Tag Archives: tragedy

Risk Theatre Champions Aeschylus SEVEN AGAINST THEBES at the 2020 CAMWS Classical Association of Midwest and South Meeting

In its day, fans roared to see Aeschylus’ tragedy SEVEN AGAINST THEBES. Today, oblivion is too kind a word. Why? The play has fallen because one tiny stage direction got lost in transmission in the 2585 years between now and then. Fate has been too cruel to this astounding play, chock-full of gambling references (Ares casting dice with soldiers’ lives), chance (leaders drawing lots to determine the order of battle), and low-probability, high-consequence action. But now, thanks to the pioneering work of Fritz-Gregor Hermann, this stage direction is restored. As a result, the thrill returns and the play becomes a perfect example of risk theatre, a new 21st century theory of drama. Risk theatre is also the basis of the world’s largest tragedy playwriting competition, now in its second year (https://risktheatre.com/). Reviews of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected are on Goodreads.

In March 2020, I’ll be going in itinere to champion this astounding play in Birmingham, Alabama at the CAMWS Classical Association of the Midwest and South annual meeting, hosted by Samford University. My conference abstract is reprinted below. At the conference, I’ll present a reading of Seven through a risk theatre lens. The goal is to persuade attendees that, in addition to the usual lenses (psychoanalytical, feminist, political, tragic flaw, etc.,), it’s possible to come up with a fascinating new sensibility of tragedy by looking at risk as the dramatic pivot of the action. Heroes, by making delirious all-in bets, trigger devastating and unexpected low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Tragedy is risk dramatized. Or so the risk theatre theory of drama argues.

My conference abstract is reprinted below. Abstracts are also available at: https://camws.org/abstracts2020. See you there!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

In Euripides’ Bacchae, the worst-case scenario happens to Pentheus if the stranger spreading a seditious cult happens to be a god, and not a hobo. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the worst-case scenario happens to Macbeth if his opponent happens to be not born of woman. In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the worst-case scenario happens to Loman if he discovers that his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. In Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, the worst-case scenario happens to Oedipus if he finds out that he is the regicide. What were the odds of the worst-case scenario happening in each of these cases? Although the odds appear to be a longshot, they are impossible to quantify. In the tragic canon, there is one play—and one play only—where it is possible to quantify and demonstrate the odds of everything that does happen and does not happen. This fascinating play is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

In Aeschylus’ Seven, seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. Seven defending captains—one of whom is Polyneices’ brother Eteocles—defend Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if brother confronts brother at the seventh gate: brother will kill brother, kindred blood will be shed, and, in addition to the normal hazards of warfare, miasma results and the Furies will be unleashed. Because the captains are assigned their gates by a random, lottery process (Hermann, 2013), it is possible to precisely quantify the odds of the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario odds are 1:49. Conversely, the odds that the worst-case scenario does not happen are 48:49. The worst-case scenario is therefore an unexpected, low-probability outcome with odds 48 to 49 against. Most of the time, Polyneices will not encounter Eteocles at the seventh gate. Because the peculiar structure in Seven (seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates) allows us to work out all the permutations and combinations of the captains at the gates, we can determine the odds of the worst-case scenario. And, because we can determine the extent to which Aeschylus paradoxically brings about the fated event seemingly against all odds, we can quantitatively verify what we had suspected from watching Bacchae, Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, Oedipus rex, and other tragedies, and that is that unexpected and unanticipated low-probability events happen with alarming frequency in tragedy. What is more, these low-probability events carry the highest consequences. Heroes’ best-laid plans are often dashed because of such events and all is lost.

The observation that low-probability events (low-probability from the point of view of the characters who do not see them coming) can have high-consequences leads to an interesting conjecture: what if tragedy is a theatre of risk, a stage where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action? In other words, the mystique of tragedy is not so much wrapped around motivations and nobility and flaws but around a hero who, by taking on too much risk, triggers exceedingly low-probability, high-consequence events?

My paper will close by exploring, as a point of further thought, how tragedy can be thought of as “risk theatre” and how risk theatre can be the basis of a bold new 21st century theory of tragedy, one which resonates with modern preoccupations with chance, uncertainty, and probability. Risk theater asks, “What if something happens that we did not think would happen?” and understands that tragedy dramatizes the limitations of intention against the vastness of the possible. Tragedy, in this view, is an exercise in risk management: by dramatizing risk, audiences emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of unintended consequences. By understanding this, ancient tragedy can powerfully speak to modern audiences who see scientists, engineers, and policy-makers gamble with the future of the world: it might happen the way they think it will happen, but, then again, more can happen than what their models project. With our technological, financial, and military wherewithal, we have a moral imperative to better understand risk, and the best way to examine risk is through tragedy.

Bibliography

Hermann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’s Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” In Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, 39-80. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013.

Review of “Nietzsche and Tragedy” – Porter

pages 68-87 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

James I. Porter is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. His research areas are in literature, aesthetics, and intellectual history. He is the author of Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (2000) and The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy (2000), and editor of Construction of the Classical Body (1999) and Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome (2006). His book, The Origins of Aesthetic Inquiry in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation and Experience is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. His next projects include a study of the idea of Homer from antiquity to the present and another on ancient literary aesthetics after Aristotle.

I’ve Met Porter (a brief brush with fame)!

This is a fun review to write. I met Porter in 2004 when touring prospective grad schools. At that time, he was at the University of Michigan. We had a chance to chat at length. Not only is Porter a Nietzsche scholar, he also studies the reception of the Classics, a fascinating newer field that looks at how the idea of the classical world is constantly being reshaped with each passing generation.

Porter talks thoughtfully. There’re pregnant pauses in the conversation when he mulls responses over before speaking. He also has a scholarly sense of humour. When I mentioned I had also read Dennis J. Schmidt’s On Germans and Other Greeks (another book on reception studies), he had a good chuckle. They must have a sort of scholarly disagreement. He never told me what exactly his thoughts were about Schmidt’s book. From his chuckle, I think he was expecting that I would know just from reading it. I didn’t though. I wished I had asked him, as this question has lingered in my mind for a surprisingly long time.

In 2002 I read Porter’s provocatively titled Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (not the subject of this review). Porter talks about how, in Nietzsche’s time, philology–or Classics as it’s called today–was at a crossroads. Nietzsche wanted philology to be more speculative. His rival, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, wanted philology to be more concrete, more scientific. They were both young guns at this time and they both would later regret their childish spat. During their spat, Wilamowitz wrote a pamphlet ridiculing Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, by calling it Zukunftsphilologie! (the philology of the future!), a sarcastic allusion to Richard Wagner’s concept Zukunftsmusik (the music of the future). Nietzsche’s champion Erwin Rohde defended Nietzsche by writing a pamphlet against Wilamowitz and deriding Wilamowitz’ tactics as Afterphilologie (German “after” also refers to “the rear,” so this could be translated into something like “asshole-philology”). Nietzsche also got in on it, referring to Wilamowitz as “Wilamops” or “moppish-Wilamowitz.” Ah, if only the academics of today could be so lively!

Little did they know that Wilamowitz would go on to become the most recognized classicist in the 19th and perhaps 20th century, and Nietzsche would go on to become a philosopher and cultural icon. Later, Wilamowitz would concede that he hadn’t quite grasped the scale at which Nietzsche was trying to operate: the ancient world to Nietzsche wasn’t an end in and of itself, but a springboard into the larger cultural and aesthetic questions of their day. To Wilamowitz, Classics was and end in and of itself that could be re-experienced and mentally recreated, given sufficient learning and understanding.

Nietzsche grounded his standpoint by arguing that the essence of the classical world could never be recaptured once its time was past. Classics can only mean to moderns what modernity sees. There was never any “classical world.” It’s like Heraclitus’ stream: once it flows by it’s never the same. In this way, our views of classical antiquity shift with every age and are subjective. Because the interpretation of antiquity shifts, we can gauge the shifting tides of modernity by looking at how our reception of the classical world differs from age to age, from how the Renaissance saw it to how the German idealists saw it and so on. There is only interpretation, and, since there is only interpretation, you might as well make speculative interpretations that encompass culture, religion, and aesthetics. Modernity can compare itself to any other age by comparing its interpretation of the classical world against the interpretations of other ages. To ask a question such as: “What would it have felt like to be a Greek?” or “What did a Roman feel when worshipping the gods?” is nonsensical. The study of the Classics creates an illusion that we can understand the ancients when their way of thinking is really, on a second examination, completely alien to ours.

Wilamowitz, on the other hand, took a more objective view of the classical world. To him, the classical world existed, and could be recreated by the science of philology. I think this is the pun in the title of Schmidt’s book: On Germans and Other Greeks. The pun is that the German professors, with their science of philology, could be even more Greek than the ancient Greeks. To Wilamowitz, a classicist could be more Greek than the ancient Greeks, as the classicist would be able to understand where their prayers originated, would understand the allusions in the words, would grasp the symbolic meanings of the ritual, and so on.

To Wilamowitz, it was a matter of being familiar enough with the texts to be able to think and feel as the ancient Greeks did. And yes, it was sort of a science. Where the text was corrupt or missing, the task of the philologist would be to supply a conjecture. Since they were digging up new papyri all the time, these conjectures would be testable, like hypotheses. If you got the conjecture right, it was proof that philology was working, that you had a “feel” or “grasp” of the past. But this was hard work and involved copious amounts of learning which all had to be properly documented. So, when Wilamowitz saw Nietzsche making sweeping generalizations, saying that metaphysical powers represented by Apollo and Dionysus were duking it out on the stage of tragedy (a fact not attested anywhere except in Nietzsche), he naturally freaked out.

If my memory serves me, I seem to remember that despite his colourful and outlandish claims, Nietzsche was a pretty good philologist in the traditional sense as well. As part of their spat, Wilamowitz had attacked one of Nietzsche’s proposed textual conjectures as being “crazy and impossible.” Years later, I think a papyrus surfaced which proved Nietzsche to be correct. But enough of this digression, you’re here to read about Porter’s article “Nietzsche and Tragedy” in Rebecca Bushnell’s volume A Companion to Tragedy.

“Nietzsche and Tragedy”

Porter begins his essay on a point that’s so obvious that it’s never remembered: it was Nietzsche that elevated the art form of tragedy into the utmost of human achievements. Nietzsche turned tragedy into a benchmark to judge cultures, mentalities, and historical patterns. There could be tragic cultures (nineteenth century Europe), tragic metaphysics (Dionysus versus Apollo), tragic ages (the Presocratics), and the tragic vision (a way of looking at the world). Tragedy was everywhere, and to understand contemporary culture and existence, one had to measure its understanding of tragedy–the highest art form possible–against the classical past:

Tragedy was no longer a dry article of history but a sign of possibilities hitherto untapped. It was a sign and symbol of life . . . Tragedy for Nietzsche is the single pivot around which antiquity, indeed world history, turns.

Nietzsche’s elevation of tragedy into the highest of arts inspired thinkers such as Miguel de Unamuno, Karl Jaspers, J.G. Frazer (The Golden Bough), and Raymond Williams to explore the meaning of tragedy.

Unfortunately, writes Porter, Nietzsche refers so frequently to “tragedy” and “the tragic” in The Birth of Tragedy and his later writings that it is difficult for critics to construct a unified and contradiction free view of what Nietzsche meant by these terms:

Nietzsche bequeathed to posterity not a clear view of tragedy but a series of urgent problems and questions: Did the Greeks experience a tragic age? Can modernity experience tragedy again and attain the vanished heights of the classical period? Is there such a thing as a tragic view of the world, and is that view valid today? Is Nietzsche himself possibly a tragic thinker?

The Birth of Tragedy

The traditional way of looking at The Birth of Tragedy, writes Porter, is that it occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between Nietzsche’s career as a professor of Classics and his later task as a cultural philosopher. As a series of letters between him and Rhode attest, with Birth Nietzsche was breaking free:

When one classical scholar later asked him for a bit of “proof, just a single piece of evidence, that in reality the strange images on the skene [stage] were mirrored back from the magical dream of the ecstatic Dionysian chorus,” Nietzsche soberly replied, as he only could, “Just how, then, should the evidence approximately read? . . . Now the honorable reader demands that the whole problem should be disposed of with an attestation, probably out of the mouth of Apollo himself: or would a passage from Athenaeus do just as well?”

Porter finds, however, that the traditional way of looking at Birth may be misguided. Nietzsche was never interested in presenting abstract philosophical truths, but rather was interested in illuminating the all-too-human nature of humanity. “What else is man” questions Nietzsche, if not the collection of internal dissonances? In this light, Birth fits in with the rest of Nietzsche’s writings both before and after 1872 (the year it appeared): it is an exploration of the gap in our natures. We are at one and the same time both Apollo and Dionysus.

At all times in Nietzsche’s career, he would point out mankind’s marvelous and criticizable dissonances. This dissonance, writes Porter, lies at the heart of the antagonistic pair of gods, Dionysus and Apollo:

At the heart of The Birth of Tragedy lies the opposition between the two Greek gods, Apollo and Dionysus, who in turn stand for two antagonistic aesthetic principles that are nonetheless complementary and equally vital to the production of the highest art. Apollo and his abstraction the Apollonian represent the realm of clear and luminous appearances, plastic images, dreams, harmless deception, and traits that are typically Hellenic and classical, at least to the modern imagination (simplicity, harmony, cheerfulness, tranquility, and so on), while Dionysus and the Dionysian represent hidden metaphysical depths, disturbing realities, intoxication, and traits that are typically exotic and unclassical (ecstasy, disorderliness, dance, orgy). The history of Greek art is the history of the relation between these two principles.

The antagonism between Apollo and Dionysus symbolizes the contradiction or dissonance in the human experience, and by pointing out the contradiction of a bifurcated reality, Nietzsche begins his exploration of the paradoxes in culture, religion, politics, and life that he called the “all-too-human.” What is interesting is that in having Apollo and Dionysus symbolize different aspects of the human experience, Nietzsche projects human values onto the gods. That is, to me, a signal feature of Hellenic theodicy: the gods are very much like us. And, in being like us, they raise the human bar: the spark of the gods is within us–the Greek gods were made in our image. This is the sort of theodicy I like. It is human. The monotheist religions have it backwards when they said that man is made in God’s image.

Tragedy is Nothing without the Spectator

While Nietzsche’s thesis that the Golden Age of tragedy under Aeschylus and Sophocles degenerated under Euripides due to the rise of dialectic of Socratic philosophy owed much to the German school of thought, Nietzsche did break away from his predecessors by viewing tragedy from the perspective of the audience:

Consider how membership in the satyr chorus of Dionysian revelers, the original form of tragedy and “the dramatic proto-phenomenon,” involves a complex chain of assignments: “the Dionysian reveler sees himself as a satyr, and as a satyr, in turn, he sees the god.”

Tragedy involves a doubling and trebling of consciousness. The individual audience member, viewing the chorus, sees himself as a member of the chorus. And the chorus member, seeing the action on the stage, sees the vision of god. In this doubling and trebling of consciousness, the veil of reality is lifted away. Revelation occurs when the audience witnesses god on the stage. This revelation is the aesthetic phenomenon of tragedy, and this aesthetic phenomenon of tragedy was very different than how Nietzsche’s predecessors, the German idealists, described tragedy.

Nietzsche’s predecessors in the German idealists tradition–Schelling, Hegel, Vischer, and Schopenhauer–came up with essentializing theories of tragedy, writes Porter. Essentializing means they distil the tragic into an objective event. No audience or observer is required. For example, Schelling essentializes tragedy by saying: “The essence of tragedy is an actual conflict between the freedom of the subject and objective necessity.” The idealists reduce tragedy to an archetype from which all tragedies spring. To Nietzsche, tragedy is the opposite. The tragic experience is for the spectator to enter into the consciousness of the chorus to see god revealed on stage. Tragedy is revelation.

Problems with Nietzsche’s “Tragic Age”

Tragedy and the promise of a tragic age recurs throughout Nietzsche’s writings from his debut work The Birth of Tragedy to his ultimate work Ecce Homo (“behold the man,” the words with which Pontius Pilate presents Christ crowned with thorns to a hostile crowd):

I promise a tragic age: the supreme art in the affirmation of life, tragedy, will be reborn when mankind has behind it the consciousness of the harshest but most necessary wars without suffering from it. (from Ecce Homo)

But, Porter asks, what does Nietzsche mean by a coming tragic age? And what does this tragic age have to do with tragedy? For Nietzsche, the tragic age of the Greeks was in the sixth century, in the times of Heraclitus, Empedocles, and Pythagoras, a full century before Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. To add to this confusion, sometimes Nietzsche speaks in his own day of a coming tragic age and sometimes of living in a tragic age.

To make matters worse, sometimes Nietzsche also speaks of a coming comic age which will wipe out the tragic mood. Laughter is the other face of Dionysus, who is the patron god of both comedy and tragedy:

For the present, the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself. For the present, we still live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religions.

And the final problem with Nietzsche is that it’s not entirely clear what “the tragic” actually is. Is it that all meaning is in vain? Or is it that the hero has to die to affirm life in a moment of “regenerative extinction,” as Porter puts it? Or is it the mood that happens when the Dionysian man exults in the destruction of meaning? Nietzsche, according to Porter, shifts between these definitions in his long exploration of tragedy between his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, and his last, Ecce Homo.

Risk Theatre in Relation to Nietzsche’s Theory of Tragedy

When I was sixteen, I drank Nietzsche’s Kool-Aid. After reading The Birth of Tragedy, I learned and believed that tragedy was the highest human achievement (“the greatest show on earth,” as I would later call it). The highest human labour was to write a theory of tragedy. Nietzsche’s style convinced me–I had little idea what satyrs and choruses were then. My only encounter with tragedy was through English class, and tragedy up to that point had appeared to be far from the highest human achievement. But Nietzsche talked about tragedy with such conviction, I was convinced. It’s like when you’re a kid and all you’ve heard is top 40 radio and then one day someone gives you a tape of Pink Floyd The Wall and says, “Listen to this, it will blow your mind.”

Nietzsche is a great stylist, the greatest in my mind. He also considered himself, along with the German poet Heinrich Heine, the greatest German stylists. He was never one to be humble: “the greatness of his task in the face of the smallness of man,” he would write. Urgency, a call to arms, psychological depth, seeming effortlessness when discussing the most profound topics, ideas raining down, intellectual lucidity, hyperbole in the extreme, irreverence for convention, and the ability to compact massive ideas into most compact forms (he would have been great on Twitter): these are the hallmarks of the Nietzsche style. Take this passage. Who, honestly, can write like this?–

The psychology of the orgy as an overflowing feeling of life and energy within which even pain acts as a stimulus provided me with the key to the concept of the tragic feeling, which was misunderstood as much by Aristotle as it was by our pessimists . . . Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types–that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet . . . And with that I again return to the place from which I set out–the Birth of Tragedy was my first revaluation of all values: with that I again plant myself in the soil out of which I draw all that I will and can–I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus–I, the teacher of the eternal recurrence. (from Twilight of the Idols)

For comparison, here’s my favourite “purple passage” (so-called because it was expensive to make purple dye in the ancient world–tens of thousands of shells were required for one garment) from The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy:

Beneath tragedy’s surface simplicity–the rueful choruses, ghosts clamouring for revenge, and choleric tyrants–lies its deep structure, which, although hidden from plain sight, nevertheless leaves telltale signs. Just as lifeguards can infer the presence of an undertow by watching swimmers being swept out to sea, theatregoers who watch heroes being swept out into the void–heroes who enjoyed every advantage–can infer that, beneath tragedy’s surface simplicity lies a great dark power inimical to heroes’ best-laid plans which contrives that, the least expected outcome happens every time, whether it be a thousand to one or a million to one against.

Nietzsche is ever-present in his passage. He is correcting: he has to address the problem that was “misunderstood by Aristotle.” He is coming out with new terms, his thoughts are so radical: “that is what I called Dionysian.” He exists and with grave purpose: “I, the last disciple of the philosopher Dionysus.” In my passage, I am ever-distant. The only trace of my personality is in the strange image of the inattentive lifeguard, or the lifeguard too much in awe of watching the great dark inimical power to pay attention to the swimmer-heroes. Nietzsche’s presence gives him power. Standing in his pulpit, he looms over the reader. My lack of presence takes away from the urgency of my argument.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to emulate Nietzsche’s style. Truth be told, it’s not easy to do without sounding pretentious or over-the-top or just plain silly. And you have to have the inner conviction to do it. For Nietzsche, writing is a declaration of war. With every word, he’s fighting the world, revaluating all values. I too believe I am declaring revolution with risk theatre. It is an excellent idea, worth fighting for, worth going all-in on. If I hadn’t of come up with the idea, someone else would have. Today, risk is in the air. But perhaps it was a question of self-esteem. I lacked the perfect belief in myself; there was a gap in my nature that prevented me from climbing up the lofty heights of the pulpit. I hid the “I” because I believed that I was the weakest link in the argument. I thought: “If people didn’t know that I wrote it, they would take it up. But if they didn’t know it was me, they would believe my words.” In all honesty, who will read my book?  The classicists won’t read it because it talks too much about creative writing. The playwrights won’t read it because the work contains too much philosophy. And the philosophers won’t read it because it’s a playwriting book. And all artists will hate it because it speaks to art in the language of economics: risk, opportunity cost, chance, and probability.

But I wrote it anyway. My book solves for myself some of my questions on Nietzsche’s view of tragedy, which as Porter notes, are all over the place. Take Nietzsche’s view of tragedy being the most life-affirming of arts, quoted above: “Affirmation of life even in its strangest and sternest problems, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types–that is what I called Dionysian, that is what I recognized as the bridge to the psychology of the tragic poet.” I had often puzzled over how tragedy could affirm life. The risk theatre model comes up with a clear and succinct mechanism to demonstrate how tragedy affirms life. In doing so, my book follows Nietzsche and goes beyond Nietzsche, jenseits von Nietzsche, to use one of my favourite German prepositions.

Risk theatre argues that heroes make wagers. In a wager, what is staked is put up against what is at stake. In Doctor Faustus, Faustus stakes his soul for world domination. Notice, because it’s a wager, you can change things up. Blues guitarist Robert Johnson stakes his soul to play guitar. Vivaldi, the red priest, stakes his soul to play the fiddle. Because you can formulate the wager however you like, tragedy becomes a valuing mechanism for human qualities, values, and attributes. Tragedy affirms life because the wager demonstrates how much life is worth. If you make a crappy bet, your soul is worth a mere four seasons. But if you make the right bet, your soul if worth the entire cosmos. In this way, risk theatre provides a mechanism by which tragedy affirms life and revaluates all values. Tragedy affirms life and works the revaluation of all values through the hero’s wager. My theory of risk theatre validates Nietzsche.

To Nietzsche, tragedy was revelation. It allowed you to see behind the “dissonance that is man.” It allowed you to see the unification of Dionysus and Apollo. There is a strong metaphysical bent to The Birth of Tragedy: gods, illusions, and the subconscious lurk behind every word. Despite my enormous debt to Nietzsche, risk theatre hardly contains any metaphysics. What is more, risk theatre is closer to the German idealists in that it is an essentializing theory of tragedy. Risk theatre posits that each dramatic act is a gambling act. In the gambling act, there is a choice. To attain the object of desire, the hero must ante up something of equal worth. To get the Scottish crown, Macbeth must stake the milk of human kindness. Or, in other words, to get what one wants, one must give up the next best thing. This is called opportunity cost, and opportunity cost is what risk theatre dramatizes. Risk theatre is essentializing in that it posits that there is one Ur-drama, one dramatic archetype behind all tragedy. All subsequent dramas are images of the original gambling act.

Because risk theatre sees opportunity cost at the heart of the wager, if there’s any deeper meaning to risk theatre, it’s that there’s no free lunch. Opportunity cost, free lunch, low-probability, high-consequence events, and even the term risk itself are not philosophy or art terms but rather economics terms. Risk theatre combines art and economics. Risk theatre is a model of art based on economics. It is a daring combination. And this is something too that I learned from Nietzsche. He was the one who dared to break down all Hellenic art into Dionysian and Apollonian forms. If what he did seems tame, it’s only because over a century has passed. Perhaps in the future, risk and opportunity cost will too be seen as standard run-of-the-mill art terms. Nothing that is worthwhile in life, business, and art is achieved without sacrifice. I could have stayed away from the economics world when analyzing tragedy and stayed within the box of art. But what fun would that have been? And if I had come up with something new, it would have been more a step than a leap. But by thinking outside the box, risk theatre achieves a jump. I am ridiculed for my ideas. But that is the cost of thinking outside the box. They will hate. Let them hate.

Before signing off, one last comment about comedy and tragedy. Nietzsche argued that there were comic and tragic ages. Sometimes he spoke of a coming tragic age, one in which life would be affirmed in the fullest. But sometimes he would say that he lives in a tragic age, an age full of religion and morality. To Nietzsche, both tragedy and comedy were Dionysian arts. While risk theatre lacks metaphysical roots, it likewise finds that both tragedy and comedy revolve around a common centre: risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. The hero’s bet is good. 99 times out of a 100 it should succeed. But an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event derails the hero’s best-laid plans. Comedy, on the other hand, dramatizes upside risk. The hero’s bet is poor. 99 times out of a 100, it should fail. But an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event makes everyone happy. In risk theatre, both comedy and tragedy are risk arts. Two sides to the same coin.

In the end, no model or theory of tragedy is perfect. But if the model or theory gives you a higher understanding of the action, then it is worthwhile. And I think that both Nietzsche and risk theatre achieve this. Without Nietzsche, we would not have Strindberg and O’Neill. And who knows, perhaps the playwrights of the future will create ever more powerful plays by taking up the risk theatre model of tragedy? Yes, yes, yes!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

LA THEATRE BITES Interviews Edwin Wong on the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

I sat down with Patrick Chavis, founder of the LA Theatre Bites podcast, to talk about my new book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected (Friesen Press 2019). Thank you to Patrick and LA Theatre Bites for this fantastic opportunity to talk about risk theatre, a bold and engaging way to both interpret yesterday’s plays and create tomorrow’s classics.

Here’s the link to the half hour podcast. Sit down, grab a coffee, and enjoy! We talk about the playwright competition based on risk theatre (https://risktheatre.com/), last year’s winning play (IN BLOOM by Gabriel Jason Dean), how risk functions in drama, compare risk theatre to other theories of drama, and even attempt a risk theatre read of one of Chavis’ favourite movies: Star Wars. It’s one action-packed interview!

http://latheatrebites.com/interview-with-edwin-wong-the-writer-of-the-risk-theatre-model-of-tragedy-gambling-drama-and-the-unexpected/

Patrick Chavis / LA Theatre Bites Blurb

Patrick Chavis is the creator, designer, podcast/writer and head editor at LA Theatre Bites since its inception in 2016. Because of the massive size of the Los Angeles area and its large theatre presence. Patrick decided to create short review podcasts instead of the traditional written review format allowing reviewers to see more shows and connect more authentically with theatre fans. LA Theatre Bites is consistently ranked as a top ten theatre podcast.

Edwin Wong / Risk Theatre Blurb

In 2018, Edwin Wong founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition with Langham Court Theatre–one of the oldest and most respected theatres in Canada–to challenge conventional Aristotelian, Hegelian, and Nietzschean theories of tragedy. Visit https://risktheatre.com/ for details.

The centrepiece of the competition is Wong’s book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Instead of looking at tragedy as the interplay between the Dionysian and Apollonian (Nietzsche), the collision between irreconcilable ethical forces (Hegel), or a process to achieve catharsis (Aristotle), Wong’s drama manifesto argues that each dramatic act in tragedy is also a gambling act where heroes place delirious bets at the no-limit tables. These heroes, by going all-in, trigger unexpected and devastating outcomes. Tragedy is a theatre of risk.

With numerous examples from well-known plays such as Macbeth and Death of a Salesman to lesser known gems such as Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Wong demonstrates how protagonists wager their human assets from dignity to “the milk of human kindness” to achieve their aims, whether it be the American Dream or a Scotch crown.

From emerging playwrights to Emmy Award winners, in the first year of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition over 180 entrants from 11 countries have taken up the challenge of reinventing an ancient art for a modern era. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is the book that launched an important and exciting new international art movement.

Wong is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated in ancient theatre. His other research interests include epic poetry, where he has published a solution to the contradiction between Homeric fate and free will by drawing attention to the peculiar mechanics of chess endgames. He lives in Victoria, Canada and blogs at https://melpomeneswork.com/.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Review of “The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy” – Roche

pages 51-67 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Mark W. Roche is the Joyce Professor of German Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters from 1997 to 2008. He is the author of six books, including Tragedy and Comedy: A Systemic Study and a Critique of Hegel (1998) and Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (2004).

“The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy”

Roche’s essay is chapter 4 in A Companion to Tragedy, edited by Rebecca Bushnell.

According to Roche, Hegel’s theory of tragedy is, after Aristotle’s, the most studied and quoted. Unlike Nietzsche, Hegel never formulated his theory in one book. Hegel’s thoughts are scattered through his writings. For English readers, Anne and Henry Paolucci have collected all Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy (mainly from Phenomenology of Mind and Lectures on the Philosophy of History) in their useful book: Hegel on TragedyWhat did Hegel have to say on tragedy?

Tragedy arises, according to Hegel, when a hero courageously asserts a substantial and just position, but in doing so simultaneously violates a contrary and likewise just position and so falls prey to one-sidedness that is defined at one and the same time by greatness and by guilt.

Hegel’s position on tragedy, is, unsurprisingly, based on the famous Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. His thoughts on tragedy are really an extension of this theory of knowledge:

Each category or thesis reveals its one-sidedness and passes over into its antithesis, which is likewise recognized as one-sided, eventually giving way to synthesis, which both negates and preserves the earlier terms; the synthesis itself becomes absorbed in a larger process in which it, too, is recognized as partial, though at a higher and more complex level. This continual progression, whereby partial categories give way to their own internal contradictions, leads to an ever greater realization of reason, self-consciousness, and freedom.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Great?

  1. Most theories of tragedy focus on tragedy’s effect on the emotions. Only a handful focus on the structure of tragedy. Hegel, along with Hölderlin, Schelling, and Peter Szondi, examine the structure of tragedy, and explore how the hero’s flaw is intertwined with the hero’s greatness. Of course, Hegel’s theory also considers the emotional effect of tragedy, but as a secondary element of the exploration. According to Hegel, we feel not pity, but sympathy with the hero since, despite the fall, the hero is justified.
  2. Hegel’s emphasis on collision emphasizes how “it is the honour of these great characters to be culpable.” harmartia denotes a character flaw in Aristotle’s theory. Hegel’s “error mechanism” is more complex, as now the hero’s greatness and flaw are one and the same thing: “in fulfilling the good, the hero violates the good.”
  3. The focus on collision is inherently dramatic. Hegel’s theory invites critics to focus on the most dramatic moments in tragedy. This is what we want, since tragedy is naturally a dramatic art. Drama is to tragedy what sound is to music. Hegel’s theory is especially applicable to Goethe’s Faust (the collision between Faust and Mephistopheles) and other works which contain collisions such as Euripides’ Bacchae, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan.
  4. There are external collisions (e.g. Antigone versus Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone). But there can also be internal collisions where the same individual is aware of irreconcilable and just conditions within himself. Hamlet is such an example. Roche writes: “To elevate to tragic status Hamlet’s lack of will as a simple inability to act, the common view among Hegel’s contemporaries, is to transform tragedy into mere suffering. For Hegel the apparent weakness of Hamlet derives, rather, from the energy of his thought, which recognizes a conflict between the emotional need to act in the face of corruption and indecency and insight into the immoral nature of the contemplated action.”
  5. The collision of opposite forces–both justified–inspires philosophical reflection on the good. By presenting two alternatives, Hegel invites the spectator to weight the totality of the duties and obligations contained in either claim.
  6. Hegel’s theory draws attention to tragedy’s treatment of paradigm shifts in history. Collisions frequently dramatize tradition conflicting with innovation: case in point is Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where Athena represents the democratic process of trial by jury while the Furies represent the archaic system of “an eye for an eye” retributive justice. Hegel’s theory gave rise to the historical drama of Friedrich Hebbel which dramatizes one norm being pushed aside to make way for the new norm.

While Hegel doesn’t offer a theory of comedy, he “recognizes a shift from tragedy to comedy when what is substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Limited?

  1. While Hegel considers that the opposing forces in the tragic collision are equally justified, that is seldom the case. For example, even in Antigone, Hegel sympathizes more with Antigone’s “right.” That’s an interesting point, as there’ve been a few articles by classicists (who specialize in the ancient world) arguing that Sophocles and his audience would have gravitated more towards Creon. In their reading, Antigone goes too far in her obdurate persistence. The takeaway from this limitation is that there are very few pure Hegelian tragedies where both sides counterbalance equally in their claims.
  2. Hegel does not distinguish between external (e.g. Antigone versus Creon) and internal collisions (e.g. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”). Roche points out, however, that this is less a criticism than an expansion of Hegel’s theory. Roche breaks down internal collisions into a two major types: the tragedy of self-sacrifice where the hero does good knowing that suffering will be involved (Miller’s Crucible or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) and the tragedy of stubbornness where the hero will not yield (Sophocles’ Ajax). The tragedy of stubbornness is similar to what has been understood as a tragedy of character where the hero has too much of one virtue and not enough of another (e.g. in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann has too much honesty and fearlessness but a lack of prudence).
  3. Hegel’s critics dislike his insistence on an element of harmony in the resolution of tragedy. To moderns such as Marcuse, “The absolute tragic essence of the tragic tragedy is suffering without meaning.” If this is modernity, I am allergic to modernity. For me, the purpose of art is to instil meaning onto “unmeaning” reality; reality, as a concatenation of random events, lacks intrinsic meaning. Art puts reality into human terms. A good third to one-half of ancient tragedies end in reconciliation. Would Marcuse and moderns consider Aeschylus’ masterpiece The Oresteia (where the Furies are reconciled with the new order of Olympian gods) to be something other than a tragedy? Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, where Augustus is reconciled with the conspirators is another excellent example of a successful “resolution” play. Hegel is certainly right to insist on an element of resolution in tragedy. If I want suffering without meaning, I don’t need the theatre, I’d just watch the news.
  4. Roche finds a fourth criticism in Hegel’s failure to articulate clearly between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation. This is made more complicated in that the line between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation are blurred: Goethe’s Iphigenia and Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for example, can be considered to be tragedies, dramas of reconciliation, or both. At times Hegel seems to prefer a tragedy where the reconciliation comes organically (e.g. through the plot) and at other times Hegel disparages dramas of reconciliation.
  5. Critics such as Otto Pöggeler find fault with Hegel’s long run optimistic worldview: it is incompatible with the gravity of tragedy.
  6. Critics such as Johannes Volkelt finds fault with tragedy for portraying individuals rather than metaphysical ideals. Not sure why Roche would list this as a fault or limit of Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
  7. Last criticism is that Hegel’s theory applies only to a handful of plays: “Hegel’s typology of tragedy, brilliant though it is, appears to exclude all but a dozen or so world tragedies.” There you have it: Hegel’s theory is the one-trick pony of literary theory.

Hegel’s Theory versus the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

Let’s take Roche’s comments on Hegel’s theory and apply them to my theory of tragedy, called “risk theatre.” Risk theatre argues that risk (rather than a collision) is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out February 2019, so risk theatre is, compared to Hegel, an upstart contender.

The first thing Roche likes about Hegel’s theory is that it prioritizes investigating the structure of tragedy before it looks at tragedy’s emotional affect. So too risk theatre examines the structure of tragedy. In risk theatre, the central element of the structure is not a collision, but risk. Heroes, by taking on inordinate risk, trigger cataclysmic low-probability, high-consequence events. Tragedy dramatizes risk gone awry. In risk theatre, each dramatic act is also a gambling act.

Roche appreciates how Hegel weaves together the hero’s greatness and the hero’s flaw together. It is an advance on Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, or the tragic flaw. Risk theatre does away with the flaw altogether. In risk theatre, the hero’s bet is good. The odds are with the hero. Heroes are clever, after all. They play to win. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the hero will prevail. Tragedy, however, dramatizes the one time out of a hundred where the best-laid plan fails. Risk makes tragedy exciting. In risk theatre, instead of a flaw, an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event brings the hero down. In risk theatre Birnam Wood is always coming to high Dunsinane Hill. The “flaw” in risk theatre is chance: more things have happened than what the hero thought would happen.

Roche has high praise for Hegel’s theory of tragedy because collisions are inherently dramatic. Risk theatre would argue that risk is as inherently as dramatic as collisions. Richard Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid and Walter Tevis’ The Hustler, two novels which use the gambling analogy as a visual analogy of risk illustrate the dramatic qualities inherent in risk (both were also made into memorable movies with high powered casts including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). Risk theatre and Hegel’s theory enjoy a similar advantage in that their focal points are both inherently dramatic.

Risk theatre, like Hegel’s theory of tragedy, delineates a theory of comedy. For Hegel, tragedy shifts to comedy when the substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal. Risk theatre, predictably, looks at the relation between tragedy and comedy in terms of risk. Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. The difference? Tragedy dramatizes downside risk and comedy dramatizes upside risk.

In one way, risk theatre and Hegel’s theory have quite different limitations. While Roche identifies the limited applicability of Hegel’s theory as a drawback, risk theatre casts almost too wide a net by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy.” The saving grace is that risk theatre is interested in a specific type of risk: the all-in wager. To trigger the low-probability, high-consequence event, the hero has to go all-in.

With regard to an element or resolution or harmony in tragedy versus unmitigated suffering, risk theatre is agnostic. Risk theatre is built on the idea of opportunity cost. By pursuing one option, the next best option is foregone. Risk theatre is happy so long as the price is paid. If, after the price is paid, there is a resolution, that neither adds nor detracts from the tragedy. In Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, for example, Augustus sacrifices his authority to maintain law and order. Do they try to assassinate you?—reward the conspirators with consulships and join them together in powerful marriages. Augustus has paid the cost of preserving the Empire by showing clemency to the conspirators. The play ends in a group hug. Risk theatre, however, finds it a perfectly acceptable tragedy, as the resolution came at a high price. What risk theatre cannot stomach is a resolution that comes without paying the price: that is the stuff of comedy.

As to Hegel’s optimism, risk theatre is likewise optimistic. While Hegel sees progress through the dialectical process, risk theatre sees progress because the audience, having seen how unexpected low-probability events can have the highest consequences, leaves the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. Theatre dramatizes risk acts gone awry on the stage so that off the stage we learn to become more robust. After seeing tragedy, the audience learns off stage to have a plan B, learns to keep some powder dry, learns of the dangers of too concentrated a position.

Roche finds that a drawback of Hegel’s theory is its limited applicability to the great tragedies. Hegel’s theory works on a dozen or so plays. Risk theatre does not share this drawback. As long as you can construct the hero’s actions as a wager and something happens out of left field to upset this wager, risk theatre works. In some plays, it’s obvious. Macbeth is risk theatre’s paradigm play: Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown but all is lost when Birnam Wood unexpectedly comes to high Dunsinane Hill. Some plays, such as Miller’s Death of a Salesman, require a little more imagination, but, in hindsight, work quite well through a risk theatre read. According to risk theatre, Loman wagers his dignity on the American Dream. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when, contrary to expectation, Loman realizes his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. And some plays, such as King Lear, require a great deal of imagination, but reward you with a new take on an old play. According to risk theatre, Lear bets the well-being of the kingdom on his capacity to rule. It is a good bet: he has ruled wisely and made good decisions for many years. The unexpected event which derails his bet happens when senility overtakes him; he had not been counting on that. Risk theatre, unlike Hegel, is an infinitely plastic theory of drama, bounded only by the reader’s imagination.

There you have it: round one of a ten round battle royal: risk theatre versus the mighty Hegel!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

“Tragedy and Dionysus” – Seaford

pages 25-38 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Two articles into A Companion to Tragedy and both argue for a ritual basis for ancient Greek tragedy. Surprising. You’d think a reference work such as this would provide more balance. The ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’ school of thought gets short shrift in this edition. Although Dionysus is the patron god of tragedy, so few tragedies feature Dionysus that a school of thought has arisen declaring that ‘tragedy has nothing to do with Dionysus’. In this article, Seaford argues that, although most of the stories from Athenian tragedy do not feature Dionysus, the art of tragedy is ‘Dionysiac’. Seaford frames the central question in this way: ‘Can it make sense to call a narrative or drama Dionysiac if Dionysus himself plays no part in it?’

Seaford argues that Athenian tragedy is Dionysiac, as drama originated from the cult of Dionysus. Specifically, drama came into being when the chorus leader broke apart from the chorus to address the chorus. When the chorus responded in a refrain, drama was born. In addition, even if many of the surviving plays don’t feature Dionysus, the tragedy festival itself indubitably belonged to the cult of Dionysus: at the beginning of the festival, the image of Dionysus was brought into the city and a ‘sacred marriage’ took place between the image and the wife of a magistrate called the ‘King Archon’.

Another prominent ritual in Dionysus’ cult is, of course, booze! Seaford postulates that the social elements of drinking naturally led to gatherings, festivals, and other occasions fertile for the development of drama. From the Anthesteria, a minor and ancient spring festival of Dionysus sprang the City or the Great Dionysia, the major festival where tragedy took centre-stage (this is where Oedipus rexThe Oresteia, Hippolytus, and other plays were first performed). According to Seaford, the Great Dionysia arose in the 6th century BC to serve a political end:

Suffice it here to say that whereas the ancient festival of the Anthesteria had long centered around a key moment in the agricultural year, the opening of the new wine, the new Dionysia was largely designed to serve a political end: the display of the strength and magnificence of Athens–to itself and to others. We should also note that the organization and coordination of the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money: the universal power of money, deployed at a single center or even by a single individual, is especially good at coordinating a complex new initiative, and tends in our period to replace the less flexible power of barter and traditional observance.

Now, this is interesting: “the new urban festival was greatly facilitated at this time by the introduction into Attica of (recently invented) coined money.” Am I hearing this right–money had something to do with the birth of tragedy? In my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I argued that tragedy arose as a backlash to the introduction of money in Attica (or Athens, as I call it). Money made it possible to buy, sell, and exchange human life and values like bacon bits and deer skins at the market. As such, money degraded life and human value by turning it into an object of financial exchange. A counter-monetary spirit arose. It sought form and expression and found its voice in the new art form of tragedy. In the risk theatre interpretation, tragedy rails against money by routing exchanges involving life and human value through the shadow market instead of the conventional money market. For example, one can buy a title or a degree with money in the conventional market. In tragedy, however, the use of money is strictly forbidden. To acquire a title in tragedy–such as Solness acquiring the title ‘master builder’ in Ibsen’s play–one has to pay in flesh and blood. Solness, to become master builder, pays with his happiness, and the happiness of those around him. Happiness for becoming the master builder: this is the sort of existential transaction that takes place in what I call the ‘shadow market’.

By routing exchanges through the shadow market, tragedy railed against the monetization of life and human value. In this way, tragedy shows how some things cannot be brought with money. In this way, tragedy revolts against the monetization of life and value. Now, in my book, I turned the story of how tragedy arose as a counter-monetary art into a myth. I didn’t feel that my position could be academically defended, so I mythologized the process by weaving it into existing stories about Croesus (the tragic ruler of Lydia who invented money), Solon (one of the wise men), and the tale of Diomedes and Glaucus’ meeting (out of Homer’s Iliad). But from what Seaford is saying, it seems that this strange and bold view that tragedy arose as a reaction to the invention of money could find an academic footing. This to me is most interesting. At the time I wrote The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, I would not have, in my wildest dreams, thought this possible.

But, it is possible. I checked the bibliography to Seaford’s article, and he does have a full length book on this topic: Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge University Press). It wasn’t available at my local public library (they can’t even get it interlibrary loan!). But I had to read it, and luckily there was a used copy available on Amazon. What a find! I’ll be reading and reviewing this book very soon, here’s the blurb:

How were the Greeks of the sixth century BC able to invent philosophy and tragedy? Richard Seaford argues that a large part of the answer can be found in another momentous development, the invention and rapid spread of coinage. By transforming social relations, monetization contributed to the concepts of the universe as an impersonal system (fundamental to Presocratic philosophy) and of the individual alienated from his own kin and from the gods, as found in tragedy.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

“Greek Tragedy and Ritual” – Sourvinou-Inwood

pages 7-24 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell, 2009

While moderns enjoy tragedies such as Euripides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone as drama, the ancients looked at tragedy as ritual. In other words, by simulating interactions between mortals and immortals on the tragic stage, the ancients constructed religious dogma. Today, bishops and popes construct religious dogma in councils and chairs. Yesterday, the ancients constructed religious dogma on the stage of the tragic theatre. Lack of knowledge of this distinction makes moderns susceptible to misinterpreting ancient tragedy. Or so Sourvinou-Inwood argues.

Sourvinou-Inwood presents evidence of the ritual basis behind Greek tragedy. Tragedy consists of a series of prayers and rites. Oracles play a central role. Celebrations to gods outside theatre often involve choral activity; the chorus forms a central fixture on the tragic stage. As the City Dionysia began (the festival where tragedies were staged), the statue of Dionysus was brought from the sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus to Athens. And so on. The evidence Sourvinou-Inwood presents is incontrovertible. Greek tragedy has a ritual foundation.

Next, Sourvinou-Inwood presents cases where the modern lack of knowledge of the ritual basis of ancient theatre has created misunderstandings. With an understanding of the ritual basis of tragedy, we should not, for example, in Sophocles’ Antigone take Antigone’s side. Antigone’s claim that it is her religious duty to bury her brother (a traitor in the civil war) is not backed by any extant religious law. We should, however, take Creon’s side, who passes a law forbidding burial to traitors (one of whom is Antigone’s brother) in the interests of national unity. In her ritual reading of this tragedy, it is only when Creon keeps Polyneices’ corpse in the upper world too long that the cosmic order is upset, as, according to Greek religion, the corpse really belongs in the nether world. Sophocles’ Antigone explores, therefore, not the collision between two equally justified ethical forces (as Hegel and other moderns saw it), but how the religion of the Greek city-state may sometimes get it wrong. In this reading, Creon does it all right, yet, because the will of the gods is beyond human comprehension, gets it all wrong. The purpose of tragedy, in Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, is to explore religion. Greek tragedies are not timeless, but for a specific time and purpose.

If fifth century tragedy is a  ritual of Greek religion, nobody gave Plato and Aristotle the memo. Both of them discuss tragedy extensively, and they don’t consider tragedy to be part of their liturgy. Instead of religion, they focus on the emotional affect tragedy has on audiences. For Plato, tragedy corrupts the audience’s emotions because it is a cheap imitation of life. If–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–tragedy is a sacred rite, it is unclear why Plato would view it as an imitation or mimesis of life. Aristotle, of course, came to a different conclusion than his teacher. To him, tragedy rehabilitates the emotions through catharsis, a purging of pity and fear through pity and fear. But he was of the same mind as his teacher insofar as tragedy is drama, not ritual.

Mind you, Aristotle (fourth century BC) comes a little late to the game, after the heyday of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the so-called ‘big three’. Plato, however, was a contemporary of Sophocles and Euripides. One way to reconcile the discrepancy between Sourvinou-Inwood and Plato/Aristotle would be to argue that tragedy began as ritual (in the sixth century), and then gradually became secularized until the fourth century, where it was completely secular and had “nothing to do with Dionysus.”

My beef with the Sourvinou-Inwood reading is that I believe that Greek tragedy is for all time. Her ritual interpretation reduces tragedy to be a work for one time: tragedy, to her, is timely, not timeless. And by the way, I don’t care if I’m wrong. Gosh darn it, at least by arguing for tragedy’s timelessness, I’m arguing from the perspective of art, arguing from the good guy side! Here are my objections to the ritual interpretation of tragedy. But before beginning, I don’t deny there are ritual aspects behind Greek tragedy. Just like there are religious rituals and artifacts to Easter and Christmas celebrations. But to me, Greek tragedy ought to be interpreted as art before it is interpreted as ritual. Why should the interpretation of one audience in the fifth century (who may have understood tragedy to be ritual) be privileged over all the interpretations of subsequent audiences (who see tragedies as drama)?

First criticism: the ritual interpretation of tragedy results in less inspiring and somewhat limited conclusions. If I’m going to accept any interpretation of tragedy, I want it to make my experience more, not less! Take the discussion of Antigone. In Hegel’s interpretation of the work as drama, Creon and Antigone are ethical equals on a collision path. She represents the right of religion in wanting to bury her brother. He represents the civic right of the polis in denying burial to traitors, one of whom is Antigone’s brother. Anouilh, in his 1944 adaptation of Antigone, also recognized that the genius of the play lies in how both Creon and Antigone have an ethical foundation: in the same audience, the Nazis applauded the portrayal of Creon (with whom they sided) while the Free French applauded the portrayal of Antigone (with whom they sided). That would have been an interesting show to see! Just imagine the tension in the air… In Sourvinou-Inwood’s reading, however, Antigone is wrong and Creon is (mostly) right. Part of the play’s greatness is lost. Am I to believe that Sophocles’ audience missed this dramatic masterstroke which subsequent audiences grasped with ease? The ritual interpretation would be like arguing that the original audience of, say Bach’s Mass in B minor couldn’t hear the same genius modern and secular ears can hear because they were too focused on the religious aspects of Bach’s music. I don’t buy this. The inner core of a work’s genius should be available to keen interpreters of every generation.

Part of Sourvinou-Inwood’s argument is that, while there isn’t ethical parity between Antigone and Creon, her interpretation of the play is actually richer because it focuses on the unpredictability of the divine in the face of mortal understanding: although Creon plays his hand (mostly) correctly, he still goes down in the end. I agree that how the gods engineer unexpected outcomes is part of the play’s appeal (Euripides says so in the coda to many of his plays). This can be part of a ‘dramatic’ interpretation of the play. The ‘dramatic’ reading can also include the ethical parity between Antigone and Creon. But the ritual interpretation cannot accept the ethical parity. In this respect, it is limiting. In interpretation, ambiguity is often fruitful.

Second criticism: Sourvinou-Inwood argues that the Greeks conducted religious ritual on the stage of tragedy because Greek religion “did not have a canonical body of belief, no divine revelation nor scriptural texts.” Are myths not canonical bodies of belief? Did competing cities–the Hera cult in Argos, the Athena cult in Athens, and the Dionysus cult in Thebes–not compete for the right to shape canon in much the same as Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians claim primacy for their point of views? Do oracles, visions of Pan and his satyrs in the woods, and the taking of auspices not count as divine revelation? And what were the works of Homer and Hesiod if not scriptural text? Even setting this aside, why should Christianity be compared to Greek tragedy? Okay, so Christianity has a canonical body of belief, divine revelation, and scriptural texts. So would the conclusion be that Christianity does not need to dramatize religion on stage? If that was the case, then why do we have plays such as Hochhuth’s The Deputy or oratorios such as Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (which I saw a week and a half ago conducted by Butterfield at UVic)? Whether or not Greek religion had a canonical body of belief should not have any bearing on their need to dramatize religion on the stage.

Third criticism: I would have liked to have read more about whether Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were aware that their works for one time, and not for all time. Some of their texts survive down to the present day, so someone would have been recording them, writing them down. And if they were disposable works, works for one time–as Sourvinou-Inwood argues–why would there be need to preserve them?

All in all, Sourvinou-Inwood is right in positing a ritual basis of tragedy. But perhaps her argument would have been stronger had she not pressed her case so far? Drama and ritual is perhaps more a both / and rather than an either / or proposition.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

The Risk Theatre Playwright Competition Wraps Up Year One

Thank You

Thank you to all the assiduous playwrights for supporting risk theatre. May your pencils stay sharp!

Thank you to our tireless competition manager Michael Armstrong. He is the Grand Central Station of risk theatre, tracking the entries and communicating with the entrants and the jurors.

Thank you to the Langham Court Theatre for hosting the competition. It has been a tremendous opportunity to work with Michelle Buck and Keith Digby.

Stats, stats, stats!

Here are the vital statistics since the competition began ten months ago on June 1, 2018. 181 plays have come in from 4 continents (North American, Europe, Oceania, and Asia) and 11 countries (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, Ireland, Japan, Italy, Greece, Brazil, New Zealand, and the Republic of Georgio). With entries from the birthplace of tragedy–Greece and Italy–the competition is now truly international. Here’s the country breakdowns:

USA 133 entrants

Canada 25 entrants

Great Britain 10 entrants

Australia 4 entrants

Ireland 2 entrants

New Zealand 2 entrants

Japan 1 entrant

Italy 1 entrant

Greece 1 entrant

Brazil 1 entrant

Republic of Georgia 1 entrant

Of the American entries, 94 are from the east and 39 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (30 entrants), Chicago (6 entrants), and LA (9 entrants). London, with 9 entries, is a powerhouse. Kudos to playwrights in Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and New Zealand for finishing strong. And a shout out to New York playwrights who entered more plays than whole countries combined!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 126 men and 51 women. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know of one tragedy written by a woman. That play is The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, written by Elizabeth Cary in 1613. The times, they are a changing! [Intrepid playwright HP has questioned this statistic. She’s kindly forwarded a list of early modern women playwrights. Once I review the list to see if there are more female tragedians, I will update. If anyone know of any, please let me know. So for now, an asterisk follows this paragraph.]

The risktheatre.com website is averaging 80 hits a day in March. Most hits in one day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. That month also saw 2000+ hits. This month, the website will get over 2400 hits. So far, so good!

The inaugural competition has concluded on March 29, 2019. The judging process has begun. The assiduous playwrights who progress past the first round will be contacted by the middle of May. Winners will be announced mid-June. Stay tuned!

By popular demand the contest will run again next year. Yes, we are working on ways to make the competition bigger and better than ever. The theme for the 2020 competition will be: “More risk, more reward.” It will open next week. I’m looking forward to seeing all your plays in the next go around. Playwrights, keep writing! This competition is the beginning of something quite special and most unique. The lure of tragedy calls!

The most anticipated book this year has hit the bookstores. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters, Bolen Books, and Munro’s Books. All proceeds from the book go back into funding the competition. Read all about the book release here. Excerpts from the book are available from Google Books. Please, if you have a chance, rate the book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads. Even a short comment can help other readers decide.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition – March 2019 Update

Stats, stats, stats!

Thank you assiduous playwrights for all your entries! Here are the vital statistics since the competition began over nine months ago on June 1, 2018. Ninety-seven plays have come in from four continents (North American, Europe, Oceania, and Asia) and eight countries (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, Ireland, Japan, Italy, and Greece). With entries from the birthplace of tragedy–Greece and Italy–the competition is now truly international. Here’s the country breakdown:

USA 74 entrants

Canada 12 entrants

Australia 1 entrant

Great Britain 5 entrants

Ireland 2 entrants

Japan 1 entrant

Italy 1 entrant

Greece 1 entrant

Of the American entries, 52 are from the east and 22 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (fourteen entrants) and Chicago (five entrants) and LA (six entrants). Write away New York, Chicago, and LA! New York–what a powerhouse!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 73 men and 24 women. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know of one tragedy written by a woman. That play is The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, written by Elizabeth Cary in 1613. The times, they are a changing!

The risktheatre.com website is averaging 39 hits a day in February. Most hits in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. That month also saw 2000+ hits. Though the month isn’t over, based on the numbers so far, March 2019 is on pace for 2034 views. So far, so good!

The inaugural competition will conclude on March 29, 2019. Three weeks left! Wow, what a rush this has been! On March 29, 2019, the judging process will begin immediately and winners will be announced May 31, 2019. Entries received after March 29, 2019 will be entered into the 2020 competition. By popular demand the contest will run again next year. Yes, we are working on ways to make it bigger and better than ever!

My book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected has hit the bookshelves! Let your friends know they can get copies at Amazon or Barnes & Noble! All proceeds from the book go back into funding the competition. Read all about the book release here. Excerpts from the book are available from Google Books. Please, if you have a chance, rate the book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads. Even a short comment can help other readers decide if this is the book for them.

Complimentary copies of the book have started going out to the hardworking playwrights who have sent in their scripts. Complimentary copies will be distributed on a FIFO, or first-in first-out basis: the earlier you entered your play, the sooner you’ll get your copy. The distribution process is expected to finish in June, after which time everyone will have a keepsake from the competition. Keep up the good work and thanks for contributing to the success of this one of a kind competition. The book isn’t necessary for the competition: the judges will be scoring plays based on the parameters found in the ‘Guidelines’ section of the risktheatre.com website.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

Many thanks to PL for inviting me to take the Risk Theatre tour to the University of Massachusetts, Boston! And thank you to all the students who came out on a sweltering summer day at the end of term to see the presentation! The feedback was great and I could see at the end of the presentation that some gears were turning. And why is it that I can only go to Boston during weather extremes? Last time I was here was during the “bomb cyclone” in January. And it must have hit 30 C today, and it’s only the beginning of May! Well, assiduous readers, here’s the presentation for your reading pleasure:

Presentation Delivered to Peter Lech’s Greek and Roman Tragedy Class

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

How do myths function? One of their functions is to translate nature and culture into human terms. By telling a story, they instill human significance onto natural and cultural phenomena. How did the custom of young women dedicating a lock of hair prior to marriage arise? Why is there a temple of Aphrodite at Troezen? The Hippolytus myth answers these questions by incorporating nature and culture into a story filled with human significance. According to the myth, Phaedra built the temple after Aphrodite caused her to fall in love with Hippolytus. As for the custom, it was initiated by Artemis as a consolation to the dying Hippolytus: he would die, but his dedication to her would be remembered forever. Here’s another one: why does that star seem to blink every six days? Science would tell you it’s a variable star called Algol. But what myth would tell you is that that star is part of Medusa’s head in the constellation Perseus—you have to imagine that he’s holding up her severed head—and, what is more, that star denotes her eye: it blinks because by blinking, it signifies her power to turn to stone. So, one function of myth is to inscribe meaning onto patterns found in nature and culture, patterns which otherwise lack meaning. Myth helps us to understand the world in human terms.

What I’m going to give you today is a myth of tragedy called ‘risk theatre’. Just as the myth of Medusa or the myth of Hippolytus humanize the world around us, my ‘myth’ of risk theatre provides a framework of tragedy. I call it a myth because it’s not right or wrong, but a story of how tragedy works. In particular, risk theatre addresses a peculiar question: how can tragedy create suspense if it dramatizes popular, well-known myths? The stories of the Labdacid House (that’s Oedipus’ family) or the House of Atreus (that’s Orestes’ family) are so well-known that everyone knows how the story ends. Since the outcomes are foreknown, it’s hard for the stories to generate suspense. Take a look at Homer’s handling of the Oedipus myth. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, commonly referred to as the nekuia(after the ancient rite used to summon ghosts),Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the underworld where he sees the shade of Jocaste, Oedipus’ wife. He speaks a matter-of-factly about Oedipus’ crimes and how Jocaste committed suicide. There’s no suspense in Homer’s rendition of the myth. It’s bare bones. And it can be bare bones because everyone knows the tale. For Sophocles to keep audiences sitting on the edge of their seats, he has to get around the spoiler alert. How does he do this?

Here’s the solution risk theatre prosposes: the dramatic kernel of tragedy is a gambling act in which the protagonist wagers all-in. Because each dramatic act is a gambling act, unexpected things can happen. Bets can go wrong. And the bigger the bet, the more it can go sideways. The dramatist’s role is to suppress the odds of the foreknown outcome to make it seem like what must happen is not going to happen. Then, when it happens, it’s exciting.

In other words, the hero makes a big bet. Things seem to go the hero’s way. Because of the hero’s intelligence, skill, or strength, the hero appears to avert the outcome everyone knows is coming. But then an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event happens which brings about the foreknown outcome. Tragedy dramatizes a bet which has gone horribly sideways. That’s why I call tragedy risk theatre.

That tragedy is a gambling act and that dramatists trigger the foreknown outcome by a low-probability, high-consequence event are the two postulates of risk theatre. Let’s look at both these postulates, beginning with how tragedians deliberately suppress the likelihood of what must happen to the point where, when it happens, it seemsto have happened against all odds.

By a low-probability event, I mean an event that is unlikely, an event that is 1000:1 against, an event such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely for the trees to take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost. The play generates suspense by making it seem like the foreknown event (Birnam Wood’s going to come) is unlikely. Let’s take a look at some of the tragedies you’ve studied to see how ancient tragedians entertain audiences by suppressing the likelihood of the outcome everyone knows is coming.

Euripides’ play, the Bacchae, pits man against god. Although you know from the myth that Pentheus dies, Euripides’ goal as a dramatist is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s exciting. How does he do this? Look at how he portrays the rivalry between Dionysus and Pentheus. Dionysus is portrayed as a ninety-eight pound weakling who waltzes into Thebes with a retinue of eastern women. He’s cast as a drunk foreign dandy with long hair and scented locks who spends his days and nights cavorting around town. Pentheus, on the other hand, is cast as a capable warrior-king. He’s at the prime of manhood, fights before the home crowd, and has at his beck and call slaves, guards, archers, and soldiers. Pentheus has every expectation of prevailing. With all his resources, he’s going to throw this hobo out of town. But when, against all odds, the effeminate stranger turns out to be god, the fated outcome takes place and Pentheus is torn limb by limb. The closing lines—the same ones Euripides uses in many other plays—make it absolutely clear that he too conceived of tragedy as a theatre where unexpected low-probability events happen. Closing line are critical and ought to be read with care. That Euripides writes these lines confirms the risk theatre model of tragedy. Here are the lines as spoken by the chorus leader:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. (1388-1392)

Now, let’s look at the next play: Aeschylus’ Oresteia. This trilogy culminates in a showdown between Orestes and the Furies. The foreknown outcome is that the spirits of vengeance, the Furies, are transformed into the ‘Kindly Ones’ or the Eumenides, benevolent spirits who watch over Athens. Aeschylus’ goal as a tragedian is to suppress the foreknown conclusion so that when it takes place, it’s unexpected. How does he do this? He does so by emphasizing the extraordinary length of time the Furies have been engaged as spirits of vengeance. The Furies are the daughters of Night (Eum. 321). And Night is the offspring of Chaos, the eldest of all deities. That means the Furies have been persecuting blood crimes from the beginning of time, in fact, from way back when Kronos first castrated his father Ouranos. When the Furies come to the court of the Areopagus, they have every intention of winning. Who would have guessed that Orestes’ act of violence, from all the acts of violence from the beginning of time would result in the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides? The way Aeschylus frames it, it’s unlikely, and because it’s unlikely, when it takes place, it’s shocking.

Think of these events as ‘black swan’ events. This is the term popularized by Taleb, a mathematician and Wall Street trader in his books Fooled by Randomnessand The Black Swan. The term ‘black swan’ goes back to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used it as a byword for something that doesn’t exist. But then in 1697, to the shock of the world, they sighted a black swan in Australia. Taleb uses the black swan as a visual analogy of low-probability, high-consequence events. What I’m arguing today is that tragedy is full of black swan events: the bum who happens to be god, the forest that up and attacks the ramparts, or the day the Furies became the Eumenides.

Now, let’s look at a third play, Sophocles’Oedipus rex. We touched earlier on Homer’s bare bones narration of the Oedipus myth. Not very exciting. How does Sophocles add fire to the dramatization?—easy, he transforms the outcome into a black swan event. Everyone watching knows that Oedipus’ patricide and the incestuous relationship is going to be revealed. Sophocles, however, structures the play so that it looks like that no one will ever figure it out. How does Sophocles achieve this? Let’s take a look. The one eyewitness’ account of Laius’ murder is so garbled that they don’t bother to fetch him. At least not right away. So, we’re not going to hear from him. Tiresias, who knows since he’s the prophet, obstructs the investigation. So, we’re not going to hear from him either. Jocaste, who has been warned by the oracle she would give birth to a patricide, tells Oedipus point blank that the oracle must be wrong, since she exposed the child. She doesn’t know that the child survived. So, we’re not going to hear from her. In fact, the evidence against the truth coming out is so overwhelming that the chorus stops dancing in the second stasimon and asks: “Why should I dance?” (896). The gravity of their jarring pronouncement should not be underestimated. Their question would have shocked audiences who knew that the chorus’ role in tragedy isto dance. Tragedy is part of the ancient liturgy and the chorus dances to honour the gods. But if the gods are a fraud—and it’s beginning to look that way because the oracle is just looking plain wrong—why should they honour the gods?

Look: the eyewitness isn’t going to tell them because they didn’t summon him. Not yet. Tiresias isn’t going to tell him. And Jocaste tells him that the oracle dead wrong. If the Delphic oracle is mistaken and the gods can’t be trusted, what’s the point of dancing? Even after the chorus stops dancing, things appear to get even worse: the Corinthian messenger comes out of nowhere to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne because his dad Polybus died. This really throws Oedipus into shock: years ago, when the oracle prophesied that he would be a patricide, he had run away from home. And now, he finds out that dad died of natural causes. Things are looking worse and worse for the oracle. It looks like the truth will never come out. But when Oedipus tells the messenger why he left Corinth, the truth finally tumbles out. “Don’t worry about your dad” says the messenger, “he’s not really your dad.” “How do you know this?” “Well I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. You’re actually from Thebes.” “Who are my real parents?” “Well you have to ask the shepherd. He gave me to you.” “Oh, you mean the shepherd that I just summoned?—the one who is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder at the crossroads.” “Yes, that’s the one.” See where this is going? What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? And what are the odds that the shepherd who had saved Oedipus when he was a babe just happens to be the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder? I’ll tell you: the odds are as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill or the madman actually being a god or the Furies being transformed into the Eumenides: it’s a billion to one against. And when it’s a billion to one against, when it happens, it’s dramatic.

Okay, by definition, low-probability events don’t happen very often. But, as we’ve seen, in tragedy, they happen every time. How does the dramatist set up the low-probability event so that it always happens? Do any of you gamble? Then you know, the more you wager, the more things can go wrong, up to the point when you bet everything, anything can go wrong. Lay down the bankroll, leverage yourself up 100:1, go in with all your friends’ and family’s money: if the odds are anything less than perfect, the consequences are huge. Even if the odds are 99.99 percent in your favour, when you go all-in, that 0.01 percent can ruin you. Risk theatre is where that 0.01 percent happens.

The secret of how the dramatist tees up the low-probability, high-consequence risk event is that in tragedy, each dramatic act is also a gambling act. And not any gambling act, but an all-in leveraged up to the gills gambling act. For a chance to be king, Macbeth lays down the milk of human kindness. Like the game of gambling, in tragedy you have to ante up for a chance to play. But unlike the game of gambling, where you lay down cash instruments, in tragedy, you lay down human instruments. For world domination, Faust lays down his soul. For revenge, revengers lay down their humanity. For the American dream, Loman (in Death of a Salesman) lays down his dignity. Pentheus bets everything that the stranger is some bum and not god personified. He lays on the line his authority as king: no bum is going to start seditious rites while he sits on the throne. Oedipus bets that he can outwit the oracle: “You prophecy I’ll kill dad?—I’ll show you! I’m Oedipus, the master riddler. I can solve anything, and I’ll solve you!” And the Furies stake their prerogative as the punishers of blood guilt on the precedence of tradition.

When you lay so much on the line, you expose yourself to low-probability, high-consequence events because you’ve taken up too much risk. For Macbeth, Birnam Wood came. For Loman, he finds out that he’s worth more dead than alive. For Pentheus, the bum happens to be god. And for the Furies, this time was different. Who would have thought?

At the beginning I promised you a myth of tragedy. What I’ve given you is risk theatre, and its framework helps you find your way around tragedy in the same way as constellations light up a road map of the night sky. And just like constellations, risk theatre works brilliantly most of the time. The constellation Orion works great: there’s the shoulders, the belt. But then there’s a constellation like Gemini where you have to squint pretty hard to see Castor and Pollux. And just as you wouldn’t throw out the whole system of constellations because one or two don’t work, you wouldn’t throw out risk theatre for the one or two tragedies that defy it. Ultimately, risk theatre adds to our understanding because it answers the question of how tragedy can be exciting even though spoilers have marred the ending.

Think of tragedy as a theatre of risk where heroes go big or go home. Because heroes make risk run riot with their wagers, think of each dramatic act as a gambling act. When characters stake their souls, allegiances, and reputations, and leverage all their military, social, and political capital to achieve their aims, things get interesting real fast because we see by how they set up their wagers how much they value life. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth?—to Macbeth, it’s worth a Scottish crown, because that’s what he antes up: the milk of human kindness for the crown. Tragedy is an arbiter of life’s value. Think of the tragic emotions not as pity and fear, but rather anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for what the hero wagers and apprehension for the black swan event that’s going to dash the hero, the hero’s friends and family, and the community at large.

Think of the downfall of the hero as something brought about by pure chance rather than a tragic flaw or error. The aged Oedipus, in Sophocles’ final play Oedipus at Colonus, says this exactly: “Okay, when it happened, I thought I had done something wrong, but now, looking back, how else shouldI have acted? Where exactly was my error?—I was dealt a certain hand and I played the game flawlessly.” To blame an Oedipus or a Macbeth or a Pentheus for a tragic flaw is as inane as to blame, say, the Cincinnati Kid for going all-in on the final poker hand against Lancey in Richard Jessup’s novel. He has to play that hand, and it’s only when Lancey makes the most unexpected move that he loses. He could not have known that Lancey would “make the wrong move at the right time.” In the same way, what was Pentheus supposed to do when the seditious foreign stranger waltzes into town: kneel down and worship him? Folks, it’s chance. Not error. Stop looking for error and look instead at the role chance plays. The point of risk theatre is that it enlightens us that chance plays a much larger role in our lives than what we’re comfortable admitting. In tragedy, even fate must work through the mechanisms of chance.

This idea of risk theatre I’ve been developing for over ten years, and I’m very happy to let you know it’s more than theory. Langham Court Theatre, one of the most storied and successful community theatres in Canada, has just now signed on to inaugurate a 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We’re challenging dramatists worldwide to write bold and exciting risk theatre tragedies. We’re giving away over $10,000 in prize money. And we’re going to produce the winning play. Not only this year. Every year. We’re going to reinvent tragedy. The site is at risktheatre.com. Theatre spelled with a –re ending. The site’s not quite live. But I can give you the password: 1974. Take a look. See if you can figure out that poker hand on the illustration.

Here’s a parting thought I’d like to leave you with. I’ve known Peter for a long time. We went to Brown together in the 2000s. He was studying speech patterns in Roman comedy and I was grappling with how tragedy functions. Thank you, Peter for the opportunity to speak today. After Brown, I came back to Canada to take up my old job. You know, by trade, I’m not an academic and not a thespian. I’m a plumber. But I never lost sight of my goal. And despite the long odds, it looks like the goal’s getting closer. And you know the odds are long when the border guard looks at you real funny when you say that you’re speaking on theatre and your occupation is plumbing. So I encourage you all, no matter what your goals are, to chase them down. If I can do it, you can too. Because, you know, if you stay hungry and keep going, despite the long odds, sometimes the low-probability, high-consequence event will work out in your favour. Thank you.

18.05.umass

Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic – Eagleton (Part 3 of 3)

2003 Blackwell Publishers, 328 pages (continued from part 2)

Chapter 7: Tragedy and the Novel

Summary: Tragic novels began with Hardy, James, and Conrad. Some near misses in Dickens’ late works. Of course there is also Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Mention of Moby-Dick. This must be one of Eagleton’s faves, as there have been a consistent string of Moby-Dick quotes (and good ones) through the whole book. Fewer precipices and hairpin turns in novels compared with drama. Aldous Huxley argues that novel, in contrast to tragedy, tries to ‘tell the whole truth’ and dilutes the elemental drive of tragedy. Quotes John Orr saying that late nineteenth-century tragedy springs from peripheries: Scandinavia, Russia, Ireland, and Spain: ‘Tragic art could not have sprung from the major epicentres of European capitalism at the time, nor chosen its tragic protagonists from the urban bourgeoisie of the major nations’. To see the novel as an antidote to tragedy is to view it as an intrinsically liberal form, decentred, dialogical, and open-ended, a champion of growth, change and provisionality as anti-tragic modes. The wisdom of the folk is resolutely anti-tragic. The stage does indeed generally demand more swashbuckling moments. Goethe comments in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship that things in drama hurry on apace and the active hero carries all before him, whereas the typical hero of the novel is more passive. Indeed, the relations between the two genres can be seen as an allegory of the relations between the middle class and aristocracy—the middle class needing to hijack for its own political ends something of the grandiloquence and ceremonial forms of its superiors, while feeling these forms to be too shackling and simplistic for its own psychologically intricate life-world. Wilhelm Meister begins by elevating the Muse of Tragedy over the figure of Commerce, but by the end of the novel, having met with no particular success on stage, he will acknowledge commerce as the true form of nobility.

Reaction: I think tragedy is more like a polar bear swim: that’s the New Years ritual where swimmers jump into the icy water and then back out again just as quickly. Tragedy is like a 100 metre dash. Novels, on the other hand, are like a 10k run, others are like a marathon. So there’s the one difference in, what shall we call it, ‘pace’ perhaps. And the other big difference is that you read a novel at home while you go out to see a tragedy. Or at least, tragedy was meant to be performed rather than read from the armchair: public vs. private. The difference between the two is like going out to see Bruckner’s Ninth at the symphony hall or listening to it at home on a hi-fi system.

It would be interesting to do a study of tragic novels made into movies, i.e. Moby-Dick. You can see how the movie makes everything more direct: the introspective chapters on different types of whales, whale anatomy, the history of the whaling trade, the examination of the harpoon and the towing mechanism, etc., have all been excised. Even the Fedallah character (Ahab’s mysterious double) and his prophecies have been removed. It’s cut bare bones to the ‘man vs. whale’ theme. And it’s a good movie.

Eagleton’s comment on folk wisdom being resolutely anti-tragic resonated with me. Folk wisdom, being from the school of hard knocks, instinctively avoids big risks. Places like Wall Street rewards big risks: a well placed bet can double or triple what is staked. My personal best was Apple. Bought at $27 (Cdn) a share. Taking into account the 2-for-1 stock split in 2005 and the 7-for-1 split in 2014, it’s worth, $2734 (Cdn) today. Of course, I only bought one share. What happened was it was Christmas, and I found this neat site called oneshare.com. They would send you a framed stock certificate of your favourite stock . I got mom and dad a share of Coke, my son a share of Walt-Disney, and my sister a share of Apple. This was pre-iPhone or iPod Apple. Steve Jobs had just come back and he’d introduced the candy coloured iMacs. Well, after getting the family framed stock certificates, I thought I would get myself, for old times’ sakes, a share as well. Anyway, I digress. But folk wisdom doesn’t originate from Wall Street. Folk wisdom is tied to the land, agricultural in its origins. You can bet on growing this crop or that crop, but whatever crop you bet on, the price per bushel isn’t going to go from $27/bushel to $2734/bushel in any time soon. And if you bet too big and bet wrong, you and your family are going to starve. So yeah, risk theatre would agree with Eagleton here: folk wisdom is anti-tragic. But the reason risk theatre finds folk wisdom anti-tragic differs from Eagleton. Risk theatre finds that folk wisdom is anti-tragic because folk wisdom preaches a low risk approach. Risk theatre demands high risk to make the show exciting.

Chapter 8: Tragedy and Modernity

Summary: Spinoza foreign to the spirit of tragedy: according to Spinoza, all things, including nature, proceed from the mind of God and the human mind can grasp this procession, since it too is part of God’s intellect. In Spinoza’s universe, nothing happens by chance. Spinoza’s rationalistic, scientistic, totalizing approach disliked by modernity. Eagleton finds that there is irony in the proposal that the idea of tragedy is a full-blooded critique of modernity. As usual, he quotes Steiner, who is, surprise surprise, mistaken: ‘Tragic drama tells us that the sphere of reason, order, and justice are terribly limited and that no progress in our science or technical resources will enlarge their relevance’. Eagleton finds that there are more real-life tragedies now than any other point in history. Eagleton believes that tragedy does not so much die in the twentieth century so much as it mutates into modernity. In modernity, according to Eagleton, Eros is sublimated into building banks and opera halls, depleting Eros’ internal reserves and leaving it open to Thanatos. In this view, the more civilized we are, the more we open ourselves to guilt and self-aggression. So there is something tragic at the heart of civilization: the irony of idealism. Nice Lukacs quote: ‘In tragedy God must leave the stage but must remain a spectator’. Eagleton writes: ‘The human has replaced the divine as the locus of absolute value; yet if God is dead, then as Nietzsche saw there is not vantage-point outside the human from which a judgement of its value could logically be made. The death of God, whatever Feuerbach may have thought, thus threatens to drag humanism down in its wake’.

‘For this current of late modernity’, writes Eagleton, ‘from Strindberg onwards, relationship is now tragic in itself. To exercise your freedom is to damage someone else … The price of freedom, then, is an incompatibility of persons or goods; and to this extent tragedy would seem built into a pluralist or individualist culture … Max Weber maintains that there are some fundamental, intractable conflicts of value that simply must be confronted .. Rosalind Hursthouse argues likewise, that virtue ethics accepts that there are situations in which you may act well but can still emerge with dirty hands … set exponent of this quasi-tragic moral theory is Isaiah Berlin, who maintains that the world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced by choices equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably mean the sacrifice of others … Nussbaum sees that any good worth pursuing is because it is bounded off from other things and potentially at odds with them’. Hey, this sounds like opportunity cost! And what is at the bottom of risk theatre: it’s the idea of opportunity cost.

Reaction: It seems like it is in this chapter that Eagleton finally starts revealing his own stand on tragedy. Why didn’t the book begin here? For all this talk about ‘God knows everything’ or ‘Because God knows all there cannot be tragedy’ or ‘If the world were deterministic tragedy is not possible’ what if I presented you another case? Why would it matter if the world was random or deterministic? Let’s say, a spectator believed—with Spinoza (for whom tragedy is not possible)—that the universe is deterministic. What would prevent this spectator, however, from enjoying a tragedy that portrayed a random world, you know, a world such as the one in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra? In that play, things happen quite by chance. For example, Lavinia walks into Christine’s bedroom to witness her father’s murder quite by happenstance. I can see Eagleton’s point with ever greater clarity: he wants to unify real-life tragedy and theatrical tragedy under one term: the ‘tragic’. Theatrical tragedy and real-life tragedy should be interchangeable, according to Eagleton. But why is art beholden to represent actual reality? And if tragedy is not possible in real life (because the universe if deterministic) why wouldn’t it be possible in art (where the universe can be deterministic, free, up, down, yellow, blue, or whatever you please)? My beef with Eagleton is that actual tragedy and theatrical tragedy are two different beasts. The ancient Greek did not call a real life tragedy a tragedy, they called a real life tragedy a sumphora. The ancient Romans were the same. To them, a real life tragedy was never a tragedy, it was a clades. It has only been since the sixteenth century that the term tragedy in English usage could denote either actual disaster or the art form of tragedy; it is a relatively new usage. In my book Risk Theatre, I talk about how theatre is an ex ante art: the stream of action proceeds on forecasts, projections, and best guesses. When we see tragedy or disaster in real life, we see it ex post, or after the fact. To me, the sense of the tragic from theatre revolves around the emotions of anticipation and apprehension over what will happen. Because we understand real life tragedy ex post, the feelings real life tragedy evokes are entirely different. First of all, there is no anticipation and apprehension because the event has already happened. I’m going to think about this some more, the question Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic raises in my mind more and more is: why does Eagleton want to unify real life tragedy and the art form of tragedy? What does he have to gain from this bold move? After all, for thousands of years (until the 1500s according to the Oxford English Dictionary), there were separate words for real life tragedy and the art form of tragedy. That is to say, the art form of tragedy existed a long time without having had anything to do at all with actual tragedy.

Eagleton’s argument (following Nietzsche) that the death of God robs humanity of a vantage-point outside the human form from which a judgement of its value could be made only appears half true. Nietzsche, it will be remembered, also argued that human existence could and must be judged as an aesthetic phenomenon. That is to say, art justifies and gives value to life. And, I think it could be argued that the inspiration of art comes to us—like prophecy and revelation—from beyond us; art can stand as a (somewhat) external judge of human value. Take my idea of risk theatre, which is built around the idea that heroes are gamblers who wager human beliefs and values. They wager these human ideals in the aesthetic realm of theatre; risk theatre is tragedy and tragedy is art. Now, when these hero-gamblers wager the soul for world dominion (e.g. Faust), they assign value to the all-too-human. Faust, after all, could have wagered his soul for some pork chops instead. Or, like Richard Rich in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, he could have wagered his soul to become attorney-general for Wales. From this perspective, art acts as an arbiter of human values. Human value is not absolute, but elastic, bound only the hero-gambler’s imagination when concocting the hero’s wager. Art, I believe, stands outside of man. Oedipus at Colonus, Hamlet, Macbeth, The Master Builder: they are made by human hands, but as works of art, stand outside of humanity, forever judging its makers. Hmmm. This is an interesting argument: will artificial intelligence or AI someday rise to judge human value?—we just watched 2010 A Space Odyssey the other night. What a fantastic flick. Unbelievable that it was put together in 1968.

Chapter 9: Demons

Summary: Chapter gets to a good start; I feel Eagleton is starting to construct his theory of tragedy in earnest now. Discussion of tragedy as an inherent contradiction of situation. His example is capitalism, which rounds up and exploits the previously scattered proles, thereby enabling them to rise up, destroy capitalism, and create a society free from class warfare. According to Eagleton, only Marxism, of modern theories, holds that civilization has advanced in the scale of its comforts and its brutalities [ed. couldn’t someone argue capitalism holds the same?]. Capitalist modernity is a fall; it is like Faust, says Eagleton. The pact with Mephistopheles is the price we pay for progress. The doctrine of the Fall is thus a tragic one—not because its outcome may not prove to be benign but because even if it does, it will have involved unimaginable waste and suffering. Some good passages on the pros and cons of colonialism and imperialism. Associates hamartia or ‘missing the mark’ with desire. Desire for Eagleton sets off the tragic fall. Defines ‘demonic’ as the annihilating desire, the desire that ‘hollows out the sensuous and surges onto the next’. The ‘demonic’ drive can only be fulfilled in the ‘death drive’, which Eagleton refers to as Thanatos. The opposite of the Thanatos drive is Eros, which attempts to put the death drive to use for its own purposes, but in vain. The Eros and Thanatos drives can be combined by contracting syphilis (the case of Leverkuhn in Mann’s Doctor Faustus) where proximity to death heightens the creative potential. Mann’s Doctor Faustus is allegory of greatest modern tragedy. But Eagleton believes it misses a solution to its tragedy: socialism [ed. but what about the character Naphta, Mann’s caricature of Lukacs]. Eagleton points out that socialism/communism had a hand in ridding the world of ‘Dionysian dementia’ (i.e. Nazi Germany). Tragic for Eagleton is ‘hope beyond hopelessness’ exemplified by the last note of Leverkuhn’s cello cantata. The ultimate example of the ‘demonic’ is the Holocaust. The demonic is associated with waste and motiveless malignity. Demonic is a kind of cosmic sulking. Those who planned the death camps were demonic. Cites three works which illustrate the quarrel between Eros and Thanatos: The Magic Mountain, Women in Love (Lawrence) and Salome (Wilde). ‘In his great epiphany in the snow, Hans Castorp encounters a form of sublimity from which he learns the fearful pleasure of playing with forces so great that to approach them nearly is destruction. One could find worse accounts of the disposition of the audience of a tragedy’.

Reaction: If modern capitalism, is a Fall, what is it a fall from?—the medieval trade guilds that Marx and Engels write of, ancient Sparta, Renaissance England, or? In the biblical Fall, they fell from the Garden of Eden. Modern capitalism seems to me less of a Fall than an advance, and a sustainable one at that. When I was growing up, you know, most mass market items were made in Japan and Taiwan. Taiwan we used to call ‘the shoe factory of the world’. Wages were cheap, and the sweat shops of these countries powered capitalism. This was the dark side of capitalism. But, in time, the people there saved, tooled up, and became first world countries. Case in point: they don’t make sneakers in Taiwan anymore. They make world class electronics. And in the 90s and the early 2000s, China took over the role of providing sweat labour. But look on your tags for mass market items. As China emerges from a third world country to a first world country, less and less stuff is made there now. More and more I see things are made in Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, and so on. So it’s not immediately clear to me that capitalism is unsustainable. I would say, yeah, for sure, if 99% of people are proles who don’t own property, than yeah, you can get revolution. But the landed middle class probably doesn’t want revolution. So long as there’s a large middle class, I’d bet things stay stable. It’d be interesting to get stats on Marxist supporters. Are there more Marxists in the top 5% of wage earners or the bottom 5%? I’d be willing to bet that there’s more Marxists in the top 5%. Maybe Marx’ observation that capitalism sows its own destruction is especially applicable to the intellectual classes?

It almost seems like Eagleton is arguing (and perhaps he is) that the spirit of tragedy in the twentieth century found a new home, not one in drama, but one in the novel. Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus exemplify contradiction, spiritual waste, and this conflict between Eros and Thanatos better than any modern drama. I’ll agree with Eagleton that The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus are damn fine novels. It hit me like a freight train when I read it in the winter of 2005. Wow. But for me, Doctor Faustus illustrates how the horrors of fascist Germany arose, quite naturally, from German culture. Fascist Germany, in my reading of The Magic Mountain, is the logical culmination of centuries of German culture, beginning in the fifteenth century with Albrecht Durer. The critical point that Mann makes is that the death camps and the madness is not the product of one or two sick individuals, but rather represents the madness of an entire nation. And, the scary thing is, it could happen again. Eagleton’s view that the death camps and the Holocaust are an aberration, illogical, and an example of the demonic sounds stalwart and proper, but to me seems the more dangerous view. If we believe that the perpetrators of those heinous crimes are demonic and so far removed from us, it would not occur to us that we are capable of doing the same thing. Mann’s view, in my reading of The Magic Mountain, seems the safer view: by looking at the enemy as a human being, and a cultured human being backed by centuries of high culture and art raises our awareness that we must be careful of what we do, lest we fall into the same madness. You know, it’s a similar situation with drugs and alcohol. You can look at addicts and alcoholics as ‘dope fiends’. Not human anymore. ’That’s not me’, you say. But I wonder how many of us are a prescription away from wandering around as a junky on the street? It’s actually pretty easy, one of my friends was a high school teacher. Doing really well. One day she fell and broke her jaw. The doctor gave her an opioid for the pain. You know what happens next.

Chapter 10: Thomas Mann’s Hedgehog

Summary: With some notable exceptions such as George Thomson (Aeschylus and Athens) and Eva Figes (Tragedy and Social Evolution), left wing critics suspect the association between cult and tragedy. Sacrifice leaves a bad taste in the mouth of radical critics. Eagleton believes that the political left should not, however, surrender a notion to its opponents. While sacrifice may be repugnant, sometimes, says Eagleton, something must be dismembered to be renewed. Walter Benjamin sees double use in sacrifice: 1) atonement of expiation, and 2) new contents of the life of a people announce themselves. Most theory of tragedy is a hangover from the old days of cult, a version of antique ritual updated for modern consumption. Rather than finding the value of tragic sacrifice in ethical terms, it sees such destruction as valuable in itself, thus regressing to notions of the fertilizing power released by the mutilated god. In this sense, it undoes the ethical reinterpretation of the natural which is central to the Judaic tradition. Discussion of pharmakos, an unclean prisoner who would be ritually expelled from the city to ward off the anger of the gods. The scapegoat would elicit both pity and fear, Tragedy breaks down the barrier between gods, humans and beasts. The great pharmakos of ancient tragedy are Oedipus, Antigone, and Philoctetes. These pharmakos type figures from Oedipus to Lear inaugurate an revolutionary ethics by championing a truth the system has to suppress in order to function [was that the thesis statement for the ‘radical and controversial case’ the back book blurb promised?]. The pharmakos is revolutionary because it sees value in non-being. Tragedy shows both value and futility of life (look at Oedipus), the purpose and purposelessness of existence. Modern day left-historicists deaf to humanity’s roots in an ancient otherness: tragedies like those of Oedipus and Lear remind of the archaic aspects of humanity we drag as a kind of ballast through the modern world. No postmodern tragedy because postmodernism believes culture goes all the way down, repressing the duality of civilization and barbarism. Thomas Mann’s hedgehog is the holy sinner Gregorius, who filled with shame for doing the things Oedipus did and then some more, withdraws from society as a pharmakos and chains himself to a rock for 17 years. In that time, he grows to resemble a hedgehog. At the end, he becomes Pope Gregory the Great.

‘Art itself’, writes Eagleton, ‘is a for of sacrifice [like tragedy], a priestly self-abnegation, as the writer pays out with his paucity of life for the prodigal fullness of his art. Modern day pharmakos include Melville’s Ahab and Billy Budd. Such pharmakos disquiet historicists because, in a way, Ahab and Budd form a transhistorical bridge linking the distant past to the present day. Eagleton finds the discussion usually focusses on negative side of the pharmakos. He points out the pharmakos can initiate change. For example, in the old day, when the pharmakos is expelled, he could found a new settlement. So, for Eagleton, there is something revolutionary about the pharmakos and, for this reason, the left should embrace the pharmakos, as the pharmakos can smash apart evil and greedy transnational corporations and create political revolution and a better, more just world for everyone.

Reaction: Wow, the back blurb got it bang on. That the tragic holds the key to political revolution is indeed ‘a radical and controversial case’. Capitalism has created a majority class of pharmakos type outcasts, who will rise up in revolt. Very good. I would have liked Eagleton to say some more about what he would replace capitalism with. If its socialism, would a revolution be necessary? And who are the pharmakos? Are they North American plumbers? Are they the hands and fingers assembling iPhones in China? Are they coffee farmers in Ethiopia? Is this world revolution? Presumably the revolution will smash the evil and greedy transnational corporations. What then happens to public pension plans, such as the Canada Pension Plan, who fund future payouts by investing in transnational corporations? What happens to the mom and pop investors who have invested in the transnational corporations? What will tragedy give us to replace the economic, social, and political power structures that are in place? I guess the final questions for Eagleton are: 1) how many pharmakos are there in the real world, 2) can they achieve critical mass to ignite the revolution, and 3) do they perceive no means of advancing beyond the class of pharmakos or is the current world system a caste system with no hope of betterment?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.