WHY DO WE ENJOY TRAGEDIES?: RISK THEATRE, A NEW 21ST CENTURY THEORY OF TRAGEDY
OKANAGAN COLLEGE, KELOWNA CAMPUS
OCTOBER 28, 2019
1 THE THEORY OF TRAGEDY
Am I at Okanagan College, home of the finest English Department in Canada? Thank you, Terry Scarborough, for the invitation. Great to see everyone here. Tonight, I have for you an amazing asset you can use to interpret and create literature. It’s a theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” It will change the way you look at literature. Theories of tragedy are fascinating. They bind together drama, literature, and philosophy for a higher calling. They’ve been studied for over two thousand years, and will be studied for another two thousand years.
The art form of tragedy has entertained audiences for 2600 years. In fifth-century Athens, the “big three” of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides lit up the stage. In ancient Rome the philosopher Seneca wrote tragedies, as did the emperors Augustus and Nero. Tragedy enjoyed major resurgences in the English Renaissance (Shakespeare and Marlowe) and Neoclassical France (Racine and Corneille). The German Romantics Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe had a turn and, in the twentieth century, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill brought tragedy to America. Tragedy has been with us a long time, and will continue for a long time after us.
The question: “Why do we enjoy tragedy?” has captivated the greatest minds from Aristotle to Hegel and Nietzsche. If you think about it, it’s odd that we enjoy tragedy. Tragedy depicts stories full of strife and sorrow. It should be repugnant to see our most exalted heroes go down in a blaze of glory. But it fires up our emotions like no other art. To answer why we enjoy tragedy, a dedicated genre called the theory or philosophy of tragedy arose. The theory belongs to a branch of philosophy which investigates the role of art: aesthetics. And though the theory of tragedy is but a limb on a branch of philosophy, if you tally all the words written in pursuit of higher learning over the last two thousand years, you’ll find that only the field of biblical exegesis has generated more discussion. The philosophy of tragedy is a cornerstone of western thought. Tonight, you’re going to assess a new asset in the interpretation of tragedy called risk theatre.
There’s hundreds of minor theories of tragedy. Of the major theories, perhaps a dozen. And then, there’s the big three. Let’s take a look at them. In the fourth century BC, they were interested in teleology, or the final purpose of things (from telos “end” and logos “story”). Predictably, Aristotle, who was around at that time, devised a theory of tragedy which explained tragedy’s final purpose. According to The Poetics, the purpose of tragedy is to elicit a cleansing or catharsis of the emotions of pity and fear through pity and fear. The tragic protagonist, through hamartia, or an error, undergoes a reversal in fortune. Because we recognize the protagonist to be similar to ourselves, we feel pity and fear. And, in feeling pity and fear, we are cleansed of these feelings to become better judges of character.
Flash forward to the eighteenth century, Newton’s century, a clockwork and mechanistic century full of colliding and ricocheting billiard balls all obeying Newton’s laws. The German philosopher Hegel lived in Newton’s wake. Predictably, Hegel saw tragedy as the product of collisions. To describe the tragic, he took the idea of the colliding mechanical masses in Newton’s cosmos and transformed these mechanical collisions into ethical collisions. The “tragic” is the sense of wonder that arises from seeing how equally justifiable ethical positions cancel one another out.
Flash forward to the nineteenth century. The invention of the irrational world of the subconscious. Dostoyevsky illustrated the power of the subconscious in his novel The Double. Is Mr. Golyadkin’s double an actual walking and talking double or a projection of the mind? No one knows. As though taking his cue, Nietzsche devised his theory: tragedy originates in a collision of psychological forces. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the collision between the rational mind, which he referred to as the Apollinian, after the sun god Apollo, and the irrational mind, which he referred to as the Dionysian, after the god of dreams, intoxication, and ecstasy. The tragic is the higher understanding that occurs when these psychological forces collide. In the destruction of the hero we catch a glimpse of a higher reality that eludes the grasp of either the conscious or unconscious mind when considered individually.
We see from the influence of Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche how the theory of tragedy transcends art. It begins as an art form; art is the spark. The spark raises aesthetic issues: why do sad stories excite us? The spark becomes a flame. Next, tragedy raises ethical issues. Why do we suffer? The flame becomes a fire. Next, tragedy raises psychological questions. Is the rational mind thrall to irrational drives? The theory of tragedy gives rise to psychology and psychiatry. It influences the development of drama, screenwriting, and the novel. It imprints its image onto the visual and plastic arts. The theory of tragedy now sweeps through culture, like a raging inferno. They are powerful creations, all ubiquitous, which shape our imaginations. If it’s one theory you master, master the theory of tragedy. It will serve you well.
In a teleological age, Aristotle devised a teleological model of tragedy. In a mechanistic age, Hegel devised a mechanistic model. In a psychological age, Nietzsche devised a psychological model. If we want a modern theory of tragedy, we must ask: in what sort of age do we live?
We live in an age of risk. If you count the number of scientists active today, you’ll find they outnumber the aggregate number of scientists who existed from the dawn of time to 1970. Today’s army of scientists also work faster than ever. With AI and quantum computing, they can solve equations in seconds, equation that were deemed unsolvable in the past. The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.
With great knowledge, we take great risks. We gamble. We design terrible weapons to keep us safe. Yesterday, bombs could destroy a town. Today, bombs imperil civilizations. We globalize the world’s financial systems. Yesterday, a rogue financial model would ruin individual traders; today, rogue models mire the world in misery. We gene-edit and engineer all varieties of life. Yesterday, the Irish Potato Famine decimated Ireland; today, Monsanto plays God with all the world’s crops. Yesterday’s local risks are today’s global risks. We are the new titans, overreachers in an age of risk. How else do we describe an age which creates artificial black holes at CERN? They say, “Of course it’s safe, what could go wrong?” But I’ve seen risk go awry the day Deepwater Horizon blew out or the day Challenger fell from the sky. Because we live in an age of risk, we will make risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action in tragedy. Today, tragedy is a theatre of risk.
Playwrights write in and they say they want to write tragedy, but the mystique of its motivations and nobility and flaws puts the art form out of reach. Critics look at tragedy, and they see it as a barbaric relic of the past. Because we live in an age of risk, let’s reclaim tragedy by making risk the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw, but rather, heroes blow up because they make delirious wagers. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not pity and fear, but anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for how the perfect bet goes awry. Tonight, we’re going to talk about how it’s not the Oedipus complex, but rather, it’s about thrilling low-probability, high-consequence outcomes that happen against all odds. Tonight, we’re going to take the mystery out of tragedy so that even a young child can understand.
What is risk? To some people, it’s a four-letter word. It means danger. Avoid it. This lay definition ignores risk’s upside. Risk is also reward. Economists will tell you risk is volatility. They tell you that because they can quantify volatility in their equations. Economists define risk by measuring how many standard deviations a measurement is removed from the average. Think of the familiar bell curve. The average is the top of the curve. Risk is what happen at the tails at either end. That’s why you hear of unexpected low-probability events being referred to as “tail events.”
Here’s how statisticians quantify volatility: if the average height of a human male is 5’10,” if you’re between 5’7” and 6’1”, you’re one standard deviation from the mean. But let’s say you’re 5’4” or 6’4”. Then, you’re two standard deviations from the mean. It keeps going: if you’re 5’1” or 6’7”, you’re three standard deviations from the mean. Mathematically, 68% percent of males will be one standard deviation from the mean, or between 5’7” and 6’1”. 95% percent of males will be within two standard deviations from the mean, or between 5’4” and 6’4”. The “risk” of being short or tall can be quantified in terms of standard deviations away from the mean of 5’10”.
Volatility is wanting as way of defining risk. Volatility quantifies the likelihood of “known knowns” and “known unknowns” but fails to quantify the likelihood of “unknown unknowns.” You can’t put odds on unknown unknowns. Volatility fails because it can only predict what’s already happened. It predicts the punches you see coming, but fails to predict the punch you don’t see coming. Like any boxer knows, the knockout punch isn’t the punch you see, but the punch you don’t see. So we’re back to the question, what is risk? I propose that risk is simply that more things can happen than what we think will happen. When more things happen than what we think will happen, the consequences can be very high because we’re unprepared.
Here’s an example. Consider the fortifications of the Maginot Line. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the French war minister Maginot knew that Germany was chaffing under the punishing Treaty of Versailles. It was not a question of if Germany would attack, but when. Maginot thought Germany had two options, and he bet that he could outwit his German counterpart. Option one: attack France’s industrial heartland in Alsace-Lorraine by advancing through the southeastern border. Option two: attack from the northeastern border by going through the Benelux countries, an act that would mobilize France’s allies. Maginot went all-in by building massive fortifications to protect Alsace-Lorraine: he would force Germany into option two. This way, Germany would face the combined allied forces on Belgium soil.
Great plan. But something unexpected happened. Germany attacked through the Ardennes Forest. Seeing that the dense wood was considered impassable, it had been left open. More things happened than what Maginot thought would happen. When they attacked through the Ardennes, they got behind the French defenses: the massive fortifications were now facing the wrong way. Paris fell in a month. Low-probability does not equal low-consequence. In fact, the consequences of low-probability events may be cataclysmically high because unexpected harms hurt you the most.
What happened? It starts with a good plan. Then, because the plan is good, you invest yourself all-in. Why not, the plan is good, right? Nothing could go wrong. Then “more things happen than what you think will happen.” Oh no! By going all-in, you’ve left yourself exposed. You haven’t kept your powder dry. There’s no plan B. Because you’ve overextended yourself, you’ve left yourself open to a world of hurt. Risk hurts because low-probability events carry high-consequences. If you’re driving a shiny red sports car, risk isn’t the telephone pole you see. Risk is the telephone pole you don’t see. Risk, by this definition, naturally lends itself to drama.
Let’s map this definition of risk onto a tragedy. You know, each theory of tragedy champions a particular play. Aristotle loved Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Hegel loved Sophocles’ Antigone. And Nietzsche was fond of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Risk theatre champions Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Macbeth works fantastic in a risk theatre reading. It’s popularity on the stage today is a fantastic sign risk theatre is on the right track.
Macbeth. Macbeth makes a wager for the crown. Risk theatre begins with a gambling act. You need the gambling act because it triggers the low-probability, high-consequence event. This is crucial. The gambling act is to risk theatre what natural selection was to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many talked about evolution before Darwin. They’re not remembered. Darwin is remembered because he came up with the mechanism called natural selection which explains how evolution works. So too, many have commented on unexpected endings in tragedy. What risk theatre gives you is the mechanism of the gambling act which explains how tragedy generates the unexpected outcome. The more you wager, the more you concentrate your powers in one position, leaving yourself open to unexpectation.
To be king, Macbeth bets that he can get away with murdering Duncan. Like Maginot’s plan, his plan is perfect: ply Duncan’s chamberlains with wine, kill Duncan in his sleep, frame the chamberlains for murder, murder the chamberlains in turn. Macbeth even has supernatural assurances from the witches: until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and until he meets a man not born of woman, he can’t be harmed. What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? They are low: how can the trees, rooted into the earth, move up the hill? The odds of encountering a man not of woman born are even less, as all men are born of women.
But, see what happens. As Malcolm’s forces advance on Inverness, they hew down Birnam’s branches for camouflage. Birnam Wood comes. Then, when Macbeth meets Macduff on the ramparts, he tells Macduff he doesn’t want to fight: his hands are overstained with the blood of Macduff’s wife and babes. He tells Macduff he has a charmed life: no man of woman born can harm him. But Macduff tells him, he’s an anomaly: he was not of woman born. He was born by C-section. All is lost: Macbeth had not anticipated these low-probability, high-consequence events. Of course, the audience certainly anticipates it, and that’s what makes drama engaging, as the audience, once they hear the witches’ prophecy, tries to figure out how Shakespeare will bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill and find an avenger not of woman born. Macbeth is fascinating because risk drives the action, bringing Macbeth’s best-laid plans to naught.
4 OEDIPUS REX
Let’s turn to another well-known tragedy: Oedipus rex. If you have a theory of tragedy, it’d better be able to explain how the major tragedies work. In this play, a plague strikes Thebes. King Oedipus asks the oracle how to lift the plague. The oracle answers: “Find and remove the regicide who walks amongst you.” To do a risk theatre interpretation, find the bet. Oedipus bets that he can find the murderer of the previous king and he stakes his reputation on it. It’s a good bet, as he’s the sharpest wit. He had, remember, solved the Sphinx’ riddle. By going all-in on his bet, Oedipus exposes himself to risk, or the danger of more things happening than what he thinks may happen. That risk manifests itself, when, contrary to expectation, Oedipus finds out that he himself is the regicide. Like Macbeth, this play is fascinating because Sophocles makes risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action.
The further we look, the more we see how Sophocles builds unexpected low-probability, high-consequence events into the play’s deep structure. Oedipus knows the oracle that he would sleep with his mother and kill his father. What he doesn’t know is that he’s adopted. He thinks that Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth, are his birth parents. Listen closely, this is how the cat comes out of the bag. Oedipus is busy conducting interviews and getting nowhere in the cold case. Then, all of a sudden, a messenger comes from Corinth to tell him: “Your dad died, congratulations, you’ve inherited the Corinthian throne!” Oedipus, perplexed, says: “How could that be, the oracle said I would kill my father … I ran away from home to avoid killing him … perhaps he died from grief because I left?” At this point, the Corinthian messenger says, “Oh, you’re worried about that? Don’t be. You’re not actually from Corinth, you’re adopted. You’re originally from Thebes. You see, by some really weird low-probability, high-consequence series of events, I’m not only some random Corinthian messenger, I had also saved you when you were a babe. You see, I used to work around here, you were left to die, I saved you and brought you to Corinth where the childless king and queen adopted you.” “Who are my parents?” asks Oedipus. “That I don’t know,” says the messenger, “I got you from the shepherd. You’d have to ask the shepherd.”
By some coincidence, they’ve already sent for the shepherd. You see, the shepherd also has an unexpected double identity: not only was he charged by Oedipus’ parents to expose Oedipus, he’s also the sole-surviving eyewitness of Laius’ murder. You see, on that day Oedipus committed his ancient act of road rage, the shepherd was also there at the crossroads, as part of Laius’ train. The shepherd, when he comes out, refuses to say anything. But under pain of torture, he speaks. Yes, Jocasta and Laius gave him a babe to expose. He shackled the babe to a crag by its feet, but relented. Yes, the babe grew up to slay his father on that fateful day. How did he recognize Oedipus after so many years? When he crucified the babe to the crag, he drove a stake through its feet. The wound left a tell-tale scar.
What we have here is absolutely extraordinary. As Oedipus conducts the investigation into Laius’ death, a messenger comes. The messenger, by some strange synchronicity, knows that Oedipus was adopted, because he had saved him years ago. Then they meet the shepherd, who had given baby Oedipus to the messenger years ago. Then, in another twist of fate, it turns out the shepherd was also part of Laius’ train that day Oedipus struck Laius down. If this isn’t the dramatization of risk, then, I don’t know what is. Oedipus rex demonstrates how heroes, by incessantly raising the stakes, trigger low-probability, high-consequence events.
Critics have fixated on catharsis; we feel pity and fear because we’re like Oedipus. But is that true? If anything, he’s different. It’s only because we’ve heard about catharsis so many times that we start to believe it. He’s not like us. He’s a king. He’s the smartest person alive.
Critics have fixated on Oedipus’ supposed tragic flaw. His pride in wanting to escape the oracle. But is that true? If someone told you that you were going to do something horrible, wouldn’t you try to avoid it? In the sequel, Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus has come to peace with himself. “How was I to blame?” asks an older and indignant Oedipus. I agree. He did what he had to do.
Critics have fixated on the Oedipus complex. The play is about subconscious desires. This interpretation is wrongheaded as it rests on overreading Jocasta’s one line consolation to Oedipus. Oedipus worries that he will fulfill the prophecy by sleeping with his mother. Jocasta consoles him: “Have no fear, many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” This line has been made too much of. Her words are a stock consolation in tragedy. The consolation: “You’re not the only one … many others have also endured this” is formulaic and hardly means a thing. The chorus, for example, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, says a similar consolation to Theseus when his wife suicides: “Not to you alone has this grief come, many others have lost a trusty wife.” So too, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius consoles Hamlet with the “many others also” consolation: “But you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his.” When Oedipus fears sleeping with his mother, the stock formulaic consolation would be to say, “Not to you alone has this fear come, many others have also slept with their mothers.” But, of course, Jocasta can’t say this, since everyone believes Oedipus is innocent. So, the stock consolation has to do a little twist to become: “Many a man, in his dreams, has shared a mother’s bed.” The line should not be taken to mean Oedipus has a complex. That’s the last thing Jocasta would even want to imply at this moment.
If those are the other readings, what’s the risk theatre reading? Risk theatre says that Oedipus motivates the action by raising the stakes. In the beginning, it’s a murder investigation. But then the murder investigation slowly turns into an investigation into Oedipus’ past. The stakes rise with each successive interview. First, there’s the interview with the prophet Tiresias. Since Tiresias is a prophet, he knows. But he doesn’t want to ruin Oedipus. He says: “Just send me home. You bear your burdens and I’ll bear mine. It’s better that way.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. At some point, his wife has figured it out, figured out who Oedipus really is. She begs him to stop, saying: “Stop—in the name of god, if you love your own life, call off this search. My suffering is enough.” But Oedipus doesn’t stop. Risk goes up. He has one more chance. In the final interview, the shepherd, like the others, implores him to stop: “No—god’s sake master, no more questions!” But Oedipus charges into doom.
This “charge into doom” is what I mean by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action.” Unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence events are, by definition, unlikely. But the more you throw caution to the wind, the more you expose yourself to the fallout from random events. A one day delay in the post shouldn’t kill you. But it does in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Friar Lawrence and Juliet have a brilliant plan to bring Romeo and Juliet together. They’ll let Romeo know by post. The letter carrier walks into his buddy’s place to say hi. The health authority happens to quarantine the house at that moment. The letter doesn’t make it to Romeo in time. You know the rest. What’s happened? The more risk you take on, the more you interconnect seemingly unrelated events until the point where any random event can blow you up. So too, Oedipus, by going all-in, exposes himself to the fateful meeting with the messenger and the shepherd. So too, Macbeth, by going all-in, exposes himself to Birnam Wood. Tragic heroes trigger low-probability, high-consequence events by raising the stakes to the point where they blow up.
5 GO BIG OR GO HOME
How do we transform risk, or the danger of more things happening than what you think will happen, into riveting drama? Let’s expand on the gambling analogy. If, at the casino, a gambler lays down $10, sometimes things happen that the gambler expects will happen. In the game of poker, the gambler wins $10 if the gambler has three of a kind, expects that the other player has a pair, and is correct. And sometimes the unexpected happens. For example, if the gambler believes the other player is bluffing, but the other player isn’t bluffing, then he loses $10. There’s risk here, as something has happened that the gambler didn’t think would happen. But these are boring nickel and dime bets. You won’t see spectators standing around the table.
Now, consider what happens if the players move to the no-limit table and start betting $1000. More spectators would crowd around as they can now invest their emotions into the outcome. Some come to see gamblers blow up. Others cheer them on. The larger the bet, the more the spectator is transformed into a speculator. They crowd around, these armchair quarterbacks, speculating on, debating, and themselves betting on the outcome. Tragedy fascinates because tragedy dramatizes helter-skelter wagers.
Remember Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid—the one made into a Steve McQueen movie? It capitalizes on our fascination with the big bet. To become number one poker five card stud star, the Cincinnati Kid has to take down grizzled veteran Lancey “The Man” Howard. Their epic match comes down to the last hand. They both know the Kid has two pair and maybe a full house. They also both know the Man has one high card and maybe a straight or a straight flush. The Kid knows Lady Luck smiles on him. In a two-handed game of five card stud, the odds of a straight flush (that’s what the Man has) beating a full house (that’s what the Kid has) are over 300 billion to 1 against (Anthony Holden). This is a sure fire bet, like money in the bank. The Kid makes the bet. He goes all-in. He even leverages his position, borrowing a fortune to wipe the Man out. A large crowd gathers around. The crowd murmurs assent: the Kid has the Man by the neck. But, against 300 billion to 1 odds, the Man does have the straight flush. The Kid loses all. The spectators let out a shocked gasp and wonder: how did the perfect bet go wrong?
Tragedy, by dramatizing delirious all-in wagers, engages audiences in the exact same way. If you bet $10, a 300 billion to 1 event can happen, and you’d be fine. Well you’d be out $10. Yawn. The low-probability event doesn’t have high-consequences. It’s only when you lay it all on the line that the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences. When the 300 billion to 1 event has high-consequences, then, we have the lights, camera, and action of true tragedy.
6 COMMONPLACES ON THE STAGE OF TRAGEDY
Critics have said that proud and boastful characters populate tragedy because pride is a tragic flaw. Tonight, I call out these critics. It’s true, tragedy is full of proud and boastful characters. Playwrights, however, create proud and boastful characters not to give them a flaw, but because proud and boastful characters love risk. Inordinate, all-in delirious risk makes drama big. When the drama is big, audiences flock to see the show, because risk transforms spectators into speculators. The more the hero bets, the more the hero engages the audience. It’s the Cincinnati Kid principle: the more they wager, the more the spectators invest their emotions into the outcome as they start speculating. Does the Man have the straight flush? Will the Kid pull it off? If they’re betting $10, who cares? Change the channel. But if they’re all-in, leveraged up to their gills with their reputations on the line—then, stay tuned.
Let’s look at how tragedy sets up big bets. Consider Caesar in Shakespeare’s play. Should he go to the Capitol? You’ve heard the warnings. The soothsayer tells him to stay at home: “Beware the Ides of March.” The haruspex inspects the entrails of the sacrificial animal: oh no, the heart is missing! His wife has a nightmare: Caesar’s statue bleeds. Spirits walk the streets. Birds shriek out of season. A lioness whelps in the square. Graves yield their dead. The sky rains blood. If one of these things happened, it would be a good sign to call in sick. When all these signs happen, definitely do not leave the house. But not Caesar.
See how Caesar ups the ante each time he’s told to stay at home. First time:
Caesar: I rather tell thee what is to be fear’d
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
second time, “Caesar stay at home!”
Caesar: Caesar shall forth; the things that
Ne’er look’d but on my back; when they shall see
The face of Caesar, they are vanished.
third time, “Caesar stay at home!”
Caesar: Cowards die many times before
The valiant never taste of death but once.
and fourth time, “Caesar stay at home!”
Caesar: I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
Like Oedipus who continued the investigation in defiance of the warnings, so too Caesar presses on like a bull in a china shop. He’s a proud egocentric. But it’s not hubris or a fatal flaw. Shakespeare makes him proud and egocentric so that he can raise the stakes and appear believable. We find many egomaniacs in tragedy because egomaniacs are natural-born gamblers.
Any theory of tragedy must be able to explain the world of tragedy: the characters, the setting, and the other commonplaces. Ever wonder why there’re so many idealists in tragedy? Take Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ play. Creon’s a patriot. He’s for the fatherland to the point that, when his niece is caught burying her brother, a traitor in the civil war, he sentences her to death. Risk theatre can explain his idealism: Sophocles makes him an idealist because idealists love risk. So too, Sophocles makes Antigone a religious zealot so that she can take on inordinate levels of risk and do so with conviction. She knows she shouldn’t bury her brother, but because she’s devout, she will satisfy the gods of the underworld. Because she’s an idealist, she spits out Creon’s edict by saying: “I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever.” Because they’re idealists, they love to walk the walk by raising the stakes.
We’ve explained the egocentrics and idealists. What else can we explain? Have you wondered why there are so many aides, attendants, and advisors in tragedy dispensing crappy advice? Here’s why: if you have a prudent and circumspect hero, and you need them to go all-in, you give them the reckless advisor. Take Euripides’ play Hippolytus. The goddess Aphrodite strikes Phaedra with an incestuous desire for her stepson. Phaedra resists. Rather than give in, she would rather starve to death. But she has a trusted advisor in her Nurse. Her nurse says, “I can arrange the hookup. There’ll be no loss of honour.” Phaedra trusts her. When the Nurse’s plan backfires and Phaedra’s husband finds out, she will have to lay it on the line by framing her stepson for rape.
Next. Why are there so many kings, queens, and other one-percenters in tragedy? Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the Duchess of Malfi, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Again, it’s to do with risk. It’s hard to wager the world on an empty stomach. I mean, what are you going to lay down, your hunger? But, when you have ancestral capital, military capital, and human capital all burning a hole in your pocket, it’s easy to lay it on the line.
How about the supernatural elements that seem to litter the tragic stage?—the witches, ghosts, and oracles? They’re there to instill confidence. When heroes have confidence, they love risk. Look at Macbeth. Listen to the apparition, who tells Macbeth to take on risk, “Trust me,” it says, “I’m from another world. I have inside information. You’re all good. Fire at will.”
2 Apparition: Be bloody, bold, and resolute: laugh
The pow’r of man; for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.
Macbeth: Then live, Macduff; what need I fear of thee?
Ever consider why passions run white hot in tragedy? Tragedy seems to be full of lovers, maniacs with explosive rage disorder, and revengers screaming for vengeance. Why is that? Again, it’s because these types of emotions increase risk taking. Take a look at Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello’s “constant, loving, and noble nature” makes him ill-suited to carry out crimes of passion. No problem: Shakespeare has Iago put Othello “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”
What about setting? Why do tragedies feature a world on the cusp: insurrection, inquisition, war. Risk theatre explains this. Risk comes at a price: the potential for loss. During times of political and social stability, why take on extra risk? Extraordinary situations are commonplace in tragedy because they skew risk to the upside: not taking risks incurs greater risk. Take the game of football. The “Hail Mary” pass where the quarterback throws a long desperation pass into the end zone is a hazardous interception-prone affair. You don’t do it if you’re ahead. But when you’re down and the clock is down and you’re far from the end zone, the “Hail Mary” option becomes attractive. That’s why tragedy dramatizes outlier events: witch trials in Miller’s Crucible, Britain rent in three in King Lear, plague in Cadiz in Camus’ State of Siege, or civil war in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. When the world is ablaze, risk’s enticements more than compensate for its blandishments.
7 TRAGEDY AS A VALUING MECHANISM
Tragedy is a theatre of risk. The very structure of tragedy goads heroes to go all-in. No nickel and dime bets allowed! High rolling heroes and no-limit tables only! Risk theatre welcomes egocentrics or idealists. If they waver, look—here’s a trustworthy aide that speaks words of encouragement. Are they superstitious? Then goad them on with witches and oracles. Should that not suffice, souse them in the wine of passion. Give them access to the wealth of nations, armies, and all that glitters so temptation burns a hole in their pocket. Should that not suffice, destroy all they hold dear. Then, they go all-in. And when they go all-in, spectators start speculating on the outcome, investing their emotions into the action.
Risk theatre sees each dramatic act in tragedy as a gambling act. And this has the most fascinating implications, as it transforms tragedy into a valuing mechanism for human beliefs, values, and ideals. Tragedy accomplishes this through an extension of the gambling analogy. In each gambling act, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. If you bet, for example, $10k to win a golden crown, what is staked—the $10k—is put up against what is at stake—the crown. You show how much you value the crown by how much you’re willing to bet. If you really wanted it, you might wager more, say $20k. Of course, in tragedy you can’t use money to win the crown. Cash isn’t legal tender in tragedy. You have to make your wagers in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. We call the sorts of wagers we see in tragedy existential wagers. Through these existential wagers, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human assets.
We already know the value of material possessions. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is compassion, or the milk of human kindness worth? We find out in Macbeth. Macbeth is too compassionate to murder Duncan. No one knows this better than Lady Macbeth, who complains he is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” So, to become king, Macbeth must ante up the milk of human kindness. In the act of anteing up the milk of human kindness, we see how much Macbeth values it. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? In Macbeth, it is worth a Scottish crown.
Risk theatre allows us to ask and answer such questions: how much is dignity worth? In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, traveling salesman Willy Loman stakes his dignity on the American Dream. He buys the American dream at the cost of his dignity. How much is a human soul worth? In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, we learn that a soul can be worth twenty-four years of world domination. How about faith, how much is faith worth? In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, we find out that one can purchase faith by laying down one’s life. How about the action of revenge, how much is that worth? In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice lays to pawn his fraternal and filial bonds to become a revenger, bribing his own mother to pander his sister.
As a valuing mechanism, tragedy provides a social function. In our material world, too many things have become monetized. We value people in terms of their net worth: he’s worth 100k, she’s worth 200k. Insurance policies set a price on life and limb. We work, some for minimum wage, and others for more, exchanging life for greenback dollars. Tragedy’s social function reminds us that the things that are truly worth having are bought by blood, and not gold. Tragedy, despite its sad stories, exalts life by telling us that, the more we dare to wager, the more we set the value of life up on high. In tragedy, a soul can be worth the whole cosmos. Imagine that. Tragedy teaches us that human values lie beyond the monetary pale.
8 COMPARING RISK THEATRE WITH OTHER THEORIES OF TRAGEDY
Let’s compare risk theatre head to head with Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean interpretations using Sophocles’ well-known Oedipus rex. In the Aristotelian analysis, we identify with Oedipus as we realize that there is a bit of Oedipus in all of us. He has a tragic flaw though: pride. He wants to defy the oracle that says he will murder his father and marry his mother. Because of the tragic flaw, or hamartia, he experiences a reversal of fortune. The elements of the plot follow the rules of probability, and are causally connected. When we witness his doom, we undergo catharsis and are purged of the emotions of pity and fear because, like a scapegoat, he has perished so that we do not have to.
In the Hegelian analysis, there’re two colliding ethical forces. There’s the will of heaven, which declares that Oedipus will marry his mother and kill his father. Then there’s the will of man, Oedipus’ will, which says: “I will not do that, heaven be damned.” Both these wills are justified. Heaven has a right to pass sentence on mortals. But Oedipus also has the free will to object to heaven’s sentence. The tragic results when these wills collide and Oedipus is destroyed. In Oedipus’ destruction, the justice of the gods is upheld. Oedipus is a scapegoat who perishes so that the justice of the gods can reaffirm itself.
In the Nietzschean analysis, there’re two colliding mental states. There’s Oedipus’ rational mind, which is Apollinian. It seeks to break free from the oracle, the oracle that’s said that he’ll kill his father and murder his mother. With the daylight of reason, thought, and logic, the conscious mind speaks: “I must get away from Corinth and avoid mom and dad.” Then there’s Oedipus’ subconscious desire which is Dionysian, primal, dark, brutal. The Dionysian desire comes out in his dreams, where he has lain with his mother and overcome his father. When these two mental states collide, Oedipus is destroyed, but, in his destruction, the veil is lifted off reality. We see how life doesn’t matter, but what matters is how we transform strife and sorrow into the aesthetic phenomenon of art.
In the risk theatre analysis, Oedipus stakes his reputation on solving the murder of the previous king—he is, after all, the original riddler, the one who solved the Sphinx. As the investigation continues, the focus on the identity of Laius’ murderer shifts to the question of the identity of Oedipus himself: they are, after all, the same person. Sophocles draws in the spectators, transforming them into speculators by having Oedipus raise the stakes by refusing to call off the investigation. Finally, Oedipus triggers the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event by bringing the Corinthian messenger together with the shepherd, the two people who can unlock his secrets. In the risk theatre reading, contrary to Aristotle, the elements of the plot do not follow the rules of probability, but rather, the elements of the plot conspire to bring about the most improbable outcome. Because the audience sees everything Oedipus sacrifices—his crown, his eyes, the life of the queen, and his children’s legacies—the audience learns that we pay for our goals and desires by blood, sweat, and tears. The audience then leaves the theatre marveling at how low-probability, high-consequence events shape our lives more than we like to think. By comparing different theories, we can see how each casts tragedy in a drastically different light.
9 TRAGEDY, COMEDY, AND RISK
Everyone always asks: what about comedy? Risk, remember, can skew to the downside or to the upside. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. In tragedy, against all odds, Birnam Wood is always coming to Dunsinane Hill. Comedy, however, dramatizes upside risk: you make a bet, the odds are completely against you, but somehow you win. In Menander’s comedy, The Girl from Samos one of the characters says, “Coincidence must really be a divinity. She looks after many of the things we cannot see.” You would definitely not say this in a tragedy. In tragedy, God is not on your side.
In comedy, low-probability, high-consequence events also occur. In Greek Old Comedy, the women in the play Lysistrata bring an end to the Peloponnesian War by staging a quite unexpected sex strike. In Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy, against all odds, the miser always recovers the stolen gold, kidnapped children are always reunited with their families, and young lovers always find ways around cantankerous patriarchs, onerous marriage laws, and a host of economic and social prejudices.
In comedy, chance is on your side. Don’t have a dowry? No problem, a pot of gold turns up. Can’t get married because you don’t have citizenship? What’s this trinket you have on your wrist? Oh, many years ago I had to give up my daughter because I fell on hard times, but I gave her the very trinket you’re wearing. Oh, what do you know, you’re about her age. Could it be, are you my long lost daughter? Oh!—that means you’re a citizen and you can get married to this fine young man! Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events. They’re really two sides to the same coin. Think of tragedy as the art that dramatizes downside risk, and comedy as the art that dramatizes upside risk.
10 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION / CLOSING REMARKS
In conclusion, I’ve given you a powerful asset for writing and interpreting literature called risk theatre. Risk theatre explains why we find tragedy fascinating. It’s fascinating because of the delirious hazards heroes take on. When you do a risk theatre reading, first, find the bet. What does the hero want, and what is the hero willing to lay on the line to get it? Once you’ve found the bet, you can see how tragedy acts as a valuing mechanism by setting a price on human ideals and beliefs. The price it sets is the price the hero is willing to pay. You will see how tragedy exalts life by imparting great value onto life. In tragedy, the milk of human kindness can buy a kingdom. Once you’ve found the bet, you’ll understand why the commonplaces of tragedy are the way they are. You’ll understand why tragedy loves instability and inquisition. You’ll understand why the hero is an egomaniac and why passions run white hot. You’ll understand the role the oracles, witches, and the supernatural play. You’ll understand why minor meddlers dispense crappy advice. You’ll understand why tragedy is populated by kings, queens, and other one-percenters. After you come to an understanding, you will marvel agape at how low-probability, high-consequence events upset the best-laid plans of mice and men. As you marvel the power of unexpectation, you will realize walking out the theatre that it is when we are most sure of ourselves that we are, paradoxically, in the greatest danger.
You’ll emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. And this is perfect, as in this age of risk, we have a moral imperative to come to grips with risk. We dramatize unintended consequences on the stage of tragedy so that we become more robust off the stage. And because risk theatre imparts upon us a higher understanding of risk, I think that makes it a most valuable asset, as not only does it help us interpret literature, it also helps us to interpret life.
Risk theatre is more than a theory. I’ve teamed up with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria to inaugurate the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). It’s the world’s largest tragedy playwriting competition with a combined prize package worth over $17,000 dollars. The contest is in its second year. In its first year, I’m thrilled to announce 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated in this exploration of risk in the modern world. Wherever you are, please ask your local library to make my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy [Friesen Press 2019] available. Let’s share this amazing asset. Once you look at literature through the lens of risk, you’ll never look at it again the same way.
The transcript of this talk will be available on my blog melpomeneswork.com/okanagancollege/