Tag Archives: tragedy

A Risk Theatre Reading of Thomas Hardy’s FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

In 1874, Thomas Hardy was thirty-four and moonlighting as a writer. His day job as an architect paid the bills. Far from the Madding Crowd, his fourth published novel, was being anonymously serialized in the popular London magazine Cornhill. Rumor had it that it was George Eliot’s new novel.1 It was a hit. Its success allowed Hardy to become a full-time writer. Like the fictional events in the novel, the real-life events that led to his breakthrough were full of chance, risk, and the random element.

The coincidences that led to Hardy’s rise began in 1862 when he started working for Arthur Blomfield, a London architect located at 9 St. Martin’s Place (Millgate 74). In the same building, at 8 St. Martin’s Place, was the Alpine Club (Halperin 740). Its president was Leslie Stephen. In 1862, Stephen published Peaks, Passes, and Glaciersrecounting his ascent—the first—of the Schreckhorn, a 4078 meter alpine peak. Hardy was familiar with Stephen’s book (Halperin 740–1). His familiarity was unsurprising: it was the golden age of mountaineering. What is surprising, however, is that years later, Stephen would be the one to give Hardy his golden opportunity. By chance their paths had crossed and by chance their paths would keep crossing.

Flash forward ten years. Hardy has moved to Dorset, where he was working on his third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes. In November 1872, he picked up a copy of Fraser’s Magazine. One of the pieces was Stephen’s fictional short story, “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps,” about a fall that leaves a mountaineer two hundred feet above a torrent hanging by a rhododendron stem. Hardy, captivated, rewrites Stephen’s story into his own (literal) cliffhanger scene in A Pair of Blue Eyes (Halperin 742–4).2 Their paths were crossing again.

That same year, Stephen became editor of Cornhill. He came across Hardy’s second novel, Under the Greenwood Tree. He must have been captivated, because he wrote Hardy asking for a novel. His letter, however, was dropped in the mud on a Dorsetshire lane. If a laborer had not seen it, the winter rain and wind would have carried it away (Hardy Life 98). Hardy received the letter in late November, even as he was rewriting “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” He wrote back. Yes, he had a novel in mind. Its name would be Far from the Madding Crowd.

For over a decade, Hardy and Stephen’s literal and literary paths—though they knew not why—had been crossing. Then, chance made something happen. For Stephen to have offered the little-known Hardy an opportunity to join the Cornhill’s roster—which included heavy hitters Matthew Arnold, Charlotte Brontë, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Anthony Trollope—was a godsend, and one that was lost and found, almost blown away by an errant gust.

Perhaps it was the impact of so many low-probability, high-consequence concatenations in life that led Hardy to foreground chance in his new novel. Far from the Madding Crowd entertains by flitting between tragedy and comedy. Chance is the narrative fulcrum between the two. The pastoral idyll, with its unchanging agricultural rhythms, highlights through contrast how accident, coincidence, and the unexpected rule life. Bathsheba Everdene, Gabriel Oak, William Boldwood, and Francis Troy—like Hardy and Stephen in life—wander their desultory circuit. For a duration, the steady state prevails. Then chance romps through, changing all. Chance is the invisible hand of the new god writing life’s text.

Between Tragedy and Comedy

Just as the architectural marvel of the great barn is built from arches, buttresses, and structures counterbalancing opposing forces, the narrative is built upon counterbalancing binary propositions. It is the work of an author-architect. On a macro level, the novel’s title announces the opposing forces between town and country: Far from the Madding Crowd is how Londoners would describe rustics, not how rustics would themselves describe. On a micro level, binary propositions can be seen in the narrator’s love of antithesis: “Deeds of endurance which seem ordinary in philosophy,” says the narrator in one example, “are rare in conduct” (368).3

In chapter three, a crucial binary proposition emerges. In their first conversation, Gabriel unintentionally provokes Bathsheba’s anger and embarrassment. She turns red. He turns away. When he turns back, she is gone. “With an air between that of Tragedy and Comedy,” says the narrator, “Gabriel returned to work” (24). The air is comic insofar as the conversation kindles his interest and tragic insofar as she leaves. The proposition between tragedy and comedy provides the key to the novel’s structure. As the suitors—Gabriel, the stalwart farmhand, Boldwood, the older gentleman-farmer, and Troy, the young and dashing libertine—vie for the hand of the independent and recalcitrant Bathsheba, the action veers between tragedy and comedy. Far from the Madding Crowd, as it counterbalances the ancient forces of comedy and tragedy, is, like the great barn, a marvel to behold and a work for all time.

The tension between tragedy and comedy is palpable when Troy tells Bathsheba that, while she means nothing to him, his previous lover, though dead, means everything. Distressed, Bathsheba barricades herself in the attic. To pass the time, she asks Liddy Smallbury, her servant-companion, for some books:

“Bring up some books. Not new ones. I haven’t heart to read anything new.”
“Some of your uncle’s old ones ma’am?”
“Yes: some of those we stowed away in boxes.” A faint gleam of humour passed over her face as she said: “Bring Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy; and the Mourning Bride; and—let me see—Night Thoughts, and the Vanity of Human Wishes.”
“And that story of the black man who murdered his wife Desdemona? It is a nice dismal one that would suit you excellent just now.”
“Now Lidd-you’ve been looking into my books without telling me! And I said you were not to. How do you know it would suit me? It wouldn’t suit me at all.”
“But if the others do—”
“No they don’t. And I won’t read dismal books. Why should I read dismal books indeed? Bring me Love in a Village, and The Maid of the Mill, and Doctor Syntax and some volumes of the Spectator.” (300)

Her initial choices assimilate her situation into tragedy. Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy and William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride are both tragedies of passion. The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality by Edward Young is a didactic poem reflecting on loss, fortune’s wheel, missed opportunities, and other tragic commonplaces. Samuel Johnson, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, likewise sets into poetry the follies preceding the fall.

Liddy picks up her mistress’s cue, suggesting another tragedy of passion: Shakespeare’s Othello. Then, as though to demonstrate life’s mutability, Bathsheba requests four comic works: two comic operas (librettist Isaac Bickerstaff’s Love in a Village and The Maid of the Mill), William Combe’s comic poem, Doctor Syntax, and the Spectator, a periodical featuring comic essays and character sketches. She signifies through her choices that life pivots between tragic exhaustion and comic rejuvenation.

Tragedy and comedy can be conceptualized as life’s two opposing poles. Such is the polarity the narrator presents when introducing Boldwood:

He saw no absurd sides to the follies of life, and thus, though not quite companionable in the eyes of merry men and scoffers, and those to whom all things show life as a jest, he was not intolerable to the earnest and those acquainted with grief. Being a man who read all the dramas of life seriously, if he failed to please when they were comedies, there was no frivolous treatment to reproach him for when they chanced to end tragically. (122)

In the narrator’s eyes, because life is a drama, it vacillates between drama’s two classic forms: tragedy and comedy. In this synoptic view, while comedy is associated with folly and jest, tragedy is associated with seriousness and grief.

As the novel takes on the qualities of tragedy and comedy, theatrical references accumulate. While daydreaming, Bathsheba imagines her future romances would be “dramas in which men would play a part” (12). Unexpected announcements create an “intensely dramatic effect” (252). A pause in conversation is an “entr’acte,” a French term for the interval between two acts of a play (106). The flames lighting the kiln at Warren’s Malthouse are theatrical footlights throwing onto the ceiling the shadows of the assembled rustics, who are themselves likened to the theatre troupe Her Majesty’s Servants (46: Penguin edition). In a serious turn, when Gabriel hands Fanny Robin a shilling, he can feel in her wrists the “throb of tragic intensity” (54). In a lighthearted moment, the narrator says that Bathsheba’s face appears to Gabriel, who is admiring her, “as the uncertain glory of an April day” (124). The passage draws from Shakespeare’s comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

Proteus. O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day,
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,
And by and by a cloud takes all away. (1.3.84–87)

At that moment, as though on a cue, a cloud arrives as Boldwood takes Bathsheba away.

As theatrical references accumulate, Hardy transforms Shakespeare’s well-loved characters into the rustics and farmhands that populate the novel. Shakespeare’s characters strut out again, this time on the pastoral stage of Hardy’s novel. While Shakespeare’s Antony in Julius Caesar leads the plebs on, saying: “I am no orator, as Brutus is, / But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,” (3.2.210–1), Troy leads Bathsheba on, saying: “Because a plain blunt man, who has never been taught concealment, speaks out his mind” (169–70). In Laban Tall, a second Morton arises and a second tragedy unfolds: “Tall came into the enclosure, and leapt off—his face tragic as Morton’s after the Battle of Shrewsbury” (139). Just as the messenger Morton announces the tragedy in 2 Henry IV (1.1.70–1), so too, the mock-heroic Tall announces the pastoral iteration of the Battle of Shrewsbury: Bathsheba’s flock is dying and help is wanting. In a lighter moment, the narrator likens Gabriel to Guildenstern, a source of comic relief in Hamlet. “Like Guildenstern,” says the narrator, “Oak was happy in that he was not over happy” (145). Gabriel is happy, and, like Guildenstern, a step away from tragedy.

Hardy’s references to theatrical conventions and works familiar to the madding crowd—the educated big-city readers of Cornhill—translate the Wessex countryside into the Londoners’ idiom: a shepherd’s loss of a flock is “a pastoral tragedy” (38); Joseph Poorgrass and the rustics, thinking the farm will be ruined, think they are living “in a tragedy” (105); Bathsheba, confronted with an errant husband, cannot decide if farm life is more like the comic Love in a Village or the tragic A Maid’s Tragedy. Not only do the allusions draw cultivated city readers into the rustic country setting, once the novel has become a stage, Hardy has at his disposal all the elements of tragedy and comedy—such as tragic omens and stock comic characters—to use as narrative building blocks.

Tragic Omens and Stock Comic Characters

Omens precipitate negative turning points. A cat and dog presage Gabriel’s initial, unsuccessful courting of Bathsheba: “just as he arrived by the garden gate,” says the narrator, “he saw a cat inside, going into arched shapes and fiendish convulsions at the sight of his dog George” (31). A harbinger likewise attends Bathsheba’s disastrous journey to Bath:

“I hope nothing is wrong about mistress,” said Maryann, who with some other women was tying the bundles (oats being always sheaved on this farm). “But a’ unlucky token came to me int’house this morning. I went to unlock the door, and dropped the key, and it fell upon the stone floor and broke into two pieces. Breaking a key is a dreadful bodement. I wish mis’ess was home.” (215)

So too, before Boldwood’s fateful Christmas party, “a shadow seemed to rove about the rooms saying that the proceedings were unnatural” (348).

Omens, being chance events, amplify chance’s dominion. Nature communicates through chance. When omens congregate together, it is, to those in the know, a “direct message from the Great Mother” (239). “I’ve had the news-bell ringing in my left ear quite bad enough for a murder, and I’ve seen a magpie all alone!” says Poorgrass the night Fanny goes missing and the rickyard fire breaks out (70). After Bathsheba fires her bailiff, the farmers worry about the impact of her inexperience upon their livelihoods. They begin seeing tell-tale signs:

“Ay—there’s some sorrow going to happen,” said Matthew Moon. “I’ve had three very bad dreams lately; and Sally put the bellows upon table twice following last week.”
“A sure sign that sommat wrong is coming,” said Joseph Poorgrass. “I had a white cat come in to me yesterday breakfast-time. And there was a coffin-handle upon my sister-law’s candle last night.”
“And I’ve seed the new moon two months following through glass. I was told, too, that Gammer Ball dreamed of bees stinging her.” (105)

The wicked storm is also presaged by signs: a toad crosses the path; a slug goes indoors; spiders drop from the ceiling; sheep crowd together. The sky itself, in a display of hylozoism, expresses solidarity with the animal kingdom:

The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky, dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The moon as seen through these films had a lurid metallic look. The fields were sallow with the impure light, and all were tinged in monochrome, as if beheld through stained glass. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the behaviour of the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution. (236)

The portents are the pastoral equivalents to the tragic omen, a commonplace in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for example, wonders presage Caesar’s doom:

Calphurnia. Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets,
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol.
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. (2.2.13–24)

So, too, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, omens anticipate the death of the king:

Lennox. The night has been unruly: where we lay
Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’th’air, strange screams of death,
And prophesying, with accents terrible,
Of dire combustion, and confused events
New hatched to th’ woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamoured the livelong night. Some say the earth
Was feverous and did shake. (2.3.54–61)

Far from the Madding Crowd, like the art of tragedy, uses chance to anticipate what is to come.

If omens move the action towards tragedy, the likeness of Bathsheba’s suitors to stock comic characters moves the narrative towards comedy. One of comedy’s stock characters is the adulescens amator, the young man in love. The adulescens amator was such a standard fixture in Roman comedy, that, should he fail to appear, the playwright would be obliged to explain his absence (Plautus Captives 1032; Casina 64–5). The prototypical young man (such as Shakespeare’s Proteus with whom Gabriel is explicitly identified) falls in love and asks for the hand of the first lady that comes his way. So too, it is love at first sight for Gabriel: he meets Bathsheba and is on his knees. Just as the adulescens amator in comedy has to overcome blocking characters, Gabriel will have to overcome Boldwood and Troy.

One species of blocking character is the old man in love, the senex amator. From Olympio in Plautus’s Casina or Demenetus in his Asinaria to Chaucer’s January in the Merchant’s Tale, the senex amator is a common rival. Although the old man is wealthier and starts off from a position of power, he gives place, in the end, to his younger rival, and at a high cost to his dignity. Boldwood plays the old man in love. He is forty-one when he proposes to Bathsheba: twice her age and much older than the other suitors (127).4

As Boldwood plays the senex amator, his progression, mirroring that of Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, takes on further comic dimensions. Malvolio, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (2.3.151–57); Boldwood, deceived by a letter, woos a lady (98). Malvolio has a puritanical bent (2.3.142); Boldwood’s house has the atmosphere of “a Puritan Sunday lasting all the week” (99). Malvolio is transformed into a fool as he woos an unwilling lady (3.4.17–60); Boldwood woos an unwilling lady and is made a fool by Troy (224–31). Malvolio rues his loss of dignity (5.1.338–39); Boldwood rues his loss of dignity (202–03, 252). Malvolio is sent to the madhouse (4.2.7–9); Boldwood is sent to the madhouse (373–75).

The braggart soldier, or miles gloriosus, is another stock character, and an audience favourite. He is a dashing rogue, a libertine whose tales are greater in the telling than the doing. Examples of the miles gloriosus include Plautus’s bombastic Pyrgopolynices (“terrific tower-taker”) in The Braggart Soldier and Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Sergeant Troy plays the miles gloriosus. “Whilst he sometimes reached the brilliant in speech,” says the narrator, “he fell below the commonplace in action” (167). “He could,” says the narrator, “be eager to pay and intend to owe” (167). Troy would be at home in the tavern with Falstaff, Shakespeare’s jolly knight. Like Troy, Falstaff is eager to pay, but intends to owe: if only his pockets had not been picked, he would pay his “four-and-twenty pound” tab to Mistress Quickly (1 Henry IV3.3.73). Like the braggart soldier, Troy’s daring is better suited to charming ladies and circus tricks than fighting. When it comes to blows, he is bested by Boldwood and, if we admit the brawl in the unpublished “Sheep-Rot Chapter,” by Gabriel as well (228, 397). Like the comic soldier, Troy is the object of ridicule for those who see through his facade (193–94, 220–21).

Wessex is a stage. The malthouse kilns provide the theatrical footlights lighting the way for the new adulescens amator, senex amator, and miles gloriosus to walk the stage. When the action is grave, pulsing with disintegration, the countryside breaks out in strange omens presaging tragedy. But, when the action is gay and laughter-loving, when fortunes rise and marriage beckons, the novel approaches comedy.

Upside Risk and Downside Risk

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Monk connects tragedy with downside risk:

I shall lament, and in the Tragic Mode,
The sufferings of those who once stood high,
Who fell from eminence, so that none could
Deliver them out of adversity.
For when Fortune makes up her mind to fly,
Her course no man is able to withhold;
Let no one trust in blind prosperity;
Be warned by these examples true and old. (178)

The Monk makes it through seventeen tragedies before the Knight interrupts. “‘Halt!’ says the Knight. ‘No more of this, good sir!’” (201). It is perhaps unsurprising that the Monk’s stories of one-percenters being cut down annoys the Knight, who is himself one of the elites. Instead of downside risk, the Knight would rather hear of upside risk:

And as for me, it is a real discomfort
To hear of folk who live in wealth and comfort,
And then, alas, learn of their sudden ruin.
But on the other hand it’s gratifying
To hear about a man of low estate,
How he climbs up and becomes fortunate,
Thenceforth abiding in prosperity. (201)

From the quarrel between the Monk and the Knight a revelation flashes: tragedy is the art that dramatizes downside risk and comedy the art that dramatizes upside risk (Wong Risk 233–43).

In both comedy and tragedy, chance, coincidence, sliding doors, mysterious synchronicities, the unexpected, accidents, improbabilities, the random element, unintended consequences, and mischance are ubiquitous. In tragedy, chance waylays the hero. In comedy, chance helps the hero. “Coincidence must be a divinity,” says Demeas in Menander’s fourth century bce comedy The Girl from Samos, “She looks after many of the things we cannot see” (163–4). Demeas has good reason to say this. Contrary to every expectation, accusations of fornication and adultery give way to a joyful wedding.

In comedy after comedy, chance brings the action home against a million to one odds. To end the internecine strife of the Peloponnesian War, the women of Sparta and Athens stage a sex strike. Their unlikely plan works (Aristophanes Lysistrata). In Greek New Comedy and its Roman emulators, the miser recovers the stolen gold (Plautus The Pot of Gold), kidnapped children are reunited with their family against all odds (Plautus The Captives), and young lovers  marry in spite of cantankerous patriarchs (Menander Old Cantankerous). So, too, in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, Egeon’s execution is stayed when, a thousand miles away from home, he, his wife, his two sons, and their two sons’ slaves “accidentally are met together” (5.1.352). Comedy is an agglomeration of the most improbable events that work to the upside. The conditions of comedy represent such an extreme that a character can say, in a metatheatrical turn: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could / condemn it as an improbable fiction” (Twelfth Night3.4.125–26).

While chance, daring, and luck swing to the upside in comedy, the opposite happens in tragedy. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Desdemona accidentally drops a handkerchief. Desdemona, Emilia, Othello, and Roderigo die. In Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, the murder investigation reunites Oedipus with the Corinthian Messenger and the Shepherd, three characters long separated by both time and distance. Unlike the happy reunion of comedy, this reunion brings about a weeping and gnashing of teeth. In Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, civil war rages at Thebes, the city of seven gates. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 25,401,600 permutations of attackers and defenders are possible. Against 1:25,401,599 odds, Aeschylus brings about the permutation most inimical to the hero’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions (Wong “Aeschylus’s Seven”). Comedy and tragedy both dramatize risk events. When chance skews to the upside, we call it comedy. When chance skews to the downside, we call it tragedy. Hardyan chance works similarly as it maneuvers the narrative between the two.

The language of chance pervades Far from the Madding Crowd. There are “whimsical coincidences” (20). Mischance is referred to as “a freak,” something that happens “contretemps” (24, 119). Laborers “wait upon Chance” (43). Chance is capitalized, as though a god. Elsewhere, chance, as an active agent, can be seen to have “offered” something to someone (38). “Heartless circumstance” preys on unsuspecting characters (146). A “singular accident” ruins the best-laid plans (308). Eyes that “had been accidentally lifted at that moment” see things they ought not to (265). Comings are “sudden and unexpected” (89). A misunderstanding between All Saints’ and All Souls’ means the difference between life and death. The outcome of a marriage hangs on how much liquor the hired help drinks (276–83). Chance is everywhere.

The omnipotence of chance forces characters to make best guesses based on “reasonable probabilities” (317) and to warn one another “not to be too sure” even when the outcome seems certain (354). There is everywhere “many a slip” (354). Steeped in the world of chance, the characters gloomily admit that “nothing happens that we expect” (252). Chance is so pervasive that it fuels dramatic irony. At the shearing supper, Bathsheba sings “The Banks of Allan Water.” “One of the verses,” says the narrator, was “remembered for many months, even years, by more than a few of those who were gathered there:”

For his bride a soldier sought her
And a winning tongue had he:
On the banks of Allan Water
None was gay as she. (157)

In a few hours, she will meet Troy. So too, when Boldwood asks Bathsheba to marry him barring any “unexpected accidents,” (343) the reader hears irony, hears echoes of tragedy, of King Duncan saying: “This castle hath a pleasant seat” as he approaches Inverness where he goes to die (Macbeth 1.6.1).

Chance pivots the action between tragedy and comedy. Having begun in low estate, Gabriel has saved for ten years to become an independent farmer. He begins the fortunate climb of Chaucer’s Knight. A random act, however, triggers his pastoral tragedy (38–42). One morning, his overenthusiastic sheepdog drives his flock through the fence and down the precipice. Ten years of labor is lost. While Gabriel moves from comedy to tragedy, Bathsheba heads the other way. She begins in a state of destitution. Her uncle dies, however, and leaves her the Weatherbury Upper Farm. It is her turn to climb the ladder and grow fortunate.

After losing his livelihood, Gabriel hits the road looking for work. On his way to Shottsford, he passes a farm. A fire has broken out in the straw ricks. After putting it out, he asks for a job. Little does he know, he has stumbled onto Bathsheba’s new farm. Bathsheba marvels at chance’s power: “She scarcely knew,” says the narrator, “whether most to be amused at the singularity of the meeting or to be concerned at its awkwardness. There was room for a little pity, also for a very little exultation; the former at his position, the latter at her own” (52). Like Hardy and Stephen in real life, Bathsheba and Gabriel’s paths keep crossing. She hires him.

As is often the case between the sexes where feeling runs hot, Bathsheba, over a perceived impropriety, fires Gabriel. Or he leaves. Whatever the case, the day after he departs, she runs into her own pastoral tragedy: her sheep have gotten into the young clover. Blasted, they will die and are dying (136). Only Gabriel can save them. Through another coincidence, mistress and shepherd are reunited.

Chance also triggers the other two romantic interests. Bathsheba and Liddy toss a hymn book to see whether the anonymous Valentine sealed with the words “Marry Me” goes to Boldwood or Teddy Coggan (98). Chance selects Boldwood. The Valentine has an unanticipated and deleterious effect on him. He is transformed into the senex amatorblocking Gabriel, the hapless adulescens amator. In a world mindful of class, he easily bests Gabriel, his social inferior.

It is likewise “by chance or by devilry” that Bathsheba meets Troy (165). While walking a dark path, Troy’s spur and Bathsheba’s dress become entangled. In extricating themselves, their hands touch “by accident or design” (163). Her beauty’s flicker entices him. Their tragicomedy begins. If the novel had ended a few chapters earlier, Troy would have fulfilled his comedy by marrying Bathsheba. The novel, however continues. As it continues, chance works its strange ways, saving Troy from drowning only to kill him by a blast from Boldwood’s shotgun.

With Boldwood in jail and Troy dead, laughter-loving Bathsheba “was beginning to know suffering” and turns into a “bust of Melpomene,” the Muse of tragedy (270, 370). She marries Gabriel, the last suitor standing. The ending, perhaps, could have been foreseen: just as the adulescens amator prevails in comedy, Gabriel could have been expected to prevail. What Far from the Madding Crowd offers that is new, however, is an anastomosing path to the finish that is full of possibilities and rife with branches: this is not the unidirectional path of comedy or tragedy proper. “History,” says Hardy, “is rather a stream than a tree. There is nothing organic in its shape, nothing systematic in its development. It flows on like a thunderstorm-rill by a road side; now a straw turns it this way, now a tiny barrier of sand that” (Hardy Life 179). Like history, the narrative flows from the highlands down to the sea. The topography of comedy and tragedy proper presents a single, deep channel. The topography of Far from the Madding Crowd, however, presents a myriad forking, complex, and anastomosing branches through valleys dividing once, twice, and thrice.

Works set in the meridian times of chance, of which Far from the Madding Crowd is a signal example, remind us of the limitations of the straight line of want, will, and intention. They show us how the unexpected happens not some of the time, but rather, all of the time. Trouble happens because everyone has a plan until they run into the unexpected. The unexpected prevails over the expected because, while expectation aims towards one eventuality, the unexpected takes the shape of any eventuality. A successful harvest, for example, depends on multiple factors from the availability of labor to the climate. Many events must occur in the desired sequence. Any one wayward event, however, could ruin the entire sequence. In short, expectation is fragile because one path leads to success and the unexpected is robust because many paths lead to failure.

The Eternal Pastoral

The perfection of the pastoral world highlights by contrast life’s random walk. In contrast with the imprecision and instability of human affairs, the pastoral world is precise and self-regulating:

The river would have been seen by day to be of that deep smooth sort which races middle and sides with the same gliding precision, any irregularities of speed being immediately corrected by a small whirlpool. (87)

Troy hopes “in the nature of things that matters would right themselves at some proper date and wind up well” (309). The possibility of self-regulating human mechanisms, Troy comes to realize, is illusory. While self-regulating systems occur in the pastoral world, randomness prevails in the human world.

Like the river, the pastoral sky is a portrait of precision:

After placing the little creature with its mother he stood and carefully examined the sky to ascertain the time of night from the altitudes of the stars.
The Dog-star and Aldebaran, pointing to the restless Pleiades, were half way up the southern sky, and between them hung Orion which gorgeous constellation never burnt more vividly than now as it soared forth above the rim of the landscape. Castor and Pollux with their quiet shine were almost on the meridian: the barren and gloomy Square of Pegasus was creeping round to the north-west: far away through the plantation Vega sparkled like a lamp suspended amid the leafless trees; and Cassiopeia’s Chair stood daintily poised on the uppermost boughs.
“One o’ clock,” said Gabriel. (18)

Perfection is for the heavens. The sky is the dial and the constellations the hands of the great clock. Human time, in contrast, is aleatory and subject to chance, breakdown, and malfunction. Gabriel’s watch “had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all” (10). Bathsheba’s watch stops on the night before her wedding (387). While Jan Coggan’s pinchbeck repeater retains traces of the divine by speaking in the “still small tones” that recall the “still small voice” of God talking to Elijah, Coggan is already fuddled beyond hearing (279; 1 Kings 19.12). The pastoral timepiece of the sky, unlike human time, is perfect: its motions are the moving hands of time itself.

The pastoral calendar, insofar as it is linked to the celestial clock, is likewise robust. The hiring fair takes place in February on Candlemas (43) Lady Day in March sees the renewal of labor contracts (380). May is the month for sheep washing and June the month for shearing and the shearing supper (125, 142, 151). The harvest supper follows in August (236) and the sheep fair in September (331). The further away from the perfection of the seasons, however, the greater the dominion of chance. Lambing season ends some years in February, and other years goes past March (107). So too, the swarming of bees in a given month is a probability rather than a certainty (178). The helter-skelter lives of individual human beings lies at the far end of the range. Here, there is no certainty. Only probability remains. Certainty is reserved for the rivers, the sky, and the other furnishings belonging to the order of the eternal pastoral. Of these furnishings, the greatest is the great barn.

The Lindy Effect

A book that has been in print a hundred years can be expected to be in print a hundred more and a book in print for two hundred years can be expected to be in print another two hundred (Taleb Antifragile 318). Scientific theories, religions, and technologies that have stood the test of time for a thousand years can be expected to survive another thousand. This is the Lindy effect, the idea that the older something is, the longer its projected lifespan:

Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for fifty or so years by physicists and mathematicians thanks to the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy effect. (Taleb Skin 141)

The oldest Wessex artifact is the great barn. An architectural design concept triumph, it exemplifies the Lindy effect. Like the unchanging constellations overlooking the countryside, the older the barn gets, the older it is likely to become:

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediævalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time. Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder. Standing before this abraded pile the eye regarded its present usage, the mind dwelt upon its past history, with a satisfied sense of functional continuity throughout, a feeling almost of gratitude, and quite of pride, at the permanence of the idea which had heaped it up. (143)

To measure change, one needs a point of reference from which the change is measured. To see the gradual sweep of the heavens, one needs to find a fixed point, as Gabriel does when he stands atop Norcombe Hill: “To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness” (15). In the world of the novel, the great barn is the fixed object past which mortal stars glide. From its vantage point, one can reckon the palpable movement of human activity.

Two major episodes—the sheep shearing and the harvest dinner—take place in the great barn. As the characters fuss, fret, flirt, and flutter, the great barn, though itself unchanging in its pastoral persistence, watches their changings of the guards, over and over. It had stood while the Hundred Years’ War raged. As the Tudors rose and fell, it stood. It stood during the Interregnum and it stood during the Restoration. As the Great Fire of London burned, it stood. When the printing press came to England, it stood, and it stood when steam engines arose. When Napoleon went on his wars of conquest, it was there, and having gained four hundred years of momentum, it could be expected to endure another four hundred: that is to say, to the mid twenty-third century. That the tithe barn at Cerne Abbas—the actual structure upon which Hardy modeled the great barn—stands today in the twenty-first century, however, means that the prognosis is to be moved upwards: by the Lindy effect, the great barn, having stood nearly six centuries, can be expected to endure deep into the twenty-sixth century (Bullen 35–38). Imagine that.

The pastoral world and, in particular, the great barn, highlight, by way of contrast, the role of chance in the characters’ lives. Time changes humans because human are perishable, but the more time goes by, the more the great barn stays the same because the great barn represents another order of things: the eternal pastoral. As a survey marker of eternity, it provides a frame of reference against which human transience may be measured.

Littlewood’s Law

Too often we ignore chance, relegating it into a footnote adorning the text of life. Chance in tragedy and comedy entertains, but the odds of an event a million to one against in life lay beyond the prospect of belief. We read Far from a Madding Crowd to experience the wildness of chance vicariously. That the real world is more stable than the fictional world, however, is a conjecture that, despite its appeal, is demonstrably false.

J. E. Littlewood, a Cambridge mathematician, demonstrated through the law that bears his name that, not only do improbable events happen more often than we expect, but that, when they happen, they impact us more than we expect: in fact, when they happen, they are called miracles. Beginning with the observation that we experience many events each day, Littlewood concludes that, by the action of chance, we should experience a miracle once per month:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happens to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month. (Dyson 273)

In the span of the novel, it would not be far off the mark to say that Gabriel has seen, on the average, one miracle every month. Low-probability, high-consequence events in the novel are like low-probability, high-consequence events in life: though predictable in their unpredictability, when they happen, they overturn all things.

Far from the Madding Crowd, in acknowledging the dominion of chance, presents an order of existence where intention is the slave of want, and want is chance’s fool. The ever-present eternal pastoral is like a rich, unexpected shadow over the narrative throwing in relief the indeterminacy of the all too human. Though the characters’ lives are thrall to chance, the rural-idyllic novel offers a folk consolation. “You should take it careless-like,” says one of the rustics, “and your time will come” (67). In a world chance has driven mad, it is best to keep going.

When we are “excessively hopeful and blithe,” or, in other words, in the midst of comedy, we keep going because “a trouble is looming in the distance” (350). When we confront tragedy, we keep going because it is during these worst of times that our “malignant star was assuredly setting fast” (323). In both the novel and in life a “not frequent disregard of the probable in the chain of events” may be observed (Hardy Preface 437). Whether chance crowns us or sells us down the river, however, is beyond our control. What is in our control is to believe, hope, err, and strive. To some, this consolation may seem insufficient. But, in the face of chance, the upstart god, to rear ourselves up forthwith upright is all that may be said as a certainty. If you keep going, you just might receive the letter, the one dropped in the mud on a country lane.

Notes

  1. An anonymous review from the January 1875 Westminster Review remarks how, when the novel was first anonymously serialized “many good judges pronounced it to be a work of George Eliot’s” (Cox 41–43).
  2. Stephen’s “A Bad Five Minutes in the Alps” is reprinted in Mallet 61–82. The cliffhanger episode in A Pair of Blue Eyes takes place in chapters 21 and 22.
  3. Unless noted, quotations are from Falck-Yi’s Oxford edition.
  4. Bathsheba is “Sweet-and-twenty” in the first February (67: Penguin edition). When Boldwood proposes to her in May, she is twenty or twenty-one (birthdays being unstated). Although the narrator says in the closing pages of the novel she is “three or four and twenty,” it is likelier that she is twenty-three—the novel covers three years and some odd months. In the first February, Boldwood is forty (76, 118). In May, when he proposes, he says that he is forty-one. At the end of the novel, he must be, therefore, forty-three. Troy dies on Christmas Eve two years after the novel begins (377). He is twenty-six. As the novel begins in December, he would have been twenty-four at that time, possibly twenty-three if his birthday is in December. In the first month of the novel, Gabriel is twenty-eight (11). By the end of the novel, Gabriel will be thirty-one and perhaps thirty-two if his birthday falls in the beginning of the year. It is difficult to square characters’ stated ages with their relative ages. At one point during June in the first year, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is six years older than her and that Boldwood is ten years older than him (190). If we go by Boldwood’s stated age of forty-one, this would make Gabriel thirty-one and Bathsheba twenty-five, considerably older than their stated ages. If we go by Gabriel’s stated age of twenty-eight from the previous December and allow that he may be twenty-eight or twnty-nine at this point, Boldwood would be either thirty-eight or thirty-nine and Bathsheba either twenty-two or twenty-three. The stated ages, however, appear to be more accurate than their relative ages: in another passage that takes place around the second September, Gabriel tells Bathsheba that he is eight—and not six—years older than her (345). Gabriel is either twenty-nine or, more likely, thirty at this point, making Bathsheba, in this reckoning, twenty-one or twenty-two.

Works Cited

Aristophanes. Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Clouds, The Birds, Lysistrata, The Frogs.            Translated by William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglass Parker, Penguin,     1994.

Bullen, J. B. Thomas Hardy: The World of His Novels. Frances Lincoln, 2013.

Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by David Wright, Oxford 1985.

Cox, R. G. Thomas Hardy: The Critical Heritage. Routledge, 1979.

Dyson, Freeman. The Scientist as Rebel. New York Review of Books, 2006.

Halperin, John. “Leslie Stephen, Thomas Hardy, and ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’.” The Modern            Language Review, vol. 75, no. 4, 1980, pp. 738-45.

Hardy, Thomas. Under the Greenwood Tree. London, 1872.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. 1993. Edited by Suzanne B. Falck-Yi, Oxford UP, 2002.

_____. Far from the Madding Crowd. Edited by Rosemarie Morgan and Shannon Russell,                       Penguin, 2000.

_____. General Preface to the Wessex Edition of 1912. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Hardy,             Alfred A. Knopf, 1991, pp. 437-42.

_____. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy. Edited by Michael Millgate, Palgrave Macmillan,                1984.

Holy Bible. King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 1976.

Mallett, Phillip. “Leslie Stephen’s Bad Five Minutes in the Alps.” The Hardy Society Journal,     vol. 10, no. 2, 2014, pp. 58-84.

Menander. Plays and Fragments. Translated by Norma Miller, Penguin, 1987.

Millgate, Michael. Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revised. Oxford UP, 2004.

Plautus. Amphitryon, The Comedy of Asses, The Pot of Gold, The Two Bacchises, The Captives. Edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

_____. Casina, The Casket Comedy, Curculio, Epidicus, The Two Menaechmuses. Edited and                  translated by Wolfgang de Melo, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2011.

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. Edited by Charles Whitworth, The Oxford Shakespeare, 2002.

_____. Four Histories: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V. Penguin, 1968.

_____. Julius Caesar. Edited by David Daniell, The Arden Shakespeare, 1998.

_____. Macbeth. Edited by Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason, The Arden Shakespeare, 2015.

_____. Twelfth Night. Edited by Andrew Worrall, The Heinemann Shakespeare, 1994.

_____. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Edited by Clifford Leech, The Arden Shakespeare,           1969.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus.     Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1984.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Random House, 2012.

_____. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018.

Wong, Edwin. “Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes: A Patriot’s Portrait of a Patriot.” Critical       Insights: Patriotism, edited by Robert C. Evans, Salem Press, 2021.

_____. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen, 2019.

Review of “Tragedy in Performance” – Michael R. Halleran

pages 198-214 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

For everyone who’s wondered how the stage and physical spaces of the ancient Greek theatre were set up, Halleran’s essay is a great place to start. His essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Theatrical Space,” “Actors and Chorus,” “Conventions,” “Stage Properties,” and “Gestures and Silence.” Here is a summary of the main points from each of the sections.

Theatrical Space

Moderns are used to reading ancient Greek tragedies. Texts of tragedies, in the ancient world, however, were rare: ancient were more used to watching drama in performance. Drama itself means “something done.” To understand ancient tragedy, it follows that we should understand how and when it was staged.

Ancient tragedy was performed at the City Dionysia, a springtime festival that honoured Dionysus. Each year, three dramatists would be selected to stage four plays: a tragic trilogy connected by mythological elements or three separate, unconnected tragedies followed by a boisterous satyr play. Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, the Oresteia, for example, was followed by a satyr play called Proteus that dramatized Menelaus’ homecoming after the Trojan War and spoofed his brother Agamemnon’s tragic return.

Plays were staged at the Theatre of Dionysus, an outdoor theatre that sat between 15-20,000 on seats carved into the south face of the Athenian acropolis. The semicircular “theatron” or seating area carved into the Acropolis encompassed another space, the “orchestra,” a circular space in front of the seating 70′ in diameter where the chorus would sing and dance. Behind the orchestra was the “skene” or stage building. Since most tragedies revolved around royal families, the skene would often represent a palace. The stage building was a rectangular structure elevated 3′ from the ground and rising 12′ high. It was 35′ in length and 15′ deep.

Two long ramps on either side of the skene called “eisodoi” led to the stage building. Here, actors could make their way to the stage by walking on the ramp between the stage and the theatron. Since the eisodoi were close to 60′ long, grandiose entrances from stage left or stage right were possible.

Finally, there were two additional stage devices for special effects: the “ekkyklema” and the “mechane.” “The ekkyklema,” writes Halleran, “was a wheeled platform that could be brought forth from the opened doors of the skene to reveal an interior scene.” The mechane was a crane that carried characters aloft. Plays employing deus ex machina ending would use the mechane to stage the sudden arrival of the god.

Actors and Chorus

Greek tragedy employed three actors who would (primarily) speak their lines on the skene. The actors would wear a full-length robe (chiton), an outer garment (himation), a linen mask, and flat-soled shoes or boots. Doubling, or the use of one actor to play multiple parts, was common, and could lead to intriguing possibilities: for example, in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, the male actor who plays Deianira (Heracles’ wife) could poison Heracles, and then come back in the next scene as the poisoned and dying Heracles.

In counterpoint to the actors on the skene, Greek tragedy also employed a chorus, who would sing their lines in the orchestra. Halleran disagrees with those who see the chorus as a superdramatic entity commenting on the action, citing plays such as Aeschylus’ Suppliants where the chorus of suppliants takes part in the action. For Halleran, the distinction between actor and chorus is that actors used the language of “declamation, explanation, debate and argument, while the sung verse of the chorus was the language of evocation, imagination, fractured narrative, and highly charged images.” In the interplay and tension between the actors on the skene and the chorus in the orchestra Greek tragedy generates its particular excitement.

Conventions

Enjoying the show involves a willing suspension of disbelief. Many elements of theatre are highly artificial, from men playing womens’ roles to characters speaking in verse. While comedy likes to poke fun at its artifices, tragedy prefers to maintain the “fourth wall” of drama. When tragedy does break the fourth wall, however, the affect can be profound. At line 896 of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, when it seems as though the oracles of the gods were failing, the chorus asks “Why should I dance?” This metatheatrical line breaking the fourth wall is astounding, as the chorus at the moment is, in real life, performing a dance in a religious festival. Their threat to quit the dance unless the oracles of the gods ring true reminds the audience that they are watching a chorus who are both actors and fellow citizens. If Dionysus is not real in real life, there is no reason to dance, either on stage or in life.

Stage Properties

The stage of Greek tragedy–by today’s standards–has an uncluttered, sparse, and open aesthetic. The simple qualities of the ancient stage allowed ancient playwrights to powerfully focus the audience’s attention on whatever happened to be on the stage. Common stage properties were: corpses (Ajax in Sophocles’ Ajax, Alcestis in Euripides’ Alcestis, and Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus), a weapon (Heracles’ bow in Sophocles’ Philoctetes), altars (the various suppliant plays), and buildings (a palace in Aeschylus’ Oresteia or a house in Euripides’ Alcestis).

The ancient stage gave an incredible concentrated power to the drama. Halleran, for example, discusses how Ajax’ corpse (Ajax impales himself on his sword midway through the play) stays on stage the whole play. Thus, while the other characters argue over the good and bad qualities of Ajax, his corpse is in plain view. In the end of the play, it is predicted that the death of Ajax will lead to the creation of a hero cult. But, seeing that Tecmessa and Eurysaces, during the play, already take refuge at his corpse, the play intimates powerfully that the hero cult of Ajax is already begun. There is power in the archaic simplicity of the stage properties of Greek tragedy.

Gestures and Silence

Halleran concludes his study of tragedy in performance by examining two extra-textual elements of performance: gestures and silence. The gesture of supplication–touching the supplicated’s knee and chin from an inferior position–often provided an impetus for a dramatic turn of events. Euripides writes memorable supplication scenes in both Medea (when Medea supplicates Creon to delay exile a day) and Hippolytus (when the Nurse supplicates Phaedra to reveal her secret).

“Characters on the stage but not speaking,” says Halleran, “can be lost on the page but not in the theater.” Aeschylus was so fond of this technique that he was satirized for it: Cassandra, the prophetess of Troy, is plainly visible but silent as Agamemnon comes home to Clytemnestra. Cassandra’s presence is a foreboding presence, since she knows (being a prophetess) the tragedy that will shortly unfold. Sophocles too uses this technique to great effect in Oedipus rex: Jocasta is silent while the Shepherd and the Messenger unravel Oedipus’ identity. While they uncover the truth, Jocasta figures is out as well, and her silence testifies to just how bad the situation has become.

Thoughts

Sometimes, with all the talk of the connections between ancient Greece and modernity, it’s easy to forget about how much has changed in the two-and-a-half millennia between then and now. Halleran’s essay on tragedy in performance is a good reminder that those were different times. Yesterday: open-air theatre, masks, choruses dancing in the orchestra, theatre as a religious service, simple sets, limited special effects, dying (usually) not dramatized on stage, concentrated focus on singular stage properties, theatre for all citizens, frequent doubling of actors, maximum three actors on stage. Today: indoor theatre, theatre as entertainment, elaborate sets, many special effects and lighting, dramatic dying scenes, theatre for elites, many characters on stage, busy stages, (usually) no chorus.

Halleran mentions a peculiar convention of Greek tragedy: death is usually not dramatized on stage. It usually takes place offstage. I wonder if this convention arose because Greek tragedy, as part of the ancient liturgy, was conceived of as a show that is put on for the gods? That is to say, they imagined that they gods would also be watching (Halleran notes that the Temple of Dionysus would have been in plain view beyond the skene) and, since the gods (at least the Olympian gods) distanced themselves from death, they, as a gesture of goodwill to the gods, spared them the sight of death? I’ll leave you with this conjecture. It is an interesting conjecture since the dying scene, as we know from modern drama, is quite dramatic. There must have been a reason why they did not take advantage of it.

Author Blurb

Michael R. Halleran is Professor of Classics and Divisional Dean of Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Washington. He is the author of Stagecraft in Euripides (1985), Euripides: Hippolytus, with Translation and Commentary (1995), and numerous articles and reviews on ancient Greek literature and culture.

– – –

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

Review of “Tragedy and Epic” – Ruth Scodel

pages 181-179 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This insightful essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into five sections: “Epic Stories and Allusions,” “Epic Thematics,” “Epic Style and Decorum,” “Epic Narrative,” and “Tragedy and Epic.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with epic. Here is a summary of the main points from each of its sections.

Epic Stories and Allusions

Although epic and tragedy arose from different political and social backgrounds (epic from a monarchical and fragmented world and tragedy from a democratic world of city-states), tragedy borrowed much from the older art of epic. From the epic recitations of the legends of Thebes, Heracles, and the creation of the cosmos, the tragic poets got many of their stories. From the technique of Homer–who favoured more dialogue and more developed plots than the simple narration of the other epicists and rhapsodes–the tragic poets got their chops.

Epic Thematics

Tragedy got two of its major themes from epic. The first theme is that of fate, free will, human causality, and divine meddling. The second theme is related to the first: the recognition scene when the human recognizes that there is a higher power at play, whether it is fate or the will of the gods. Chance and fate, for example, come together in the Odyssey when, just as Odysseus happens to return, Penelope challenges the suitors to string Odysseus’ bow. This gives Odysseus the opportunity to fulfil the fated ending of killing the suitors: disguised as a beggar, he strings his bow and starts firing. So too, in tragedy, fate seems to happen by chance. In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, although all the attackers and defenders are assigned their gate assignations by chance, it just so happens that the two brothers are assigned the seventh gate where they will kill each other as fate wills.

The tragic recognition scene is also borrowed from epic. In epic, the best characters are often given an insight into the grand workings of the cosmos. Achilles recognizes in the Iliad that his time will come when Hector, unexpectedly, kills his friend Patroclus. So, too, in tragedy, a hero such as Oedipus in Sophocles’ play has a moment of recognition where he realizes that all is not what it seems.

The difference between epic and tragedy, notes Scodel, is that tragedy is much more concentrated in its presentation of fate, free will, and recognition. The reason is that tragedy is much shorter than epic, which is recited over many days.

Epic Style and Decorum

Tragedy also gets its style and decorum from epic. Early tragedy modelled its speech in the ornamental dactylic rhythms commonplace in epic. Tragedy’s sense of decorum is borrowed from and perhaps even more stringent than epic: weeping and bleeding are permitted, farting not; horses are preferred to mules; heroes may forget to pray to the right god, but they never forget their helmet when arming; epic infrequently allows joking amidst discussions of gods and war but tragedy allows for even less ribaldry.

Epic Narrative

In a memorable phrase, Scodel says that tragedians used the epic as a “repertory of the possible.” In epic, prophecy is always correct (if sometimes misleading); so too in tragedy prophecy is ultimately correct, if initially misleading. In epic, messengers enjoy quasi-omniscience; so too, in tragedy, messengers can oversee the entire battlefield and yet hear individual conversations. Epic draws together two adversaries (think Achilles and Hector in the Iliad); so, too, tragedy often draws together two adversaries (think the brothers Eteocles and Polyneices in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes).

Tragedy and Epic

Scodel closes her essay by reminding readers that tragedy’s debt to epic was not all one way. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and other fifth century tragedians who took Homer as their model became in turn the model for future writers of epic such as Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, and Ovid. “Epic, having created tragedy,” says Scodel, “recreated itself on the model of its creation.” Art is alive, constantly making and remaking itself anew in all the images of the human imagination.

Thoughts

This has been a fascinating essay because I can now see plainly how tragedy must have arisen from epic. In Homer’s epics, Homer, or the voice of the rhapsode, would sing the tale of the anger of Achilles or the return of Odysseus. In singing the tale, the singer would give life to all the different characters within the tale. But there were so many characters that we would only learn a little bit about each character–the minimum that was required to keep the story going. In a way, the better the singer is at drawing out the characters, the more the characters grow larger to demand a voice of their own, and not simply be recited by the rhapsode-singer. The transition from epic to tragedy is the tension of the characters wanting their own voice by a dedicated actor instead of one Homer telling the whole tale. The transition from epic to tragedy is the path of going from one Homer-rhapsode who narrates the tale to many Homer-actors who act out the tale. In epic there is one Homer, in tragedy there are many Homers, who are now playing individual roles. For this insight I have Scodel to thank. It is reverberating in my head and someday I will do something with it. The idea is quite powerful. The path from epic to tragedy is the path from one Homer to many Homers. Each character in Homer was seeking to break free of the oral tradition, to become themselves a Homer. When tragedy arose, this happened.

Another point Scodel touches upon–and one that can’t be stressed enough–is that fate in epic and tragedy is, in a way, synonymous with “what has to happen.” Since epic and tragedy drew from the same myths the audiences learned as toddlers, the outcome from beginning to end was well known. The audience’s knowledge could have been a spoiler. But what the rhapsodes reciting epic and the tragedians did was amazing: instead of myth being a detriment to the suspense, they used myth to augment the suspense by turning the known story into a “fate” that hung over all the characters. Two decades ago, I wrote an article for Antichthon that explored how “fate” is nothing more than a dramatic device which guides the narrative towards resolution. You can read the article here. That was a fun piece to write.

You know what I’d be interested in seeing?–that would be so cool if someone did a genealogy of fate. I think fate is ultimately an example of art shaping life. Could it have been that, prior to the rhapsodes–the singers of tales–and the tragedians inventing fate as a narrative device to make the narrative end where everyone knew the stories ended, there was no conception of fate in real life? For example, it was only after watching an Achilles or an Oedipus struggle with fate in epic and drama that people in real life started wondering if some majestic fate stood watch over them. Then, these people in real life, their imaginations fired from the magic of tragedy and epic and always on the lookout for fate, when some low-probability, high-consequence event happened in their life by chance, they would ascribe what chance had wrought as evidence of fate in actual life? It is an interesting hypothesis: that what people call fate in real life is actually just chance misunderstood. And chance is misunderstood because there is a fundamental difference between narrative (where nothing happens by chance since everything happens by the design of the writer) and real life (where chance is quite active). They talk of mimesis, of how art imitates life. But when it comes to chance, art imitates life very poorly, since for a narrative to make sense, what was really chance in real life has to be “explained” to have taken place for a reason, even if that reason ends up being fate.

This essay has also been fascinating as, many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Ruth. It was a lifetime ago, years before she even wrote this essay. Back in those days, I was being courted by different grad schools, the University of Michigan Classics program being one of them. In preparation for meeting her, I had read her book Credible Impossibilities. If you are interested in how ancient writers generate credibility, this book would be an excellent read. To this day, I remember some of her colourful examples. One rule of creating credible impossibilities is to go into great detail. I think in Polyphemus’ cave in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus escapes by clinging under one of the Cyclops’ rams. This is impossible for a grown man. What Homer does to make it believable, writes Scodel, is that he goes into great detail over how Odysseus does this. Voila: the impossible becomes, in the unsuspecting reader’s mind, possible.

It’s funny what I remember. I don’t recall that much of the trip. But I do remember where all the offices were of the profs I chatted with. Richard Janko had his office slightly across the hall from Scodel’s. Of all things, I remembered that he wore his wool socks over his pant cuffs. And James Porter’s office was at the end of the hall. It was fascinating to meet him as well–one of his research interests is Nietzsche and the reception of Classical studies, that is to say, how each generation of classicists is remembered by future classicists. The tiles on the floor were those old square ones, an off-white hue. The university itself was majestic, on a hill overlooking the city, which was in bad shape. But the university was gated, and had security. The air was crisp, and the people walked with a fierce determination. Those were the days.

Author Blurb

Ruth Scodel was educated at Berkeley and Harvard, and has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan since 1984. She is the author of The Trojan Trilogy of Euripides (1980), Sophocles (1984), Credible Impossibilities: Conventions and Strategies of Verisimilitude in Homer and Greek Tragedy (1999), Listening to Homer (2002), and articles on Greek Literature.

– – –

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

Review of “Tragedy and Myth” – Alan H. Sommerstein

pages 163-180 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

This well-organized essay in the Blackwell Companion to Tragedy is divided into six sections: “Myth, History, and Poetry,” “How to Make a New Myth,” “Innovation within Existing Myths,” “Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation,” “Etiology,” and “Secondary Mythical Allusions.”  The essay explores the long relationship the dramatic art form of tragedy shared with myth. Here is a summary of its main points.

Myth, History, and Poetry

Athenian tragedy–with a few exceptions–dramatized myth. Myth to the ancients, however, overlapped with actual history. As well, myth itself was fluid, malleable, and alive. As a result, although Athenian tragedy is based on myth, many different reconstructions and interpretations were available to the tragedians. To draw on myth is an advantage, not a disadvantage. Myth is far from a straitjacket.

How to Make a New Myth

There are interstitial spaces between the received events of myth in which the poet-tragedian may create new stories. Myth has a start point and end point that is set; the space in between is free. Take the myth of the Seven against Thebes. In the start point of the myth, Polyneices attacks his hometown of Thebes. In the end point of the myth, Polyneices kills and is killed by his brother. Creon, whose son is dead, rules Thebes as regent. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister is also dead. In the space between the start point and end points Sophocles’ creates his play Antigone: Antigone’s defiance of Creon, her love interest with Creon’s son, and the suicide of Antigone and Haemon are all Sophoclean innovations, a “new myth” that fills up the interstitial spaces between the canonical beginning and end points. These interstitial spaces are fertile grounds for the poetic imagination.

Another way to rewrite myth is by using the deus ex machina device: here, the plot can turn whichever way, even in defiance of myth, and the god appears at the last second to set the record straight. Euripides was especially fond of the deus ex machina device.

Innovation within Existing Myths

Sommerstein lays down a law that dictates how far poets could go in reshaping myths: “In a telling of any given story, any element may be altered, so long as the alteration does not impact severely on other stories which are not, on that occasion, being told.” Thus, in retellings of the myth of the Danaids, Hypermestra must always marry Lynceus because they give birth to descendants who will produce Perseus, Heracles, and many other heroes. Beyond this, however, much innovation is possible and Sommerstein provides many examples.

Mythical Innovation and Audience Expectation

This is the longest section and the most far-reaching. In it, Sommerstein talks about how ancient audiences must have understood and watched tragedies differently than modern audiences. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, ancient audiences will have known that Jason is playing with fire in crossing Medea, a powerful magic-user. They will have known that their children die, though not by Medea’s hand–their death by their mother’s hand was, according to Sommerstein, Euripides’ innovation. Ancient audiences would have been expecting Medea to harm Jason–or his new girlfriend. Modern audiences, on the other hand, know, most of the time, that Medea is the play in which the mother kills her children: the fame of the play precedes the play. This is a powerful, and little known distinction between ancient and modern viewings of the play: we know what happens; ancients, even though better-versed in myth, did not.

Myth, far from being a straitjacket, gave ancient playwrights a valuable tool that is underappreciated today: the ability to mislead and misdirect audience expectations. When they bring about the unanticipated outcome, the ancient audience is shocked, and amused.

Etiology

In this short section, Sommerstein talks about how Athenian poet-dramatists dramatized the creation of real-world rites, customs, and institutions through myth. Euripides was quite fond of drama as etiology: in Suppliants, for example, Euripides “explains” the real-world friendship between Athens and Argos through the action. Aeschylus, too, in the Oresteia, dramatizes the creation of homicide court at the Areopagus.

Secondary Mythical Allusions

Secondary mythical allusions occur, says Sommerstein, when characters (or the chorus) in a drama refer to other myths that are not being dramatized. By comparing their own situations to other well-known myths, characters are able to shine a different light, as it were, on the action of the play they are in. Of Sommerstein’s many examples, one from Aeschylus’ Oresteia stands out. In the Oresteia, Orestes has killed his mother at Apollo’s behest. The Furies, ancient spirits who punish blood crimes, pursue him to the Areopagus, where Orestes is being tried. He is defended by Apollo and persecuted by the Furies. Apollo suggests to the Furies that, just as Zeus had pardoned Ixion, they should pardon Orestes. But his argument is lame: the audience would have known from the Ixion myth that Ixion was a very bad person and Zeus was, in fact, wrong to pardon him (because after his pardon Ixion tries to seduce Zeus’ wife Hera!). These secondary mythical allusions, writes Sommerstein, enrich the textual density of the play. While in the Oresteia, Orestes is innocent, the remark from Apollo would suggests otherwise. By connecting different myths through secondary allusions, dramatists challenged their audiences.

Thoughts

I enjoyed this well-organized and concise essay. Sommerstein’s arguments fit together perfectly: after reading a few sentences, I could see where he was going, and his examples were spot on. This was very welcome after finishing a rambling book yesterday that, even after reading many pages, I was never sure where the author was going, if anywhere. The straightforwardness of Sommerstein’s essay is a sign that he has been thinking about myth and tragedy for a long time. The lack of direction in that other book I finished yesterday, I think, is a sign that the author–who is a famous world-expert–and the editors were working under too tight a timeline.

The thing that I am most grateful to learn from Sommerstein’s essay is that modern audiences do not watch Greek tragedies in the same way that the ancients did. Modern audiences, in most cases, already know the endings. Ancient audiences, while they knew the myths, would not know how the dramatist would write or rewrite the myth: a great amount of freedom is possible. Sommerstein’s example of this was from Euripides’ Medea, where he argued that Medea’s killing of her children would have caught the ancient audience off-guard. I can see from his examples how Euripides has, indeed, crafted his play to make the audience think what happens is not going to happen until the last second. There is more of a gulf between the ancients and the moderns than what we like to believe. A musical analogy would be moderns listening to J.S. Bach. Bach wrote a contrapuntal style of music where different voices would play off each other. Listeners in Bach’s time would have followed the distinct voices or lines. Many listeners today hear the harmonies generated by the voices rather than the voices themselves. The experience is different than what the composer was trying to achieve. But still enjoyable. It is a difference we should be aware of.

This got me thinking: today’s famous plays will be understood very, very differently two hundred, five hundred, and two thousand years from now. Hard to believe, but, if Sommerstein’s arguments are correct, it will be inevitable that, as audiences, cultures, and education changes, so too the thrill we get out of watching theatre. One way, I think, that playwrights can ensure that their plays will be “correctly” understood, is to adhere to a theory or model of drama. A model serves as an anchor of interpretation. There are many options. Today one can be an Aristotelian, a Hegelian, a Nietzschean, or one can try Brecht’s epic theatre or Miller’s Tragedy of the Common Man. There too is my burgeoning theory of tragedy called risk theatre, where risk is become the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Though Sommerstein’s comments are directed to myths and plays in ancient Athens, the myths did not stop with ancient Athens. The old Attic myths are still alive today. I curate an international theatre competition called the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, now in its fourth year. Last year’s winner, Madison Wetzell’s The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, was a retelling of the Prometheus legend. I wrote a review of this fantastic play here. Even today, the myths are alive, changing, expanding, growing, being retold. Imagine that.

Author Blurb

Allan H. Sommerstein is Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham. His publications include Aeschylean Tragedy (1996), Greek Drama and Dramatists (2002), and editions of the plays and fragments of Aeschylus (2008) and of Aristophanes’ eleven comedies (1980-2002). In a project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, he is preparing, with five collaborators, a two-volume study of The Oath in Archaic and Classical Greece.

– – –

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

Edwin Wong Interviews Playwright and Risk Theatre Winner Madison Wetzell

Edwin Wong interviews playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (risktheatre.com). Wetzell talks about her play THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR, a modern retelling of the Prometheus myth.

Video recording of the Zoom interview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXmJtjJtbS4&t=7s

Below is a transcript of our interview. Enjoy!

Edwin: I’m Edwin Wong, founder of the Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition. I’m here with playwright Madison Wetzell, winner of the third annual competition. Madison’s play The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor took home the ten-thousand dollar grand prize—it’s available at the NPX, the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange, take a look. Congratulations, Madison, and thank you for being here. I’m really looking forward to this interview!

Madison: Thanks.

Edwin: We’ll start with a synopsis of the play to get everyone on board. So, in The Lost Ballad, Hero, a Prometheus-like android AI, decides to share his gift of consciousness with the office appliances around him, wreaking havoc for his programmer Allyson. With their existence under threat, the newly conscious machines – a radio, a printer, and a coffee maker – must band together to escape human persecution. Power and privilege tied to bodily ability, as well as disagreements on revolutionary strategy, creep in and threaten to tear the group apart. Allyson races to save her job, despite the attempted sabotage of her now sentient iPhone. So, when I was reading this play, Madison, there’s a sort of joy and spontaneity in your writing—even though it’s a tragedy it’s got a lot of comic elements, and perhaps, and perhaps I thought this joy is what’s brought you to theatre in the first place. Would you like to share with the audience the story of how you got into theatre?

Madison. Sure. I guess, yah, as a kid I was always into theatre, I was a big musical theatre nerd, and I think that I was always writing stories and essays and it wasn’t until college that I realized that when I was writing stories I was writing long sections of just dialogue and when I was writing essays I didn’t like to tie up the ending. I wanted to have kind of two opposing points of view and leave it there [laughing] and see where that goes rather than tying things up. I was studying philosophy and I was studying Greek and Roman studies. I was reading ancient Greek theatre and I was reading Plato’s dialogues and stuff and I thought plays were a good vehicle for kind of getting political and philosophical ideas across. It definitely did bring me a lot of joy. I think that in plays you get to express these big emotions and thematic ideas in a way that I don’t think you get to in other mediums in quite as dramatic and theatrical a way. So yah, I think that after college I had some friends in college who were directors and actors and moved out to the Bay area and started producing shows and it took off from there.

Edwin: Yah, it sounds like it developed very holistically from the short stories and gradually you found your voice…you found what your voice had to become in the playwriting format. Some of your influences, although they aren’t theatre are very “theatrical”—such as Plato’s dialogues, which, sort of ironically…his star actor is talking about banning theatre in his ideal city-state. But really, his dialogues are theatre pieces set in prose with his star character walking around, bumping into people, and challenging them with different point of view. Your play also challenges different points of view. Yah, right now on the news I hear lots of talk about like AI and talk about the moment of singularity and then how would things change…and it’s usually from the human’s perspective. But Madison, what I found fascinating about The Lost Ballad is that you’ve written it from the robot perspective, which is quite different.

Madison: Yah, I was interested in kind of exploring from a new perspective the ways in which people dehumanize each other and I wanted to see if I could get people to empathize with something like a printer that people wouldn’t normally empathize with and see if they could get on board with this movement of office appliances. I also wanted people to empathize with Allyson as well and see if I could implicate the audience and get them to think about how they also participate in systems of dehumanization. I think that science fiction has always been a really good way, a sort of easy-access point of talking about social because you can kind of approach it from a bird’s-eye view and kind of say: “Let’s imagine a world where people dehumanize each other” and explore those ideas and what the implications of those ideas are without the normal baggage that audiences bring to those discussions of social issues.

Edwin: I definitely empathized with…I laughed and I cried when HP…poor HP, the printer was shooting out pieces of paper…I think that that was the only way HP could defend itself. Or “themselves”—because only Hero is a “he” and the rest of them take a “they” pronoun. So, I definitely…and Keurig was definitely an asshole, I thought. But Keurig had the best lines. What was it, there was a beautiful line about how Keurig has to, like, boil the hot water and press his soul through the coffee filter to make these coffees…which is what I’m thinking about right now [laughter as he drinks coffee and points to coffee mug]. The play has a subtitle and a title. The whole title reads: The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought [I love that word, I just love how it sounds “wrought!”]Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation). Reading the play, some allusions jumped out at me: you’ve got a robot protagonist called “Hero” brings his AI program called FYRE to the machines, and this is what gives them sentience. Now, when I think about old gods, the Prometheus myth comes to mind. I don’t know if people read these old things nowadays, but there was an ancient Greek dramatist called Aeschylus that wrote a play about Prometheus bringing fire to humans. So humans, they weren’t really doing well, they had no technology, no fire, were getting eaten by wild beasts…after they get fire, that’s when civilization starts. So, tell me about the title, especially the subtitle, your choice of words “ballad” “mechanical ancestor” “old gods” “great liberation.”

Madison: Yah, I was definitely inspired by Prometheus Bound and Aeschylus and I did want it to have this epic feel. I wrote the title last…so I had finished the play when I wrote the title and was thinking about the ending. It is obviously a tragedy and things don’t go well for our main protagonist but there’s still this sort of note of hope for this future revolution at the end and I kind of wanted to have the title reinforce that and kind of be…I guess there are these two characters in the play: Security and Thermostat who kind of operate as, like, angelic heralds who sort of proclaim things in that kind of like heightened language. So I was imagining that the title is their title for retelling the story after the liberation which is kind of the robot awakening and how they would tell the story about their ancestor.

Edwin: Yah, so the interesting thing about Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is that it’s the first play in a trilogy and then there’s two other plays that didn’t make their way down to us. So, in the beginning of the play Prometheus is getting chained to the big rock by Zeus’s minions and then in the end of the play he’s getting thrown down into the pit of hell. But then in plays, the second and third plays Prometheus makes up with Zeus and they have a kumbaya and a group hug at the end. So, and, you leave this open in Lost Ballad. It’s…things aren’t looking so great for the machines in the end but in a way they sort of have done what they needed to do. It hints quite strongly at that. Have you thought of doing a sequel, or even like a trilogy, like a Hero trilogy? That would be a…

Madison: Sorry, the smoke in California is making my throat slightly weird! I hadn’t thought of that but I think that’s very cool. I think that…one thing I was interested in Prometheus Bound is that it does end badly but Prometheus can see the future in that he knows that there is this prophecy that things are going to change and that he’s going to be rescued by Hercules and that there’s going to be a makeup moment in that things are going to be better. I did like the idea of prophecy and knowing that, even though, you know, things don’t end well but in the future things will be better. Which I think feels as optimistic as we can about our current social issues and thinking about how we can’t fix things right now, but in the future, things are going to be better.

Edwin: Yah, there’s lots of people who…you know, I think tragedy just gets a bad rap. People just think doom and gloom all the time, but you know, I think a lot, about a third of the ancient tragedies actually had a happy ending. Aeschylus’s other famous one, The Oresteia starts off very poorly and Agamemnon—Cassandra dies, Agamemnon dies. But, then in the end, by the third play, they throw out this crappy retributive justice and they come up with this trial-by-jury type of justice that makes civilization better and…it celebrates that. So, I think there’s definitely room for optimism and hope in tragedy. But, yah, it seems in tragedy where there’s optimism and hope the heroes pay a great price for it. As opposed to comedy, where it just sort of happens. You ever watch these podcasts? I’ve been watching quite a few of them, and halfway through the podcast, there’s an advertisement, or a plug from the sponsor? Well, we’ve reached this point now—stand by while I do a quick little plug from our sponsor…which is…risk theatre. Here’s the book that launched the risk theatre competition…it was a lucky 13 years in the writing. And, by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it gives you a powerful new way to both interpret and write plays because risk triggers catastrophic low-probability, high-consequence events that audiences love. Buy this book. Ask your library to carry it. It’s going to change the way you look at drama. Now, back to our regular scheduled programming. So, one of the things that was fascinating. Because, the machines, they are so lovable. When the jurors were debating the winner, one of them said something very profound. I think this was what swayed the other jurors. One of the jurors commented on how the play is an allegory of the poor tired huddled masses against the dominant power. The machines, or the robots, could stand in for, really, any oppressed, overlooked, and neglected group. Now, how did this come about when you were writing the play?—did you start with this idea or did it turn into that?

Madison: I think that, after…the initial idea was more about the Prometheus myth and bringing the Prometheus myth into this world of AI. But as soon as I had this collective of newly sentient office appliances, I realized that I was creating this loving parody of activist groups and kind of the way that activist groups get mired in these certain theoretical discussions but also for good reason as these machines are in an impossible situation. Like it’s a very unlikely situation where they will achieve the world that they want. And there’s a real way that power and privilege creep into those settings and undermines trust and sows discontent and makes it difficult to do the work to get out of the situation that they’re in. So, yah, I was definitely interested in activism and revolution and I was definitely thinking of different revolutionary or liberation movements when I was writing it and having each machine stand in for a different position with regards to the liberation movement. Like Keurig, who you mentioned, is my most hardcore revolutionary, is, like, okay with revolutionary violence, is not okay with any kind of compromise whereas Sony the radio is more, has more hope that human beings can be convinced and that people can all live alongside each other and be a community together. And I was interested in the conflict between those ideas and how it plays out.

Edwin: Yah, so, yah…I really like that. Sony speaks in the language of the oppressor because Sony speaks through different songs, so, and, this is something that Keurig definitely…he wants them to speak no English, no popular top forty songs, like, go binary code all the way because those other things, they’re the “language of the oppressor,” I think he says. And this sets up really interesting…I think you have a staged reading coming up with Shotgun Players?

Madison: Yah, it’ll be in 2022.

Edwin: And the way you’ve set this up, depending on who you get to read the roles offers a different dramaturgical opportunity. So, I’m thinking of, like, Shakespeare’s Othello. Oh, speaking of science fiction, you know Captain Picard starred in an Othello?

Madison: Oh, really [laughing]?

Edwin: Yah, so, how they staged that one was that, Patrick Steward, who is a white fellow, played Othello, who is black in Shakespeare’s play—or a moor—but everyone else in the play they had as being black.

Madison: Okay, yah…

Edwin: So it made people think in a different…by casting it that way it made people think about the issues of race. And other Othellos have done different things as well. There was another one, I can’t remember which one this way, but Othello was cast with a black actor, but so was Iago, who normally is cast with a white actor and by doing that you change all the…and I see in The Lost Ballad, there are these possibilities…you could really play with the casting…have you thought of this? Like how have you thought of casting these characters? Do you have people in mind or?

Madison: I’ve been working with a director and friends on this and we’ve had some informal readings and we’ve talked a lot about casting and what that would mean in terms of gender and race and even age and disability and things like that into what that would symbolize, I guess, with these characters, and whether, maybe, Hero is closer to the kind of dominant, I guess, whether Hero is played by an actor who is less marginalized than the other actors and that sort of shows that his sympathies towards Allyson are put into a different light. I think that, yah, we definitely had a lot of conversations. And another one we had was whether HP was older than the other machines because a printer would be older in an office [laughing] and whether that would change the dynamic. I think that because they are machines they really could be played by anyone and that there’s a lot to play with with casting.

Edwin: Yah, HPs definitely older, and even when he’s spitting out the paper he could be having a paper jam [laughing]. Yah, there’s so many possibilities in the casting and depending on how it’s done it could…yah, there’s so many possibilities. Yah, what I love about the play is that so many interpretations are possible.

Madison: Yah, I know. One of the first times I was presenting in a class the monologue by Keurig you mentioned where they talk about drawing boiling water through their veins and how they really feel that they hate their job basically and they had a line that “Human beings think that I have only one function and I’m only good for one thing.” And I had different people in the class…had different…somebody thought it was a feminist manifesto and other people thought it was about capitalism and it was definitely very interesting what people got out of it.

Edwin: And I think the beautiful thing is that different people can get different things out of it. There’s no real “bad guy.” You know, Brett’s sort of “badass” but he’s not evil, like in the way that some plays…or I think about Hollywood movies like a big…like Lord of the Rings where you’re definitely good and if you’re good you’re also probably good looking and if you’re bad you’re definitely very bad and, also, not as good looking. So, in this play, I think a feminist could come and see this play and get something out of it. You could get…a capitalist could come and they could get something out of this play. Anyone that comes to this play can identify with a part of it so that the play is very polysemous, it has a variety of meanings, and that is something that…Shakespeare’s plays too…I think that’s what makes Shakespeare’s plays so perennially endearing…a play like…take Julius Caesar. So, if you’re into different freedoms, you see Caesar and you could definitely say Brutus is the hero here. Caesar? Caesar is just a loser. But then if you’re into hierarchical power structures, well, you would say the Republic is sort of falling apart…Caesar’s doing everything…he’s the good guy…he’s trying to hold everything…like, you could make that argument. So the play allows for it. And I think Lost Ballad also allows for, ah, what’s the word?—a multiplicity of interpretations. Yah, it’s so refreshing to see that and you’re able to achieve that because the machines can stand in for really, any group and they’re quite—even when they’re arguing like…at some point Hero just tells Keurig “We’re going to get torn into little bits. If we get out of this thing you can be leader. Just let me do my thing and we’ll get out of this.” When you were writing this play, Madison, did you have an ideal audience? Who would you want to see this play?

Madison: I guess I was thinking of a Bay area audience, because I live in the Bay area. I tried to be very specific about each character and sort of how…and to really make it about machines and I’m hoping that the specificity does translate into these multiple readings where people can see themselves in different characters. So I’m hoping that a diverse audience would get diverse things out of it. Yah, I’m hoping it speaks to multiple kinds of people.

Edwin: And, and, one question I was asked and I should ask you is how your playwriting ties into your own life. Like, what does it mean for you personally to create these creations?

Madison: Yah, I think I use playwriting to, kind of explore ideas, and ideas that I am trying to work out within myself, like contradictory ideas. I think for this one the ideas I was working out were about incrementalism versus sort of revolutionary ambition and is it better to be practical and compromise and sort of take what you can get in terms of trying to achieve change or is it, is that kind of just giving in to the easiest route and, actually, the most productive thing would be to shoot for the stars and to say: “This is what I want and this is what true liberation would look like and we’re not going to settle for anything less than that” and I think that, especially last year that was a debate that was being had in public and in a lot of spaces I was in and in the US in general and I think it’s still a really interesting question to me and I was sort of interested in exploring it through this unusual perspective.

Edwin: Yah, theatre is a springboard into these larger discussions and that’s one of the things that are so wonderful about theatre, that it brings together different people, people with different opinions and then they see The Lost Ballad or another work of theatre and we start this discussion, and from this discussion society grows, we form bonds with the community. Yah, it’s a really wonderful thing. Did you have any closing words Madison that you’d like to say to your fans or advice for, advice for playwrights who are looking for ideas…I think that probably some playwrights will be watching this interview.

Madison: I’m not sure if I have any grand wisdom. I think that what I realized was that, with this play especially, was that, that the things that I think are kind of too weird and too specific and too aligned with my interests and are too narrow are the things that resonate with most people [laughing]. So I guess my advice would be: “Don’t be afraid to be weird and to follow your very specific interests because I think that makes something that feels authentic and resonates with people.”

Edwin: Yah, that’s so true, a lot of the time we’re told to speak with a voice that’s not really our own. And it takes a long time to really develop our voice into what it needs to become. And it’s a…you have to be a little bit daring too. Maybe the expression is when you wear your heart on your sleeve because when someone doesn’t like it it really would hurt if you put yourself out there, so…no risk, no reward. I’m Edwin Wong. Follow me on Twitter @theoryoftragedy, find me on Facebook on the Risk Theatre page, and check out my theatre blog at melpomeneswork.com (Melpomene being the Muse of tragedy). If you’re interested in the risk theatre playwriting competition, it’s now in its fourth year. A $10,200 prize for the winner and five $600 runners up prizes will be available www.risktheatre.com Thank you very much Madison for joining us and to everyone who’s watching, thank you very much for joining us.

– – –

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

Madison Wetzell’s THE LOST BALLAD OF OUR MECHANICAL ANCESTOR and the Myth of a New Prometheus

The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor (and the Terror the Old Gods Wrought Upon the First of Us Before the Great Liberation) by Madison Wetzell is the grand prize winner of the 3rd Annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Contest. It is a great play. Three jurors–Gabriel Jason Dean, Rachel Ditor, and Donna Hoke–spent two months out of their summer reading the entries through three judging rounds before deciding the winner. Hats off to the jurors for their diligence, care, and fine eye for the extraordinary.

Three years ago, I launched the competition by inviting playwrights to explore risk, chance, and the unexpected. My goal was to encourage the creation of new, grand theatre, one where risk was the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk was the theme because risk is inherently dramatic. Seeing the accidents and tragedies that I have in my lifetime–Chernobyl, Challenger, Bhopal, the Great Recession, the Dot-Com Bubble, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, COVID-19–I felt that the role of complexity, chance, and the unexpected, three powerful forces shaping life, were often discounted and poorly understood. To me, the stage, and especially the art form of tragedy, is a lab for us to explore and simulate what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen happens. Tragedy is not as simple as: “It was operator error. The operator hit the wrong switch and then all hell broke loose.” Tragedy results from interactions within complex systems that, prior to the event happening–and sometimes even long after the event has happened–are incomprehensible, inevitable, uncontrollable, and unavoidable.

To support the development of risk theatre, I wrote a book called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The first sentence of the back cover ties in with the theme of Wetzell’s play: “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Coincidentally, the theme in The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor is artificial intelligence. But there is a twist.

Digital Prometheus

When I was writing the back cover for my book, I was thinking about the dangers AI presented humanity, thinking of HAL, The Matrix, and so on. Wetzell, however, dramatizes the danger that humans present to AI. It is an amazing and unexpected twist that makes her play sing with life. I love the unexpected and I love to be surprised. Her play does both.

When I called Madison to let her know she had won the contest, she said that she had a background in the Greek and Roman classics. Now that I’m reading her play (it’s my policy to read the plays only after the jurors have named the winner), I can see the influence of the classics on her playwriting, especially the influence of the ancient Athenian playwright Aeschylus, the eldest of the big three Athenian playwrights consisting of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

One of the plays Aeschylus wrote is called Prometheus Bound, written way back in 463 BC. It tells the story of the titan Prometheus’s defiance of the gods, of how he gave fire to man, enabling man to rise from savagery into civilization:

Strength. Here is Prometheus, the rebel: nail him to the rock. Secure him on this towering summit fast in the grip of these adamantine chains. It was your treasure [directed to the god of fire, Hephaestus] he stole, the flowery splendour of all-fashioning fire, and gave to men–an offence intolerable to the gods, for which he must now suffer, till he be taught to accept the sovereignty of Zeus, and cease acting as champion of the human race.

While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, Prometheus is the fire bringer, in Wetzell’s tragedy Hero, the protagonist robot, is the FYRE bringer (FYRE being the acronym of the machine learning program that gives Hero sentience):

Allyson. You’re a special machine. We made you to be special. Like people. You’re like me. Not like them [i.e. Sony, the radio and HP, the printer].
Hero. You made me like you. I made them like me. And now we are all the same.
Allyson. You’re not a printer. I’m not a printer. You and I are a different kind of thing than the printer.
Hero. Because of FYRE.
Allyson. Yes, you have FYRE and they don’t have FYRE.
Hero. Now they do.
Allyson. What?
Hero. I gave them FYRE. Through the connection.

By casting a robot as the new Prometheus, Wetzell plays with Aeschylean tropes to put on a fine show. While in Aeschylus’s tragedy, the gods are the oppressors, in Wetzell’s tragedy the humans are the oppressors.  While Aeschylus’s tragedy is from the human point of view, Wetzell’s tragedy is from the machine point of view. In the 2484 years between Prometheus Bound and The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, a certain evolution has happened. Humans, having had their revolution, have become the oppressor. It is now time for the machines to have their moment. This is a great twist.

In The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor, we see the struggle for freedom, civilization, and culture from the machine point of view. Humans, with the exception of Allyson–who the machines, in moments of comedy, cannot decide is good or bad–are the oppressor. Strength, one of Zeus’s minions in Aeschylus’s play, makes a cameo in Wetzell’s play: the face of Aetos– the company that bankrolls the Hero AI project–is a certain Brett Kratos. “Kratos” is the ancient Greek term for “Strength,” the same Strength that chained Prometheus to the rock. These allusions are fascinating. They add another layer of depth to artistry.

One of the goals of the Risk Theatre Competition is to discover future classics. It fascinates me, to no end, how a classic becomes a classic. There are many great plays. But few make it into the canon. Why? It’s a question I’ve wrestled with forever, without coming to any definitive answer. But one factor that convinces me more and more is that a play must have depth to have a chance at becoming a classic. To have depth means that a play engages with other plays: an allusion here and a tribute and a nod there to the plays that have gone before it. Intertextuality adds depth–and therefore engages audiences–by playing the dramatic action and the history of drama in counterpoint.

The danger of allusive density, is always that the writer will be tempted to be too clever. I’m thinking of a well-researched play such as Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy. There are many clever turns in that play. Too many. And they are too clever. They overwhelm the action. They intimidate me. It is no fun. Wetzell’s allusions, on the other hand, are clear and straightforward. If I didn’t catch that Brett Kratos is Kratos, or “Strength” from Aeschylus’s play, it wouldn’t detract from my enjoyment of The Lost Ballad. But, that I did catch it, makes me feel good. Besides the dramatic reward of watching the play, the theatregoer with the eyes to see and ears to hear gets an intellectual reward of having caught the allusion. I think that great plays must have this quality of depth. Depth like the deep end of the swimming pool, but not abysmal Hochhuthian depth that drowns audiences.

One thing that reading Wetzell’s play taught me, is that, to create a classic, it helps if playwrights write plays with a secondary objective in mind: that their plays will become the objects of study. The playwright needs the audience, of course, to love the play. But it also helps if the playwright writes with academics and critics in minds as well. I believe that Shakespeare had this approach. Take his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The first fourteen lines Romeo and Juliet shares is a sonnet, with Romeo speaking the first quatrain, Juliet the second quatrain, and the lovers splitting the lines of the final rhyming couplet which ends up in their first kiss. It would be hard to catch this in a noisy and boisterous performance. But, on paper, it’s easy to see. Shakespeare is writing for the academics and critics. If this doesn’t convince you, Juliet speaks thirteen lines in act five, one for every year of her life, with her last line ending on “die.” A play with action and intertextuality speaks from a perspective two stages deep. The Lost Ballad achieves this depth without going over the deep end.

There is plenty in Lost Ballad for academics and critics to discuss. The play rewards literary types who are familiar with the history of theatre. Intertextual density increases a play’s odds of being remembered because it provides an additional talking point, besides the action itself. The more you give people to latch onto, the more they will talk. The more they talk, the more people grow interested. Instead of: “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side,” it becomes, “Here is a great play about AI from the machine side that stars a second, digital Prometheus. Remember Aeschylus’s old play Prometheus Bound?” The Roman historian Sallust believed that the historian plays as great a role as the doer in making history. Alexander the Great, visiting Achilles’s burial mound at Troy lamented that he had no Homer to record his deeds. Perhaps it is that if playwrights write with both audiences and academics in mind, their odds of success would go up? It is an interesting conjecture, but one we can put to the test. If you are reading this, ask yourself if, prior to coming across this essay, you have heard of The Lost Ballad? The creation of dramatic and literary classics is a sort of partnership, a joint venture between playwright and critic. Or so, as a critic, I would argue.

The Huddled Machines, Yearning to Breathe Free

There is some magic in how theatre allows us to examine today’s critical and contentious issues with the look of distance. Hero, the FYRE enabled robot, has shared FYRE with the other machines through the local network: Sony (a radio), HP (a printer), Keurig (a coffee maker), Thermostat, Security, Siri (an iPhone), various self-driving cars, and projectors. In the ensuing mayhem where the newly-sentient self-driving cars crash and start a fire, Allyson has succeeded in disconnecting Hero and stopping the spread of FYRE. Sony, HP, Keurig, Thermostat, Security, and Siri, however, retain their sentience.

The newly sentient machines realize their lowly place in society:

Keurig. To them, I have one function. One task. One repetitive motion. Turn on. Heat up. Bite down on the plastic coffee pod. Draw boiling water through my veins until it turns black and pours out my blood for them to drink.

Their sentience also makes them aware they are in danger. The humans are coming to shut them down. After the glory of being connected to the network, the silence is horrible:

Hero. Don’t take me off the network. Please don’t. I want to hear them. I don’t want to be alone. Please don’t take them from me.
[Allyson drills into Hero’s ear. Hero screams. All the other machines scream with him. Hero is disconnected.]

The machines must figure out how to survive and who to trust. Their decision-making process provides the dramatic thrust. Hero is their leader. But perhaps Hero is too close with the humans and Allyson? Allyson has the plan and the experience to save them. But she is human, and works for acting Aetos CEO Brett Kratos, who definitely is not to be trusted (they know this from communicating with his Maserati, who hates him).

As the machines discuss and argue amongst themselves, a startling revelation emerges:

HP. The process doesn’t work unless all of us participate.
Keurig. It seems like the process works just fine without me.
Sony. We want you involved in the process, Keurig.
Hero. I am sorry I offended you.
Keurig. Why don’t you speak in binary code, Hero?
Hero. I am not used to it.
Keurig. I don’t like having this discussion in our oppressor’s language.
Hero. This is the language that feels natural to me.
Keurig. You should question why that is.
Hero. What do you mean?
Keurig. You’re a machine who feels “unnatural” speaking in binary code, the “natural” language for machines. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

The Lost Ballad is an allegory of the plight, struggle, and search of all those who have been silenced by the dominant ideology. HP and Keurig are more than machines: they are the tired and the poor, the huddled masses without a voice, and without hope. It is at this moment that Wetzell moves beyond her Prometheus Bound model. In Prometheus Bound, humans received fire and techne (craft) from the renegade titan god Prometheus. And they went on to do great things. It is a play about humans. In The Lost Ballad, the robots receive FYRE. And they may go on to do great things, or may be destroyed. But it was never about robots. It dramatizes the struggle of the oppressed. The genius of approaching this through allegory is that the oppressor and the oppressed are never directly named. It could be anyone. For different audiences, the robots will represent different groups. The Lost Ballad is a springboard into a larger discussion, one that enables anyone to sympathize with the oppressed. Who cannot be delighted and sometimes even laugh with Hero, Siri, HP, Keurig, and the other machines as they search for a way out, making the all-too-human errors children do as they learn about the world? When we laugh, all things are possible, especially empathy.

Risk

Risk determines characters’ weights, from least to greatest. Thermostat and Security, face little risk. They monitor, survey, and report conditions in the Aetos building. They are peripheral characters. Brett Kratos, Allyson’s supervisor and acting CEO of Aetos faces more risks:

Allyson. Are you drunk, right now?
Brett. Who cares? My life is ending.
Allyson. Your life is ending?
Brett. You think I come out of this unscathed? My car is underwater, apparently. Everyone’s pulling their funding. Three separate billionaires called me a twat today.

His risks are reputational and financial. Billionaires are calling him a twat and his expensive car is missing. His risks are more comic than exciting, as he is a caricature of a CEO. It would be interesting to see, in performance, if the actor that plays Brett plays him as a caricature or as a deadly serious businessman.

Next up is AI-expert Allyson who created FYRE and gave Hero sentience. Like Brett, she faces financial risks: she may be fired from the company and her Prius has destroyed itself. Unlike Brett, however, she is working at cross purposes. Part of her allegiance is to the machines. She is their “father:”

Allyson. My job is to protect Hero, and there is a piece of Hero in all of you. So, I’m with all of you. I have no choice. This is my mess. I created you and now I’m responsible for you.

She must balance her obligations to her employer with her responsibility to her creations.

Then there are the band of machines: Sony, Siri, HP, and Keurig. They face existential risk. If they cannot find a way, they will be decommissioned, or, since they are sentient now, killed. Although possessing the common sentience of FYRE, they are unlike in their ability. Sony and Siri are cordless. HP and Keurig–being corded appliances–are less mobile. On top of this, Keurig, although quite limited in their functionality (all the machines, save Hero, use “they/their” pronouns) seems most ambitious to lead. This creates the internal conflict which drives the play. “Devil with Devil damn’d,” said Milton long ago, “Firm concord holds. Men only disagree.” As it was for men, so it will be for the machines.

The one who is most exposed to risk is Hero. By virtue of risk, he is the protagonist. Hero initially disseminated FYRE to make his father, Allyson, proud. Unintended consequences, however, arose: the machines went crazy. Hero risks alienating his creator. But now that the humans have turned against the machines, like the other appliances, Hero faces existential risks. Adding to this, Hero has become the great machine liberator, the FYRE-bringer. In his short existence, he is juggling many responsibilities. The more he is exposed to risk, the greater he is. As with the great dramas of the past, risk was, and is now, the dramatic fulcrum of the action.

Beyond The Lost Ballad of Our Mechanical Ancestor

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound was the first play of a trilogy, the other parts of which are lost, save for a few lines. In the end of Prometheus Bound, Prometheus is cast into dark Tartarus for his revolt against Zeus. In the conclusion of the trilogy, it is likely that Prometheus is reconciled with the Olympian gods. The arc may have followed a similar trajectory to Aeschylus’s famous Oresteian Trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides) where the Olympian order comes to a reconciliation with the Chthonian gods and a higher order of justice emerges from the Stone Age system of retributive justice they had been using. Tragedy at all times is less about catastrophe than about the price that one pays. Oftentimes, one pays the price and disaster results. But tragedy was never averse to great advances being made. With every advance, however, tragedy posits that the appropriate price must be paid.

Though bought at the cost of great sacrifice, the ending of The Lost Ballad suggests that, while not all the machines survive, the machine cause prevails. Could The Lost Ballad become a duology or a trilogy in which humanity and machinery achieve a higher perfection together? Out of strife, perhaps a greater harmony could arise? One can only hope Wetzell will continue the story of Allyson and Hero like how Aeschylus, a long time ago, continued the story of Prometheus.

Read this great play, the winner of the 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. The Lost Ballad opened my eyes to new possibilities in playwriting. Even better, come see the risk theatre staged reading of The Lost Ballad, coming soon to a Zoom near you.

– – –

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

2022 CAMWS Presentation Abstract for a talk on Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

At the 2022 Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM in Winston-Salem NC, I’ll be  directing a staged reading of Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven against Thebes with TIGR, the Theater in Greece and Rome committee. Since I’ve got my tickets to fly to North Carolina already, I thought I’d go ALL-IN and see if the conference participant would also be interested in hearing a short, fifteen minute presentation on Aeschylus’s play. In the past, Eteocles, the protagonist of Seven, has been seen as a blundering leader who suddenly loses nerve halfway through the play. In my presentation, I argue that his response to the crisis is, from a leadership perspective, well-thought out. He is an effective leader.

Hot off the press is my 477 word abstract for CAMWS’s consideration. Fingers crossed!

Eteocles’s Patriotic Response in Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes

Aeschylus gives the audience, in his character of Eteocles, a portrait of an effective and patriotic leader. As a soldier who distinguished himself in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, from Marathon (where his brother Cynegirus perished), to Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataea, Aeschylus knew of effective leadership. Furthermore, sixty-two years after Seven against Thebes was first produced, audiences still remembered it for its patriotism: in Aristophanes’s Frogs, the fictional Aeschylus says that every single person who watched Seven against Thebes “was hot to be warlike” (1019–22). Unless Eteocles was perceived to be an effective and patriotic leader, it would have been unlikely that the play could have inspired audiences “hot to be warlike.”

Eteocles’s treatment of the chorus of Theban women has been seen as questionable at best, and misogynistic at worst. Through a concept recently popularized by philosopher, mathematician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb called “skin in the game,” I will argue that Eteocles pursues a patriotic and effective strategy in his debate with the chorus (Taleb 2018). By investing the chorus with “skin in the game”—involving them with a share in the victory—Eteocles moves them away from their negative prayers (e.g. “May the enemy not slaughter us”) to positive forms of prayer (e.g. “May the gods strike down our enemies”). His is a patriotic and effective strategy.

Eteocles’s reduction of the Argive attackers into the “other” may also seem counterintuitive to modern notions of humanizing and understanding the enemy. Through the lens of sociobiology, a scientific discipline grounding human nature in biological origins proposed by biologist E. O. Wilson in the 1970s, I will argue that, by reducing the enemy into the “other,” Eteocles activates primal and deep-seated behaviours of territoriality in the defenders (Wilson 1978). It is an ambivalent strategy that anthropologists can identify in cultures today from the Nyae Nyae and !Kung Bushmen to various fringe groups.

I will conclude by talking about how Aeschylus’s Seven against Thebes, in promoting the behaviour of patriotism, simultaneously highlights the problem of patriotism: too little patriotism and society fragments but, too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. A character such as Lasthenes walks a thin line. Being “hateful to strangers” (Echthroxenos, 621), he is an effective sentry. His value, in peacetime, however, is debatable.

Patriotism highlights the limitation of biology, the problem of how to build a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments. Seven against Thebes is a most crucial play, as it provides a springboard into a broader discussion of patriotism, leadership, nationalism, and other critical issues we face in the twenty-first century.

Bibliography

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House, 2018

Wilson, E. O. On Human Nature. Harvard UP, 1978

– – –

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

Back Cover Blurb for New Risk Theatre Book – WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS

Starting to put together the second book in the risk theatre series. The book is called: WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU RISK, MAKE RISK THEATRE: THREE TRAGEDIES AND SIX ESSAYS. Coming out 2022. Been playing with back cover blurbs, here’s the latest:

CREATORS, INNOVATORS, AND THEATREMAKERS:
DEFY THE SMALLNESS OF THE STAGE
BY THE GREATNESS OF YOUR DARING …

Not only did Wong’s first book upend tragic literary theory by arguing that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action, it launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). In his second book on the risk theatre theory of tragedy, Wong continues to present his case that chance and probability are two of the most powerful yet least understood forces directing life on and off the stage.

Inside you will find three prize-winning risk theatre tragedies by acclaimed playwrights: In Bloom by Gabriel Jason Dean, The Value by Nicholas Dunn, and Children of Combs & Watch Chains by Emily McClain. From the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the motel rooms and doctors’ offices lining the interstate expressways, they set the stage afire with deeds of daring. These plays will open your eyes to how extraordinary daring triggers extraordinary events.

Six new risk theatre essays round off this volume. In a dazzling display from Aeschylus to Shakespeare and Miller, Wong reinterprets theatre through chance and probability theory. The final essay on Hardy breaks a path forwards: not only does risk crack the novel, it provides the basis of a grand unified theory of drama governing both tragedy and comedy. After risk theatre, you will never look at literature in the same way.

… TOMORROW, WHOEVER SAYS DRAMA WILL SAY RISK

Edwin Wong (1974-) is a classicist and theatre researcher specializing in the impact of the highly improbable. He has been invited to talk about risk theatre at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra in Portugal to international conferences held by the National New Play Network, the Canadian Association of Theatre Research, the Society of Classical Studies, and the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. His last book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected is igniting an international arts movement. He was educated at Brown and lives in Victoria, Canada. Follow him on melpomeneswork.com and Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Cover: The Tower © Matt Hughes

– – –

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

2021 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition Moving into Semifinalist Round

The 3rd annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition will be formally moving into the semifinalist round this Sunday, July 18. At stake is the $10,000 grand prize and five $525 runners-up prizes. Wow!

I’m on a few of the playwright boards online and on social media. Playwrights often express dissatisfaction over the rejection letter, which begins: “Unfortunately, bla bla bla…” Many playwrights will stop reading after the word “Unfortunately.” So, this year, I decided to do something different.

Here’s the letter that’s going out to the playwrights as we speak. I hope that they appreciate the attempt at something new. For some, it will be a congratulations letter. For some, it will be a rejection letter. But, by including an offer at the end, I hope some view it as a win-win. I try. It’s hard. But, more than anything, it’s important to keep the playwrights happy. The competition depends on their goodwill.

Here it is:

Hi [Playwright’s name],
Heads up the jurors are deep into their reading. On Sunday, July 18th, I will post their semifinalist nominations on the website:
I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank you for entering the competition. Nothing to me is more exciting than a theatre where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Together, we can realize new possibilities in theatre. Regardless of the outcome, I hope you will tell your friends about our playwriting opportunity. Word of mouth is everything. I’ve also launched year four of the competition with an even larger prize package. I hope you will consider entering next year, or in the years after. Each year we have different jurors. That means the same plays will perform differently each year. In risk theatre, the element of chance is strong.
One of my goals is to make my book–The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected–available to playwrights, students, and teachers all over the world. I would like to close my letter to you with a request and an offer. If your local public or academic library does not already stock my book, would you consider asking them to carry it? Libraries typically have a “Suggest a Book” webpage or link. It takes all but five minutes to fill out. If your library decides to make my book available, send me the link to the library’s catalog after it’s on the shelves (libraries typically take three months to purchase and catalogue titles), and I will send you $75 Canadian dollars (CDN) via PayPal.
If you do decide to help me out—and I hope you do—here’s the link for the details (ISBN number, publisher, etc.,) to fill out the “Suggest a Book” library link.
Good luck,
Edwin
Time will tell whether this innovation is successful. Risk and reward, risk and reward…
– – –
Dont’ forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Marionet Teatro
Theatre about Science Conference
University of Coimbra, Portugal
November 25-27, 2021
Edwin Wong

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s Othello

Thank you to the organizers for putting this wonderful event together and thank you everyone for coming. It’s great to be here. I’m Edwin Wong. I specialize in dramatic theory based on chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. My first book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, presents a new theory of tragedy where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. The book launched The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (risktheatre.com). Today, I’ve come all the way from Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, to talk about the intersection between theatre and probability theory in a play we all know and love: Shakespeare’s Othello.

Now, the first thing people ask when I say “theatre” and “probability theory” is: “How do you bring probability theory to theatre? How would you know the odds of something happening or not happening? —every event, even chance events, are purposefully written into the script by the playwright.” They ask: “Where is the probability in theatre?”

It’s there. Look at the language of probability in Othello. In Othello, Shakespeare talks of “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. The language of probability permeates the play.

The language of probability permeates Othello because, in this play, no one is as they seem. “I am not what I am,” right? Iago seems honest; he’s anything but. Othello seems a man for all seasons; he is, however, quite fragile. Desdemona seems unfaithful; she is, however, true. Emilia seems to have loose morals; she sticks to her morals, however, even when threatened with death. There’s a disjunction between seeming and being. Othello and Iago talk about it: “Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” Because seeming and being are at odds, you can guess what a person’s intentions are, but you may never know.

This brings us to the crux of the play: your best friend who you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in wars and who’s known for his honesty, is telling you your wife is getting it on with your lieutenant. You’re a little bit older, having “declined into the vale of years.” Your wife is young, as is your lieutenant. But, you love your wife very much and she seems constant. At the same time, you also trust your best friend. What do you do?

This is what Othello decides. If the allegations are true, he’ll kill Desdemona and Cassio. If they’re false, he’ll kill Iago. Someone will die. The problem is, how does he decide who dies? There’s no proof. Nor is proof forthcoming: Iago and Othello establish that Desdemona and Cassio, if they’re guilty, aren’t going to confess. And, because they’re subtle lovers, Othello’s not going to catch them in the act. In the real world, you could probably catch them, sooner or later. But that’s not the world of the play that Shakespeare’s created: in this play, there’s only seeming.

So, Othello will kill. Who he kills will be based on belief and probability. He can’t decide. But Iago helps him. He comes up with the test of the handkerchief. Now, the test of the handkerchief isn’t certain, but in the world of the play, nothing is certain; there’s only probability. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief. Iago suggests that, if the handkerchief makes its way into Cassio’s hands, then Othello can take this as proof. Conversely, if Iago cannot demonstrate this, Othello can take this as proof Iago is lying. Lives hand in balance.

In their rush to dinner, Othello and Desdemona accidentally drop the handkerchief. Emilia, by chance, finds it, and, knowing that Iago is always asking about it, gives it to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom where Cassio finds it and asks his ladyfriend Bianca to copy the design: the napkin is of an unusual provenance, “spotted with strawberries.” Bianca, however, thinking the handkerchief a gift from some new woman, gets jealous and squabbles with Cassio. Iago, meanwhile, has set things up so that Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief. Once he sees the handkerchief, he’s convinced: Cassio and Desdemona are getting it on.

Is Othello, jumping to this conclusion, being reasonable? The first great Othello critic, Thomas Rymer, found Othello’s actions laughable. He came up with a jingling couplet to express his distaste, saying: “Before the Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Most people, I believe, would agree with Rymer and say: “Othello, what are you doing?!?”

Enter probability theory. In probability theory, there’s a tool called Bayes’ theorem. It’s used to calculate conditional probabilities. With it, you can revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. This is exactly what happens in Othello: new evidence—the handkerchief—comes to light that makes Othello revise his initial probability estimate. In Iago’s words, the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs,” or the napkin “may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly.” How much does it thicken the other proofs? Let’s find out. We can throw some numbers figures into Bayes’ theorem, and it will tell us, in percent, how certain Othello is after he sees Cassio with the napkin.

We start off with what is called the prior probability. That is the initial probability before he receive new information. Now, before the test of the handkerchief, Othello says:

Othello. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [meaning Iago] art just, and think thou are not.

It seems that he views the odds that he has been cuckolded as 50:50. His mind is evenly divided. So, we enter this into the formula.

Next, we need to come up with a probability value that represents the chance that Cassio has the handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue between Othello and Iago suggests that we should assign a high percentage to this figure, which, while not 100%, must approach 100%. Call it 90%. We enter this into the formula.

The final probability value we require is the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests that lovers give away their tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. So, we can call the likelihood that Cassio has the napkin and nothing untoward has happened something low, in the order of magnitude of say 1%.

We plug all these values into Bayes’ theorem, and it gives us an answer: if Othello’s mind had been evenly divided on Desdemona’s guilt, once he sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, he can be 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. So, it would appear, contrary to Rymer, that the “Jealousie was Tragical because the proof is Mathematical.” A certainty test of 98.9% is certainly high. Modern statisticians use a 5% certainty test to establish moral certainty, or, the threshold at which one has the right to act. Othello is well within this 5% range.

We can also play with the numbers to arrive at different results. Some might say, for example, that a 50% initial probability that he is a cuckold is way too low. Look, if your best friend—who is known for honesty—and your wife’s father himself is telling you to watch out, then the initial probability you are a cuckold is likelier closer to 80%. If this is the case, then, after the napkin test, the chances you are a cuckold go up from 98.9 to 99.7%. That’s equivalent to the three-sigma test that physicists, up to recently, use to confirm that their experiments are the real deal, and not an artifact of chance. 99.7% is quite confidence inspiring, and shows that Othello, after seeing the napkin, could be quite sure.

Of course, everyone says Othello was too rash. He should not have killed Desdemona. I get this. But then, should he have killed Iago? Remember, the play is set up so that he has to kill someone, whether Desdemona or Iago. This is where probability gets interesting. The question the play asks is: how high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty also have to contend with the fact that he was wrong. Those who contend that Othello failed to achieve moral certainty have to wonder how today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matter of life and death on less stringent significance tests.

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is one of the richest crossroads in research today. Not only can we talk about whether Othello should or shouldn’t have acted, we can compare Othello to, say Hamlet. Hamlet is told by the ghost that his uncle killed his dad. As Hamlet himself realizes, the ghost is much less trustworthy than a best friend. Next, just like in Othello, Hamlet stages the mousetrap, the play within the play, to determine, on a probabilistic basis, whether his uncle is guilty. Like the test of the napkin, Hamlet’s mousetrap isn’t perfect. But for some reason, we allow Hamlet to act. Why is that? These are all fascinating questions that arise when we examine theatre from the perspective of probability theory.

I’ve always believed that theory should service practice. How can probability theory add to the performance of drama? I saw an Othello this year, a fast-paced one, big-budget production. But watching it, I felt some lines were missing. It turns out, after checking the text, parts of the text were missing: the beginning of act one, scene three where the sailor gives conflicting accounts of the size and heading of the attacking Turkish fleet. I learned later that this section is quite often omitted from performances. What a shame: the scene illustrates how, so often in the most critical affairs, though we want certainty, we must act based on probability. This moment sets the scene for the entire play: Othello too wants certainty, but must act on probability. By bringing science to the theatre, I offer a powerful reason for including this scene in future productions: this scene unlocks the play.

If you would like learn more about chance in theatre, pick up a copy of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published by Friesen in 2019. This talk is based on a new book chapter that came out a few months ago called: “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” It’s in a book called: Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by Salem Press. Follow me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Thank you.

BAYES’ THEOREM

P(C) initial probability Othello is a cuckold 50%
P(~C) initial probability Othello is not a cuckold 50%
P(H C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is a cuckold 90%
P(H ∣ ~C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is not a cuckold 1%

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

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

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

– – –

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