Tag Archives: risk theatre

FEBRUARY 2021 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). 25 plays have come in from 3 continents (Europe, Oceania, and North American) and 4 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, and UK). 3 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 21

Australia 1

Canada 2

UK 1

Of the American entries, 17 are from the east and 4 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 8 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 15 men and 10 women. 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 14 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and 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 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 24,379 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 2642 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

Seven Risk Theatre Playwriting Exercises

WORKING TITLE PLAYWRIGHTS
RISK THEATRE MASTER CLASS WITH EDWIN WONG
FEBRUARY 13/20 2021

SEVEN RISK THEATRE PLAYWRITING EXERCISES

Hi everyone, Edwin Wong here and I’ve got an awesome master class on risk theatre for you. This master class started when playwright and risk theatre finalist Emily McClain put me in touch with Amber Bradshaw, the managing artistic director at Working Title Playwrights, the leading new play incubator in the Southeast. Thank you to Emily, Amber, and Working Title Playwrights for this wonderful opportunity to connect. It’s great to see y’all here. Thank you for coming!

Here’s the story of risk theatre. Like Aristotle’s Poetics or Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, risk theatre is a theory of tragedy. One of the purposes of theories of tragedy is to answer the question: “Why do we find tragedy so alluring when it is full of sorrow and suffering? Why are we not, instead, disgusted by it” My answer is that tragedy fascinates because it dramatizes chance and uncertainty. By making risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it keeps audiences in thrall.

While researching probability theory in 2006, the spark of risk theatre occurred. I fed the spark, and, by inaugurating an international drama competition in 2018, the spark became a flame. The contest is now in its third year and awards over $12k in prize money each year. Then, by launching my book in 2019, the flame became a fire. Today, we’re going to set fire to the flames. Theatre is hungry, like fire.

When Amber was asking me to write a little blurb on the class, I thought of continuing the fire metaphor. I was going to create a tagline for the class that read: “Throw more fire into your work instead of throwing more of your work into the fire!” I didn’t have the guts to write that. But, behind the joke is a kernel of truth: my playwriting exercises will put more fire into your work.

I’ve written seven brand new exercises for you to harness the dramatic possibilities in chance, risk, and the unexpected. I’ve modelled these exercises after the playwriting exercises in Mark Bly’s 2020 book: New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting. Bly’s book has helped me out many times, and it’s an honour to use his book as a template. Today’s exercises are adapted from my 2019 book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In today’s three hour session, I’ll present the exercises. After I present each exercise, we’ll have time to discuss for ten or so minutes before moving on to the next one. Halfway through the session we’ll have ten minute coffee break. In next week’s session, you’ll bring back your responses, and we’ll look at them together. Next week is also a three hour session, so we’ll have time for ten or eleven responses, selected from a lottery process. Chance is, after all, our theme.

Tragedy today has a bad rap. It’s a gloomy, depressing show about kings and queens. No one is lining up to see that. But if we transform tragedy into risk theatre and sell this idea to audiences and theatres, tragedy will come back into vogue. The public’s demand for chance, uncertainty, and the unexpected is insatiable because the problems and possibilities of our time are encapsulated in the concept of risk. When life give you risk, make risk theatre. Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. To make the audio clearer for everyone, I’ll put myself on mute now and I’ll toggle the microphone back on when I’m speaking. 

1          Wong’s “All Eggs in One Basket Exercise”

Have you heard of the expression “to go all-in?” It’s a gambling term. When a gambler goes all-in, the gambler stakes everything on the outcome of one roll, or one card, or one hand. In other words, all the eggs are in one basket. When all the eggs are in one basket, strange things happen. Strange things happen because the gambler has taken on risk. Risk has an uncanny power to multiply the risk taker’s position many times beyond what the risk taker can reasonably cover. It sets up the gambler for a catastrophic failure. These catastrophic failures interest audiences because they are inherently dramatic.

This playwriting exercise came to me when I was reading Paul Lyons’ collection of short stories called: The Greatest Gambling Stories Ever Told: Thirty-One Unforgettable Tales of Risk and Reward. Gamblers, by biting off more than they could chew, seemed to change the fabric of reality: by risk, they connect together all the strands of their life into a defining and explosive moment. Let’s talk about two of these stories: Pushkin’s Queen of Spades and Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid.

The gambler Hermann in Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades discovers the secret to the game of faro (there is never any doubt that the secret is good, even though he gets it from the ghost of the Countess Anna Fedotovna who is a ghost because he’s killed her: in drama we overlook these “details.” Take, for example, Sophocles’ play The Women of Trachis, where Deianeira receives a potion from a dying centaur her husband’s just shot). Back to the story. The secret is to bet everything on the first night on the three card, to do the same thing the second night on the seven, and on the third night on the ace. The first night, he bets 47k rubles on the three. Tchekalinski, the banker, comments that the highest stake is typically 175 rubles. The next night, he bets 94k rubles on the seven, and wins. And the final night, he places 188k rubles on the ace, or what he thought was the ace. The ace wins, but it turns out Hermann had somehow misplaced his bet on the queen of spades, which, in defiance, seems to wink at him. He goes insane.

A similar, and even more concentrated scenario plays out in Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid. In the movie (where the Kid plays out the final hand with greater skill than the novel), the Kid places all his eggs in one basket on the final poker hand. The Kid thinks that his full house has finally beat Lancey “The Man” Howard, who could be holding possibly nothing or perhaps a flush or straight flush. If the Man has nothing or a flush, the Kid wins. If the Man, however, has a straight flush, the Man wins. The odds in a two-handed game of poker, however, of a full house falling to a straight flush is 45,102,784:1 against. Accordingly, the Kid bets all-in, even borrowing $5000 Depression-era dollars to multiply his winnings. But, when the Man does have the straight flush, the Kid is out $15k. How much is that worth? Well, if we look at the prologue to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, that’s the exact price of a two-storey, seven-room house in that era.

Now let’s translate this “all eggs in one basket” scenario to the playwriting world. Consider Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. For eight years, Nora bets all in on her husband’s love and understanding. Like the Cincinnati Kid, she holds a full house. But when it comes time to show her hand, she sees that, far from a full house, all she has is a doll house, and that is enough to break her heart. She bet, like Hermann in Pushkin’s short story, on the king of hearts, but finds, she’s placed all her hopes on a king of spades.

The Exercise

In the “All Eggs in One Basket” exercise, the playwright will place a character in some sort of high-stakes situation. The character really wants something very badly. To get it, the character must go all-in. There can be no plan-B. It is all-or-nothing. Finally, say how the high-stakes situation gets away from the character’s controlling grasp. In 250 words, report back to the group next week the risk event, and how the outcome defies the character’s expectations. If the response reads like a play synopsis, you’re on the right track.

2          Wong’s “Exercise in Human Foibles”

Have you noticed that we all have certain foibles that motivate us to take risk? Generally, we are risk-off. We have been brought up that way. We have been told from childhood that “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.” Folk tales also reinforce the need for moderation: Aesop has a tale of a boy who gets his hand stuck in the jar trying to take out more than his fair portion of nuts (“The Boy and the Filberts”).

Risk-off characters are stable. For risk theatre, we need risk-on characters. How do we coax characters to turn up the risk, to flip the switch from risk-off to risk-on?

Have you heard of this stock called GameStop, ticker GME on the New York Stock Exchange? It’s been lighting up the news lately. I have a fascination for stock market bubbles: the Dutch Tulip Bubble in the 1600s, where tulips would sell for the price of waterfront mansions; the South Sea Bubble in which Isaac Newton lost a fortune, famously lamenting that he could “calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people;” the Roaring Twenties; the Dot-Com Bubble; and many more. These bubbles are the object of much study. It was while reading Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria—a book short in length but long in the wit and dry humour—that this exercise occurred to me. In reviewing three centuries of financial bubbles, Galbraith identifies triggers where previously rational and risk-off market participants would engage in irrational and risk-on speculation. It occurred to me that not only normally risk-on types of characters, but also nominally risk-off characters—with the right motivation—may be inspired to engage in dangerous speculation.

Myself, I love risk-on types of characters: Faust, Joan of Arc, Don Rodrigo. But these brash characters are not to suitable for all audiences, who tire of their larger-than-life excess. Sometimes audiences enjoy characters with constant, loving, and noble natures who value reflection and prudence over risk. Othello is such a character. His “constant, loving, noble nature” makes him ill-suited for crimes of passion. Shakespeare, however, triggers Othello’s speculative tendencies by putting him “into a jealousy so strong / That judgement cannot cure.”

The Exercise

In the “Exercise in Human Foibles,” the playwright will take a mild-mannered character—one of their own or a character from a well-known play—and describe, in 250 words, how a mild-mannered nature can be encouraged to risk everything. In this exercise, you will concentrate on triggering the character’s all-too-human foibles. The emotions of greed, love, jealousy, and anger, are all proven triggers. Or you can focus on different human drives. The drive to keep up with the Joneses is identified by Galbraith as one of the factors that incite financial euphoria: even mild natures cannot stand watching neighbours get ahead.

3          Wong’s “Taking a Page from History Exercise”

One of the best pieces of advice in university was given to me by Leslie Shumka. She, in turn, got it from Keith Bradley. The advice: “Read widely, especially outside your field.” At the time, I was young, and didn’t understand. But it stuck in my head, as Leslie’s tips were usually helpful. That it came from Bradley also helped the idea stick. He was one of the gods in the department who was alternately feared and worshipped by the students, and perhaps by some of the other professors as well. He was the preeminent expert on Roman slavery, and we always thought of him as a terrific atheist, since his position was that Christianity played an absolute zero role in making slaves’ lives better. I always found it ironic that he left Victoria to finish his career at a Notre Dame, a Catholic university. At any rate, we always paid attention to what he had to say. But, at that time, I was busy reading more and more things in my field. “Why would I want to read stuff that has nothing to do with me?” I thought.

In time, I would understand. If you only read within your field, you’ll be reading what everyone else is reading and when you create, chances are you’ll be creating things similar to the things your colleagues are creating. When audiences see your shows, they may notice generic similarities in theme, plot, and image. If you want to create something that truly stands out, you have to read widely. You’ll be inspired by new ideas and find new connections. When the young Bob Dylan moved to New York in the early 60s, he would spend his days in the public library. While everyone else reading the most recent newspapers, Dylan would read the papers from the 1800s. His favourite papers were the ones from the Civil War period. You can hear this influence in his songs Nettie Moore or ‘Cross the Green Mountain. Reading widely gives him a unique take.

One of my favourite genres outside drama is history, especially the philosophy of history. The biological metaphor of nations undergoing birth, growing pains, maturity, consolidation, and decline in the German historian Oswald Spengler. The process of an eternal recurrence in the Hellenistic historian Polybius. The study of power in the Greek historian Thucydides, power that could even change the meanings of words and language.

This exercise arose while reading the historians. I noticed that they start their histories at some explosive point in time. Herodotus isn’t talking about a random section of history, but the Persian Wars, the greatest of wars up to that period of time. Thucydides one-ups Herodotus—by his time, the Persian Wars seemed like a minor skirmish—now the most badass conflict is the Peloponnesian War. Homer is even more specific. He doesn’t start at a random point in the Trojan War, but at that moment when Agamemnon insults Achilles, a slight that will result in the death of thousands, both Greek and Trojan alike.

The Exercise

In the “Taking a Page from History Exercise,” you’ll think like a historian. Come up with a historical setting and tell the group, in 250 words, the dramatic potential of this setting. Many of the most memorable plays find their inspiration from history. Macbeth is inspired by Holinshed’s Chronicles. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is set during the Salem witch trials. Many other opportunities are also possible: scientific revolutions, the unintended consequences of great inventions, or historical pivots. The focus of this exercise isn’t a plot or the characters, but to focus on the setting itself, to find a setting out of which risk develops organically. Many possibilities present themselves here. Did you know, for example, that Sophocles’ Oedipus rex is set in a plague and was produced during a time of plague? The Crucible as well, while set during the witch trials, speaks to more contemporary events: the communist witch hunt. So too, Macbeth, while dramatizing eleventh century English-Scottish relations, speaks to the audience about King James, a Scottish king wearing the English crown.

This sort of historical distance is a useful asset to dramatists who wish to speak on current events without touching their audiences’ raw nerves. Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Miller were successful. Less successful was the ancient Athenian playwright Phrynichus. He wrote a moving play on the sack of Miletus, a sister city of Athens. It moved the audience to tears. But because the trauma of losing a sister city was too fresh, the state fined him 1000 drachmas, not a small amount, as 1000 drachmas could keep a family of four going for a year. In addition, they forbid the play from ever being produced again.

4          Wong’s “Birnam Wood Exercise”

Low-probability, high-consequence events are great fun because they’re part of a metatheatrical game between dramatists and audiences. By metatheatrical I mean the dramatist is talking directly to the audience. The game is played like this: the dramatist drops a hint of some impending low-probability event. The audience picks up this hint and starts trying to figure out how the dramatist will bring it about. The challenge is that, because the event is low-probability, it is hard to bring about.

This game of suspense is fun because it gives the audience skin in the game: they’re invested in the outcome as they try to piece together the clues. They watch the unfolding action with more attention. The game is likewise fun for the dramatist. It opens up fun devices such as misdirection or delay. The game also invests dramatists to use all their skills, as bringing about the impossible or the highly improbable is like pulling off a magic trick.

I don’t remember exactly where I got this idea from, it’s been so long. But it occurred to me when I was reading a book or an article by Alfred Hitchcock. He was talking about suspense as a game between the writer and the audience. Around the same time, while reading Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, it struck me how Hitchcock had nailed it on the head. You can know exactly what will happen, but it’s still full of suspense because you don’t know how the dramatist will get there. Trying to guess how the dramatist gets there is all the fun.

The great fun in Macbeth is trying to figure out how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and how Macbeth will run across a man not of woman born. I think that the audience—as soon as they hear about Birnam Wood, and about the man not of woman born, and Macbeth’s protestations that it couldn’t happen—think the opposite: that it will happen. And it does happen: Birnam Wood comes when Malcolm orders his troops to camouflage themselves with branches cut down from the wood and Macbeth meets the man not of woman born when Macduff tells him he was born by C-section. Each time I see this—even though I’ve seen it a thousand times—I think “Ah—this is great!” And I think of what a great joke the messenger missed when he told Macbeth that the wood is coming. He could have said: “The copse are coming! The copse are coming!” (thank you to David Konstan for that funny). Well, if nobody is laughing, this is why I am leading a master class on tragedy, and not comedy! For a more detailed analysis of Macbeth, click here.

I was wondering if I should bring up Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, a play that even classicists hardly read. I think I will, because it illustrates better than anything else how, even if the outcome is known to all, a great dramatist can generate suspense. Bear with me, it’s tricky to explain, but, I think, if you follow along, you’ll be amazed how Aeschylus pulls it off. For a more detailed analysis of Seven, click here.

Civil war rages in Thebes, fought between Oedipus’ two sons. Thebes has seven gates. One son, along with six captains, defends Thebes, one at each gate. Another son, along with six captains, lays siege to Thebes, one at each gate. The worst-case scenario happens if brother confronts brother at the final gate. The Greeks had rituals to purify spilt blood. They had no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood, which would release demonic spirits called the Furies. You don’t want the Furies to come out. The worst-case scenario only happens at the final gate, because, if the brothers meet before the final gate, they could substitute another captain. Oh, and another thing, the captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations. That is to say, all the gate assignations are random.

The audience knows that the brothers will kill each other. The action is part of the stories they’ve known since childhood—their myths. How this will happen in the play, however, they do not know. Okay. So the way Aeschylus sets this up is that each captain bears a shield emblazoned with a fantastic heraldic device. After the captains are assigned their gates, you can tell from the images on the shields who the gods favour—through the crack of probability and chance the gods reveal their will. In the play, we see the events unfold from the point of view of the brother defending the city. Starting from gate one, all the shield matchups overwhelmingly favour him. If the attacker carries an image of, say, the fire-breathing dragon Typhon on his shield, just by coincidence the defender has the image of Typhon’s slayer on his shield. This is a sign that the gods favour your cause. From gates one to six, by some amazing coincidence, the matchups so overwhelmingly favour the brother defending Thebes that the audience forgets that, each time a set of captains goes to the gates that isn’t one of the brothers, the odds of the worst-case scenario that brother confronts brother at gate seven goes up. And that is precisely what happens! As things get subjectively better and better, they are, in reality, getting objectively worse and worse. I love this play so much because there is no other play that works suspense so well. On the one hand, the fated outcome is getting more and more objectively likely, but, on the other hand, things are going so well it subjectively appears it could never happen. In antiquity, this play was an audience favourite, produced again and again. I can see why. I wish this play would come back into the canon. I’ve championed this play tirelessly in my risk theatre vision of tragedy.

The Exercise

In the “Birnam Wood Exercise,” the playwright will take a modern day prophecy and say, in 250 words, how, on first appearances, it could not happen, but then find a back door through which it comes to pass. Modern day prophecies can be all sorts of things. It can be the Titanic, the ship that could not be sunk. It could be the Great Depression: a few weeks before it broke out, the celebrity Yale economist Irving Fisher was telling the world that stocks had reached “a permanently high plateau.” It could be the behemoth oil rig Deepwater Horizon, with all its blowout preventers, blind shear rams, and sundry failsafes. In tragedy, there’s always a sliding door, a letter, a handkerchief.

In this exercise, the playwright finds the simplest strategy possible to communicate to the audience that the catastrophic event that can’t happen will happen. The focus is on simplicity. Usually when I tell people about how the impossible happens because Macduff was born by C-section, they groan a little bit. The technique you use to bring about the impossible doesn’t have to be realistic. The audience isn’t looking for that. But what the audience is looking for is that you play this game of suspense with them. With this one, make it simple, even if unrealistic. This is a good one to fight the urge to be clever. The C-section trick in Macbeth elicits groans, but hey, Macbeth is still a pretty good play.

5          Wong’s “O’Neill’s Fog Exercise”

I live on the banks of Esquimalt Harbour, in Victoria, Canada. My “harbour” is really a mud flat that’s different at all times of the day. When the tide’s out the shore recedes 200 metres. When the tide’s in, it looks like you’re looking into the ocean, but, until you get 300-400 metres out, it’s only 2-3 feet deep. In fact there’s an island a couple of hundred metres from shore that you can walk out to, even in high tide. Zodiacs drive all the way in and I’m always surprised their engines don’t bottom out. One cool thing around here are all the different birds: swans, eagles, vultures, gulls, herons, and my favourite, kingfishers. They’re a small bird, the size of my fist. They hover 20-30 feet above the water and will do a 90 degree dive straight in to fish. Daring. The other cool thing out here is the fog. The fog is mysterious, a visual analogy of risk, uncertainty, and the unknown.

One day, I took a photo of the Esquimalt Harbour fog and posted it on Facebook. Chicago playwright Mike McGeever commented on how Eugene O’Neill uses the fog as a barometer of risk: Long Day’s Journey into Night starts in the clear day. As the fog rolls in, Mary dissolves into morphine’s embracing haze. By the end of the play, the fog blankets everything and Mary is all but lost. As I started reading O’Neill’s earlier plays, I realized that O’Neill had been experimenting with the fog trope for at least twenty years, if not even further back. In Annie Christie, his 1921 Pulitzer winning play, there it is on the docks, the fog, full of uncertainty and foreboding, a sign that something will happen.

Risk theatre is meant to be an entertaining theatre, theatre that moves inexorably forwards towards the low-probability, high-consequence flashpoint. All the resources of theatre—language, character, plot, acting, directing—must be used to drive the action forwards. A sometimes overlooked resource to heighten the tension is the stage direction or the recurring device that signals: “Fasten your seatbelts, something is about to happen.”

These devices of stage directions are short gestures that go a long way. Any fans of German cinema here who remember Das Boot, a West German WWII movie from 1981 written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen? The film follows the crew of the submarine U-96 during the Battle of the Atlantic. A handful of times, before a major malfunction, the camera pans towards the instrument cluster and zooms in, for a split second, on a round dial. All the eye can see in this flash is that the dial is marked “Tiefenmesser” and it records the depth of the sub. The further to the right of the dial is, the deeper the sub is. Towards the extreme right, the dial goes into the red. Before the major malfunctions, Petersen will have the camera zoom in and show the hand going into the red. Inevitably, sometimes seconds, sometimes a minute after, an engine will explode, the sub will take water, they lose steering. This motif reminds me of O’Neill’s fog, an early warning sign that something will happen. In the script, it would be a line: “Zoom in on the bathometer.” This line is worth every word, and so much more.

While we don’t have a camera in theatre, this sort of motif can be embedded in stage directions: in can be highbrow, like O’Neill’s fog or Petersen’s Tiefenmesser, or it can be lowbrow like the headband in Rambo. Do you know the headband scene in Rambo?—before he gets into action, he has this red headband that he ties on. Now, whether highbrow or lowbrow, however, stage directions can communicate that something is about to happen. The motif can also be built into the dialogue. In Nicholas Dunn’s play The Value, one of the winners of the Risk Theatre Competition, the protagonist, a character with a sense that he was meant for something greater says, at three pivotal moments: “This … is what happens … .” When workshopping the play, we gave the line a beat and emphasized the deictic quality of this, that this this was pointing to a foreboding sense of a greater destiny revealing itself. The playwright, who is a basketball fan, encouraged Anthony Gaskins, the actor who played this character, to think of the line as something similar to the chalk toss ritual that basketball superstar Lebron James does before games. He chalks his hands and claps his hands together, puffing up the chalk into a cloud. The line became one of the focal points of the play, something spoken by a character to make the audience feel a sense of wonder and awe. It was very good.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will take an existing play—any existing play, whether by the playwright or another playwright—and identify an event that the audience expects will occur. It could a conflict between characters that leads up to a fight. It could be a relationship headed towards an inevitable breakup. It could be the moments where a brother and sister, separated by the contingencies of war for many years, run into each other again. After identifying this event that the audience expects will occur, the playwright will come up with a motif that heralds that something will happen. The motif is to be embedded in the stage directions. It could be a musical motif, a fog horn, the Tiefenmesser, a headband, the chalk toss. If not strictly a stage direction, it should be something that stands in as a stage direction: for example, the moments that the protagonist in Dunn’s The Value says: “This is what happens … .” This motif should be a device that can recur so times in the play before it becomes hackneyed. If it occurs once, the audience can’t tell the signal from the noise. Not yet. Twice the audience starts to catch on. Three times is perfect. Four risks becoming hackneyed.

6          Wong’s Exercise in Dramatic Indeterminacy

Great plays generate great controversy. Think of Sophocles’ Antigone: who is right—Creon, who represents the state, or Antigone, who represents tradition? Think of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—is Nora justified in leaving her husband and children? Here’s a question: would you find Antigone more or less great if the balance inclined definitively towards one or the other? That is to say, if Sophocles had written a play where Creon is right and Antigone is wrong, would it be a better play or a worse play? And the same with A Doll’s House. Is Ibsen’s original play better, or version created in response to the censors who wanted the play to be morally definitive? How much of a play’s greatness comes from the controversy it generates, its ambiguity?

Controversy is possible because of indeterminacy. Critics who take Antigone’s side will pull out quotes that support her position and critics who take Creon’s side will find that Sophocles has given them backup as well. The French playwright Jean Anouilh famously put this principle to work in an adaptation of Sophocles’ play which was performed February 6, 1944 in Paris during the occupation. Both the Free French and the Nazis were in attendance, and both applauded the ending. The legend of this balancing act lives on whenever people talk about this performance.

If indeterminacy is desirable, how do we add it into our plays? This exercise came me to while reading biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. He’s the scientist who cracked how ants communicate with each other. Ants have a remarkable ability to communicate with one another by using up to twenty signals to signal danger (get away), danger (come help), opportunity, and kinship. He hypothesized that they communicate through pheromones, or smell. The breakthrough involved biologists, mathematicians, chemists, social scientists, and artists. Biologists to understand that the ants have scent glands, mathematicians to model diffusion rates, chemists to isolate the molecules of scent, social scientists to model behavior, and the arts to create the narrative. To Wilson, every jump in knowledge involves the combination of unlikely disciplines. To jump to a higher understanding in playwriting, we’ll take a page out of Wilson’s playbook and bring together two unlikely fields:  mathematics, probability theory, philosophy, and playwriting. Hey, this is risk theatre. It’s different. New blood.

One of the great debates in Shakespeare’s Othello is whether Othello, from his own point of view, had enough information where he could reasonably judge whether he has been cuckolded. In other words, does he achieve what philosophers call moral certainty, moral certainty being that degree of probability so great as to admit no reasonable doubt? Modern statisticians use a one to five percent significance test as a threshold of moral certainty. That means, once they’re 95 to 99 percent certain that the result is not due to chance, they act; they publish their results. Until recently, physicists used a 0.3 percent significance test before they would announce a discovery. That means they’re 99.7% certain that the observation is the real thing rather than a fluke event. Recently, while searching for the Higgs boson, they upped the threshold to 99.99994%.

Does Othello achieve a measure of moral certainty? From a risk theatre perspective, this is the pivot of the play. Some say yes. Some say no. This indeterminacy makes the play great. With a formula called Bayes’ theorem, we will see how much of moral certainty Othello achieves. Bayes’ theorem gives us a way to revise probability estimates as new information becomes available. It’s really cool. First, tell me, based on Iago’s accusations, from the point of view of Othello, that is to say, if you were Othello, what’s the percentage chance you would think you’ve been cuckolded by Desdemona and Cassio when Iago first tells you about it? This number we’ll call the prior probability. We take into account Iago’s reputation for honesty and other hints in the play. We know from the play that it is not enough for Othello to act on.

Next, we take the new data: the handkerchief. From Othello’s point of view, what are the odds that he is a cuckold if he sees Cassio with it? Then, finally, one more piece of information, again, from Othello’s point of view: what are the odds that he is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with the napkin?

P(C H): posterior probability Othello is cuckold after seeing Cassio with napkin
P(C): prior probability Othello is cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(~C): prior probability Othello is not a cuckold before the new information from the napkin test
P(H C): probability Othello is a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin
P(H ∣ ~C): probability Othello is not a cuckold, should he see Cassio with his napkin

Here’s what the formula looks like:

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

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

And here it is inputted with what I felt to be the probabilities::

                                                               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 99.99994% percentage (a 1:3.5 million chance that the finding is due to chance) standard while searching for the Higgs boson, it’s in line with what modern statisticians would consider the threshold of moral certainty. The important thing to note, is that, playing with the numbers gives Othello different confidence levels. This fruitful ambiguity is what allow these discussions to happen. To me, that’s what makes this play fascinating: you could argue both sides persuasively. For a more detailed look at Othello, click here.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will go through Shakespeare’s Othello with an eye on how Shakespeare constructs probability in the play. Focus on Shakespeare’s language of moral certainty he uses in the play: “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. After analyzing the construction of probability, the playwright will assign probabilities to populate Bayes’ theorem to determine Othello’s degree of moral certainty, or lack thereof. Then the playwright will propose one way in which Shakespeare could have revised the play to increase Othello’s moral certainty and one way in which Shakespeare could have decreased Othello’s certainty. Finally, the playwright will conjecture the effect of increasing and decreasing Othello’s degree of moral certainty on the audience’s reception of the play. We use Bayes’ theorem in this exercise not because we require mathematical precision, but as a springboard into thinking about certainty and ambiguity.

In this exercise, the playwright asks: does Shakespeare get it right? Or can Othello be improved by making the guilt more or less certain? Would it have been better for Shakespeare to have created a play where certainty could have been achieved absolutely? Finally, after exploring indeterminacy in Othello, the playwright will relate to the group a way of applying indeterminacy into one of the playwright’s own plays. The purpose of this exercise is to find ways of generating controversy. Where there is controversy, audiences and critics will keep talking about your play. Where there is certainty, the debate quickly ends. That’s no fun. Indeterminacy is a great tool to captivate audiences.

7          Wong’s Exercise in the Price You Pay

Why is it hard to write tragedy? To this complicated question, I offer a simple answer: few dramatists have the heart to do to the character what they must: that is, complete obliteration. The tragic life is nasty, brutish, and short. Tragedy is an extremist art. Consider Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. All the poor guy wants to do is to lift the plague. He’s the king and it’s killing all his people. Look what Sophocles does to him. He strips him of his kingdom, takes away his crown, takes away his family, his dignity, and even his eyes. Is it not a bit much? Consider Lear in Shakespeare’s King Lear. King Lear is a doddering old fool. Look what Shakespeare puts him through. Is it not too much? When Lear says: “I will do such things— / What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be / The terrors of the earth,” I always wonder whether this is Lear or Shakespeare talking. I think the “terrors of the earth” is what Shakespeare does to Lear, not the other way around. The dramatist who can write successful tragedy is a scourge who calls down the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting protagonists.

In a conversation with Friedrich von Müller, German statesman, scientist, novelist, and dramatist Friedrich Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describes the tragic as the scenario which admits of no solution and no compensation. The loss must be terrible, absolute, and irrevocable. The second the tragedian offers any sort of compensation—a sort of victim’s services package—to the wounded protagonist, the tragic disappears.

Goethe himself could not rise to the occasion. At the last hour, Faust is saved. So too Egmont, though he dies, he finds compensation knowing that his death will incite the revolution that frees his people. As a result, he could not attain the heights the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the big two of Marlowe and Shakespeare reached. Goethe knew it too. He just couldn’t make himself do it. He didn’t have the heart. “The mere attempt to write tragedy,” he said in a letter to Schiller, “might be my undoing.”

In the last century, Arthur Miller was able to rise to the challenge in All My Sons. I am sure when Miller told his friends what he was working on, he wasn’t saying: “I drive a horrible man to commit suicide for killing twenty-one pilots,” but rather said, “I drive the best of fathers to suicide for doing what he thought was best for the ones he loved the most.” The former would have been too easy. The latter not many can pull off. The best sign you’re onto true tragedy is, when you tell your friends the plot, their eyebrows go up as in: “You’re kidding me, you did what to your protagonist?” For a more detailed look at All My Sons, click here.

One way to make it easier to inflict the terrors of the earth is to think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism. You put on one scalepan what the protagonist wants the most. In the case of Macbeth, it’s the crown. In the case of Joe Keller, it’s a business to hand down to his sons. In the case of Oedipus, it’s to raise the plague. On the opposing scalepan, you place what the protagonist must give up. In the case of Macbeth, it is compassion, or the milk of human kindness. In the case of Keller, it is his integrity. In the case of Oedipus, it is his precocious innocence.

Tragedy becomes terrible—and terrible is a good quality in tragedy—when both sides of the scale are heavy. Think of tragedy as a weighing mechanism for human ambitions and values. Characters must pay the price to obtain their wants. This idea of tragedy as a valuing mechanism I got from the economists and their idea of opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the idea that, in choosing, there is a cost: one loses the next best alternative, the next best alternative is forsaken in selecting the best alternative. One cannot have cake and eat it too. One cannot have $10k cash and 25 shares of GameStop stock, one has either $10k cash or 25 shares of GameStop. When one chooses one or the other, the second choice is lost and, by choosing, one falls under the sway of a higher power, either towards reward or ruin. In risk theatre characters can have either a golden calf or a God.

How does this exercise help to unleash the tragic spirit? By looking at tragedy as a weighing mechanism, it becomes easier to inflict the terrors of the earth on unsuspecting heroes because, by looking at the exchange mechanically, you depersonalize the transaction. You’re not doing this to a nice person; you’re merely balancing accounting identities.

In economics, an accounting identity is just something that is simply true. The simplest one is probably: Assets = Liabilities + Equity. A tragic identity can be expressed similarly: Assets = Liabilities + Opportunity Cost with Assets being what the hero wants, Liabilities being the questionable things the hero has done along the way, and Opportunity Costbeing the good things the hero has given up along the way. By looking at the exchange though the eye of economics, you depersonalize the terrors of the earth. You become an economist, an accountant. It’s hard to lay Willy Loman off. He’s worked for you for a lifetime. He’s a person. But if you look at him mechanically, look at him like a businessperson, like an accountant or an economist, Willy’s just another line item. It’s easier to do to him the terrors of the earth. This is perhaps the hardest of the exercises. I don’t know if playwrights, so full of humanity, compassion, and the kindred spirit have what it takes to engage with the dark side of the force.

Economics is called the dismal science because it confronts the problem of scarcity. Tragedy too, is a world of shortages. There are too many kings and too few crowns. Tragedy is the dismal art. The dismal science and the dismal art: it is a match made in heaven. The opportunity cost concept in the economic sciences leads to tragic entanglement in the dramatic arts.

The Exercise

In this exercise, the playwright will, in 250 words, present the cost of opportunity. Take a character you’ve created, and frame the choice they must make in terms of opportunity cost. What do they want? Is it a crown, shares of GameStop, or a Broadway production? What are they willing to give up for what they want? Is it the milk of human kindness, integrity, or love? And what will trigger the character to have to pay? In All My Sons, Keller wants a good life for his sons. To get his sons the good life, he gives up his integrity. The trigger happens when he discovers that the twenty-one pilots who died because of him were, in a way, all his sons too.

In this exercise, you will find out if you have what it takes to do to your characters the unspeakable things that Miller did to Keller, that Shakespeare did to Lear, that Sophocles did to Oedipus. This, of all the exercises, is perhaps the hardest. Even Goethe was not up to task. It requires a rare and beautiful ruthlessness to cast your beautiful creations into the pit.

There you have it: seven playwriting exercises to help you put more risk, chance, and fire into your writing! Remember, when life gives you risk, build a theatre of risk. If you build it, they will come.

You can find me on Twitter, my handle is @TheoryOfTragedy. You can also find me on Facebook  at https://www.facebook.com/edwincharleswong and LinkedIn at https://linkedin.com/in/edwinclwong. The Risk Theatre Competition page is at https://risktheatre.com and you can also find competition updates on the Facebook “Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition” page. Don’t worry about taking notes, all the exercises will be posted on my blog at: https://melpomeneswork.com/workingtitleplaywrights/. Follow my blog, there’s always something new and interesting coming out. Go to https://melpomeneswork.com/ and enter your email under “Subscribe to Blog via Email.” Feel free to share the blog link with all the exercises with all your colleagues and ask your local library to make my book available, it is a terrific resource! If, down the road, you find these exercises have helped you, write me, I’d love to hear from you and I’m easy to find.

– – –

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

JANUARY 2021 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). 24 plays have come in from 2 continents (North American and Oceania) and 3 countries (USA, Australia, and Canada). 4 more months to go before the 2021 competition closes at the end of May. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 21

Australia 1

Canada 2

Of the American entries, 17 are from the east and 4 are from the west. Of the entries from the east, 8 are from New York. Go New York!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 14 men and 10 women. 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 19 hits a day. The top 3 countries clicking were: US, Canada, and 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 when we announced the 2019 winner: IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean. All time views stand at 23,674 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 2639 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

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?

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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.