Tag Archives: Aeschylus

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

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.

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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.

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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

A Risk Theatre Reading of Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven Against Thebes, winner of the Dionysia in 467 BCE, separates the impulse of patriotism into its constituent ideologies, emotions, and behaviours. In Seven, the spark of patriotism is kindled by the opening flourish of bugle calls. When, through the pathetic fallacy, homeland becomes motherland, the spark becomes a flame. Then, calling the gods and the fervour of religion under its banner, the flame becomes a fire. Finally, by drawing a line between us and them, the fire becomes a blaze. Individuality is seared away, revealing the archetypes behind the human mask, the ancient compulsions that speak through the heraldic devices emblazoned on the warriors’ arms. Aeschylus, by dramatizing a city besieged, presents a perfect prism which refracts the intense blaze of patriotism into a scintillating rainbow of ideologies, emotions, and behaviours that, while touching every facet of the human experience, is bound together by the biological imperatives underlying human nature.

Although remembered today as the father of tragedy and the eldest of the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Aeschylus was a soldier and a patriot. He fought in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, where a motley consortium of bickering city-states checked the Persian Empire. In 490 BCE, he distinguished himself in the hoplite ranks at Marathon, where his brother, Cynegirus, perished. He fought in 480 at Artemisium and Salamis, and at Plataea in 479 when freedom came to Greece (Herodotus 6.114).

In the second century CE, the travel writer Pausanias visited Athens. He was surprised to learn that Aeschylus’s patriotism took such pride of place that the poet neglected to recollect his other achievements on his epitaph:

Aeschylus, who had won such renown for his poetry and for his share in the naval battles before Artemisium and at Salamis, recorded at the prospect of death nothing else, and merely wrote his name, his father’s name, and the name of his city, and added that he had witnesses to his valor in the grove at Marathon and in the Persians who landed there. (1.14.5)

The Athenians, however, remembered him as a poet and a patriot. The fifth century had been the Athenian century, the century where backwoods Athens had risen against empire only to itself become empire. Towards the end of the century, however, Athens was fighting for survival, exhausted by plague, stasis, and the Peloponnesian War. In 405 bce, Aristophanes’s comedy Frogs was produced. The nostalgic play reflects on Athens’s heyday, when civic poets promoted civic virtues, taking the city from peak to peak. In its reflections, it intertwines Aeschylus’s poetry with his patriotism.

In Frogs—which is named after the chorus of frogs that inhabit the lake at the entrance to the underworld—all the great tragic poets are dead. The tragic poets were the ones who had inculcated the Athenians with a sense of virtue and responsibility by holding the reflecting mirror of Achilles, Patroclus, and the role models of myth before the youth. In the logic of Frogs, Athens could be saved if a poet-saviour could be brought back from the dead. Dionysus, the god of tragedy, goes to the underworld where he judges a poetic agon between the two leading candidates: Aeschylus and Euripides. He will bring the winner back to life. Though a comedy, the urgency for a saviour was real. Athens stood on the brink. If it seems strange to ask a poet to save the city, remember that then, the division of labour was less pronounced. If moderns lived like the ancients, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams would also be a field commander, four-star general Colin Powell would write Broadway hits, and playwright Caridad Svich would be Pope. Those were different times.

In their contest, Euripides’s ghost establishes the qualities that poets bring to the table. They offer “skill and good council” and “make people better members of their communities” (1009-10). Aeschylus responds with Seven:

EURIPIDES. And just how did you train them to be so noble?

DIONYSUS. Speak up, Aeschylus, and don’t be purposefully prideful and difficult.

AESCHYLUS. By composing a play chock-full of Ares.

DIONYSUS. Namely?

AESCHYLUS. My Seven Against Thebes; every single man who watched it was hot to be warlike. (1019-22)

When Frogs was produced, the real Euripides had been dead a year and Aeschylus fifty. Sixty-two years separated Seven from Frogs. Despite the recency bias in Euripides’s favour, Aeschylus prevails. In real life, however, Aeschylus was not coming back. Six months after Frogs, Athens fell. That, in the fantasy of Frogs, Aeschylus could be imagined as such a saviour, however, testifies to the enduring vision of nobility in Seven, a play which set fire to the flames of patriotism, the most patriotic of plays by the most patriotic of poets. In the character of Eteocles, Aeschylus gives us a patriot’s portrait of a patriot.

ETEOCLES’S STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Seven begins with Thebes, the city of seven gates, under siege. After an initial ranging of powers, the enemy mounts a final, all-in assault. In his war room atop the acropolis, Eteocles coordinates the defense. His is a master class in statecraft.

In his opening address to the Thebans, Eteocles delivers his vision of patriotism. Patriotism begins with a contradiction. While god is responsible for success, Eteocles himself is responsible for failure:

ETEOCLES. For if we win success, the God is the cause

but if—may it not chance so—there is disaster,

throughout the town, voiced by its citizens,

a multitudinous swelling prelude

cries on one name “Eteocles” with groans. (4-8: Grene translation)

Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic defies logic. It appears lopsided because Eteocles is pursuing two strategies that, considered singly, are at odds, but, considered together, amplify one another. His first strategy is to motivate the Thebans by rousing their blind and irrational hopes. Hope, as Aeschylus notes in another play, is one of the sapiens’s two greatest possessions:

CHORUS. Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?

PROMETHEUS. I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.

CHORUS. What cure did you provide them with against that sickness?

PROMETHEUS. I placed in them blind hopes.

CHORUS. That was a great gift you gave men.

PROMETHEUS. Besides this, I gave them fire. (Prometheus Bound 249-54)

Though despair whispers the day is lost, blind hope never surrenders. What is more, by invoking “god” and “success” together, Eteocles amplifies blind hope with the sum of his compatriots’ faith, their religiosity, and all their beliefs in providence. This is no longer blind hope, but a seeing hope kindled by religious fervour. They are on the acropolis. They see the temples, monumental projections of power. The emotion of hope coupled with the human predisposition to belief is a winning combination.

If the gods take credit for success, it stands that they should take the blame for failure. Anthropologist James George Frazer records many such instances in The Golden Bough. In one example, during a six month drought, the Sicilians abused the statue of Saint Angelo, their patron rainmaker. They stripped him, reviled him, put him in irons, and threatened him with drowning and hanging (86). In another example, he records how the Chinese would alternately praise or censure their gods. Compliant gods were raised to a higher level of divinity by imperial decree. Recalcitrant gods, however, were deposed and stripped of the rank of deity (85). Eteocles, however, takes an asymmetric approach to the assignment of praise and blame. Why?

Eteocles recognizes that an effective leader cannot transfer the risk of failure to others. Leaders who transfer risk are perceived by their constituents to lack skin in the game. Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad illustrates the shortcomings of a skinless leader. Although Agamemnon apologizes to Achilles for inciting their ruinous quarrel, he transfers the underlying blame to Zeus, Fate, and the Erinys (19.87). “They made me do it,” he says. What a daft apology. So too, Agamemnon points the finger at Zeus when, facing mounting losses, he proposes to evacuate Troy. Though god was responsible for their setbacks, this is not something he can say. He is immediately rebuked by a junior commander, and to the resounding thorubus of his joint chiefs of staff (9.17-51). Unlike Agamemnon, Eteocles recognizes that leaders who wish to unify their peoples must bear responsibility. His second strategy, therefore, involves shouldering the blame.

By holding himself accountable, Eteocles aligns his interests with his constituents’ interests. He has skin in the game. The principle of skin in the game finds that, the higher the personal cost of failure, the more one is incentivized to perform. Knowing that, if their ship of state goes down, Eteocles goes down with them, is a great reassurance to his constituents.[1] They expect that Eteocles, in saving his own skin, will save them all.

In the final examination, Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic, while lopsided, works in real life. It activates the emotion of hope, engages the mind’s predisposition to religious belief, and unifies leaders and constituents by giving leaders skin in the game. Patriotism is the mood of an animal under stress, the outpourings of a human nature for which reason is a last resort. Patriotism prefers blind hopes, fast heuristics, deep-seated beliefs, and other strategies predating novel reason.

In the second half of his state of the union address, Eteocles states the motherland doctrine. For a patriot, the concept of homeland is too small to fire hearts. It must be amplified by the pathetic fallacy. The pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities onto inanimate nature. By personifying the land into a motherland, Eteocles adds urgency to the defensive effort. They fight for mother earth, the original mother:

ETEOCLES. Help Earth your Mother.

She reared you, on her kindly surface, crawling

babies, welcomed all the trouble of your nurture,

reared you to live in her, to carry a shield

in her defense, loyally, against such needs as this. (16-20)

Filial devotion due a biological mother is transferred onto the home range. The land is alive, suckling its babes. Every Theban who has drank her milk is her debtor. By turning mother’s milk into an intoxicating wine, Eteocles takes kinship, the most fundamental of relationships for sapiens and other social animals, and appropriates it for homeland security.

Patriotism is one of the most dynamic and encompassing forces of the human mind. By vesting human hopes onto the gods, the quality of patriotism engages the human predisposition towards religious belief, itself a primal calling going back at least sixty-thousand years to the Neanderthals, who buried their dead in elaborate funerary rites (Rendu et al. 81-6). Likewise, by transforming the home range into the myth of the motherland, patriotism repurposes for its own objectives the behaviour of altruism and fundamental notions of kinship and family. Social organization, emotions, behaviours, cult, and mythology, however, are only the starting points of patriotism, which is so much more. There is still to consider in- and out-groups, the higher ideologies, self-sacrifice, and monumental art, of which Seven itself is a bright example.

Us and Them

In Seven, there are two sets of us and them, one inside the gates, one at the gates. The first set of us and them are represented by Eteocles and the defenders of Thebes, on the one hand, and the chorus, on the other hand. The second set of us and them are represented by the two sets of seven captains: one defending and the other besieging Thebes. Eteocles’s goal is to unify “us” inside the gates and destroy “them” outside the gates. After his opening speech, he encounters the first them: the chorus of Theban women. They are making their way to the temples on the acropolis.

The chorus are terrified. They have seen “the wave of warriors, with waving plumes,” the “Horse of the White Shield / well equipped, hastening upon our city,” and “the jagged rocks they hurl / upon our citizens” (89-90, 112, 299-300). They have heard trampling hoofs, whirring spears, and screeching axles bruiting impending rapine, rape, and ruin (84, 153, 155). They come to prostrate themselves:

CHORUS. Shall I kneel at the images of the Gods?

O Blessed Ones, throned in peace,

It is time to cling to your images.

We delay and wail too much. (96-9)

Frazzled, the chorus say their raggedy prayers. Some turn to Zeus. “Zeus, Father Omnipotent! all fulfilling!” says one, “Let us not fall into the hands of the foeman!” (118-9). “Cypris, who are our ancestress,” says another, “turn destruction away” (140-1). After addressing the deities individually, they address the divine collective:

CHORUS. O Gods all sufficient,

O Gods and Goddesses, Perfecters,

Protectors of our country’s forts,

do not betray this city, spear-won,

to a foreign-tongued enemy. (166-70)

As the chorus say their broken prayers, Eteocles falls on them, rebuking them with strong words. To Eteocles, the chorus are either with him or against him:

ETEOCLES. You insupportable creatures, I ask you,

is this the best, is this for the city’s safety,

is this enheartening for our beleaguered army,

to have you falling at the images

of the city’s gods crying and howling,

an object of hatred for all temperate souls? (181-6)

The chorus protest: they were afraid; they ran to the gods; their actions fall in line with custom (211-6). Eteocles and the chorus engage in a stichomythic, back and forth exchange:

CHORUS. I am afraid: the din at the gates grows louder.

ETEOCLES. Silence! Do not speak of this throughout the city.

CHORUS. O Blessed Band, do not betray this fort.

ETEOCLES. Damnation! Can you not endure in silence?

CHORUS. Fellow-citizen Gods, grant me not to be a slave.

ETEOCLES. It is you who enslave yourselves, and all the city. (249-54)

Many years later, the great magician Faustus, having achieved world dominion, perhaps at too great a price, was looking for another way. He calls on God. “I do repent,” he says, “and yet I do despair” (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus 5.1.69). His is a negative prayer filled with self-doubt, spoken from the point of view of the damned. God spits it out. Eteocles’s quarrel with the chorus is precisely this: their prayers are negative prayers, spoken from the loser point of view. “Grant me not to be a slave” and “do not betray this city,” though prayers, lack skin in the game. Vanquishers have their prayers and the vanquished theirs. The chorus’ prayers are those of the vanquished.

Eteocles gives them a better prayer, one with skin in the game, one that partakes and has a share of victory. It begins by invoking the gods as the city’s allies, a joyous paean of thanksgiving promising them hearths flowing with the blood of sacrificed sheep and slaughtered bulls, their altars adorned with the foe’s spoils (264-79). Although they need time to adjust, the chorus rejoin Eteocles’s in-group.

The exchange between Eteocles and the chorus illustrates how patriotism overwhelms reason. Patriotism is like the instinct that jumps back from the snake even before the higher mental processes establish the nature of the serpent threat. So too, the chorus’ initial position may have been innocuous, and Eteocles’s binary arguments fallacious. But first survival: there will be time for logic after, if they live. In crises, instinct comes before reason and morale before logic. Eteocles, by unifying the city, checks off another box on the patriot’s rulebook. But there is still another them: the barbarians at the gates.

Patriotism strips humans of their personality and individuality. Once patriotism separates a man from his multitudes, what is left behind is a type, a caricature, a sign and representation of the raw biological forces animating the man. In the sequence leading up to the play, Eteocles had sent a Messenger to spy on the Argive camp. The Messenger, having learned the identities of the seven attacking captains, returns. As he relays the information to Eteocles, he systematically deindividuates the foe until all that is left of the man is his shield device, the proud advertisement blazoned on his shield. Deindividuation is part and parcel of patriotism’s process.

Stripped of his humanity, a man becomes an abstract representation. Polyneices is become the idea of justice, advertising on his shield a woman identifying herself as Justice leading a man—ostensibly himself—home (642-9). Others expose their animality. Tydeus stands ready to strike like a serpent (381). In Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus, the madness of the chthonian powers, hateful to civilization and the bright gods, breaks out. One has the fire-breathing monster Typhon blazoned on his shield, the other the Sphinx (493, 541). Through their devices, the two captains are reduced into savage personifications of madness and unreason. Others become caricatures of blasphemy. At the third gate, Eteoclus carries a shield on which:

A man in armor mounts a ladder’s steps

to the enemy’s town to sack it. Loud

cries also this man in his written legend

“Ares himself shall not cast me from the tower.” (466-69)

Capaneus goes further. He will sack the city “with the Gods’ good will or ill” (425-9). Parthenopaeus vaunts that he will sack Thebes “in despite of Zeus” (532). In this deindividuated world of patriotism where the abstract symbolic device stands in for the person, even a blank shield is a sign. Amphiaraus’s lack of a shield device signifies how “He is best not at seeming to be such / but being so” (591-2).

Patriotism is frugal, and typology is a sort of mental frugality. One is never oneself, but a sign, a sign of justice, a sign of animality, a sign of darkness and evil. Shield devices, vaunts, and even names are signs. Parthenopaeus, whose name means “the maiden one,” represents war’s rite of passage where a boy becomes a killer (532-8). Once the crowd have become types, it is easier to categorize them into in- and out-groups, the former bent on multiplying its seed and the latter on destroying it. Binary mentalities are a survival heuristic, practiced not only by the sapiens, but also by their animal precursors from ant colonies to baboon troops. Patriotism is not such a new thing. Patriotism started long ago.

Patriotism also demands that the defending captains become types. One defender is a sentry “hostile to strangers” (“Echthroxenos;” 621). Patriotism has distilled Lasthenes into that one quality. It is sufficient. Such is also the fate of Melanippus and Polyphontes, who are reduced into their elemental qualities. The former hates “insolent words” and the latter is “a man of fiery spirit” (410, 447). Other defenders are likewise stripped down. In a roll call of sons, one defender is the “son of Astacus,” another “Creon’s son,” and a third the “son of Oenops” (408, 474, 505). By emphasizing genealogy, Eteocles gives his troops skin in the game: sons must equal fathers. When even skin in the game is insufficient, he gives them land in the game: two defenders—Melanippus and Megareus—are born from the race of sown men, the original founders of Thebes who sprang up autochthonous, from the soil itself. In becoming types, they put on the uniform of patriotism.

In the narrative of us and them, not only human reason, but human madness breaks out. The invaders, though Argives speaking a common language, are called “a foreign-tongued enemy” (170). The unreason of patriotism in bending the truth may be motivated by hidden biological prime movers. Anthropologists have identified in early hunter-gatherers evidence of a binary mentality cleaving sapiens into in- and out-group members. The Nyae Nyae, for example, a group of !Kung hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari desert “speak of themselves as perfect and clean and other !Kung people as alien murderers who use deadly poisons” (Wilson 92).

Patriotism may be, speculates biologist Edward O. Wilson, a behaviour encoded into our genes through eons of evolution, allowing the sapiens who exhibited such impulses to multiply. In this light, patriotism is a hypertrophy and cultural outgrowth of an innate tribalism that unites kin groups into bands (82-92). Too little patriotism, and Thebes falls. Too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. Patriotism, like so many other all-too-human impulses, is on the spectrum. Lasthenes, with his Stone Age xenophobia, makes a good sentry. His value in peacetime, however, may be debatable. The limitation of biology is one of the issues with building a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments.

A Delivery Mechanism

Like a megaton bomb, the dramatic payload of Seven sits idle until Aeschylus devises an appropriate vehicle with which to target his audience. The outcome of Seven is part of myth. Myth is a great spoiler: the theatregoers know myth through and through. To make the theatregoers “hot to be warlike,” Aeschylus needed a powerful delivery system to sidestep the audience’s knowledge. In chance and the random element, Aeschylus found a far-shooting ballistic rocket whereby he could take an outcome, known to all the theatregoers, and explode it in the face of the play’s unsuspecting characters.

By making chance responsible for the fated outcome and by subjectively and objectively suppressing the odds of the fated outcome happening, Aeschylus brings myth to life. The audience, until the last second, sits in thrall, wondering how to reconcile what they know must happen with the contradictory data presented on stage. The greatness of drama lies in the dramatic sleight-of-hand in making the inevitable seem to have been impossible.

The fated outcome is that Eteocles and Polyneices will die by mutual fratricide. This is civil war. Polyneices returns to reclaim the throne. The play is structured so that the fated outcome takes place only if both brothers are assigned the seventh gate. Chance enters the play through the gate assignations. The seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—and the seven defending captains—one of whom is Eteocles—are all assigned their gates by lot.[2]

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event happening is the product of its constituent probabilities. The odds of rolling snake eyes, or two ones on a pair of six-sided dice are 1:36 (1:6 * 1:6). On that analogy, the likelihood of the fated outcome happening is 1:49, as each of the brothers has a 1:7 chance of being assigned the seventh gate. The probability, therefore, of the fated outcome happening is exceedingly low. In random simulations with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 48 out of 49 times the fated outcome will be averted.

Aeschylus begins his suppression of the fated outcome by dealing the captains their assignations by random lot. Though his audience lacked access to modern probability theory (which arose in the Italian Renaissance with the work of gambler-mathematician Gerolamo Cardano), they grasped the fundamental notion of intuitive probability.[3] Ancient Greek had a term eikos which denoted probability or likelihood in the modern sense (“Eikos”). “To succeed in many things, or many times, is difficult,” writes Aristotle, “for instance, to repeat the same throw ten thousand times with dice would be impossible, whereas to make it once or twice is comparatively easy” (On the Heavens 292a).

Aeschylus’s audience would have understood that, from the randomness built into the gate selection process, the fated outcome would have been implausible. That Aeschylus encourages his audience to think about probability can be seen in the play’s aleatory references. Hermes is invoked in his capacity as the god of lots who brings captains together for mortal combat (508).[4] Ares throws dice to single out the quick from the dead (414). Even specific throws are alluded to. “I will take six men, myself to make a seventh,” says Eteocles as he initiates the defense. “The number 6 + 1,” notes Roisman, “was considered an unlucky throw in the six sided dice” (22). Seven is a most probabilistic play, aleatory and ludic, a game of chance and a game of death.

Through the lottery device, Aeschylus begins to suppress the fated outcome. Then, in a wonderful marvelous masterstroke, he discounts the odds of the fated outcome from 48:1 against to 25,401,599:1 against. Never did the waters of artistic imagination rise so high as when he painted the inevitable as nigh impossible. To dam back possibility’s flood, he engineered an architectural marvel: the monumental shield scene.

The shield scene consists of seven matched speeches between Eteocles and the Messenger, each separated by an intervening prayer from the chorus. The Messenger has been collecting intelligence. He has seen the seven hostile captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations, has seen their shield devices, has heard their vaunts. He informs Eteocles of the threats. As the Messenger identifies each captain, Eteocles draws a lot to assign a defender. Having assigned the defender, he analyzes the tale of the tape.

In this peculiar battle, men do not fight. Because patriotism has reduced men into types and abstractions, it becomes a proxy battle where signs and representations clash. By examining the clash of representations, Eteocles can see whether the gods are on his side. Chance has brought the combatants together, but chance is not random. The casting of lots was a means of divination. Through the crack of chance, the gods reveal their will.

The tale of the tape at the first six gates favours Eteocles beyond any reasonable doubt. If the enemy has Typhon blazoned on his shield, he is, through a strange synchronicity, paired against a defender sporting the image of Zeus (511-20). In mythology, Zeus tamed Typhon. If the enemy is a blasphemer, he just happens to be paired against a defender “honoring the throne of Modesty” (409). If the enemy appears to be sprung from the race of giants, he is, against all odds, paired with a defender who has the “favor of Artemis / and of the other Gods” (449-50). As the giants fell, so too, in this new Gigantomachy, the gods will prevail.

In addition to the overwhelming objective indications of victory, every subjective indication also points away from the fated outcome: enemy morale is such that they have already sent home memorial tokens (49-50); the enemy’s sacrifices are unfavourable (379); infighting plagues the enemy ranks (382-4). While every Theban—from Eteocles to the soldiers, women, old men, and young boys stand united—the enemy stands divided. The certainty that the foe is doomed rises to a pitch when the Messenger announces that, at the sixth gate, the best of the Argives—the prophet-warrior Amphiaraus—lays into Polyneices, telling him that his leading a foreign army home is an abomination to the gods. What is more, Amphiaraus says that he expects to be struck dead, such is the sacrilege of their expedition (571-89).

At this moment, time stands still. The odds of the fated outcome were unlikely. The pairings at each of the gates portend victory. The enemy is divided. Eteocles basks in the moral certainty of victory. It is almost a foregone conclusion. The chorus capture the moment of jubilation. In the beginning of the shield scene, the chorus, although undergoing rehabilitation, were still singing the fall of Thebes. Their prayers at the initial gates talk of success, but also of dying friends, ravishment, and fear (420-2, 455-6, 565). In other words, negative prayers. At the sixth gate, however, they find their stride in a devastating triumphant prayer calling on Zeus to “strike down and slay” the foe (629-30). The halcyon moment, however, is brief. The Messenger proceeds to the seventh gate, telling Eteocles his brother awaits. Eteocles, having dispatched the other captains, suddenly realizes the gods call him to die.

What are the odds that Eteocles would be encouraged by six perfect pairings only to be cast down in the end? In other words, what are the odds that Melanippus confronts Tydeus at the first gate, Polyphontes confronts Capaneus at the second gate, and that all the pairings took place as they did up to Lasthenes confronting Amphiaraus at the sixth gate? According to the law of permutations, the formula for the number of unique arrangements possible with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial 7!  (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1) or 5040. Since there are seven attackers and defenders, to find out how many permutations exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. By suppressing the odds of the fated outcome to a nonce quantity, Aeschylus animates the myth. Never again in the millenniums afterwards, neither in Greece nor in the lands that practice the art of playwriting, has a playwright dared to dramatize a deed so explosively blowing apart the possible and the probable.

Though Aeschylus’s audience lacked a working theory of combinations and permutations, the Greeks did have a term sumplokē “intertwining, complication, or combination” to denote this sort of combinatorial analysis (“Sumplokē”). “Xenocrates asserted,” says Plutarch, “that the number of syllables which the letters will make in combinations is 1,002,000,000,000” (Moralia 733a). Plutarch also records that the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, postulating the number of illnesses that arise from the different combinations of food and drink on the body, turned to a combinatorial analysis. Through an analogy, Chrysippus calculated that, from ten simple propositions (representing different foods and drink), over a million compound combinations (representing different ailments) were possible (732f). Chrysippus and Xenocrates’s attempts demonstrate that Aeschylus’s audience would have been able to infer the enormous range of possibilities in seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders. If their calculations are indicative, Aeschylus’s audience, if anything, would have grossly overestimated the possible permutations, making the play even more dramatic in its rebel probability.

The thrill of drama, is not, as Aristotle claimed, to bring about the probable outcome, but, is rather the opposite, to bring about the most improbable outcome, the one that is 25,401,599:1 against (Poetics 1451a; Wong 206-17). Here is no pity and fear, but rather wonder and awe, wonder at how, each time a pair of captains who are not the brothers goes to the gates, the fated outcome seems subjectively further away, but is objectively closer—although 25,401,600 permutations had been available at gate one, only four permutations remain at gate six—and awe for how Eteocles—like Caesar at the Capitol or Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton at the Nobel Prize ceremony—stood highest when closest to the fall.[5] As Aeschylus brings the hammer down on Eteocles, however, he also exalts him. The highest form of patriotism is self-sacrifice: it separates run-of-the-mill from purple-hearted patriots. Though Eteocles dies, in dying Aeschylus vouchsafes him patriotism’s crowning glory.

The Ancient Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy

In the closing decades of the fifth century, poetry, tragedy, and myth were under attack. “There is an ancient quarrel,” says Plato, drawing up the lines of battle, “between poetry and philosophy” (Republic 607b). With the rise of rationalism, it was time for the old poets to make way for the new educators of Greece, the philosophers. The fallible heroes of the old myths would make way for Socrates, Plato’s new and improved hero. The time had come for the sword of reason to shine:

[Socrates speaking] And so, Glaucon, when you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, and that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely reason. (Republic 606e-607a, emphasis added)

As Plato mobilized philosophy, others, seeing a chance to make their mark, joined the assault. The historians, led by Thucydides, attacked the stories used by the tragedians as fake myth. While the poets “exaggerate the importance of their themes” and teach by using examples from the distant and unverifiable past, the historian would instruct by providing examples filtered through the rational apparatus of the historical method (1.21-22). Gods, oracles, and omens—so often the prime movers in tragedy—are replaced with the scientific apparatus of cause and effect, eyewitness testimony of what really happened, and the careful consideration, corroboration, and weighing of evidence. At the end of the fifth century, the winds of change were blowing wild.

Whenever myth engaged with the forces of rationalism, myth was driven back. In myth, the Trojan War was the greatest of wars. Thucydides examines it with the historical method (1.10). It emerges diminished. It may have well have been fought by village peoples. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Thucydides has Pericles, his new world hero, say that Homer is redundant (2.41). Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Ion, a professional reciter of poetry, considers himself an educator, educating his audience on health, war, and the many other themes sung by rhapsodes. Ion, however, runs into the hero-philosopher Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Ion. Using the Socratic method, Socrates deconstructs his expertise. It turns out that neither Ion nor the poets know anything. They have nothing to teach. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back.

Rationalism invaded the prerogative of poetry as the teacher of Greece, and poetry fell back. Rationalism pooh-poohed poetry’s fake myth, its tall tales and childish gods, and poetry fell back. Poetry had made too many concessions, was in a full retreat, smarting from the sword of reason. But it had one advantage. Poetry charges the thunders of the heart. It gives its admirers something to believe in, a proof. Rationalism here falls short. It may explain how we came to be, but not why we came to. It is silent on our ultimate purpose. Knowing this secret, Aristophanes mounted a powerful rearguard action in Frogs, calling on art and the author of Seven rather than the new rationalists to save the city.

The crowning moment of Seven, the moment that makes patriots “hot to be warlike,” is Eteocles’s reaction to learning that his brother is at the seventh gate. He is out of captains. He sees the writing on the wall. “I’ll go myself,” he says, “bring me my greaves” (673, 675). Though he realizes the gods call him to die, he wants for himself “no crying and no lamentation” (656). The chorus, knowing that neither brother can hope to emerge from the confrontation alive, reason with him, telling him to save himself:

CHORUS. Go not you, go not, to the seventh gate.

ETEOCLES. No words of yours will blunt my whetted purpose.

CHORUS. Yet even bad victory the Gods hold in honor.

ETEOCLES. No soldier may endure to hear such words.

CHORUS. Do you wish to reap as harvest a brother’s blood?

ETEOCLES. If Gods give ill, no man may shun their giving. (714-9)

In his final words, he tells the chorus that he feels the “whetted purpose” thundering in his heart. This is proof enough. He will fulfil his duty by making the highest sacrifice, the “admirable offering” gods and mortals alike will envy:

ETEOCLES. We are already past the care of Gods.

For them our death is the admirable offering.

Why then delay, fawning upon our doom? (703-5)

Patriotism gives patriots something that the logicians and rationalists never could: something greater than life to live and die for. Patriotism takes the raw biological basis of human nature, hidden from plain view by the mediating apparatus of consciousness, and codifies it in its strictures. It takes the primordial murmurings of tribalism and the irrational emotions of gentle altruism and hateful aggression, and unites them under a common banner. It then harnesses the myriad impulses which draw the sapiens into ever higher levels of social organization—from nomadic life to life in hamlets, cities, and megalopolises—to give the patriot something to believe in.

The patriot, with his tribalism, hears the murmuring song singing new syllogisms, singing of the beauty of kinsfolk and the ugliness of those who dwell beyond the gates. With these new syllogisms, the patriot lays down patriotism’s doctrine, beginning with in- and out-membership groups. To draw himself up to a higher perfection, the patriot takes the other, and turns the other into a sign and representation of all that he must, in his highest moment, overcome. In his fever, the patriot desires no mediocre other, but rather the highest type of other, the most gargantuan other against which he can assay his rising strength. He transforms the other into a bogeyman adorned with blasphemy, the dark images of the night, the eye of the full moon, the serpent’s hiss, and all the other trappings inimical to kin and civilization. Against this error of nature, the patriot girds his kin together in a tight embrace. To withstand such a powerful foe, the patriot himself enlists higher powers, builds shrines to the gods and talks of motherland and fatherland, talks of how the land and the folk are bound by ancient, inviolable, and reciprocal bonds.

Surrounded by powerful and holy monuments, spires reaching up into heaven like the arms of god, the patriot begins to see that he himself is part of the proof, is the son of a line of heroes in a patrilineal and matrilineal succession going back to the crack of time. He himself dissolves into a symbol and representation, the mortal instrument of an immortal purpose. Armed now with high ideology, the patriot now has proof of his goodness, of how his people were meant to persevere, the chosen ones tilling the chosen soil. Heeding the higher calling of country, god, and people, the patriot validates the desultory dross of life and drinks in the sense of belonging and purpose so foreign to the logicians and the rationalists who could only see the wisdom of the sapiens, but not the underlying biology firing the human fuse.

Now, eternally justified, the patriot is himself life’s proof. Having reached this exalted state, there is left but one act whereby he perfects life. To the rationalist who talked of virtue, there was no difference between virtue in theory and in practice. To the patriot, there is. Talk is cheap, insufficient skin. To die performing great heroic deeds is to have the highest skin in the game. It is the patriot’s finest hour, the hour of the affirmation of the highest existence.

In this curious battle, the outcome is exactly as Eteocles predicted. The city is saved. In fact, on the Theban side, there is only a single casualty. In the closing scene the Herald makes a proclamation:

HERALD. Our Lord Eteocles for his loyalty

it is determined to bury in the earth

that he so loved. Fighting its enemies

he found his death here. In the sight

of his ancestral shrines he is pure and blameless

and died where young men die right honorably. (1006-11)

In his burial, in the dirges and the wailing, it is accomplished. Eteocles’s sepulchres and monuments stand as inviolable proofs of his patriotic apotheosis. Though dead, he is born posthumously in Seven to light the way for all tomorrow’s standard-bearers. Patriotism, having enlisted human emotions and behaviours into its service, now calls out to one of the highest constructs of the human mind—art—to justify its eternal claim.

To rational minds, Seven dramatized the clash between the magic of the opposing shield devices. Eteocles, like a seer, interprets the combatants’ vaunts and shield devices. By the science of hermeneutics, he deciphers—and perhaps even manipulates—the hidden signs animating the cosmos. For these reasonable interpreters, Eteocles came close to mastering hermeneutics. To them, Seven is a tragedy of Eteocles’s discourtesy to the chorus and his hubris in thinking he could master the gates. To the interpreters, however, who feel the comprehensiveness of the human experience, for those whom not only the higher and evolved sensibilities, but also the lower and primal drives of the triune brain declare themselves, Seven dramatizes the myriad impulses which together constitute patriotism, hot to endure all time’s slings and arrows. To these other interpreters, Seven is a kaleidoscope of patriotism, reflecting all its changing patterns and colours, from its animal origins to its highest expressions in art, architecture, and culture. Gate by gate, Eteocles is stripped of his personality until, at the seventh gate, all his individual qualities have withdrawn behind patriotism’s mask. He is no longer man, but an incarnation of duty, the great intoxicated patriot, drunk on valour of the ages. Seven, in this more unified view, is a tragedy of the paradox of patriotism, the mystery of how one becomes greatest when one becomes nothing. We do not, perhaps, exist for our own sake, but for the sake of perpetuating the generations of leaves on the tree of life.

In this comprehensive view, patriotism is greater than either the philosophers or the mythographers have imagined. Patriotism is a human expression of the animal behaviour of territoriality, practised by each of the social animals from ants and hyenas to baboons and chimpanzees. As animals mark their home range in elaborate rituals, so too the sapiens mark their territories with doors, locks, gates, gatekeepers, walls, and banners in the sky. Patriotism in this last examination is a biological imperative, is the will to power driving natural selection. To ensure the survival of the species, it will mingle reason with unreason, self-preservation with self-sacrifice, and base ideologies with the highest of the arts and sciences. In the art of Seven, a patriot’s portrait of patriotism, the ancient calling calls out.

Seven reminds us that you can take the individual out of the country, but not the country out of the individual. Though part of our highest ideologies and mental constructs, patriotism is also felt in the blood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the legacy of Seven, where generations of youths, ardent for desperate glory, fulfilled biology’s gnarled imperative: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aeschylus. Aeschylus. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, U of Chicago P, 1959.

Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Translated by Robin Hard, Oxford UP, 1997.

Aristophanes. Clouds, Wasps, Peace. Translated by Jeffrey Henderson, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1998.

—. Frogs, Assemblywomen, Wealth. Translated by Jeffrey Henderson, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2002.

Aristotle. On the Heavens. Translated by W. K. C. Guthrie, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1939.

Aristotle, et al. Poetics, On the Sublime, On Style. Translated by Stephen Halliwell, W. H. Fyfe, and Doreen C. Innes, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1995.

Echthroxenos.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Eikos.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged ed., Macmillan, 1922.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John M. Marincola, Penguin, 1996.

Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, Classical P of Wales, 2013, pp. 39- 80.

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, U of Chicago P, 1951.

Kidd, Stephen. “Why Mathematical Probability Failed to Emerge from Ancient Gambling.” Apeiron, vol. 53, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-25.

Lowenstein, Roger. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.             2000. Random House, 2011.

Marlowe. The Complete Plays. Edited by J. B. Steane, Penguin, 1969.

Pausanias. Description of Greece: Books 1-2. Translated by W. H. S. Jones, Loeb-Harvard UP,   1918.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper, Hackett, 1997.

Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by Edwin L. Minar, Jr., F. H. Sandbach, and W. C. Helmbold, vol. 9, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1961.

Rendu, William, et al. “Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-        aux-Saints.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 81-6.

Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes.” L’antiquité        classique, vol. 59, 1990, pp. 17-36.

Sumplokē.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

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

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner, Penguin, 1972.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. 25th anniversary ed., Harvard UP, 2004.

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

[1] For examples of negative incentives, see Taleb 12-15..

[2] That the attackers draw lots to determine their gate assignations is confirmed by the Messenger (56-7, 377, 424, and 456-9). How Eteocles assigns the defenders’ assignations is unclear. When assigning the defenders, Eteocles uses the future tense three times (“I will station,” 408, 621, 672), the perfect tense two times (“he has been sent,” 448, 472), the aorist passive once (“he was chosen,” 505), and the present tense once (“here is the man,” 554). Previous conjectures that have arisen to explain the tenses fall into three broad categories: 1) Eteocles had decided all the assignations prior to meeting the Messenger, 2) Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, after hearing the Messenger’s reports, and 3) Eteocles decided some assignations before and some during his meeting with the Messenger. I follow Herrmann 58-62. In his bold conjecture, Herrmann argues that an important stage direction has been lost: each time the Messenger relays the assailant at the gate, Eteocles draws a lot to determine the defender. Not only does Herrmann’s conjecture solve the problem of the tenses (he can draw the lot and easily switch between tenses), it also adds dramatic vitality to the action.

[3] On why the ancients failed to develop a theory of probability, see Kidd 1-25. Kidd argues convincingly that probability theory failed to develop because ancient games of chance involved communal probabilities: probability theory does not grant the ancient gambler any advantage. Only when games of chance individualized risk did the first mathematician-gamblers begin exploring probability in earnest.

[4] On Hermes as the god of lots, see Apollodorus 3.10.2 and Aristophanes, Peace 364-6.

[5] Scholes and Merton received their Nobel Prizes as their hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, began its collapse. Its fall triggered one of the largest financial meltdowns of the modern era. See Lowenstein 96-120.


This is one in a series of risk theatre readings. Others are available: MacbethOthello, and All My Sons. Thanks for reading.

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

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

pages 145-160 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

“Tragedy,” writes Wohl, “is the humanist genre par excellence, treating the questions that seem most profoundly to define mankind.” And therein lies a problem. How much do women partake in the world of mankind? On the one hand, Greek tragedy is filled with powerful and dynamic female characters: Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Medea in Euripides’ Medea, to name a few. But on the other hand, feminist scholars have been suspicious that tragedy builds up the female only to demolish her in the face of the male. The dramatic arc in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon-Libation Bearers-Eumenides trilogy–otherwise called The Oresteia–begins, for example, begins with the rule of woman and ends with the rule of man.

In addition to male writers’ questionable motives for creating powerful female characters, Wohl finds another facet of Greek tragedy disturbing. Greek tragedy, as a literary artifact of the ancient world, preserves the misogyny prevalent in a society where women could not vote, could not own property, could not represent themselves in court, were relegated inside the household, could not perform in the theatre, and could not even attend the theatre as spectators (this last point is a matter of debate). As an artifact of a misogynist society, characters in Attic tragedy frequently voice sexist musings, such as when Jason in Medea says: “It would be better if men found another way to bear children and there were no race of women.”

Because of the power imbalance between the male and the female, because tragedy was a mouthpiece of male playwrights, and because tragedy gives voice to the embedded misogyny of fifth century Athens, feminist critics such as Wohl have a love-hate relationship with tragedy. On one hand, tragedy, as the humanist genre par excellence which examines the hard-hitting questions that define mankind, is most beautiful. But as the mouthpiece of misogyny, tragedy is most ugly.

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

For a long time, writes Wohl, the scholarly tradition ignored the role of women in classical antiquity. That all changed in 1975 with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pomeroy looked to tragedy as a source of information about how women lived. Her groundbreaking book launched the first wave of feminism in Greek tragedy.

First wave feminism gave priority to Euripides’ plays. Euripides had a reputation for allowing his female characters to speak freely. In the comic playwright Aristophanes’ play Frogs, for example, the fictional character Euripides claims that he gave women a voice in his plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles were less useful.

The aim of first wave feminism was to extract the lives of real women from the tragic text. It is an empiricist approach that considered that the lives of real women are knowable. In first wave feminism, the female character was considered a sign that, properly decoded by a scholar, could shed light on women’s lives in antiquity. What did first wave feminism discover about real woman’s lives? It discovered that the freedoms women enjoyed differed city to city. Women did better in Sparta than Athens (ever notice that many of the powerful female protagonists in tragedy are, like Medea, foreigners?). And it discovered that in the higher social classes, a woman who was a whore may have had more freedom than a freeborn wife.

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

At some point, the authority of the author as a creator of meaning gave way to the view that the author does not create meaning. The creation of meaning became an interpretive act that the reader or theatregoer was responsible for. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” kicked off this view. If the author was not responsible for the message and the meaning of the text, it becomes harder to extrapolate the lives of real women on Euripides’ authority: after the death of the author, Euripides had no authority. A new approach was required.

The second wave of feminism began with Helene Foley’s 1981 article: “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” Instead of extrapolating the lives of real women from the text, second wave feminists explored the cultural concept of woman. This was the new approach after the death of the author, an approach where, as Foley writes: “The Athenian audience must have brought to their experience of the remarkable women of drama a way of understanding these characters which grew out of their psychological, religious, political, and social lives and problems.” The writer-creator was dead. The reader-interpreter is born.

By exploring the representation of woman in tragedy, second wave feminists learned about the society that created such characters. The Clytemnestras and Medeas, they concluded, were the creations of a deeply misogynistic society where the female was associated with disorder and the male with order. Tragedy seemed to say that, for a world to arise and to found civilization, the male must tame the female.

Second wave feminism also added an extra dimension to interpretation. While female characters in first wave feminism were considered to be signs of the lives of real women, second wave feminism added the notion that female characters could be signs as well as generators of signs. Mind you, they were still stuck in androcentric texts written by male playwrights, but this addition increased the range and depth of study, as it brought Aeschylus and Sophocles back into the fold. Because female characters spoke with less freedom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, first wave feminism had little use for either of them. They preferred Euripides. But when you consider that Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of the three pieces of “the big three,” it is a grievous loss. Second wave feminism welcomed back Aeschylus and Sophocles.

By allowing female characters to function as a generator of signs allowed feminists to study captivating female characters such as Clytemnestra. Second wave feminists such as Froma Zeitlin looked at how attention to fictional female characters within tragedy can tell us about the world of tragedy. Zeitlin found, for example, that empowered female characters such as Clytemnestra could generate signs. Clytemnestra is saying something by playing with feminine tropes–such as pouring a hot bath–when she destroys Agamemnon. Generating signs is a itself a sign of will. Although Clytemnestra generates signs, she never gets what she wants: the tragedy isn’t written around her. She could be the star. But she is only a blocker character. A male character, Orestes, is the star. Conclusion? Women are prominent in tragedy not for the sake of woman, but to illuminate the male world.

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

If first wave feminism tells us about the lives of real woman and second wave feminism tell us about the lives of women within tragedy, what does third wave feminist research tell us? Hint: do you remember the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street? Soon after the movie came out, if you went down to the trading floor, you’d see the brokers wearing suspenders. The funny thing is that they didn’t wear suspenders before the movie came out. What happened? Life imitates art is what happened. Third wave feminism’s breakthrough was the realization that the representation of women on the stage shapes the lives of women off the stage.

Third wave feminists include Victoria Wohl herself and scholars such as Barbara Goff (author of The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus and History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama) and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (author of Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic of Women and Feminist Theory and the Classics). While third wave feminists agree that tragedy shapes culture and society, they disagree on tragedy’s directive in doing so.

The disagreement between third wave feminists can be broken down into two competing camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, such as Wohl, believe that feminine resistance in Greek tragedy accelerates progressive social change. “By giving a public voice to those who were normally silent in the political arena,” writes Foley, “tragedy can open fresh perspectives on and restore some balance to a civic life and dialogue otherwise dominated by citizen males.” Pessimists such as Rabinowitz, however, find that heroines’ brief moments of glory reinforce male control over women. The function of tragedy, according to the pessimists, is to reinforce the status quo of male control of the female.

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

Is tragedy propaganda reinforcing the status quo? Or is tragedy revolution, the spark that ignites change? I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I create a play to reinforce male dominion over woman?” If they did, their plays would constitute propaganda. Propaganda plays fail to entertain. Anyone who thinks a propaganda play can be successful may want to look at Mussato’s Ecerinis. His tragedy schools theatregoers on the dangers of tyrants. It is not very good. Greek tragedy, however, is very good. For this reason, I don’t think fifth century dramatists were thinking: “How can I uphold the misogynistic status quo in my play?” as they wrote their plays. If they had this thought in mind, they would have written poor plays.

Was tragedy, then, revolution, a firebrand to ignite change? Tragedy was a civic festival sponsored by the city to celebrate the city. As one of Athens’ largest and most prestigious festivals, it would be an odd place to incite revolution. For this reason, I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I give a public voice to those who are normally silent?” If they had this thought in mind, they city would likely have removed their funding.

If they were neither reinforcing the status quo nor giving voice to the oppressed, what were the tragedians aiming to achieve when they wrote tragedy? According to my risk theatre theory of tragedy, when playwrights wrote plays, they were thinking: “How can I create the most thrilling play, one that will wow the audiences?” To create the most thrilling play, they made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. They chose risk because risk triggers the unexpected outcomes that wowed audiences. So Euripides tells us in the concluding lines of many of his plays:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Because there were two types of risk–upside and downside–two types of dramatists arose. The ones who loved to dramatize downside risk became known as tragedians. And the ones who loved to dramatize upside risk became known as comedians. But whatever type of dramatist you became, you explored risk because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk triggers what the audience expects, namely, the unexpected ending.

To thrill audiences, tragedians would place society’s most sanctified values at risk. “What would happen,” they asked, “if we explode society’s strongest bonds?” “What would happen,” they asked, “if we show how love makes us most vulnerable to hurt, destruction, and grief?” As tragedians formulated their questions, they found a fertile ground in the tensions between men and women. To exploit the full dramatic potential of these tensions, tragedians needed women who could go toe to toe with the men. In a way, because of fifth century prejudices against women, for women to be able to go head to head with men, the women of tragedy had to be better and more talented than their male counterparts. In turn, the men in tragedy are often less clever and capable, as they have the tailwind of an androcentric society to prop them up.

In a risk theatre feminist reading, it is out of dramatic necessity, not a benevolent desire to improve women’s conditions or a malevolent desire to oppress women, that we have dynamic characters such as Clytemnestra, Medea, and Phaedra. What do you get when you put together powerhouse female characters with hotheaded male characters? You get unexpected endings. It is this unexpected ending that drew audiences back to tragedy again and again. Powerful female characters, in this light, are born out of dramatic necessity, a literary artifact.

That we have powerhouse female characters, of course, does not mean that women on stage were men’s equals. On stage, women are equal to men in their desire, but not in their power. The power disparity between the male and the female is not unlike the difference in power between mortals and immortals, another fertile source of inspiration for tragedians. Consider this beautiful passage from Homer’s Iliad where the god Apollo reminds the mortal Achilles that man is not god:

Then Phoebus Apollo spoke to the son of Peleus saying, “Why, son of Peleus, do you, who are but man, give chase to me who am immortal? Have you not yet found out that it is a god whom you pursue so furiously? You did not harass the Trojans whom you had routed, and now they are within their walls, while you have been decoyed hither away from them. Me you cannot kill, for death can take no hold upon me.” 

Achilles was greatly angered and said, “You have baulked me, Far-Darter, most malicious of all gods, and have drawn me away from the wall, where many another man would have bitten the dust ere he got within Ilius; you have robbed me of great glory and have saved the Trojans at no risk to yourself, for you have nothing to fear, but I would indeed have my revenge if it were in my power to do so.” 

A few things are telling in Achilles’ response. To Achilles, the difference between mortals and immortals isn’t that one is wiser or better looking or longer lasting. The difference, to Achilles, is only in the quanta of power they wield: “I would indeed have my revenge,” says Achilles, “if it were in my power to do so.” The difference between mortals and immortals does not lie in their physical or mental qualities, nor in their aspirations, dreams, and desires. The difference is that one has more power than the other.

In Achilles’ interaction with Apollo, he plays the female: he is mortal, Apollo is immortal. If we apply Achilles’ rebuke to Apollo to the dynamic between males and females, what we get is the female saying to the male: “I would have my way, if it were in my power to do so.” I think this is what we get in tragedy. Just like Achilles in the face of Apollo, the female is, in tragedy, everything the equal to the male, except in power. In all her physical and mental qualities, and also in her aspirations, dreams, and desires, the female is the male’s equal. In this way, tragedy was a progressive art. But it was not progressive for the sake of women. It was progressive because it made for a more entertaining play.

A feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy opens the doors to new avenues of research. Does the changing power differential between men and women from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides signify a change between men and women in the real world? Does the power disequilibrium between mortals and immortals shed light on the disequilibrium between men and women in fifth century Athens? What happens when the power differential between mortals and immortals is mapped onto the relationships between men and women?  And what about the immortals themselves?–how is gender constructed in high Olympus? If, as Euripides says, the function of tragedy is to dramatize unexpected outcomes, how do playwrights exploit the tensions between men and women to supercharge risk? A ton of possibilities emerges from a feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy.

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

What’s next in feminist philology? If first wave feminism was to explore the lives of real women, second wave feminism to explore the “lives” of women in the text, and third wave feminism to explore the influence the text has on reality, perhaps fourth wave feminism will be to explore what our changing interpretations of women in antiquity say about us ourselves in modernity? In critiquing misogyny and bad practises in the ancient world, perhaps we also expose some of our own underlying deficiencies? If history is any indication, some of our best and most progressive ideas will be judged quite harshly in the coming centuries, if not sooner. Like in theatre, unintended consequences attend the most noble intentions.

One thing that Wohl points out is that, no matter the stature of women in the ancient play, she still exists in an androcentric text written by a male author. With playwright competitions such as the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/), we are seeing more and more new tragedies being written by female tragedians. In 2020, 89 male playwrights and 46 female playwrights entered. Although two-thirds of the entries this year were by male playwrights, this is much better than antiquity where 100% of the surviving plays are by male playwrights. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a bold new 21st century tragedy with powerful and dynamic male and female characters interacting within a gynocentric instead of an androcentric text? And what fun that would be for feminist scholars to critique. Soon.

Author Blurb

Victoria Wohl is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (1998) and Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens (2003).

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

Review of “Tragedy and City” – Deborah Boedeker and Kurt Raaflaub

pages 109-127 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author(s) Blurb

Deborah Boedeker is Professor of Classics at Brown University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek religion, poetry, historiography, and especially the confluences among these areas. Recent publications include essays on Euripides, Herodotus, Simonides, and Sappho, as well as a number of edited volumes, including Democracy, Empire, and the Arts in Fifth-Century Athens (1998, with Kurt A. Raaflaub) and The New Simonides: Contexts of Praise and Desire (2001, with David Sider).

Kurt Raaflaub is David Herlihy University Professor, Professor of Classics and History, and Director of the Program in Ancient Studies at Brown University. His main areas of interests are the social, political, and intellectual history of archaic and classical Greece and the Roman Republic. His most recent publications include The Discovery of Freedom in Ancient Greece (2004), an edited volume of War and Peace in the Ancient World (2007), with Josiah Ober and Robert Wallace. He is currently working on a history of early Greek political thought in its Mediterranean context.

“Tragedy and City”

In the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, political interpretations of Greek tragedy were the rage. Aeschylus’ tragedy Suppliants (from 462 BC and set in Argos) says something, scholars argued, about Athens’ political ties with Argos. Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus rex (set during a plague in Thebes) says something, scholars argued, about the plague of 430 BC in Athens “The character Oedipus,” they said, “is based on the Athenian statesman Pericles.” Some scholars went so far as to claim that tragedians would advocate specific political policies through their plays.

In this article, Boedeker and Raaflaub argue that these political interpretations derive their authority from the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes’ 405 BC hit Frogs. In Frogs, the god Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a tragic poet to save the city: “I came down here for a poet … so that the city may survive and keep presenting its choral festivals. So whichever of you is going to give the city some good advice, that’s the one I think I will bring back.” By “whichever of you,” Dionysus refers to Aeschylus and Euripides, who proceed to argue over who benefitted Athens more (Sophocles is also in Hades at this point, but the competition is beneath his dignity). Scholars cite this duel as evidence of tragedy’s political function.

While allowing that tragedy has a civic function, Boedeker and Raaflaub suggest a middle ground in this article:

We maintain [that] the plays generally were not created to support or oppose a specific person, policy, or decision. Whatever he may have thought personally about such issues, in our judgment Aeschylus’ purpose in Eumenides was not primarily to recommend a treaty with Argos [in Suppliants] or the restoration of the Areopagus Council’s powers [in Eumenides].

Plays would explore political themes, but would stop short of advocating one standpoint over another. A good example Boedeker and Raaflaub cite is Aeschylus’ tragedy Persians. The tragedy dramatizes the aftereffects of the Battle of Salamis from the Persian perspective: it is a grievous loss. The cause of the loss is Xerxes’ hubris in bridging the Hellespont to join Asia and Europe, two land masses nature had ordained in her unwritten laws to keep apart. While the play is conventionally read as a patriotic piece celebrating Athens’ victory, Boedeker and Raaflaub ask: does the play have a tacit political purpose? In 472 BC, Athens was trespassing in the other direction into Asia, attempting to take control of the Anatolian coast. The play, while not advocating foreign policy, asks the Athenians to consider their actions in light of Xerxes’ trespass in a subtle, unspoken manner.

The Process of Artistic Creation

Classicists are gifted in analysis. They come up with their conclusions and support their arguments after long and careful deliberation. They pick their words carefully and precisely. When they see artists use political terms or language in their works, classicists ascribe to the artists this same level of analysis and precision. If a poet, for example, writes about a political decree, the poet must have a position on what it takes to formulate decrees. If the poet writes about decrees, the poet has thought about decrees the same way a classicist would have, were the classicist to have published an article on decrees. Nothing is chance. Innuendoes in the text are deliberate. But is this the case?

What Boedeker and Raaflaub argue, and I think that it is an excellent point, is that this isn’t necessarily the case. Why? The answer is simple: poets and creative writers are not classicists. In fact, poets and creative writers are quite the opposite. They write under inspiration from the Muses. Some of the time, the idea comes to the artists so quick that they can’t jot it down fast enough, and what they’ve left unwritten is forgotten. Inspiration is like that dream you had this morning when you said: “That was so vivid, I will never forget it.”

But then, why do the writers and poets so frequently talk about politics or contemporary events? The reason is that it’s in the air. As they work on their creations, the things they hear on the streets, in the barbershops, and at the markets get incorporated into their works. In addition to asking classicists and philosophers what works of art mean, we can also ask the artists how they create. This gives us a valuable second opinion. In a 2017 interview with Bill Flanagan, artist Bob Dylan talks about how he incorporates everyday experiences into his works:

You could have some monstrous vision, or a perplexing idea that you can’t quite get down, can’t handle the theme. But then you’ll see a newspaper clipping or a billboard sign, or a paragraph from an old Dickens novel, or you’ll hear some line from another song, or something you might overhear somebody say just might be something in your mind that you didn’t know you remembered. That will give you the point of approach and specific details. It’s like you’re sleepwalking, not searching or seeking; things are transmitted to you.

Are tragedians writing plays with hidden political meanings for future classicists to examine? Dylan also offers scholars a word of warning in his 2016 Nobel Prize speech:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

This goes to show, if you ask a classicist whether a play has a political dimension, the classicist will answer as though the playwright were a classicist. But if you ask an artist if a play has a political dimension, the playwright might answer different.

The moral of this story is that we measure others with the same scales we measure ourselves. This works if “We” is equal to “Them.” But if it is “Us” and “Them,” then, when we measure them as if they were us, misunderstandings arise. Perhaps what we really need is a classicist who is also an artist.

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

PS this has been a fun review to write: I was a student of both Boedeker and Raaflaub (a husband and wife team), and, additionally had a chance to help TA one of Raaflaub’s Roman History classes. What an amazing experience those Brown years were. The glory days where I stood shoulder to shoulder with the giants. Sometimes I have to shake my head to believe I was actually there, it was so much like a dream.

Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

April 3, 2020

Memorial University

Edwin Wong

melpomeneswork.com/coronavirus/

 

Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre

A “Classics Coffee and Conversation Hour” Zoom Presentation

 

1

Testing, testing: can everyone hear me? Thank you, Professor Luke Roman, for the invitation. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. I’m Edwin Wong and I’ve got a great half hour talk lined up for you called: “Greek Tragedy, Black Swans, and the Coronavirus: The Consolation of Theatre.” Grab your coffees, let’s dive in.

We unravel, and to whom should we turn? Many of us, even the older ones, have never experienced a pandemic of these proportions. For direction, let us turn to an unlikely art form that has collected over two and a half millennia of experience in risk management: the art of tragedy.

They’re many ways of looking at tragedy. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of pity and fear, it will not help. Aristotle speaks silence. If you look at tragedy as death and destruction, it will not help. Chaucer’s Monk has nothing to say. If you look at tragedy as a theatre of catastrophe, it will not help. Howard Barker is not your man. If you look at tragedy as a collision of ethical positions, it will not help. Hegel has turned away. But if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, tragedy will be your Muse during this Great Quarantine.

The coronavirus pandemic: it came out of nowhere, yes? It has a large impact, yes? First, I’m going to argue that tragedy is the art that explores these low-probability, high-consequence events. Next, I’ll show how in tragedy and in life we trigger these types of events. Then I’ll show you tragedy’s path forward.

2

Let’s start with Euripides’ Bacchae. Most of the time the ninety-eight pound weakling spreading a seditious cult isn’t a god. He’s a charlatan. But Euripides doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time. He dramatizes the one time that the stranger is a god. Most of the time, Pentheus would have booted the stranger out of town. But this time, he’s torn apart limb by limb.

Does the Bacchae dramatize a low-probability, high-consequence event? In works of literature, closing lines are critical. Consider the Bacchae’s closing lines, spoken by the chorus:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

What does the action consist of? It consists of “many things the gods accomplish against our expectation.” “A god,” says the chorus, “finds a way to achieve the unexpected.” Point blank the text says that tragedy dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. This isn’t a coincidence either: Euripides concludes three other plays—Medea, Helen, and Andromache—with the same refrain.

Next, let’s consider how Sophocles’ Oedipus the King drives home the impact of the highly improbable. How often does the detective on the trail of murder find out that he was the killer? Not often. It’s a low-probability, high-consequence event, and that’s precisely what Sophocles dramatizes.

Next, let’s consider how Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes brings to life the impact of the highly improbable. You’re in the middle of a civil war. You and six other captains will be posted to each of Thebes’ seven gates. Outside, six captains—with your insolent brother as the seventh—will be posted to attack each of Thebes’ gates. You’re trying to figure out if the gods are on your side.

Each captain bears a shield. You can see whether the gods are on your side by interpreting the shield devices. If your guy bears the device of Zeus and the other guy bears the device of Typhon, that’s the gods telling you they’re on your side: in mythology Zeus tamed Typhon.

Besides seeing whether the gods are on your side, you’re also trying to avoid the worst-case scenario: being posted to the same gate as your brother. There’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood. What are the chances that, just as you’ve established that the gods are on your side, you find out they’re actually calling you do die? In other words, what are the chances that the matchups favour you from gates one to six but you find out your brother awaits you at the final gate?

Seven captain can arrange themselves into factorial seven (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1), or 5040 arrangements at seven gates. Only 1 out of these 5040 permutations yields the sequence of attackers we see: Tydeus at gate one, Capaneus at gate two, all the way up to Polyneices at gate seven. The same goes for the defending captains. They too can arrange themselves 5040 different ways, but only 1 out of these 5040 arrangements sees Melanippus at gate one, Polyphontes at gate two, all the way up to Eteocles at the highest gate.

To find all the permutations possible with seven attacking and seven defending captains, we multiply 5040 by 5040: 25,401,600 different matchups are possible. Now we can answer the question: what were the chances that the matchups from gates one to six favoured you so that, just as you were certain of victory, you are cast down at gate seven? The odds of that happening were 25,401,599:1 against. Most of the time, it doesn’t happen. But Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize “most of the time.” He dramatizes how Oedipus’ curse is fulfilled against overwhelming odds.

I like to think of tragedy as a big risk simulator that dramatizes the impact of the highly improbable. Tragedy looked at in this way becomes of topical interest, a mirror into which we can see reflections of the Great Quarantine.

3

The arrival of a new god, the detective on his own trail, and two brothers called to the highest gate: there’s a name for these events. Like the day JFK died, or when Chernobyl melted, or when the Challenger rocket ship lit up the skies, or when the Berlin Wall fell, we call these events “black swans.”

The term “black swan” originates from the Roman satirist Juvenal, who likens the perfect wife to “A rare bird on this earth, in the very likeness of a black swan.” Since it was thought that the perfect wife doesn’t exist, the black swan became a byword for objects and ideas that lie outside the realm of belief.

When, in the seventeenth century, black swans were sighted in Australia, the long-standing belief that black swans did not exist went out the window. The term “black swan” could take on a novel meaning. Because the sighting of black swans was a low-probability event (Europeans had been looking at swans for millennia without sighting one) and the sighting of one had high consequences (millennia of data was falsified), the black swan could become a visual representation of unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events.

It was mathematician, philosopher, and options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb who popularized the term “black swan.” Taleb argues that we are blind to the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Our cognitive and mathematical models underestimate both the frequency and impact of the highly improbable. The timing of his 2007 book, The Black Swan, was impeccable. The Great Recession, a swan event, broke out the following year. The term “black swan” to denote outlier events with profound implications would enter the popular consciousness.

After the Great Recession, there was a rush to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life and the markets. Experts mumbled and fumbled and charlatans spoke out. It seemed to me, however, that there was a ready-made art form to explore how things that pop out of the blue can leave a lasting legacy. That art form was tragedy. Euripides tells us through the chorus that tragedy explores how things happen out of the blue. Aeschylus too dramatizes how life is impacted by events which are 25,401,599:1 against. If we wanted to understand the role of chance and uncertainty in life, all we needed to do was to give tragedy a chance. For over twenty-five hundred years, tragedy has been exploring swan events.

4

In tragedy and in life risk triggers black swan events. By taking risks, Oedipus triggers the black swan event: he is the regicide he is searching for. In another famous tragedy, Macbeth, by taking inordinate risks, triggers the swan event: Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In life, speculators, by taking too much risk, triggered the Great Recession. Risk exacerbates low-probability events because it is a powerful see-saw: it enables you to move mountains.

If you’re in a comedy, you should take risks. The gods are on your side. “Coincidence must really be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s The Girl from Samos, “she looks after many of the things we cannot see.” If you’re in a tragedy, however, the gods are not on your side. Risk skews to the downside. Let’s see how we trigger black swan events in tragedy and in life.

I think confidence triggers black swan events. Take Oedipus. The black swan event didn’t have to happen. He makes it happen with his incessant question asking. Tiresias, Jocasta, and the shepherd all plead for him to stop. But, like a bull in a china shop, he keeps going because he’s sure he can crack the case.

Just like in the tragedy, I think confidence played a role in the black swan event called the Great Recession. Speculators, confident that property prices would continue to climb, leveraged up. Old timers who had seen this movie before plead for them to stop. But, like bulls in a china shop, the speculators charged onwards. Then the bottom fell out. It always does. Not only did the speculators lose their own capital, they lost the capital of others. Many faced ruin.

I think idealism triggers black swan events. Take Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone. The unexpected event is that, in defending his homeland, he destroys his family. The unexpected happens because he’s a zealot. His zealotry rises to such a pitch that when his niece gives her brother—who was a traitor—burial rites, he sentences her to death. Her death, in turn, triggers a sequence of unexpected events which ruins his family.

Just like in the tragedy, I think idealism and zealotry played a role in the black swan event called 9/11. Bin Laden appropriated religion to launch a holy war which saw four planes flying where no planes were expected to fly: two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one—were it not for the efforts of heroes—into the White House. In one moment, the world changed.

I believe a concentration of capital and resources triggers low-probability, high-consequence events. Aeschylus says: “God’s sharp lightnings fly to stagger mountains.” Shakespeare, many years later, echoes the sentiment: “When beggars die, there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” When you start a venture, and a low-probability event happens, the consequences aren’t necessarily astounding. If you start up a venture and have access to the wealth of nations, when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be much greater. “The heavens blaze forth the death of princes” because princes have the means to change the course of history. Consider Xerxes in Aeschylus’ Persians. If he had been a minor king, death would not have undone so many.

Just like in the tragedy, if you have capital and resources—say 340 million USD burning a hole in your pocket—when the low-probability event happens, the consequences may be extremely high. 340 million is the sticker price for one Deepwater Horizon, a powerful oil rig. It can drill deeper and further than ever before. But if it goes awry and explodes and the blowout preventer fails and the blind shear ram fails, then it will spill 600 thousand tonnes of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. If your capital and resources had been less, you still could have had a blowout, but the consequences would have been less dire.

I believe when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that only have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Prophecy is a good example. Here’s an example from Herodotus. When Croesus, King of Lydia, asks the Delphic oracle whether he should attack Persia, the oracle says: “If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.” Croesus would only understand afterwards that the oracle meant the destruction of his own empire, a devastating event.

An echo of how the misinterpretation of prophecy can result in unintended consequences occurs in Sophocles’ tragedy Women of Trachis. In prophetic words, a dying centaur tells Deianeira that he will give her a love charm:

Thus shalt thou have a charm to bind the heart

Of Heracles, and never shall he look

On wife or maid to love her more than thee.

When she uses the charm, however, she finds out that it kill Heracles. The charm works, but in an unanticipated manner.

Just like in the tragedy, I think when we devise elaborate schemes around probabilities that have the seeming of certainty, we trigger black swan events. Financial algorithms are today’s equivalent to yesterday’s prophecies. While yesterday’s prophecies spoke with oracular authority, today’s algorithms speak with mathematical authority. In both cases, when misunderstandings arise, the results are devastating. Case in point was Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund founded by two Nobel Prize winners. Their formulas identified irrationally priced bonds. As the prices of these bonds returned to their expected value, they would profit.

The managers at Long-Term trusted their algorithms. They put their trust on display when they borrowed 140 billion dollars to amplify their returns. It turns out that, like the oracles of old, their algorithms were correct. But, what they also found out was that the market could remain irrational longer than they could remain solvent. When their trades went awry, their lenders issued a margin call. With only 5 billion of their own money, they were unable to repay the 140 billion outstanding. Their lenders, a consortium of international banks, couldn’t cover the losses and the global financial system fell to its knees. Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve, playing the deus ex machina, were forced to intervene.

I believe that extraordinary situations increase the likelihood of black swan events. In such situations, you have to act with abandon. You have to throw the Hail Mary. When you do so, you throw risk to the winds. Take Oedipus the King. There’s a plague. Oedipus must continue the investigation or else all Thebes perishes. He has no choice. But, by continuing, he triggers the risk event.

Today, we also experience the extraordinary: the coronavirus pandemic. To find a solution, we’re developing vaccines at a breakneck pace. Vaccines typically take a decade to develop. Today, they’re talking about administering a vaccine to healthy populations in a year. On March 16, three months after the outbreak, Moderna began testing a vaccine on human subjects in Seattle. What could go wrong? Our real life setting, like the dramatic setting in Sophocles’ play, encourages us to throw risk to the winds. When we do so, we invite the black swan.

5

In conclusion, I’ve asked you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre of risk. I do so because tragedy may be a source of wisdom: it is the art that dramatizes downside risk. Because tragedy simulates swan events, it raises our sensibility of how risk impacts life.

I began with Euripides, who emphasizes in the text how tragedy dramatizes swan events. I went on to Sophocles, and pointed out how Oedipus the King dramatizes a low-probability, high-consequence outcome: a man who damns himself. Then, I demonstrated with math that the outcome of Seven Against Thebes takes place against overwhelming odds. I chose these examples to encourage you to reimagine tragedy as a theatre where risk runs riot.

Then I told the tale of how heroes trigger devastating risk events. I talked of their confidence and idealism. I talked of tragedy’s other commonplaces: kings and queens with capital burning a hole in their pockets. I talked of the fools’ gold in oracles and algorithms. And I talked of how dire straits compel us to close our eyes, say “Hail Mary,” and throw the long desperation pass deep into the end zone.

What’s the takeaway? Well, there’s no magic bullet. Black swans are impossible to predict because they’re not known knowns or known unknowns, but rather, unknown unknowns. They’re the arrival of a new god, the invention of the Gutenberg press, or Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Such events lie beyond prediction. But there is something we can do. We can, to borrow another of Taleb’s terms, become anti-fragile.

Look at these heroes of tragedy. Despite their strength, charisma, and cunning, they’re wonderfully fragile. When they make a plan, there’s no plan B. They wager all-in: “Go big or go home,” they say as they hunt their white whales. Fragility is absolute conviction that the oracle is true, that the algorithm is right, and that all swans are white.

What is anti-fragility? Anti-fragility is everything that the tragic hero is not. Anti-fragility is a plan B. It is redundancy. Anti-fragility is keeping some powder dry. It is putting eggs into different baskets. Anti-fragility is fluidity, taking the shape of water. Anti-fragility is skepticism. This time may be different. Anti-fragility is not conviction, but the greater strength that it takes to call into question one’s own convictions, the courage to ask: “What is the downside if I’m wrong?”

You will think: “But the coronavirus is different. The heroes of tragedy brought about the black swan. We have been struck down, but we did not wager all-in like the heroes of old.” Is that so? From my childhood to adult life—I’m forty-five now—there’s been two trends: urbanization and globalization. Urbanization packs more and more people into the downtown cores. Pandemics, as Thucydides recognizes, love crowded spaces. What is more, as we urbanize, we build cities nearer to the jungles and the caves where the bad bugs dwell. Then there’s globalization. Globalization connects all the world’s cities in a tight embrace: Wuhan is connected to Milan, is connected to New York, is connected to Tehran. When Wuhan sneezes, the world catches cold.

If we were to read the art form of tragedy onto today’s pandemic, we are the heroes who have wagered all-in on the benefits of urbanization and globalization. While we were toasting each other, Covid-19 stole up to us like a thief in the night. A few months ago, we stood at the sixth gate, standing in the same place Eteocles once did as he started planning the day of celebration. Funny how that is, how we’re in the gravest danger when we’re the most confident. This is tragedy’s legacy.

What’s the takeaway? Let us be anti-fragile. Let us have a plan B. Let us have redundancy in our social networks and bank balances. Let us keep some powder dry. Let us diversify and let us adapt. Let us urbanize and globalize, but let us also challenge urbanization and globalization. But, if we do not want to do be anti-fragile, then let us go all-in like the wonderfully fragile heroes of tragedy. There is glory in that as well. But, whichever way we go, if we take tragedy to be our Muse, we will go in with a greater awareness of how it isn’t the decades that will define us, but the few, and unexpected moments. We will not be defined by what we will, but by that stray moment that steals up to us like a thief in the night. None of us will be where we plan on being in five or ten years. But we will keep going.

If you’ve enjoyed this talk and are interested in more, ask your local library to carry my new book (and audiobook, narrated by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street):The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. In it, I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of tragedy. The book has launched an international playwriting competition with over $15k of prizes each year. It’s hosted by Langham Court, one of Canada’s leading theatres. The competition website is at https://risktheatre.com/. A transcript of this talk is available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/coronavirus/. Thank you for Zooming in and stay strong.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

CAMWS Classical Association of Middle West and South Presentation

116th Virtual Annual Meeting

May 26-30, 2020

Edwin Wong

Thursday, May 28 Session 10, Section A: Greek Drama 4

Abstract Link: https://camws.org/sites/default/files/meeting2020/abstracts/2028AeschylusSeven.pdf

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

I’d like to tell you about my new theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” In risk theatre, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. To illustrate it, I’ll use a play full of gambling references and high-risk action: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

Drama, I argue, dramatizes risk. Comedy dramatizes upside risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. Tragic heroes are gamblers who gamble with something other than money. They make delirious bets that trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Audiences ask: “How did such a good bet go awry?”

To begin a risk theatre read, look for a bet where much is at stake. High stakes entertain. When you go to the casino, you don’t go to watch nickel and dime bets. You go to watch the heroes at the no-limit tables who lay down dignity, honour, or compassion, the milk of human kindness. You go to experience the emotions of anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for the magnitude of their wagers and apprehension for how they blow up. Even though heroes are smart, swift, and well-accoutered, they lose all. To see how they had every expectation of being crowned the ivy, yet lose all evokes wonder.

What’s the bet in Seven? As civil war rages, Eteocles bets the gods are on his side. It’s a high-risk bet, as Thebes’ existence hangs on the line. It’s a good bet, as he’s defending native shrines from foreign aggressors. Why wouldn’t the gods be on his side?

How will Eteocles know the gods are on his side? In this play, seven attacking captains are posted by lot—in other words randomly—to Thebes’ seven gates. Eteocles, in turn, draws seven lots to post seven defenders. By drawing lots, he entrusts the outcome to the gods. If the gods smile, the matchups will be favourable. If the gods turn away, the matchups will be unfavourable. Through the crack that is probability and chance, the gods reveal their intent.

I follow Fritz-Gregor Hermann’s conjecture that a stage direction instructing Eteocles to draw lots on stage was lost in transmission. Hermann’s conjecture solves the problem of the tenses, as Eteocles shifts between the future, perfect, present, and aorist when announcing the defenders. Before, commentators were divided: some thought he decided the postings prior to the shield scene. Others thought he decides during the shield scene. And yet others thought he decided some before and some during.

If Eteocles draws lots on stage he can easily shift between tenses because he can be speaking before he draws the lot (“I will announce the winner”), as he’s drawing the lot (“I see the winner is”), or after he’s seen the lot (“A winner has been chosen”). Not only does the conjecture rehabilitate the shield scene, rebuked for being static, but it also heightens the suspense. Drawing lots is dramatic in itself, a device Aeschylus would revisit in the Oresteia.

Do the random matchups favour Eteocles? In aggregate, yes. Take the first gate, where the attacker shouts out impieties. Eteocles just happens to draw a defender who is “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” Or, take the fourth gate where the attacker bears an image of Typhon on his shield. By a strange synchronicity, Eteocles draws a defender who has Zeus—Typhon’s slayer—emblazoned on his shield. Eteocles, pleased at this stroke, invokes Hermes, the god of luck, saying: “Hermes, by divine reason has matched this pair (625).” Through the crack in randomness, the gods reveal their will.

Additional subjective cues hearten Eteocles. There’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they prepare their obituaries. One of their captains says: “I’m going to die.” Dark omens hang over them. They harangue one another. Contrast this with the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city. They start by singing the fall of Thebes. But, by the first stasimon, they sing the ode to joy. From the matchups to the unfolding action, Eteocles has subjective reasons to believe.

Eteocles also has objective reasons to believe. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is buried deep in the odds. The worst-case scenario happens if he confronts his brother at the seventh gate. At the final gate, substitutions would no longer be possible, as all the captains are posted. Kindred blood would spill. It’s the worst-case scenario because there’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood.

We can use this play to prove the theory of risk theatre because, with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, all the possible permutations of the attackers and defenders fall under the rules of probability. When Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. When the detective on the trail of regicide finds out that he himself was the regicide, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. Because of Seven’s unique construction, it’s the one play in the entire canon where we may calculate the odds of what did, and did not happen. With these odds, we may prove the risk theatre hypothesis. Let’s do math.

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event is the product of its individual probabilities. The odds of rolling snake-eyes, or two ones on six-sided dice, is 1:36, or 1:6 * 1:6. On that analogy, the odds of the worst-case scenario are 1:49, the product of Polyneices’ odds (1:7) and Eteocles’ odds (1:7) of going to the final gate. The probability of the worst-case scenario happening is exceedingly low, about 2%. Most of the time—in fact, 48 out of 49 times—the worst case scenario is averted. Of course, Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time, but the lowest-probability, highest-consequence event. And that is exactly what risk theatre theory predicts.

If 1:49 odds aren’t enough to entice you, if you say, “I need, at minimum, 1:1000 odds to be convinced that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action,” then I offer you this. The odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate are 1:49, to be sure, but that figure hardly reflects the chance of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did. The play, argues Gilbert Murray and others, is structured so that the matchups from gates one to six bolster Eteocles’ confidence with the result that, when he falls, he falls from a greater height. The play would be less if the captain with the Typhon device encounters anyone but the captain bearing Typhon’s slayer. The question we need to ask, then, is: what are the odds of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did? This fascinating question has not been asked until today.

According to the law of permutations, the formula to find how many unique arrangements there are with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial (7!) or 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1, which equal 5040. Since there are seven attacking and seven defending captains, to find out how many unique pairings exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. Aeschylus has transformed the fated outcome, known to all, into an exceedingly improbable event. This is exactly what the theory of risk theatre predicts.

If Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill couldn’t convince you, if the uncanny reunion of Oedipus with the Corinthian messenger and the shepherd couldn’t convince you, then I hope today’s reading convinces you that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. I give you over twenty five million reasons to believe.

This concludes my reading. Tragedy starts with a bet. An all-in bet with much at stake. It’s a good bet with a high likelihood of success. But the hero’s expectations are dashed when, against all odds, the unexpected happens. Tragedy functions by suppressing the subjective odds of the fated event happening so that, when it happens, the audience is dumbstruck. Fate suppressed rages and explodes.

To take risk theatre from page to stage, I founded the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy with Langham Court Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest and most respected theatres. Every year, winners receive over $11,000 in cash and a trip to Victoria which culminates in a workshop and staged reading. Congratulations to Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean for winning the inaugural competition with his play In Bloom, a story of a well-meaning journalist who crosses the line. The website is at risktheatre.com.

Risk theatre is inaugurating a new tragic age in drama and literature that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Aeschylus’ Seven leads the charge as risk theatre’s paradigm play. “Risk” dominates today’s headlines and, to understand risk, we return to the ancients who began by dramatizing the consequences of what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen.

Risk theatre is literary theory’s finest hour in the 21st century because it recalls something that has been forgotten so long, namely, that risk is the dramatic pivot of the action. I challenge you to use it on all your favourite works, whether they’re novels, history, biography, opera, or films, and I promise you you’ll never read a work of literature the same way. Please tell everyone about this bold new tool of interpretation and ask your local library to carry my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Review copies are available at Classical JournalAmerican Drama and Theatre (JADT), and The Bryn Mawr Classical Review. An audiobook version, performed by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street, is also available.

Thank you, and welcome to the new tragic age.

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