Tag Archives: Euripides

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

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

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

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

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

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

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

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

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

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

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

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

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

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

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

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

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

Author Blurb

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

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

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

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

Author(s) Blurb

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

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

“Tragedy and City”

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

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

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

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

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

The Process of Artistic Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

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

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

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. (1388-1392)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18.05.umass

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres they.re playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.