Tag Archives: tragedy

Edwin Wong’s Articulation of Personal Research Activity (Risk Theatre)

Canadian Association of Theatre Research Conference (CATR) “Partition/Ensemble”

May 25th-28th 2020 Montreal, Canada

The Articulations of Division and Unity: Re-evaluating Practices of Artistic Research Seminar

Concordia University and Université du Québec à Montréal

Natalia Esling and Bruce Barton Co-Curators

 

Hi Everyone, my name is Edwin Wong. Like many of you, I arrived at theatre off the beaten path. I’m a classicist who studied ancient theatre with Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria (’04 BA Greek and Roman Studies) and David Konstan at Brown University (’07 MA Classics). My favourite old-time tragedy is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes—of all the plays in the tragic canon, it’s the only one where you can work out the odds of all the actual and contrafactual outcomes. That’s fascinating because I study the impact of highly improbable events. I was born in 1974, so that makes me 45. I live in Victoria, BC where I work as a project manager for PML Professional Mechanical. We build hospitals, schools, office buildings, submarine hangers, condos, you name it.

In commercial construction, “Mechanical” refers not to cars, but to an umbrella of trades: plumbing, sheet metal, fire sprinklers, insulation, firestop, refrigeration, and controls. Mechanical—alongside electrical, glazing (windows), concrete, wall board, gypsum wall board, and many others—is one of the divisions of construction that come together to build the buildings you see around you. Project managers are a liaison between designers (architects and engineers) and the trades installing the work. As a project manager, I look after contracts, changes, construction schedules, and mitigate risk. I’m a Red Seal plumber by trade. That means I’ve completed a four year apprenticeship.

I enjoy reading books outside my field of study, especially books on financial speculation, market bubbles, and stock market collapses. Favourites include Lowenstein’s The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (how an overleveraged hedge fund founded by two Nobel winners brought the global economic system to a stop), Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, and Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Perhaps it’s from my work and reading interests that the focus of my artistic research is to explore what happens in drama when risk becomes the fulcrum of the action.

The current focus of my artistic research began in winter 2006 when I came across trader/mathematician/philosopher Taleb’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the in the Markets. It was sitting in the economics section of the big Borders bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island. His book argued that low-probability, high-consequence events shape life more than we think. Wall Street traders triggered devastating low-probability, high-consequence events by taking on inordinate risks. I thought: “Isn’t this what happens in tragedy? Macbeth triggers Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill—an exceedingly low-probability event—by taking on too much risk.” I spent the next twelve years perfecting a theory of tragedy where risk drives the action and I called the theory “risk theatre.”

When Great Recession—a product of excessive risk taking—hit in 2008, I realized how the scale of human ambition in finance, politics, warfare, technology, and science makes risk a timely topic. Theatre could capitalize on this by simulating risk on the stage. My risk theatre theory of tragedy would provide a template for playwrights who wanted to engage with risk.

When I started writing and researching the book, I was working at Bayside Mechanical. I would try my ideas of risk on my colleagues in the office. We talked about construction risks, and this influenced the book. In construction, sequencing the trades is critical. Before the steel studs go in, mechanical installs or “roughs in” the drainage pipes and potable water distribution. Studs go in, and then electrical and mechanical finish putting in their pipes, ducts, and conduits. Then drywall goes up. Because construction schedules are compressed, when a delay in one part of the process occurs (for example, if cold temperatures delay pouring a suspended concrete slab), the delays cascade down the chain, affecting all the trades, and the day delay in the pour ends up setting back the construction schedule not one day, but two weeks. This type of risk is called “tight-coupling,” and from discussions with other project managers, became a sub-chapter in the book. To illustrate it, an example from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was used: the letter carrier to Verona just happens to be quarantined, delaying Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo. But, because Friar Lawrence’s plan is tight-coupled (the end result relies on many events happening in perfect sequence), the failure of one small part of the plan creates an unexpected and dramatic low-probability, high-consequence event: two suicides instead of one wedding.

The language of my book provides an example of how diverse perspectives change the flavour of research. In addition to talking to other project managers and engineers, I would run my ideas by the tradespeople. When they were hanging cast iron pipe, I would tell the tradespeople about literary theory. When they would review the blueprints, I would tell them about the art form of tragedy. When they were having coffee, I would chat with them about risk. If you read my book—and I hope that you will—you’ll find that, compared to other books on literary theory, the language is straightforward. In my book, you’ll find many construction analogies. For example, my theory of tragedy is likened to a set of blueprints construction workers use to build a house. Many of the ideas were run by the tradespeople at work. To get the ideas across, I would present them in a straightforward language using construction metaphors. Much of this vernacular makes it into the book. As a result, even though my book contains literary theory, it’s accessible to people from all walks of life.

The traditional paradigm of theatre research is that if you’re not part of an academic department or a theatre, you’re unable to contribute to the discussion. You’re out in the wilderness, and the wilderness will reclaim you. Sort of like historian Arnold Townbee’s “Appalachian effect” where, if an advanced society settles the Appalachia, in a few generations, despite whatever refinements it had, will revert back to nature due to its geographic isolation. There’s some truth to this. Without the support from the community, it’s hard to keep going. But I think, if you’re not part of the establishment, and you’re able to keep going, you’ll be able to bring new perspectives into an established art. New blood.

Friesen Press published my statement of artistic research, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected in 2019. It contains a model of drama based on uncertainty and chance. On the cover is an image of the dead man’s hand, a visual analogy of the impact of the highly improbable. The dead man’s hand is a poker hand, a pair of black aces on eights. The odds of this poker hand are remote but the consequences great. It was the hand folk hero Wild Bill Hickox held when he was unexpectedly shot dead in a saloon in Deadwood.

My book presents a theory of tragedy through an extended gambling metaphor. Heroes are gamblers who place delirious bets at the no-limit tables. They lay down, however, something other than money. In tragedy, cash isn’t legal tender. Human values are legal tender. Loman, in Death of a Salesman, lays down his dignity for the American Dream. Faust, in Doctor Faustus, lays down his soul for world dominion. Macbeth lays down compassion, or the milk of human kindness, for the crown. More, in A Man for All Seasons, lays down his life for his faith. The ramification, and I believe it is an important one, of looking at dramatic acts as gambling acts is this: tragedy serves as a valuing mechanism for human values. A gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but how much is the milk of human kindness worth? It’s hard to value life from within life itself. But, in Macbeth we see that the milk of human kindness is worth a chance at one crown to rule Scotland. Tragedy is the art that values human assets. It does so through the mechanism of the hero’s wager.

Of course, we don’t come to the theatre to be educated, but to be entertained. Tragedy entertains, according to risk theatre, by dramatizing gambling acts gone awry. Heroes, by making delirious bets, trigger low-probability, high-consequence outcomes not unlike how gamblers, by going all-in, blow themselves up. Famous gamblers who have blown themselves up by wagering all-in include Hermann from Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades and the Cincinnati Kid from Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid. Heroes, according to risk theatre are similar. They concentrate their fortunes on one all-in bet. Their wagers, like Hermann’s and the Cincinnati Kid’s, are good. They play to win and should win. But then, the unexpected happens and all is lost. Sometimes the unexpected comes in the form of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Other times it’s when one discovers—as Loman does—that one’s life insurance policy makes one worth more dead than alive. And then there’re the times when the foolproof bet is derailed—as the Cincinnati Kid discovers—when the adversary “makes the wrong move at the right time.” Audiences are entertained by watching heroes blow up in the same way as spectators in casinos find entertainment in watching the action at the no-limit tables.

Many people talk of how heroes blow up in tragedy, and of how audiences find the fall thrilling. What risk theatre gives you, is the mechanism by which heroes blow up and the mechanism of why audiences find the fall entertaining. “Why do we find tragedy endearing when it recounts sad tales full of strife and sorrow?” is a perennial question. Risk theatre provides answers.

To look at how risk triggers low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, risk theatre brings together studies in risk management and the interpretation and creation of theatre. Studies in risk management take many forms. There are the breakdowns of the events leading up to Chernobyl, Deepwater Horizon, or the space shuttle Challenger. There are studies of irrational exuberance, studies of the financial manias and crashes from the Dutch Tulip Bubble in 1637 to the South Sea Bubble of 1720  (where Newton famously lamented: “I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men”) and from the Great Depression in 1929 to the Great Recession of 2008. Then there are the studies of the great adventurers, of how they perished ascending Everest or sailing off the edge of the world. And then there are the military disasters: the Fall of Singapore or the failure of the Maginot Line in the Second World War or the Battle of Lake Trasimene or the Battle of Cannae in antiquity.

In these studies, risk analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, and economists have identified recurring motifs which precede the fall: black swans, overconfidence, failure to adapt, dogmatism, communications breakdowns, excessive leverage, lack of redundancy, tight coupling, feedback, miscalculated second-guesses, heuristic errors, and many others. Traditionally, playwrights and interpreters have focused on how the protagonist’s hubris precedes the fall. My research looks at how all the different types of risk precede the fall. My goal is to allow tragedy to speak to today’s analysts, historians, engineers, scientists, economists, and other risk takers, by interpreting tragedy in their language. Birnam Wood, for example, becomes a black swan event. In Corneille’s Cinna, for example, the feedback between the quartet of protagonists leads to unexpected outcomes. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet becomes a study in tight coupling (when each part of a plan is dependent on all the other parts). And so on.

Tragedy also entertains, and risk theatre explains what makes tragedy thrilling. Spectators come to the theatre to feel the emotions of anticipation and apprehension. To continue the gambling analogy, just as spectators go to the casino to watch the high stakes action at the no-limit tables, so too theatregoers go to the casino, not to watch the nickel and dime bets, but to watch heroes make delirious wagers. Theatregoers feel anticipation for what the hero will wager. What will Macbeth wager for the crown—perhaps compassion, or the milk of human kindness? What will Loman wager for the American Dream—perhaps his dignity? What will Faustus wager for world dominion—perhaps his soul? In addition to anticipation, theatregoers feel apprehension for how, despite having the best-laid plans, heroes lose all.

After twelve years of researching my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, I shopped around for a publisher. Because I was no longer part of academia, the academic presses were uninterested. Because I wasn’t part of the theatre world, the presses which focus on drama were uninterested. The manuscript sat fallow until a friend suggested that I try self-publishing.

As luck would have it, one of Canada’s premier self-publishing companies, Friesen Press, is located in Victoria. In 2018, I signed up with Friesen. They would take care of typesetting, printing, and distributing the book. Marketing and publicity would be by me. Then I thought: “How can I get credibility for my self-published title to entice theatregoers, critics, academics, and playwrights to buy it?” My goal is to offer people a new and exciting way to interpret and understand drama and literature. But who would buy a self-published book?

First, I started a blog. Since I was working on tragedy, and Melpomene is tragedy’s Muse, I called the blog “Doing Melpomene’s Work” (melpomeneswork.com). I would blog about the process of writing the book, my thoughts on theatre, book reviews, and really anything that came to mind. But the blog wouldn’t be enough.

In addition to the blog, I decided to start a playwright competition: I would challenge playwrights all over the world to create risk theatre plays, and there would be cash rewards for the winners. The playwright competition would provide design concept proof. If audiences loved risk theatre plays, then tragedy could be rebranded as a theatre of risk. Tragedy is a tired art. Some find it pretentious. Others are mystified by the concepts of “flaw” and “hamartia” and “catharsis.” Tragedy needed a reboot.

Creating the playwright competition was more challenging than I thought. I had no theatre contacts and no idea where to start. I initially pitched the idea to Playwrights Guild of Canada. They said: “We like the idea, but who are you?” They would publicize the competition on the condition that I partner up with a theatre. At that point, I began to approach the local theatres.

I thought it’d be easy. I always heard the arts were looking for money and funding. I would approach the local theatres saying: “I’ve got all this money to start a competition, let’s partner up.” Not all the theatres responded to emails and voice messages. Some who responded didn’t think the competition was a good fit. Some responded with hostile comments. This wasn’t the welcome into the theatre world that I was expecting.

Sometimes, after some bad luck, you get some good luck to balance things out, and that’s exactly what happened. When I called Langham Court Theatre, General Manager Michelle Buck just happened to be in the box office, and I had a chance to speak with her. We set up a meeting. In a few months, the board of directors approved the project. She brought teacher, director, and playwright Keith Digby on board, who in turn brought on board actor, director, playwright, and educator Michael Armstrong. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition was born. It awards over $11,000 in cash prizes to playwrights each year. In addition, we bring in the winning playwright to workshop the play. The experience culminates with a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre.

Our international jurors for the first year were Yvette Nolan (Canada), Armen Pandola (USA), and Sally Stott (UK). Here are the winners they selected, based on the criteria of risk theatre as outlined in my book.

The first place winner was Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s In Bloom. It tells the story of Aaron, an ambitious, well-intentioned, but ultimately reckless documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan. While there, he not only risks his own life in pursuit of exposing a greater truth, but his actions also lead to the death of an Afghan boy named Hafiz, a tragedy Aaron later lies about in his award-winning memoir. This sets off an unexpected chain reaction of events.

The four runners-up were Michael Bucklin with Signature Photo, a story of a photojournalist who is willing to risk all to get the photograph that will launch her career. She makes the dangerous trek to Rwanda, where she finally gets the shot—a picture so brutal and controversial that it became an instant sensation. Yet the success of the picture has unintended consequences for the photojournalist, as well as those around her, and the repercussions turn devastating when the authenticity of the photographs is called into question.

Next was Scott McCrea with Mysterious Ecstasy of the Lonely Business Traveler, a play in which a wealthy corporate executive’s memories have been erased and replaced by a copy of those of another man, a doctor named Marko. Believing he’s Marko, he wagers more than he suspects he can to start a new life, free from the errors of his past. But his gamble has unexpected tragic consequences.

Then there was Phillip Christian Smith’s The Chechens. In The Chechens, rumours are going around that homosexuals are being held in camps. Can one family go all-in to protect their little brother who may or may not be gay? Or will they turn him in or honour kill him? Whichever way the family chooses, dangerous and irrevocable consequences will be set loose.

The final runner-up was J.D. Volk’s Chrysalis. In Chrysalis, an interracial married couple struggles to come to terms with the role they played in the tragic death of their young biracial son at the hands of a police officer. It examines Keri’s wager to transcend the cultural norms of being a woman of colour in America. She does this by guarding against the unlikely but ever-present threat of violence that may befall Jack, her biracial child, and trying to convince her white husband of the need to take appropriate precautions. Nevertheless, the die of fate has been cast. The unexpected triumphs over expectations.

The implications of taking risk theatre from the page to the stage are far-reaching. By encouraging and challenging playwrights each year to make risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action, we can test the hypotheses of risk theatre. Can each dramatic act be considered a gambling act? Is theatre the place where we can price out the value of human assets such as dignity, honour, and compassion—the milk of human kindness—through the mechanism of the hero’s wager? How do audiences react to heroes triggering low-probability, high-consequence outcomes with their delirious wagers?

I was exceedingly pleased by both the quantity (182 playwrights from 11 countries participated) and quality of the work. From creative writers to academics and from emerging playwrights to seasoned veterans, they sent in plays. In our first year, we had been expecting fifty entries, tops seventy. That our expectations had been exceeded was proof of concept: playwrights were interested in writing plays where risk and the unexpected drive the action.

In October 2019, Gabriel Jason Dean flew from Brooklyn to Victoria to workshop his play In Bloom. Michael Armstrong ran the workshop with Gabriel, and the workshop culminated in a staged reading at Langham Court Theatre. It was magic to focus on risk, chance, and the unexpected during the workshop. And it worked on stage. The best comment I had was from a friend who came. She said, “I’m glad I could make it, but I have to leave at the intermission to put the kids to bed.” At the end of the show, when I saw she stayed, she smiled and said: “I had to see how it turned out.” The success of the staged reading with the audience provided further proof of concept that risk is the key to rebooting tragedy in the 21st century.

The feedback from the playwriting community has been encouraging. They enjoy this new way to look at tragedy. Playwright and two-time Academy Award nominee Donald Connolly wrote: “The idea of ‘tragedy’ was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach for me as a playwright. This book strips away the mystique and makes the form available to me.” The competition is now in its second year. The goal is that in ten years, risk theatre will have reached a critical mass with playwrights (who create the plays), directors and dramaturgs (who interpret plays), and audiences (who attend plays). Once critical mass is reached, tragedy can be rebranded from its old identity (pity, fear, error, story of kings and queens) into a theatre of risk which speaks to contemporary audiences.

In addition to the blog and the playwright competition, I also conference and speak to students. Although risk theatre is a new idea, its ideas can be presented through reading classic plays. Macbeth is a great example. In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth’s high-risk wager—the milk of human kindness for the crown—is thwarted by an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event—Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill.

This year, I’ve presented to a third year drama class at the University of Victoria. I gave them a risk theatre reading of Sophocles’ classic play Oedipus rex. A risk theatre reading starts with finding the hero’s wager: Oedipus bets that he can solve the riddle of the plague and stakes his reputation on being able to do so (he did after all, solve the sphinx’ riddle). His bet is good, but his expectations are dashed when a low-probability, high-consequence event happens. That event is that he unexpectedly runs into the Corinthian messenger—who had also saved him when he was a babe—and the shepherd—who was supposed to have exposed him when he was a babe and is the sole surviving witness of Laius’ murder. Risk theatre finds that dramatists generate excitement by derailing heroes’ expectations by low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “When Genius Failed: A Risk Theatre Reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus rex” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/oedipus/

I’ve also presented this year at the Classical Association of the Middle West and South AGM at Sanford University in Birmingham, Alabama. In this presentation, I talk about my favourite tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. It’s my favourite because it’s the only play in the dramatic canon—whether ancient or modern—where you can quantify the exact odds of what did take place, and what did not take place. It’s possible to do this because of the play’s unique structure. It’s set during a civil war. Seven attacking captains are randomly posted to attack each of Thebes’ seven gates. Seven defending captains are also randomly posted to defend each of Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if the two brothers are both posted to the final gate. By using the laws of probability, I demonstrate how Aeschylus structures the play so that the fated outcome takes place despite the odds of it happening being more than two and a half million to one against. Seven Against Thebes is risk theatre’s paradigm play because the sheer improbability of the outcome can be stated in such precise and overwhelming figures as to be able to prove the risk theatre hypothesis that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. A link to the presentation: “Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy” can be found here: https://melpomeneswork.com/aeschylus-seven-against-thebes-probability-and-a-new-theory-of-tragedy/

In conclusion, the aim of my artistic research is to consider all the ways in which tragedy is a theatre of risk. Through my book, the playwright competition, the blog, and conferencing, I invite academics, theatre professionals, creative writers, critics, and audiences to consider how risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My efforts are directed to a singular goal: to usher in a new tragic age in storytelling, drama, and literature. Our age is an age fascinated with risk, chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. Risk theatre rebrands and reimagines tragedy for these modern times. Even though I approach theatre as a stranger and outsider, I hope, that people will want to explore the possibilities when risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Risk theatre is the name of 21st century.

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

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

CAMWS Classical Association of Middle West and South Presentation

116th Annual Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama

March 25-28, 2020

Samford University

Seventh Paper Session, Section A: Greek Drama 4

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

I’d like to tell you about my new theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” In risk theatre, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. To illustrate it, I’ll use a play full of gambling references and high-risk action: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

Drama, I argue, dramatizes risk. Comedy dramatizes upside risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. Tragic heroes are gamblers who gamble with something other than money. They make delirious bets that trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Audiences ask: “How did such a good bet go awry?”

To begin a risk theatre read, look for a bet where much is at stake. High stakes entertain. When you go to the casino, you don’t go to watch nickel and dime bets. You go to watch the heroes at the no-limit tables who lay down dignity, honour, or compassion, the milk of human kindness. You go to experience the emotions of anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for the magnitude of their wagers and apprehension for how they blow up. Even though heroes are smart, swift, and well-accoutered, they lose all. To see how they had every expectation of being crowned the ivy, yet lose all evokes wonder.

What’s the bet in Seven? As civil war rages, Eteocles bets the gods are on his side. It’s a high-risk bet, as Thebes’ existence hangs on the line. It’s a good bet, as he’s defending native shrines from foreign aggressors. Why wouldn’t the gods be on his side?

How will Eteocles know the gods are on his side? In this play, seven attacking captains are posted by lot—in other words randomly—to Thebes’ seven gates. Eteocles, in turn, draws seven lots to post seven defenders. By drawing lots, he entrusts the outcome to the gods. If the gods smile, the matchups will be favourable. If the gods turn away, the matchups will be unfavourable. Through the crack that is probability and chance, the gods reveal their intent.

I follow Fritz-Gregor Hermann’s conjecture that a stage direction instructing Eteocles to draw lots on stage was lost in transmission. Hermann’s conjecture solves the problem of the tenses, as Eteocles shifts between the future, perfect, present, and aorist when announcing the defenders. Before, commentators were divided: some thought he decided the postings prior to the shield scene. Others thought he decides during the shield scene. And yet others thought he decided some before and some during.

If Eteocles draws lots on stage he can easily shift between tenses because he can be speaking before he draws the lot (“I will announce the winner”), as he’s drawing the lot (“I see the winner is”), or after he’s seen the lot (“A winner has been chosen”). Not only does the conjecture rehabilitate the shield scene, rebuked for being static, but it also heightens the suspense. Drawing lots is dramatic in itself, a device Aeschylus would revisit in the Oresteia.

Do the random matchups favour Eteocles? In aggregate, yes. Take the first gate, where the attacker shouts out impieties. Eteocles just happens to draw a defender who is “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” Or, take the fourth gate where the attacker bears an image of Typhon on his shield. By a strange synchronicity, Eteocles draws a defender who has Zeus—Typhon’s slayer—emblazoned on his shield. Eteocles, pleased at this stroke, invokes Hermes, the god of luck, saying: “Hermes, by divine reason has matched this pair (625).” Through the crack in randomness, the gods reveal their will.

Additional subjective cues hearten Eteocles. There’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they prepare their obituaries. One of their captains says: “I’m going to die.” Dark omens hang over them. They harangue one another. Contrast this with the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city. They start by singing the fall of Thebes. But, by the first stasimon, they sing the ode to joy. From the matchups to the unfolding action, Eteocles has subjective reasons to believe.

Eteocles also has objective reasons to believe. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is buried deep in the odds. The worst-case scenario happens if he confronts his brother at the seventh gate. At the final gate, substitutions would no longer be possible, as all the captains are posted. Kindred blood would spill. It’s the worst-case scenario because there’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood.

We can use this play to prove the theory of risk theatre because, with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, all the possible permutations of the attackers and defenders fall under the rules of probability. When Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. When the detective on the trail of regicide finds out that he himself was the regicide, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. Because of Seven’s unique construction, it’s the one play in the entire canon where we may calculate the odds of what did, and did not happen. With these odds, we may prove the risk theatre hypothesis. Let’s do math.

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event is the product of its individual probabilities. The odds of rolling snake-eyes, or two ones on six-sided dice, is 1:36, or 1:6 * 1:6. On that analogy, the odds of the worst-case scenario are 1:49, the product of Polyneices’ odds (1:7) and Eteocles’ odds (1:7) of going to the final gate. The probability of the worst-case scenario happening is exceedingly low, about 2%. Most of the time—in fact, 48 out of 49 times—the worst case scenario is averted. Of course, Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time, but the lowest-probability, highest-consequence event. And that is exactly what risk theatre theory predicts.

If 1:49 odds aren’t enough to entice you, if you say, “I need, at minimum, 1:1000 odds to be convinced that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action,” then I offer you this. The odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate are 1:49, to be sure, but that figure hardly reflects the chance of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did. The play, argues Gilbert Murray and others, is structured so that the matchups from gates one to six bolster Eteocles’ confidence with the result that, when he falls, he falls from a greater height. The play would be less if the captain with the Typhon device encounters anyone but the captain bearing Typhon’s slayer. The question we need to ask, then, is: what are the odds of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did? This fascinating question has not been asked until today.

According to the law of permutations, the formula to find how many unique arrangements there are with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial (7!) or 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1, which equal 5040. Since there are seven attacking and seven defending captains, to find out how many unique pairings exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. Aeschylus has transformed the fated outcome, known to all, into an exceedingly improbable event. This is exactly what the theory of risk theatre predicts.

If Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill couldn’t convince you, if the uncanny reunion of Oedipus with the Corinthian messenger and the shepherd couldn’t convince you, then I hope today’s reading convinces you that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. I give you over twenty five million reasons to believe.

This concludes my reading. Tragedy starts with a bet. An all-in bet with much at stake. It’s a good bet with a high likelihood of success. But the hero’s expectations are dashed when, against all odds, the unexpected happens. Tragedy functions by suppressing the subjective odds of the fated event happening so that, when it happens, the audience is dumbstruck. Fate suppressed rages and explodes.

To take risk theatre from page to stage, I founded the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy with Langham Court Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest and most respected theatres. Every year, winners receive over $11,000 in cash and a trip to Victoria which culminates in a workshop and staged reading. Congratulations to Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean for winning the inaugural competition with his play In Bloom, a story of a well-meaning journalist who crosses the line. The website is at risktheatre.com.

Risk theatre is inaugurating a new tragic age in drama and literature that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Aeschylus’ Seven leads the charge as risk theatre’s paradigm play. “Risk” dominates today’s headlines and, to understand risk, we return to the ancients who began by dramatizing the consequences of what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen.

Risk theatre is literary theory’s finest hour in the 21st century because it recalls something that has been forgotten so long, namely, that risk is the dramatic pivot of the action. I challenge you to use it on all your favourite works, whether they’re novels, history, biography, opera, or films, and I promise you you’ll never read a work of literature the same way. Please tell everyone about this bold new tool of interpretation and ask your local library to carry my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Review copies are available at Classical JournalAmerican Drama and Theatre (JADT), and The Bryn Mawr Classical Review. If you’re a road warrior commuter, the audiobook, performed by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street, will be released any day.

Thank you, and welcome to the new tragic age.

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

Drama Australia National Journal (NJ) Reviews THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY

THANK YOU to NJ Drama Australia National Journal and University of Newcastle lecturer Carol Carter for reviewing The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Highlights from this milestone review–the first from an internationally respected peer-reviewed journal– include:

This book presents fresh approaches and perspectives in relation to the teaching and writing of tragedy and, as such, is a useful resource, particularly for theatre studies and secondary drama teachers.

I was enticed by this thought-provoking, insightful and compelling read that, once started, was extremely engaging and impossible to put down.

The Book is divided into four separate parts which systematically cover the topic and flow efficiently and cohesively from one to the other in building up a strong argument underpinned by examples and an extremely broad and extensive knowledge base.

Of interest in this part of the book is Wong’s discussion of Comedy as an open system of ‘milk and honey’ versus tragedy as a closed system of ‘perpetual shortage and rolling blackouts’. He describes tragic heroes as strong, charismatic and with a sense of endurance versus incompetent, weak comic characters. We are led to a deep understanding of the proposed model and why Wong believes so passionately in the role of tragedy in today’s society. In the final (ninth) chapter, which is concerned with ‘why risk theatre today’, Wong concludes with these words ‘Tragedy, by forever dramatizing risk, adds to our understanding of risk. And I think that tragedy, because it adds to our understanding of such a captivating and elusive concept, has a claim of being the greatest show on earth’.

The journey my book has taken in this last year has been amazing and humbling. It reminds me of what Anthony Hopkins said a few years ago when interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel. Hopkins was a few months from his eightieth birthday. Kimmel asked him if the years had given him any important life lessons. Without batting an eye, Hopkins responded immediately, and with conviction: “Don’t stop. Keep going.”

Persistence is the key. But persistence can be hard. Last February, I made a list of theatre, classics, and literary theory journals all over the world. In March, I started mailing out complimentary copies of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Each package would go out with a custom-tailored letter asking the journal if they would be interested in reviewing and a press release. Of course, there wasn’t much to put on the press release as the book didn’t have any rewards or reviews yet. There were about seventy to send out. Each night, after coming home from work, I’d be able to put together a couple of packages. It takes a surprising time to type up the letter, address the packages, and fill out the customs forms. I’d put together two or three packages, and then I’d go to bed.

After a month and a half of this, I grew to wonder–was this worth it? I mean, I was coming home from work, cramming some food down my throat, and then putting together the packages. The reward was uncertain. But the work was very certain. It wasn’t only the time, the costs would add up as well. My cost for the paperback itself is just under $15. Then there’s the shipping, which would range from $17 (domestic) to $27 (international). Most of the journals were outside Canada, so that’s about $40 to send each copy.

I began to doubt. How worthwhile was this expenditure? Would any journals put the book on their “Books for Review” list? Would any reviewers want to review the book? And then, if they did, what sort of review would my questionable book receive? All these questions gnawed away at me. But fortunately, Hopkins dogged advice stuck in my head: “Don’t stop. Keep going.” And so, I kept going.

After the review copies had gone out, I’d check to see if there was any action. A few copies would make it into their “Books for Review” lists. And then, for months, nothing. Then last night, this wonderful, glowing review from Carol Carter in NJ Drama Australia National Journal. I sincerely hope that her review piques the interest of theatre practitioners worldwide. Would that I could get a few more breaks like this one! Go NJ!

The moral of the story? When you don’t stop and when you keep going, sometimes some luck and a little bit of magic will come your way. If you give up, you’ll never know how close you were. To everyone: do like Anthony Hopkins. No matter the odds, if you believe the value of your endeavour, keep looking ahead. You never know.

There’s one curious coincidence I’d like to add. Many moons ago, when I was almost young, I wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Only one journal–an Australian journal–accepted it. The article is called The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad and it was published by Antichthon in 2002. Here’s the link. This got me a foothold into the academic world. A strange sense overcomes me now, many years later, when, out of seventy tries, it is again an Australian journal that comes through. Please ask your local library to carry this groundbreaking book and read it today.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work by sponsoring the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition (https://risktheatre.com/). No risk, no reward.

NJ Drama Australia The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Gambling Drama and the Unexpected

JANUARY 2020 UPDATE – RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION

Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU assiduous playwrights for all your entries! Here are the vital statistics since the 2nd annual competition began seven months ago. Twenty-seven plays have come in from two continents (North American and Oceania) and three countries (USA, Australia, and Canada). Here are the country breakouts:

USA 23 entrants

Australia 2 entrants

Canada 2 entrant

Of the American entries, 16 are from the east and 7 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (11 entrants). Go New York! Australia is also off to a good start, already exceeding last year’s entries. Canada finally awoke. There’s a long way to go to hit the 182 entries from 11 countries from last year.

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 18 men and 9 woman. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know of one tragedy written by a woman. That play is The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, written by Elizabeth Cary in 1613. The times, they are a changing!

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 18 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Brazil, and China. Most clicks in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. Best month was March 2019 with 2372 hits—that was when we announced the 2019 winners. All time views stand at 14,933 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My book THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED (ISBN 978-1-5255-3756-1) hit the bookshelves in February 2019. To date, it has sold 965 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book won in the Readers’ Favorite Awards and the CIPA EVVY Awards.

Please ask your local library to carry this unique title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: Brown University, Pasadena Public, Fargo Public, South Texas College, University of Bristol, University of Victoria, Greater Victoria Public, Richmond Public, Smithers Public, University of Colorado (Denver), Denver Public, McMaster University, Buffalo and Erie County Public, Rochester Public, Wheaton College, South Cowichan Public, Vancouver Public, Hillside Public (Hyde Park, NY), Scarsdale Public (NY), Indianapolis Public, Okanagan College (Penticton), Concordia University, University of British Columbia (UBC), University of London, Wellesley Free, Tigard Public, Herrick Memorial, Gannett-Tripp, Charles J. Meder, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, and the Russian State Library. Let’s get a few more libraries on board! Reviews of the book can be found here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

Review of “Nietzsche and Tragedy” – Porter

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

Author Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nietzsche and Tragedy”

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy is Nothing without the Spectator

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

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

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

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

Problems with Nietzsche’s “Tragic Age”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk Theatre in Relation to Nietzsche’s Theory of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Chavis / LA Theatre Bites Blurb

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

Edwin Wong / Risk Theatre Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hegel’s Theory versus the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tragedy and Dionysus” – Seaford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Greek Tragedy and Ritual” – Sourvinou-Inwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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