Tag Archives: tragedy

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition – March 2019 Update

Stats, stats, stats!

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

USA 74 entrants

Canada 12 entrants

Australia 1 entrant

Great Britain 5 entrants

Ireland 2 entrants

Japan 1 entrant

Italy 1 entrant

Greece 1 entrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of Risk Theatre (A Myth of Tragedy)

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

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

Classics 375, McCormack Room 417

University of Massachusetts, Boston

May 2, 2018

 

The Myth of Risk Theatre

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18.05.umass

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

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

Chapter 7: Tragedy and the Novel

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8: Tragedy and Modernity

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9: Demons

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

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

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

Chapter 10: Thomas Mann’s Hedgehog

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

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

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

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

Brownian Motion, Tragedy, Comedy, and History

The Discovery of Brownian Motion

In 1829, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown observed microscopic grains of pollen suspended in water. Instead of moving in straight lines or staying still, they moved about in an erratic and entirely unpredictable manner. They followed, as it were, a ‘drunkard’s path’:

Brownian Motion

Brownian Motion

To Brown, the pollen grains seemed invested with the primordial rudiments of life which gave imbued them with the capacity to meander about like drunkards following a random walk. Cool! Too bad though: he was wrong. But like so many things, even though his hypothesis was incorrect, the search for the correct explanation changed the way we look at the world. The correct explanation for Brownian motion is that the grains of pollen were being bombarded by myriads of water molecules moving at random. The molecules were too small to be resolved by the microscopes. Their presence could only be inferred by observing Brownian motion.

So, Brownian motion is the name given to the random motion of particles in gases or liquids. The particles follow a ‘random walk’ or a ‘drunkard’s path’ because they are round and elastic, bouncing off one another in proportion to the temperature of the system. Or so the kinetic theory of gases would argue. If this seems self-evident, it sure wasn’t in 1829. Molecules: what are those? Didn’t matter contain phlogiston, an element with the property of fire which enables combustion? And so on. It wasn’t until 1905 that someone figured out the true cause behind the disturbingly random movements in Brownian motion. It took Einstein to figure it out.

Levels of Uncertainty and Order in Brownian Motion

Now, what is most interesting about Brownian motion is that here is a system that is completely random, unpredictable, and lacking certainty on one level but exhibits form, predictability, and order on another level.

On a micro level, the random walk of a gas particle in a container is, well, completely random. That is to say, there is no force in the universe which is capable of predicting whither it will go. God doesn’t know. Ask Laplace’s demon and he would tell you many other things, but the random walk is beyond his intelligence.

All this uncertainty: very frustrating! What can be done? Well, nothing can be done. The uncertainty resolves itself! How? On a macro level, a container of gas exhibits form, predictability, and order. Gas in a container-that is to say millions of billions of particles all randomly walking-is governed by such things as Boyle’s Law (pressure inversely proportional to volume) and the transfer of kinetic energy (temperature) of the container to the outside world is also well regulated.

How it happens that on a micro level things are completely random (individual particles of gas randomly walking) and on a macro level things are completely determinate (billions of particle of gas have well defined characteristics including temperature, energy, pressure, etc.,) is beyond me. At some point, however, chaos gives way to order. Keep this in mind for now.

Tragedy, Comedy, and History

Ever thought about how randomness, unpredictability, and the unexpected dominate comedy and tragedy. In comedy, the unlikely couple overcome cantankerous patriarchs, and social and economic barriers to become happily married. In tragedy, the unexpected also dominates: Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane hill every time. But now turn your attention to history. Patterns emerge. Some of the patterns are linear. Fukuyama thought that history aimed towards achieving democratic capitalist societies. Then history ends. Marx thought history strives towards the communist revolution. Patterns can be linear. Polybius believed in anacyclosis, the doctrine that constitutions move cyclically from monarchy to tyranny to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to ochlocracy and then back again to monarchy. The patterns in history are reflective of a reality that has form, order, and is predictable. If tragedy, comedy, and history all represent reality, is comedy and tragedy correct or is history correct? After all, the unexpected reigns in comedy and tragedy while the expected reigns in history.

Come back now to the behavior of gases on a micro and macro level. On a micro level, Brownian motion is the term used to describe the unexpected ways particles move around at random. On a macro level, patterns emerge that are predictable (e.g. as pressure increases volume decreases). Tragedy and comedy look at the world from a micro level. They usually dramatize the actions of a day or less (the unity of time). History looks at the world from a macro level. It records actions taken place over decades and centuries. In this way, the short term randomness of a day yields to long term order and patterns. So comedy and tragedy versus history is like looking at Brownian motion: on a small scale, disorder. On a large scale, order. Neither are right or wrong. They are looking at the same reality from a different perspective.

It always astounds me how many parallels there are between science and art. It may have something to do with how we look at the world. Whether we are artists or scientists, we look at the world with the same set of eyes and the same intellectual apparatus. So perhaps the parallels between science and art rests on humanity and the all-too-human way of understanding things.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work by figuring out the secrets to tragic literary theory.

The Philosophy of History

History and Tragedy

How is history different than tragedy? Or, is the historical perspective of looking at the world different than the tragic perspective? Do historians such as Herodotus, Livy, Thucydides, Tacitus, Polybius, and Machiavelli conceive the deep structure of the world differently than say Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides?

There are the obvious differences. Tragedy takes its stories from myth. History takes its stories from great battles where eyewitness or documentary accounts exist. History covers many lifetimes spread over a long duration. Tragedy covers the events of a single day. History professes to be an impartial account. Tragedy professes to be highly biased to create the most emotional effect. History is obligated to explain the past. Tragedy is under no obligation to explain itself: ‘the rest is silence’ says Iago.

The Ludic Theory of Tragedy

What I’ve been working on while writing the book Paying Melpomene’s Price is to develop a ludic theory of tragedy. ‘Ludic’ as in ‘related to a game’. Tragedy is a game. A game of death. A high stakes game where gamblers play at the no limits tables. They make wagers for the sorts of things money can’t buy: honour, vengeance, a crown, and so on. They don’t ante up with money, but with flesh and blood. When they lose, it’s possible to see how highly intangible things are valued. But what makes them lose? The unexpected. When Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill comes: that is the unexpected. To me, there is something mischievous in the soul of tragedy that makes it so that forecasting, projections, and strategy come to naught. It’s like the best laid plans of mice and men. That the unexpected always throws down the best laid plans is a fundamental constant in the world of tragedy. This is the one characteristic that really defines tragedy.

History is About the Expected, Not the Unexpected

A Visual Representation of History

A Visual Representation of History

The very act of writing history involves taking thousands of possibly related (but possibly unrelated) events and fashioning a narrative out of it. By creating a narrative where there previously was not a narrative, order is ascribed to events: e.g. because happened followed. Or, to take an example from Townbee, Sinic civilization started on the Yellow River and not the Yangtse because the harder conditions on the Yellow River stimulated the ‘challenge and response’ inclination in that race. He ascribes how Hellenic civilization flourished on the craggy rock of Athens instead of the fertile fields of Boeotia to the same ‘challenge and response’ initiative. Of course, if the challenge is too severe as was the case when Irish settlers came to the Appalachians, instead of ‘rising to the challenge’, they would instead devolve to a lower level of culture. By hypothesizing that there is a ‘challenge and response’ initiative and finding a host of examples to support it, Townbee makes a narrative out of the birth of civilizations. A colonist of the future, having read Townbee, could expect good results from a piece of undiscovered land that was fertile, but not overly so. All this goes to say that history makes things predictable. Or so it argues.

There are different ways in which history makes things predictable. Taken together, these different ways constitutes the philosophy of history or the belief that there are patterns in the seemingly random flow of events. On a day to day level, events are like Brownian motion: random collisions with heat but no design. But in the months, years, and decades, a hidden design emerges.

There can be moral patterns. ‘And if thou wilt walk before me’, says the Lord, ‘then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever’. With this, the pattern is set in and 2 Kings: the legacy of kings is that they either ‘do evil ‘ or ‘do right’ in the sight of the Lord. There are ramifications for both. Those who ‘do evil’ risk cutting off the people from the Holy Land; those who ‘do right’ preserve the kingdom. The Roman historian Livy also shapes moral patterns into history. For him, thrift and plain living go hand in hand with noble deeds while avarice and luxury lead to sensual excess. Noble deed grow Roman power. Sensual excess brings down the state. Though Livy writes history, he provides so many instances where this is true that the reader could not be blamed for thinking that the pattern extends into the future, if not for all time.

There can be cultural patterns. Herodotus writes of an ancient enmity between East and West. They stole Io; we abducted Europa. We stole Medea; they abducted Helen. It kicks up a notch when we burn Troy to avenge Helen’s abduction. Next the East strikes back under Xerxes in the Persian Wars. Could the Gulf War in the 20th century be part of the same retributive chain going back to Io and Europa? If you’re into history and inclined to see patterns in events, you may be inclined to answer in the affirmative.

There can be constitutional patterns. Take Polybius’ theory of constitutions. When monarchy gets tired it gives way to oligarchy. In turn when oligarchy tires of itself it turns into democracy. Then when democracy becomes too much, a monarch has to seize power to right the ship of state. And then the cycle perpetuates itself. Again. And again.

The histories of Livy, Herodotus, Polybius, and others contain cyclical philosophies of history. There can also be linear views of history. Marx’ hypothesis that history leads up to the proletariat revolution is a linear philosophy of history. Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ is another linear view (though he lived for so long after writing ‘The End of History’ he had to add another addendum). In addition to secular views, one can also find religious linear philosophies of history, i.e. for Jews, history is a long march to the coming of the Messiah.

What to make of all that? First: history likes patterns. Second: because there are patterns, its easy for the mind to extend them into the future. Therefore, history believes that one can make projections into the future based on past performance. Projections have a high degree of success in history. Otherwise, what would be the point?

But tragedy on the other hand posits that patterns are illusory. The patterns just exist to get the high stakes gamblers (i.e. the hero of tragedy) to wager all-in. Once the hero wagers all-in, the unexpected happens which causes him to lose everything. In this way, by looking at how these two genres deal with expectation, it is possible to understand how differently they see the world. It is because they see the world differently that the genres of tragedy and history initially arose. History is for those who see patterns. Tragedy is for those who see the danger of patterns that could unexpectedly change at any second.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I have done my quota of Doing Melpomene’s Work today.

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

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

Tragic Epochs

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

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

The End of Tragic Epochs

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

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

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

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

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

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

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

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

The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Boethius Cover Art Controversy

As far as Penguin covers go, the reproduction from the cover illustration of a thirteenth-century edition of Boethius’ Consolation in the Philosophical Library of New York has to be one of the most confusing:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

This is from the groovy 1969 edition translated by Watts. Okay, I can see Lady Philosophy. But what.s up with Boethius? I can see his hands, he.s holding in the left hand a manuscript and a quill in the right, but something weird is going on with his head. They.ve done something to give the image a sense of depth, but it obscures all the details. Trying to read the letters is impossible. Maybe you need 3D glasses to make things out? In a later 1986 reprint, someone made the right call:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Ah!–so Boethius has his head at a weird angle! I wonder if these old school illustrations with the words written in banners is a precursor to comic book art. And it.s nice to see someone has sewn back together Lady Philosophy.s dress: in the Consolation it had been torn to tatters from all the different philosophical schools each tearing off a square of the ‘true’ philosophy.

Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Tragedy

So I.ve started reading philosophical works since I.m writing the last chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price. In the rest of the book, tragedy.s been defined by what it is: structure, audience reception, typology, and so on. In the last chapter I want to do something different. I want to define tragedy by what it is not. It is not history. It is not comedy. And it is not philosophy. One thing I.ve noticed reading all these genres is that they are not very fond of one another. Take Boethius’ Consolation. It starts off with Boethius communing with the Muses of tragedy. He is sad because he has been imprisoned on trumped up charges. They are lamenting together. In comes Lady Philosophy. She calls the tragic Muses harlots (yes, she uses those terms: scaenicae meretriculae!) and tells them to scram. She then proceeds to comfort Boethius with the ‘proper’ consolation of philosophy. But if you look in a work of tragedy, philosophy doesn.t come out looking so well: for example Faust calls philosophy ‘odious and obscure’. The ancient quarrel between the genres of philosophy, tragedy, history, and comedy suggest that tragedy can be defined by the generic boundaries that separated each of these disciplines. In the case of Boethius, how Boethius understood philosophy was that it was based on logic and reason. Defined negatively, the logic and reason of philosophy is not the lamenting of tragedy. So that is what I mean by defining something by what it is not. More on this in a later post as I gather up my thoughts.

Etymology of Tragedy (translating Boethius)

But for now, an interesting thing has come up while reading Boethius. Here.s Watts translation of a passage:

But even if you do not know the stories of the foreign philosophers, how Anaxagoras was banished from Athens, how Socrates was put to death by poisoning, and how Zeno was tortured, you do know of Romans like Canius, Seneca and Soranus, whose memory is still fresh and celebrated. The sole cause of their tragic sufferings was their obvious and complete contempt of the pursuits of immoral men which my teaching had instilled in them.

I was interested to see where the word tragic came from. Here.s the Latin:

quodsi nec Anaxagorae fugam nec Socratis uenenum nec Zenonis tormenta, quoniam sunt peregrina, nouisti, at Canios, at Senecas, at Soranos, quorum nec peruetusta nec incelebris memoria est, scire potuisti. quos nihil aliud in cladem detraxit nisi quod nostris moribus instituti studiis improborum dissimillimi uidebantur.

Interesting! Although Latin has the word for words for tragedy (tragoedia, tragicus, and tragoedus) the term Boethius uses is clades which Watts translates into tragedy.

Strange. So I looked up other things in the ancient world that could be understood to be tragedies in the lay sense of the term. The Fire of Rome (the one Nero reputedly started which raged uncontrolled for a week). Or Hannibal.s victories at Lake Trasimene or Cannae (which gave him control of pretty much the whole of Italy). Suetonius and Livy refer to these events as clades as well. They are not tragicus or ‘like a tragoedia’.

 

Both the Latin and the English terms go back to ancient Greek of course. So there.s where I turned next. What things would we consider to be ‘tragic’ to them? Perhaps the Sicilian Expedition (which put a permanent end to Athens’ hegemony) or The Battle of Salamis (from a Persian standpoint). Again, Aeschylus and Plutarch do not call these events tragoidia but rather sumphora.

So it would appear that the modern sense of the word ‘tragedy’ as in ‘the AIDS tragedy’ or ‘the Challenger tragedy’ or ‘the Chernobyl tragedy’ is completely modern. The ancients had a term for ‘tragedy’ but it could only refer to the art form of tragedy, never to tragedy in terms of a disaster or heartbreaking loss.

Did you know that?–well now you do!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and these are the things that fascinate me on my journey of Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Does Tight Coupling Lead to Tragedy?

The Unexpected

It.s Friday afternoon and I.m finishing off the discussion of a crucial topic: how do dramatists generate unexpected outcomes? Tight coupling is one way. But before discussing tight coupling, let.s talk about the unexpected. Dramatists need unexpected outcomes, because, if outcomes were expected, where would the drama be in drama?–it would be boring without the unknown. But since the unexpected arises from the feeling of suspense, it can.t be entirely ‘out of the blue’ or ‘come out of left field’. In real life, the unexpected can come out of anywhere. A lump in the throat. A knock on the door at a strange hour. The day Kennedy died. But because suspense is a two way street between dramatist and audience–with the dramatist providing clues and the audience fitting together the puzzle–the unexpected in drama emerges from something the audience knows, or, in retrospect, could have known. That.s unexpectation. Which actually is a word: damn you spell check! What I want to share with assiduous readers to day is ‘tight coupling’. It is one way to create unexpectation naturally and seamlessly.

Types of Unexpectation

There.s a lot of ways to introduce the unexpected. Fate and the gods was the preferred old school method. Since the gods are more powerful, they can appear and do all sorts of things heroes don.t anticipate. And if you believe in fate and the gods–or at least believe in them within the context of the pay–you can accept that they cause unexpected things to happen. Other ways of generating the unexpected include: a lack of knowledge, thinking too fast, unpredictable responses from other people (et tu, Brute?), unintended consequences, and so on. Lack of power (fate), epistemological uncertainty (is that Desdemona.s handkerchief?), and ontological uncertainty (should I make a deal with the devil?) all can wrack havoc with expectation. Tight coupling is a little different. It.s different because it.s not a lack of power. You.re not scaling the golden walls of heaven shouting against the gods. It.s not ontological uncertainty (i.e. does God exist?). And it.s not epistemological uncertainty. What is it then?

Tight Coupling

Let.s ask the new god what it is. Wow, prayer answered in 0.59 seconds! Here.s google.s answer:

Google Search 'tight coupling tragedy'

Google Search ‘tight coupling tragedy’

Here.s a definition from a sociological site:

Coupling can be thought of as the distance or slack between individual components. Systems can either be loosely coupled, like cars on a sleepy rural highway, or systems can be tightly coupled, like cars on the freeway at 5pm in L.A.

Here.s a definition from a site breaking down a tragic lesson learned on Mount Everest:

Complex interactions become more dangerous if tight coupling also exists within a system. Tight coupling means one breakdown triggers a series of other problems. Tightly coupled systems have four characteristics: time-dependent processes, a fairly rigid sequence of activities, one dominant path to achieving the goal, and very little slack.

They speak of systems. In drama, tight coupling would be the interdependencies between all the stages in a plan. So, if in order to achieve goal x, you need a, b, c, and d to happen AND if any one a, b, c, or d go awry, x does not happen, well that plan is tight coupled. But if, in order to achieve x, you need a, b, and c to happen AND if one of them goes awry that.s okay because there.s different options available, that plan is loose coupled.

Tight Coupling in Tragedy

Romeo and Juliet is tight coupled. Friar Laurence gives Juliet the sleeping draught so she can feign death. Only he and her know about this. And she.s going to be unconscious so really only he will know. They.ll bury Juliet. Friar Laurence will inform Romeo of the proceedings by snail mail (he.s been exiled to Mantua). Then when she awakes in the vault, they.ll both be there to whisk her away.

The goal is for Juliet to avoid marriage with County Paris: as diligent readers will all know, she.s in love with Romeo and Romeo with her. But there.s just so much that can go wrong with the holy man.s plans: maybe Juliet will have an adverse reaction to the potion (it.s got to be powerful if it knock you out for two days), maybe she won.t wake up, maybe something with happen to the friar, maybe they.ll inter her six feet under too soon, or maybe Romeo will hear of Juliet.s death before the friar tells him the plan! Because so many things can go wrong and because if any one of these things goes wrong, disaster strikes the whole enterprise, Friar Laurence.s plan is said to be tight coupled.

What eventually happens is that Friar Laurence charges Friar John to deliver the letter detailing the plan to Romeo in Mantua. While visiting the sick, Friar John is detained because the sick house is sealed on suspicion of the plague. The letter is never delivered. But Romeo finds out from Balthasar that Juliet has died. The rest you know.

Because the friar.s plan relies on tight coupling, the chances of an unfortunate accident go up. Drastically. The suicides of both Romeo and Juliet can be traced back to Friar John.s failure to deliver. That he failed to deliver is because he visited a sick house that happened to be sealed. The sick house really has nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet. But because the friar.s plan relies on tight coupling, even things that normally have no effect have a crucial affect on the outcome.

Tight coupling is a wonderful way for dramatists to drop the unexpected into their dramas in a way that is believable and convincing. Especially today since tight coupling is widely understood. Our receptivity to tight coupling probably comes from an awareness that tightly couple computer programs can bring down the whole computer necessitating a restart. But here.s what I find strange: besides Romeo and Juliet, I.m drawing a complete blank as to which other tragedies are tightly coupled. I can.t think of even one other one! I know they just have to be out there! Ugh.

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m wondering why some days it.s so hard to be Doing Melpomene’s Work!

The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary

It.s funny how the mind seems wired to detect meaningful coincidence, or, in other words, synchronicity out of the jumble of everyday events. Or perhaps it.s good at detecting them because there are meaningful coincidences in our lives! Synchronicity or Littlewood.s Law, you decide! Today I was at Russell.s Books striking out looking for various history titles (Machiavelli, Ibn Khaldun, and Amiannus Marcellinus). But in the Classics section, there was a slender title The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary. It so turns out last weekend, there was a Globe & Fail article by Kate Taylor entitled: We Need to Speak Out About Sexism in the Arts:

If you go to the theatre tonight, you will probably see a play that was written by a man and directed by a man. If a major art show is on your to-do list this weekend, it will probably feature the work of a male artist. If you go to a Hollywood movie, you’ll notice when the credits roll that the director is a man and so are all the screenwriters. Despite all the liberalism of the practitioners, the arts are a really sexist place. Women tend to be equally or overrepresented in theatre schools, film programs and art colleges, but once they graduate they find their male colleagues have more luck launching successful creative careers and are more likely to be offered leadership roles in arts organizations, while the women may find themselves ghettoized in supporting roles such as stage management, marketing and communications.

So, I had been thinking on the question on why there are so few female artists already when I stumbled upon The Tragedy of Mariam. While I could recall female poets (Sappho), composers (Southam), novelists (Kingsolver), and painters (Kahlo…but of course, being in Victoria one must remember to mention the mighty Carr!), I could not think of one female playwright. Instead of walking home with books by male historians, I walked home with a tragedy by Elizabeth Cary.

This is the Broadview edition. They must be a specialty publishing house; haven.t run across them before. There.s a Julia Cameron photograph of ‘Ophelia’ on the cover:

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It.s a rather haunting photograph, especially if this is Shakespeare.s Ophelia that she has in mind (which the flower on the lapel would seem to suggest). The face is relaxed, but some tension is visible in the neck. And with the mouth partially agape, the image looks more like a mask. The back blurb reads:

First published in 1613, The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry is the first play in English known to have been authored by a woman, and it has become increasingly popular in the study of early modern women’s writing. The play, which Cary based on the story of Herod and Mariam, turns on a rumour of Herod’s death, and it unfold around the actions taken by the patriarch’s family and servants in his absence. In part a critique of male power, the play sets gender politics in sharp relief against a background o dynastic conflict and Roman imperialism.

I can.t wait to read this play. To be honest, I had not thought the first play I would run into by a female dramatist would be a tragedy. Here.s why. In a way, to me tragedy is at once the hardest and easiest type of drama to compose. It.s easy because the themes come pre-generated from either myth or history. If you.re writing comedy, chances are you have to fabricate all the characters and situations from scratch. With tragedy, you can use myth or history and here Cary has turned to Josephus The Wars of the Jews and The Antiquities of the Jews for the material. It.s harder because it.s emotionally taxing. To bring beautiful characters to life and then to savage them without mercy so that all their best intents come to nothing seems to me to require an emotional distance. Goethe recounted this to Eckermann in his Conversations with Eckermann: he could never be a tragedian of the first rank because he lacked the final bit of detachment and emotional distance necessary to put the tragic into tragedy. I had always thought women in general to be more emotionally aware than men. To me, that would be an impediment to writing tragedy seeing that tragedy requires a sense of detachment.

But hey, it.s so much better to challenge our presuppositions rather than to reaffirm them! I.m glad The Tragedy of Mariam caught my eye at Russell.s Books and I.m looking forward to the read. It.s billed as being in the Senecan style, so it should be a gusher. That it.s Senecan is also a minor surprise, seeing that Marlowe in the 1590s had revolted against the classical Senecan model of drama to launch what may be called the ‘tragedy of the individual’ with his productions of Tamburlaine and Faustus. These in turn paved the way for Shakespeare. So it.s interesting that in 1613 Cary would have went back to a Senecan model (which is what inspired plays such as Gorboduc written in the generation prior to Marlowe and Shakespeare). A bit of an atavism. Stay tuned for more, diligent readers! Mariam versus Herod, what will happen? Until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I will be testing the limits of Doing Melpomene.s Work.