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A Risk Theatre Reading of Thomas Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

In 1874, Thomas Hardy was thirty-four and moonlighting as a writer. His day job as an architect paid the bills. Far from the Madding Crowd, his fourth published novel, was being anonymously serialized in the popular London magazine Cornhill. Rumor had it that it was George Eliot’s new novel.1 It was a hit. Its success allowed Hardy to become a full-time writer. Like the fictional events in the novel, the real-life events that led to his breakthrough were full of chance, risk, and the random element.

The coincidences that led to Hardy’s rise began in 1862 when he started working for Arthur Blomfield, a London architect located at 9 St. Martin’s Place (Millgate 74). In the same building, at 8 St. Martin’s Place, was the Alpine Club (Halperin 740). Its president was Leslie Stephen. In 1862, Stephen published Peaks, Passes, and Glaciersrecounting his ascent—the first—of the Schreckhorn, a 4078 meter alpine peak. Hardy was familiar with Stephen’s book (Halperin 740–1). His familiarity was unsurprising: it was the golden age of mountaineering. What is surprising, however, is that years later, Stephen would be the one to give Hardy his golden opportunity. By chance their paths had crossed and by chance their paths would keep crossing.

Flash forward ten years. Hardy has moved to Dorset, where he was working on his third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. In November 1872, he picked up a copy of Fraser’s Magazine. One of the pieces was Stephen’s fictional short story, “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps,” about a fall that leaves a mountaineer two hundred feet above a torrent hanging by a rhododendron stem. Hardy, captivated, rewrites Stephen’s story into his own (literal) cliffhanger scene in A Pair of Blue Eyes (Halperin 742–4).2 Their paths were crossing again.

That same year, Stephen became editor of Cornhill. He came across Hardy’s second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree. He must have been captivated, because he wrote Hardy asking for a novel. His letter, however, was dropped in the mud on a Dorsetshire lane. If a laborer had not seen it, the winter rain and wind would have carried it away (Hardy Life 98). Hardy received the letter in late November, even as he was rewriting “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” He wrote back. Yes, he had a novel in mind. Its name would be Far from the Madding Crowd.

For over a decade, Hardy and Stephen’s literal and literary paths—though they knew not why—had been crossing. Then, chance made something happen. For Stephen to have offered the little-known Hardy an opportunity to join the Cornhill’s roster—which included heavy hitters Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Anthony Trollope—was a godsend, and one that was lost and found, almost blown away by an errant gust.

Perhaps it was the impact of so many low-probability, high-consequence concatenations in life that led Hardy to foreground chance in his new novel. Far from the Madding Crowd entertains by flitting between tragedy and comedy. Chance is the narrative fulcrum between the two. The pastoral idyll, with its unchanging agricultural rhythms, highlights through contrast how accident, coincidence, and the unexpected rule life. Bathsheba Everdene, Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood, and Francis Troy—like Hardy and Stephen in life—wander their desultory circuit. For a duration, the steady state prevails. Then chance romps through, changing all. Chance is the invisible hand of the new god writing life’s text.

Between Tragedy and Comedy

Just as the architectural marvel of the great barn is built from arches, buttresses, and structures counterbalancing opposing forces, the narrative is built upon counterbalancing binary propositions. It is the work of an author-architect. On a macro level, the novel’s title announces the opposing forces between town and country: Far from the Madding Crowd is how Londoners would describe rustics, not how rustics would themselves describe. On a micro level, binary propositions can be seen in the narrator’s love of antithesis: “Deeds of endurance which seem ordinary in philosophy,” says the narrator in one example, “are rare in conduct” (368).3

In chapter three, a crucial binary proposition emerges. In their first conversation, Gabriel unintentionally provokes Bathsheba’s anger and embarrassment. She turns red. He turns away. When he turns back, she is gone. “With an air between that of Tragedy and Comedy,” says the narrator, “Gabriel returned to work” (24). The air is comic insofar as the conversation kindles his interest and tragic insofar as she leaves. The proposition between tragedy and comedy provides the key to the novel’s structure. As the suitors—Gabriel, the stalwart farmhand, Boldwood, the older gentleman-farmer, and Troy, the young and dashing libertine—vie for the hand of the independent and recalcitrant Bathsheba, the action veers between tragedy and comedy. Far from the Madding Crowd, as it counterbalances the ancient forces of comedy and tragedy, is, like the great barn, a marvel to behold and a work for all time.

The tension between tragedy and comedy is palpable when Troy tells Bathsheba that, while she means nothing to him, his previous lover, though dead, means everything. Distressed, Bathsheba barricades herself in the attic. To pass the time, she asks Liddy Smallbury, her servant-companion, for some books:

“Bring up some books. Not new ones. I haven’t heart to read anything new.”
“Some of your uncle’s old ones ma’am?”
“Yes: some of those we stowed away in boxes.” A faint gleam of humour passed over her face as she said: “Bring Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy; and the Mourning Bride; and—let me see—Night Thoughts, and the Vanity of Human Wishes.”
“And that story of the black man who murdered his wife Desdemona? It is a nice dismal one that would suit you excellent just now.”
“Now Lidd-you’ve been looking into my books without telling me! And I said you were not to. How do you know it would suit me? It wouldn’t suit me at all.”
“But if the others do—”
“No they don’t. And I won’t read dismal books. Why should I read dismal books indeed? Bring me Love in a Village, and The Maid of the Mill, and Doctor Syntax and some volumes of the Spectator.” (300)

Her initial choices assimilate her situation into tragedy. Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy and William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride are both tragedies of passion. The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality by Edward Young is a didactic poem reflecting on loss, fortune’s wheel, missed opportunities, and other tragic commonplaces. Samuel Johnson, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, likewise sets into poetry the follies preceding the fall.

Liddy picks up her mistress’s cue, suggesting another tragedy of passion: Shakespeare’s Othello. Then, as though to demonstrate life’s mutability, Bathsheba requests four comic works: two comic operas (librettist Isaac Bickerstaff’s Love in a Village and The Maid of the Mill), William Combe’s comic poem, Doctor Syntax, and the Spectator, a periodical featuring comic essays and character sketches. She signifies through her choices that life pivots between tragic exhaustion and comic rejuvenation.

Tragedy and comedy can be conceptualized as life’s two opposing poles. Such is the polarity the narrator presents when introducing Boldwood:

He saw no absurd sides to the follies of life, and thus, though not quite companionable in the eyes of merry men and scoffers, and those to whom all things show life as a jest, he was not intolerable to the earnest and those acquainted with grief. Being a man who read all the dramas of life seriously, if he failed to please when they were comedies, there was no frivolous treatment to reproach him for when they chanced to end tragically. (122)

In the narrator’s eyes, because life is a drama, it vacillates between drama’s two classic forms: tragedy and comedy. In this synoptic view, while comedy is associated with folly and jest, tragedy is associated with seriousness and grief.

As the novel takes on the qualities of tragedy and comedy, theatrical references accumulate. While daydreaming, Bathsheba imagines her future romances would be “dramas in which men would play a part” (12). Unexpected announcements create an “intensely dramatic effect” (252). A pause in conversation is an “entr’acte,” a French term for the interval between two acts of a play (106). The flames lighting the kiln at Warren’s Malthouse are theatrical footlights throwing onto the ceiling the shadows of the assembled rustics, who are themselves likened to the theatre troupe Her Majesty’s Servants (46: Penguin edition). In a serious turn, when Gabriel hands Fanny Robin a shilling, he can feel in her wrists the “throb of tragic intensity” (54). In a lighthearted moment, the narrator says that Bathsheba’s face appears to Gabriel, who is admiring her, “as the uncertain glory of an April day” (124). The passage draws from Shakespeare’s comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

Proteus. O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away. (1.3.84–87)

At that moment, as though on a cue, a cloud arrives as Boldwood takes Bathsheba away.

As theatrical references accumulate, Hardy transforms Shakespeare’s well-loved characters into the rustics and farmhands that populate the novel. Shakespeare’s characters strut out again, this time on the pastoral stage of Hardy’s novel. While Shakespeare’s Antony in Julius Caesar leads the plebs on, saying: “I am no orator, as Brutus is, / But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,” (3.2.210–1), Troy leads Bathsheba on, saying: “Because a plain blunt man, who has never been taught concealment, speaks out his mind” (169–70). In Laban Tall, a second Morton arises and a second tragedy unfolds: “Tall came into the enclosure, and leapt off—his face tragic as Morton’s after the Battle of Shrewsbury” (139). Just as the messenger Morton announces the tragedy in 2 Henry IV (1.1.70–1), so too, the mock-heroic Tall announces the pastoral iteration of the Battle of Shrewsbury: Bathsheba’s flock is dying and help is wanting. In a lighter moment, the narrator likens Gabriel to Guildenstern, a source of comic relief in Hamlet. “Like Guildenstern,” says the narrator, “Oak was happy in that he was not over happy” (145). Gabriel is happy, and, like Guildenstern, a step away from tragedy.

Hardy’s references to theatrical conventions and works familiar to the madding crowd—the educated big-city readers of Cornhill—translate the Wessex countryside into the Londoners’ idiom: a shepherd’s loss of a flock is “a pastoral tragedy” (38); Joseph Poorgrass and the rustics, thinking the farm will be ruined, think they are living “in a tragedy” (105); Bathsheba, confronted with an errant husband, cannot decide if farm life is more like the comic Love in a Village or the tragic A Maid’s Tragedy. Not only do the allusions draw cultivated city readers into the rustic country setting, once the novel has become a stage, Hardy has at his disposal all the elements of tragedy and comedy—such as tragic omens and stock comic characters—to use as narrative building blocks.

Tragic Omens and Stock Comic Characters

Omens precipitate negative turning points. A cat and dog presage Gabriel’s initial, unsuccessful courting of Bathsheba: “just as he arrived by the garden gate,” says the narrator, “he saw a cat inside, going into arched shapes and fiendish convulsions at the sight of his dog George” (31). A harbinger likewise attends Bathsheba’s disastrous journey to Bath:

“I hope nothing is wrong about mistress,” said Maryann, who with some other women was tying the bundles (oats being always sheaved on this farm). “But a’ unlucky token came to me int’house this morning. I went to unlock the door, and dropped the key, and it fell upon the stone floor and broke into two pieces. Breaking a key is a dreadful bodement. I wish mis’ess was home.” (215)

So too, before Boldwood’s fateful Christmas party, “a shadow seemed to rove about the rooms saying that the proceedings were unnatural” (348).

Omens, being chance events, amplify chance’s dominion. Nature communicates through chance. When omens congregate together, it is, to those in the know, a “direct message from the Great Mother” (239). “I’ve had the news-bell ringing in my left ear quite bad enough for a murder, and I’ve seen a magpie all alone!” says Poorgrass the night Fanny goes missing and the rickyard fire breaks out (70). After Bathsheba fires her bailiff, the farmers worry about the impact of her inexperience upon their livelihoods. They begin seeing tell-tale signs:

“Ay—there’s some sorrow going to happen,” said Matthew Moon. “I’ve had three very bad dreams lately; and Sally put the bellows upon table twice following last week.”
“A sure sign that sommat wrong is coming,” said Joseph Poorgrass. “I had a white cat come in to me yesterday breakfast-time. And there was a coffin-handle upon my sister-law’s candle last night.”
“And I’ve seed the new moon two months following through glass. I was told, too, that Gammer Ball dreamed of bees stinging her.” (105)

The wicked storm is also presaged by signs: a toad crosses the path; a slug goes indoors; spiders drop from the ceiling; sheep crowd together. The sky itself, in a display of hylozoism, expresses solidarity with the animal kingdom:

The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky, dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The moon as seen through these films had a lurid metallic look. The fields were sallow with the impure light, and all were tinged in monochrome, as if beheld through stained glass. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the behaviour of the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution. (236)

The portents are the pastoral equivalents to the tragic omen, a commonplace in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example, wonders presage Caesar’s doom:

Calphurnia. Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets,
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol.
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. (2.2.13–24)

So, too, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, omens anticipate the death of the king:

Lennox. The night has been unruly: where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’th’air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion, and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamoured the livelong night. Some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (2.3.54–61)

Far from the Madding Crowd, like the art of tragedy, uses chance to anticipate what is to come.

If omens move the action towards tragedy, the likeness of Bathsheba’s suitors to stock comic characters moves the narrative towards comedy. One of comedy’s stock characters is the adulescens amator, the young man in love. The adulescens amator was such a standard fixture in Roman comedy, that, should he fail to appear, the playwright would be obliged to explain his absence (Plautus Captives 1032; Casina 64–5). The prototypical young man (such as Shakespeare’s Proteus with whom Gabriel is explicitly identified) falls in love and asks for the hand of the first lady that comes his way. So too, it is love at first sight for Gabriel: he meets Bathsheba and is on his knees. Just as the adulescens amator in comedy has to overcome blocking characters, Gabriel will have to overcome Boldwood and Troy.

One species of blocking character is the old man in love, the senex amator. From Olympio in Plautus’s Casina or Demenetus in his Asinaria to Chaucer’s January in the Merchant’s Tale, the senex amator is a common rival. Although the old man is wealthier and starts off from a position of power, he gives place, in the end, to his younger rival, and at a high cost to his dignity. Boldwood plays the old man in love. He is forty-one when he proposes to Bathsheba: twice her age and much older than the other suitors (127).4

As Boldwood plays the senex amator, his progression, mirroring that of Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, takes on further comic dimensions. Malvolio, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (2.3.151–57); Boldwood, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (98). Malvolio has a puritanical bent (2.3.142); Boldwood’s house has the atmosphere of “a Puritan Sunday lasting all the week” (99). Malvolio is transformed into a fool as he woos an unwilling lady (3.4.17–60); Boldwood woos an unwilling lady and is made a fool by Troy (224–31). Malvolio rues his loss of dignity (5.1.338–39); Boldwood rues his loss of dignity (202–03, 252). Malvolio is sent to the madhouse (4.2.7–9); Boldwood is sent to the madhouse (373–75).

The braggart soldier, or miles gloriosus, is another stock character, and an audience favourite. He is a dashing rogue, a libertine whose tales are greater in the telling than the doing. Examples of the miles gloriosus include Plautus’s bombastic Pyrgopolynices (“terrific tower-taker”) in The Braggart Soldier and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Sergeant Troy plays the miles gloriosus. “Whilst he sometimes reached the brilliant in speech,” says the narrator, “he fell below the commonplace in action” (167). “He could,” says the narrator, “be eager to pay and intend to owe” (167). Troy would be at home in the tavern with Falstaff, Shakespeare’s jolly knight. Like Troy, Falstaff is eager to pay, but intends to owe: if only his pockets had not been picked, he would pay his “four-and-twenty pound” tab to Mistress Quickly (1 Henry IV3.3.73). Like the braggart soldier, Troy’s daring is better suited to charming ladies and circus tricks than fighting. When it comes to blows, he is bested by Boldwood and, if we admit the brawl in the unpublished “Sheep-Rot Chapter,” by Gabriel as well (228, 397). Like the comic soldier, Troy is the object of ridicule for those who see through his facade (193–94, 220–21).

Wessex is a stage. The malthouse kilns provide the theatrical footlights lighting the way for the new adulescens amator, senex amator, and miles gloriosus to walk the stage. When the action is grave, pulsing with disintegration, the countryside breaks out in strange omens presaging tragedy. But, when the action is gay and laughter-loving, when fortunes rise and marriage beckons, the novel approaches comedy.

Upside Risk and Downside Risk

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Monk connects tragedy with downside risk:

I shall lament, and in the Tragic Mode,
The sufferings of those who once stood high,
Who fell from eminence, so that none could
Deliver them out of adversity.
For when Fortune makes up her mind to fly,
Her course no man is able to withhold;
Let no one trust in blind prosperity;
Be warned by these examples true and old. (178)

The Monk makes it through seventeen tragedies before the Knight interrupts. “‘Halt!’ says the Knight. ‘No more of this, good sir!’” (201). It is perhaps unsurprising that the Monk’s stories of one-percenters being cut down annoys the Knight, who is himself one of the elites. Instead of downside risk, the Knight would rather hear of upside risk:

And as for me, it is a real discomfort
To hear of folk who live in wealth and comfort,
And then, alas, learn of their sudden ruin.
But on the other hand it’s gratifying
To hear about a man of low estate,
How he climbs up and becomes fortunate,
Thenceforth abiding in prosperity. (201)

From the quarrel between the Monk and the Knight a revelation flashes: tragedy is the art that dramatizes downside risk and comedy the art that dramatizes upside risk (Wong Risk 233–43).

In both comedy and tragedy, chance, coincidence, sliding doors, mysterious synchronicities, the unexpected, accidents, improbabilities, the random element, unintended consequences, and mischance are ubiquitous. In tragedy, chance waylays the hero. In comedy, chance helps the hero. “Coincidence must be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s fourth century bce comedy The Girl from Samos, “She looks after many of the things we cannot see” (163–4). Demeas has good reason to say this. Contrary to every expectation, accusations of fornication and adultery give way to a joyful wedding.

In comedy after comedy, chance brings the action home against a million to one odds. To end the internecine strife of the Peloponnesian War, the women of Sparta and Athens stage a sex strike. Their unlikely plan works (Aristophanes Lysistrata). In Greek New Comedy and its Roman emulators, the miser recovers the stolen gold (Plautus The Pot of Gold), kidnapped children are reunited with their family against all odds (Plautus The Captives), and young lovers  marry in spite of cantankerous patriarchs (Menander Old Cantankerous). So, too, in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Egeon’s execution is stayed when, a thousand miles away from home, he, his wife, his two sons, and their two sons’ slaves “accidentally are met together” (5.1.352). Comedy is an agglomeration of the most improbable events that work to the upside. The conditions of comedy represent such an extreme that a character can say, in a metatheatrical turn: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could / condemn it as an improbable fiction” (Twelfth Night3.4.125–26).

While chance, daring, and luck swing to the upside in comedy, the opposite happens in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona accidentally drops a handkerchief. Desdemona, Emilia, Othello, and Roderigo die. In Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, the murder investigation reunites Oedipus with the Corinthian Messenger and the Shepherd, three characters long separated by both time and distance. Unlike the happy reunion of comedy, this reunion brings about a weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, civil war rages at Thebes, the city of seven gates. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 25,401,600 permutations of attackers and defenders are possible. Against 1:25,401,599 odds, Aeschylus brings about the permutation most inimical to the hero’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions (Wong “Aeschylus’s Seven”). Comedy and tragedy both dramatize risk events. When chance skews to the upside, we call it comedy. When chance skews to the downside, we call it tragedy. Hardyan chance works similarly as it maneuvers the narrative between the two.

The language of chance pervades Far from the Madding Crowd. There are “whimsical coincidences” (20). Mischance is referred to as “a freak,” something that happens “contretemps” (24, 119). Laborers “wait upon Chance” (43). Chance is capitalized, as though a god. Elsewhere, chance, as an active agent, can be seen to have “offered” something to someone (38). “Heartless circumstance” preys on unsuspecting characters (146). A “singular accident” ruins the best-laid plans (308). Eyes that “had been accidentally lifted at that moment” see things they ought not to (265). Comings are “sudden and unexpected” (89). A misunderstanding between All Saints’ and All Souls’ means the difference between life and death. The outcome of a marriage hangs on how much liquor the hired help drinks (276–83). Chance is everywhere.

The omnipotence of chance forces characters to make best guesses based on “reasonable probabilities” (317) and to warn one another “not to be too sure” even when the outcome seems certain (354). There is everywhere “many a slip” (354). Steeped in the world of chance, the characters gloomily admit that “nothing happens that we expect” (252). Chance is so pervasive that it fuels dramatic irony. At the shearing supper, Bathsheba sings “The Banks of Allan Water.” “One of the verses,” says the narrator, was “remembered for many months, even years, by more than a few of those who were gathered there:”

For his bride a soldier sought her
And a winning tongue had he:
On the banks of Allan Water
None was gay as she. (157)

In a few hours, she will meet Troy. So too, when Boldwood asks Bathsheba to marry him barring any “unexpected accidents,” (343) the reader hears irony, hears echoes of tragedy, of King Duncan saying: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” as he approaches Inverness where he goes to die (Macbeth 1.6.1).

Chance pivots the action between tragedy and comedy. Having begun in low estate, Gabriel has saved for ten years to become an independent farmer. He begins the fortunate climb of Chaucer’s Knight. A random act, however, triggers his pastoral tragedy (38–42). One morning, his overenthusiastic sheepdog drives his flock through the fence and down the precipice. Ten years of labor is lost. While Gabriel moves from comedy to tragedy, Bathsheba heads the other way. She begins in a state of destitution. Her uncle dies, however, and leaves her the Weatherbury Upper Farm. It is her turn to climb the ladder and grow fortunate.

After losing his livelihood, Gabriel hits the road looking for work. On his way to Shottsford, he passes a farm. A fire has broken out in the straw ricks. After putting it out, he asks for a job. Little does he know, he has stumbled onto Bathsheba’s new farm. Bathsheba marvels at chance’s power: “She scarcely knew,” says the narrator, “whether most to be amused at the singularity of the meeting or to be concerned at its awkwardness. There was room for a little pity, also for a very little exultation; the former at his position, the latter at her own” (52). Like Hardy and Stephen in real life, Bathsheba and Gabriel’s paths keep crossing. She hires him.

As is often the case between the sexes where feeling runs hot, Bathsheba, over a perceived impropriety, fires Gabriel. Or he leaves. Whatever the case, the day after he departs, she runs into her own pastoral tragedy: her sheep have gotten into the young clover. Blasted, they will die and are dying (136). Only Gabriel can save them. Through another coincidence, mistress and shepherd are reunited.

Chance also triggers the other two romantic interests. Bathsheba and Liddy toss a hymn book to see whether the anonymous Valentine sealed with the words “Marry Me” goes to Boldwood or Teddy Coggan (98). Chance selects Boldwood. The Valentine has an unanticipated and deleterious effect on him. He is transformed into the senex amatorblocking Gabriel, the hapless adulescens amator. In a world mindful of class, he easily bests Gabriel, his social inferior.

It is likewise “by chance or by devilry” that Bathsheba meets Troy (165). While walking a dark path, Troy’s spur and Bathsheba’s dress become entangled. In extricating themselves, their hands touch “by accident or design” (163). Her beauty’s flicker entices him. Their tragicomedy begins. If the novel had ended a few chapters earlier, Troy would have fulfilled his comedy by marrying Bathsheba. The novel, however continues. As it continues, chance works its strange ways, saving Troy from drowning only to kill him by a blast from Boldwood’s shotgun.

With Boldwood in jail and Troy dead, laughter-loving Bathsheba “was beginning to know suffering” and turns into a “bust of Melpomene,” the Muse of tragedy (270, 370). She marries Gabriel, the last suitor standing. The ending, perhaps, could have been foreseen: just as the adulescens amator prevails in comedy, Gabriel could have been expected to prevail. What Far from the Madding Crowd offers that is new, however, is an anastomosing path to the finish that is full of possibilities and rife with branches: this is not the unidirectional path of comedy or tragedy proper. “History,” says Hardy, “is rather a stream than a tree. There is nothing organic in its shape, nothing systematic in its development. It flows on like a thunderstorm-rill by a road side; now a straw turns it this way, now a tiny barrier of sand that” (Hardy Life 179). Like history, the narrative flows from the highlands down to the sea. The topography of comedy and tragedy proper presents a single, deep channel. The topography of Far from the Madding Crowd, however, presents a myriad forking, complex, and anastomosing branches through valleys dividing once, twice, and thrice.

Works set in the meridian times of chance, of which Far from the Madding Crowd is a signal example, remind us of the limitations of the straight line of want, will, and intention. They show us how the unexpected happens not some of the time, but rather, all of the time. Trouble happens because everyone has a plan until they run into the unexpected. The unexpected prevails over the expected because, while expectation aims towards one eventuality, the unexpected takes the shape of any eventuality. A successful harvest, for example, depends on multiple factors from the availability of labor to the climate. Many events must occur in the desired sequence. Any one wayward event, however, could ruin the entire sequence. In short, expectation is fragile because one path leads to success and the unexpected is robust because many paths lead to failure.

The Eternal Pastoral

The perfection of the pastoral world highlights by contrast life’s random walk. In contrast with the imprecision and instability of human affairs, the pastoral world is precise and self-regulating:

The river would have been seen by day to be of that deep smooth sort which races middle and sides with the same gliding precision, any irregularities of speed being immediately corrected by a small whirlpool. (87)

Troy hopes “in the nature of things that matters would right themselves at some proper date and wind up well” (309). The possibility of self-regulating human mechanisms, Troy comes to realize, is illusory. While self-regulating systems occur in the pastoral world, randomness prevails in the human world.

Like the river, the pastoral sky is a portrait of precision:

After placing the little creature with its mother he stood and carefully examined the sky to ascertain the time of night from the altitudes of the stars.
The Dog-star and Aldebaran, pointing to the restless Pleiades, were half way up the southern sky, and between them hung Orion which gorgeous constellation never burnt more vividly than now as it soared forth above the rim of the landscape. Castor and Pollux with their quiet shine were almost on the meridian: the barren and gloomy Square of Pegasus was creeping round to the north-west: far away through the plantation Vega sparkled like a lamp suspended amid the leafless trees; and Cassiopeia’s Chair stood daintily poised on the uppermost boughs.
“One o’ clock,” said Gabriel. (18)

Perfection is for the heavens. The sky is the dial and the constellations the hands of the great clock. Human time, in contrast, is aleatory and subject to chance, breakdown, and malfunction. Gabriel’s watch “had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all” (10). Bathsheba’s watch stops on the night before her wedding (387). While Jan Coggan’s pinchbeck repeater retains traces of the divine by speaking in the “still small tones” that recall the “still small voice” of God talking to Elijah, Coggan is already fuddled beyond hearing (279; 1 Kings 19.12). The pastoral timepiece of the sky, unlike human time, is perfect: its motions are the moving hands of time itself.

The pastoral calendar, insofar as it is linked to the celestial clock, is likewise robust. The hiring fair takes place in February on Candlemas (43) Lady Day in March sees the renewal of labor contracts (380). May is the month for sheep washing and June the month for shearing and the shearing supper (125, 142, 151). The harvest supper follows in August (236) and the sheep fair in September (331). The further away from the perfection of the seasons, however, the greater the dominion of chance. Lambing season ends some years in February, and other years goes past March (107). So too, the swarming of bees in a given month is a probability rather than a certainty (178). The helter-skelter lives of individual human beings lies at the far end of the range. Here, there is no certainty. Only probability remains. Certainty is reserved for the rivers, the sky, and the other furnishings belonging to the order of the eternal pastoral. Of these furnishings, the greatest is the great barn.

The Lindy Effect

A book that has been in print a hundred years can be expected to be in print a hundred more and a book in print for two hundred years can be expected to be in print another two hundred (Taleb Antifragile 318). Scientific theories, religions, and technologies that have stood the test of time for a thousand years can be expected to survive another thousand. This is the Lindy effect, the idea that the older something is, the longer its projected lifespan:

Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for fifty or so years by physicists and mathematicians thanks to the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy effect. (Taleb Skin 141)

The oldest Wessex artifact is the great barn. An architectural design concept triumph, it exemplifies the Lindy effect. Like the unchanging constellations overlooking the countryside, the older the barn gets, the older it is likely to become:

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediævalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder. Standing before this abraded pile the eye regarded its present usage, the mind dwelt upon its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout, a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. (143)

To measure change, one needs a point of reference from which the change is measured. To see the gradual sweep of the heavens, one needs to find a fixed point, as Gabriel does when he stands atop Norcombe Hill: “To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness” (15). In the world of the novel, the great barn is the fixed object past which mortal stars glide. From its vantage point, one can reckon the palpable movement of human activity.

Two major episodes—the sheep shearing and the harvest dinner—take place in the great barn. As the characters fuss, fret, flirt, and flutter, the great barn, though itself unchanging in its pastoral persistence, watches their changings of the guards, over and over. It had stood while the Hundred Years’ War raged. As the Tudors rose and fell, it stood. It stood during the Interregnum and it stood during the Restoration. As the Great Fire of London burned, it stood. When the printing press came to England, it stood, and it stood when steam engines arose. When Napoleon went on his wars of conquest, it was there, and having gained four hundred years of momentum, it could be expected to endure another four hundred: that is to say, to the mid twenty-third century. That the tithe barn at Cerne Abbas—the actual structure upon which Hardy modeled the great barn—stands today in the twenty-first century, however, means that the prognosis is to be moved upwards: by the Lindy effect, the great barn, having stood nearly six centuries, can be expected to endure deep into the twenty-sixth century (Bullen 35–38). Imagine that.

The pastoral world and, in particular, the great barn, highlight, by way of contrast, the role of chance in the characters’ lives. Time changes humans because human are perishable, but the more time goes by, the more the great barn stays the same because the great barn represents another order of things: the eternal pastoral. As a survey marker of eternity, it provides a frame of reference against which human transience may be measured.

Littlewood’s Law

Too often we ignore chance, relegating it into a footnote adorning the text of life. Chance in tragedy and comedy entertains, but the odds of an event a million to one against in life lay beyond the prospect of belief. We read Far from a Madding Crowd to experience the wildness of chance vicariously. That the real world is more stable than the fictional world, however, is a conjecture that, despite its appeal, is demonstrably false.

J. E. Littlewood, a Cambridge mathematician, demonstrated through the law that bears his name that, not only do improbable events happen more often than we expect, but that, when they happen, they impact us more than we expect: in fact, when they happen, they are called miracles. Beginning with the observation that we experience many events each day, Littlewood concludes that, by the action of chance, we should experience a miracle once per month:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happens to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month. (Dyson 273)

In the span of the novel, it would not be far off the mark to say that Gabriel has seen, on the average, one miracle every month. Low-probability, high-consequence events in the novel are like low-probability, high-consequence events in life: though predictable in their unpredictability, when they happen, they overturn all things.

Far from the Madding Crowd, in acknowledging the dominion of chance, presents an order of existence where intention is the slave of want, and want is chance’s fool. The ever-present eternal pastoral is like a rich, unexpected shadow over the narrative throwing in relief the indeterminacy of the all too human. Though the characters’ lives are thrall to chance, the rural-idyllic novel offers a folk consolation. “You should take it careless-like,” says one of the rustics, “and your time will come” (67). In a world chance has driven mad, it is best to keep going.

When we are “excessively hopeful and blithe,” or, in other words, in the midst of comedy, we keep going because “a trouble is looming in the distance” (350). When we confront tragedy, we keep going because it is during these worst of times that our “malignant star was assuredly setting fast” (323). In both the novel and in life a “not frequent disregard of the probable in the chain of events” may be observed (Hardy Preface 437). Whether chance crowns us or sells us down the river, however, is beyond our control. What is in our control is to believe, hope, err, and strive. To some, this consolation may seem insufficient. But, in the face of chance, the upstart god, to rear ourselves up forthwith upright is all that may be said as a certainty. If you keep going, you just might receive the letter, the one dropped in the mud on a country lane.

Notes

  1. An anonymous review from the January 1875 Westminster Review remarks how, when the novel was first anonymously serialized “many good judges pronounced it to be a work of George Eliot’s” (Cox 41–43).
  2. Stephen’s “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps” is reprinted in Mallet 61–82. The cliffhanger episode in A Pair of Blue Eyes takes place in chapters 21 and 22.
  3. Unless noted, quotations are from Falck-Yi’s Oxford edition.
  4. Bathsheba is “Sweet-and-twenty” in the first February (67: Penguin edition). When Boldwood proposes to her in May, she is twenty or twenty-one (birthdays being unstated). Although the narrator says in the closing pages of the novel she is “three or four and twenty,” it is likelier that she is twenty-three—the novel covers three years and some odd months. In the first February, Boldwood is forty (76, 118). In May, when he proposes, he says that he is forty-one. At the end of the novel, he must be, therefore, forty-three. Troy dies on Christmas Eve two years after the novel begins (377). He is twenty-six. As the novel begins in December, he would have been twenty-four at that time, possibly twenty-three if his birthday is in December. In the first month of the novel, Gabriel is twenty-eight (11). By the end of the novel, Gabriel will be thirty-one and perhaps thirty-two if his birthday falls in the beginning of the year. It is difficult to square characters’ stated ages with their relative ages. At one point during June in the first year, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is six years older than her and that Boldwood is ten years older than him (190). If we go by Boldwood’s stated age of forty-one, this would make Gabriel thirty-one and Bathsheba twenty-five, considerably older than their stated ages. If we go by Gabriel’s stated age of twenty-eight from the previous December and allow that he may be twenty-eight or twnty-nine at this point, Boldwood would be either thirty-eight or thirty-nine and Bathsheba either twenty-two or twenty-three. The stated ages, however, appear to be more accurate than their relative ages: in another passage that takes place around the second September, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is eight—and not six—years older than her (345). Gabriel is either twenty-nine or, more likely, thirty at this point, making Bathsheba, in this reckoning, twenty-one or twenty-two.

Works Cited

Aristophanes. Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Clouds, The Birds, Lysistrata, The Frogs.            Translated by William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglass Parker, Penguin,     1994.

Bullen, J. B. Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels. Frances Lincoln, 2013.

Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by David Wright, Oxford 1985.

Cox, R. G. Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1979.

Dyson, Freeman. The Scientist as Rebel. New York Review of Books, 2006.

Halperin, John. “Leslie Stephen, Thomas Hardy, and ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’.” The Modern            Language Review, vol. 75, no. 4, 1980, pp. 738-45.

Hardy, Thomas. Under the Greenwood Tree. London, 1872.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. 1993. Edited by Suzanne B. Falck-Yi, Oxford UP, 2002.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. Edited by Rosemarie Morgan and Shannon Russell,                       Penguin, 2000.

_____. General Preface to the Wessex Edition of 1912. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Hardy,             Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, pp. 437-42.

_____. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. Edited by Michael Millgate, Palgrave Macmillan,                1984.

Holy Bible. King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 1976.

Mallett, Phillip. “Leslie Stephen’s Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” The Hardy Society Journal,     vol. 10, no. 2, 2014, pp. 58-84.

Menander. Plays and Fragments. Translated by Norma Miller, Penguin, 1987.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revised. Oxford UP, 2004.

Plautus. Amphitryon, The Comedy of Asses, The Pot of Gold, The Two Bacchises, The Captives. Edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

_____. Casina, The Casket Comedy, Curculio, Epidicus, The Two Menaechmuses. Edited and                  translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. Edited by Charles Whitworth, The Oxford Shakespeare, 2002.

_____. Four Histories: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V. Penguin, 1968.

_____. Julius Caesar. Edited by David Daniell, The Arden Shakespeare, 1998.

_____. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, The Arden Shakespeare, 2015.

_____. Twelfth Night. Edited by Andrew Worrall, The Heinemann Shakespeare, 1994.

_____. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Edited by Clifford Leech, The Arden Shakespeare,           1969.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus.     Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1984.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.

_____. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018.

Wong, Edwin. “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s Portrait of a Patriot.” Critical       Insights: Patriotism, edited by Robert C. Evans, Salem Press, 2021.

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

Review of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST – Oscar Wilde

1895, in The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays, Penguin 2000

The same time I was reading Wilde’s comedy, I saw playwright Constance (Connie) Congdon speak at a Kennedy Center “Dramatist Guild Legacy Award Conversation.” She was talking to dramaturg Heather Helinsky about the craft of playwriting. She emphasized how playwriting is, like talking, a process. The more one engages with playwriting, the more fluid one’s playwriting becomes. This concept of the “fluidity of playwriting” immediately grabbed me, perhaps because I had been reading Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “Fluidity” is a fantastic description of Wilde’s writing that hits the nail right on the head.

Wilde is one of the most fluid writers I have come across. There is an effortless ease in his dialogue, in how each scene glide into the next. His writing reminds me of the music of Mozart or Fleetwood Mac. Effortless melody. Of course, as Mozart used to complain, although his melodies sound effortless, a great deal of effort has gone into putting them together. This effort, however, is not immediately apparent to the listener because it is put together so seamlessly.

Not all great music is so effortless. Take Beethoven, for instance. He is on the same level as Mozart, but his notes sound  laboured. They sound like they were incredibly difficult to write. The notes do not flow together; they seem to have been willed together by the titanic force of his will. In the same way, not all great drama is as effortless as Wilde. Aeschylus and O’Neill write great plays. But their plays are clunky, wooden, and laborious. Yet their plays represent another type of pinnacle. Aeschylus is, on some days, my all-time favourite.

Congdon and Helinsky’s talk got me thinking: why do some works appear so fluid? Why do some works appear so laboured? My first thoughts were that fluid playwrights relish being in the present. Whichever act and scene they find themselves in, they delight in making it come alive. Algy’s eating constantly in The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, delights in his eating at inopportune moments in the present. Fluidity is part of the Zen of the ever-present moment.

For the more laborious playwrights, however, each moment is part of the scaffolding that sets up the big reveal. Laborious playwrights take delight in the future moment rather than the present moment. To use an example from O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the incessant drinking Tyrone, Jamie, and Edmund engage in is not for the moment, but to set up that last moment where they see something that hits them so hard that they cannot have that last drink.

The Importance of Being Earnest

There are nine characters in the play. The subsidiary characters are: Rev. Canon Chasuble (the local priest), Merriman (Jack’s butler), Lane (Algy’s manservant), and Miss Prism (Cecily’s governess). The major characters are: John Worthing (Jack, JP, and, when in the city, Ernest Worthing), Algernon Moncrieff (Algy and, when in the country, Ernest Worthing), Lady Augusta Bracknell (Algy’s aunt), Gwendolen Fairfax (Lady Bracknell’s daughter and Algy’s niece), and Cecily Cardew (Jack’s ward). The major characters are major by virtue of their class and that they are, or will be, all related by blood or marriage by the play’s end.

The romantic action starts when, visiting Algy in the city, Jack–operating under the alias of his decadent and fictitious brother Ernest–proposes to Algy’s niece Gwendolen. Gwendolen, having always found the name “Ernest” to be most attractive, accepts. Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother, on interviewing Jack and finding out that he is a foundling, is not so keen to bless their union.

The action intensifies when Algy finds out that Ernest is an assumed name and that Ernest is actually Jack when he is at home in the country. Algy finds Jack’s country address and proceeds to visit Jack in the Country while himself pretending to be Ernest, Jack’s fictitious brother. It turns out Jack had made up a fictitious brother for himself as an excuse to go to the city to play. Jack is furious when he sees that Algy has come to his country manor under the alias of his fictional brother Ernest. What makes Jack even more furious is that Algy proposes to his ward, Cecily. Cecily, like Gwendolen, is also captivated by the name Ernest. She accepts his marriage proposition. At this point, both Gwendolen and Cecily believe they are engaged to Ernest Worthing. Ernest Worthing, of course, does not really exist: he is Jack’s alias in the city and Algy’s alias in the country.

The action reaches a peak when Gwendolen leaves the city and goes to the country to visit her new fiancé, Ernest Worthing. She meets Cecily there, who is also under the impression that she is also engaged to Ernest Worthing. To add more fun to the scene, the persnickety aristocrat Lady Bracknell also arrives in the country to take Gwendolen back home. After Gwendolen and Bracknell arrive, Jack and Algy’s covers are blown. It is quite an embarrassing moment.

After recovering from the unexpected appearance of the city guests, Algy and Jack renew their marriage proposals to Cecily and Gwendolen, who accept. Jack, however, as Cecily’s guardian, refuses to bless their union. It seems however, that he would bless it if Lady Bracknell would bless his union with Gwendolen. Bracknell, however, puts her foot down: she has climbed the class ladder for too long to let her daughter marry a foundling from the train station. An impasse results.

At that moment Miss Prism enters. Lady Bracknell recognizes Prism as the irresponsible servant who lost her sister’s baby many years ago. She recounts the story of losing the baby in a handbag in a train station, the very same train station where Jack had been found. Jack still has the handbag. He fetches it. Prism recognizes it: it is marked with her initials. This means that Jack is actually Algy’s brother (and not just pretending to be his brother!). What is more, they find out that the missing baby had been–drum roll-christened “Ernest.” So, Jack was always an Ernest. With this revelation, everyone gets married and the play ends with Jack saying: “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” A nice play on “Ernest” and “earnest.”

The Unexpected

Part of why Wilde can take delight in the dramatic present is because each moment gives him a chance to engage in wordplay. The wordplay sometimes consists of unexpected combinations of words, such as Lady Bracknell’s surprise when she finds out Jack is a foundling:

Jack: I have lost both my parents.

Lady Bracknell: Both? To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Her response starts off reasonably: it is a misfortune to lose one parent. Her conclusion, however, that to lose both “looks like carelessness” is unanticipated. What would have been expected is something more along the lines of “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both is tragedy.” But that lacks the desired effect. In performance, before the play was pulled over Wilde’s ruinous scandal, it is this line that elicited the most laughs. Children are not responsible for losing their parents. But in Bracknell’s view, they are. By turning expectation upside down, Bracknell’s observation tickles the brain. The brain sees that something does not fit. But a second later, the brain realizes what Wilde is telling us: that Lady Bracknell is, well, different. She is the higher class taken to its own logical conclusion where it becomes a caricature of itself. And when the brain is tickled like that, the biological reaction is laughter.

Similar is Algy’s remonstration of his servant Lane:

Algernon: Lane’s view of marriage seems somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

Algy voices what the upper class believes, but does not normally voice. To most of the upper classes, to voice their belief in noblesse oblige, the inferred responsibility of the privileged to act with nobility was the norm. Here Algy wants the privilege without noblesse oblige. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. The line mentally discombobulates the audience. When the audience realizes that Wilde does this to let them know Algy is a harmless but good for nothing aristocrat, the biological reaction to this brain tickle is, again, to erupt into laughter.

Comedy, like tragedy, dramatizes the unexpected. Unexpected witticisms and wordplay provoke laughter. And, like tragedy, the fulcrum of the action is an unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. In the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, the event is that Jack has hired Prism to be his ward’s governess–the same Prism who, unbeknownst to him, had left him at the train station when he was a babe. Improbability is such an important and ubiquitous element of comedy that characters can make metatheatrical remarks about it and expect to receive in compensation a good laugh from the audience. So remarks Algernon:

Algernon: Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable.

Improbability is the heart of comedy and comedy is the heart of laughter.

– – –

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

Review of THE MODERN HUSBAND – Henry Fielding

1732, in She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies, edited by Nigel Wood, Oxford 2008

No cakes and ale for this disturbing comedy by English novelist and playwright Henry Fielding. On the strength of Fielding’s reputation, and as an artifact of the Georgian era–a time of rapid change, scandal, growing class division, and increasing prosperity which saw the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution–The Modern Husband continues to be read and studied. From a reading, however, it is easy to see why it is no longer produced. To today’s sensibilities, the play is offensive.

In The Modern Husband, there are the usual family connections. The bad guys are Mr and Mrs Modern and Lord Richly. The good guys are Mr and Mrs Bellamant and Mr Gaywit. Caught in between good and bad are Emilia (the Bellamants’ daughter), Captain Bellamant (the Bellamants’ son), and Lady Charlotte (Richly’s daughter). Mr Gaywit, in addition, is Lordy Richly’s nephew.

Each of the characters experiences a crisis. Mr and Mrs Modern are running out of funds to support their lifestyle. Lord Richly is looking to satisfy his libido. Mr and Mrs. Bellamant having lost twenty-thousand in an unsuccessful case before the House of Lords, also run into financial difficulties. Gaywit loves Emilia, but Richly has made it so that he must marry Charlotte to inherit his father’s estate. Captain Bellamant is getting his allowance cut back, as his parents have lost their court case. So stands the situation as the comedy begins.

To fill up their coffers, Mr Modern pimps out Mrs Modern. He turns a blind eye while Mrs Modern connects with Richly, Gaywit, and Mr Bellamant. Through the largesse of mainly Richly, the Moderns can sustain their card-playing and socializing city lifestyle. Richly, however, is visiting less often. He has his eye on Mrs Bellamant, the devout and caring wife of Mr Bellamant. Richly, to get alone with Mrs Bellamant, offers Mr Bellamant help in his court case and pays Mrs Modern to arrange a rendezvous between himself and Mrs Bellamant. Mr Bellamant, while believing that his wife will be true, gives Richly leave to tempt his wife. Mrs Modern, becoming desperate, accepts Richly’s offer and also looks to her two other lovers–Mr Bellamant and Gaywit–for help. She borrows a hundred-pound note from Mr Bellamant. Mr Modern, realizing that Richly is coming around less often to see his wife, also grows desperate. He arranges to catch his wife in flagrante delicto and to sue her lover for damages. This practice, at the time, was all the rage for degenerate aristocrats to make a quick buck.

The comedy turns on the unexpected: Mrs Modern loses the hundred-pound note Mr Bellamant gives her to Richly while gambling. Then, a little later, Richly loses the same note to Mrs Bellamant gambling. When Mr Bellamant asks his wife to borrow some money, she gives him back the note that he had given to Mrs Modern earlier. Finding out that his wife had gotten the note from Richly arouses his suspicion. He goes on a romp with Mrs Modern, and is caught by Mr Modern. Now he will have to pay adultery damages to Mr Modern. But no! He finds a way out. The good guys find out that Mr Modern had pimped out his wife all along to catch a lover in the act and make a buck in court. This is strictly forbidden. So, Mr Bellamant is off the hook. But there still is his wife, who is angry that he has been gallivanting around town. But oh! She decides to forgive him. Finally, Richly pays the price. The Bellamants’ son Captain Bellamant marries Charlotte, Richly’s daughter, behind his back. This frees up Gaywit, Richly’s nephew, to marry Emilia, the Bellamants’ daughter. Unlike real life, the good guys stand up to the bad guys. Or so the play argues.

I found the play cringeworthy. Why should Mrs Bellamant forgive Mr Bellamant? When she finds out her husband has been running around, she starts off quite mad. But then her anger softens. As it dawned on me that she might forgive him, I was thinking, “Don’t do it!” Then, in a space of ten or fifteen lines, she forgives him. Unbelievable. To me, that was as unsatisfying as it would have been if Nora had forgiven Torvald in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Of course, that does not happen in A Doll’s House, which is a superior play.

Now what happens if the Moderns or the Bellamants run out of money? Money is a big issue in this play. Well, it turns out that the worse that could happen to these families is that they would have to retire to their country manor! To them, that is very bad. But, to a modern audience, leaving the rat race behind to retire to a country manor would be a dream come true! So, I found this facet of the play out of touch with modern sensibilities.

In addition, I found the “good” characters–especially the Bellamants–to be insufferable. Mrs Bellamant is a goody two shoes. And Mr Bellamant has not aged well. He may have been considered good back in 1732, but times have changed! For example, Mr Bellamant’s wager with with Richly that Mrs Bellamant can resist his advances is reminiscent of God’s wager with Satan over Job’s goodness. Today such a wager is unconscionable. When such a wager is made today–as it was in the 1983 movie Trading Places–both the God and the Satan figures are played by bad guys. In Trading Places the wager is made by callous millionaires. So too, Mr Bellamant appears in a callous light by accepting Richly’s wager. Richly–the “bad” character–while bad, at least had no pretence of being good. At least his is honest in his badness.

The one saving feature in the play are the courtship scenes between Captain Bellamant–who comes in strong–and Lady Charlotte–who is ice cold. If the actors could get their chemistry between the characters right–and there obviously is a chemistry between them–the courtship scenes could be hilarious as they heap insult after insult on one another while working towards the larger prize of marriage.

All in all, Fielding’s The Modern Husband is too rooted in the preoccupations of its time to transcend them to be a work for all time.

– – –

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Brownian Motion, Tragedy, Comedy, and History

The Discovery of Brownian Motion

In 1829, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown observed microscopic grains of pollen suspended in water. Instead of moving in straight lines or staying still, they moved about in an erratic and entirely unpredictable manner. They followed, as it were, a ‘drunkard’s path’:

Brownian Motion

Brownian Motion

To Brown, the pollen grains seemed invested with the primordial rudiments of life which gave imbued them with the capacity to meander about like drunkards following a random walk. Cool! Too bad though: he was wrong. But like so many things, even though his hypothesis was incorrect, the search for the correct explanation changed the way we look at the world. The correct explanation for Brownian motion is that the grains of pollen were being bombarded by myriads of water molecules moving at random. The molecules were too small to be resolved by the microscopes. Their presence could only be inferred by observing Brownian motion.

So, Brownian motion is the name given to the random motion of particles in gases or liquids. The particles follow a ‘random walk’ or a ‘drunkard’s path’ because they are round and elastic, bouncing off one another in proportion to the temperature of the system. Or so the kinetic theory of gases would argue. If this seems self-evident, it sure wasn’t in 1829. Molecules: what are those? Didn’t matter contain phlogiston, an element with the property of fire which enables combustion? And so on. It wasn’t until 1905 that someone figured out the true cause behind the disturbingly random movements in Brownian motion. It took Einstein to figure it out.

Levels of Uncertainty and Order in Brownian Motion

Now, what is most interesting about Brownian motion is that here is a system that is completely random, unpredictable, and lacking certainty on one level but exhibits form, predictability, and order on another level.

On a micro level, the random walk of a gas particle in a container is, well, completely random. That is to say, there is no force in the universe which is capable of predicting whither it will go. God doesn’t know. Ask Laplace’s demon and he would tell you many other things, but the random walk is beyond his intelligence.

All this uncertainty: very frustrating! What can be done? Well, nothing can be done. The uncertainty resolves itself! How? On a macro level, a container of gas exhibits form, predictability, and order. Gas in a container-that is to say millions of billions of particles all randomly walking-is governed by such things as Boyle’s Law (pressure inversely proportional to volume) and the transfer of kinetic energy (temperature) of the container to the outside world is also well regulated.

How it happens that on a micro level things are completely random (individual particles of gas randomly walking) and on a macro level things are completely determinate (billions of particle of gas have well defined characteristics including temperature, energy, pressure, etc.,) is beyond me. At some point, however, chaos gives way to order. Keep this in mind for now.

Tragedy, Comedy, and History

Ever thought about how randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected dominate comedy and tragedy. In comedy, the unlikely couple overcome cantankerous patriarchs, and social and economic barriers to become happily married. In tragedy, the unexpected also dominates: Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane hill every time. But now turn your attention to history. Patterns emerge. Some of the patterns are linear. Fukuyama thought that history aimed towards achieving democratic capitalist societies. Then history ends. Marx thought history strives towards the communist revolution. Patterns can be linear. Polybius believed in anacyclosis, the doctrine that constitutions move cyclically from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to ochlocracy and then back again to monarchy. The patterns in history are reflective of a reality that has form, order, and is predictable. If tragedy, comedy, and history all represent reality, is comedy and tragedy correct or is history correct? After all, the unexpected reigns in comedy and tragedy while the expected reigns in history.

Come back now to the behavior of gases on a micro and macro level. On a micro level, Brownian motion is the term used to describe the unexpected ways particles move around at random. On a macro level, patterns emerge that are predictable (e.g. as pressure increases volume decreases). Tragedy and comedy look at the world from a micro level. They usually dramatize the actions of a day or less (the unity of time). History looks at the world from a macro level. It records actions taken place over decades and centuries. In this way, the short term randomness of a day yields to long term order and patterns. So comedy and tragedy versus history is like looking at Brownian motion: on a small scale, disorder. On a large scale, order. Neither are right or wrong. They are looking at the same reality from a different perspective.

It always astounds me how many parallels there are between science and art. It may have something to do with how we look at the world. Whether we are artists or scientists, we look at the world with the same set of eyes and the same intellectual apparatus. So perhaps the parallels between science and art rests on humanity and the all-too-human way of understanding things.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by figuring out the secrets to tragic literary theory.

The Prologue in Comedy

Diligent readers will recall that comedy has been on the reading list of late. There’s the Old Comedy of Aristophanes (446-386 BC), the New Comedy of Menander (341-291), and the Roman comedies of Plautus (254-184) and Terence (186-159). Next up will probably be Moliere, Congreve, and Shakes. The purpose of reading comedy is to see how it handles the theme of the unexpected. Of course, reading comedy is also a delight unto itself! Just finished reading Terence’s The Eunuch where a young man disguises himself as a eunuch to go in the whorehouse. You can just imagine what happens! Of course, some of the things are politically incorrect to laugh at nowadays. Women, for example, are frequently ravished, and when they find out they are actually freeborn, they get married to their ravishers and everyone rejoices. But some jokes maintain their timelessness. For example when the head mistress complains that her incompetent champion needs a champion himself:

Thais: You must talk to him firmly.

Chremes: I will…

Thais: Prepare yourself for action [aside] Good heavens I’m lost. What a man to defend me! He needs a champion of his own!

The Prologue

One thing that sets apart the comedies of Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence is the presence or absence of a prologue. Terence uses the prologue to give credit to his Greek predecessors and defend himself from critics. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to The Eunuch:

If there are people who try to please as many and hurt as few honest men as possible, the poet begs to announce himself one of their number. Furthermore, if someone has thought something too harsh has been said against him, he must realize that this was not an attack but an answer, for he launched the first assault. For all his competence as a translator, his poor style of writing has turned good Greek plays into bad Latin ones. He is also the man who has just given us The Spectre of Menander, and in his Treasure made the defendant state his claim to the money before the plaintiff puts his won case…

Plautus uses the prologue to set the scene and lay out the argument. Frequently a divinity addresses the audience. Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Amphitryo delivered by Mercury:

The scene is laid in Thebes. That is Amphitryo’s house. He comes of an Argive family. His wife is Alumna, daughter of Electrus. At the moment, Amphitryo is commanding the Theban army; Thebes is at war with the Teleboians. Amphitryo went away leaving Alumna pregnant. Jupiter…well, you know, of course, how-what shall I say-broad minded he has always been in these affairs, what a wonderful lover he is, when he comes across something he fancies…

Menander uses the prologue in much the same way as Plautus. Here’s an example from Old Cantankerous delivered by Pan:

Imagine, please, that the scene is set in Attica, in fact at Phyle, and that the shrine I’m coming from is the one belonging to that village (Phylaeans are able to farm this stony ground). It’s a holy place, and a very famous one. This farm here on my right is where Knemon lives: he’s a real hermit of  man, who snarls at everyone and hates company…

Aristophanes does not use prologues. What is to happen develops as a matter of course from the action. Here’s the beginning to The Clouds:

Strepsiades: Yaaaahhuuuuu. Great Zeus Almighty, what an endless monster of a night it’s been! Won’t the daylight ever come? I could have sworn I heard the roosters crowing hours ago. And listen to those slaves. Still snoring away! By god, things around here were a long sight different in the good old days before this war! Drat this stinking war anyway! It’s ruined Athens. Why, you can’t even whip your own slaves any more or they’ll desert to the Spartans. Bah. [pointing to Pheidippides] And as for him, that precious playboy son of mine, he’s worse yet. Look at him, stretched out there sleeping like a log under five fat blankets, farting away. All right, if that’s the way you want it, boy, I’ll snuggle down and fart you back a burst or two. Damn! I’m so bitten up by all these blasted bedbuggering debts and bills and stables-fees, I can’t catch a wink.

So, the play will be about his son and debts. But this is known not by prologue, but by action and dialogue.

Which is Best?

Which style do you like best? No prologue (Aristophanes), prologue to hear dramatist venting (Terence), or prologues that give out the argument of the play (Menander and Plautus)? If you ask me, the best is Terence: with prologue but prologue is not about events in the play. It is best just because it’s fun seeing him dig up dirt on rivals. And acknowledging his debts and sources is always excellent as well. Second best is Aristophanes: no prologue. In both Terence and Aristophanes’ cases, the plot develops organically from the action. Drama is from the Greek verb dran ‘do, act’. The natural function of drama then is to do or act, not narrate, which is what a prologue does. If I had wanted narration, I would have read a novel, not seen a play. So, having said this, least best is the prologue in Menander and Plautus which tells the audience what will happen instead of acting out what will happen. It is least best because narration is foreign to the function of drama. Why would Menander and Plautus used the clumsy prologue than? Perhaps they were unsure of the sophistication of their audiences, the capacity of their audiences to follow the action. The prologue would have solved this. Aristophanes wrote in Athens for an Athenocentric audience: they likely shared a similar point of view so the danger of being misunderstood was low. Menander and Plautus likely wrote plays which would have been performed throughout the wide Hellenic world: more danger of misunderstanding. So that might be a reason why. Not that I forgive them for this indiscretion to the spirit of drama, though.

Other Examples of Art Doing Things Contrary to Its Nature

Lately there seem to be some movies fascinated by stills. So if prologues in drama is a drama wanting to be a novel, stills in movies is a sign of a movie wanting to be photography (a still instead of a moving image). One movie that had a lot of breathtaking stills was Snyder’s 300. Though breathtaking, the cinematic experience allows motion: motion is its natural element whereas the frozen frame is the natural element of photography. Why confuse the two?

A common feature of medieval art is the speech scroll or the banderole:

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Non est Deus Banderole, Master of Ingeborg Psalter 1210

Here is a visual representation of Psalm 14, ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’. The banderole quotes the psalm, non est Deus. But this is a painting, whose function is not to narrate speech. The painter could have depicted the man trampling the bible or doing some other act visually to indicate this. The purpose of painting is to capture the imagistic heart of a moment. The banderole, being speech, takes away from the image and is contrary to the nature of the visual representation.

The other day, I was watching Kurosawa’s The Idiot (his adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel) with MR and MA. One thing that got my attention was Kurosawa’s use of text to get the audience up to speed on the prehistory and argument of the movie. Again, I thought, ‘if it is a movie, why couldn’t this be done through the action proper?’.

In each for of art, there must be a telos: its proper function. When art observes its telos, it is in order. When art exceeds its telos, what is it-out of order, perhaps?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have been Doing Melpomene’s Work.