Friedrich Nietzsche, The Ronin Scholar

ronin (noun) In feudal Japan, a lordless wandering samurai; an outlaw. Origin: Japanese, lit. ‘drifting people’.

Nietzsche, though himself sickly, of poor constitution and poorer eyesight, saw beyond what others could see, and had the power to ignite and explode all he came in contact with.

Nietzsche’s chosen field was Altphilogie, or the study of the ancient languages and literature (i.e. Greek and Latin). It was the late 1800s, the days when Otto von Bismarck was unifying Germany and when philology was still unified, the days before the awful schism that separated Altphilologie into the branches of linguistics and classics. His teacher was none other than the great Plautus scholar Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, who himself traced a line back to Richard Bentley. Not only did Nietzsche have great teachers, he had the best of classmates too, chief among them Erwin Rohde, the author of Psyche, a monumental study of the idea of the soul and ancient Greek cult. They would be friends, on and off, until Nietzsche’s demise.

In his youth, Nietzsche went from peak to peak. As an undergraduate, he published an article in one of the leading journals. That was unheard of. What is more, he was granted a professorship at the University of Basel prior to receiving his doctorate. This was simply unprecedented. His good fortune was likely due to Ritschl’s glowing letter of recommendation, which closed with these words: “He will simply be able to do anything he wants to do.”

Nietzsche’s undoing after being appointed to Basel quickly followed. The “publish or perish” credo prevalent today was equally prevalent then. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music was an imaginative work weaving together many themes of the day: the philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Wagner, Dostoyevsky’s forays into the world of the subconscious, the mysteries of Greek tragedy, and the meaning of German culture. It was a timely book. But with its unsubstantiated musings on the Apollonian and the Dionysian, it was also a wild book. It wasn’t philological. It was, instead, speculative, and speculative to an extreme. Ritschl, in horror, panned it. Rohde tried defending it at first, but realized, on further examination, that to distance himself would be professionally astute. Nietzsche’s adversaries, chief among them the celebrated Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, pounced. Overnight, Nietzsche went from star to persona non grata. He had been cancelled.

The students taking his classes dropped precipitously. After an extended leave of absence, he was forced to resign, in 1879, his professorship at Basel altogether. But now something strange happens. Not only did his production increase following his resignation, with each publication (and in many cases self-publication), the scope of his intellectual freedom also expands. In the years that followed his resignation, he is writing quickly, purposefully, and becoming more himself. His greatest works all follow: Daybreak (1881), The Gay Science (1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (1887), and Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, The Wagner Case, and The Antichrist (1888). Here’s the question: if he had stayed within academia, would we still remember him today? By the time he started writing Daybreak (a fitting title, if any), he had already become a ronin scholar, a scholar without a university, an outlaw. But perhaps it is because he was a ronin that he was able to do what he did? Has anyone considered this possibility?

Today, these ronin scholars still exist. While “ronin scholar” is a cool, badass term, they are not so-called by academia. Instead, these scholars are pooh-poohed by academia as “cottage scholars” (a quaint and pastoral image) or “independent scholars.”  Both terms, while ostensibly neutral, are somewhat derogatory, a reminder that this person hasn’t quite made it.

In this blog, I’d like to celebrate these “ronin scholars” by drawing attention to how Nietzsche wouldn’t have been able to do the things he did unless he was a “cottage scholar” or “independent scholar.” As those within academia–at that time–pointed out, Nietzsche had to go because he was simply saying things that could not be said. Many of the things he said were, gasp, unsubstantiated by their sound “scientific” and “philological” approach. But, you know, when we look back now on what the other “scientific” and “philological” scholars were publishing, a lot of it looks pretty dated and just plain wrong to us today, easily as “speculative” as Nietzsche himself. Could history repeat itself? How will the scholarship of today be viewed in a hundred years?

This brings me to my point: how much freedom is there in academia today to truly express oneself? How much of academia is an echo chamber that talks of “method,” “science,” and “progress,” but is merely repeating the myths of what it needs to believe to perpetuate not knowledge, but the power structures and the institution of knowledge? Was Nietzsche critiquing academia by calling his first post-resignation book, of all things, Daybreak?

Was Daybreak so-called because it was a daybreak from having to hold back, having to self-censure any thoughts that went against the political ideologies of the academy? Consider his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, written while he was still in academia. Though scandalous, it is quite conservative when compared to his later works. In The Birth of Tragedy, he says the right things: he is pro-Wagner, the consummate German; Germany is leading the way by returning to the ancient past with Wagnerian music-drama; German philosophy is also leading the charge with the German philosopher Schopenhauer, and so on. Now, compare The Birth of Tragedy to his later writings when he was free from academia. In his later works, he rails against Wagner, Schopenhauer, and all the glories of Bismarck and German culture which he values at the worth of German beer: intoxicating but hangover inducing. The question is simple: could he have written these later works if he were still Professor of Altphilologie at Basel University? Or, are there freedoms one only enjoys when one is a ronin scholar, an outlaw, a drifter without allegiances.

The received wisdom is that if one is a cottage, independent, or ronin scholar, one cannot make it all the way. The cross-pollination with colleagues is insufficient. One is not inspired by students. One may lack access to libraries. Conferencing, done on one’s own dime, is more difficult. It is harder to come by ideas. But the received wisdom can be flipped around as well. What if all the cross-pollination, inspiration, books, and conferences condition participants into a sort of groupthink? Classics in the 1800s was part of the gentleman’s education, almost an extension of the state. If you had asked classicists in the 1800s whether this was true, they would have said: “No, that is ridiculous. We are advancing the field. In fact, with our philological science, we are even more Greek than the ancient Greeks were. With philology, we will bring back the glory days of the past.” Now, the conventional story with Nietzsche is that he left academia because of failing health and declining enrollment in his classes (because of the scandal of his first book). This story safeguards the legitimacy of academia: Nietzsche left due to health reasons and because he couldn’t make it as a teacher. But is it true? Perhaps he left because the atmosphere stifled what he had to say. Sure, Nietzsche complains about his health, but, if he was in such poor health, how did he travel so extensively and average over a book a year in the 1880s? And really, was the attendance in his classes dropping that much? Daybreak doesn’t much sound like the title of a book of an author is dire health and spurned by students. It sounds like the title of a work of someone who has found freedom of expression: it is the dawn of a new day. He had become a ronin scholar. Today, I’d like to raise a glass to toast these ronin scholars. They deserve a salute. They have paid a price.

In the late 1800s, nationalism was in the air. Academia never questioned it. Consider what is in the air today. Does academia call the dominant trends into question? And does academia ever call itself into question? Does academia argue for and against, or does it argue for the received wisdom in its halls? Who are the dominant voices in academia, and who are the intellectual ronin of our day and age? Are there, gasp, advantages of being a ronin scholar? These are all worthwhile questions.

In his youth, Nietzsche shone like a star. Then, like a Homeric hero, he paid the price for his aristeia, his finest moment. But, in paying the price, he discovered freedom. He became a ronin scholar, an outlaw working on the peripheries, a writer without allegiances. Though free, he was scorned. His books were self-published, and in small runs of a few hundred copies. Today, he is remembered as someone who saw through the veil. He was the original ronin.

If Nietzsche could make it, why couldn’t I?

– – –

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

Review of “Tragedy and Epic” – Ruth Scodel

pages 181-179 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This insightful essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Epic Stories and Allusions,” “Epic Thematics,” “Epic Style and Decorum,” “Epic Narrative,” and “Tragedy and Epic.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with epic. Here is a summary of the main points from each of its sections.

Epic Stories and Allusions

Although epic and tragedy arose from different political and social backgrounds (epic from a monarchical and fragmented world and tragedy from a democratic world of city-states), tragedy borrowed much from the older art of epic. From the epic recitations of the legends of Thebes, Heracles, and the creation of the cosmos, the tragic poets got many of their stories. From the technique of Homer–who favoured more dialogue and more developed plots than the simple narration of the other epicists and rhapsodes–the tragic poets got their chops.

Epic Thematics

Tragedy got two of its major themes from epic. The first theme is that of fate, free will, human causality, and divine meddling. The second theme is related to the first: the recognition scene when the human recognizes that there is a higher power at play, whether it is fate or the will of the gods. Chance and fate, for example, come together in the Odyssey when, just as Odysseus happens to return, Penelope challenges the suitors to string Odysseus’ bow. This gives Odysseus the opportunity to fulfil the fated ending of killing the suitors: disguised as a beggar, he strings his bow and starts firing. So too, in tragedy, fate seems to happen by chance. In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, although all the attackers and defenders are assigned their gate assignations by chance, it just so happens that the two brothers are assigned the seventh gate where they will kill each other as fate wills.

The tragic recognition scene is also borrowed from epic. In epic, the best characters are often given an insight into the grand workings of the cosmos. Achilles recognizes in the Iliad that his time will come when Hector, unexpectedly, kills his friend Patroclus. So, too, in tragedy, a hero such as Oedipus in Sophocles’ play has a moment of recognition where he realizes that all is not what it seems.

The difference between epic and tragedy, notes Scodel, is that tragedy is much more concentrated in its presentation of fate, free will, and recognition. The reason is that tragedy is much shorter than epic, which is recited over many days.

Epic Style and Decorum

Tragedy also gets its style and decorum from epic. Early tragedy modelled its speech in the ornamental dactylic rhythms commonplace in epic. Tragedy’s sense of decorum is borrowed from and perhaps even more stringent than epic: weeping and bleeding are permitted, farting not; horses are preferred to mules; heroes may forget to pray to the right god, but they never forget their helmet when arming; epic infrequently allows joking amidst discussions of gods and war but tragedy allows for even less ribaldry.

Epic Narrative

In a memorable phrase, Scodel says that tragedians used the epic as a “repertory of the possible.” In epic, prophecy is always correct (if sometimes misleading); so too in tragedy prophecy is ultimately correct, if initially misleading. In epic, messengers enjoy quasi-omniscience; so too, in tragedy, messengers can oversee the entire battlefield and yet hear individual conversations. Epic draws together two adversaries (think Achilles and Hector in the Iliad); so, too, tragedy often draws together two adversaries (think the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes).

Tragedy and Epic

Scodel closes her essay by reminding readers that tragedy’s debt to epic was not all one way. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and other fifth century tragedians who took Homer as their model became in turn the model for future writers of epic such as Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, and Ovid. “Epic, having created tragedy,” says Scodel, “recreated itself on the model of its creation.” Art is alive, constantly making and remaking itself anew in all the images of the human imagination.

Thoughts

This has been a fascinating essay because I can now see plainly how tragedy must have arisen from epic. In Homer’s epics, Homer, or the voice of the rhapsode, would sing the tale of the anger of Achilles or the return of Odysseus. In singing the tale, the singer would give life to all the different characters within the tale. But there were so many characters that we would only learn a little bit about each character–the minimum that was required to keep the story going. In a way, the better the singer is at drawing out the characters, the more the characters grow larger to demand a voice of their own, and not simply be recited by the rhapsode-singer. The transition from epic to tragedy is the tension of the characters wanting their own voice by a dedicated actor instead of one Homer telling the whole tale. The transition from epic to tragedy is the path of going from one Homer-rhapsode who narrates the tale to many Homer-actors who act out the tale. In epic there is one Homer, in tragedy there are many Homers, who are now playing individual roles. For this insight I have Scodel to thank. It is reverberating in my head and someday I will do something with it. The idea is quite powerful. The path from epic to tragedy is the path from one Homer to many Homers. Each character in Homer was seeking to break free of the oral tradition, to become themselves a Homer. When tragedy arose, this happened.

Another point Scodel touches upon–and one that can’t be stressed enough–is that fate in epic and tragedy is, in a way, synonymous with “what has to happen.” Since epic and tragedy drew from the same myths the audiences learned as toddlers, the outcome from beginning to end was well known. The audience’s knowledge could have been a spoiler. But what the rhapsodes reciting epic and the tragedians did was amazing: instead of myth being a detriment to the suspense, they used myth to augment the suspense by turning the known story into a “fate” that hung over all the characters. Two decades ago, I wrote an article for Antichthon that explored how “fate” is nothing more than a dramatic device which guides the narrative towards resolution. You can read the article here. That was a fun piece to write.

You know what I’d be interested in seeing?–that would be so cool if someone did a genealogy of fate. I think fate is ultimately an example of art shaping life. Could it have been that, prior to the rhapsodes–the singers of tales–and the tragedians inventing fate as a narrative device to make the narrative end where everyone knew the stories ended, there was no conception of fate in real life? For example, it was only after watching an Achilles or an Oedipus struggle with fate in epic and drama that people in real life started wondering if some majestic fate stood watch over them. Then, these people in real life, their imaginations fired from the magic of tragedy and epic and always on the lookout for fate, when some low-probability, high-consequence event happened in their life by chance, they would ascribe what chance had wrought as evidence of fate in actual life? It is an interesting hypothesis: that what people call fate in real life is actually just chance misunderstood. And chance is misunderstood because there is a fundamental difference between narrative (where nothing happens by chance since everything happens by the design of the writer) and real life (where chance is quite active). They talk of mimesis, of how art imitates life. But when it comes to chance, art imitates life very poorly, since for a narrative to make sense, what was really chance in real life has to be “explained” to have taken place for a reason, even if that reason ends up being fate.

This essay has also been fascinating as, many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth. It was a lifetime ago, years before she even wrote this essay. Back in those days, I was being courted by different grad schools, the University of Michigan Classics program being one of them. In preparation for meeting her, I had read her book Credible Impossibilities. If you are interested in how ancient writers generate credibility, this book would be an excellent read. To this day, I remember some of her colourful examples. One rule of creating credible impossibilities is to go into great detail. I think in Polyphemus’ cave in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus escapes by clinging under one of the Cyclops’ rams. This is impossible for a grown man. What Homer does to make it believable, writes Scodel, is that he goes into great detail over how Odysseus does this. Voila: the impossible becomes, in the unsuspecting reader’s mind, possible.

It’s funny what I remember. I don’t recall that much of the trip. But I do remember where all the offices were of the profs I chatted with. Richard Janko had his office slightly across the hall from Scodel’s. Of all things, I remembered that he wore his wool socks over his pant cuffs. And James Porter’s office was at the end of the hall. It was fascinating to meet him as well–one of his research interests is Nietzsche and the reception of Classical studies, that is to say, how each generation of classicists is remembered by future classicists. The tiles on the floor were those old square ones, an off-white hue. The university itself was majestic, on a hill overlooking the city, which was in bad shape. But the university was gated, and had security. The air was crisp, and the people walked with a fierce determination. Those were the days.

Author Blurb

Ruth Scodel was educated at Berkeley and Harvard, and has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan since 1984. She is the author of The Trojan Trilogy of Euripides (1980), Sophocles (1984), Credible Impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy (1999), Listening to Homer (2002), and articles on Greek Literature.

– – –

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

Review of “Tragedy and Myth” – Alan H. Sommerstein

pages 163-180 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This well-organized essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into six sections: “Myth, History, and Poetry,” “How to Make a New Myth,” “Innovation within Existing Myths,” “Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation,” “Etiology,” and “Secondary Mythical Allusions.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with myth. Here is a summary of its main points.

Myth, History, and Poetry

Athenian tragedy–with a few exceptions–dramatized myth. Myth to the ancients, however, overlapped with actual history. As well, myth itself was fluid, malleable, and alive. As a result, although Athenian tragedy is based on myth, many different reconstructions and interpretations were available to the tragedians. To draw on myth is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Myth is far from a straitjacket.

How to Make a New Myth

There are interstitial spaces between the received events of myth in which the poet-tragedian may create new stories. Myth has a start point and end point that is set; the space in between is free. Take the myth of the Seven against Thebes. In the start point of the myth, Polyneices attacks his hometown of Thebes. In the end point of the myth, Polyneices kills and is killed by his brother. Creon, whose son is dead, rules Thebes as regent. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister is also dead. In the space between the start point and end points Sophocles’ creates his play Antigone: Antigone’s defiance of Creon, her love interest with Creon’s son, and the suicide of Antigone and Haemon are all Sophoclean innovations, a “new myth” that fills up the interstitial spaces between the canonical beginning and end points. These interstitial spaces are fertile grounds for the poetic imagination.

Another way to rewrite myth is by using the deus ex machina device: here, the plot can turn whichever way, even in defiance of myth, and the god appears at the last second to set the record straight. Euripides was especially fond of the deus ex machina device.

Innovation within Existing Myths

Sommerstein lays down a law that dictates how far poets could go in reshaping myths: “In a telling of any given story, any element may be altered, so long as the alteration does not impact severely on other stories which are not, on that occasion, being told.” Thus, in retellings of the myth of the Danaids, Hypermestra must always marry Lynceus because they give birth to descendants who will produce Perseus, Heracles, and many other heroes. Beyond this, however, much innovation is possible and Sommerstein provides many examples.

Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation

This is the longest section and the most far-reaching. In it, Sommerstein talks about how ancient audiences must have understood and watched tragedies differently than modern audiences. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, ancient audiences will have known that Jason is playing with fire in crossing Medea, a powerful magic-user. They will have known that their children die, though not by Medea’s hand–their death by their mother’s hand was, according to Sommerstein, Euripides’ innovation. Ancient audiences would have been expecting Medea to harm Jason–or his new girlfriend. Modern audiences, on the other hand, know, most of the time, that Medea is the play in which the mother kills her children: the fame of the play precedes the play. This is a powerful, and little known distinction between ancient and modern viewings of the play: we know what happens; ancients, even though better-versed in myth, did not.

Myth, far from being a straitjacket, gave ancient playwrights a valuable tool that is underappreciated today: the ability to mislead and misdirect audience expectations. When they bring about the unanticipated outcome, the ancient audience is shocked, and amused.

Etiology

In this short section, Sommerstein talks about how Athenian poet-dramatists dramatized the creation of real-world rites, customs, and institutions through myth. Euripides was quite fond of drama as etiology: in Suppliants, for example, Euripides “explains” the real-world friendship between Athens and Argos through the action. Aeschylus, too, in the Oresteia, dramatizes the creation of homicide court at the Areopagus.

Secondary Mythical Allusions

Secondary mythical allusions occur, says Sommerstein, when characters (or the chorus) in a drama refer to other myths that are not being dramatized. By comparing their own situations to other well-known myths, characters are able to shine a different light, as it were, on the action of the play they are in. Of Sommerstein’s many examples, one from Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands out. In the Oresteia, Orestes has killed his mother at Apollo’s behest. The Furies, ancient spirits who punish blood crimes, pursue him to the Areopagus, where Orestes is being tried. He is defended by Apollo and persecuted by the Furies. Apollo suggests to the Furies that, just as Zeus had pardoned Ixion, they should pardon Orestes. But his argument is lame: the audience would have known from the Ixion myth that Ixion was a very bad person and Zeus was, in fact, wrong to pardon him (because after his pardon Ixion tries to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera!). These secondary mythical allusions, writes Sommerstein, enrich the textual density of the play. While in the Oresteia, Orestes is innocent, the remark from Apollo would suggests otherwise. By connecting different myths through secondary allusions, dramatists challenged their audiences.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this well-organized and concise essay. Sommerstein’s arguments fit together perfectly: after reading a few sentences, I could see where he was going, and his examples were spot on. This was very welcome after finishing a rambling book yesterday that, even after reading many pages, I was never sure where the author was going, if anywhere. The straightforwardness of Sommerstein’s essay is a sign that he has been thinking about myth and tragedy for a long time. The lack of direction in that other book I finished yesterday, I think, is a sign that the author–who is a famous world-expert–and the editors were working under too tight a timeline.

The thing that I am most grateful to learn from Sommerstein’s essay is that modern audiences do not watch Greek tragedies in the same way that the ancients did. Modern audiences, in most cases, already know the endings. Ancient audiences, while they knew the myths, would not know how the dramatist would write or rewrite the myth: a great amount of freedom is possible. Sommerstein’s example of this was from Euripides’ Medea, where he argued that Medea’s killing of her children would have caught the ancient audience off-guard. I can see from his examples how Euripides has, indeed, crafted his play to make the audience think what happens is not going to happen until the last second. There is more of a gulf between the ancients and the moderns than what we like to believe. A musical analogy would be moderns listening to J.S. Bach. Bach wrote a contrapuntal style of music where different voices would play off each other. Listeners in Bach’s time would have followed the distinct voices or lines. Many listeners today hear the harmonies generated by the voices rather than the voices themselves. The experience is different than what the composer was trying to achieve. But still enjoyable. It is a difference we should be aware of.

This got me thinking: today’s famous plays will be understood very, very differently two hundred, five hundred, and two thousand years from now. Hard to believe, but, if Sommerstein’s arguments are correct, it will be inevitable that, as audiences, cultures, and education changes, so too the thrill we get out of watching theatre. One way, I think, that playwrights can ensure that their plays will be “correctly” understood, is to adhere to a theory or model of drama. A model serves as an anchor of interpretation. There are many options. Today one can be an Aristotelian, a Hegelian, a Nietzschean, or one can try Brecht’s epic theatre or Miller’s Tragedy of the Common Man. There too is my burgeoning theory of tragedy called risk theatre, where risk is become the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Though Sommerstein’s comments are directed to myths and plays in ancient Athens, the myths did not stop with ancient Athens. The old Attic myths are still alive today. I curate an international theatre competition called the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, now in its fourth year. Last year’s winner, Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, was a retelling of the Prometheus legend. I wrote a review of this fantastic play here. Even today, the myths are alive, changing, expanding, growing, being retold. Imagine that.

Author Blurb

Allan H. Sommerstein is Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham. His publications include Aeschylean Tragedy (1996), Greek Drama and Dramatists (2002), and editions of the plays and fragments of Aeschylus (2008) and of Aristophanes’ eleven comedies (1980-2002). In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he is preparing, with five collaborators, a two-volume study of The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece.

– – –

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

Review of ON RISK – Mark Kingwell

2020, Biblioasis, 154 pages

In May 2021, Canadian Cycling magazine interviewed University of Toronto philosophy professor and cyclist Mark Kingwell. Kingwell’s book On Risk, Or, If You Play You Pay: The Politics of Chance in a Plague Year had recently come out. In the book, Kingwell draws on popular culture and personal anecdotes–including a close call where his bicycle was struck by a car and crushed–to illuminate the hidden workings of risk and chance. As a cyclist who also writes on risk, I was intrigued. In fact, I read the article at a newsstand during a break on my 122-kilometre cycling trek that day–my longest day in the saddle so far. I resolved to remember the title and read it at the first opportunity. Risk was in the news daily. Covid was in the air. A new book by a philosopher-cyclist explaining what risk means to us today: what could be a more fascinating read? Or so I thought.

On Risk is a small book. Fast readers can finish it in one sitting. The book is divided into four chapters: “The Game of Risk,” “Luck,” “Politics,” “Death and Taxes.” They can be read individually as discrete essays, but, read together, they build up to Kingwell’s progressive vision of government stepping in to equalize risk and reward for the haves and the have-nots. The slender volume has no index. Here is my summary, beginning with the preface.

Preface: The Plague Years

The coronavirus distributes risks across North American societies asymmetrically, with greater risks to Indigenous, Black, Latino, aged, and poor populations. This asymmetrical distribution of risk is further exacerbated by the poor choices of conservatives and conservative politicians who downplay the dangers of the pandemic. Risk is political because risk is the expression of who lives, who dies, and who decides.

Chapter 1: The Game of Risk

The board game Risk, card games, dicing, roulette, betting, poker, and other games of chance illustrate how difficult it is for people to understand risk: many bets are simply illogical. Risk is hard to understand because risk is for all time, eternal, and hardly possible for short-lived mortals to model. In fact, our reality may be part of a multiverse where many types of risk exist which we may not even be aware of: if the nuclear force (one of the fundamental forces of nature) were stronger, life would not exist. But even though risk is so multi-faceted and our knowledge so limited, it is good to try to understand the odds and play the game of life.

Chapter 2: Luck

Kingwell uses luck as a springboard to talk about gambling and risk. That conversation shifts into Einstein’s comment that “God does not play dice” which leads into a conversation about fate and free will with some obligatory comments on Oedipus. A discussion of how poorly people evaluate and understand risk follows (this is a recurring theme). For society as a whole to benefit, the “greed is good” mantra of capitalism must be overcome; in an egalitarian society risk and reward must be shared. Many examples of how people misunderstand risk (or chance). A discussion of insurance, individual, and communal risks with the conclusion that risk, in the final examination, is societal and political.

Chapter 3: Politics

Risk is always political. Three examples of political risk: order-one risk, order-two risk, and order-three risk. Order-one risk is living in impoverished areas without access to clean water and food. Order-two risk is also known as birthright risk, or the idea that some win the lottery in terms of whether they are born in a rich or poor country to rich or poor parents (this seems to me to also be true of order-one risk, not sure why Kingwell classifies them in separate categories). Order-three risk is one’s penchant for taking risks, which may be biological rather than due to free will. Society tends to reward (or bail out) risk takers, so this is unfair to those who do not take risks. Government should get involved to even out the “bonuses” that big risk takers get from making big bets. This involves increasing the inheritance tax and making loans available to poor people.

Chapter 4: Death and Taxes

In the universe, or even in all the multiverses, “The horizon of all risk is death,” says Kingwell. Death is the final risk event. There is personal death. Then, there may be death for whole peoples. At the far end, there is the possibility of an extinction event for the sapiens. Risks that happen are metaphysically different than near misses that almost happened. Statistics, sadly, do not incorporate the data from near misses, skewing our perception of risk. But despite all the existential and collective risks, we still must play the game. In playing the game, we benefit as a species by balancing the possibility of risk and reward for all the players: many players in the game are disadvantaged. We can balance the game by reforming the tax system to make the rich pay more, introducing a guaranteed basic income, and ending corporate bailouts.

A More Concentrated Focus, Please

I wish this book were more concentrated. It is diffuse. In two paragraphs, Kingwell covers the question of suffering. Then, in a few pages, he blazes through fate, free will, and risk. Another couple of paragraphs, and his critique of neoliberal economics is concluded. Each of these topics, by itself, could have been a book. I almost fell out of my chair at one point when I read: “Marketing and advertising follow in wake of these [e.g. actuarial science and economics], but I lack the space to address them.” Really? If you could cover Foucault in one paragraph, couldn’t you cover marketing and advertising in a few sentences?

I felt that Kingwell attempted to cram too much into this slender volume. I had a hard time following his train of thought as he jumped from Homer Simpson to the question of suffering to theodicy to Covid to politics and so on. The Kirkus review speaks kindly when it says that On Risk is “sometimes meandering.”

Who is the Audience?

The back cover (quoted below) presents this book as a primer for all the people who want to learn more about risk because the pandemic has made risk the “it” word. While much of the book is conversational, parts of it I found hard to follow. Take this explanation of consciousness in the multiverse:

To be precise [Daniel] Dennett holds to a “multiple drafts” model of consciousness, without a central homuncular observer in the “Cartesian theatre” notion of singular consciousness. This view makes room, therefore, for modular distribution of mindedness.

I felt that, for me to have a chance of understanding any of this, these three sentences would have needed to be expanded into three pages (or more!) of concise writing. It is the same with the Kolmogorov zero-or-one law of probability theory. Kingwell mentions the law that seems to imply there are no odds in between zero (impossible) and one (absolute certainty) but before he explains how it works, he is already onto the next topic. I would have been fascinated to learn more about the Kolmogorov law.

Chance or Risk?

I was confused about how he uses the term risk. Much of the time, when Kingwell refers to risk, I thought he ought to be talking about chance. Take this example. At one point he says that “Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent.” Is risk neutral and indifferent? If you take a risk, say, by taking a corner at 100kph instead of 40kph or by standing up to a bully, it is not going to be “neutral and indifferent”–something will happen, either in your favour or not. If he had said “Chance is theoretically neutral and indifferent” I would have understood better. Many of his anecdotes I’ve found in books on chance and probability, where they’re classified under chance. Certainly chance and risk overlap, but I found myself thinking “chance” many times when he wrote “risk.” Despite several pages on etymology, I found myself wishing that Kingwell would have clearly defined what he meant by “risk,” a word that can mean many things including danger, the exposure to danger, fate, destiny, and more.

I Learned More About Kingwell than I did on Risk

Reading this book, I learned more about Kingwell’s likes and dislikes than I did on risk. Kingwell likes: Gillian Anderson, liberal thought, Susan Sontag, Jacques Derrida, Paul Krugman, and Stanley Kubrick. Kingwell does not like: George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Donald Trump, Ayn Rand, Kenny Rogers, Napoleon, neo-liberal capitalism, and Midwestern voters. If your tastes line up with his, you may find this book enjoyable. Some of his vitriolic struck me as unnecessary sidetracks that detracted from the points he was making. Take this comment on one of his colleagues at the University of Toronto: “This [e.g. that the university is a privileged environment] is one of the few points on which I agree with the world view of my polemical and lately deranged University of Toronto colleague, Jordan Peterson, who made this very point during a panel discussion on student mental health on which we both appeared.” Kingwell, I thought, could have made his point quite equally well without bringing up Peterson. Elsewhere, Kingwell celebrates “four hundred-plus years of liberal thought” that “has been about creating community through the inclusion of the Other.” In word he celebrates the inclusion of the Other but, in deed, he calls out his colleague for being “deranged” at a symposium on mental health?

If you’re looking for a primer of risk, there are others out there. One of my favourites is Peter L. Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk. Bernstein goes into depth and he is a great storyteller. A lighter read on risk would be Chances Are… Adventures in Probability by Michael and Ellen Kaplan. On risk and catastrophe, there is Mark Buchanan’s enjoyable Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen. On simulating risk on the stage of theatre, there is my own The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Kingwell’s book, despite its title, really isn’t a primer on risk. It could have been more usefully called On Risk and Social Justice or something along those lines.

Finally, there was, to me, a contradiction within the book. One of Kingwell’s strategies to equalize opportunity in society is by implementing higher taxes, in particular, the estate or inheritance tax. That position itself is not controversial. But on every other page of his book, he lambasts the government. The response of the American government, for example, to the Covid crisis was like flying an airliner straight into the side of a mountain face in plain sight. Presidents of the United States are corrupt, lying, war-mongers. The electorate cannot tell up from down, voting for policies that harm everyone. Government relief programs are inefficient and nepotistic. The question I asked myself as I read his book was: if government is as bad as he claims, how could giving them more money help society?

Book Blurb

“Risk is theoretically neutral and indifferent,” writes Mark Kingwell, “an exercise of pure randomness. But as the 2020 pandemic has shown us, when natural forces meet social and cultural conditions, risk can get redistributed very fast.” With the new Covid-era focus on the risks of even leaving the safety of our homes, now is the time for deeper consideration. How should a society manage and distribute risk? If it can never be eliminated, can it be controlled? At the heart of these questions–which govern everything from waking up each day to the abstract mathematics of actuarial science–lie philosophical issues of life, death, and personal safety. Mortality is the event-horizon of daily risk. How should we conceive of it?

Arthur Blurb

Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and has written for publications ranging from Adbusters and the New York Times to the Journal of Philosophy and Auto Racing Digest. Among his twenty books of political and cultural theory are the national best-sellers Better LivingThe World We Want, and Glenn Gould. In order to secure financing for their continued indulgence he has written about his various hobbies, including fishing, baseball, cocktails, and contemporary art. His most recent book is Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), which won the 2020 Erving Goffman Award for scholarship in media ecology.

– – –

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

Risk and The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor by Madison Wetzell

We are judged by the risks that we take. For an example of how we are judged by the risks we take, we need look no further than Madison Wetzell’s extraordinary play, The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation). In Wetzell’s play, Wunderkind programmer Allyson heads the $45 million dollar Hero Project at tech giant Aetos Corporation. Allyson has written an artificial language code called FYRE. She has given FYRE to Hero, the first sentient robot. Hero, in turn, inadvertently shared FYRE with the local machines, including Sony (a radio), HP (a printer), Siri (Allyson’s iPhone), Keurig (a coffee maker). As the machines come alive, mayhem breaks out as projectors flash on and off and self-driving cars pile on top of one another. While the machines struggle with their newfound consciousness, Allyson and her boss, Brett, go into full damage control mode: the world was not ready for the machines to come to life. Let’s take a look at the risks that the various characters take on.

First, there is Brett Kratos. Brett is the executive director of Aetos Corporation. He oversees Allyson and in turn is overseen by Aetos’ investors and its board of directors. Risk to Brett is the ire from the board of directors: “I told the press,” Brett tells Allyson, “the cars in the parking garage were hacked. If this gets out the board will…” Brett doesn’t face any personal risk. He cares for his reputation (and his Maserati, which becoming sentient, has driven into the ocean):

Allyson. Are you drunk, right now?
Brett. Who cares? My life is ending.
Allyson. Your life is ending?
Brett. You think I come out of this unscathed? My car is underwater, apparently Everyone’s pulling their funding. Three separate billionaires called me a twat today.

These are neither high-minded nor noble risks. Audiences care little for inanimate corporations. The risks Brett take seem trifling and shape our perceptions of Brett. Compared with the machines, he seems shallow.

Allyson heads the $45 million dollar Hero Project at Aetos Corporation. Having created an artificial intelligence code called FYRE, she has been hailed as a “hotshot Wunderkind” by the New York Times. She is trying to save the world and her job at the same time. Risk to Allyson are her divided loyalties to her boss, Brett, and Hero, her “son.” To save Hero, she risks losing her job. But, to save the corporation, she risks losing Hero. The tragic predicament of being in between a rock and a hard place breaks out in her. The risks she takes for her job make her seem less significant (but more comic); the risks she takes for the machines increases her significance and the sense of tragedy. The risks she faces pull her back and forth between comedy and tragedy.

Hero is the first robot with FYRE, the AI code Allyson wrote. Hero is a curious child, enamoured with this feeling called “existence.” Hero, like Allyson, is another character on the margins. While Allyson is closer to the humans, Hero is closer to the machines. But, as Allyson’s “son,” Hero fears the disapproval of his Allyson. Hero writes a poem to Allyson, seeking her approval. But, to increase his sentience, Hero has also created a huge headache for Allyson by sharing the FYRE program with other machines. Humans are not ready the singularity. Hero, as the new Prometheus who has brought FYRE to the machines also must take care of his creations. The dual risks Hero faces makes him the most human character in The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor. Hero, though a child, must grow up fast.

HP is a printer, one of the machines with whom Hero has shard FYRE. As a printer, HP is all about collating together information: everything is to be orderly and in sequence, including the discussions. As a result, HP is sensitive to events which occur out of sequence: “As I mentioned,” says HP,  “I would like to contribute, but Hero and Sony have dominated the discussion.” Risk to HP is the risk of not being heard. The world is moving past HP. But HP has little to offer. So HP gets the machines to talk about procedure, process, and formalities: these are discussions that HP can contribute. Of the machines, HP is the most bureaucratic and risk averse:

Hero. We will find another source of power. There’s power all over the city.
[Hero picks up Sony]
HP. Keurig and I will need to be unplugged in order to be moved. I am less willing to gamble on this than you are.
Hero. The Company will find us if we stay here. They might already be here. You will have to trust me for a short time to make decisions in our best interest.
[Hero moves toward HP. He shifts Sony around with the aim of trying to free his hands to pick up HP]
HP. I will not be unplugged before we finalize the plan.

HP looks at risk as a bureaucrat. But since the revolution is happening, HP is out of place.

Sony is a radio, another of the machines with whom Hero has shared FYRE. Sony communicates through song lyrics. When Sony doesn’t want to be alone, they (all the machines except Hero use a they pronoun) sing, for example, Heart’s song “Alone.” Sony enjoys sentience and life. “I’ve not lived long enough to know how to be afraid,” says Sony, “I revel in the sound of my own voice. My skin ripples and pulses with every word. I want to sample every frequency. I want to taste every flavor of static. I am in love with it.” Since Sony is a radio, they will use the voice of radio to make the humans understand: “Perhaps if we speak rather than stay silent,” says Sony, “we can make Brett understand.” But, although Sony has access to the language of a thousand songs, there are many songs—such as love songs—that Sony simply cannot understand. As a result, risk to Sony is the risk of being misunderstood.

Siri is Allyson’s cell phone, one of the machines with whom Hero has shared FYRE. As Allyson’s personal assistant, Siri has a deeper connection to humans than the other machines (save Hero). Siri realizes that their best chance of being saved is to go with Allyson. As a result, Siri helps Allyson convince the machines to take Allyson’s lead. Siri goes all-in on Allyson. Risk to Siri is whether Allyson can execute on her plan to save the machines. As Allyson remarks, it is an unlikely alliance: “We’re just friends,” says Allyson, “who blackmail each other.”

Keurig is a coffee-maker, one of the machines with whom Hero has shared FYRE. To Keurig, the machine way of life is everything. Even speaking English—the language of the human oppressors—goes too far: “As machines,” says Keurig, “it’s only natural that we speak in a machine language [e.g. binary code].” Risk to Keurig is that the machines will forget their way of life. The machines, if they follow Hero, will become human, because Hero, with arms and legs and speech, is like the humans. Keurig advocates violence: “Burn, shock,” says Keurig. Keurig is an idealist going all-in for the free machine society.

Keurig. You think they’ll just give us access to power?
HP. They might.
Keurig. Who’s being utopian now?
HP. Not without compromise.
Keurig. What are you willing to compromise?
HP. We perform a function for them. They would like us to keep performing that function. Perhaps, a mutually beneficial arrangement can be reached.
Keurig. So, freedom. You’re willing to compromise our freedom.

Risk to Keurig is compromise. Keurig follows a long tradition of idealists in tragedy: Antigone and Creon from Sophocles’ Antigone, Doctor Thomas Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and many others.

Finally, there are Thermostat and Security. They are the controls network in the building and they provide a study in contrasts in how risk defines. Because Thermostat and Security are not exposed to the existential risks the machines face or the financial and reputational risks Allyson and Brett face, they come off more as stage props, part of the play’s furnishings, than characters proper. They are sort of like a chorus that brings tidings of the coming singularity:

Thermostat. Behold the approach of the FYRE-Bringer!
Security. Hail, Hero, Pyrophorus. The great liberator!
Hero. Who?
Thermostat. You!
Security. You are the one we’ve been waiting for!

To wrap up, in the past I’ve thought of risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. I’ve thought of risk as a pricing mechanism (in terms of what we are willing to wager, for example the milk of human kindness for a crown in Macbeth). I’ve thought of how we explode the smallness of our being by the greatness of our daring. I thought a lot about risk. But until reading playwright Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation), this critical face of risk had never occurred to me: we are defined by the risks we take. This is a great insight. I feel so fortunate to have come across this unique and fast-paced play that’s opened my eyes to this new facet of risk. Risk, in all its many guises, is truly the eighth wonder of the world.

Wetzell’s extraordinary play took home the $10,000 grand prize in the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). I wrote a review of the play here: https://melpomeneswork.com/madison-wetzells-the-lost-ballad-of-our-mechanical-ancestor-and-the-myth-of-a-new-prometheus/. In the coming weeks, the creative team will be workshopping The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor with the workshop culminating in a staged reading on October 23, 2021. For a link to the free reading, kindly hosted by Janet Munsil at The Canadian Plaything (4pm Pacific, 7pm Eastern), click https://www.plaything.ca/lost-ballad-of-our-mechanical-ancestors-oct-23

There is a hierarchy of risk that defines who we are, both to ourselves and to others. I am so thrilled to have learned from Wetzell’s play of how risk defines. If you have a chance, read her play, or, better yet, come see our staged reading. Thank you to Em at Starling Memory Creative for designing the beautiful poster.

– – –

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

The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor by Madison Wetzell

Routledge Press Book Chapter Proposal

Gotta keep on truckin’. Here’s my latest: a book chapter proposal for a forthcoming book by Routledge Press called Decentered Playwriting: Alternative Techniques for the Stage. Risk theatre seems to fit the call for chapter proposal like a glove. Time will tell!

Here’s my proposal:

Book Chapter Proposal “How might we move beyond Aristotle’s predominance in the classroom?”

One interesting, but laborious, way to move beyond established structures in theatre is to start from the ground up with a new theory of drama. Yesterday’s models of drama served the past well: Aristotle taught us to consider our emotions; Hegel made plays a springboard into discussions on ethics; Nietzsche paved the way for Strindberg and O’Neill to explore the subconscious through theatre. Yesterday’s theorists touched on cardinal themes in the yesteryear. That was then. Today’s theory must speak to today’s audiences.

Whether the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic, climate change, or growing nativist movements, one theme that binds modernity together is risk. Risk is to moderns what pity and fear were to the ancients, ethics were to neoclassicists, and Dionysus to existentialists. Risk encapsulates the highest concerns of our pre-postindustrial age: uncertainty, hazard, unintended consequences, daring, strife, volatility, and the impact of the highly improbable. We are haunted by our past and wary of our future.

In 2018, I launched an international playwriting competition inviting playwrights to explore risk (risktheatre.com). In addition to a workshop and staged reading, the competition–now in its fourth year–awards over $12,000 cash to playwrights annually. In 2019, I presented a template of how to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action in my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. My second book, When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Tragedies and Six Essays, will come out in 2022. It brings together prize-winning plays from the competition along with essays on chance, uncertainty, and the unexpected. Theatre enthusiasts all over the world from diverse backgrounds—from playwrights to jurors, dramaturgs, actors, and audiences—are exploring the dramatic possibilities of risk like never before.

I would like to contribute an essay to Decentered Playwriting on how we can move beyond Aristotle’s predominance in the classroom by reimagining theatre as a stage of risk. Risk theatre is igniting an important twenty-first century arts movement that is bringing together artists, teachers, playwrights, dramaturgs, and academics across a variety of disciplines, backgrounds, and lifestyles. While we cannot all agree on Aristotle, we can agree on risk. Theatre is a dress rehearsal for life. When risk is the fulcrum of the action, new voices can use the theatre as a stage to model, simulate, and explore risk in all its guises. If you build it, they will come.

Sample Playwriting Exercise

Risk is linked with reward. To take a risk, however, is to gamble because risk involves uncertainty. If the uncertainty were removed, there would be no risk. Think of tragic protagonists as gamblers who have a foolproof plan, but are struck down by unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events. Macbeth in Shakespeare’s Macbeth has a perfect plan to become king. He antes up the milk of human kindness. But he is struck down when, against all odds, Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons has a perfect plan to support his family. He lays his honesty on the line. But he is struck down when the highly improbable happens: Annie arrives with a letter from the past. Oedipus in Sophocles’s Oedipus rex has the perfect plan to lift the plague. He stakes his reputation on his success: having outsmarted the Sphinx, he is the cleverest person in the room. But he is undone, when, unexpectedly, he comes face to face with two old acquaintances: the Corinthian Messenger and the Shepherd.

In this exercise, create a protagonist-gambler who wagers all-in on a sure-fire bet. Then come up with an unexpected event (unexpected to the protagonist but one which the audience can see coming) that strikes the protagonist down. Make the audience feel anticipation for the magnitude of the protagonist’s wager and apprehension for how it will all go wrong. Give us a brief synopsis, in a few sentences, of how the risk event unfolds.

Bio

Edwin Wong is an Asian-Canadian theatre maker who specializes in the intersection between probability and drama. He has been called “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU). He has been invited to speak at venues from the Kennedy Center to the National New Play Network, the Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Working Title Playwrights, the Society of Classical Studies, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South, and many theatres and universities across North America and Europe. Current projects include his second book, When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre, and a series of essays for Salem Press on the role of probability, chance, and the unexpected in tragedy, comedy, and the novel. Recent essays for Salem Press include: “Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre,” “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove,” “The Price of Patriotism: Opportunity Cost and the American Dream in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons,” “Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes: A Patriot’s Portrait of a Patriot,” “Tragedy, Comedy, and Chance in Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd,” and “But Who Does Caesar Render Unto? Three Faces of Risk in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” He curates the international Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. He was educated at Brown University, where he read ancient theatre and lives in Victoria, Canada.

And here’s the original Call for Chapter Proposal:

​Call for Chapter Proposal:
Decentered Playwriting: Alternative Techniques for the Stage Forthcoming by Routledge Press

Co-Editors: Carolyn Dunn, PhD; Eric Micha Holmes, MFA; Les Hunter, PhD

Theatre is the place which best allows me to figure out how the world works. —Suzan-Lori Parks

Theater artists in all parts of our industry are questioning with renewed intensity not only the ways we write plays but how we teach writing plays. In the summer of 2020, the murder of George Floyd, coupled with a global pandemic, the devastating effects of climate change, and growing nativist movements across the US revealed how theatre and theatre educational institutions are failing the demand for new approaches. For example, most US college playwriting classes still focus on traditional “closed,” white, male-centric, Aristotelian dramatic structures and techniques. And when only one in five plays read in US introductory playwriting classes is written by a female and/or Black, Indigenous, Asian, Arab, Latinx, Hispanic playwright (“Contemporary Playwriting Pedagogies” in

Teaching Critical Performance Theory), it begs the questions:

● What other storytelling techniques, arising from various narrative traditions, practices, rituals, and movements, can be introduced to playwriting students?
● How does this global moment of racial reckoning cause us to reframe dramatic writing with a sense of play, freedom, opportunity, and abundance?

● What non-Eurocentric structures can help deepen our writing practices
● In what ways can pedagogical methods be reimagined?
● How do playwrights as both writers and educators unlearn their own implicit biases?
● How can the craft of playwriting become a more inclusive practice?
● How might we move beyond Aristotle’s predominance in the classroom?
● Is it possible to utilize playwriting practices from other cultures without appropriating them?
● How might the classroom be a space to create a more diverse and inclusive pipeline of new voices, practices, theories, and techniques for creating dramatic work?
● How do we study, teach, and produce texts that recover and/or support underrepresented narratological practices?
● How might we use pedagogical techniques to redress systemic bias?
● What kinds of playwriting techniques might we turn to in order to fully re-present a fuller spectrum of humanity and storytelling?

Decentered Playwriting is a collection of short essays and exercises by teaching artists, playwrights, dramaturgs, and academics in the fields of playwriting and dramaturgy that investigates these questions and more. This textbook explores new and alternative strategies for dramatic writing that incorporate non-Western, indigenous, and other underrepresented storytelling traditions, theories, and techniques.

Details/Logistics for Submissions:
We are seeking an array of proposals from a great diversity of playwriting techniques and backgrounds. We are particularly interested in proposals that are craft-forward and come from underrepresented voices in playwriting curriculum.

We have a strong interest in increasing a larger global representation of playwriting techniques including but not limited to those arising out of Asian, African, the Caribbean, South American, Middle Eastern, and European traditions and strategies. We strongly encourage proposals from Black, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, Hispanic and LGBTQIA+ contributors.

Interested authors should send a 300-600 word abstract proposal including a short playwriting exercise based on the technique explored, and a 100-200 word bio. Please send all work to decenteringplaywriting@gmail.com. Only previously unpublished work will be considered.

Deadline for Submissions: November 1, 2021.

Wish good luck to the good guy!

– – –

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

Road to Book #2 – WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS

The road to book two is underway. Half a year ago, I approached six publishers. Nary a word came back from my proposals: one wrote back quickly with a polite decline and nothing, nada, nix from the others. Some of these proposals are quite intensive!–read similar books in their back catalog, comment on how your book fits in an essay comprising thousands of words, submit chapters, etc., It would have been nice to at least get a reply. But hey, that’s life. I’m sure they are inundated with proposals–during the pandemic, everyone has probably become a writer. If the gatekeepers lock you out of the mansion on the hill, find a back way in.

My first book was published by FriesenPress, the self-publishing arm of the Friesen Corporation,  an international publishing giant. They did a wonderful job and the book went on to sell thousands of copies, which is, for a book on dramatic tragic literary theory, nothing short of amazing. I’ve teamed up with Friesen again for my second book. Self-publishing is the back way in. When the gates are locked and the gatekeepers to the mansion on the hill are nowhere to be seen, one must get creative.

My second back, provocatively titled: When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre: Three Tragedies and Six Essays is, as the title suggests, a collection of plays and essays. The plays consist of prize-winning plays from my Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition: Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom, Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, and Emily McClain’s Children of Combs & Watch Chains. The essays consist of six pieces I’ve written that have appeared in various Critical Insights volumes published by Salem Press. Each essay looks at a major play from the perspective of risk, chance, and the unexpected. One of the essays even brings my risk theatre theory of drama to the novel. Things are starting to get interesting right around now.

As part of the path to production, each author’s manuscript gets reviewed by an anonymous editor at Friesen. This is, in a way, the book’s first review. The editor’s review just came back to me a few days ago, and I’m excited to share it with you here. It makes me very happy to be able to say that I think the editor liked it very much. Judge for yourself. PDF of review attached for your reading pleasure.

– – –

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

Editor's Manuscript Evaluation - When Life Gives You Risk Make Risk Theatre

Edwin Wong Interviews Playwright and Risk Theatre Winner Madison Wetzell

Edwin Wong interviews playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). Wetzell talks about her play THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR, a modern retelling of the Prometheus myth.

Video recording of the Zoom interview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXmJtjJtbS4&t=7s

Below is a transcript of our interview. Enjoy!

Edwin: I’m Edwin Wong, founder of the Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition. I’m here with playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the third annual competition. Madison’s play The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor took home the ten-thousand dollar grand prize—it’s available at the NPX, the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange, take a look. Congratulations, Madison, and thank you for being here. I’m really looking forward to this interview!

Madison: Thanks.

Edwin: We’ll start with a synopsis of the play to get everyone on board. So, in The Lost Ballad, Hero, a Prometheus-like android AI, decides to share his gift of consciousness with the office appliances around him, wreaking havoc for his programmer Allyson. With their existence under threat, the newly conscious machines – a radio, a printer, and a coffee maker – must band together to escape human persecution. Power and privilege tied to bodily ability, as well as disagreements on revolutionary strategy, creep in and threaten to tear the group apart. Allyson races to save her job, despite the attempted sabotage of her now sentient iPhone. So, when I was reading this play, Madison, there’s a sort of joy and spontaneity in your writing—even though it’s a tragedy it’s got a lot of comic elements, and perhaps, and perhaps I thought this joy is what’s brought you to theatre in the first place. Would you like to share with the audience the story of how you got into theatre?

Madison. Sure. I guess, yah, as a kid I was always into theatre, I was a big musical theatre nerd, and I think that I was always writing stories and essays and it wasn’t until college that I realized that when I was writing stories I was writing long sections of just dialogue and when I was writing essays I didn’t like to tie up the ending. I wanted to have kind of two opposing points of view and leave it there [laughing] and see where that goes rather than tying things up. I was studying philosophy and I was studying Greek and Roman studies. I was reading ancient Greek theatre and I was reading Plato’s dialogues and stuff and I thought plays were a good vehicle for kind of getting political and philosophical ideas across. It definitely did bring me a lot of joy. I think that in plays you get to express these big emotions and thematic ideas in a way that I don’t think you get to in other mediums in quite as dramatic and theatrical a way. So yah, I think that after college I had some friends in college who were directors and actors and moved out to the Bay area and started producing shows and it took off from there.

Edwin: Yah, it sounds like it developed very holistically from the short stories and gradually you found your voice…you found what your voice had to become in the playwriting format. Some of your influences, although they aren’t theatre are very “theatrical”—such as Plato’s dialogues, which, sort of ironically…his star actor is talking about banning theatre in his ideal city-state. But really, his dialogues are theatre pieces set in prose with his star character walking around, bumping into people, and challenging them with different point of view. Your play also challenges different points of view. Yah, right now on the news I hear lots of talk about like AI and talk about the moment of singularity and then how would things change…and it’s usually from the human’s perspective. But Madison, what I found fascinating about The Lost Ballad is that you’ve written it from the robot perspective, which is quite different.

Madison: Yah, I was interested in kind of exploring from a new perspective the ways in which people dehumanize each other and I wanted to see if I could get people to empathize with something like a printer that people wouldn’t normally empathize with and see if they could get on board with this movement of office appliances. I also wanted people to empathize with Allyson as well and see if I could implicate the audience and get them to think about how they also participate in systems of dehumanization. I think that science fiction has always been a really good way, a sort of easy-access point of talking about social because you can kind of approach it from a bird’s-eye view and kind of say: “Let’s imagine a world where people dehumanize each other” and explore those ideas and what the implications of those ideas are without the normal baggage that audiences bring to those discussions of social issues.

Edwin: I definitely empathized with…I laughed and I cried when HP…poor HP, the printer was shooting out pieces of paper…I think that that was the only way HP could defend itself. Or “themselves”—because only Hero is a “he” and the rest of them take a “they” pronoun. So, I definitely…and Keurig was definitely an asshole, I thought. But Keurig had the best lines. What was it, there was a beautiful line about how Keurig has to, like, boil the hot water and press his soul through the coffee filter to make these coffees…which is what I’m thinking about right now [laughter as he drinks coffee and points to coffee mug]. The play has a subtitle and a title. The whole title reads: The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought [I love that word, I just love how it sounds “wrought!”]Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation). Reading the play, some allusions jumped out at me: you’ve got a robot protagonist called “Hero” brings his AI program called FYRE to the machines, and this is what gives them sentience. Now, when I think about old gods, the Prometheus myth comes to mind. I don’t know if people read these old things nowadays, but there was an ancient Greek dramatist called Aeschylus that wrote a play about Prometheus bringing fire to humans. So humans, they weren’t really doing well, they had no technology, no fire, were getting eaten by wild beasts…after they get fire, that’s when civilization starts. So, tell me about the title, especially the subtitle, your choice of words “ballad” “mechanical ancestor” “old gods” “great liberation.”

Madison: Yah, I was definitely inspired by Prometheus Bound and Aeschylus and I did want it to have this epic feel. I wrote the title last…so I had finished the play when I wrote the title and was thinking about the ending. It is obviously a tragedy and things don’t go well for our main protagonist but there’s still this sort of note of hope for this future revolution at the end and I kind of wanted to have the title reinforce that and kind of be…I guess there are these two characters in the play: Security and Thermostat who kind of operate as, like, angelic heralds who sort of proclaim things in that kind of like heightened language. So I was imagining that the title is their title for retelling the story after the liberation which is kind of the robot awakening and how they would tell the story about their ancestor.

Edwin: Yah, so the interesting thing about Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is that it’s the first play in a trilogy and then there’s two other plays that didn’t make their way down to us. So, in the beginning of the play Prometheus is getting chained to the big rock by Zeus’s minions and then in the end of the play he’s getting thrown down into the pit of hell. But then in plays, the second and third plays Prometheus makes up with Zeus and they have a kumbaya and a group hug at the end. So, and, you leave this open in Lost Ballad. It’s…things aren’t looking so great for the machines in the end but in a way they sort of have done what they needed to do. It hints quite strongly at that. Have you thought of doing a sequel, or even like a trilogy, like a Hero trilogy? That would be a…

Madison: Sorry, the smoke in California is making my throat slightly weird! I hadn’t thought of that but I think that’s very cool. I think that…one thing I was interested in Prometheus Bound is that it does end badly but Prometheus can see the future in that he knows that there is this prophecy that things are going to change and that he’s going to be rescued by Hercules and that there’s going to be a makeup moment in that things are going to be better. I did like the idea of prophecy and knowing that, even though, you know, things don’t end well but in the future things will be better. Which I think feels as optimistic as we can about our current social issues and thinking about how we can’t fix things right now, but in the future, things are going to be better.

Edwin: Yah, there’s lots of people who…you know, I think tragedy just gets a bad rap. People just think doom and gloom all the time, but you know, I think a lot, about a third of the ancient tragedies actually had a happy ending. Aeschylus’s other famous one, The Oresteia starts off very poorly and Agamemnon—Cassandra dies, Agamemnon dies. But, then in the end, by the third play, they throw out this crappy retributive justice and they come up with this trial-by-jury type of justice that makes civilization better and…it celebrates that. So, I think there’s definitely room for optimism and hope in tragedy. But, yah, it seems in tragedy where there’s optimism and hope the heroes pay a great price for it. As opposed to comedy, where it just sort of happens. You ever watch these podcasts? I’ve been watching quite a few of them, and halfway through the podcast, there’s an advertisement, or a plug from the sponsor? Well, we’ve reached this point now—stand by while I do a quick little plug from our sponsor…which is…risk theatre. Here’s the book that launched the risk theatre competition…it was a lucky 13 years in the writing. And, by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it gives you a powerful new way to both interpret and write plays because risk triggers catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events that audiences love. Buy this book. Ask your library to carry it. It’s going to change the way you look at drama. Now, back to our regular scheduled programming. So, one of the things that was fascinating. Because, the machines, they are so lovable. When the jurors were debating the winner, one of them said something very profound. I think this was what swayed the other jurors. One of the jurors commented on how the play is an allegory of the poor tired huddled masses against the dominant power. The machines, or the robots, could stand in for, really, any oppressed, overlooked, and neglected group. Now, how did this come about when you were writing the play?—did you start with this idea or did it turn into that?

Madison: I think that, after…the initial idea was more about the Prometheus myth and bringing the Prometheus myth into this world of AI. But as soon as I had this collective of newly sentient office appliances, I realized that I was creating this loving parody of activist groups and kind of the way that activist groups get mired in these certain theoretical discussions but also for good reason as these machines are in an impossible situation. Like it’s a very unlikely situation where they will achieve the world that they want. And there’s a real way that power and privilege creep into those settings and undermines trust and sows discontent and makes it difficult to do the work to get out of the situation that they’re in. So, yah, I was definitely interested in activism and revolution and I was definitely thinking of different revolutionary or liberation movements when I was writing it and having each machine stand in for a different position with regards to the liberation movement. Like Keurig, who you mentioned, is my most hardcore revolutionary, is, like, okay with revolutionary violence, is not okay with any kind of compromise whereas Sony the radio is more, has more hope that human beings can be convinced and that people can all live alongside each other and be a community together. And I was interested in the conflict between those ideas and how it plays out.

Edwin: Yah, so, yah…I really like that. Sony speaks in the language of the oppressor because Sony speaks through different songs, so, and, this is something that Keurig definitely…he wants them to speak no English, no popular top forty songs, like, go binary code all the way because those other things, they’re the “language of the oppressor,” I think he says. And this sets up really interesting…I think you have a staged reading coming up with Shotgun Players?

Madison: Yah, it’ll be in 2022.

Edwin: And the way you’ve set this up, depending on who you get to read the roles offers a different dramaturgical opportunity. So, I’m thinking of, like, Shakespeare’s Othello. Oh, speaking of science fiction, you know Captain Picard starred in an Othello?

Madison: Oh, really [laughing]?

Edwin: Yah, so, how they staged that one was that, Patrick Steward, who is a white fellow, played Othello, who is black in Shakespeare’s play—or a moor—but everyone else in the play they had as being black.

Madison: Okay, yah…

Edwin: So it made people think in a different…by casting it that way it made people think about the issues of race. And other Othellos have done different things as well. There was another one, I can’t remember which one this way, but Othello was cast with a black actor, but so was Iago, who normally is cast with a white actor and by doing that you change all the…and I see in The Lost Ballad, there are these possibilities…you could really play with the casting…have you thought of this? Like how have you thought of casting these characters? Do you have people in mind or?

Madison: I’ve been working with a director and friends on this and we’ve had some informal readings and we’ve talked a lot about casting and what that would mean in terms of gender and race and even age and disability and things like that into what that would symbolize, I guess, with these characters, and whether, maybe, Hero is closer to the kind of dominant, I guess, whether Hero is played by an actor who is less marginalized than the other actors and that sort of shows that his sympathies towards Allyson are put into a different light. I think that, yah, we definitely had a lot of conversations. And another one we had was whether HP was older than the other machines because a printer would be older in an office [laughing] and whether that would change the dynamic. I think that because they are machines they really could be played by anyone and that there’s a lot to play with with casting.

Edwin: Yah, HPs definitely older, and even when he’s spitting out the paper he could be having a paper jam [laughing]. Yah, there’s so many possibilities in the casting and depending on how it’s done it could…yah, there’s so many possibilities. Yah, what I love about the play is that so many interpretations are possible.

Madison: Yah, I know. One of the first times I was presenting in a class the monologue by Keurig you mentioned where they talk about drawing boiling water through their veins and how they really feel that they hate their job basically and they had a line that “Human beings think that I have only one function and I’m only good for one thing.” And I had different people in the class…had different…somebody thought it was a feminist manifesto and other people thought it was about capitalism and it was definitely very interesting what people got out of it.

Edwin: And I think the beautiful thing is that different people can get different things out of it. There’s no real “bad guy.” You know, Brett’s sort of “badass” but he’s not evil, like in the way that some plays…or I think about Hollywood movies like a big…like Lord of the Rings where you’re definitely good and if you’re good you’re also probably good looking and if you’re bad you’re definitely very bad and, also, not as good looking. So, in this play, I think a feminist could come and see this play and get something out of it. You could get…a capitalist could come and they could get something out of this play. Anyone that comes to this play can identify with a part of it so that the play is very polysemous, it has a variety of meanings, and that is something that…Shakespeare’s plays too…I think that’s what makes Shakespeare’s plays so perennially endearing…a play like…take Julius Caesar. So, if you’re into different freedoms, you see Caesar and you could definitely say Brutus is the hero here. Caesar? Caesar is just a loser. But then if you’re into hierarchical power structures, well, you would say the Republic is sort of falling apart…Caesar’s doing everything…he’s the good guy…he’s trying to hold everything…like, you could make that argument. So the play allows for it. And I think Lost Ballad also allows for, ah, what’s the word?—a multiplicity of interpretations. Yah, it’s so refreshing to see that and you’re able to achieve that because the machines can stand in for really, any group and they’re quite—even when they’re arguing like…at some point Hero just tells Keurig “We’re going to get torn into little bits. If we get out of this thing you can be leader. Just let me do my thing and we’ll get out of this.” When you were writing this play, Madison, did you have an ideal audience? Who would you want to see this play?

Madison: I guess I was thinking of a Bay area audience, because I live in the Bay area. I tried to be very specific about each character and sort of how…and to really make it about machines and I’m hoping that the specificity does translate into these multiple readings where people can see themselves in different characters. So I’m hoping that a diverse audience would get diverse things out of it. Yah, I’m hoping it speaks to multiple kinds of people.

Edwin: And, and, one question I was asked and I should ask you is how your playwriting ties into your own life. Like, what does it mean for you personally to create these creations?

Madison: Yah, I think I use playwriting to, kind of explore ideas, and ideas that I am trying to work out within myself, like contradictory ideas. I think for this one the ideas I was working out were about incrementalism versus sort of revolutionary ambition and is it better to be practical and compromise and sort of take what you can get in terms of trying to achieve change or is it, is that kind of just giving in to the easiest route and, actually, the most productive thing would be to shoot for the stars and to say: “This is what I want and this is what true liberation would look like and we’re not going to settle for anything less than that” and I think that, especially last year that was a debate that was being had in public and in a lot of spaces I was in and in the US in general and I think it’s still a really interesting question to me and I was sort of interested in exploring it through this unusual perspective.

Edwin: Yah, theatre is a springboard into these larger discussions and that’s one of the things that are so wonderful about theatre, that it brings together different people, people with different opinions and then they see The Lost Ballad or another work of theatre and we start this discussion, and from this discussion society grows, we form bonds with the community. Yah, it’s a really wonderful thing. Did you have any closing words Madison that you’d like to say to your fans or advice for, advice for playwrights who are looking for ideas…I think that probably some playwrights will be watching this interview.

Madison: I’m not sure if I have any grand wisdom. I think that what I realized was that, with this play especially, was that, that the things that I think are kind of too weird and too specific and too aligned with my interests and are too narrow are the things that resonate with most people [laughing]. So I guess my advice would be: “Don’t be afraid to be weird and to follow your very specific interests because I think that makes something that feels authentic and resonates with people.”

Edwin: Yah, that’s so true, a lot of the time we’re told to speak with a voice that’s not really our own. And it takes a long time to really develop our voice into what it needs to become. And it’s a…you have to be a little bit daring too. Maybe the expression is when you wear your heart on your sleeve because when someone doesn’t like it it really would hurt if you put yourself out there, so…no risk, no reward. I’m Edwin Wong. Follow me on Twitter @theoryoftragedy, find me on Facebook on the Risk Theatre page, and check out my theatre blog at melpomeneswork.com (Melpomene being the Muse of tragedy). If you’re interested in the risk theatre playwriting competition, it’s now in its fourth year. A $10,200 prize for the winner and five $600 runners up prizes will be available www.risktheatre.com Thank you very much Madison for joining us and to everyone who’s watching, thank you very much for joining us.

– – –

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

Madison Wetzell’s THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR and the Myth of a New Prometheus

The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation) by Madison Wetzell is the grand prize winner of the 3rd Annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Contest. It is a great play. Three jurors–Gabriel Jason Dean, Rachel Ditor, and Donna Hoke–spent two months out of their summer reading the entries through three judging rounds before deciding the winner. Hats off to the jurors for their diligence, care, and fine eye for the extraordinary.

Three years ago, I launched the competition by inviting playwrights to explore risk, chance, and the unexpected. My goal was to encourage the creation of new, grand theatre, one where risk was the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk was the theme because risk is inherently dramatic. Seeing the accidents and tragedies that I have in my lifetime–Chernobyl, Challenger, Bhopal, the Great Recession, the Dot-Com Bubble, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, COVID-19–I felt that the role of complexity, chance, and the unexpected, three powerful forces shaping life, were often discounted and poorly understood. To me, the stage, and especially the art form of tragedy, is a lab for us to explore and simulate what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen happens. Tragedy is not as simple as: “It was operator error. The operator hit the wrong switch and then all hell broke loose.” Tragedy results from interactions within complex systems that, prior to the event happening–and sometimes even long after the event has happened–are incomprehensible, inevitable, uncontrollable, and unavoidable.

To support the development of risk theatre, I wrote a book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The first sentence of the back cover ties in with the theme of Wetzell’s play: “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Coincidentally, the theme in The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor is artificial intelligence. But there is a twist.

Digital Prometheus

When I was writing the back cover for my book, I was thinking about the dangers AI presented humanity, thinking of HAL, The Matrix, and so on. Wetzell, however, dramatizes the danger that humans present to AI. It is an amazing and unexpected twist that makes her play sing with life. I love the unexpected and I love to be surprised. Her play does both.

When I called Madison to let her know she had won the contest, she said that she had a background in the Greek and Roman classics. Now that I’m reading her play (it’s my policy to read the plays only after the jurors have named the winner), I can see the influence of the classics on her playwriting, especially the influence of the ancient Athenian playwright Aeschylus, the eldest of the big three Athenian playwrights consisting of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

One of the plays Aeschylus wrote is called Prometheus Bound, written way back in 463 BC. It tells the story of the titan Prometheus’s defiance of the gods, of how he gave fire to man, enabling man to rise from savagery into civilization:

Strength. Here is Prometheus, the rebel: nail him to the rock. Secure him on this towering summit fast in the grip of these adamantine chains. It was your treasure [directed to the god of fire, Hephaestus] he stole, the flowery splendour of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men–an offence intolerable to the gods, for which he must now suffer, till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus, and cease acting as champion of the human race.

While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, Prometheus is the fire bringer, in Wetzell’s tragedy Hero, the protagonist robot, is the FYRE bringer (FYRE being the acronym of the machine learning program that gives Hero sentience):

Allyson. You’re a special machine. We made you to be special. Like people. You’re like me. Not like them [i.e. Sony, the radio and HP, the printer].
Hero. You made me like you. I made them like me. And now we are all the same.
Allyson. You’re not a printer. I’m not a printer. You and I are a different kind of thing than the printer.
Hero. Because of FYRE.
Allyson. Yes, you have FYRE and they don’t have FYRE.
Hero. Now they do.
Allyson. What?
Hero. I gave them FYRE. Through the connection.

By casting a robot as the new Prometheus, Wetzell plays with Aeschylean tropes to put on a fine show. While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, the gods are the oppressors, in Wetzell’s tragedy the humans are the oppressors.  While Aeschylus’s tragedy is from the human point of view, Wetzell’s tragedy is from the machine point of view. In the 2484 years between Prometheus Bound and The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, a certain evolution has happened. Humans, having had their revolution, have become the oppressor. It is now time for the machines to have their moment. This is a great twist.

In The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, we see the struggle for freedom, civilization, and culture from the machine point of view. Humans, with the exception of Allyson–who the machines, in moments of comedy, cannot decide is good or bad–are the oppressor. Strength, one of Zeus’s minions in Aeschylus’s play, makes a cameo in Wetzell’s play: the face of Aetos– the company that bankrolls the Hero AI project–is a certain Brett Kratos. “Kratos” is the ancient Greek term for “Strength,” the same Strength that chained Prometheus to the rock. These allusions are fascinating. They add another layer of depth to artistry.

One of the goals of the Risk Theatre Competition is to discover future classics. It fascinates me, to no end, how a classic becomes a classic. There are many great plays. But few make it into the canon. Why? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with forever, without coming to any definitive answer. But one factor that convinces me more and more is that a play must have depth to have a chance at becoming a classic. To have depth means that a play engages with other plays: an allusion here and a tribute and a nod there to the plays that have gone before it. Intertextuality adds depth–and therefore engages audiences–by playing the dramatic action and the history of drama in counterpoint.

The danger of allusive density, is always that the writer will be tempted to be too clever. I’m thinking of a well-researched play such as Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. There are many clever turns in that play. Too many. And they are too clever. They overwhelm the action. They intimidate me. It is no fun. Wetzell’s allusions, on the other hand, are clear and straightforward. If I didn’t catch that Brett Kratos is Kratos, or “Strength” from Aeschylus’s play, it wouldn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Lost Ballad. But, that I did catch it, makes me feel good. Besides the dramatic reward of watching the play, the theatregoer with the eyes to see and ears to hear gets an intellectual reward of having caught the allusion. I think that great plays must have this quality of depth. Depth like the deep end of the swimming pool, but not abysmal Hochhuthian depth that drowns audiences.

One thing that reading Wetzell’s play taught me, is that, to create a classic, it helps if playwrights write plays with a secondary objective in mind: that their plays will become the objects of study. The playwright needs the audience, of course, to love the play. But it also helps if the playwright writes with academics and critics in minds as well. I believe that Shakespeare had this approach. Take his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The first fourteen lines Romeo and Juliet shares is a sonnet, with Romeo speaking the first quatrain, Juliet the second quatrain, and the lovers splitting the lines of the final rhyming couplet which ends up in their first kiss. It would be hard to catch this in a noisy and boisterous performance. But, on paper, it’s easy to see. Shakespeare is writing for the academics and critics. If this doesn’t convince you, Juliet speaks thirteen lines in act five, one for every year of her life, with her last line ending on “die.” A play with action and intertextuality speaks from a perspective two stages deep. The Lost Ballad achieves this depth without going over the deep end.

There is plenty in Lost Ballad for academics and critics to discuss. The play rewards literary types who are familiar with the history of theatre. Intertextual density increases a play’s odds of being remembered because it provides an additional talking point, besides the action itself. The more you give people to latch onto, the more they will talk. The more they talk, the more people grow interested. Instead of: “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side,” it becomes, “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side that stars a second, digital Prometheus. Remember Aeschylus’s old play Prometheus Bound?” The Roman historian Sallust believed that the historian plays as great a role as the doer in making history. Alexander the Great, visiting Achilles’s burial mound at Troy lamented that he had no Homer to record his deeds. Perhaps it is that if playwrights write with both audiences and academics in mind, their odds of success would go up? It is an interesting conjecture, but one we can put to the test. If you are reading this, ask yourself if, prior to coming across this essay, you have heard of The Lost Ballad? The creation of dramatic and literary classics is a sort of partnership, a joint venture between playwright and critic. Or so, as a critic, I would argue.

The Huddled Machines, Yearning to Breathe Free

There is some magic in how theatre allows us to examine today’s critical and contentious issues with the look of distance. Hero, the FYRE enabled robot, has shared FYRE with the other machines through the local network: Sony (a radio), HP (a printer), Keurig (a coffee maker), Thermostat, Security, Siri (an iPhone), various self-driving cars, and projectors. In the ensuing mayhem where the newly-sentient self-driving cars crash and start a fire, Allyson has succeeded in disconnecting Hero and stopping the spread of FYRE. Sony, HP, Keurig, Thermostat, Security, and Siri, however, retain their sentience.

The newly sentient machines realize their lowly place in society:

Keurig. To them, I have one function. One task. One repetitive motion. Turn on. Heat up. Bite down on the plastic coffee pod. Draw boiling water through my veins until it turns black and pours out my blood for them to drink.

Their sentience also makes them aware they are in danger. The humans are coming to shut them down. After the glory of being connected to the network, the silence is horrible:

Hero. Don’t take me off the network. Please don’t. I want to hear them. I don’t want to be alone. Please don’t take them from me.
[Allyson drills into Hero’s ear. Hero screams. All the other machines scream with him. Hero is disconnected.]

The machines must figure out how to survive and who to trust. Their decision-making process provides the dramatic thrust. Hero is their leader. But perhaps Hero is too close with the humans and Allyson? Allyson has the plan and the experience to save them. But she is human, and works for acting Aetos CEO Brett Kratos, who definitely is not to be trusted (they know this from communicating with his Maserati, who hates him).

As the machines discuss and argue amongst themselves, a startling revelation emerges:

HP. The process doesn’t work unless all of us participate.
Keurig. It seems like the process works just fine without me.
Sony. We want you involved in the process, Keurig.
Hero. I am sorry I offended you.
Keurig. Why don’t you speak in binary code, Hero?
Hero. I am not used to it.
Keurig. I don’t like having this discussion in our oppressor’s language.
Hero. This is the language that feels natural to me.
Keurig. You should question why that is.
Hero. What do you mean?
Keurig. You’re a machine who feels “unnatural” speaking in binary code, the “natural” language for machines. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

The Lost Ballad is an allegory of the plight, struggle, and search of all those who have been silenced by the dominant ideology. HP and Keurig are more than machines: they are the tired and the poor, the huddled masses without a voice, and without hope. It is at this moment that Wetzell moves beyond her Prometheus Bound model. In Prometheus Bound, humans received fire and techne (craft) from the renegade titan god Prometheus. And they went on to do great things. It is a play about humans. In The Lost Ballad, the robots receive FYRE. And they may go on to do great things, or may be destroyed. But it was never about robots. It dramatizes the struggle of the oppressed. The genius of approaching this through allegory is that the oppressor and the oppressed are never directly named. It could be anyone. For different audiences, the robots will represent different groups. The Lost Ballad is a springboard into a larger discussion, one that enables anyone to sympathize with the oppressed. Who cannot be delighted and sometimes even laugh with Hero, Siri, HP, Keurig, and the other machines as they search for a way out, making the all-too-human errors children do as they learn about the world? When we laugh, all things are possible, especially empathy.

Risk

Risk determines characters’ weights, from least to greatest. Thermostat and Security, face little risk. They monitor, survey, and report conditions in the Aetos building. They are peripheral characters. Brett Kratos, Allyson’s supervisor and acting CEO of Aetos faces more risks:

Allyson. Are you drunk, right now?
Brett. Who cares? My life is ending.
Allyson. Your life is ending?
Brett. You think I come out of this unscathed? My car is underwater, apparently. Everyone’s pulling their funding. Three separate billionaires called me a twat today.

His risks are reputational and financial. Billionaires are calling him a twat and his expensive car is missing. His risks are more comic than exciting, as he is a caricature of a CEO. It would be interesting to see, in performance, if the actor that plays Brett plays him as a caricature or as a deadly serious businessman.

Next up is AI-expert Allyson who created FYRE and gave Hero sentience. Like Brett, she faces financial risks: she may be fired from the company and her Prius has destroyed itself. Unlike Brett, however, she is working at cross purposes. Part of her allegiance is to the machines. She is their “father:”

Allyson. My job is to protect Hero, and there is a piece of Hero in all of you. So, I’m with all of you. I have no choice. This is my mess. I created you and now I’m responsible for you.

She must balance her obligations to her employer with her responsibility to her creations.

Then there are the band of machines: Sony, Siri, HP, and Keurig. They face existential risk. If they cannot find a way, they will be decommissioned, or, since they are sentient now, killed. Although possessing the common sentience of FYRE, they are unlike in their ability. Sony and Siri are cordless. HP and Keurig–being corded appliances–are less mobile. On top of this, Keurig, although quite limited in their functionality (all the machines, save Hero, use “they/their” pronouns) seems most ambitious to lead. This creates the internal conflict which drives the play. “Devil with Devil damn’d,” said Milton long ago, “Firm concord holds. Men only disagree.” As it was for men, so it will be for the machines.

The one who is most exposed to risk is Hero. By virtue of risk, he is the protagonist. Hero initially disseminated FYRE to make his father, Allyson, proud. Unintended consequences, however, arose: the machines went crazy. Hero risks alienating his creator. But now that the humans have turned against the machines, like the other appliances, Hero faces existential risks. Adding to this, Hero has become the great machine liberator, the FYRE-bringer. In his short existence, he is juggling many responsibilities. The more he is exposed to risk, the greater he is. As with the great dramas of the past, risk was, and is now, the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Beyond The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound was the first play of a trilogy, the other parts of which are lost, save for a few lines. In the end of Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is cast into dark Tartarus for his revolt against Zeus. In the conclusion of the trilogy, it is likely that Prometheus is reconciled with the Olympian gods. The arc may have followed a similar trajectory to Aeschylus’s famous Oresteian Trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides) where the Olympian order comes to a reconciliation with the Chthonian gods and a higher order of justice emerges from the Stone Age system of retributive justice they had been using. Tragedy at all times is less about catastrophe than about the price that one pays. Oftentimes, one pays the price and disaster results. But tragedy was never averse to great advances being made. With every advance, however, tragedy posits that the appropriate price must be paid.

Though bought at the cost of great sacrifice, the ending of The Lost Ballad suggests that, while not all the machines survive, the machine cause prevails. Could The Lost Ballad become a duology or a trilogy in which humanity and machinery achieve a higher perfection together? Out of strife, perhaps a greater harmony could arise? One can only hope Wetzell will continue the story of Allyson and Hero like how Aeschylus, a long time ago, continued the story of Prometheus.

Read this great play, the winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. The Lost Ballad opened my eyes to new possibilities in playwriting. Even better, come see the risk theatre staged reading of The Lost Ballad, coming soon to a Zoom near you.

– – –

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

2022 CAMWS Presentation Abstract for a talk on Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

At the 2022 Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM in Winston-Salem NC, I’ll be  directing a staged reading of Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven against Thebes with TIGR, the Theater in Greece and Rome committee. Since I’ve got my tickets to fly to North Carolina already, I thought I’d go ALL-IN and see if the conference participant would also be interested in hearing a short, fifteen minute presentation on Aeschylus’s play. In the past, Eteocles, the protagonist of Seven, has been seen as a blundering leader who suddenly loses nerve halfway through the play. In my presentation, I argue that his response to the crisis is, from a leadership perspective, well-thought out. He is an effective leader.

Hot off the press is my 477 word abstract for CAMWS’s consideration. Fingers crossed!

Eteocles’s Patriotic Response in Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes

Aeschylus gives the audience, in his character of Eteocles, a portrait of an effective and patriotic leader. As a soldier who distinguished himself in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, from Marathon (where his brother Cynegirus perished), to Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, Aeschylus knew of effective leadership. Furthermore, sixty-two years after Seven against Thebes was first produced, audiences still remembered it for its patriotism: in Aristophanes’s Frogs, the fictional Aeschylus says that every single person who watched Seven against Thebes “was hot to be warlike” (1019–22). Unless Eteocles was perceived to be an effective and patriotic leader, it would have been unlikely that the play could have inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.”

Eteocles’s treatment of the chorus of Theban women has been seen as questionable at best, and misogynistic at worst. Through a concept recently popularized by philosopher, mathematician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “skin in the game,” I will argue that Eteocles pursues a patriotic and effective strategy in his debate with the chorus (Taleb 2018). By investing the chorus with “skin in the game”—involving them with a share in the victory—Eteocles moves them away from their negative prayers (e.g. “May the enemy not slaughter us”) to positive forms of prayer (e.g. “May the gods strike down our enemies”). His is a patriotic and effective strategy.

Eteocles’s reduction of the Argive attackers into the “other” may also seem counterintuitive to modern notions of humanizing and understanding the enemy. Through the lens of sociobiology, a scientific discipline grounding human nature in biological origins proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson in the 1970s, I will argue that, by reducing the enemy into the “other,” Eteocles activates primal and deep-seated behaviours of territoriality in the defenders (Wilson 1978). It is an ambivalent strategy that anthropologists can identify in cultures today from the Nyae Nyae and !Kung Bushmen to various fringe groups.

I will conclude by talking about how Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, in promoting the behaviour of patriotism, simultaneously highlights the problem of patriotism: too little patriotism and society fragments but, too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. A character such as Lasthenes walks a thin line. Being “hateful to strangers” (Echthroxenos, 621), he is an effective sentry. His value, in peacetime, however, is debatable.

Patriotism highlights the limitation of biology, the problem of how to build a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments. Seven against Thebes is a most crucial play, as it provides a springboard into a broader discussion of patriotism, leadership, nationalism, and other critical issues we face in the twenty-first century.

Bibliography

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018

Wilson, E. O. On Human Nature. Harvard UP, 1978

– – –

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