Clearihue Building A206
February 3, 2020
University of Victoria
When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus rex
A Presentation to Laurel Bowman’s GRS 320 Greek Tragedy Class
Most tragedies are one and done. Have you heard of Antiphon’s Andromache? I didn’t think so. Some plays, such as Norton and Sackville’s Gorboduc from 1561, have been produced many times. But they don’t enter the canon. Other plays enter the canon, but languish on the fringes as historical curiosities. Friedrich Schiller’s 1782 play, The Robbers, is remembered today as an example of the “Storm and Stress” art movement. Then there’re the colossuses: Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Miller’s Death of a Salesman. They draw evergreen audiences. Court Theatre in Chicago just staged Oedipus to rave reviews. It featured a powerhouse translation by classicist Nicholas Rudall, a dazzling, all-white scenic design, and a chorus that walked amongst the audience. Of the colossuses, the oldest is Oedipus, and being oldest, the most robust. It will outlast Salesman and perhaps Macbeth. Here’s the question: how did Sophocles create a play to remember?
Has anyone been to a magic show, seen Criss Angel or David Copperfield perform? At these shows, there’re those who come for the entertainment and those who come to see how the magic works, seeking the soul of magic. If you’ve ever wanted to grasp soul of drama, listen carefully. We’re going to reveal the secrets of Sophocles’ magic. We start by exploring how he’s unified the action into a whole.
If we look at the play from the characters’ perspective, we would have to conclude there’s no rhyme or reason behind the action. The chorus doesn’t get what’s going on. At one point, they ask: “Why should I dance? (984)” Since the play is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour god, if they ask why they’re dancing, they’re really saying: “This is so confusing, I don’t get it.” Characters don’t do any better. Jocasta, watching the events unfold, concludes that the action proceeds at random. “It’s all chance,” she says, “chance rules our lives.” She’s wrong and pays the price.
We don’t want to be like Jocasta, so we look for telltale signs of Sophocles’ dramatic technique. In the Odyssey, Homer records an older variant of the Oedipus myth. When Odysseus recounts his visions of the underworld, he says:
I saw the beautiful Epikaste [Jocasta], Oidipodes’ [Oedipus’] mother
who in the ignorance of her mind had done a monstrous
thing when she married her own son. He killed his father
and married her, but the gods soon made it all known to mortals. (11.721-274)
Compare this to Sullivan’s recent review of Court Theatre’s Oedipus in the Chicago Sun-Times. She says:
Even after he’d murdered his father and slept with his mother, King Oedipus still could have changed his missile-like trajectory toward damnation. All he needed to do was stop asking questions. End his relentless pursuit of self-knowledge. (November 18, 2019)
This is different than Homer’s account where the gods tell all. Perhaps Sophocles’ magic is that he dramatizes Oedipus sinking the ship by asking too many questions?
Let’s see if the text bears this out. The play’s action progresses interview by interview. Oedipus is a detective, interviewing witnesses to break through in the cold case of the forgotten regicide. One of the interviewees is the prophet Tiresias. Since he’s a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to rain on Oedipus’ parade. He says:
Just send me home. You bear your burdens,
I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way,
please believe me. (364-366)
Oedipus would do well to heed his warning. But he presses on. Then he interviews Jocasta, who’s figured it out. She doesn’t have the heart to tell him. She implores him to stand down, saying:
Stop—in the name of god,
if you love your own life, call off this search!
My suffering is enough. (1162-1164)
Oedipus would do well to heed her warning. But he presses on, saying, “Listen to you? No more. I must know it all (1169).” In the final interview, the shepherd implores him to stop, saying: “No—god’s sake, master, no more questions! (1280)” Oedipus would do well to heed his warning. But he presses on. All is lost as the truth comes out.
The text confirms Sullivan’s observation that Oedipus asks too many questions. But it’s hard to say: “Sophocles has created an immortal masterpiece by using the device of interrogation.” Is the interrogation part of a larger, overarching dramatic technique?
Let’s compare this sequence with one from another play. Long ago, in all the schools, they taught this play. Maybe they still do today. The play is Julius Caesar. In this play, everyone warns Caesar to stay at home. Take a sick day. The soothsayer says: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has nightmares of Caesar’s statue bleeding. Spirits walk the streets. The sky rains blood. Graves yield their dead. But Caesar really wants to go to the Capitol. The first time he’s told to stay at home he says:
I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
The second time they say, “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:
Caesar shall forth, the things that
Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanished.
The third time they say, “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:
Cowards die many times before
The valiant never taste of death but once.
The final time they say “Caesar, stay at home!” he says:
I am as constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
Do you see a similarity between Oedipus and Caesar? They both raise the stakes by ignoring the warnings. As the warnings pile up, Sophocles and Shakespeare telegraph to the audience: “Stay tuned, something explosive’s about to happen!” The dramatic technique of both masters is to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. By risk they blow up their heroes.
Tragedians make risk the dramatic pivot of the action because risk entertains. Consider games of chance: in casinos, why do spectators crowd around the no-limit tables? They do so because such games elicit two powerful emotions: anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation for what the gambler will wager and apprehension for how the gambler will blow up. Spectators of tragedy are the same. They feel anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension for how the hero will blow up.
Think of tragic heroes as gamblers who wager something other than money. In tragedy, cash isn’t legal tender. Human values are legal tender. Loman, in Death of a Salesman wagers his dignity for the American Dream. Faust, in Doctor Faustus, wagers his soul for world domination. Macbeth wagers compassion, or the milk of human kindness, for the crown. What human asset does Oedipus lay down? When he struts onto the stage and his opening line is: “You all know me, the world knows my fame: I am Oedipus (8-9),” you know he values his reputation more than all the money in the world. Accordingly, he stakes his reputation, betting all-in that he can solve the riddle of the regicide. Each time Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd tell him to fold, he doubles down: his reputation is at stake. And so, as he drives up the stakes, the audience feels apprehension that he’s going to blow.
How does he blow up? Let’s look at his background. Before he was born, the oracle tells Laius, the king of Thebes, not to have children: his son will be a patricide. Laius, however, having had a child, binds the baby’s feet together and orders the shepherd to expose it. The shepherd, however, relents and hands it over to a herdsman. The herdsman brings it from Thebes to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopt it. When Oedipus comes of age, he hears rumours he’s adopted. He asks the oracle, but the oracle, instead of answering, tells him he’ll kill his father and marry his mother. Fearing the oracle, he departs Corinth still believing he’s from Corinth. On his travels, he gets into a road rage incident and kills Laius, his real father. Then he dispatches the sphinx and receives in reward the hand of Jocasta, the dowager queen. Oedipus has two identities. He’s at the same time a son of Corinth where Polybus and Merope are his parents and a son of Thebes where Laius and Jocasta are his parents. He blows up when he reconnects with his Theban identity, learning that fate walks faster than a man can run.
Sophocles has a problem: if Oedipus is so clever, why hasn’t he figured it out? He knows the oracle. He knows he’s killed a man his father’s age and married a woman his mother’s age. Sophocles moves to insulate Oedipus from his Theban heritage. He misinforms Oedipus: a false report goes out that many brigands murdered Laius. Oedipus was travelling alone. So it couldn’t have been him. Not only that, to confirm his identity with moral certainty, Sophocles arranges it so that Oedipus has to meet two people he hasn’t seen in years and at the same time. The first of the two is the Corinthian messenger. The messenger is the only one who can confirm Oedipus is adopted because he’s also the herdsman who brought Oedipus to Corinth. But he lives far away and, because the king and queen of Corinth treat Oedipus as their own, has no reason to tell Oedipus. The second of the two is the shepherd. The shepherd is the only one who can confirm Oedipus killed Laius because he’s the sole surviving eyewitness of the murder. He’s in no rush to tell because he values his life. The shepherd is also the only one who can confirm the child of Laius and Jocasta survived because he was also the servant charged with exposing the babe. His memory’s going though, and he needs the messenger to jog his recollection. By solving one problem, Sophocles introduces another: how does he reconnect these three figures—Oedipus, the messenger, and the shepherd—separated by time and distance?
He reconnects them through the magic of risk. Risk connects because it supersizes you. Risk makes you bigger, larger than life. You touch more things, and more things touch you. Here’s an example from the world of finance. Let’s say you have a basket of diverse investments. You have stocks in Thailand where a young demographic powers the economy. You have Russian bonds. This is like money in the bank, as sovereign states have this thing called the printing press, so they never default. You have acres of undeveloped beachfront in Mexico. It’s going to jump in value when the rezoning permit comes through. Your investments are nominally unconnected in type and geography.
Then the unexpected happens. Out of nowhere the Thai government floats the baht, taking it off the US dollar peg. The baht falls 50% and Thai stocks 75% for a combined loss of nearly 90%. Then, the rezoning permit on your Mexican acreage doesn’t come through. You were waiting on an environmental assessment and the only person who could sign got eaten by a lion while on safari. If that wasn’t enough, Russia suddenly defaults on its debt. Despite the adversity, you hang on. After five years, Russia starts paying back its debt, Thai stocks bounce back, and the rezoning permit comes in. You’re golden.
Let’s replay this simulation and add risk. You leverage your 1 million dollars of assets to borrow 28 million. You reinvest the borrowed money. Now, with 1 million of your own money, you control 29 million dollars’ worth of Thai stocks, Mexican land, and Russian bonds. You’re leveraged up 28:1. You’re supersized. Now, when the Thai government floats the baht and your Thai stocks get hammered, your lenders come knocking. They want their money back ASAP. You sell your stocks at a 90% loss. But that’s not enough. There’s the Mexican land holdings. But remember, the rezoning permit hasn’t come through. As it is, you only get 50 cents on the dollar. You need to sell your bonds, another nominally unconnected asset. But Russia has just defaulted. Good luck finding a buyer. Now you’re selling your personal assets: your principal residence and your kids’ college fund. But word’s gotten out you’re having a fire sale. Congratulations, superstar, you’ve just blown up. Risk has connected many nominally unconnected events.
What do events in Thailand, Mexico, Russia, and a lion eating a permit officer have in common? They have as much in common as the murder of a king, the plague, an unexpected visitor from Corinth, and a man running away from home. Things happen, as Jocasta says, by chance. They’re unrelated. But when you take on risk, you connect them. From the junk mail filter blocking a critical message to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, when you wager all-in, everything’s significant because you’re larger than life. Consider this: if you take no risk, you become small fries, lose touch, become disconnected from the world. But if you take on infinite risk, you will have become the world, you will have become connected to it all, because now everything matters. Risk makes you a clay god, omnipresent, but not omnipotent.
Apart from some details, the story of how risk connected unconnected events actually happened. In 1994 two economics Nobel Prize winners founded a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management or LTCM. Since they were so smart, they leveraged up 28:1. How could genius fail? With 5 billion of real assets, they controlled 140 billion in borrowed assets. Though their trading strategy consisted of buying and selling mispriced assets where the profit was perhaps 1% of the trade, when you’re leveraged up 28:1, that’s still a lot of money. 1% profit on 140 billion dollars is 1.4 billion. A 1.4 billion return on your original principle of 5 billion is almost 30%. Where can you make 30% year after year?
Warnings came in that they were taking too much risk. They were called out for “picking up nickels in front of a bulldozer.” But, like Caesar and Oedipus, they ignored the warnings. Did their detractors have Nobel Prizes? As cracks appeared in Thailand and Russia, their lenders started calling their loans. But they couldn’t pay. The fire sale had started. Then it cascaded: their lenders couldn’t pay their depositors. It was financial Armageddon. The global economic system was going down. Market participants prayed for divine intervention. Then, just like in the play, the deus ex machina appeared, played by Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal Reserve. Out of the heavens, he showered money. Everyone was saved, only to be taken down in the Great Recession ten years later, when leverage blew up the housing market. If you’re looking for a riveting book on how black hole risk is the great connector, read journalist Lowenstein’s classic: When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.
How does Sophocles get Oedipus to risk all? It’s not natural. We’re normally risk averse. Why go for a home run when you can get by with a hit? In the game of football, why throw a Hail Mary when you can get a first down? But when you’re down and the clock winds down, it’s safer to throw the interception-prone Hail Mary because if you don’t you’ll definitely lose. How does Sophocles wind down the clock? Notice anything else different between Homer and Sophocles’ take on the Oedipus myth?—no plague in Homer. Sophocles puts in a plague to get Oedipus to throw risk to the wind. They’re all dying. Now Oedipus has no choice but to throw a Hail Mary. It’s no coincidence that tragedians set their plays during insurrection, civil war, collapsing dynasties, and heaven raining fire. Outlier events encourage risk taking. When the world burns, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.
Let’s go back to Oedipus. Oedipus raises the stakes not by leveraging greenback dollars, but, as we’ve discussed, by asking questions. Like the founders of LTCM, he can up the ante because he’s the smartest person in the room: he has a Nobel prize in defeating sphinxes. When Oedipus questions Tiresias, Tiresias tells him to stand down. But he refuses to stand down and dares to question Tiresias’ prophetic authority. By raising the stakes, he gets Tiresias to reveal how two unrelated events—the riddle of the plague and the riddle of Oedipus’ identity—share a common denominator. Risk connects.
Next, Oedipus raises the stakes by questioning Jocasta. Jocasta reveals that she knew the oracle that their son would be a patricide. Oedipus reveals that he knew the oracle that he would be a patricide. Oedipus also reveals he killed a man who would have been his father’s age the same time Laius was slain. Because he’s raising the risk, he connects himself with seemingly unrelated events: the riddle of the plague and the murder of Laius. Risk connects.
Then, despite plaintive, sorrow-bearing objections from Jocasta, when the Corinthian messenger comes, he continues the torrent of questions. Most of the time, the arrival of a random messenger would have no bearing on the ruler’s identity. The messenger would have come, told Oedipus he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and left. But, by raising the stakes, he connects the messenger with his destiny. When questioned, the messenger reveals that many years ago, he had saved Oedipus, bringing him from Thebes to Corinth. Risk connects.
Finally the shepherd comes. They clamour for Oedipus to stop. The fate of Laius and Jocasta’s babe should have nothing to do with Oedipus, but, by raising the stakes, he connects his fate with the shepherd. If Oedipus hadn’t of raised the stakes, the shepherd wouldn’t have said: “Would that on that day I let you die on Mount Cithaeron as food for the dogs and the carrion birds.” Risk connects.
Just as LTCM bound by risk unrelated events in Thailand, Russia, and markets all over the world, so too, Oedipus bound by risk the oracles, the riddle of the plague, the murder of the king, and the actions of the shepherd and the messenger. If you still have any doubts about how risk is the great connector, consider whether a day delay in the mail can lead to two suicides instead of a wedding. It shouldn’t. But what happens when you bind by risk the rays of all the world’s vertices? Ask Romeo and Juliet. They will tell you.
Oedipus has withstood the test of time because, of the tragedies amongst, it best fulfils drama’s mandate to simulate risk. Sophocles’ dramatic technique is to seek and destroy Oedipus through risk. Sophocles single-mindedly devises the setting, characterization, and action for one purpose: to raise the stakes. A plague is a risk-on setting. Oedipus’ character is built to go big or go home: “I’m Oedipus, my wit is of the legends. You have a riddle? I’ll solve it, heaven be damned!” The action incites risk. The characters say: “For god’s sake, stop!” Oedipus replies: “No, no, thrice no!” Risk fills us with wonder and awe, because it reveals a gap in our nature: when we’re most confident, we’re in the gravest danger.
To illustrate how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, we’ve used my new theory of drama called “risk theatre.” Theory is critical, as without the eye of theory, the meaning of drama lies in the dark. The chorus sees what’s happening but can’t make sense of it. “Why should I dance?” it asks. Jocasta looks around and concludes: “It looks like it’s happening through chance. There’s no meaning.” With theory, we achieve a higher understanding. Theory imbues drama with human significance.
Unlike my competitors’ theories, which are so complex no one can come to an agreement on the meanings of their key terms, my method is as easy as A, B, and C. First, find the human quality that the hero lays down as a stake. Is it dignity, reputation, the soul, or life? Second, find the desired outcome of the bet. Is it a kingdom, the act of revenge (common in revenge tragedies), or a cure for cancer? Third, find how the playwright drives up the stakes to trigger an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcome. I challenge you to use the theory of risk theatre on all your favourite works, whether it’s drama, novel, history, opera, or biography, and I guarantee you that you’ll never look at literature the same way again.
You hold in your hand my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, the result of thirteen years of research. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, hosted by Langham Court Theatre. Faculty and students at UVic have entered—and placed—as well as over 200 playwrights from 11 countries including former Soviet republics. We’re inaugurating a new tragic age, one that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Spread the word on this twenty first century grassroots art movement, based in Victoria. The contest website is at risktheatre.com. Follow me at facebook.com/edwincharleswong. A transcript of this talk is available on my blog at melpomeneswork.com/oedipus.
Why should you listen to this risk theatre theory? Do you know why Darwin’s remembered today? If you thought “evolution,” that’s wrong. Many people at that time were talking about evolution. Darwin’s remembered because he came up with the mechanism of natural selection which explained how evolution works. So too, many people have talked about heroes blowing up. What I’ve given you, however, is the mechanism called risk that explains how they blow up. Heroes, by taking on delirious risks draw together people, places, and things into the singularity of dramatic action.
In risk theatre, it’s not error or a tragic flaw. It’s risk. As a risk taker, Oedipus played out his hand brilliantly and played to win. There was a plague. He had to save the city. Not only that, he was putting to practice the mandate to “know thyself.” These very words “know thyself” were inscribed over the doorway of Apollo’s temple in Delphi where the oracle spoke to Oedipus. But Oedipus, in seeking to know himself, loses all. What then, is the moral of the tale?
The moral is that the we, insubstantial creatures of a day, can be great when we dare to be great. Though lacking means, when we throw risk to the wind, we approach heaven on equal terms. Though we are killed by death, when we wager all-in, we become the measure of all things. Though risk strikes us down and blows us up, not even the gods can sing the tales of glory that Oedipus sang, that Faustus sang, that the Duchess of Malfi sang, that John Proctor sang, that Caesar sang, that Joan of Arc sang, that all the mortal stars sang. Tragedy has given us the Oedipuses, the Faustuses, and the other colossuses of human nature so that when we are struck down, we say in a still small voice: “It is not to me alone that this fate has come, I go to join the parade of heroes who have overcome the smallness of their existence by the greatness of their daring.” In the coming tragic age, the highest type of individual will be the one who is in love with risk, who would willingly blow up a thousand times for the thrill of it all, the individual who says with Faustus: “Had I as many souls as there be stars, I’d give them all for Mephistopheles.” In this coming age, dare to be great in all that you do. You will be the greatest generation the world has seen.
Don’t read drama like the chorus, who doesn’t get it. Don’t read drama like Jocasta, who sees only random chance. All of drama is a dramatization of risk. That’s why there’s two dramatic forms. Tragedy to dramatize downside risk. And comedy to dramatize upside risk.
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.