Tag Archives: Edwin Wong

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.

June 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2020 competition is closed to entries (adjudication underway) but the 2021 competition is open to entries. 135 plays have come in from 4 continents (North American, Oceania, Europe, and South America) and 9 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, UK, NZ, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Brazil). The competition website is at https://risktheatre.com/. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 102
Canada 14
United Kingdom 8
Australia 4
New Zealand 2
Ireland 2
Italy 1
Portugal 1
Brazil 1

Of the American entries, 71 are from the east and 31 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (28 entrants). Go New York! Australia is also off to a good start, already exceeding last year’s entries. Canada finally awoke. We didn’t hit the 182 entries from 11 countries from last year. But that means the odds are better for all those who participated. Go playwrights!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 89 men and 46 woman. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know only a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). The times, they are a changing! Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 51 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Brazil. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 19,828 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2369 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: Brown University, Palatine Public, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado (Denver), Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College (Penticton), Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, Russian State Library, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, and Westchester Community. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

Edwin Wong on Risk and Tragedy: The Literary Power of High-Stakes Gambles, One-in-a-Million Chances, and Extreme Losses

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/edwin-wong/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-a/

https://www.broadwayworld.com/westend/article/Book-Review-THE-RISK-THEATRE-MODEL-OF-TRAGEDY-Edwin-Wong-20190626

https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy/

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Stay tuned. Semi-finalists announcement late July. Finalists announcement early August. Winner announcement mid-August.

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

NNPN Panel: WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: THEATER & CRISIS

nnpn edwin wong risk theatre

A whirlwind has carried me from morning to evening. Earlier today, I took part in a panel at the National New Play Network AGM. With the Great Quarantine locking everything down, the NNPN took their AGM online, hosting it on the Zoom platform. The focus of the AGM was the question on everyone’s minds: “How can theaters become essential to their communities?”  The panel I was on was called “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis.”

Jess Hutchinson at NNPN organized the panel. I was joined by dramaturgs and theatre researchers Carrie Kaplan, Sally Ollove, and Tanya Palmer. Maestro Julie Felise Dubiner moderating. The over 300 registrants restored my confidence in the future of theatre. For 90 minutes, we laid out our visions of tomorrow’s theatre.

Now this whole Zoom format is interesting. All the panelists and the moderator can see one another on the main Zoom box. Then there is a Q&A box that fills up with attendees’ questions. Pop, pop, pop, up they come in real time. If that’s not enough, there’s also a separate chatbox buzzing with a hundred comments from all the attendees. Some saying hello to one another. Others commenting on the panelists’ conversation. Some sharing interesting footnotes.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be inside a JS Bach Invention in six parts? Each voice in the Q&A box, in the chatbox, and the panelists’ voices sung out like a musical line in theatre’s eternal song. The name of our panel was called: “We’ve Been Here Before.” I can’t help but to think that this panel has happened before–with different panelists–in the past. And I can’t help but to think that this panel, sometime in the distant future, will convene again with different panelists. To have participated in the conversation for 90 minutes is such a trill, or, I mean thrill.

Here were my introductory comments at the panel:

My name is Edwin Wong and here’s my background. I approach theatre from the perspective of a classicist. In the ancient days, they too had this moment of pandemic. In 430 BC, a plague struck Athens, wiping out a third of its population. But the playwright Sophocles confronted the situation head-on with his plague play in 429 BC, Oedipus the King. He was not afraid to challenge the Athenians’ beliefs. Theatre today can also rise to such heights if we are courageous. Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria and David Konstan at Brown University taught me ancient Greek drama. My specialty is the theory of tragedy.

These days, I’ve set up an annual playwriting contest with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria, Canada. The Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition is the world’s largest contest for the writing of tragedy. Last year’s winning play was In Bloom by Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean. Through the competition, Langham Court offers the community a forum to explore the role of chance and the unexpected in theatre and in life. We fly in the winner for a workshop and staged reading. Langham Court is an essential part of our community because of the personal connections the competition fosters within our city of 370,000 and with playwrights around the world. I’m honoured to be working with competition manager Michael Armstrong, Langham GM Michelle Buck, and board member Keith Digby on this unique project.

The contest is based on my award-winning book on theory: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is tragedy reimagined as a theatre of risk. It’s risk, and not catharsis or a collision that drives the action. Because we’re surrounded by the impact of the highly improbable, the competition invites playwrights to write plays that dramatize unintended consequences and the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Audiences today clamour to learn more about the impact of risk. The theatre is a perfect stage to simulate risk. When theatres produce new plays based on modern theories of drama, theatres connect powerfully with community. To remember the past, we continue the conversation with the past by writing new theories and new plays.

But you say: “Who wants tragedy?—enough of tragedy, we cannot think of tragedy while living through it.” This sentiment is straight from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a story of fellow travelers exchanging stories. Whenever one of the travelers tells a tragedy, the rest of them put a stop to it. They say: “This is too sad, we insist you stop immediately!” People write to me all the time saying: “Why do you have a tragedy competition during this crisis?” But what I also see is this: people who have heard about my theory of drama based on low-probability, high-consequence events are fascinated and want to learn more. Here’s a thought. If you market a play as a tragedy, you’ll be met with disdain. But if you market a play as an exploration of risk, audiences will clamour for more. To me, tragedy and risk theatre are synonymous, the same thing. All of drama is the dramatization of risk, that’s why we have two genres: comedy to dramatize upside risk and tragedy to dramatize downside risk. But it’s not the same to audiences. And this brings me to my last point: the theatres which are essential to their communities will find creative ways to pitch their shows to audiences to pique their curiosity.

Brutal though this process of creative destruction has been, it also offers the courageous an opportunity to reshape, refine, and reimagine the theatre of tomorrow.

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

Drama Australia National Journal (NJ) Reviews THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY

THANK YOU to NJ Drama Australia National Journal and University of Newcastle lecturer Carol Carter for reviewing The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Highlights from this milestone review–the first from an internationally respected peer-reviewed journal– include:

This book presents fresh approaches and perspectives in relation to the teaching and writing of tragedy and, as such, is a useful resource, particularly for theatre studies and secondary drama teachers.

I was enticed by this thought-provoking, insightful and compelling read that, once started, was extremely engaging and impossible to put down.

The Book is divided into four separate parts which systematically cover the topic and flow efficiently and cohesively from one to the other in building up a strong argument underpinned by examples and an extremely broad and extensive knowledge base.

Of interest in this part of the book is Wong’s discussion of Comedy as an open system of ‘milk and honey’ versus tragedy as a closed system of ‘perpetual shortage and rolling blackouts’. He describes tragic heroes as strong, charismatic and with a sense of endurance versus incompetent, weak comic characters. We are led to a deep understanding of the proposed model and why Wong believes so passionately in the role of tragedy in today’s society. In the final (ninth) chapter, which is concerned with ‘why risk theatre today’, Wong concludes with these words ‘Tragedy, by forever dramatizing risk, adds to our understanding of risk. And I think that tragedy, because it adds to our understanding of such a captivating and elusive concept, has a claim of being the greatest show on earth’.

The journey my book has taken in this last year has been amazing and humbling. It reminds me of what Anthony Hopkins said a few years ago when interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel. Hopkins was a few months from his eightieth birthday. Kimmel asked him if the years had given him any important life lessons. Without batting an eye, Hopkins responded immediately, and with conviction: “Don’t stop. Keep going.”

Persistence is the key. But persistence can be hard. Last February, I made a list of theatre, classics, and literary theory journals all over the world. In March, I started mailing out complimentary copies of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Each package would go out with a custom-tailored letter asking the journal if they would be interested in reviewing and a press release. Of course, there wasn’t much to put on the press release as the book didn’t have any rewards or reviews yet. There were about seventy to send out. Each night, after coming home from work, I’d be able to put together a couple of packages. It takes a surprising time to type up the letter, address the packages, and fill out the customs forms. I’d put together two or three packages, and then I’d go to bed.

After a month and a half of this, I grew to wonder–was this worth it? I mean, I was coming home from work, cramming some food down my throat, and then putting together the packages. The reward was uncertain. But the work was very certain. It wasn’t only the time, the costs would add up as well. My cost for the paperback itself is just under $15. Then there’s the shipping, which would range from $17 (domestic) to $27 (international). Most of the journals were outside Canada, so that’s about $40 to send each copy.

I began to doubt. How worthwhile was this expenditure? Would any journals put the book on their “Books for Review” list? Would any reviewers want to review the book? And then, if they did, what sort of review would my questionable book receive? All these questions gnawed away at me. But fortunately, Hopkins dogged advice stuck in my head: “Don’t stop. Keep going.” And so, I kept going.

After the review copies had gone out, I’d check to see if there was any action. A few copies would make it into their “Books for Review” lists. And then, for months, nothing. Then last night, this wonderful, glowing review from Carol Carter in NJ Drama Australia National Journal. I sincerely hope that her review piques the interest of theatre practitioners worldwide. Would that I could get a few more breaks like this one! Go NJ!

The moral of the story? When you don’t stop and when you keep going, sometimes some luck and a little bit of magic will come your way. If you give up, you’ll never know how close you were. To everyone: do like Anthony Hopkins. No matter the odds, if you believe the value of your endeavour, keep looking ahead. You never know.

There’s one curious coincidence I’d like to add. Many moons ago, when I was almost young, I wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Only one journal–an Australian journal–accepted it. The article is called The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad and it was published by Antichthon in 2002. Here’s the link. This got me a foothold into the academic world. A strange sense overcomes me now, many years later, when, out of seventy tries, it is again an Australian journal that comes through. Please ask your local library to carry this groundbreaking book and read it today.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work by sponsoring the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). No risk, no reward.

NJ Drama Australia The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Gambling Drama and the Unexpected

ISLAND WRITER Reviews Wong’s THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY

From the Winter 2019 issue of literary journal Island Writer (Vol. 17 No.2). Thank you to Joy Huebert for reviewing.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

by Edwin Wong Friesen Press, 2019, available at Munro’s Books, Bolen Books and online Reviewed by Joy Huebert

Risk Theatre has won many awards, including the 2019 Readers’ Favourite Book Contest, previously won by comedian Jim Carey, Star Trek actor/director Jonathan Frakes, wrestler Diana Hart and New York Times bestselling authors Daniel Silva and Judith Ann Jance. Wong will be attending a gala in Miami this November at the Miami Book Festival where the organizers will be selling and displaying the book. It has also won previously in the CIPA EVVY awards and the National Indie Excellence Awards. 

Wong’s lengthy (270 pages) book can look intimidating, appearing to be one of those intellectual academic tomes that one always wishes to read but can’t quite make the effort to wade through. Instead, I was delighted to find an engaging look at tragic theatre, filled with interesting ideas and unique insights. As a person without much expertise who enjoys theatre, the book was a captivating voyage through all kinds of plays, including works of Shakespeare, the Greek classics, and modern works such as those by Eugene O’Neill. 

Wong presents an original theory of tragedy that resonates with our modern age. The tragic hero is a gambler in a high risk, high stakes situation, a troika of the stake, the cast and the outcome, as in this quotation: 

The hero stakes life itself to play the game, stakes intangible and all- too-human things, such as the soul, the milk of human kindness, happiness, honour, love, family friendship, faith, reputation, and duty….by making the wager, the heroes of risk theatre reveal life’s hidden value. 

Wong’s book offers short, tempting chapters such as “The Poetics of Chaos,” “The Myth of the Price you Pay,” and “The Debt to Nature.” He explains features of tragic theatre that include: the proud hero, the minor meddlers and (un)helpful advisors, Kings and Queens, supernatural elements, passions running white hot, consolations gone wrong, and dangerous and uncertain times. All ideas are nicely illustrated by excerpts from plays, and by lively commentary. 

A quibble: Wong knows a wealth of information about his topic, but the chapter that addresses “Tragedy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics” is a little obscure and for me, was a little less readable than the rest of the text.
Wong concludes with a heartfelt position that tragic theatre 

addresses our modern difficulties. If done well, risk theatre is the place where audiences go to see how much honour is worth, what the price of friendship is, and how much they will pay for power and glory. 

Wong ends on a strong note: Tragedy, because it adds to our understanding. . . has a claim of being the greatest show on earth.

Joy Huebert has published stories, poems and creative non-fiction in many Canadian literary magazines. She has won first place in the Short Grain postcard story competition, the Victoria Writers’ Society Fiction competition and the Victoria School of Writing Postcard story competition. Joy is the editor of Pathways Not Posted, and author of My Brother’s Basement, both published by Quadra Books. Joy has participated for over 20 years in writing collectives in Edmonton, Rossland and Victoria that have organized conferences and workshops, presented literary events and published chapbooks. Joy was a Librarian for 37 years, most recently at the Oak Bay Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library where she enjoyed working with readers and writers in a culture of literacy. 

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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.

27th Annual Writer’s Digest Book Award – Juror Comments

Great feedback from Judge 68 at the Writer’s Digest Book Award Competition. It’s rewarding to read a review from someone who enjoyed the book. The observation that the book would have benefitted from further engagement with recognized theatre authorities rings true. A number of reviewers have also commented on this shortcoming. To address it, I’ve begun a series of blogs that compare and contrast risk theatre with other movements and theories of drama. If you’re thinking about entering a book competition, consider the Writer’s Digest contest. Maybe you’ll get a critique from eagle-eyed Judge 68. Onwards!

Shout out to editors Carla DeSantis and Damian Tarnopolsky and proofreader Mark Grill for 5 out of 5 on spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

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

Entry Title: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected     Author: Edwin Wong
Judge Number: 68
Entry Category: Nonfiction/Reference Books

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 4/5

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 5/5

Production Quality and Cover Design: 5/5

Voice and Writing Style: 4/5

Judge’s Commentary:

The author contends, with interesting arguments, how the profound change in world events and developments calls for a new model of tragedy that conforms to a modern pattern of risks. Moreover, he argues how these risks can lead to often unexpected and unintended consequences, all highly dramatic in scope. An influx of the sheer gamble involved in actions taken in today’s turbulent world and then dramatized is implicit in this provocative theory, which the author then supports with absorbing details that mirror the myriad functions of today’s global connections.

The many implications of this theory are explained by the author, though the central thesis can be more specifically explored in its various manifestations. However, readers will gain a strong spread of knowledge about the current and past theatrical worlds. In this vein, the author-to bolster his theory- reinterprets classical tragedies from the ancient Greeks to contemporary playwrights. Many insights into what composes a drama, in the past and now, flow from the author’s remarks. However, more comments by other authorities in the theater world would strengthen the book’s content and appeal and give it more balance. The first section covers the philosophy and poetry of tragedy and its structure, including the element of risk, tempo, and such issues as the politics of chaos and from chaos to command. Forms of tragedy encompass standalone, parallel motion, and perpetual motion works. The second section goes into major issues that have been the fulcrum of plays, both past and present, with an in-depth analysis of such subjects as trade and money. Examples, including stretches of dialogue, buttress the points made. The third section discusses how to write risk theatre, including such aspects as divine interference, the limits of knowledge, and errors of induction.

The writing is incisive, but some long paragraphs need to be broken up. It’s more difficult for readers to absorb, let alone enjoy, long paragraphs that take up all or most of a page. Chapter breaks help in absorbing the interesting breakdowns of the modern theater world and the author’s fascinating expectations of what the future might bring.

A glossary of dramatic terms would be a worthwhile addition. Insertion of some photos of scenes from famous plays would create a solid pictorial dimension and help break up the text.
The title and subtitle cite the contents well. The cover image would be more effective if the card-holding hand was of someone on a stage.

LA THEATRE BITES Interviews Edwin Wong on the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

I sat down with Patrick Chavis, founder of the LA Theatre Bites podcast, to talk about my new book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected (Friesen Press 2019). Thank you to Patrick and LA Theatre Bites for this fantastic opportunity to talk about risk theatre, a bold and engaging way to both interpret yesterday’s plays and create tomorrow’s classics.

Here’s the link to the half hour podcast. Sit down, grab a coffee, and enjoy! We talk about the playwright competition based on risk theatre (https://risktheatre.com/), last year’s winning play (IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean), how risk functions in drama, compare risk theatre to other theories of drama, and even attempt a risk theatre read of one of Chavis’ favourite movies: Star Wars. It’s one action-packed interview!

http://latheatrebites.com/interview-with-edwin-wong-the-writer-of-the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-and-the-unexpected/

Patrick Chavis / LA Theatre Bites Blurb

Patrick Chavis is the creator, designer, podcast/writer and head editor at LA Theatre Bites since its inception in 2016. Because of the massive size of the Los Angeles area and its large theatre presence. Patrick decided to create short review podcasts instead of the traditional written review format allowing reviewers to see more shows and connect more authentically with theatre fans. LA Theatre Bites is consistently ranked as a top ten theatre podcast.

Edwin Wong / Risk Theatre Blurb

In 2018, Edwin Wong founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition with Langham Court Theatre–one of the oldest and most respected theatres in Canada–to challenge conventional Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean theories of tragedy. Visit https://risktheatre.com/ for details.

The centrepiece of the competition is Wong’s book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Instead of looking at tragedy as the interplay between the Dionysian and Apollonian (Nietzsche), the collision between irreconcilable ethical forces (Hegel), or a process to achieve catharsis (Aristotle), Wong’s drama manifesto argues that each dramatic act in tragedy is also a gambling act where heroes place delirious bets at the no-limit tables. These heroes, by going all-in, trigger unexpected and devastating outcomes. Tragedy is a theatre of risk.

With numerous examples from well-known plays such as Macbeth and Death of a Salesman to lesser known gems such as Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Wong demonstrates how protagonists wager their human assets from dignity to “the milk of human kindness” to achieve their aims, whether it be the American Dream or a Scotch crown.

From emerging playwrights to Emmy Award winners, in the first year of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition over 180 entrants from 11 countries have taken up the challenge of reinventing an ancient art for a modern era. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is the book that launched an important and exciting new international art movement.

Wong is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated in ancient theatre. His other research interests include epic poetry, where he has published a solution to the contradiction between Homeric fate and free will by drawing attention to the peculiar mechanics of chess endgames. He lives in Victoria, Canada and blogs at https://melpomeneswork.com/.

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

RISK THEATRE Book Launch and Staged Reading of IN BLOOM Opening Remarks

Risk Theatre at Langham Court Theatre

Risk Theatre at Langham Court Theatre l-r: Cam Culham, Gabriel Jason Dean, Michael Armstrong, Steven Piazza, Jason Vikse, Arian Aminalroaya, Edwin Wong, Gene Sargent, Douglas Peerless, Rahat Saini, and Wayne Yercha

Transcript of my opening remarks at the Risk Theatre book launch and staged reading of In Bloom at Langham Court Theatre. Sunday, October 20, 2019. Thanks for reading, until next time I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

We have for you tonight risk theatre, a bold new asset to create and interpret literature. With us … Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean, the winner of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/)is in the house! His play IN BLOOM takes $8000 cash, a $1000 travel stipend, and a workshop. I see here competition manager Michael Armstrong and Michelle Buck, Langham Court Theatre’s general manager. They’re the heart and soul of the project. Langham Court board member Keith Digby is in France. He’s a force guiding the project. Our performers: Arian Aminalroaya, Cam Culham, Douglas Peerless, Steven Piazza, Rahat Saini, Gene Sargent, Jason Vikse, and Wayne Yercha. Michael Armstrong directing. Let’s have a round of applause for everyone!

We’re here tonight to see if risk theatre, a new theory of tragedy, can attain proof of concept. The spark of risk theatre came from a book on stock market crashes: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He argued that traders, by taking excessive risk, trigger catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events. When I read it, I thought “Replace ‘trader’ with ‘hero’ and you can give critics and playwrights a model of tragedy that resonates with modern times.”

My new book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected binds tragedy with modernity. Michelle Buck, Keith Digby, and Michael Armstrong saw the potential of making risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, and we inaugurated an international playwriting competition based on risk theatre. We fed the spark and it became a flame.

Next came the jurors: playwrights and critics of renown: Yvette Nolan from Canada, Armen Pandola from the US, and Sally Stott from the UK. They read the scripts blind. Of the 182 plays from playwrights in 11 countries, they selected Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom to champion the risk theatre concept. We fed the flame. It became a fire.

Tonight we want proof of concept. We’re staging a reading of In Bloom so that you can decide. Does risk theatre work? What happens when you make risk the dramatic centre of tragedy? Do protagonists trigger catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events by making delirious wagers? Can the risk theatre model ignite a resurgence of interest in tragedy?

We’re starting to gain traction. Theatre departments are launching courses to explore risk theatre. Historians are adapting risk theatre to the writing of history and biography. Theatre suspends disbelief, and, as you watch In Bloom, I want you to suspend your ideas about catharsis, tragic error, the Apollinian and Dionysian, alienation effect, and ethical collisions. Think instead on how the hero’s concentrated position triggers low-probability, high-consequence events. Join us as we transform risk theater into a roaring blaze so that years from now we can say: “We were there with risk theatre in those early days when risk theatre was a green shoot on the fertile soil of theory!” Thank you for coming, enjoy the show!