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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.

Risk Theatre Champions Aeschylus SEVEN AGAINST THEBES at the 2020 CAMWS Classical Association of Midwest and South Meeting

In its day, fans roared to see Aeschylus’ tragedy SEVEN AGAINST THEBES. Today, oblivion is too kind a word. Why? The play has fallen because one tiny stage direction got lost in transmission in the 2585 years between now and then. Fate has been too cruel to this astounding play, chock-full of gambling references (Ares casting dice with soldiers’ lives), chance (leaders drawing lots to determine the order of battle), and low-probability, high-consequence action. But now, thanks to the pioneering work of Fritz-Gregor Hermann, this stage direction is restored. As a result, the thrill returns and the play becomes a perfect example of risk theatre, a new 21st century theory of drama. Risk theatre is also the basis of the world’s largest tragedy playwriting competition, now in its second year (https://risktheatre.com/). Reviews of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected are on Goodreads.

In March 2020, I’ll be going in itinere to champion this astounding play in Birmingham, Alabama at the CAMWS Classical Association of the Midwest and South annual meeting, hosted by Samford University. My conference abstract is reprinted below. At the conference, I’ll present a reading of Seven through a risk theatre lens. The goal is to persuade attendees that, in addition to the usual lenses (psychoanalytical, feminist, political, tragic flaw, etc.,), it’s possible to come up with a fascinating new sensibility of tragedy by looking at risk as the dramatic pivot of the action. Heroes, by making delirious all-in bets, trigger devastating and unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Tragedy is risk dramatized. Or so the risk theatre theory of drama argues.

My conference abstract is reprinted below. Abstracts are also available at: https://camws.org/abstracts2020. See you there!

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

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

In Euripides’ Bacchae, the worst-case scenario happens to Pentheus if the stranger spreading a seditious cult happens to be a god, and not a hobo. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the worst-case scenario happens to Macbeth if his opponent happens to be not born of woman. In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the worst-case scenario happens to Loman if he discovers that his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. In Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, the worst-case scenario happens to Oedipus if he finds out that he is the regicide. What were the odds of the worst-case scenario happening in each of these cases? Although the odds appear to be a longshot, they are impossible to quantify. In the tragic canon, there is one play—and one play only—where it is possible to quantify and demonstrate the odds of everything that does happen and does not happen. This fascinating play is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

In Aeschylus’ Seven, seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. Seven defending captains—one of whom is Polyneices’ brother Eteocles—defend Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if brother confronts brother at the seventh gate: brother will kill brother, kindred blood will be shed, and, in addition to the normal hazards of warfare, miasma results and the Furies will be unleashed. Because the captains are assigned their gates by a random, lottery process (Hermann, 2013), it is possible to precisely quantify the odds of the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario odds are 1:49. Conversely, the odds that the worst-case scenario does not happen are 48:49. The worst-case scenario is therefore an unexpected, low-probability outcome with odds 48 to 49 against. Most of the time, Polyneices will not encounter Eteocles at the seventh gate. Because the peculiar structure in Seven (seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates) allows us to work out all the permutations and combinations of the captains at the gates, we can determine the odds of the worst-case scenario. And, because we can determine the extent to which Aeschylus paradoxically brings about the fated event seemingly against all odds, we can quantitatively verify what we had suspected from watching Bacchae, Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, Oedipus rex, and other tragedies, and that is that unexpected and unanticipated low-probability events happen with alarming frequency in tragedy. What is more, these low-probability events carry the highest consequences. Heroes’ best-laid plans are often dashed because of such events and all is lost.

The observation that low-probability events (low-probability from the point of view of the characters who do not see them coming) can have high-consequences leads to an interesting conjecture: what if tragedy is a theatre of risk, a stage where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action? In other words, the mystique of tragedy is not so much wrapped around motivations and nobility and flaws but around a hero who, by taking on too much risk, triggers exceedingly low-probability, high-consequence events?

My paper will close by exploring, as a point of further thought, how tragedy can be thought of as “risk theatre” and how risk theatre can be the basis of a bold new 21st century theory of tragedy, one which resonates with modern preoccupations with chance, uncertainty, and probability. Risk theater asks, “What if something happens that we did not think would happen?” and understands that tragedy dramatizes the limitations of intention against the vastness of the possible. Tragedy, in this view, is an exercise in risk management: by dramatizing risk, audiences emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of unintended consequences. By understanding this, ancient tragedy can powerfully speak to modern audiences who see scientists, engineers, and policy-makers gamble with the future of the world: it might happen the way they think it will happen, but, then again, more can happen than what their models project. With our technological, financial, and military wherewithal, we have a moral imperative to better understand risk, and the best way to examine risk is through tragedy.

Bibliography

Hermann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’s Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” In Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, 39-80. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013.

It’s Conferencing Time – Taking Risk Theatre on the Road

This isn’t the first time risk theatre has been on the road. Enthusiastic audiences have heard about this new theory of tragedy at the University of Calgary, the Society of Classical Studies AGM, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the University of Victoria. This last year though, with the publication of the book, my day job (yes, I have a full time day job), and the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, I haven’t had a chance to take risk theatre on the road. Now that things are settling down, it’s time to go in itinere, as they say in Latin.

I’ve lined up an October 29 lecture at Okanagan College. A talk on tragedy is perfect for Halloween. Thank you Terry Scarborough for the invitation! And another opportunity popped into my inbox to speak at a conference in Austin, Texas next year. What a dream, a trip to the Lone Star State! The organizers wanted a 800 word abstract, and I’m sure the competition will be tough to get into this prestigious conference. The text of my proposal is included below for your reading pleasure. Will it be good enough? “New theory of tragedy” for the headline–you’d think that would get some attention. Doesn’t everyone want a new theory of tragedy? Fingers crossed!

PS I have a pet peeve. Although Seven against Thebes is probably more correct (prepositions are not capitalized), it just looks wrong. And what is worse, ugly. Any right minded person with a sense of aesthetics–to me at least–would write it Seven Against Thebes.

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

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a

New Theory of Tragedy

In Euripides’ Bacchae, the worst-case scenario happens to Pentheus if the stranger spreading a seditious cult happens to be a god, and not a hobo. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the worst-case scenario happens to Macbeth if his opponent happens to be not born of woman. In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the worst-case scenario happens to Loman if he discovers that his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. In Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, the worst-case scenario happens to Oedipus if he finds out that he is the regicide. What were the odds of the worst-case scenario happening in each of these cases? Although the odds appear to be a longshot, they are impossible to quantify. In the tragic canon, there is one play—and one play only—where it is possible to quantify and demonstrate the odds of everything that does happen and does not happen. This fascinating play is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

In Aeschylus’ Seven, seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. Seven defending captains—one of whom is Polyneices’ brother Eteocles—defend Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if brother confronts brother at the seventh gate: brother will kill brother, kindred blood will be shed, and, in addition to the normal hazards of warfare, miasma results and the Furies will be unleashed. Because the captains are assigned their gates by a random, lottery process (Hermann, 2013), it is possible to precisely quantify the odds of the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario odds are 1:49. Conversely, the odds that the worst-case scenario does not happen are 48:49. The worst-case scenario is therefore an unexpected, low-probability outcome with odds 48 to 49 against. Most of the time, Polyneices will not encounter Eteocles at the seventh gate. Because the peculiar structure in Seven (seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates) allows us to work out all the permutations and combinations of the captains at the gates, we can determine the odds of the worst-case scenario. And, because we can determine the extent to which Aeschylus paradoxically brings about the fated event seemingly against all odds, we can quantitatively verify what we had suspected from watching Bacchae, Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, Oedipus rex, and other tragedies, and that is that unexpected and unanticipated low-probability events happen with alarming frequency in tragedy. What is more, these low-probability events carry the highest consequences. Heroes’ best-laid plans are often dashed because of such events and all is lost.

The observation that low-probability events (low-probability from the point of view of the characters who do not see them coming) can have high-consequences leads to an interesting conjecture: what if tragedy is a theatre of risk, a stage where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action? In other words, the mystique of tragedy is not so much wrapped around motivations and nobility and flaws but around a hero who, by taking on too much risk, triggers exceedingly low-probability, high-consequence events?

My paper will close by exploring, as a point of further thought, how tragedy can be thought of as “risk theatre” and how risk theatre can be the basis of a bold new 21stcentury theory of tragedy, one which resonates with modern preoccupations with chance, uncertainty, and probability. Risk theater asks, “What if something happens that we did not think would happen?” and understands that tragedy dramatizes the limitations of intention against the vastness of the possible. Tragedy, in this view, is an exercise in risk management: by dramatizing risk, audiences emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of unintended consequences. By understanding this, ancient tragedy can powerfully speak to modern audiences who see scientists, engineers, and policy-makers gamble with the future of the world: it might happen the way they think it will happen, but, then again, more can happen than what their models project. With our technological, financial, and military wherewithal, we have a moral imperative to better understand risk, and the best way to examine risk is through tragedy.

Bibliography

Hermann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’s Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” In Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, 39-80. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013.

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

Many thanks to PL for inviting me to take the Risk Theatre tour to the University of Massachusetts, Boston! And thank you to all the students who came out on a sweltering summer day at the end of term to see the presentation! The feedback was great and I could see at the end of the presentation that some gears were turning. And why is it that I can only go to Boston during weather extremes? Last time I was here was during the “bomb cyclone” in January. And it must have hit 30 C today, and it’s only the beginning of May! Well, assiduous readers, here’s the presentation for your reading pleasure:

Presentation Delivered to Peter Lech’s Greek and Roman Tragedy Class

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

How do myths function? One of their functions is to translate nature and culture into human terms. By telling a story, they instill human significance onto natural and cultural phenomena. How did the custom of young women dedicating a lock of hair prior to marriage arise? Why is there a temple of Aphrodite at Troezen? The Hippolytus myth answers these questions by incorporating nature and culture into a story filled with human significance. According to the myth, Phaedra built the temple after Aphrodite caused her to fall in love with Hippolytus. As for the custom, it was initiated by Artemis as a consolation to the dying Hippolytus: he would die, but his dedication to her would be remembered forever. Here’s another one: why does that star seem to blink every six days? Science would tell you it’s a variable star called Algol. But what myth would tell you is that that star is part of Medusa’s head in the constellation Perseus—you have to imagine that he’s holding up her severed head—and, what is more, that star denotes her eye: it blinks because by blinking, it signifies her power to turn to stone. So, one function of myth is to inscribe meaning onto patterns found in nature and culture, patterns which otherwise lack meaning. Myth helps us to understand the world in human terms.

What I’m going to give you today is a myth of tragedy called ‘risk theatre’. Just as the myth of Medusa or the myth of Hippolytus humanize the world around us, my ‘myth’ of risk theatre provides a framework of tragedy. I call it a myth because it’s not right or wrong, but a story of how tragedy works. In particular, risk theatre addresses a peculiar question: how can tragedy create suspense if it dramatizes popular, well-known myths? The stories of the Labdacid House (that’s Oedipus’ family) or the House of Atreus (that’s Orestes’ family) are so well-known that everyone knows how the story ends. Since the outcomes are foreknown, it’s hard for the stories to generate suspense. Take a look at Homer’s handling of the Oedipus myth. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, commonly referred to as the nekuia(after the ancient rite used to summon ghosts),Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the underworld where he sees the shade of Jocaste, Oedipus’ wife. He speaks a matter-of-factly about Oedipus’ crimes and how Jocaste committed suicide. There’s no suspense in Homer’s rendition of the myth. It’s bare bones. And it can be bare bones because everyone knows the tale. For Sophocles to keep audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, he has to get around the spoiler alert. How does he do this?

Here’s the solution risk theatre prosposes: the dramatic kernel of tragedy is a gambling act in which the protagonist wagers all-in. Because each dramatic act is a gambling act, unexpected things can happen. Bets can go wrong. And the bigger the bet, the more it can go sideways. The dramatist’s role is to suppress the odds of the foreknown outcome to make it seem like what must happen is not going to happen. Then, when it happens, it’s exciting.

In other words, the hero makes a big bet. Things seem to go the hero’s way. Because of the hero’s intelligence, skill, or strength, the hero appears to avert the outcome everyone knows is coming. But then an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event happens which brings about the foreknown outcome. Tragedy dramatizes a bet which has gone horribly sideways. That’s why I call tragedy risk theatre.

That tragedy is a gambling act and that dramatists trigger the foreknown outcome by a low-probability, high-consequence event are the two postulates of risk theatre. Let’s look at both these postulates, beginning with how tragedians deliberately suppress the likelihood of what must happen to the point where, when it happens, it seemsto have happened against all odds.

By a low-probability event, I mean an event that is unlikely, an event that is 1000:1 against, an event such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely for the trees to take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost. The play generates suspense by making it seem like the foreknown event (Birnam Wood’s going to come) is unlikely. Let’s take a look at some of the tragedies you’ve studied to see how ancient tragedians entertain audiences by suppressing the likelihood of the outcome everyone knows is coming.

Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, pits man against god. Although you know from the myth that Pentheus dies, Euripides’ goal as a dramatist is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s exciting. How does he do this? Look at how he portrays the rivalry between Dionysus and Pentheus. Dionysus is portrayed as a ninety-eight pound weakling who waltzes into Thebes with a retinue of eastern women. He’s cast as a drunk foreign dandy with long hair and scented locks who spends his days and nights cavorting around town. Pentheus, on the other hand, is cast as a capable warrior-king. He’s at the prime of manhood, fights before the home crowd, and has at his beck and call slaves, guards, archers, and soldiers. Pentheus has every expectation of prevailing. With all his resources, he’s going to throw this hobo out of town. But when, against all odds, the effeminate stranger turns out to be god, the fated outcome takes place and Pentheus is torn limb by limb. The closing lines—the same ones Euripides uses in many other plays—make it absolutely clear that he too conceived of tragedy as a theatre where unexpected low-probability events happen. Closing line are critical and ought to be read with care. That Euripides writes these lines confirms the risk theatre model of tragedy. Here are the lines as spoken by the chorus leader:

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. (1388-1392)

Now, let’s look at the next play: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This trilogy culminates in a showdown between Orestes and the Furies. The foreknown outcome is that the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are transformed into the ‘Kindly Ones’ or the Eumenides, benevolent spirits who watch over Athens. Aeschylus’ goal as a tragedian is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s unexpected. How does he do this? He does so by emphasizing the extraordinary length of time the Furies have been engaged as spirits of vengeance. The Furies are the daughters of Night (Eum. 321). And Night is the offspring of Chaos, the eldest of all deities. That means the Furies have been persecuting blood crimes from the beginning of time, in fact, from way back when Kronos first castrated his father Ouranos. When the Furies come to the court of the Areopagus, they have every intention of winning. Who would have guessed that Orestes’ act of violence, from all the acts of violence from the beginning of time would result in the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides? The way Aeschylus frames it, it’s unlikely, and because it’s unlikely, when it takes place, it’s shocking.

Think of these events as ‘black swan’ events. This is the term popularized by Taleb, a mathematician and Wall Street trader in his books Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. The term ‘black swan’ goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it as a byword for something that doesn’t exist. But then in 1697, to the shock of the world, they sighted a black swan in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a visual analogy of low-probability, high-consequence events. What I’m arguing today is that tragedy is full of black swan events: the bum who happens to be god, the forest that up and attacks the ramparts, or the day the Furies became the Eumenides.

Now, let’s look at a third play, Sophocles’Oedipus rex. We touched earlier on Homer’s bare bones narration of the Oedipus myth. Not very exciting. How does Sophocles add fire to the dramatization?—easy, he transforms the outcome into a black swan event. Everyone watching knows that Oedipus’ patricide and the incestuous relationship is going to be revealed. Sophocles, however, structures the play so that it looks like that no one will ever figure it out. How does Sophocles achieve this? Let’s take a look. The one eyewitness’ account of Laius’ murder is so garbled that they don’t bother to fetch him. At least not right away. So, we’re not going to hear from him. Tiresias, who knows since he’s the prophet, obstructs the investigation. So, we’re not going to hear from him either. Jocaste, who has been warned by the oracle she would give birth to a patricide, tells Oedipus point blank that the oracle must be wrong, since she exposed the child. She doesn’t know that the child survived. So, we’re not going to hear from her. In fact, the evidence against the truth coming out is so overwhelming that the chorus stops dancing in the second stasimon and asks: “Why should I dance?” (896). The gravity of their jarring pronouncement should not be underestimated. Their question would have shocked audiences who knew that the chorus’ role in tragedy isto dance. Tragedy is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour the gods. But if the gods are a fraud—and it’s beginning to look that way because the oracle is just looking plain wrong—why should they honour the gods?

Look: the eyewitness isn’t going to tell them because they didn’t summon him. Not yet. Tiresias isn’t going to tell him. And Jocaste tells him that the oracle dead wrong. If the Delphic oracle is mistaken and the gods can’t be trusted, what’s the point of dancing? Even after the chorus stops dancing, things appear to get even worse: the Corinthian messenger comes out of nowhere to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne because his dad Polybus died. This really throws Oedipus into shock: years ago, when the oracle prophesied that he would be a patricide, he had run away from home. And now, he finds out that dad died of natural causes. Things are looking worse and worse for the oracle. It looks like the truth will never come out. But when Oedipus tells the messenger why he left Corinth, the truth finally tumbles out. “Don’t worry about your dad” says the messenger, “he’s not really your dad.” “How do you know this?” “Well I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. You’re actually from Thebes.” “Who are my real parents?” “Well you have to ask the shepherd. He gave me to you.” “Oh, you mean the shepherd that I just summoned?—the one who is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.” “Yes, that’s the one.” See where this is going? What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had saved Oedipus when he was a babe just happens to be the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder? I’ll tell you: the odds are as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or the madman actually being a god or the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides: it’s a billion to one against. And when it’s a billion to one against, when it happens, it’s dramatic.

Okay, by definition, low-probability events don’t happen very often. But, as we’ve seen, in tragedy, they happen every time. How does the dramatist set up the low-probability event so that it always happens? Do any of you gamble? Then you know, the more you wager, the more things can go wrong, up to the point when you bet everything, anything can go wrong. Lay down the bankroll, leverage yourself up 100:1, go in with all your friends’ and family’s money: if the odds are anything less than perfect, the consequences are huge. Even if the odds are 99.99 percent in your favour, when you go all-in, that 0.01 percent can ruin you. Risk theatre is where that 0.01 percent happens.

The secret of how the dramatist tees up the low-probability, high-consequence risk event is that in tragedy, each dramatic act is also a gambling act. And not any gambling act, but an all-in leveraged up to the gills gambling act. For a chance to be king, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness. Like the game of gambling, in tragedy you have to ante up for a chance to play. But unlike the game of gambling, where you lay down cash instruments, in tragedy, you lay down human instruments. For world domination, Faust lays down his soul. For revenge, revengers lay down their humanity. For the American dream, Loman (in Death of a Salesman) lays down his dignity. Pentheus bets everything that the stranger is some bum and not god personified. He lays on the line his authority as king: no bum is going to start seditious rites while he sits on the throne. Oedipus bets that he can outwit the oracle: “You prophecy I’ll kill dad?—I’ll show you! I’m Oedipus, the master riddler. I can solve anything, and I’ll solve you!” And the Furies stake their prerogative as the punishers of blood guilt on the precedence of tradition.

When you lay so much on the line, you expose yourself to low-probability, high-consequence events because you’ve taken up too much risk. For Macbeth, Birnam Wood came. For Loman, he finds out that he’s worth more dead than alive. For Pentheus, the bum happens to be god. And for the Furies, this time was different. Who would have thought?

At the beginning I promised you a myth of tragedy. What I’ve given you is risk theatre, and its framework helps you find your way around tragedy in the same way as constellations light up a road map of the night sky. And just like constellations, risk theatre works brilliantly most of the time. The constellation Orion works great: there’s the shoulders, the belt. But then there’s a constellation like Gemini where you have to squint pretty hard to see Castor and Pollux. And just as you wouldn’t throw out the whole system of constellations because one or two don’t work, you wouldn’t throw out risk theatre for the one or two tragedies that defy it. Ultimately, risk theatre adds to our understanding because it answers the question of how tragedy can be exciting even though spoilers have marred the ending.

Think of tragedy as a theatre of risk where heroes go big or go home. Because heroes make risk run riot with their wagers, think of each dramatic act as a gambling act. When characters stake their souls, allegiances, and reputations, and leverage all their military, social, and political capital to achieve their aims, things get interesting real fast because we see by how they set up their wagers how much they value life. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth?—to Macbeth, it’s worth a Scottish crown, because that’s what he antes up: the milk of human kindness for the crown. Tragedy is an arbiter of life’s value. Think of the tragic emotions not as pity and fear, but rather anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for the black swan event that’s going to dash the hero, the hero’s friends and family, and the community at large.

Think of the downfall of the hero as something brought about by pure chance rather than a tragic flaw or error. The aged Oedipus, in Sophocles’ final play Oedipus at Colonus, says this exactly: “Okay, when it happened, I thought I had done something wrong, but now, looking back, how else shouldI have acted? Where exactly was my error?—I was dealt a certain hand and I played the game flawlessly.” To blame an Oedipus or a Macbeth or a Pentheus for a tragic flaw is as inane as to blame, say, the Cincinnati Kid for going all-in on the final poker hand against Lancey in Richard Jessup’s novel. He has to play that hand, and it’s only when Lancey makes the most unexpected move that he loses. He could not have known that Lancey would “make the wrong move at the right time.” In the same way, what was Pentheus supposed to do when the seditious foreign stranger waltzes into town: kneel down and worship him? Folks, it’s chance. Not error. Stop looking for error and look instead at the role chance plays. The point of risk theatre is that it enlightens us that chance plays a much larger role in our lives than what we’re comfortable admitting. In tragedy, even fate must work through the mechanisms of chance.

This idea of risk theatre I’ve been developing for over ten years, and I’m very happy to let you know it’s more than theory. Langham Court Theatre, one of the most storied and successful community theatres in Canada, has just now signed on to inaugurate a 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We’re challenging dramatists worldwide to write bold and exciting risk theatre tragedies. We’re giving away over $10,000 in prize money. And we’re going to produce the winning play. Not only this year. Every year. We’re going to reinvent tragedy. The site is at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled with a –re ending. The site’s not quite live. But I can give you the password: 1974. Take a look. See if you can figure out that poker hand on the illustration.

Here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with. I’ve known Peter for a long time. We went to Brown together in the 2000s. He was studying speech patterns in Roman comedy and I was grappling with how tragedy functions. Thank you, Peter for the opportunity to speak today. After Brown, I came back to Canada to take up my old job. You know, by trade, I’m not an academic and not a thespian. I’m a plumber. But I never lost sight of my goal. And despite the long odds, it looks like the goal’s getting closer. And you know the odds are long when the border guard looks at you real funny when you say that you’re speaking on theatre and your occupation is plumbing. So I encourage you all, no matter what your goals are, to chase them down. If I can do it, you can too. Because, you know, if you stay hungry and keep going, despite the long odds, sometimes the low-probability, high-consequence event will work out in your favour. Thank you.

18.05.umass

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

Thanks to Professor LB and the Department of Greek and Roman Studies for setting up this seminar. And thanks to all the students and faculty who came out on a cold and snowy Friday afternoon. Great turnout (we packed the conference room) and very receptive audience for this homecoming lecture. Judging from the discussion period that followed the presentation, there’s a sharp band of students at UVic! My old roommate TS from the happy days of UVic undergrad (who’s know Professor TS of English Literature) received a research grant to fly out to hear the talk, so that was extra fun! The core of this presentation was delivered at the APA earlier this year. This version has been revised to take into account the feedback from APA which was: hammer home the point that the gate assignations are random. The preconceived (and likely mistaken) notion that Eteocles decides the assignations remains very strong with readers of the play. If the assignations are random (as I argue), the play is actually quite fun, dramatic, and full of suspense. If the assignations are decided and preordained (as others argue), the play is quite static. Which would you rather have? BTW the image on the poster is from the Exekias Vase and it depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice. Probably a high-stakes game as they have their spears handy just in case!

Exekias Vase

DEPARTMENT OF GREEK AND ROMAN STUDIES SEMINAR

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23 2:30 PM CLEARIHUE B415

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? Something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place?

 

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes is the one unique play where it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of the lottery imagery, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random. Because all the assignations are random, all the possible matchups at each of the gates exist only as a probability until the moment when the lots are drawn. Because all the outcomes exist as probabilities, we can quantify the exact odds of what takes place against what did take place to verify how tragedy engages audiences with low-probability, high-consequence scenarios.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. Even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. Tragedy is an engine that makes even foredoomed outcomes exciting by discounting the odds of the inevitable taking place.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace throughout tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. To me, tragedy’s function is to warn us that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. In this way, tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] In the US, the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done the procedure on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. In today’s technological age of manufactured risk, tragedy ought to and should be seen as a theatre of risk, as we moderns have a moral obligation to come to terms with the low-probability, high-consequence ramifications of our actions. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

edwinclwong@gmail.com

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

2018 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting (Boston)

Session 9: Agency in Drama (Presided by Helene Foley)

 

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

 

I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.

 

We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.

 

This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes the risk of low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? I mean, something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place? We need a play where we can see this.

 

In Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.

 

With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.

 

But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:

 

As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)

 

Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:

 

I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)

 

Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of all these lottery images, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?

 

I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s probably how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random.

 

Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.

 

Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.

 

The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.

 

Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. That’s the genius of Seven: even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. By combining subjective and objective probabilities, Aeschylus spring loads the low-probability event so that when it takes place, we feel its impact.

 

I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace all over tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.

 

This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. Tragedy warns us, that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. I think that tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] Here in the US the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done one on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. I look at tragedy as a theatre of risk because such an interpretation speaks to our technological age of manufactured risk. In such an age, I believe that we have a moral obligation to come to terms with low-probability, high-consequence events. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres in Victoria, Canada to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. The goal to start a new art movement in tragedy. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.

 

Edwin Wong

2018-01-05

[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.

Society for Classical Studies 2018 Presentation