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A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Playwrights explore chance in its many guises. To create a play, playwrights collide want, will, and intention with accident, chance, and fortune. In the no-man’s land between accident and intention, drama arises. Where accident intensifies the protagonist’s will, comedy results. Where accident eclipses the protagonist’s will, tragedy results. Chance is a playwright’s plaything because uncertainty, being unknown, is inherently dramatic.

In the tragedy Othello, Shakespeare explores chance by asking: “How high a degree of probability must one attain to have a sufficient basis for judgment?” Shakespeare sets the backdrop by crafting characters who are not what they seem. Their actions, reputations, and speech belie their being. When seeming and being are at odds, certainty goes out the window. Only the uncertain parts and probable fragments are left behind. In this world, there is no knowing, only thinking:

IAGO. My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO. I think thou dost. (3.3.119-20, emphasis added)

The play follows Othello as he pieces together broken probabilities, looking for the chance event so convincing that it rules out every doubt. He looks for a tattered proof known as moral certainty.

Je Est Un Autre or “I is Another”

Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in . . .
Your beds! (2.1.109-13)

“Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none” (3.3.129-30). But that is not the case here. By cleaving apart seeming and being, Shakespeare creates a setting to explore chance. In Othello—to take poet Arthur Rimbaud’s memorable idea, Je est un autre (“I is another”)—each character is also “another.” Appearances deceive. When characters seem to be such, but are, in reality, another, understanding and certainty become best guesses. By cleaving seeming and being, Shakespeare takes the audience into a world of probability, a world where there is a chance of being correct and a chance of being incorrect. In this indeterminate world, characters weigh probabilities, form plans “probal to thinking” (2.3.333), and search for moral certainty, the probability that is so high that, even though uncertain, is called by the name of certainty. The tragedy is that even moral certainty is less than certain. Like bells in the parlours or men who might seem none, moral certainty only seems to be the real thing.

Iago seems honest. His epithet is “Honest Iago.” “Honest Iago,” says Othello, “My Desdemona I must leave to thee” (1.3.295-6). Roderigo entrusts him with his wealth and fastens each hope to him (1.3.363-80). Desdemona confides in him (3.4.133-41). “I never knew,” says Cassio, “A Florentine more kind and honest” (3.1.40-1). Iago’s seeming, however, belies his being. “I am not what I am,” he says, “but seeming so” (1.1.59 and 64).

Desdemona seems dishonest. “I do beguile,” she says, “The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (2.1.122-3). “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see,” warns her father Brabantio, “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.293-4). “Swear thou art honest,” demands Othello, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” (4.2.39-40). Her seeming, however, belies her being. She is a true heart.

Emilia seems bawdy. “She’s a simple bawd,” says Othello (4.2.20). In between Cassio’s kiss and his suspicions of her infidelity, Iago remarks her services are for the common use:

EMILIA. I have a thing for you.

IAGO. You have a thing for me? it is a common thing—

EMILIA. Ha? (3.3.305-7)

Though seen as a bawd who would sell great vice for a small price, she ends up buying virtue at the cost of her own life, at the last standing between Iago’s maleficence, Othello’s rage, and Desdemona’s helplessness, exposing the wickedness of both her husband and Othello. Not even Othello’s sword can silence her virtue:

EMILIA. Thou hast done a deed [He threatens her with his sword.]
—I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known
Though I lost twenty lives. Help, help, ho, help! (5.2.160-2)

Her surface appearances belie her core values. By judging her by her surface appearances, Iago, who knew her best, seals his doom.

Othello seems a man for all seasons. The assembled Venetian senate regales him as “all-in-all sufficient,” “a nature whom passion could not shake,” and one whose virtue lay beyond “the shot of accident” (4.1.264-8). He is of such steadfast repute that, when Emilia inquires whether he is jealous, Desdemona replies: “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.30-1). His seeming, however, belies his being. In reality, he proves insufficient, full of passion, and most susceptible to accident and chance.

So too, in the play’s macrocosm, the invading Turkish fleet seems sometimes smaller, sometimes larger. And, whether larger or smaller, sometimes it seems to bend for Rhodes, and sometimes for Cyprus. Its size and trajectory belie its intentions (1.3.1-45). Though the senate would rather act on certain, rather than probable intelligence, because the enemy projects a false gaze more full of seeming than being, the senate must act on probabilities. So too, Othello, Roderigo, Desdemona, and the other characters looking on at the grand pageant must hazard the probability of being caught on the wrong side of seeming and being.

In this play populated by topsy-turvy Je est un autre types, Iago presses the confusion forwards. Iago is an obsequious go-getter. His primary weapon is dissimulation. To enrichen himself, he plays panderer to Roderigo, though he panders nothing. To rise up the chain of command, he devises a way to cashier Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. He will persuade Othello that Cassio cuckolds him. To this end, he employs a series of strategies. When convenient, he spreads rumours that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s younger wife. He starts with Roderigo:

IAGO. Lechery, by this hand: an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together. Villainous thoughts, Roderigo: when these mutualities so marshal the way, hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, th’incorporate conclusion. (2.1.255-61)

and then moves to Othello:

IAGO. I lay with Cassio lately
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs—one of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate
That gave thee to the Moor!’ (3.3.416-28)

If there is a kernel of truth Iago can explode into reckless speculation, he will do so:

IAGO. She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks,
She loved them most.

OTHELLO.                     And so she did.

IAGO.                                                   Why, go to, then:
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father’s eyes up, close as oak—
He thought ‘twas witchcraft. But I am much to blame,
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.

OTHELLO. I am bound to thee for ever. (3.3.209-17)

When all else fails, Iago practices psychological warfare. Through insinuation, he gets Othello to convince himself. Conclusions drawn when one convinces oneself root more firmly than persuaded proofs:

IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO.                    He did, from first to last.
Why dost thou ask?

IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.

OTHELLO.        Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

OTHELLO. O, yes, and went between us very oft.

IAGO. Indeed?

OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO. Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
What dost thou think?

IAGO. Think, my lord?

OTHELLO. Think, my lord! By heaven thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.94-111)

Despite the rumours, speculations, and insinuations, Othello sees, or believes he sees, Desdemona’s true heart:

OTHELLO. What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me,
I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. (3.3.341-4)

Beginning to suspect foul play, he retains enough good sense to demand proof from Iago, telling Iago to provide proof, or his life:

OTHELLO. Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof, [Catching hold of him]
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! (3.3.362-6)

Nothing improper has transpired, and, as a result, Iago has no proof, cannot come up with a proof. He reaches an aporia. But, in a twist of fate, chance provides Iago proof.

A Handkerchief, Spotted with Strawberries

Desdemona has on her person a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. It is of an unusual provenance. Artifact like, it was sewn by an ancient sibyl during moments of inspiration. Hallowed worms spun its threads and maiden’s hearts stained its cloth. It was given to Othello’s mother to charm his father, and damnation to her if she lost it. She, however, saw it in her safekeeping until she died, at which time she gave it to her son. He, in turn, gave the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries to Desdemona (3.4.57-77).

Halfway through the play, Desdemona takes out the kerchief to wrap Othello’s head. He has a headache. It falls off. In their haste to meet dinner guests, they forget the napkin. Emilia, having been asked by her husband many times to steal it, chances upon it. She gives it to Iago, unaware of why he should want it (3.3.288-332). Through the accident of the dropped napkin, Iago has an opportunity to bolster his flagging argument.

Once he has the handkerchief, Iago can produce the wicked proofs required by Othello. He begins by planting the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom. Next, he tells Othello he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with it. This, in turn, prompts Othello to ask Desdemona for the napkin. She cannot produce it, and, fatally misjudging the gravity of the situation, asks Othello to reinstate Cassio. This drives Othello into a huff, who finds it incredulous that Desdemona not only has the appetite for another man, but also has the appetite to demand from him his favour.

At this point, Othello is getting a bit run down. His epileptic attack as he visualizes the intertwined lovers is a physical analogue of his broken internal state. Even now, however, standing in his mellow-fading glory like a black Caesar, he demands proofs. As he recovers from the epileptic attack, Iago provides verbal and ocular proofs, one by cunning, and the other by another stroke of chance.

Iago arranges for Othello to overhear his conversation with Cassio. While getting Othello to believe he is questioning Cassio about Desdemona, he actually asks Cassio about Bianca, a strumpet overfond of Cassio. In hearing Cassio tell Iago of his extracurricular activities with Bianca, Othello believes Cassio refers to Desdemona. Then, in a second twist, as Othello eavesdrops, Bianca comes out of nowhere to rebuke Cassio. Cassio had found the handkerchief in his chamber, and, appreciating the design, had asked Bianca to make a copy. Bianca agreed, but, on second thought, believing the handkerchief to be a gift from a rival, now finds it beneath her dignity to do any such thing. That Bianca appears at this moment surprises Iago, who had planned many things, but not this godsend. When she rebukes Cassio, Othello draws the conclusion that, first of all, Desdemona was in Cassio’s chamber, and, second of all, Desdemona has given Cassio the handkerchief as a token of her affection. Though Bianca does not mention Desdemona, it is a short leap for Othello, a general accustomed to making snap judgements on the field of battle, to conclude that Cassio’s hobby-horse is none other than Desdemona:

BIANCA. Let the devil and his dam haunt you! What did you mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now? I was a fine fool to take it—I must take out the work! A likely piece of work, that you should find it in your chamber and know not who left it there! This is some minx’s token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse; wheresoever you had it, I’ll take out no work on’t!

CASSIO. How now, my sweet Bianca, how now, how now?

OTHELLO. By heaven, that should be my handkerchief! (4.1.147-56)

Who else but Desdemona could have left the napkin there? The scene with Bianca and Cassio convinces Othello. He resolves to kill them both. He has proof. Or so he thinks.

If Emilia had—as Iago requested—stolen the napkin, the tragedy would have taken on a more ominous tone: the sound of good and evil clashing. But that is not what happens. The sound of good and evil clashing is dull. Emilia, rather, finds the napkin by chance. Chance is more interesting. That she finds it by chance leaves the audience with a sense of wonder and awe: wonder at how impartial chance should have become Iago’s partisan and awe over the extraordinary consequences that follow.

At one moment chance saves, sending a storm to drown the Turkish fleet. But in the next moment, chance casts down, putting the napkin into the wrong hands. Chance’s fantastic nature makes it a wonderful dramatic pivot. Othello himself, a crack storyteller, engages chance to woo Desdemona by telling her the stories of “battles, sieges, fortunes,” “most disastrous chances,” and of “moving accidents by flood and field” (1.3.131-6). These accidents he lives to tell, but the tale of the dropped napkin another will tell.

Chance fascinates because every eventuality lays within its grasp, given enough time. But even given its myriad combinations and permutations, some eventualities are more probable, some, less so, and others implausible unto impossible. This feature of chance—that some probabilities are more likely and others less so—allows Othello to draw fatal proofs.

Five Sigma Events, Significance Tests, Moral Certainty, and Iago’s Gambit

In the character Othello, Shakespeare has created a sceptic to rival Sextus Empiricus. For Othello, it was not enough that Iago was the most honest of Venetians. Nor was it enough that Iago had stood shoulder to shoulder with him, comrades-in-arms on the front lines. It was not even enough that Desdemona’s own father warned him to be wary. Othello, after all, had heard the wise Duke rebuking Brabantio for acting on circumstantial evidence:

DUKE. To vouch this is no proof,
Without more certain and more overt test
Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him. (1.3.107-10)

Othello will not be a brash Brabantio. He will demand a certain and more overt test:

OTHELLO. Make me to see’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life! (3.3.367-9)

Now Iago is in a jam. Othello demands proof, or his life. Iago cannot make Othello see it, as there is nothing to see. Othello himself, likewise, is in a jam. He must judge a covert crime, and, having judged, kill. He can count on neither Desdemona nor Cassio to fess up: unchaste eyes must never name the things unchaste hearts cannot do without. When Iago proposes the test of the napkin, however, Othello has a path forward:

IAGO. But if I give my wife a handkerchief—

OTHELLO. What then?

IAGO. Why, then ’tis hers, my lord, and being hers
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.

OTHELLO. She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that ? (4.1.10-5)

In Iago’s gambit, the napkin will stand in for her honour. Since Desdemona is honourable, the likelihood that she gives away the token of her honour is low. Because it would be an outlier event to see the napkin in the hands of another man, if it is seen, the likelihood is high that the observation is significant. The test of the napkin—coupled with both Iago and Brabantio’s warnings—may constitute, therefore, a sort of proof that, while not absolute, demonstrates infidelity beyond a reasonable doubt. This probabilistic proof that “the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on” is the best proof available in the indeterminate world of the play. The idea that random chance may—or may not—engender absolute truth is the powerful idea Shakespeare plays with.

Though it was not until 1668 that philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz formally associated probability with certainty by arguing that, given a sufficient probability, a degree of moral certainty could be achieved, it is clear that Shakespeare was already thinking along these lines in the opening years of the seventeenth century. Probability is in the air. Mathematician Jacob Bernoulli in the late seventeenth century would quantify these thresholds: something possessing 1/1000 a fraction of certainty (0.1%) would be morally impossible, whereas something possessing 999/1000 a portion of certainty (99.9%) would be morally certainty. The standard is flexible. Modern statisticians use anywhere from one to five percent significance tests to establish certainty. Different fields likewise require different levels of certainty. When physicists used a sensitivity of three sigma to validate discoveries (corresponding to a 99.7% chance that the result is real and not by the action of chance), they found that, because their work involved a multitude of data points, they would arrive at many discoveries which would be later proved spurious. Accordingly, when searching for the Higgs boson, they adapted a five sigma threshold. This threshold translates to a 99.99994% confidence level: the chance that the discovery is an anomaly is roughly 1 in 3.5 million. Even with a five sigma sensitivity, however, the chance that the observation is a fluke and not the real thing remains. Moral certainty is a subjective and pragmatic standard. Too low a threshold results in false discoveries and too high a threshold results in no discoveries. The question is: does Othello achieve moral certainty and, if so, to what degree?

The first great critic of Othello, Thomas Rymer, found the proof of the handkerchief so implausible as to be risible. To Rymer, Othello was acting without any kind of certainty, let alone moral certainty. In 1693, he voiced his misgivings in a jingling couplet: “Before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Everyone knows that Michael Cassio is the great arithmetician of the play, not Othello. Perhaps Othello had miscalculated the odds?

What Iago wants is for Othello to assemble all the information—the warning from Brabantio, the accusations from Iago, Cassio’s frequent associations with Desdemona, Desdemona’s importuning, and so on—so that the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs” (3.3.444, emphasis added). Probability theory in the time of Shakespeare and Rymer was in its infancy. That is not to say, however, that Othello could not intuit conditional odds: that is, in effect, what he does. So too, without formal probability theory, Iago well knows that many less plausible proofs may add up into one great proof, saying: “This may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (3.3.432-3).

The formal calculation of conditional probabilities lay in the future. That future arrived in 1763 when Bayes’ theorem was posthumously published. Thomas Bayes was a mathematician and Presbyterian minister. His contribution to probability theory was a formula to calculate conditional probabilities, a way to revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Iago’s hypothesis that many lesser proofs constitute one great proof. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Rymer’s couplet, to see whether Othello’s proof be mathematical, and, if so, to what extent.

To determine the posterior probability—that is to say, the revised probability that Othello has been cuckolded after the test of the napkin—we require four probability values. The first two values are P(C), the initial or prior probability that he has been cuckolded, and P(~C), the initial or prior probability that he has not been cuckolded. Before Iago’s gambit, Othello’s opinion on whether he has been cuckolded appears evenly divided:

OTHELLO. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [Iago] art just, and think thou art not. (3.386-8)

Given what he says, we can assign a value of 0.50 (with 0 representing an impossibility and 1 representing a certainty) to P(C)and a similar value, 0.50, to P(~C). The odds he has been cuckolded are 50:50.

The third probability value is P(H C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue suggests Othello believes that, next to catching the lovers in the act, the test of the handkerchief is a great proof. The value of P(H C), while not 1 (which is an absolute certainty), must approach 1: perhaps 0.90, representing a 90% chance, is reasonable.

The final probability value is P(H ∣ ~C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests true hearts give away telltale tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. As a result, the likelihood of P(H ∣ ~C) is quite low, having an order of magnitude of 0.01, or a 1% chance.

Here is what Bayes’ theorem looks like when solving for P(C H) or the posterior probability that Othello is a cuckold, should he see his napkin with Cassio. The formula takes into account his initial, or prior belief, and revises it to take into account the test of the napkin:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the five sigma standard (99.99994%) used in high energy physics, its significance falls within the one to five percent tests used by modern statisticians. The napkin brings him to a point of moral certainty, the degree of probability one must attain to act. The jealousy was tragical because the proof was mathematical.

Is Othello correct to believe that he has caught the lovers in his mousetrap? That, I think, is the question Shakespeare invites us to ask. The answer—like many answers in the great plays—is fluid. Some may argue that P(H ∣ ~C)—the odds that Desdemona gives away the napkin and is true—is too low at 1%. People with the truest hearts, may, some of the time, give away treasured tokens as though trifles. Changing P(H ∣ ~C) from 0.01 to 0.10 (from 1% to 10%) would decrease Othello’s confidence level from 98.9% to 90%. There is now a 10% probability that what he sees is a pageant of chance rather than a proof of infidelity. Others, however, would argue that starting from a 50% prior probability of being a cuckold is egregiously low. Given the constant goings-on between Cassio and Desdemona as well as warnings from both Desdemona’s father himself and the most honest person in the room, Othello’s initial belief, or the prior probability P(C), that he has been cuckolded should be much higher, perhaps closer to 80%. Now, even with P(H ∣ ~C) at 0.10, Othello can still be 97.3% certain he is a cuckold. If P(H ∣ ~C) stays at the original 0.01 and the prior probability Othello is cuckold rises from 50% to 80%, the posterior probability of being a cuckold after a positive napkin test rises to a confidence-inspiring 99.7%, equivalent to the three sigma threshold used by physicists until rather recently.

By cleaving seeming and being in twain, Shakespeare invites the audience to explore probability and its ramifications. Would different ages, ethnicities, and sexes input different values into Bayes’ theorem? How high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty must also contend that, in the final examination, he was wrong. Those who contend Othello failed to achieve moral certainty would do well to wonder how yesterday and today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matters of life and death on less stringent significance tests. Othello makes us wonder: should graver actions demand higher levels of certainty? Not only that, it also makes us wonder if our interpretations of Othello reveal something about ourselves. Do we allow Othello to judge after receiving a tip from an honest source and catching the culprit in the mousetrap? And would these same people who say no to Othello allow Hamlet to judge after receiving a tip from a possibly dishonest (and diabolical) source and catching the culprit in another sort of a mousetrap?

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is the one of the richest crossroads in interpretation today. Through a twist of chance, Shakespeare takes Othello from good to great: since chance is indeterminate, interpreters of the play will forever debate whether Othello achieves moral certainty, and to what degree. Othello makes us think on the role of chance in theatre and in life.

Whether Heads of Tails, Chance always Prevails

In this essay, I have argued that chance and probability form a basis of interpretation. In Othello, Shakespeare represents chance in the form of a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. The action pivots around the errant handkerchief because its journey gives Othello the proof that Iago could not provide. Chance supplies the proof because it is made up of probabilities, some common, some uncommon, and others so uncommon as to stand outside the prospect of belief. For Othello, it stood outside the prospect of belief that the handkerchief could have went from Desdemona, to Cassio, and then to Bianca, unless Desdemona were untrue. To Othello, Iago’s extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence, and, through chance, he witnessed an extraordinary proof. Whether or not this proof achieves a point of moral certainty, however, will be a point of debate forever, as chance is, in the last examination, subject to uncertainty. Othello, read through the lens of chance, makes for great reading for pollsters, jurors, insurers, high energy physicists, ethicists, medical researchers, and anyone else corroborating theories based on many observations: there is always a risk that what appears certain is only a statistical anomaly that has the seeming of truth.

From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk. And what better for today’s days of risk than to look at tragedy as a theatre of risk? When life gives you lemons, make all of theatre a theatre of risk and you will see not only the play, but all of life, through new eyes. “O vain boast, / Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now,” says the one who has seen the power of chance in all its guises, sometimes raising up, and other times casting down (Othello 5.2.262-3).

In Othello, Shakespeare has drawn a moving portrait of the empire of chance in its limitless power. When want, will, and intention collide with accident, chance, and fortune, no matter how strong want, will, and intention are and how unlikely accident, chance, and fortune were, chance finds a way. Some thought that the gods were fate. Others thought that politics or character was fate. But, really, chance is the rebel fate. Certain proof of this lies in the great mystery of tragedy, the mystery of how, whether heads or tails, chance always prevails.

_ _ _

If you have enjoyed this reading of Othello, here is a link to a reading of Macbeth from the perspective of chance. Those interested in the role of chance in ancient drama may want to click here. These “risk theatre” readings are derived from arguments in my book presenting a new theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Ask your local library to carry a copy! Risk theatre is more than theory. It is also the basis of the largest playwriting competition in the world for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. The competition brings together playwrights, writers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and audiences to explore the many guises of chance and uncertainty. Click here for more info on the competition. Thank you for reading.

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

DECEMBER 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is open to entries (https://risktheatre.com). 22 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 3 countries (USA, Australia, and Canada). 5 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 20

Australia 1

Canada 1

Of the American entries, 16 are from the east and 4 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 7 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 13 men and 9 women. The 13:9 ratio is the closest the competition has come to equality in its first three years. Nice to see! Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 9 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and Australia. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 22,983 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2632 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

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

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

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

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

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

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

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

– – –

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

NOVEMBER 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is open to entries (https://risktheatre.com). 14 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 2 countries (USA and Australia). 6 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 13

Australia 1

Of the American entries, 11 are from the east and 2 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 3 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 11 men and 3 women. The imbalance is the starkest it’s been in the three years of the competition and brings to mind the ratio of male to female tragedians in the past. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 9 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and Italy. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 22,746 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2605 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

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

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

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

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

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

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

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

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s MACBETH

The true star of Macbeth is the low-probability, high-consequence event. And the true story of Macbeth is the hero’s reaction to it. In this tragedy, a man is transformed by a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, in the beginning raised up by chance, and, in the end, cast down by the same power he hoped to harness. Macbeth is the story of how low-probability, high-consequence events encouraged a man to wager all-in, thinking that he was bound for glory, and of how the random element fooled him.

For the dreamers who believe that low-probability, high-consequence events could be tamed through progress, the play warns of evil’s allure and the follies of ambition and confidence. For others, whose powers of recognition are clearer, and who perceive the random element working at each existential juncture in life and in history, the hypotheses of other-worldly powers, ambition, and confidence were redundant. To them, Macbeth tells an all-too-human story of how, because of our innate predilection to scorn chance, having always satisfied our intellectual biases by seeking any other explanation than one which involved the random element, we thought ourselves lords of chance and became, instead, the fools of chance.

The definition of a low-probability, high-consequence event is one in which, before it happens, is considered improbable. Sometimes the possibility it can even happen cannot be imagined, such is its remoteness. Examples include the Gutenberg Press, the rise of the personal computer, or the Gunpowder Plot. We can know that a low-probability, high-consequence action has occurred by watching the reactions. Sometimes, it prompts the one who has seen it to alert others. “From the spring,” says the dying Captain, “whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells: mark, King of Scotland, mark” (1.2.27-8). Other times it elicits disbelief. “Nothing is,” says Macbeth, “but what is not” (1.3.144). Sometimes, one takes one’s own life: this was the case of the “farmer that hanged / himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4-5). Having bet all-in on a bumper crop, when waylaid by the low-probability event, out of rent, out of food, and out of luck, he hangs himself. The danger these events present is that, though they were impossible to predict beforehand, after they happen, we retrospectively invent simplistic explanations of how they arose. In doing so, our sense of comfort is misguided, as we fail to give chance its due. This danger extends to the criticism of Macbeth.

In Macbeth, the action pivots around four low-probability, high-consequence events. The first is when, contrary to expectation, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. The second is when, against all hope, he becomes king. The third is when Birnam Wood, impossibly, comes to Dunsinane Hill. The last is when, beyond nature’s permutations, he meets a man not of woman born. That each of these events will happen is foreshadowed by the Witches—Shakespeare’s agents of improbability—to Macbeth, who, in turn, rejects each as being out of hand. By dramatizing the path from prediction to rejection to fulfillment, Shakespeare makes probability the play’s true theme: what happens when more things happen than what we thought would happen happens?

To most people, the Witches are not agents of improbability, but rather supernatural agents. Like the oracles of old in Greek tragedies, the Witches would prophecy to Macbeth his fate, fate being the antinomy of chance and probability. But, the funny thing is, to dramatize fate—to bring fate onto the stage—fate had to be cast into the play as a random event that takes place against all odds. That such an event could have taken place against overwhelming odds is then attributed back onto the powerful action of fate. The feeling of surprise that a miracle has occurred is the proof that fate exists. But really, there was no fate, only the fulfilment of a low-probability, high-consequence event that the audience appreciates to represent fate. Fate in tragedy is a literary artifact, is probability dressed up as fate. In this way, Macbeth, by exploring fate, became a venue to explore the impact of the highly improbable. Wherever there is fate, there is also chance: the way fate manifests itself in literature is by overcoming the random element. At last, fate and chance are synonymous, two sides of the same coin.

Macbeth begins with Scotland in alarm. The first crisis sees the rebel Macdonald leading Irish soldiers into Forres. King Duncan sends in Macbeth and Banquo. But, in the act of dispatching Macdonald, a second crisis strikes. Seeing Scotland convulsed by civil war, Sweno, Norway’s king, seizes the moment. He allies with another Scottish rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. With covert support from the thane and fresh Norwegian troops, they open a second front at Fife. Macbeth and Banquo remobilize to win the day. The opening action sets the scene for the first two of the four low-probability, high-consequence events.

After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, on the road to Forres, encounter the Witches:

Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?

1 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

2 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

3 Witch. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.47-50)

The first Witch accosts Macbeth by name and title. This draws his attention: when his father died, he had become Thane of Glamis. The second Witch teases him with a present tense pronouncement, calling him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth finds this both disturbing and unlikely. The news that Duncan has executed the traitor and given his title to Macbeth is still in transit. Then, the third Witch goes in hook, line, and sinker, hailing Macbeth as tomorrow’s king. Macbeth finds this impossible:

Macbeth. Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1.3.70-8)

The Witches vanish. At that moment, Angus and Ross enter. Acting as though the mouthpiece of chance, Ross hails Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor:

Angus. We are sent
To give thee from our royal master thanks,
Only to herald thee into his sight
Not pay thee.

Ross. And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine.

Banquo. What, can the devil speak true?

Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Angus. Who was the Thane lives yet,
But under heavy judgement bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.
Whether he was combined with those of Norway,
Or did line the rebel with hidden help
And vantage, or that with both he laboured
In his country’s wrack, I know not,
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him. (1.3.101-118)

Macbeth’s surprise—“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”—relays to the audience the improbability of what is happening. Banquo too, stunned, says: “What, can devil speak true?” a little too loud.

As the true star of the show, not only do low-probability events change our perceptions of how many things there are in heaven and earth, they also change the plot’s trajectory. Macbeth, previously fighting traitors, turns traitor. With the low-probability event, Shakespeare boldly pivots the trajectory of the play. The imperial theme begins.

Shakespeare’s Swans

Part of the good interpreter’s task is to sound out yesterday’s iambs on today’s instruments. For yesterday’s plays to jingle and jangle to modern ears, new approaches are required, approaches which resonate with today’s preoccupations. Today, there is a preoccupation with low-probability, high-consequence events: 9/11, the Great Recession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Deepwater Horizon, and other events give us reason to reflect on how nothing is impossible, once it happens. In the last decade, a new term has arisen to describe these events: today, we call them “black swans.”

The term “black swan” comes from Roman antiquity, and its journey to the present day has been itself swan buffeted. In the beginning, it meant something entirely different. The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term in the Satires where he likened a wife, perfect in all her virtues, to “a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan (6.165).” Since it was believed that the perfect wife does not exist, the black swan became a byword for the impossible. This was the term’s first meaning.

In 1697, European explorers sighted black swans off the coast of Australia. With one sighting, the improbable overcame the probable and a belief system—that all swans are white—fell. As a result, the term was orphaned. In 1843, however, John Stuart Mill reinvented it. In A System of Logic, Mill transformed the term from an expression of impossibility (which it could no longer denote) into a visual representation of the power of the unexpected. In Mill, the black swan is the empiricists’ bogeyman. It symbolizes the philosophers’ horror of how one observation can wreck any number of inferences based on any number of observations made over any immemorial period of time. In philosophical circles, the black swan came to symbolize the danger of formulating general principles from particular observations, otherwise known as the problem of induction. Another swan event, however,  was required for the term to enter the public consciousness.

In 2007, mathematician, options trader, and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb released The Black Swan. He argued that Wall Street’s risk management models, far from containing risk, exacerbated risk and endangered the financial system. Being rooted in the idea of past as prologue, these models gave traders false assurances that they could wager all-in: every swan will be white and events progress forwards, inexorably, quiescently, in a predictable steady state. But, if time were a punctuated equilibrium and arrived in fits and starts like ketchup out a glass bottle, full of revolution, a world of hurt awaits. Taking the cue from Mill, Taleb called these unforeseen, unexpected, and catastrophic events black swans. Mainstream financial pundits, busy riding the boom, disregarded Taleb, whom they regarded as an eccentric voice crying out in the wilderness. But, without warning, the Great Recession broke out in 2008 to break each one of the world’s oldest and most decorated financial institutions. The timing of Taleb’s book—having come out the previous year— seemed prescient.

Though experts disavowed that such a catastrophe could be ascribed to as fleeting a notion as chance, Taleb’s ideas were backed by a badass image (a sinister swan) and hardcore math (attacking the venerable bell curve). When the media suggested that the Great Recession could be understood as a swan event, a low-probability, high-consequence event precipitated by, of all things, chance, a firestorm of controversy ensued. It was at this time that the term “black swan” to denote the impact of the highly improbable entered the popular consciousness.

Before there was Taleb, there was Shakespeare. Only Macbeth was not taken as a warning of the highly improbable, but rather, a warning of the dangers of confidence, ambition, and evil. Perhaps that was because people did not associate Shakespeare with probability theory, which, having been recently founded in the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy. Shakespeare, however, grasped with his playwright’s intuition the inordinate impact the highly improbable. Consider his use of the improbable elsewhere to generate fantastic outcomes: Desdemona, in Othello, dropping the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries or the letter-carrier, in Romeo and Juliet, being caught in the wrong house at the wrong time. Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—also warns of the impact of the highly improbable (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of curious improbabilities and now, when they are all the rage, is the time to talk about Shakespeare’s swans.

The Imperial Theme

Shakespeare’s understanding of the highly improbable and its dramatic applications can be illustrated through Macbeth’s interaction with Angus and Ross. Macbeth’s question: “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” is spoken from the viewpoint of his initial reality. In this reality, Duncan is his cousin and king. He will lay his life on the line fighting foreign kings and native rebels to defend this reality. In this reality, all swans are white. But the moment Angus and Ross confirm the second Witch’s pronouncement, Macbeth sights the black swan. A new reality opens, one in which he is king. It is the improbable that draws him to the existential fulcrum. In this reality, having seen the swan, he knows the impossible is possible. The plot pivots into the imperial theme.

Finding himself, unexpectedly, Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth muses: “Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.118-9). The greatest that lies behind is to be king. Not only have the Witches prophesied thus, Ross, in his fruitfully ambiguous phrase that the new thaneship is “an earnest of greater honour,” intimates that Macbeth could be named heir apparent, a declaration consonant with the system of tanistry used in medieval Scotland where the crown, not yet bound by primogeniture, would revolve between collateral branches of the leading families.

Why would the greatest lie behind? We perceive the past, not the future, as that which lies behind. “Leave the past behind,” we say. We perceive the future as that which lies ahead. “Look to the future,” we say. The future is something we see approaching. Our expressions reflect our biases. Since we fear uncertainty, we disarm it by putting it in plain view. To highlight the role of the unexpected, Shakespeare turns convention on its head by placing the future behind, rather than before Macbeth. The future now steals up to Macbeth with the result that, when it catches him, it takes him by surprise. The image highlights the elusiveness of chance: not only does it lie in the future, sometimes we cannot even see it coming.

The improbable event has so unseated Macbeth that he allows himself to consider murder. But the thought of murder is so abhorrent to his previous beliefs that his hair stands on end and his heart knocks against his chest (1.3.137-44). His last recourse to preserve his previous reality is, ironically, to trust chance: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.146.7). As soon as he considers it, however, Duncan names his son heir. Crushed by having the prospect of the crown presented and ripped away, Macbeth moves further towards murder with his “Stars, hide your fires” soliloquy (1.4.50). Within a day, Duncan will be dead, clearing the path for Macbeth to be invested at Scone. The imperial theme is complete.

The Engine of Suspense

After the first two swan events take place, two remain: Birnam Wood and the man not of woman born. When Macbeth faces his first setbacks, he seeks a fresh start and goes back to where it all began. He will seek the Witches. All they presaged has come to pass. They said he is Thane of Cawdor, and it was confirmed. They said he will be king, and he became king. They said Fleance would found the Stuart line, and Fleance proved hard to kill.

To show Macbeth the path forward, the Witches conjure three Apparitions. The first Apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Even without the Apparition, Macbeth knew Macduff would be trouble: Macduff had declined to attend both the coronation and the state dinner. The second and third Apparitions prove more helpful, setting in motion the last two low-probability, high-consequence events:

2 Apparition. Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies
And sleep in spite of thunder. Thunder

[Enter] : a child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

What is this,
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?

All.                               Listen, but speak not to’t.

3 Apparition. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. Descend[s].

Macbeth.                       That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good.
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom. (4.1.78-99)

Like the prospects of becoming thane and king, Macbeth finds the likelihood of either eventuality so low as to approach nil. His courage swells with apodictic certainty:

Macbeth. Bring me no more reports, let them fly all;
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? (5.3.1-4)

Exactly as Hecate predicts, Macbeth, consumed by certainty, begins reciting the Apparitions’ words like a novel mantra:

Hecate. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace and fear;
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (3.5.30-4)

He repeats it to the Doctor: “I will not be afraid of death and bane,” he says, “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.59-60). “Thou wast born of woman,” he says, gloating over Young Siward’s corpse (5.7.12). He becomes another of chance’s fools.

In addition to all the functions mentioned earlier—driving the action forwards, exploding and reshaping worldviews, and pivoting the plot—black swan events also fire drama’s engine of suspense. They are part of a metatheatrical game played between dramatists and audiences.

A funny thing is that low-probability events, while low-probability to the characters (who are invariably blindsided by them), are, from the audience’s perspective, high-probability events. When the second Apparition tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth understands that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of the opposing belief. They understand that a man not of woman born will certainly strike Macbeth down.

Similarly, when the third Apparition tells Macbeth that “until / Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill /Shall come against him,” Macbeth understand that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of another belief. They understand that, like a Houdini or a David Copperfield—Shakespeare will wow them by pulling off the impossible in plain sight. The moment the Apparitions speak, the theatregoers start trying to figure out how Shakespeare will accomplish the impossible. On the one hand, the playwright telegraphs cues to the audience, and, on the other hand, the audience tries to figure out these cues. This metatheatrical game between playwrights and audiences is drama’s engine of suspense. With a few cues, the dramatist stokes the fires of a thousand imaginations.

When the Apparition tells Macbeth that he will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Shakespeare is telegraphing to the theatregoers that it will happen. Since it is not immediately obvious how Shakespeare can accomplish this, the theatregoers try to figure it out. As they try to figure it out, they feel the thrill of suspense. “Am I on the right track?” thinks one. “This is how he will do it,” thinks another. In these thoughts is the magic of suspense, and its magic increases with improbability. To bring about a probable event only requires the skills of a probable dramatist. To bring about the improbable event requires the skills of a most improbable dramatist. In this way, when Macbeth responds to the Apparition by saying, incredulous: “That will never be,” the audience understands it two ways. On the one hand, Macbeth is saying that it cannot happen. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare saying to the audience through Macbeth: “If I pull this off, you will admit I am a dramatist of the most improbable skill.” And so, this game of suspense between dramatist and audience plays out.

As the endgame approaches, Malcolm closes on Inverness with the English forces to revenge his father. Shakespeare has a chance to locate the action. The English, being unfamiliar with the terrain, request a bearing:

Siward. What wood is this before us?

Menteith.                                  The Wood of Birnam.

Malcolm. Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The number of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us. (5.4.4-7)

In the cat and mouse game of suspense, this is the moment the audience has been anticipating. Shakespeare satisfies the audience in the following scene where the Messenger arrives, breathless:

Macbeth. Thou com’st to use thy tongue: thy story, quickly.

Messenger. Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do’t.

Macbeth.                       Well, say, sir.

Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

Macbeth.                       Liar and slave.

Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming.
I say, a moving grove. (5.5.28-37)

From two scenes earlier, they know that ten thousand march on Inverness. In any other play, the Messenger would have simply reported that troops approach under camouflage. In this play, however, Shakespeare plays up the improbability of the commonest of tactics to place the audience in check. He has brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

Though the improbable has, once again, happened, Shakespeare reminds the audience through Macbeth that their game is not done. The man not of woman born still lurks, undiscovered:

Macbeth. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none. (5.7.11-14)

The probable, most of the time, prevails over the improbable. The improbable, however, has one decisive advantage. The probable can occur many times, and that is all that it can be: probable. The improbable, however, only needs to happen once. So it was with the black swan and so it is with Macbeth. As the end approaches, Macduff finds Macbeth:

Macduff.                      Turn, hell-hound, turn.

Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Macduff.                      I have no words.
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.

Macbeth.                       Thou losest labour;
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.

Macduff.                      Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.3-16)

Checkmate. The improbable man is the man born from caesarean section. The suspense, building since the second sabbath, resolves. The audience feels entertained, having seen how Shakespeare brings to pass the highly improbable, and many times.

Tragedy is a compact between dramatist and playwright. Its structure consists of a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, foreshadowed and fulfilled. Tragedy showcases the playwright’s ingenuity in bringing about the highly improbable. Minor feats of improbability for minor playwrights and major feats of improbability for major playwrights. Such a reading interests us, who are today most interested in finding new ways to explore the unexpected, as more and more, we see that in life as in tragedy, the more improbable it is, the harder it hits.

Not Intended Consequences, but Unintended Consequences

Tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events to remind us how good actions can have bad consequences. Unintended consequences arise when the swan event happens because the world has been changed: though no one knows what to do, everyone must act quickly. When Sweno and the Thane of Cawdor see Macdonald revolting, they must act at once, risking all: there is a tide in the affairs of men. This all-in risk, in turn, further antagonizes the unintended consequences: the greater the risk, the further the risk taker’s resources are stretched beyond what the risk taker can cover. The risk taker stands naked in the rain. Actions made in the new world, made in haste and multiplied by risk, tend towards unintended consequences.

Macbeth’s quest for the crown is set against the backdrop of all the failed attempts on the crown. Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor dared, and lost their lives. Sweno dared, and was out ten thousand dollars. The opening action establishes that, in the world of this play, the highest risk enterprise is to reach for the crown. Despite the risks, however, the play also establishes Macbeth’s competency to fulfil the task. He was the one who thwarted the ingrates and upstarts, who, by all accounts, had been within a hair’s breadth. If they had been close, Macbeth, who was by far greater than them, could entertain higher hopes. Duncan, an armchair king, hardly stands in his way. From the outset, to kill a king is, paradoxically, presented as both the riskiest and the most assured task: riskiest because the others had failed and most assured because Macbeth is like no other. The deed needs to be fraught with risk to cement Macbeth’s daring. But the deed also needs to be most assured so that when the unintended consequences occur, the audience is surprised. This is the pleasure of tragedy.

Having seen what happened to Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth knows the risk of “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.27-8). In awe of risk, he changes his mind, telling Lady Macbeth they will go no further. “I dare do all that may become a man, he says, “Who dares do more is none” (1.7.38-9). Despite his ample resources and insider knowledge, Macbeth remains circumspect. He refuses to act unless every question mark is removed.

At this point, Lady Macbeth offers the failsafe of failsafes. In addition to the assurances they already possess, she proposes to frame Duncan’s chamberlains for the murder. She will ply them with wine so that they can access Duncan. Once murdered, she will smear them with royal blood and set their weapons—now the instruments of murder—next to them. Everyone will be in a deep sleep after the long day. When the murder is discovered, Macbeth will, in a fit of rage, murder the chamberlains. The truth will die with them. None will know. Her plan, being foolproof, convinces Macbeth. Every question mark disappears. “I am settled, “ he says, “and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.1.80-1).

They put the plan into action. As expected, it works perfectly. Macbeth become king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, drawing suspicion of murder on themselves. No one knows better. The play shows them controlling, taming, and mitigating the foreseen risks. But then play turns to the unseen risks in the unintended consequences of their actions, cascading one after another in a beautiful sequence of mischance.

Macbeth had wanted to become king. But he cannot become the type of king he had expected. The best he can do is to become a tyrant, a degraded form of a king. This is the first of the unintended consequences. Now he begins consorting with murderers. Friends must die, and Fleance too. But when he marks them with death, further unintended consequences result. To be sure, ghosts can be found in Shakespeare’s other plays. In the world of this play, however, ghosts are like Juvenal’s black swans: they do not exist. Now, for the first time, the undead rise:

Macbeth. Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murder is. (3.4.73-81)

Macbeth, too, could not have foreseen how Lady Macbeth, entrenched within her iron will, would crack under pressure. Nor could he have foreseen that the moment he masters stoicism, hardening himself to all perils, is the moment Seyton breaks the news:

Macbeth. I have supped full of horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton. The Queen, my lord, is dead. (5.5.13-6)

Lady Macbeth, too, generates unintended consequences. She had wanted to become queen. But she can only be a posthumous queen, a degraded form of queen: Seyton, as she dies, first addresses her thus.

How did Macbeth fall, Macbeth who removed every last question mark? Some say he fell because of overconfidence. If you believe he was overconfident, ask yourself if Shakespeare could have done any more than what he did to justify Macbeth’s confidence. He gave Macbeth the competence. He gave him insider knowledge. He gave him the best-laid plan. Why should Macbeth not have been confident? His confidence is grounded. He was confident, but did not fall as a result of confidence.

Others say Macbeth fell through uxoriousness. He should not have listened to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, however, had the foolproof plan. Her plan is shown to be successful. The suspicion of the murder falls on Malcolm and Donalbain. He was swayed by Lady Macbeth, but did not fall through uxoriousness.

Then, there are those who say he fell because of his ambition. The world of the play, however, encourages ambition. The throne is ready for a shaking. Macdonald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Sweno all sense a changing of the guard. Later Banquo—and perhaps Donalbain—entertain their own imperial themes. The king is a poor judge of character, easily deceived, and cannot take it to the field. God had already deserted him: he can only send his wounded to the surgeons, other kings heal their subjects by a divine touch. Macbeth was ambitious, but his ambition was justified.

If not confidence, uxoriousness, or ambition, why did he fall? I think he fell through chance, the unexpected, more things happening than what he thought would happen, black swans, uncertainty, unknown unknowns, and low-probability, high-consequence events, the effects of all of which were compounded by risk. While indiscriminate evil cannot explain why Malcolm should ask the troops to cut down the boughs of Birnam Wood, chance multiplied by risk can. By chance, Macbeth meets a man not of woman born. By risk, he dies. Had he not put so much on the line by killing Macduff’s wife, babes, and lord, the encounter may have been less grievous.

Chance and the unexpected appear to the mind as a gap in nature, as a vacuum where there should have been knowledge. The intellect is poorly designed to comprehend the dark night of chance: though the math to comprehend chance was available from antiquity, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that probability theory laid down its footings. The intellect strives at all times to prove that everything happens for a reason. Thought finds a world where the random element runs amok false and impenetrable. Thought abhors empty space, rails against wild things.

When the world confronts timid natures with accident and uncertainty, they feel pity and fear. Pity for the tolling of the bell and fear that they too are exposed. These natures, who needed to reassure themselves from chance, sought to contain it, some by devising simplistic explanations (overconfidence, uxoriousness, ambition, etc.,) and others by devising complex metaphysics (the forces of darkness and evil). With these objectively questionable and subjectively comforting explanations, they allayed their fears, saying to one another: “Be more modest in your ambitions,” “Do good,” and other like refrains, thinking that with a change in behavior, next time they could stop Birnam Wood. Their explanations are from the point of view that the mischance of men’s ambitions are caused by man, and not by chance.

When the world, however, confronts more ambitious and confident natures with accident and uncertainty, far from pity and fear, they feel wonder and awe, wonder at how an individual, so full of fire and the seed of greatness, could be struck down by chance, and awe for the smallness of man in the boundlessness of randomness. They see that the killing risks are not the risks they see, but the ones that cannot be seen until after. They see that greatness is not without risk, and that there is a price to live dangerously. These fiery natures Macbeth marshals forwards, into the unknown, into risk, into the dark night of thought, as though saying to them: “Friend, dare to live dangerously, and you too shall die. Why the fuss? I also died, who was better by far than you.”

To these souls on fire, the highest honour is to join Macbeth and the pageant of tragic heroes who, having climbed past every ladder, found a way to climb on top of their heads, ever higher, higher than Ida’s peaks and Icarus’ flight. For them, to live is to dare. But it may be that there are other readings, and that there are as many truths to Macbeth as there are hearts, some circumspect, some like fire, some obsequious, some firing out their chests like cannons, some lily-livered, some cold as iron, hard as rock.

Littlewood’s Law

Some find the concatenation of low-probability, high-consequence events in Macbeth beyond belief. How could one individual become thane, then king, fall into tyranny, lose his lady to madness, see the wood come up the hill, and then meet a man not of woman born? That this too is part of an all-too-human heuristic that shuns chance and uncertainty can be demonstrated through Littlewood’s Law.

J. E. Littlewood, a twentieth century Cambridge mathematician, believed that exceedingly improbable events happen more often than we anticipate. To demonstrate his hypothesis, he devised a thought experiment. First, he called these unanticipated events miracles. Next, he defined miracles as events a million to one against. Through the observation that we experience many events each day, he demonstrated that we encounter the highly improbable monthly:

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

In life, it is thought that we experience a handful of defining moments, moments full of miracle and wonder such as comings of age, marriage, and convalescence. The implication of Littlewood’s Law, however, is that these existential fulcra whereon life hangs in balance happen more often than we anticipate. Life, far from being a steady state with gradual change, is in a constant state of revolution. The moments of respite are as infrequent as the major upheavals are frequent. In this probabilistic existence, we find ourselves often standing, like Macbeth, outside the safety of circumscribed beliefs.

Macbeth, in dramatizing the crossroad between probability and life, not only illustrates that more things can happen than what we think will happen, but also that these more things happen more frequently than we allow. These strange concatenations of events in the play may be more emblematic of life than critics have allowed. Even in a world of pure good, and one in which the drives of ambition and confidence are constantly held in check, we should expect to see a Birnam Wood event, by chance alone, on the average, every month.

The Old Master

Part of the reason so few have based their readings of Macbeth around low-probability, high-consequence events is that such readings are inherently paradoxical. The low-probability event is only improbable to Macbeth. To the audience, it is a high-probability event. This paradox drives critics to look elsewhere for the play’s keys. Many have done exactly this, basing their reading around ambition, hubris, error, uxoriousness, or the insidious action of evil. It need not be so, as the paradox is easily resolved: it exists to generate suspense. Another reason, however, why so few have tried this reading is that it flies in the face of the old master, Aristotle.

Just as the intellect abjures the role of chance as a causal factor in life, it is perhaps fitting that the greatest of intellects would abjure the role of chance from the construction of the best of plots. Aristotle declares in the Poetics that tragedy dramatizes the sorts of thing that could happen. Tragedy deals with probable events:

It is also evident from what has been said that it is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kindsof things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. (1451a)

Not only should tragedy deal with the probable, he goes on to say that chance events, being signs of inferior plot construction, are to be avoided (1454a-b). The net effect of his condoning the probable and condemning the improbable was to preclude chance and the highly improbable from the discussion of tragedy. It is a shame.

Aristotle had reasons for banishing the improbable. He was trying to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had found tragedy to be degenerate and unceremoniously banned it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a-e, Republic 607b). To rehabilitate tragedy, Aristotle gave it a social function. To Aristotle, theatregoers seeing the consequences of characters’ actions onstage would better understand the consequences of their own actions offstage. For this stage to street transference to work, however, actions had to be repeatable. For actions to be repeatable, they had to be probable. If a flaw onstage would lead to a similar fall offstage, nine or ten times out of ten, then tragedy could fulfil its social function.

In rehabilitating tragedy, Aristotle turned tragedy into a distant early warning of poor character. For the next two thousand years we would talk about how irascibility led to the fall. The fall was precipitated by confidence, stubbornness, ambition, and other behavioral factors that the agent could change, and by changing, escape tragedy. By neutering the improbable, Aristotle rehabilitated tragedy.

Aristotle has ruled the roost for two thousand years. In new millenniums, however, we seek new truths. In this age of the unexpected, we seek and find, through Macbeth, a new truth for tragedy that speaks to the pervasiveness of the random element. From its dramatization of black swans, Macbeth gains its overwhelming impetus. By affirming how the unthinkable happens again and again, Macbeth touches all the themes of our day. What is more, tragedy is once more dangerous. When it is dangerous, it is exciting and fit entertainment for the highest natures.

The Great Race

In this reading of Macbeth, I have shown how the action pivots around the fulcrum of the low-probability, high-consequence event. By the advantage conferred by this force multiplying machine, with the lightest touch the dramatist can provoke characters to abandon belief systems and risk certain comfort on uncertain hopes. Risk unbound, in turn, leaves characters susceptible to the unintended consequences of their actions: the more risk they assume, the more susceptible they become to each tremor. All the meanwhile, the dramatist plays a metatheatrical game with the audience, creating suspense by dangling before the audience the prospect that he will bring about an event so rare and wild that any lesser dramatist would cringe at the attempt. From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

This concludes my study of probability in Macbeth. I needed to write this, because, to me, this play was like a great race in which runners would compete, and, in the course of the running, they would run across banana peels. Some of them they would see, and jump over in great leaps. Some of them they would not see, or see too late, and slip. The runner, who led by an overwhelming margin in the final stretch, slips by accident and is unable to cross the line. This same runner, while jockeying for position earlier, had also pushed last year’s winner into the ditch.

Now, listening to the commentators, I was surprised because they would never declare these falls as accidents. Instead they would say that this runner slipped because he ran too ambitiously or that that runner slipped because he ran with too much gusto. As for the frontrunner who never crosses, this, according to them, was to show that cheaters never prosper. If you saw the play as I do, would you not yourself have needed to say this, that it was not error, hubris, confidence, or justice that causes the fall, but that the fall results from something much simpler, namely that, in a course full of banana peels, more things may happen than what we think will happen?

This reading is based on my new theory of tragedy, which is laid out in my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, now in its third year. Thank you for reading.

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

2021 CATR Canadian Association of Theatre Research Paper Proposal

Earlier this year, I had a chance to talk about my new theory of tragedy called “Risk Theatre” at the Canadian Association of Theatre Research (CATR) conference. Let’s see if risk theatre can make a second appearance at CATR next year. Here’s my 250 word proposal. If it’s accepted, it’ll end up as a 15 minute presentation. Fingers crossed!

Low-probability, High-consequence Events in Life and in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
If we look at theatre as a stage where low-probability, high-consequence events play out, it will help us understand today’s crisis. But this requires reimagining the way we interpret theatre. In life, when crises break out, they are often unforeseen and unpredictable. We have mental biases, however, that compel us to come up with simplistic explanations of how they could have been prevented. Our mental biases do not admit to the action of the random element. As a result of these biases, our sense of security is misplaced.
Interpreters of theatre, like the engineers and scientists who analyze what went wrong, have these same mental biases. They look at what went wrong and find simplistic explanations. “This character had hubris,” some say. “This one was too trusty,” others say. The play becomes a moral lesson. But what if dramatists were trying to say something else? What if they were dramatizing the effects of the unexpected?
I will demonstrate this idea by reading a play we all know—Shakespeare’s Macbeth—through the lens of probability. I will argue that Shakespeare creates a world in which Macbeth’s confidence is justified. The problem is not the plan, but rather the impact of the highly improbable. The play then ceases to be a moral lesson and becomes instead a warning that the improbable may impact us more than our biases allow us to believe. The art of tragedy, I argue, talks to us in times of crisis because it simulates the effect of unknown unknowns on the stage.
Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

OCTOBER 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY PLAYWRITING COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2021 competition is open to entries (https://risktheatre.com). 11 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 2 countries (USA and Australia). 7 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 11

Australia 1

Of the American entries, 10 are from the east and 1 is from the west. Of the entries from the east, 2 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 10 men and 1 woman. The imbalance is the starkest it’s been in the three years of the competition and brings to mind the ratio of male to female tragedians in the past. Prior to the twentieth century, I only know of a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 11 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and the UK. Most clicks in a day was 287 on August 15, 2020 when we announced the 2020 winner: THE VALUE by Nicholas Dunn. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 22,418 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2596 copies. A shout out to everyone for their support—all proceeds fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

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

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

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

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

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

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

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

My Experience Workshopping and Directing Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE

Poster for Nicholas Dunn's THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Poster for Nicholas Dunn’s THE VALUE, courtesy of Emily Armstrong at Starling Memory Designs

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

Clockwise from top: Leslie Appleton, Edwin Wong, Wayne Yercha, Vishesh Abeyratne, Nicholas Dunn, Alissa Grams, Anthony Gaskins

The more you read, the more ideas come to you. In the preparations leading up to the workshop and performance of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, winner of the 2nd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, I’ve been reading. Mark Bly’s book New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting inspired me to run the workshop around a series of questions. I would divide the play into thematic units and pose questions for the actors to explore. The questions would be mine; the answers would be theirs. You can see below how I’ve divided The Value into sections for the creative team to explore.

A concern, however, lingered: what if their answers diverged from my own ideas about the play? While reading George Sapio’s book: Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs the answer appeared. At the end of the book, Sapio  writes:

Bear in mind that the closer the play gets to opening night, the more redundant the director becomes, as well. I may catch hell for saying so, but it’s true. In the beginning, the actors follow the director’s ideas. They work with them, adjust to them, fine-tune them, and then make them their own. The director has the overall vision of the play and was chosen to direct because of that vision.

What a brilliant observation. Although it’s self-evident that the director has the overall vision of the play, Sapio’s words woke me up. I could start the workshop by communicating my vision of the play. This would establish a baseline around which we would explore The Value. My series of questions could be designed to tie back into my overarching vision of the play. By coming up with answers together with the actors may produce a more convincing reading. After all, it is the actors and not the director who will be presenting the dramatic vision to the audience. If the actors are themselves invested in the dramatic vision, they have skin in the game. Skin in the game, it’s all about having skin in the game.

That seemed to me to be a good start. If anyone is interested, here are my notes from the workshop. Enjoy!

My Vision of Nicholas Dunn’s The Value

Have you looked up the German expressionist painter E. L. Kirchner? He’s a real guy. 1880-1938. But Kirchner’s painting in the play, Summum bonum, is unattested. Summum bonum is Latin for “the highest good.” Philosophers from Cicero to Augustine and Kant have wrestled with the idea. The name of the play is called The Value and the dramatic fulcrum of the play is that the characters all try to value Kirchner’s painting. In other words, Dunn has them all trying to value “the highest good.” Brilliant. Through a crime drama—and a fun crime drama—Dunn explores a hard-core philosophical idea, namely the price that the highest good exacts on you. This exploration is the play’s kernel. How much is the highest good worth, in both dollar terms and human terms?

Through laborious training and sacrifice, Kirchner pays the price to create the painting. But notice that he doesn’t assign a price to it. Instead, he gifts it to McEvoy’s grandmother. The highest good changes hands the first time as a part of a gift exchange. We do not know what McEvoy’s grandmother gave in exchange for the painting, nor does it matter. It is enough to know that she did not give in exchange greenback dollars.

In Ian I see a clever, talented, and driven individual who didn’t get the opportunities most people enjoy. Society has crushed him down and spat him out. He’s been at the bottom too long. He’s willing to lay everything on the line to climb the food chain. And that means turning everything into cold, hard cash: he capitalizes on his relationship with Zoey, he capitalizes on this mysterious opportunity, he has a conscience, and for a second thinks about returning McEvoy’s heirloom back to its rightful owner, but he sells that out too. 

I think the play asks: “What if he gets millions? Will he have enough?” Or, once he climbs the food chain and gets his millions, will he then start feeling the poverty of a single-digit millionaire in the company of double- and triple-digit millionaires? He’s got the Midas touch.

In McEvoy I see a man haunted by the image of the highest good. He has insight into the value of art. He disagrees with Ian, who is quick to put a dollar figure onto the highest good. He understands the labours of the artist and the difficulty of valuing the aesthetic realm. With McEvoy, however, I think the play asks: “Is that a legitimate use of the highest good to keep it locked away?” Because that’s what McEvoy’s going to do. He can’t ever hang the painting. He can’t ever show it, or even let anyone know that he has it. What’s the value of the highest good if one person hoards it, locks it away in a cupboard?

In Zoey, I see a woman who’s willing to sell the highest good to create her own highest good. Her highest good is family. Whereas McEvoy looks at the highest good as something to possess and Ian looks at the highest good as something that can be converted into greenback dollars, Zoey understands that the value in the highest good is that others will pay money for it, and this money, in turn, can bring family back together. With Zoey, the play asks: “Can one give away the highest good to achieve a human good?”

So what’s my vision of the play? I think Ian, McEvoy, and Zoey each champion a certain truth about human value. I may have a position on who I like. And Dunn probably does as well. But Dunn doesn’t tell you what’s best. He invites you to consider these different standpoints on value. And that’s what makes this play extraordinary. A family person would understand Zoey’s position. An art lover would understand McEvoy’s position. And someone down-and-out for too long would see Ian’s point of view. My vision of the play is that no one’s right or wrong. They all take gambles and go all-in to get their heart’s desire. Their gambles are all reasonable, what someone in their position would do. But, just like in life, the unexpected happens. The crappy painting happens to be valued at $24 million. What were the odds? The unexpected throws down the best-laid plans of mice and men. Let’s see if we can capture this vision from page to stage.

Sections and Questions (divisions are my own)

1.1.1 IAN ALONE pgs. 1-3

Ian: “This is what happens…” Ian speaks similar lines on pg. 28, the flashback on p.64 and his closing lines. What’s going through his mind? Though he’s oppressed, beaten down, he feels a sense of destiny, like he was meant for something big. Born to lose but live to win. When he speaks these lines, he can sense his destiny unfolding. He speaks these lines with the fiery energy of destiny. Nothing will stop him. Nothing can get in his way. He is a character fascinated with himself. Can be played many ways. He reminds me of Shakespeare’s Richard III in his charisma.

1.1.2 THIS IS AN ART HEIST! pgs. 4-8

Zoey: “We pulled it off. Like, a heist! Like the guy in the, um, the Thomas Crowne affair.” Misdirection. In the “shitty newer one (Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo),” the characters overcome monetary issues to reunite. Brosnan could run, but he doesn’t: “Suppose I did run, then what would you have? Not the painting, not the $5 million, and not me.”  Moral of the story: Ian isn’t a billionaire playboy like Thomas Crown. This is a difference between theatre and the silver screen. Pg. 6, Victor’s first drink.

1.1.3 SO, WHAT’S IT WORTH? pgs. 8-12

Zoey: “Even a pawn shop has security—” Ian: “Yeah, probably better security than most museums. You’d be surprised.” How does Ian know so much about security? Ian: “Don’t use your phone.” A symptom of Ian’s fierce independence. He doesn’t want to be connected by phone. He doesn’t want to be connected by internet. He doesn’t want to be connected to the people who love him. He ran away to be by himself. Why is he so individualistic? Call this the Ian “fiercely individualistic motif.” 

1.1.4 IAN AND ZOEY pgs. 13-15

Zoey: “What, is this some kind of way of getting back at me?” This comment and back rubs and knowing looks. Something has happened between Zoey and Ian in the past, but what?

1.1.5 IT LOOKS LIKE A FIVE-YEAR-OLD’S FINGER PAINTING! pgs. 16-20

Victor sees mountains, deer, trees, and a cougar whereas the others see globs of colour. Is Victor seeing this for real? Ian: “We’re climbing the food chain. Tonight.” What does Ian mean when he says “climb the food chain?” Insatiable appetite? They discuss perceived value of painting. Pg.16, Victor’s second drink. 

1.1.6 BROTHER AND SISTER ALONE pgs. 20-25

Zoey: “He found him though. Put the guy’s face through a window.” Ian does the right thing and pursues vigilante justice in the case Zoey talks about. But he doesn’t do the right thing when McEvoy asks him to return the painting to the rightful owner. Why? Pg. 21, Zoey’s first drink.

1.1.7 ZOEY AND IAN ALONG pgs. 26-34

Ian: “This is what happens.” Then catches Zoey looking at him, looking at him at his moment of destiny. Zoey’s wager: I did this to be with you, for family. Ian’s declaration that “I left for me.” Recalls the Ian independence motif. Pg. 33, Zoey’s second drink. Pg. 34, Victor’s third drink.

1.1.8 MCEVOY CALLS AT DAWN! pgs. 34-35

Zoey: “Everyone has their issues.” What are Victor’s issues? Compare this play to Ibsen’s Ghosts or O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night. In those two plays the playwright gives us the prehistory. But in this play, their prehistory is shrouded. Is there a dramatic advantage of shrouding the past? Pg. 35, Zoey’s third drink and Ian’s first drink.

1.1.9 LET’S TALK ABOUT RELATIVE VALUE! pgs. 36-42

Ian: “Right, it’s a chance! An opportunity. They’re rare, and sudden, and yeah, usually a gamble. But that’s how we get ahead. You afraid?” What do each of the characters wager and why?

1.1.10 MCEVOY ARRIVES! pgs. 43-50

Has anyone ever been so fascinated by something or someone as much as McEvoy with the painting? Think of Gollum and “my precious” from Lord of the Rings. Pg. 44, Zoey’s fourth drink: she’s ahead of Victor and Ian now! Divergences between the text and reality. The text points to Victor as the hard drinker. But in reality, Zoey drinks harder than Victor.

1.1.11 IT’S A SUMMUM BONUM BY E.L. KIRCHNER! pgs. 51-53

What’s the significance of the name, which translates to “the highest good?” How do we incorporate the irony of negotiating over the highest good into the action? Note how the highest good was the highest evil to the Nazis: like the expressionist art form of jazz, it was “degenerate art,” had to be destroyed.

1.1.12 LET’S TALK MONEY pgs. 54-59

Stage direction: “Victor dives to the floor and begins to gather the money stacks.” How do you picture this stage direction? Desperation, savagery, animal-like, or? Notice Victor’s affinity with the animal realm: he see coyotes in the painting, he talks about Lucky, his childhood dog, later, Ian refers to him as a runt. Irony of pricing out the highest good as though the highest good could be understood in terms of money. It can only be understood in terms of sacrifice, which is what all the characters do: Kirchner sacrificed himself to make it, Ian sacrifices Zoey to get the most value for it, McEvoy sacrifices his integrity to get it back… McEvoy: “I thought… thought you were something different.” Ian is a chameleon. What did McEvoy think Ian was, exactly?

1.1.13 WHAT?!? IT’S WORTH $24 MILLION? pgs. 60-61

The first act ends swinging on the dramatic fulcrum of the play: the unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event.

2.1.1 FLASHBACK pg. 62

Ian: “…And we’ll just…see what happens.” Similar to opening lines. Is this spoken with a sense of destiny, when he expects the rays of the Fates too converge on that one moment?

2.1.2 I’M FUCKED! pgs. 63-67

Victor: “Whenever people are obsessed with something and something bad happens they always say: ‘That’s like Hitler’, or ‘it’s like the Nazis’ … These cartel assholes are like Nazis. About their money. They’re gonna murder me like the Nazis.” The irony of selling the highest good, the Summum Bonum portrait, to pay off the lowest of the low, the cartel assholes who are “like the Nazis.” The highest good, through the market process, is converted into the sustenance of the devil.

2.1.3 YOU REMEMBER LUCKY? pgs. 67-69

Does Victor identify with Lucky, looking at himself like a chained up dog? He also sees a coyote in the Kirchner. Affinity with animal world, he himself is savage, see 1.1.12.

2.1.4 PICK UP THE PHONE! pgs. 69-71

Zoey: “Wait, you don’t think there’s any chance that…” Victor: “What?” Zoey: “No. There’s no way.” Victor: “What?” What’s going through Zoey’s mind here?

2.1.5 NO SALE pgs. 71-73

Ian: “We caught a break! We caught that bit of fate, that kind of lucky chance that you can’t buy or, or work your way into. We caught it by accident. We have to use it!” This line ties into Ian’s opening and closing lines (“This is what happens”), full of a sense of destiny as a recompense for all he has suffered.

2.1.6 ZOEY’S REBUKE pgs. 74-75

Zoey: “This is an opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as good, just as fulfilling as wanting it … I risked everything for you. Because we are kin … Well? what will you do?” Ian: “I. Can’t. Settle.” These lines break my heart. Why can’t Ian settle? Does it tie back to the opening epigram by cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins: “Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity”? That is to say, Ian cannot have, he can only want?

2.1.7 CAN A $24 MILLION PAINTING BE WORTH $60,000? pgs. 76-78

Was it fair for McEvoy to offer $60,000 for a $24 million masterpiece?

2.1.8 IT WAS GRANDMA’S PAINTING pgs. 78-79

Why did Kirchner give this to McEvoy’s grandmother? This painting was originally a gift. Does its transition from a gift (priceless) into a commodity (worth x dollars) change the nature of the painting? Is it more “mercenary” now? Is there a secret McEvoy has kept to himself?—he seems intimately aware of the painting’s history. McEvoy: “It [Summum Bonum] is humanity at its basest and its most glorious. It is Kirchner.” Why does McEvoy say that the painting is also humanity at its basest? Because of the painting’s association with the Third Reich?

2.1.9 APPEAL TO IAN’S SENSE OF JUSTICE pg. 80

How close is Ian to capitulating? Remember that in the case of Derek and the orphans, he had done the right thing, and at considerable expense to himself.

2.1.10 GIFTS THAT ARE WORTH EVERYTHING AND NOTHING pgs. 81-82

McEvoy: “You can’t auction it, you can’t advertise that you have it. You don’t know who to look for to sell it illegally. It is now only worth what someone like me can give and what people like you can find.” McEvoy, Zoey, and Victor all think Ian should close the deal at $60k. Is Ian’s case that he can get more than $60k a strong one?

2.1.11 GOODBYE MCEVOY pgs. 83-85

Ian: “You are what people see, what people think you are worth.” McEvoy: “You are what you do! What you do. Nothing more.” Ian talks of other people evaluating an actor’s actions. McEvoy talks of the actor reflecting on his own actions. Ian’s point recalls the behaviorist psychologists—led by BF Skinner—who thought the brain was a black box: what’s inside doesn’t matter. It’s a functional view of action. It’s how you appear to others that counts. McEvoy’s point recalls the state of the mind as it reflects on itself. It’s an expressionist view of the mind. Expressionism, after all, attempts to communicate the subjective state of the mind to an outside viewer.

2.1.12 FIGHT! pgs. 86-93

Zoey: “Just give it to them, Ian, Because it doesn’t matter. With a shit-load of money or none, you’re the same. You’re nothing. You’re no one.” Would Ian be nothing were he to get his millions? Say his plan works and, down the road, he gives Zoey and Victor their share. What then?

2.1.13 pgs. 94-95 THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS

His face becomes stern, confident, almost welcoming. His eyes alight, determined. He drinks in his new reflection. Ian: “This is what happens.” This ties in the beginning, middle, and end of the play with a sense of fate or destiny.

Special Bonus: Opening Comments Prior to the Show

Hi everyone, I’m Edwin Wong, thanks for joining us.

The second annual Risk Theatre Tragedy Competition is upon us! Today we present the winning play, Nick Dunn’s The Value. Risk theatre is a theory of tragedy I developed. I wrote a book on it. It’s like Aristotle’s Poetics, except, instead of pity and fear—which is so fifth century—risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action because risk is one bad ass 21st century idea. This competition promotes a new brand of tragedy, one where low-probability, high-consequence events thrill audiences, one where the characters pay the price when they are struck down by the highly improbable. When you see the play, think on your own life, and how you interact with the improbable.

Nick Dunn’s The Value, dramatizes risk and the impact of the improbable. There’s nothing like it that explores value in art—absolute value, perceived value, relative value, and intrinsic value—in such a sustained attack. An all-star cast will be performing the play. Anthony Gaskins plays Ian. Leslie Appleton plays Zoey, Vishesh Abeyratne plays Victor, Wayne Yercha plays McEvoy, and Ali Grams narrates. There’s so much action we have no time for intermissions. Running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes. The show is co-produced by Theatre Carpe Diem—thank you Kara and Anton—and streamed to you by The Canadian Play Thing—thank you Janet! This is Zoom, glitches are going to happen. Dropouts are going to happen. And we’re going to power on through because risk theatre is theatre in love with risk. Stay with us after the show for an audience talkback.

Nick, so glad you participated in the competition and congratulations on taking the $9000 prize. Did you want to say a few words about the play before we dive in?

– – –

What a fireworks way to end year two of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Onwards into year three!

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

THE VALUE, a Tragedy by Nicholas Dunn – 2020 Risk Theatre Winner

Later this year I’ll workshop and direct a staged reading of Salt Lake City playwright Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, the winner of the second annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Out of 135 great plays, jurors Kelli Fox, Anthony Giardina, and Anthea Williams nominated The Value for the grand prize.

This will be my first time workshopping and directing a play. Why am I doing this? I’m doing it to align myself with the risk theatre project. The project evolved in three phases, and in each phase I had to adapt, and in different ways. The first phase involved putting my thoughts into a form that could be shared. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected accomplished this. It was a good start. But insufficient: people needed a reason to read it. This led to the second phase of the project: The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. By creating an international competition around the book, I gave people a reason to read it. This was good. But insufficient. The goal of the risk theatre project is to invite people to consider the impact of the highly improbable. By dramatizing unintended consequences and the impact of low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, theatre could become a microcosm of life, could show us the possibilities. That was the goal of the risk theatre project: to show how intertwined life is with probability and chance. To accomplish this goal, not only was the book and the competition necessary, it was also necessary for me to direct the play to make risk palpable.

In the workshop and staged reading, I could focus on black swans, fat tails, the impact of the highly improbable, complexity, unintended consequences, low-probability, high-consequence events, probability, chance, and all else that falls under the rubric of risk. This would be a one-of-a-kind workshop and staged reading. With its laser focus, the bonds between drama, chance, and uncertainty would be revealed.

When the competition first started, I projected that, after ten years, risk theatre would become a household word. Hey–if you’re going to start something, you need to believe. Looking at things probabilistically (which is my favourite way of looking), I thought there would be a good chance that, after ten years, a few of the winning plays would have entered the canon. Once they became classics, they would–due to the “halo effect”–raise people’s awareness of the risk theatre theory of tragedy. Today I don’t believe that anymore. I think I was wrong.

Over ten years, it may be that many of the plays entered in the competition would go on to find success. Of this I’m sure. Powerful movers and shakers in the theatre world have heard of, and follow the competition. They like what they see from Gabriel Jason Dean (last year’s winner) and Nicholas Dunn. They talk with their friends who are also gods of theatre and at some point, something’s going to happen. But something else will also happen: over time, the ties that bind risk theatre to the winning plays would also fade. Risk theatre would become a footnote in the play’s history, one of its many accolades and prizes. I will be forgotten.

If I wanted people to associate the winning plays with risk theatre, I couldn’t wait for people to make the connection: “Ah, this is why this is a risk theatre play.” I would have to write essays and articles on why I thought these plays were paradigms of risk theatre. People would then discover these essays and articles in tandem with the plays. And then, and only then, would risk theatre gain traction.

Would you like to know a secret? It explains why I’m going about the way I do. I didn’t discover Sophocles’ Oedipus rex or Shakespeare’s Hamlet first. I discovered Aristotle, Nietzsche, and other writers who wrote about Oedipus rex and Hamlet first. It was Aristotle and Nietzsche who turned me onto drama. Just as the fame of Oedipus rex grew in tandem with Aristotle and is inextricably tied with Aristotle, perhaps the fame of The Value and the future winners of risk theatre will also grow in tandem with the risk theatre theory of tragedy. That would be my wish.

A question: what’s the difference between the best plays written today and the best plays written of the past? What’s the difference between Dunn’s The Value and, say, Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus? It’s not the theme, as each play examines an issue in depth: Dunn examines value in art and in life, Aeschylus justice, and Marlowe the limits of salvation in the face of a hardened heart. It’s not the writing, as each play has its purple passages, from Cassandra’s meditation on human frailty:

Alas for human destiny! Man’s happiest hours
Are pictures drawn in shadow. Then ill fortune comes,
And with two strokes the wet sponge wipes the drawing out.

to Faustus’ eleventh-hour plea:

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!-
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!-
Where is it now? ’tis gone: and see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

to McEvoy’s paroxysm of emotion as he lays eyes on the German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Summum Bonum:

Oh. I … I can’t believe it. Just how… The color, the looseness, the fluidity of line, the harsh–almost violent–application of hues. Vibrant and dark at once. It’s the blue… The blue raging against yellow… (sighs) No second-guessing. And it’s here. My god, it’s in this room.

If not the theme nor the writing, then what is it? The difference between the best plays written today and the best of the past is that there is a considerable body of scholarship examining yesterday’s plays.

When playwrights write, I don’t think their aim is to create a classic. Of course, I can’t be sure, but a thousand other things likely come to mind during the creative process than: “I must create a masterpiece that will endure forever.” Maybe there’s a character that’s been haunting the playwright’s imagination. “Will she fit into this play?” the playwright wonders. Maybe there’s a local theatre or artistic director that is looking for a certain type of play. Maybe the play has complex casting requirement and the playwright wonders if actors are available. Perhaps the playwright is concerned about raising with funds to workshop the play. There are a thousand things the playwright could be thinking about other than entering the canon. Classics are not consciously created. This begs the question then: how are classics created?

Achilles was a great warrior. But where would Achilles have been if Homer had not sung of his tale in The IliadWithout Homer, Achilles would have been forgotten. E. L. Kirchner was a great artist. But where would Kirchner have been were it not for McEvoy’s devotion? Without McEvoy, Kirchner’s renown would have been less. Convention has it that the author creates the classic. I wish to reexamine this. If Aristotle hadn’t written The Poetics, perhaps Sophocles’ Oedipus rex would not even have survived. In truth, while the artist creates the masterpiece, it is the interpreter who transforms the masterpiece into the classic. Canadian pianist-interpreter Glenn Gould transformed the works of Sibelius and Orlando Gibbons into classics. Catalonia cellist-interpreter Pablo Casals transformed Bach’s Cello Suites into a classic. If Casals had not wandered into a Barcelona thrift shop, the Cello Suites would have languished in obscurity. The relationship between the doer and the interpreter was succinctly captured by Alexander the Great when he visited Achilles’ tomb in 334 BC. He pronounced Achilles fortunate in getting Homer as the herald of his fame to posterity. Classic works of art are born when writers write about works of art.

Mind you, that someone thinks about and writes an essay or gives a talk on your work doesn’t always mean that your work is on its way into the canon. Far from it. But there’s two telltale signs that you’ve made it. The first is when you get roasted. And the second is when academics start speculating on the odds and ends in your work. What a delight it must be for artists (unless you’re Bob Dylan) to see people studying their works and to see critics staking their careers on conflicting interpretations. With that, let’s turn to The Value.

The Price is What You Pay, The Value is What You Get

Dunn announces that The Value will examine the idea of value–whether human, material, artistic, or societal–in a pair of opening epigrams:

Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. –Marshall Sahlins

and

… when the dominant myth is not “to possess is to give” but “the fittest survive,” then abundance will lose its motion and gather in isolated pools. –Lewis Hyde, The Gift

The first epigram hints that the play explores how characters react within the capitalist structure to the proposition of scarcity in the face of plenty. Ian fulfils this opening pronouncement as the play progresses. While the meaning of the second epigram isn’t as obvious as the first, it also foreshadows how the quartet of characters will react with one another.

Although I haven’t read Hyde’s book, I looked it up. I’ll run down to Munro’s Books to pick it up. It looks fascinating. The idea behind The Gift is that by giving we increase abundance and by self-interest we foster scarcity. Taken together, the quotes imply that it isn’t capitalism, but altruistic acts within the capitalist structure that make the land flow with milk and honey. Inversely, selfish acts within the capitalist structure strips away society’s riches, even should modern society be richly endowed. The idea behind The Gift resonates with me on a personal level: since establishing The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition three years ago, I find myself working harder and making more money for the express purpose of giving more money away in the competition. If I had been working for my own ends, I would have generated less abundance. Let’s see how these ideas play out in The Value.

In form, Dunn’s The Value is an example of what risk theatre calls a parallel-motion tragedy. The distinguishing feature of parallel-motion tragedies is that multiple protagonists strut their stuff on the stage. Parallel-motion tragedies entertain by dramatizing the feedback between different characters’ intentions. Feedback loops in turn bring about the unexpected ending. Examples of parallel-motion tragedies include Corneille’s Cinna and, more recently, O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.

Four characters acting at cross-purposes interact in The Value. There’s Ian, a tradesperson by day, perhaps one of these types who’s a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Perhaps he’s a failed electrician who wires low-voltage security systems. In the opening scene, we see him changing out of his work clothes. As he changes, he steps outside of himself, is no longer the tradesperson. He imagines himself meeting a lady at swanky party. In their imaginary conversation, he acts out their encounter:

Ian: What do do? Oh, I’m a… investor. An entrepreneur. I’m a banker. Wall street, you know, stock market bullshit, insider trading, fucking up people’s retirement, fraud, hookers, blow, typical American dream stuff…

As he goes on, he quickly ramps up from the likely to the unlikely. In a few words, Dunn conveys Ian’s primary trait: appetite. Ian wants more. And there is something uncanny about his appetite: what Wall Street trader, when introducing himself, brags about engaging in illegal insider trading? First impressions are critical, and in Ian’s first impression, he lets off that there is something crooked in his understanding of the American dream.

Then there’s Zoey, a few years younger than Ian. Her and Ian have had something in their past. Exactly what is left unspoken, but clear enough. What we do know is that while she screwed up, it was Ian who left:

Zoey: But you fucking left.

Ian: Yeah.

Zoey: You left us! That wasn’t an accident. That wasn’t a mistake. That was a choice. To abandon.

Ian: Of course I left. Why the fuck would I hang around? I’m not your caretaker, or your brother’s or anyone else–

Zoey: We depended on you.

Ian: You think I was gonna stay there forever, running dope or some whit my whole fucking life?

As the play progresses they address the unfinished business between them.

The third of the four characters is Victor, Zoey’s brother. Like the others, he’s a small time criminal. He’s underrated and belittled. The runt. His want of self-esteem marks his reactions to the others:

Victor: I’m fuckin’ sick of being pushed around.

Zoey: We all are!

Victor: I loved that dog. I coulda taken care of him. Isn’t that why we got him? God, I’m not a fucking idiot. Okay, I’m not stupid!

He’s volatile and explosive, the perfect character to put a twist into the action.

The final character is McEvoy, the museum curator. He’s the one who sets the play in motion by asking Ian to steal back a painting with an unusual provenance and name. The painting, by German expressionist painter Kirchner, had once belonged to McEvoy’s grandmother. Confiscated by the Nazis, it was to be destroyed as “degenerate” art. But it somehow survived. McEvoy requested the Kirchner exhibition for the museum. He got it. When the crates arrived, Ian happened to be wiring the security system. With his knowledge, he could steal crate #32. But since he was working at the museum, he couldn’t steal it himself. That’s where Ian brings in Zoey and Victor. He would tell them how to get in. They would steal it. They would split the money. The catch, however, is that McEvoy and Ian never agreed beforehand to a price. This crack gives Dunn a springboard into examining not only the value of art, but the value in knowing what is enough.

Risk theatre argues that the fundamental structural unit of tragedy is the troika of temptation-wager-cast. Something motivates the character to act. To fulfil the heart’s desire, a wager is formulated: the milk of human kindness for the crown would be the example from Macbeth. Then the die is cast. That’s the point of no turning back. In a risk theatre reading of The Value, one of the first things we’d do is to analyze characters’ motivations in terms of how they formulate their wagers. What they’d be willing to lay on the line is telling.

In Macbeth, one of risk theatre’s paradigm plays (the other being Aeschylus’ grandiose and belligerent Seven Against Thebes), the witches tempt Macbeth. In The Value, it is McEvoy who tempts Ian by asking him to steal the painting in crate #32 (which is incidentally, if you’re from Salt Lake City, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz’ retired number). For Ian–as for Macbeth–the payout is uncertain. To cash in, he has to take risks:

Zoey: You know, there seems to be an awful lot of guesswork in you plan here tonight!

Ian: Right, it’s a chance! An opportunity. They’re rare, and sudden, and yeah, usually a gamble. But that’s how we get ahead.

That’s what Ian’s after: to get ahead. As we see in the opening scene where he pretends to be a high-roller, Ian’s tired of himself, tired of who he is. “We’re climbing the food chain. Tonight,” he says with an exclamation point. Ian bets that McEvoy will pay them out and that Zoey and Victor can steal the painting. It’s a pretty good bet. There’s no hubris involved. Anyone in Ian’s position would have made the same wager.

For Zoey, it’s not about money or climbing the food chain. For Zoey, it’s a chance to start afresh with Ian after their former turmoil and separation:

Zoey: I just… I know that… I hurt you and I don’t know–I don’t know if–

Ian: Don’t… don’t worry. It’s me.

(He sits on the edge of the bed, closer to her. Pause.)

Zoey: I was glad when you asked me. I’m glad that you trusted me to do this. It feels good to do this together. To go all “whatever” on these motherfuckers.

Her bet is that the heist will bring her, Ian, and her brother back together into a family unit. Again, it’s a likely bet: she is attracted to Ian and Ian to her.

More mercantile aspirations guide Victor. Whereas for Ian, the money represents the chance to “climb the food chain,” for Victor, money is simply what it is. Hellhounds on his trail, the heist gives him the chance to pay back debts beyond his more honest abilities.

If more mercantile aspirations guide Victor, less mercantile aspirations guide McEvoy. Kirchner’s painting Summum Bonum (“the highest good” in Latin, more on its fascinating name below) has haunted McEvoy’s imagination since a child. The painting belonged to his family, was stolen from his grandmother. To possess it again is to reconnect with his family and that sense of fascination, wonder, and awe. He bets that Ian, for a price, can help him. But at what price? And so, we come across the kernel of Dunn’s tragedy:

McEvoy: This piece. This is the one, the only one, that… that I would go to such lengths to acquire. Not for any kind of monetary justification or, or, or prestige associated with possession. But for, for reasons that… motivations that I doubt the three of you could comprehend.

Zoey: What do you mean by that?

McEvoy: I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have thought of doing this for anything off the wall. This is the only one I would even think–

Ian: I get that, but why?

McEvoy: I’m not interested in the price.

Ian: I am.

The painting over which they’re negotiating is called Summum Bonum, or “The Highest Good.” Clever. How much is the highest good worth?

The real-life Kirchner–the founder of the artistic movement Die Brücke (The Bridge, an allegorical bridge from old to new) along with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff–was, just like Dunn’s Kirchner, a painter in pursuit of a new artistic mode, a painter searching for an impulsive reaction to life. Primitivism rather than clinical technique underlie his paintings. A Google search brings up many of Kirchner’s works. There’s a Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915) and a late-period Archers (1935-37). One of his paintings, Berlin Street Scene (1913) sold for $38 million in 2006. But no record of a painting Summum Bonum comes up.  While the painter Kirchner and his mode of expression are real, perhaps the painting at the center of The Value is Dunn’s invention? It would be an ironic twist on the characters’ attempts to negotiate a price–they are negotiating a price for ostensibly a painting, but really, they are arguing about what the highest good is worth. The title of the painting, if it is Dunn’s devising–and even if it isn’t–immeasurably deepens the play’s philosophic stage. The title is a brilliant device.

Ian, Zoey, and Victor have no idea what they’ve stolen. They know it’s a painting. They know it’s in crate #32. They know McEvoy wants it. But here’s the kicker: Ian and McEvoy had never agreed to a price. It was one of those: “If it gets done (and I’m not sure it will), let’s talk about it then” transactions. This allows Dunn to launch into a discussion of value in art and in life.

The discussion of value begins in the motel room where the thieves are holed up. They try, at first unsuccessfully, to get onto the internet. Their ignorance of what a powerful plaything they’ve stolen complicates things. To them, Kirchner’s Summum Bonum looks similar to the thrift-store landscape painting in their room. Even after they get onto the internet, without the artist’s name and the name of the painting, how would you search? The thieves start speculating:

Victor: I had a paint by numbers book as a kid that looked like this. Remember Zoey? That’s what this looks like! You think this is worth thousands of dollars?

Ian: Tens of thousands.

They start speculating on two threads: 1) the painting is valuable enough to make it into the museum and 2) the painting is valuable enough for McEvoy to hire them. On that hunch, Victor guesses that, even though it looks like “a five-year-old’s finger painting” it’s worth thousands. Ian, more in tune with the risk McEvoy has taken in requesting the exhibition and hiring them, guesses that it must be worth “tens of thousands.” For good measure, even though Victor believes it’s only worth thousands, he also adds that rich folks will likely offer them a premium. To Victor, that’s how the rich and famous work:

Victor: Yeah, these rich pricks spending all this money on shitty art you can’t do nothing with. They’ll probably pay more than it’s worth, right? I’ll be he would. I’ll bet.

To Victor and Ian, the painting has a perceived value: McEvoy wants it, wants it bad. McEvoy wanting it gives the painting value. To both Ian and Victor, the painting is without any intrinsic value: it’s a “piece of shit,” as Victor puts it. By going on perceived value, all they can conclude, however, is that “they’ll probably pay more than it’s worth.” But, with perceived value, the question comes back: what’s it worth?

That’s the best the trio can do until they get the internet working. Once they connect, it’s still a problem though: it’s hard searching for an image without knowing the artist and the name of the piece. Zoey comes up with the idea:

Zoey: We just find a way to compare it to something else out there that has a dollar sign attached. If the search is, you know, generic enough it shouldn’t matter, right?

They see something that looks similar, an expressionist painting from the same era:

Ian: Right here. Right here. Let’s see… 1909 modern expressionist… blah, blah, blah, at Phillips de Pury, New York… sold to… some asshole for sixty thousand dollars.

By comparing Kirchner’s piece to others of a similar vintage, they’re able to establish the relative value of Summum Bonum: if a similar painting sold for sixty thousand, then it too should fetch a similar amount. While perceived value is based on perception, relative value is based upon comparing like specimens. Perceived value and relative value are just the beginning. There are other means as well. As they compare and contrast art pieces to determine its relative value, they then stumble onto a third means of valuation:

Victor: Holy shit! Sixty grand. For a picture! This guy has that kind of cash?

Ian: He’s stuffed up, believe me. And as bad as he wants it, he knows it’s gonna cost him.

Zoey: What if it’s worth more than that? It could be couldn’t it? Or what if it’s worth less?

Victor: Worth less?

Ian: It could be, I don’t know. How can you tell with these? But with the risk we took, and what it is, yeah, I think we can make that work.

In this third means of valuation, Ian wants to be compensated not for the work of art itself, but for the troubles he’s taken to obtain it. Ian comes close to a kind of absolute means of valuation: they are to be remunerated for their time planning and executing the heist as well as for danger they put themselves into. If they are caught, there could be jail time, community hours, and lost opportunities elsewhere. They are to be remunerated for the next best thing they could have done that night, had they not carried through the heist. There is an opportunity cost of the next best thing that is lost when they chose to break into the museum. In this third means of valuation, the painting is like a diamond buried deep in the ground. Its worth is to be understood absolutely in terms of the resources that are required to extract it from the ground: equipment, labour, some sort of safety premium from the dangers in excavating, remediation of the mine, and so on.

In the negotiation, McEvoy sits across the table from Ian. Their physical, cultural, and social differences couldn’t be starker. Ian is tough; McEvoy is scholarly. Ian labours with his hands; McEvoy works behind a desk. Ian lives on the fringes of society; McEvoy comes from an old family which receives gifts from painters of renown. These differences manifest themselves in the negotiations.

To McEvoy, Summum Bonum is priceless. That’s its perceived value–not too useful for exchange. Relative value also fails as a means of establishing worth. To McEvoy, it’s one of a kind, there’s nothing like it:

McEvoy: The painting is more than, than just pigment and canvas. It is blood. It is… It is feeling. It is hope and despair. It is humanity at its basest and its most glorious. It is Kirchner. It is refugees and prisoners and graves. It is my family. It is mine!

That leaves absolute value. He will pay not for the painting–which is priceless–but for the services rendered in obtaining the painting:

McEvoy: But, but we never discussed–I mean, we only agreed that–

Ian: We agreed I could get it, and you could pay for it.

McEvoy: I–Pay you for the act of doing it! And when we talked, it was only you. Just you, no one else!

Ian: Yes.

McEvoy: You said that was on your end. That it doesn’t–

Ian: It doesn’t. I’m not talking about the number of people, I’m talking about the deal. The exchange. For the painting, prized, prestigious, an appropriate price.

McEvoy: (getting heated) And what do you deem appropriate? You, what? Broke a window? Disabled a security camera?

Both McEvoy and Ian agree that the painting should be valued in absolute terms–a good start. For doing the deed, McEvoy is prepared to pay $20k. When Ian balks, McEvoy increases the offer to $25k. At this point, Ian counters with $70k, anticipating that McEvoy will settle at $60k, which he does. McEvoy, however, has $25k on hand. He’ll have to round up another $35k, and come back the next day. This delay gives a chance for the unexpected to creep into the play. Just after McEvoy leaves, the headline of the heist breaks. They see it on the computer. And they see that the headline announces a fourth method of valuation. The market value of the painting, the headline announces, is $24 million.

The market value is the price an object of exchange can fetch on the open market. An open market is one in which all the buyers have equal access. The painting, of course, can no longer be sold on the open market: it has been stolen. So, it’s not quite worth its market value any more. But it likely can fetch more than the $60k McEvoy and Ian agreed to.

When McEvoy returns a little later, impossibly with the $60k, Ian drops the atom bomb: the price has jumped up to approach the market value. Ian doesn’t even name the price. It simply is beyond what McEvoy could ever hope to raise. McEvoy counters with another basis of valuation, the concept of net present value. Net present value is the idea that certain money today is worth more than uncertain money tomorrow. And, what is more, net present value takes into account the value net of all considerations, a major one which is the painting no longer exists on the open market. The range of buyers has dwindled. And whoever buys it will never be able to sell it on the open market, or even display it:

McEvoy: You can’t auction it, you can’t advertise that you have it. You don’t know who to look for to sell it illegally. It is now only worth what someone like me can give and what people like you can find.

Ian: People like–

McEvoy: It won’t be millions, I promise you.

Ian doesn’t bite. Maybe we won’t get $24 million. But he’ll take his chances. McEvoy, sensing defeat, tries one last time to draw the negotiation back to the painting’s absolute value, the price it takes to acquire it:

McEvoy: Sixty thousand for the, for, for your services. For your…access. For the act of, or acquiring it. Not for the painting itself. The painting is what am after, not you, and sixty was the price that you named.

McEvoy’s last-ditch plea falls short against Ian’s obdurate power play. He’s sent packing, and the play pivots from an examination of artistic value to an examination of human value.

A central tenet of risk theatre is that tragedy examines the opportunity cost of choice. When we choose, we lose the next best thing we could have done. The opportunity cost of choice is expressed in tragedy through the hero’s wager: for a chance to obtain the heart’s desire, the hero must lay down something dear, something human. The pivot to human value allows Dunn to explore the human price Ian is willing to pay to climb the food chain. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, is a valuing mechanism. By dramatizing the hero’s wager, we learn what our humanity is worth. Shakespeare did it in Macbeth. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? Who knows? The milk of human kindness–otherwise the emotion of compassion–isn’t like milk, which can be bought for $4.69 for a gallon. But in Macbeth, we find out that the milk of human kindness is, in fact, worth a Scottish crown because that’s what Macbeth antes up for a chance at the crown. In The Value, Dunn sets up a similar wager. This wager invites the audience to consider what human relationships are worth. It is questions such as these that make tragedy the greatest show on earth.

If Ian’s wager is that he can go up the food chain, Zoey’s is that, by participating in the heist, she can make Ian feel her love. Despite their lovers’ hurts, Ian is her man; Ian is family, family in the same sense that the characters in The Fast and the Furious franchise (who also live outside society) understand family: family is a sacred obligation:

Zoey: Family means … where you come from, who your people are, what you have to do to make it. Those bonds are…they’re sacred.

In the same way, as, say, Abbie Putnam in Desire Under the Elms wagers that her sacrifice can make Eben feel her love, Zoey puts her and her brother Victor at risk by trusting Ian. But when she senses that Ian won’t settle for $60k, she rebukes him, and explosively:

Zoey: My turn. And listen how easy this is, to communicate, when the concept is plain and simple. This is about need. The three of us need money. And the three of us need each other. Those are the things we need to survive. You know that, don’t you? That we need each other? I thought you did know that–finally–but maybe you forgot again when McEvoy told you what we had. But the painting is nothing. It’s fucking splotches of color on cloth. Soon, one way or another, it’ll be gone. And when it disappears it makes no difference. But I’m here. You’re here. And that does make a difference. It doesn’t have to disappear. It can stay. You’re right. This is opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as fulfilling as wanting it. I came here for you. I did this for you. I risked everything for you. Because we are kin. Now we can sell this stupid useless thing to McEvoy, make his fucking life complete, and walk away with enough money to go somewhere, somewhere different, and start over. I need that. You need that.

Ian: Zoey…

Zoey: You need me. The question is, do you know it. Do you finally know it? If you do, you’ll sell the painting and we’ll be unstuck. If you don’t this is it. This is the last time we see each other. This isn’t a hustle it’s the goddam truth. So make this right. There. See how straightforward that is?

In this explosive rebuke, Zoey hits upon a fundamental tenet of risk theatre: material items have a dollar cost and spiritual concerns have a spiritual cost. One cannot buy spiritual concerns and other affairs of the heart with money. One cannot put a dollar value on spirit, the all-too-human, heartache, longing, joy, and courage. These human concerns can only be exchanged for other human concerns. Tragedy exists, argues risk theatre, to dramatize this truth. It is a counter-monetary art.

The painting exists in the realm of spirit, in the realm of the all-too-human. It’s true value, as McEvoy argues, is to be measured in terms of the sacrifices Kirchner underwent to create it:

McEvoy: And you’ll never appreciate it for what it represents, and what it cost–beyond money–for the artist who achieved it. You do not know who he was, what he endured. The hours of study and practice, of the pressure required to be the one to create it.

In the end, Kirchner paid the price by committing suicide. The true value of the painting exists in the realm of spirit insofar as Kirchner gives up his life to give it life. Whether $20k, $60k, or $24 million, cash is an inappropriate means of valuing Summum Bonum, the highest good. But if Ian exchanges the Kirchner to make the family whole, he would recognize its true value. Kirchner gave his life so that other lives may be made whole. Is this not a beautiful conceit and the very soul of drama?

Tragedy, says risk theatre is about a gamble, a wager, a bet. Ante up for a chance to win. Go all-in. Make a delirious bet. Dunn’s characters go all-in, each of them. The bet is good, argues risk theatre. Why would rational characters deliberately sabotage themselves by making a stupid or boastful bet that attracts the wrath of the heavens? And so, we see that the bets Dunn’s characters make are reasonable. But something happens. This is tragedy, after all. Something happens, says risk theatre, because of risk. Risk is the pivot. Characters, says risk theatre, trigger the highly improbable because they take inordinate risks. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when the thieves discover what they’ve stolen in a low-budget smash and grab: a $24 million dollar modern classic, thought to have been lost forever. What were the odds? They were surely low. But the consequences rock Zoey, Victor, Ian, and McEvoy’s worlds. And the audience is left asking a question we would do well to ask ourselves: “How do you price Summum Bonum, the highest good?”

In answering this question–and this is how I’ll direct the play–I’ll take the side of McEvoy: its true price is the human price Kirchner paid to paint it. Everyone who assigns it a cash value gets it wrong: that’s the tragedy. McEvoy understands its true price, but cannot unlock its value. If he obtains the highest good, he’ll lock it up in a cabinet-prison, bringing it out every so often to feel its power. He’s a hoarder. That’s his tragedy. Ian, who understands the price of everything but the value of nothing, can’t get it right either. He doesn’t know who he is, what he has. He’s a pretender, standing on one peak, already envisioning himself on the next. He would do well to hear an old story between writers Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Joseph Heller. The story takes place at a private Shelter Island party, hosted by a Wall Street banker:

Kurt: Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel CATCH-22 has earned in its entire history?

Joseph: I’ve got something he can never have.

Kurt: What on earth could that be, Joe?

Joseph: The knowledge that I’ve got enough.

That Ian doesn’t get it that Zoey and Victor can get him “enough” is his tragedy. Zoey, unlike the others, can unlock the value of the highest good: the price Kirchner paid to paint it is the cost of what it takes to reunite her family. Give up the painting and make the family whole. That’s a legitimate use of the highest good: Kirchner’s sacrifice makes good her broken family. Suffering for suffering. Just as risk theatre theory predicts, human concerns can only be paid in the currency of blood, sweat, and tears, either our own, or that of others. The highest good can only be exchanged for other intangible goods that also are of the highest order. These are the human, all-too-human goods. But she lacks the power to make it happen. That’s her tragedy.

“What can the highest good get you?” That question, I think, encapsulates the reasons why the jurors nominated The Value for the grand prize. I feel its power. Now the task is to take this message from the page to the stage.

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

Gilberto Conti and Tony Nardi on Multiculturalism in Brazilian and Canadian Theatre

On July 6th 2020, as part of a CATR seminar encouraging theatre practitioners across the world to share their work, I had a chance to talk to Gilberto Conti (Czechia / Brazil) and Tony Nardi (Italy / Canada). Our conversation drifted towards a timely topic: the history, development, and future of multicultural theatre. Many people are wondering how theatre can become more inclusive to reflect the changing communities of which they are a part. Gilberto and Tony both have such wonderful insights, I thought I’d post this for everyone to see. This conversation is an ongoing series of conversations hosted by CATR. Thank you to Bruce Barton and Natalia Esling at CATR for making this opportunity possible. Previous conversations can be found here.

CANADIAN ASSOCIATION OF THEATRE RESEARCH (CATR)

ARTICULATING ARTISTIC RESEARCH SEMINAR
“ARTICULATIONS OF DIVISION AND UNITY: RE-EVALUATING PRACTICES OF ARTISTIC RESEARCH”

Date: July 6, 2020 via Zoom

Group C Discussion (Gilberto Conti / Tony Nardi / Edwin Wong)

Edwin: Gilberto, did you want to start? How does your project engage boundaries and division?

Gilberto: As a performer in puppet theatre and the Folia de Reis, I approach theatre from a practical perspective. I also study the theoretical aspect of theatre, but from a child, I’ve performed in the community theatre of Brazil. The Folia de Reis rite in Brazil reenacts the biblical journey of the three kings to Bethlehem. It’s a European tradition. But in Brazil, it also incorporates masks, songs, and other African and Indigenous elements. Like the theatre of Tony’s Italy, Brazilian theatre is full of stereotypes. And like theatre in Canada—where both Tony and Edwin call home—Brazilian theatre is a multicultural institution.

As a theatre researcher in Czechia, my project is to spread the word about Brazilian theatre culture all over the world. Here in Czechia, Brazilian theatre is too little known. As part of the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR), I’ve also taken part in research groups in Shanghai and China to talk about Brazilian theatre. When people all over the world learn about Brazilian theatre—a theatre that lies at a crossroads between Indigenous, European, and African influences—they learn that culture belongs to no culture. Culture is the action and reaction of different peoples across borders. European culture is part of Brazil inasmuch as American culture is part of Europe.

Edwin: That’s a great point, Gilberto, that culture doesn’t belong to any one group. It’s something that’s being created by the interaction between many people. Tony, could you tell us about how your research engages boundaries and division?

Tony: In terms of boundaries and division (partition), my project engages the institutional boundaries that exist in, and have been illegally forced upon, performance media, actor training and funding agencies, which privilege the production of culture by the so-called two founding nations (i.e., culture produced in English and/or French or modelled after British and American standards of culture and performance ) at the expense of other cultural and linguistic communities, predicated on a misinterpretation and misapplication of the Official Languages Act and Official Multiculturalism––as constitutionally defined and mandated.

Cultural practices in Canada fall mainly outside the constitutional standard of 1) multiculturalism (Charter of Rights s. 27) and 2) the minimum standard (all constitutional provisions and Charter rights are minimum standards). Multiculturalism in Canada, as commonly understood and institutionally practiced, is less an official policy that fosters, protects and reflects the fact of cultural diversity in the production of publicly funded culture and more a descriptor for all non-English and non-French communities, the “special interests and treatment” and “accommodations” ascribed to them, and the culture they produce. The concept of multiculturalism has become, in practice, the catchall term that identifies and characterizes all things “ethnic” or “other” and deliberately differentiates them from the two- founding-nations cultural norm.

The production of publicly culture in Canada is essentially and institutionally a policy of division. This has created institutionally-driven cultural ghettos that have been erroneously ascribed to official Multiculturalism, when in fact they are the result of a misinterpretation and misapplication of constitutionally mandated multiculturalism. Under the rubric of Critical Race Theory, specifically the Interest Convergence tenet, multiculturalism has favoured publicly funded performances from members of the so-called two-founding nations at the expense of performances from all other communities.

Also, my treatment on the acting/writing “divide” also engages craft-based boundaries and divisions that at times have been used to separate actors from writers as if they were born in different worlds and practice radically different crafts. This divide widened with the development and rise of the auteur (God) director in the 20th century that at times supplanted the role of the writer and acted as a wedge between actor and writer (see actor Simon Callow’s Manifesto below from his 1985 book, Being an Actor).

Edwin: I love what you’re doing to promote a new vision of multiculturalism in Canadian arts Tony. I’ve often thought that theatre, whether in Canada or Brazil or Czechia, would benefit from being more diverse and reflective of the vibrant communities of which they are a part. As for my project and how it engages in boundaries and divisions, let me start by saying a few words about the project itself. I’ve written a book on a new theory of tragedy. It’s called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Protagonists, according to risk theatre, trigger catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events by making delirious, all-in wagers.

My project engages tradition because the genre I’m writing in—the theory of tragedy—goes back through Nietzsche and Hegel all the way back to Aristotle. It’s another voice in a long, ongoing conversation. But my project also creates division because it’s a separate and unique voice. Playwrights say: “The idea of tragedy was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach.” Risk theatre is a twenty-first century take on tragedy. It says: “The goal of tragedy isn’t pity and fear or colliding ethical positions or the Dionysian versus the Apollonian. The goal of tragedy is to incite anticipation and apprehension in the audience: anticipation for the hero’s wager and apprehension for how badly the foolproof plan will turn out.” To take the idea of risk theatre from page to stage, I’ve founded the world’s largest playwriting competition specifically for the writing of tragedy. It’s now in its third year (risktheatre.com).

This has been such a great discussion so far, I’m having so much fun! Let’s go back to you Gilberto. Could you comment on the common points intersection in our projects?

Gilberto: One thing that comes to mind immediately is how multiculturalism has a history of oppressing others. The Folia de Reis rite is such an example. It was from Europe and it was a vehicle to spread Catholic ideas in Brazil. Like how Tony puts it, in multicultural societies, often there is a dominant culture. Funny thing today is how things have turned. The previous “colonial” theatre of the Folia de Reis in turn is being supplanted by new religions and new cultures.

Edwin’s risk theatre project brings to mind the risk performers take in performing. We have a saying: “If you don’t feel cold in the stomach, don’t perform it.” Risk brings theatre to life. The theatre of the Folia de Reis is a street theatre, and the street theatre is unlike university or big budget theatre. It’s a community theatre where I remember how many performers who struggle with feeding themselves and their families must make a gamble in purchasing the masks and clothing for the show. I like how Edwin highlights how risk is an inherent part of performance.

Edwin: Risk is ubiquitous isn’t it? Turning to you Tony, where do you find a common intersection in our projects?

Tony: I see two main points of intersection with Gilberto. The first is my experience of community-based festivals and religious processions in Calabria (and in Canada within “Italian” communities), and the second, my experience of so-called “multicultural” performances in Canada in theatre, film and television. We perhaps intersect as well on the idea of actively preserving ––– through practice–– cultural expression and output that stem from so-called diverse/multicultural communities/practitioners. This is evident in Gilberto’s Folia study, and my interest in (and history with) performances that stem from “diverse” practitioners whose combined output reflects Canada’s multicultural makeup (without the need, however, to label the individual works as multicultural since no such works exist). Multicultural defines the sum of the parts and not the parts.

“Diverse” and “multicultural” (and the term “ethnic”), as presently and largely employed in Canadian media and scholarship, are segregationist terms; they exclude English- and French- Canadians as constituent parts of multiculturalism, as defined in Pierre Trudeau’s House of Commons speech in 1971 when he first introduced the policy of multiculturalism for all Canadians, and entrenched in the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There is no such thing as a diverse or multicultural performance, unless we are defining both terms outside the constitutional standard, within a othering context, and through the lens of the so-called two founding nations. “Diverse” and “multicultural” are synonymous with and euphemisms for “other” and “ethnic.”

In Brazil and Calabria, religious-based festivals and performances are part of everyday life and set in actual everyday settings. The Folia de Reis and religious festivals in Calabria are performances of the people, by the people and for the people. From a professional, North American perspective, community-based performances can be looked upon as less than “professional” and not as relevant. They blur—and intentionally crisscross—a number of lines at once, between the onstage and offstage realities, the fictive and the real, the spectator and the spectated, life and art, etc., Living with these dualities—and with Brecht’s notion of the alienation/distancing effect—is a part of daily life, and normal. The professional mourners in southern Italy is a perfect example. They are in –– but not lost in –– character. They exist in a real life setting and perform within that setting. The “stage” is both undefinable and ubiquitous and tells multiple stories (e.g. in Calabrian culture, sitting at the kitchen table is perhaps the greatest communal activity and human experience. It is a home’s center of gravity, headquarters for all discussion, real-life drama and storytelling). These performances are often closer to the ideal that professional performances often strive to attain in traditional, Western professional settings. “All the world’s a stage” is not a metaphor in these two locations: performances exist in daily life and daily life is a performance. There is no estrangement between the spectator and performer even when they do not overlap. These festival performances stem from the people, and express and renew themselves through the people that participate as performers and/or spectators. The messiness of this type of performance is both multicultural and intercultural. They are not intentionally prescriptive multicultural performances but organically reflect a multi cultural community. Professional theatre, on the other hand, is often superficially multicultural, mainly in promotional sound bites, and “intercultural” by prescription, in which linguistic and cultural hierarchies, however, still exist and establish the working language –– for all.

The point of intersection between Edwin’s work and my own is that we’re both trying to redefine aspects of theatre practice for the present. Edwin has redefined the template for understanding tragedy; he has reconceptualized the tragedy template through his innovative risk theatre theory. I’m challenging misconceptions of multiculturalism and “multicultural” theatre. I’m also trying to address (bridge or remove) the age-old acting/writing divide in performance.

Edwin. I love this opportunity for the three of us to talk about the past, present, and future of multiculturalism in theatre. Much of our work revolves around the idea of theatre as a place where cultures can meet to create and share stories. I’d like to think about risk theatre as the contribution of a Chinese-Canadian theatre researcher into the continuing narrative of theatre performance and creation. Just as Gilberto talks about Brazilian theatre being a point drawing in Indigenous, African, and European cultures and Tony talks about different voices contributing to multicultural theatre in Canada, I attempt through my risk theatre project to add my multicultural voice to an old conversation called the theory of tragedy that has been going on for millennia. For theatre to be an essential part of their communities, the people in these communities have to both remember the old traditions and also to make new traditions as well.

We have one more question. Gilberto, could you share your thoughts on how the coronavirus pandemic has changed your outlook and theatre research?

Gilberto: How has it impacted me? First, I need to reinvent myself. Many of the congresses now are online. We see the rise of the video conference. Puppet video is possible by video. One positive aspect of the online world is that it’s good at connecting faraway people. A generation will change as we adapt to new technology. Having said that, some theatres are opening slowly in Czechia. Although there is change, I feel that theatre needs to be present. The Folia de Reis must be present to fulfil its mandate as a rite, as a cultural performance.

Tony: I have not had the time to reflect on this, namely because Covid has not changed my daily routine (writing my thesis) except that it has confined me to one space, home, in which the lines between work and home blur and overlap making it that much harder to dedicate focused time to research and writing. I did cancel however an in-person graduate course at York (acting for film directors) that I was scheduled to teach this summer. I declined the online option because, in the moment, I could not conceive how to adapt the in-person curriculum (exercises, etc.) to an online setting. Performance is reliant on presence, aura, and interaction within a physical context and setting. Even when captured on film, the performance must live and breathe in a physical space shared by other characters and spectators. Physical proximity and energy (including between actor and audience), in harmony or in conflict, are the “TNT” in drama and performance. I foresee a post-covid reality in which smaller venues and gatherings of people will increase in popularity, e.g. drawing room readings and theatre. We may be forced to reimagine and rearticulate theatre around the family kitchen table, after all.

Edwin: I read you loud and clear Tony. We’re evolved to have face to face interactions. Theatre harnesses the tools that millions of years of evolution gave us. We’ve only had thirty or forty years with computers and the virtual world. So there’s a big gulf to overcome!

As part of the risk theatre project, I run a playwright competition inviting playwrights from all over the world to write plays to explore the impact of the highly improbable. The competition is online, so not much changes there. Like Gilberto was saying, the online world offers a great opportunity to shrink the geographical divide.

In the past, we’ve flown in the winner to workshop their play in Victoria. We’re going to move the workshop online this year. So there’s a new challenge. But what I feel from talking with both of you is that all the people who are passionate about theatre are the theatre. Our ideas, passions, and will to bring theatre to life is theatre. These are difficult times, but your enthusiasm reassures me that, as long as we keep going—and we will—we’ll find a way.


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

JULY 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION

Out of 135 entries, 17 semifinalists remain to contend for glory of the $9000 first prize and four $525 runners-up prizes in the 2020 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION. THANK YOU to everyone for participating and CONGRATULATIONS to the semifinalists (plays will remain blind until jurors nominate the winner):

Paletas de Coco
The Forgotten Language of the Handshake
Raw: A Love Story
The Hunt for Benedetto Montone
Capital Punishment
Big Ed, the King of Swatsville
Waafrika 1-2-3
You are My Sunshine
Winter Wheat
The Value
Spin Moves
Lydia 2018
Children of Combs and Watch Chains
Gadson’s Folly
Edit Annie
Mercy Rising
The Blue Whale

Would that I could have started a competition where everyone would have been a winner. But, as it is, some yield glory so that others may win it. The situation reminds me of a passage in Homer’s epic poem THE ILIAD, considered by many—including Plato—to have been the first tragedy. Of course a playwriting competition is different than mortal combat on Scamander’s banks. But the ethos I find similar. In this passage, Sarpedon sums up the heroic code to his squire, Glaucus:

Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.

If it seems strange to bring up this passage in relation to the competition, perhaps that is a sign of how times and thought has changed between Homer and today. For the daring ones willing to take a chance, the 2021 competition is now open and accepting entries at https://risktheatre.com/

Stats, stats, stats!

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 14 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Singapore. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 20,175 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2511 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

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

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

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

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

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

https://doi.org/10.1080/14452294.2019.1705178

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

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