Tag Archives: shakespeare

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.

Drama Versus Novel – Macbeth and Moby-Dick

Each art specializes in expressing a facet of nature. Rhythm, for example, belongs to the musical arts. The painted arts, of course, can convey rhythm as well. Looking at Géricault’s Epsom Races, one cannot but hear the familiar three beat signature of racing horses:

Géricault, Epsom Races (Course D’Epsom)

But motion is properly the property of music. Colour belongs to the painted arts. Of course music can also have “colour” or “scene:” for example, Liszt’s tone-poems has scene and Davis’ “King of Blue” has colour.

Now what about prophecy? I guess this isn’t really a facet of nature, but a facet of the supernatural. But which art owns the rights to prophecy? Well, let’s put it to the test! There’s two similar prophecies in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. Here we have drama and novel trying to do the same thing.

Contestant #1 Drama (Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

In this scene, the witches call up apparitions who prophecy to Macbeth:

SECOND APPARITION. Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!

MACBETH. Had I three ears, I’d hear thee.

SECOND 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. THIRD APPARITION: a Child crown’d, 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.

THIRD APPARITION. Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him. [Descends]

MACBETH. That will never be:

Who can impress the forest; bid the tree

Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!

Rebellion’s head, rise never, till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom.

Contestant #2 Novel (Melville’s Moby-Dick)

Ahab and all his boat’s crew seemed asleep but the Parsee; who crouching in the bow, sat watching the sharks, that spectrally played round the whale, and tapped the light cedar planks with their tails. A sound like the moaning in squadrons over Asphaltites of unforgiven ghosts of Gomorrah, ran shuddering through the air.

Started from his slumbers, Ahab, face to face, saw the Parsee; and hooped round by the gloom of the night they seemed the last men in a flooded world. “I have dreamed it again,” said he.

“Of the hearses? Have I not said, old man, that neither hearse nor coffin can be thine?”

“And who are hearsed that die on the sea?”

“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee:–a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”

“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”

“And what was that saying about thyself?”

“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”

“And when thou art so gone before–if that ever befall-then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?–Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”

“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom–“Hemp only can kill thee.”

“The gallows, ye mean.–I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;–“Immortal on land and on sea!”

Both were silent again, as one man. The grey dawn came on, and the slumbering crew arose from the boat’s bottom, and ere noon the dead whale was brought to the ship.

Moby-Dick is narrative; Macbeth is dramatic. But which one does prophecy better? Both passages give me the chills because it’s quite obvious in both instances that the low-probability event that they laugh off is precisely what’s going to kill them.

Well, there’s more economy in drama. It takes Melville 362 words to convey what Shakespeare does in 201. Another dramatist might even have been able to do it in less. Shakespeare is known to be quite verbose (when you’re that good with words, why not?). Winner: dramatic art.

But, while drama is more frugal and to the point, there’s a third voice in the narrative version, the voice of the narrator. In Shakespeare, the witches and Macbeth converse: that’s it. In Melville, there is the main dialogue between Ahab and the Parsee, and the narrator adds the details of the shark’s tails and the description of the men’s silence after Fedallah prophecies. Of course, the director of the drama could invite the audience to see these supratextual details in the stage directions or the setting. Here I think that the writer is superior to the dramatist in that the writer has more control over the reader’s interpretation. The dramatist is at the mercy of the director. So, while it’s not the case that narrative art is richer, but it is the case that narrative art retains greater control of the artistic product. Winner: narrative art.

What about from the viewpoint of suspense? It’s patently obvious that Ahab is going to be seeing dual hearses that someone is going to bid the tree unfix his earthbound root. What both Shakespeare and Melville are doing is setting up their audience’s expectations by saying: “Stay tuned, just wait to see how I pull this off!” From the perspective of suspense, the narrative and dramatic arts come to a draw. But I’ll have to give this one to the dramatic arts because, Melville, to make the scene more “dramatic” borrows from drama: the exchange between Fedallah and Ahab is recited verbatim and could be part of a play.

Of course I say this because I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work and not the work of the Muse of narrative art.

Othello (Iago?) – Shakespeare

I’ve always referred to Othello by Shakespeare as Iago because Iago dominates Othello. Iago drives the action; Othello is like a piece of driftwood, although he gets one of the best lines (as he breaks up a fight): ‘Keep up you bright swords, for the dew will rust them’. But the problem of the play is deeper than the title. Iago is the problem. Why is he such an asshole?

Now, I’m offering a reward to anyone who can convince me why Iago is such an asshole. It’s a question that’s eluded generations of theatregoers. Othello is my least favourite Shakespeare tragedy because I can’t figure it out. Coleridge ascribed Iago’s bad nature to ‘motiveless malignity’. While that has a nice jingle, it doesn’t explain much. Other Shakespeare villains at least have convincing explanations why they’re bad. Take Macbeth: he’s tempted by the crown. But what’s Iago tempted by? I’m not sure. The closest Shakespeare villain that’s bad just for the sake of being bad is Richard III. But at least he has some motivation: he’s getting back at nature for being born deformed (that’s the motive Shakespeare gives him).

Bad Iago

How is Iago an asshole? His wife, Emilia, seems like a nice lady. This is how he addresses her:

Iago (to Cassio): Sir, would she [Emilia] give you so much of her lips

As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,

You’ll have enough.

Desdemona: Alas, she has no speech.

Iago: In faith, too much;

I find it still, when I have list to sleep:

Marry, before your ladyship, I grant,

She puts her tongue a little in her heart,

And chides with thinking.

Emilia: You have little use to say so.

Iago: 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.

Here’s another one:

Emilia: I have a thing for you.

Iago: A thing for me!–it is a common thing–

I’ll leave it up to your capable imagination what a ‘common thing’ is. Hint: Emilia’s reaction is ‘Ha!’ and I don’t think she’s amused!

What else does ‘Honest Iago’ do? Well, he leads Roderigo on. Roderigo has a crush on Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Iago promises him access to Desdemona and takes all his money and jewels. Basically he bankrupts him for the fun of it. He has no intention on going through with his promises.

Iago gets Cassio drunk, with the result that he loses his job. He also stirs the pot between Roderigo and Cassio, hoping that one will kill the other. He gets Othello all jealous so that he suspects Desdemona of infidelity. When he succeeds at this, he urges Othello to kill Desdemona. Desdemona had never done him injury, and is his wife’s best girlfriend.

Basically Iago screws everyone over that he can.

Iago’s Motives

Shakespeare doesn’t leave Iago entirely without motivations. Iago complains that he was passed over for a promotion. He wanted to be lieutenant but Cassio got that position. But as Othello’s ancient, he’s second in command. He also believes that Othello has slept with his wife. But he doesn’t give a reason. And there’s nothing in the play between Othello and Emilia that would suggest anything inappropriate has taken place. Then at other times, he says that he enjoys playing the asshole just for the fun of it.

Despite his insidious actions, none of the other characters can see through him. As the play’s reader, I find that frustrating: usually someone suspects something. Everyone calls him ‘Honest Iago’ and trusts him with all their secret concerns. That’s how he can get up to such great mischief: he knows everyone’s secret wishes and desires.

His motivations, to me, are unconvincing. He has motivations. But it’s like meeting someone who’s late for a meeting. If they have one excuse, it might just be real. If they have a bunch of excuses, they’re full of it. Iago, with his many excuses, seems like he’s full of it. But that leaves the question: why is he such an asshole.

The characters don’t seem to know either. When everyone’s dead in the end, and they question Iago as to his motives, this is what he says:

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.

From this time forth I never will speak word.

I went through a whole play just to hear a character tell me that he won’t say what the whole play was about! Frustrating! So, if anyone knows Iago’s secret, let me know!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I have real motives for Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

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

Tragic Epochs

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

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

The End of Tragic Epochs

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

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

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

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

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

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

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

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

Macbeth Review (Shakespeare by the Sea July 17, 2014)

Do you prefer Springsteen.s Nevada to Born in the USA? How about dining?-mom and pop or Michelin all-star restaurants? Do you prefer baroque and rococo furniture or the Eames aesthetic? If you had said ‘Nevada’ or ‘hole in the wall restaurant’, or ‘Eames’, then the Victoria.s Shakespeare by the Sea production of Macbeth is just your ticket.

Both Nevada and Born in the USA are great albums. But, of the two, Nevada is the more honest album.  Honest in the sense that it.s a guy with his guitar recording on a four track in the garage. Just vocals and guitar. No E Street Band or million dollar studio to hide behind. The same with the mom and pop restaurant. It.s honest because the focus isn.t on the linen, the service, the water feature, or the Picasso hanging beside you. The focus is on the food. It.s the same with Eames furniture. The focus is on functionality. If it.s stylish, it.s not because of the acanthus leaf carved into the armrest or the barley twist leg. It.s stylish because there.s beauty in honest design.

The Shakespeare by the Sea Macbeth is about honesty. Honest in the sense that Nevada is honest or Skinnytato Restaurant on Johnson Street is honest. When I called to reserve a ticket a few hours before the performance (turns out it was a good idea) the director took the call. No Ticketmaster. I would later see that, in addition to being director and manning the phones, Robert Light was also impresario, usher, and stagehand. Lighting consists of daylight. Heating is provided but the sun and ventilation by the wind. Shelter is provided by a 25’x40′ tent which covers the stage and the audience. A green painted plywood box raises the stage half a foot off the ground. There are five exits and entrances. One at each corner of the tent. The main door where one enters the tent (directly looking onto the stage) is the fifth entrance. Being set up on Clover Point Bluff, the tent is oriented towards the south. That is, the backdrop of the stage is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Except for the exits and entrances, the tent is enclosed all around. Behind the stage is a window through which the strait is visible. But not an infinite or ‘floor to ceiling’ opening: the wooden stage extends about three feet up on the rear before the window starts. This is good, as it provides the stage with a boundary. Actually, the window can function asa sixth exit, but only the transgressional Porter character seems to be able to make use of it. The spartan simplicity forces the attention to the action. Like Duncan says, here the air is good.