Tag Archives: low-probability

Why the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition?

Renowned local art critic Janis Lacouvee interviewed me last week. She noted that it was highly unusual for a private donor to approach a theatre company to inaugurate a playwright competition. She isn’t the only one who’s pointed this out. In the last two-and-a-half weeks (since the competition started), there’s been a whole tragic chorus of friends, family, and coworkers asking: “Why’d you do it?”

There’s three reasons. One: the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk is so awesome that it had to be done. Two: in our increasingly complex world, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of low-probability, high-consequence risk events. The best way to open people’s eyes to the impact of risk is to dramatize risk, e.g. put it on the stage. Three: this project is my way of giving back to the community. Let’s talk about all three points. But before we jump in, I’d like to thank everyone for their efforts and encouragement along the way: Michelle Buck, Keith Digby, Michael Armstrong, Michael Routliffe, Silvia Boriani, the Langham Theatre Board of Directors, Dave Desjardins, and all the members of the local theatre community who kindly provided feedback. And, to all the intrepid playwrights who have submitted entries: thank you for making this project happen! Let’s turn now to the origin story of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition.

Reason one: the idea of tragedy as a theatre of risk is so awesome that it had to be done

Lots has been said about tragedy. Aristotle said that tragedy had to do with a catharsis of pity and fear. Hegel said it dramatized the collision of equal and opposite moral forces. Nietzsche said that tragedy arises in the conflict between the conscious and the unconscious, the rational and the irrational. Those are all pretty good, if somewhat complex models. What no one has said, however, is that tragedy is the dramatization of a gambling act where the protagonist goes all-in. By going all-in, the protagonist takes on too much risk and triggers an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event. Here’s three examples of risk theatre interpretations of famous plays–one from the ancient world, one from the English Renaissance, and one from modern times.

In Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, Oedipus bets that he can outwit the gods. He places his reputation as the one who had solved the Sphinx’ riddle on the line. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when the Corinthian messenger unexpectedly arrives out of nowhere. Game over.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown. The low-probability, high-consequence event takes place when, contrary to every expectation, Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. Game over.

In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Loman, for a shot at the American dream, lays his dignity on the line. Against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens when he finds out that his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. Game over.

In each case, notice that the dramatic moment begins with a wager. For every aspiration, a price must be paid. And so the protagonist antes up by laying down an all-too-human asset. By wagering the protagonist takes on risk. Too much risk. And what risk does is it amplifies the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. And that’s exactly what we see: in each case an unforeseen low-probability, high-consequence event upsets the protagonist’s best-laid and most foolproof plans. In a word, that’s the core of risk theatre. It’s dead simple. It’s not hamartia or a tragic flaw. It’s chance. The thrill isn’t seeing some catharsis of pity and fear through pity and fear but rather, the thrill is like the thrill of watching a gamblers duke it out at the no limit tables: anticipation for what the hero will wager and apprehension over the impact of the low-probability, high-consequence event. And it’s not about the collision of ethical forces. It’s supramoral. It’s about risk and what happens when what you didn’t think would happen happens. Simple.

So there’s reason one: risk theatre needs to be done because it’s a simple, yet powerful idea of tragedy.

Reason two: in our increasingly complex world, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of low-probability, high-consequence risk events

Have you heard of Long-Term Capital Management? LTMC was a Greenwich based hedge fund which almost took down the global financial system in 1998. Sheer stupidity? No. They were run by no less than two Nobel prize winners. The best. But they did take on too much risk. Have you heard of the gene drive? It’s a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. In Riverside, California, scientists go through six sealed doors, including one with an airlock, to get to work: if any one of their gene driven mosquitoes gets into the wild, every mosquito in the world is at risk of losing the ability to fly. We are surrounded by technological risk. We are surrounded by manufactured risk. Before, local actions had local consequences. Today, local actions have global consequences. Because we live in an age of risk, we have a moral imperative to educate ourselves on the impact of the highly improbable. We need to ask the pertinent questions. Today, these questions are: what is risk? How do we contain it? What happens when our best-laid plans go the way of mice and men?

The impact of the highly improbable is what tragedy, in the risk theatre interpretation, explores.  What are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? And what are the odds of Macbeth encountering a man not of woman born? If you said a billion to one against, you’d be about right. And, in Oedipus rex, what are the odds of the Corinthian messenger being the same man who had brought the infant Oedipus to Corinth many years ago? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had entrusted the infant Oedipus to the messenger (instead of exposing him as had been ordered) is the same man who is the sole surviving witness of Oedipus killing his father at the crossroads? This too has to be a billion to one against. And what are the odds that at the end of Oedipus rex they’re all reunited one last time? I don’t even want to think about those odds!  And, in Salesman, what are the odds that Loman, at the worst possible moment, would come to the realization that he’s worth more dead than alive?  This is what I mean when I say tragedy explores the impact of the highly improbable.

In this age of risk, we need art to show us the way. And of the arts, tragedy is best suited to this task because it dramatizes how even the best-laid plans go awry–who, for example, would have known in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra that Lavinia would actually become her mom? She rails against her mom every step of the way!

The problem today is that tragedy is not very popular. Lay audiences find it too depressing. Modern audiences find it too elitist. Critics don’t even like it. Eagleton begins his 2002 study of tragedy point-blank by saying “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject these days.” Besides Macbeth, theatres aren’t really playing tragedies. Comedies and dramas are popular. And musicals are becoming more popular. For every hundred comedies, dramas, and musicals, theatres are playing one or two tragedies. And the same with playwriting programs. They’ll teach you how to write comedies and dramas, but not so much tragedy. But, more than ever, we need tragedy today. And that’s why we’re doing risk theatre.

Risk theatre is modern. It aligns the ancient art of tragedy with modern conceptions of chance and uncertainty. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events, audiences are reminded not to bite off more than they can chew. And to keep some powder dry. You need dry powder always when you least expect. Today, these are timely, necessary, and powerful lessons. Humanity is operating on a scale it never has before. And this scale increases exponentially, not logarithmically.

So there’s reason two: risk theatre needs to be done because it speaks to a contemporary need.

Reason three: this project is my way of giving back to the community

I’ve had a pretty good life. Unlike my grandparents, who lived through two world wars and had their livelihoods expropriated by the communists, I was born in Canada. That itself is like winning the lottery. And during my university years, I was fortunate enough to receive a number of scholarships. They were instrumental in getting me to where I am today. So I’ve always wanted to give back to the community. First I tried donating to various charities. That was good but I felt like I needed to take a more active role. Targeted giving. And I wanted to benefit the arts. The arts are beautiful, the best thing in the world: “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified,” wrote a wise man too long ago.

It just so happened that I had been working on the risk theatre theory of tragedy. Now most of us academics stick to the academic theoretic side of things. But here was a chance to combine the two. And so the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition came to be. It’s my attempt to do philanthropy and to effect positive social change at the same time.

How much am I giving back to the community? It’s the first year of the competition, so some of these numbers will be projections. But here’s the budget for year one so far. It excludes all the substantial volunteer work (thank you everyone!) that has been done to get the competition going (FIGURES UPDATED APRIL 4, 2019 AFTER THE FIRST YEAR OF THE COMPETITION CLOSED):

Commission artwork for the risktheatre.com website (this went to a local artist):
$2,600

Prize Money ($8000 first prize and 4x $500 runners-up) (this goes to the playwrights):
$10,000

Travel Stipend (to the playwright):
$1,000

Workshop Winning Play (budget number, actual number will depend on the forces the winning script requires. This is for the winning playwright’s benefit, but also provides a nice gig to a dramaturg and actors):
$6,000

Administration of Competition (this includes: creating/maintaining website, communications with entrants/jurors, PR and publicity, searching for and retaining jurors)
$3,500

Jurors (based on 182 entries and a reading fee of $35 per play and $50 for the final meeting to decide winner. NB as each judging round progresses, some plays will be read more than once)
$8,190

Complimentary Copies of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy (each entrant receives a copy of my book. Allowing for shipping, each book is valued at $25)

$4,550

So we’re at $35,840. But income will also come in from the $45 entry fee. 182 playwrights from 11 countries participated, so the entry fees brought in $7,903.35 ($8,190 less $286.65 in PayPal fees). So, I’ll be giving back to the artistic community each year just under $28,000.00–that’s the net benefit in monetary terms that this contest offers. But my hope is that the contest will not be seen merely in a monetary light but for the greater good it offers society. Friends, be not averse to risk, but remember to keep some powder dry, for Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane Hill, and always when you least expect!

I’m Edwin Wong, and, until next time, you’ll find me doing Melpomene’s work.

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

2018 Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting (Boston)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As I was leaving

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

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

 

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

 

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

all fully armed oarsmen,

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Edwin Wong

2018-01-05

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

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

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

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

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

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

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

Society for Classical Studies 2018 Presentation

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

Going to Boston in January 2018

If at first you don’t succeed, try again! Though my proposal for the Shakespearean Theatre Conference was rejected, my proposal to speak at the annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Boston went through. Cool. I get to talk about my favourite tragedian, Aeschylus. And I also get to talk about my favourite tragedy, his play Seven Against Thebes. From what I remember, it’s a big conference. Hellenists and Latinists from all over the world converge on a hotel and fill it right up for the better part of a week. At any given time, there’s ten or twenty sessions going on, and they cover everything to do with the Greek and Roman world. There’s a ballroom filled with exhibitors: publishers with their books, travel agents (offering guided tours of Greece and Rome), and salespeople hawking software systems. Circus atmosphere. And lots of professors meeting up with their old buddies. And lots of boozing. One of my friends is a manager at Fairmont Hotels. The hotels circulate amongst themselves a report of how all these different organizations behave when they hold their conferences. The report on the Society for Classical Studies says that we’re a mild-mannered and generally well-behaved bunch that like the sauce. I can’t deny that, last time, to my amusement as I walked past the bar, this one old professor wearing a tweed suit happened to have one too many and fell off his barstool. His colleagues were picking him up, and trying not to laugh as they asked if he was okay. This is going to be fun! I’m looking forward to going.

 Lionel Pearson Fellowship

The last time I was there, the Society for Classical Studies was still known by its original name which was the American Philological Association. Philology is the study of languages and their development. I guess because the term “philology” overlaps with “linguistics” they finally decided to change it. Or perhaps the acronym “APA” created confusion because the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association uses the same abbreviation?Anyway, in 2004, I was one of the four finalists for the Lionel Pearson Fellowship. The winner got to study for a year in England or Scotland. That year they annual meeting was in San Francisco and they flew all the finalists down for the interviews. There were four of us. They sat us down together in a room. There were three judges. And for what seemed like a long time, they would ask us questions about the Greek and Roman world. I thought I was prepared. But, as I listened to the other finalists, it dawned on me that there are some exceptionally bright and well spoken students out there! I remember wondering thinking how they could be so knowledgeable. It was an eye opening experience. After the interviews, they gave us maps and set the finalists through the city to to a team building treasure hunt. And that night we had dinner together with the judges. The winner that year was Lauren Schwartzman, and from her performance during the interview (which I witnessed firsthand), that’s who I would have put my money on! Funny thing, the next year when I started at Brown, one of my colleagues was Robin McGill, who had won the Pearson Fellowship the year before.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

They were looking for a 650 word abstract and here’s my successful proposal:

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven Against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven Against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

I must say it’s an art in itself writing these abstracts and proposals. I’m still learning. What I like about this proposal are the catch terms such as “low-probability, high-consequence” and “we are in the most danger when we are most confident.” Successful proposals are the ones in which the writer can get the reader to remember some catchy phrase (e.g. low-probability, high-consequence). Another technique would be to make a bold statement (e.g. we are in the most danger when we are most confident) that causes the reader to pause. Of course it helps if they pause and decide that they agree with your bold statement!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work by commenting on Aeschylus’ masterpiece, Seven Against Thebes.