes risk by performing the physical act of a slap. Don Diego, who has received a promotion, meets the Count, who feels the promotion was his. They argue:

THE COUNT. The honour then was due to me alone.
DON DIEGO. Who was not given it deserves it not.
THE COUNT. Deserves it not! I?
DON DIEGO. You.
THE COUNT. Your impudence,
Reckless old man, will have its due reward.
[He gives him a slap.]
DON DIEGO [drawing his sword]. Go on and take my life after this slight—
The first at which my line has bowed in shame.
THE COUNT. And what, old weakling, could you hope to do?
DON DIEGO. O God! my failing strength abandons me! (222–30)

The physical act of the slap marks the moment the die is cast. A chain reaction of events ensues: Don Diego’s son, bound to defend his father’s honour, will to duel the Count to the death. Unfortunately, Don Diego’s son is also betrothed to the Count’s daughter. The physical act of the slap is the trigger of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.
Although risk is associated with action—a slap, casting the die, crossing the Rubicon, dropping the gloves—in his 1962 book How to Do Things with Words, philosopher J. L. Austin defined and explored a class of words which are performative in nature. Utterances such as “I do” (during a marriage ceremony), “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth” (while dedicating a vessel), “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother,” (in a will), or “I bet you sixpence,” argued Austin (1968, 5), are activities that are done with words. Because these utterances constitute actions, he called them “speech acts” (Austin 168, 40). As risk is associated with action, speech acts make it possible to make risk with words.
Nicholas Dunn, in his play The Value, makes risk with words. Nickel-and-dime criminals Ian and Zoey discover that the painting they stole is a modern masterpiece worth much more than tens of thousands they were hoping for. They have a buyer that can give them, right here and right now, tens of thousands. Zoey wants to take the buyer’s certain offer. Ian wants to hold out for more, but could wind up with nothing. Zoey, preferring the bird in hand and tired of Ian’s “woulda,” “coulda,” and “shouldas,” issue him an ultimatum:

ZOEY. No! Ian, no one understands when you talk like that! If you’re after more money just fucking say it!
IAN. I’m not talking about money! You guys think money is the end of all this, but it’s not. It never is! I been hustlin’ my whole life and it just bets me to the next one and the next one. This is about means. This is about access. About power. About the ability to go up. Beat. ZOEY looks at VICTOR, who remains shrunken against the wall.
ZOEY. Did that make any sense to you?
VICTOR doesn’t reply. She turns back to IAN.
ZOEY. My turn. And listen how easy this is, to communicate, when the concept is plain and simple. This is about need. The three of us need money. And the three of us need each other. Those are the things we need to survive. You know that, don’t you? That we need each other? I thought you did know that—finally—but maybe you forgot again when McEvoy told you what we had. But the painting is nothing. It’s fucking splotches of color on cloth. Soon, one way or another, it’ll be gone. And when it disappears it makes no difference. But I’m here. You’re here. And that does make a difference. It doesn’t have to disappear. It can stay. This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it. I came here for you. I did this for you. I risked everything for you. Because we are kin. Now we can sell this useless thing to McEvoy, make his fucking life complete, and walk away with enough money to go somewhere, somewhere different, and start over. I need that. You need that. [Pause]
IAN. Zoey…
ZOEY. You need me. The question is, do you know it. Do you finally know it? If you do, you’ll sell the painting and we’ll be unstuck. If you don’t this is it. This is the last time we see each other. This isn’t a hustle, it’s the goddamn truth. So make this right. There. See how straightforward that is?
There’s a soft know on the door. Beat.
ZOEY. Well? What will you do?
Pause. Another knock.
ZOEY. Ian? [Beat]
IAN. I. Can’t. Settle. (128–29)

Ian’s “I. Can’t. Settle” is a performative utterance. It commits him to a course of action. It is the exact opposite of saying “I do” in a marriage ceremony. By saying it, he irrevocably rejects Zoey. By a toss of words, the die is cast; there is no return. It is like a slap. By performing risk with words, Ian triggers unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events: Zoey, speechless, exits and goes deep into the underworld to find another buyer for the painting, one who will leave Ian with nothing. In the speech act, the word is equivalent to the physical act. With speech acts, one makes risk by saying words.

Why Risk?

In drama, the relationship between words and risk is threefold. First, words may be used to announce that the risk event is imminent. When Hamlet says: “O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth,” he is telling the audience that he is ready to take on danger, and the unexpected events that come with danger. Second, words may be used to set off the risk event. Stichomythia, by rapidly alternating between antithetical positions, is a verbal device that quickly escalates tension. Third, words may be used in lieu of actions to perform risk. A class of performative utterances—“I dismiss,” “I convict,” or “I bet” (Austin 1968, 152–57)—are able to engender risk the same way as physical acts. Speech acts are spoken with power.

Today is a fascinating time to explore risk because risk is the basis of my new theory of tragedy. I introduced my theory in a 2019 book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In this book, I likened the thrill and rising action of theatre to the delirious wagers gamblers place at the no-limit tables. The book then became the centrepiece of an international playwriting competition inviting playwrights to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action (risktheatre.com). The response was overwhelming: playwrights from seventeen countries have participated. Then, in early 2022, the second risk theatre book came out: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. The second book is an anthology. It brings together a sampling of plays from the competition: Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, and Emily McClain’s Children of Combs and Watch Chains. Along with the plays are six new essays on the intersection between theatre, probability theory, chance, and risk. These essays respond to the criticisms of the first book—that it had too little engaged with existing theories of drama—and lay out a new path forwards for writers, students, and teachers to engage with risk. By bringing together risk theatre plays and risk theatre essays, the goal of the book is to bring together the practice and theory of drama in a new unity.

The first four years of the competition have brought about two milestones: playwrights discovered they love working with risk and audiences discovered interpretations based on risk unlock drama. These are still the early days of exploring how risk functions as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Much of the grunt work is still to follow. This essay on how voice and speech on stage anticipates and triggers risk events represents a start, the next leg of the journey into researching risk on stage. Many pathways, and unexpected, are opening up. Let us see where they lead.

References

Austin, J. L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford.

Corneille, Pierre. 1975. The Cid. In The Cid, Cinna, The Theatrical Illusion, translated by John Cairncross, 23–109. London: Penguin.

Dean, Gabriel Jason. 2022. In Bloom. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 5–80. Victoria: Friesen.

Dunn, Nicholas. 2022. The Value. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 77–146. Victoria: Friesen.

McClain, Emily. 2022. Children of Combs and Watch Chains. In When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, edited by Edwin Wong, 143–97. Victoria: Friesen.

Shakespeare, William. 1984. Julius Caesar. Edited by Arthur Humphreys. Oxford: Oxford.

– – -. 2016. Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Arden Shakespeare.

– – -. 2015. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Sophocles. 1984. Antigone. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 33–128. New York: Penguin.

– – -. 1984. Oedipus the King. In The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles, 129–251. New York: Penguin.

Webster, John. 1997. The Duchess of Malfi. In Six Renaissance Tragedies, edited by Colin Gibson, 243–347. Houndmills: Palgrave.

Wong, Edwin. 2019. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Victoria: Friesen.

Wong, Edwin, Gabriel Jason Dean, Nicholas Dunn, and Emily McClain. 2022. When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theater: Three Tragedies and Six Essays. Victoria: Friesen.

Edwin Wong is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. In 2019, he launched the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). The competition invites playwrights around the world to explore risk. He is also the author and coauthor of two books examining the intersection between theatre, chance, and probability theory: The Risk Theory Model of Tragedy (2019) and When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre (2022). He was educated at Brown University and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

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

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