Tag Archives: tragedy

A Risk Theatre Reading of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS

I don’t know why it is, but every time I reach out for something I want, I have to pull back because other people will suffer. (16)[1]

In the mid-1940s, the American century was dawning. The daybreak of Pax Americana had arrived. From January to November 1947, All My Sons ran for 328 performances.[2] Arthur Miller went from being a famous person nobody knew, to being a famous person everybody knew. In dramatizing the possibilities and problems of an upstart world order, Miller became an overnight sensation.

Pax Americana brought peace to the conquered by releasing the animal spirits of the economy, long bottled up in wartime rationing and a decade of depression and dust bowl. No more gloom. Opportunity and prosperity lay on every horizon line. Amidst the go-fever of a new superpower firing on all cylinders, one voice dissented. It was the voice of Miller asking whether the American dream was a zero-sum game.

In All My Sons, money is the measure of success. Money is everywhere. It represents the American dream. The choice to make money, however, comes at a cost. When one chooses to make money, one loses the next best alternative that one could have pursued, had one chosen otherwise. The negative part of choice is known as opportunity cost. Opportunity cost illustrates the cost of choice because it presents choice as an either/or rather than a both/and proposition.

All My Sons dramatizes the cost of the American dream, its entry fee, the yearly dues, and the ongoing expenses. It does so by following characters as they make choices in pursuit of the dream. By making, through opportunity cost, the characters pay for their decisions, Miller exposes the true price of Pax Americana.

The minor characters understand opportunity cost. Having chosen, they reflect on the forsaken alternatives, and are left with “a wisp of sadness” (6). Their tragedy anticipates, augments, and amplifies the tragedy of the Keller family—Joe Keller, or simply Keller, Kate Keller, otherwise known as Mother, and Chris Keller. The Kellers fail to understand opportunity cost. They are the sort of people who think that they can have their cake and eat it too. In the end, however, Miller destroys them. In their destruction, they pay for their devotion to the ideals of the American century.

For the orthodox interpreters who consider that the fall of heroes through hubris brings about a catharsis of pity and fear through pity and fear, or, that the tragic arises when irreconcilable ethical positions collide, All My Sons could take a position of pride alongside the tragedies of old. But, for the young guns who understand the opportunity cost concept, who seek farsighted interpretations for the new century, tragedy is, first and foremost, a valuing mechanism. To the rebel interpreters, patriotism goes through a price discovery process. It is on sale. Its price is measured in terms of the opportunity cost of all the things that are left behind in choosing it. The emotional effect of tragedy is wonder and awe. Wonder at how much Keller pays. And awe over how faraway, so close he was to pulling off a fast one. To the new interpreters, pity and fear were barbaric relics left over from past ages.

Show Me the Money

The Second World War is over. America has won. In the postwar boom, new industries, professions, and opportunities rise up:

Keller [shakes his head]. All the kind of business goin’ on. In my day, either you were a lawyer, or a doctor, or you worked in a shop. Now…

Frank. Well, I was going to be a forester once.

Keller. Well, that shows you; in my day, there was no such thing. (7)

It is a time of rapid urbanization and rising social mobility. The young move to the new metropolises of Cleveland and New York to stake their claims. On stage right, the baby boom that will redefine demographics and drive demand for the next century is taking place: in the space of three years, Frank and Lydia Lubey have three babies. In the postwar boom, the business of America is business. To partake in this world of business, money is the currency of exchange, the symbol of the dream, the projection of Pax Americana.

In All My Sons, money is ubiquitous. Money seals the deal between men and women: “Oh Annie, Annie,” says Chris to his fiancée, “I’m going to make a fortune for you!” (36). “You wanted money,” says Keller to Mother, “so I made money” (76). Money is the sign of social approval. “He’s got money,” says Sue to Ann when she finds out Ann is engaged to Chris (44). Money makes all the difference. When she met Jim, her future husband, his wallet was threadbare. She was, however, already a nurse. Money laid the groundwork for future strife:

Sue. It makes all the difference. I married an interne. On my salary. And that was bad, because as soon as a woman supports a man he owes her something. You can never owe somebody without resenting them. (44)

Money is how fathers demonstrate their love to sons. “What the hell did I work for?” Keller asks his son Chris. “That’s only for you, Chris,” says Keller, referring to his factory where everything from aircraft cylinder heads to pressure cookers and washing machines are built, “the whole shootin’-match is for you!” (17).

In the postwar boom, money is the new measure. Net worth is the measure of an individual and gross domestic product the measure of a nation. How much has one contributed to society? The answer lies in the bankbook. The bigger the better. Public projections of the bankbook start with the family house. In the opening description of the set, Miller describes the monetary attributes of the Keller house alongside its physical attributes: it is a two-storey, seven-room structure hedged in with tall poplars and a porch that extends into the yard six feet. To build it cost fifteen thousand (5). Like the height of the poplars and the porch that extends six feet, money has a dimension. It is measured in dollar units. In addition to the family house, secondary projections of the bankbook include the new cars and fridges (36). To own a house with a driveway, a new car, and fridge is the sign of a made man.

To comport oneself to life in the new dream, one must understand how money works. Besides the obvious material applications, money can buy human, all-too-human values. It can buy allegiances. Keller finds out that, not only has Ann returned after a three-and-a-half-year absence, her brother George is also on the way, and unexpectedly. George could be a danger: Keller had ruined his father. To win his allegiance, he proposes to fast-track George on the road to riches. George, having just joined the bar, is a new lawyer. He is in the beginning stages of building a clientele. Keller can help:

Keller. You say he’s not well. George, I been thinkin’, why should he knock himself out in New York with that cut-throat competition, when I got so many friends here; I’m very friendly with some big lawyers in town. I could set George up here. (48)

The allure of money may entice even Steve Deever, Ann and George’s father, the man Keller ruined:

Keller. I like you and George to go to him in prison and tell him. … “Dad, Joe wants to bring you into the business when you get out.”

Ann [surprised, even shocked]. You’d have him as partner?

Keller. No, no partner. A good job. [Pause. He sees she is shocked, a little mystified. He gets up, speaks more nervously.] I want him to know, Annie … while he’s sitting there I want him to know that when he gets out he’s got a place waitin’ for him. It’ll take his bitterness away. To know you have a place … it sweetens you. (49)

Relationships are defined by money, and Keller has figured out how to create winning relationships.

A fundamental relationship is the one between husband and wife. Here too, the successful relationship is grounded on an understanding of money. Jim, learning that Ann is engaged, offers monetary advice:

Jim [To Ann]. I’ve only met you Ann, but if I may offer you a piece of advice—When you marry, never—even in your mind—never count your husband’s money. (25)

Those who understand the advantages of money in the postwar world are lauded and those who fail to understand censored. Money is the basis of a new morality:

Keller. Goddam, if Larry was alive he wouldn’t act like this. He understood the way the world is made. He listened to me. To him the world had a forty-foot front, it ended at the building line. This one, everything bothers him. You make a deal, overcharge two cents, and his hair falls out. He don’t understand money. Too easy, it came too easy. Yes sir. Larry. That was a boy we lost. (77)

The goal of this new morality is to have children and pay off the mortgage. “That big dope next door,” says Mother, “who never reads anything but Andy Gump has three children and his house paid off” (61). Social causes, politics, and standing up for one’s beliefs are impediments, unwanted distractions to the patriotic goal of making money and babies:

Mother [reading his thoughts]. She got pretty, heh?

George [sadly]. Very pretty.

Mother [as a reprimand]. She’s beautiful, you damned fool!

George [looks around longingly; and softly, with a catch in his throat]. She makes it seem so nice around here.

Mother [shaking her finger at him]. Look what happened to you because you wouldn’t listen to me! I told you to marry that girl and stay out of the war!

George [laughs at himself]. She used to laugh too much.

Mother. And you didn’t laugh enough. While you were getting mad about Fascism Frank was getting into her bed. (61)

Against the monetization of all values is a competing ideal. But it lies offshore on the distant fronts. Chris saw a fleeting glimpse while he commanded a company in the war:

Chris. Everything was being destroyed, see, but it seemed to me that one new thing was made. A kind of … responsibility. Man for man. You understand me?—To show that, to bring that on to the earth again like some kind of monument and everyone would feel it standing there, behind him, and it would make a difference to him. (36)

But, as Chris adds, back at home there was no place for the things that come “out of a love a man can have for a man” (36). Before his company could come back from the war, they were already all dead. They had not been selfish enough. When, on the distant fronts, the dream of the brotherhood of man died, the American dream lost its last adversary.

The American dream is the dream of prosperity. It is the dream that tames the proud. It channels the grief of the widows and orphans, the frustrations of the veterans, and the energy of the emerging nation to create the wealth of nations. It is transacted in greenback dollars. It recorded its successes privately in bankbooks and publicly in the proliferation of factories, stone houses, automobiles, refrigerators. It sees material abundance as its highest good, and, in doing so, eschews brotherhood, the “love a man can have for a man.” Instead, it elevates self-interest as its new good.

Self-interest became the new creed because it creates prosperity. So argues the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith. “It is not,” says Smith, “from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”[3] In Smith’s economic philosophy, the formula to maximize national prosperity in the aggregate is for each individual to maximize individual prosperity. The greater good of a unit is dependent on all the butchers, brewers, and bakers thinking about themselves first. When individuals put others’ interests before their own, frictional losses diminish the aggregate potential of the unit. So the air mask procedure on an airplane: individuals maximize the group’s welfare by putting on their own masks first. So the zipper merge in traffic: when two lanes coalesce into one, the whole queue moves faster if each driver, in an act of self-interest, advances to the head before merging. In crucial applications, self-interest draws a line between life and death:

Chris. You remember, overseas, I was in command of a company?

Ann. Yeah, sure.

Chris. Well, I lost them.

Ann. How many?

Chris. Just about all.

Ann. Oh, gee!

Chris. It takes a little time to toss that off. Because they weren’t just men. For instance, one time it’d been raining several days and this kid came up to me, and gave me his last pair of dry socks. Put them in my pocket. That’s only a little thing … but … that’s the kind of guys I had. They didn’t die; they killed themselves for each other. I mean that exactly; a little more selfish and they’d’ve been here today. (35)

While Chris’ company died because they put self-interest second, Keller takes the opposite approach. He champions self-interest. While others wind one another up like tinker toys, Keller gets ahead by considering his own interests. When, for example, Ann expresses her appreciation to Keller for offering to help set George on his feet, Keller corrects her:

Ann. That’s awfully nice of you Joe.

Keller. No, kid, it ain’t nice of me. I want you to understand me. I’m thinking of Chris. [Slight pause] See … this is what I mean. You get older, you want to feel that you … accomplished something. My only accomplishment is my son. I ain’t brainy. That’s all I accomplished. Now a year, eighteen months, your father’ll be a free man. Who is he going to come home to, Annie? His baby. You. He’ll come, old, mad, into your house.

Ann. That can’t matter any more, Joe.

Keller. I don’t want that hate to come between us. [Gestures between chris and himself] (48-9)

Keller thinks of his self-interest first and foremost. He is the ideal citizen, the new model patriot showing the others how to live the dream. Or is he? That is the question Miller considers.

The Opportunity Cost of Choice

Opportunity cost is the notion that choice involves a negative component. The negative component is that, when the best alternative is chosen, the next best alternative is forsaken. Choice is decision and, embedded in the etymology of the term decision, is the opportunity cost concept. The English term comes from the Latin verb decidere, itself a combination of the prefix de– in its privative sense of “removal” and the verb caedere “to cut.”[4]When one decides one literally “cuts off” or “cuts away” the flotsam of competing alternatives.

Economists, in examining the problem of scarcity, have formulated the clearest exposition of the opportunity cost concept. Economics is called the dismal science because it sees an impoverished world, a world where there are too many mouths, and too little to eat. There are too many sick, and too few cures. There are too many kings, and too few crowns. The task of economists is to manage resources that are in a perpetual short supply. To do this, they developed opportunity cost as the basis of an economic theory of choice to allocate inadequate resources.

Smith proposes opportunity cost as a basis for decision making in his 1776 treatise The Wealth of Nations. To find the underlying framework for decision making, he peels away the complexities of developed economies by reconstructing the primitive economy of early hunter-gatherers. Exchange, he finds, is informed by the opportunity cost of production. He illustrates the concept by the example of the one beaver and the two deer:

In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days’ or two hours’ labour, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day’s or one hour’s labour. (1.6.1)

When a hunter prepares a beaver, the hunter has lost the opportunity to prepare two deer. The opportunity cost of preparing a beaver is the loss of two deer. Conversely, should the hunter prepare two deer, the hunter loses the opportunity to prepare one beaver. With this simple example where there is one input (labour) and two outputs (beaver and deer), cost enters into the theory of choice: with a given input, it is either one beaver or two deer. In the real world, the inputs are more, the outputs are more, and the costs more grievous than animal skins. But the results are the same: you cannot have your cake, and eat it too.

If economics is the dismal science, then tragedy is the dismal art. Tragedy, like economics, sees a world of privation where, to gain x, one gives up y. In All My Sons, the characters confront opportunity cost. Take Ann. In the prehistory of the play, she had been engaged to Larry Keller, an army pilot. He died in the war. At the same time, her father, Steve, and Larry’s father, Keller, were tried for selling cracked airplane cylinder heads to the Army Air Force. They were accused of welding over hairline fractures and passing off the heads as good. Twenty-one pilots died. Keller was exonerated. Steve, however, was convicted. Ann is incredulous that her father should have been so base:

Keller. Annie, the day the news came about Larry he was in the cell next to mine … Dad. And he cried, Annie … he cried half the night.

Ann. [touched]. He shoulda cried all night. (33)

She disowns him:

Keller [to Ann]. The next time you write Dad …

Ann. I don’t write him.

Keller [struck]. Well every now and again you …

Ann. [a little ashamed, but determined]. No, I’ve never written to him. Neither has my brother. (31)

Her indignation comes at a cost, the cost of her shame. Her awkward interaction with Frank, who enquires about her father, highlights the price she pays. She cannot answer his simple question: she has no idea how he is (28-9). Polite society questions one who has disowned one’s own. She buys her indignation at the cost of her shame.

Economists use opportunity cost to price out goods and services. In the primitive economy, the cost of a beaver is two deer because two deer represent the opportunity cost of one beaver. In the developed economy, the cost of a house call is ten dollars because it compensates Jim for the next best thing he could have done, had he passed on the house call, which, in a moment of levity, would have been to drive Sue to the beach. While economists use opportunity cost to price out goods and services, Miller uses opportunity cost to price out the human. In the mad money world of All My Sons, it is either your money or your life.

From the perspective of opportunity cost, the case of Jim is illuminating. He is an early prototype of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, a play which would come out two years later. Willy, after getting lost in the dream, exposes the brutal paradox of opportunity cost in complex economies. In a brutal insight as he chats about life insurance with Charley, Willy realizes that it is his money or his life:

Charley.  I’ve got some work to do. Take care of yourself. And pay your insurance.

Willy. Funny, y’know? After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.[5]

Willy can have the dream, but at the cost of his life. Jim is not there yet, but he is getting there. In All My Sons, Jim wants to be a good husband. He also wants to follow his calling. He discovers that his wants present him with an either/or proposition:

Jim. One year I simply took off, went to New Orleans; for two months I lived on bananas and milk, and studied a certain disease. It was beautiful. And then she came, and she cried. And I went back home with her. And now I live in the usual darkness; I can’t find myself; it’s even hard sometimes to remember the kind of man I wanted to be. I am a good husband. (74-5)

When Jim reflects on his choice, he realizes the value of all he left behind. In this way, Miller makes opportunity cost the dramatic pivot through which characters pay the price.

Miller specifies the price Jim pays. From Sue, we learn that medical researchers make twenty-five dollars a week and doctors ten dollars per house call (10 and 44). During the course of the play (which takes place on a Sunday), Jim calls on at least three patients—Mrs. Adams, Mr. Hubbard, and an unnamed patient with a headache. He has made, at minimum, thirty dollars. In one day, Jim makes more than he would have in a week as a researcher. At this rate, he could make $210 a week, over eight times the amount of a researcher.

From an opportunity cost perspective, an inference may be drawn: $185 dollars per week—the difference in pay between a researcher and a doctor—is the remuneration Jim receives each week for having given up his dreams. Put another way, $185 per week is the price he pays to be a good husband. To add insult to injury, it appears that his services as a doctor are superfluous. His patients—who think they are dying—are, in fact, well. “Money,” says Jim in a moment of resignation, “Money-money-money-money. You say it long enough it doesn’t mean anything” (73). In complex economies, it is no longer the opportunity costs of beavers and deer, but rather those of dollars, cents, and dreams.

Jim’s domestic tragedy sets the scene for Keller’s tragedy. One evening during the war, Steve—Keller’s erstwhile partner—rang, frantic. They were manufacturing aircraft cylinder heads. There was a fault in the process. A batch came out with a hairline fracture. To Keller, it was either his business or his integrity. He has a choice: disclose that the process is faulty or weld the fracture. The former could put them out of business. The latter could endanger lives. He instructs Steve to pull out his tools.

The next morning, Keller calls in sick. But he does not have the flu. He is sick with the enormity of his decision. He is worried. When worried, he sleeps (41). By the time he returns to work, the heads have shipped. He thinks that the army quality control will catch the defect. By that time, he will have corrected the process. Before he can blink, however, 121 heads have gone in and 21 Curtiss P-40 Warhawks have crashed. The defect is traced back to the shop. Keller and Steve are arrested.

If Keller is convicted, he will lose his business. If he is exonerated, he will save his business. In his mind, he has done wrong by instructing Steve to cover up the cracks. But he knows a loophole: the evidence of telephone conversations is inadmissible in court:

George. Dad was afraid. He wanted Joe there if he was going to do it. But Joe can’t come down … he’s sick. Sick! He suddenly gets the flu! Suddenly! But he promised to take responsibility. Do you understand what I’m saying? On the telephone, you can’t have responsibility! In a court you can always deny a phone call and that’s exactly what he did. They knew he was a liar the first time, but in the appeal they believed that rotten lie and now Joe is a big shot and your father is the patsy. (54-5)

Keller is confronted with a choice. The opportunity cost of his business is forsaking the next best alternative, the ties that bind him to his neighbour and business partner. For the sake of his sons, he chooses the business.

Whereas Ann and Jim make their choices and pay, Keller thinks that he can have both his money and his integrity. He believes that, without repercussions, he can ship out the heads. He believes, that, without repercussions, he can make Steve the fall guy. For some time, he succeeds. After his exoneration, he comes back into town the cock of the walk, with the result that “fourteen months later I had one of the best shops in the state again, a respected man again; bigger than ever” (30). He brags of his bravado to Ann: “Every Saturday night the whole gang is playin’ poker in this arbor. All the ones who yelled murderer takin’ my money now” (30).

In the world of tragedy, it is a crime against the natural law of opportunity cost to have your cake and eat it too. There may be free lunches in comedy, a world of abundance.[6] But this is no comedy Keller is in. He is in a tragedy, the dismal art regulated by the dismal science. In the ancient world, the gods would ensure that the price is paid. In the modern world, the new gods are the forces of economic science. Opportunity cost is the avenging god. With bravado, Joe “McGuts” Keller can delay nemesis, but, like the tragedies of old, only for so long.

Masters of Reality

The Kellers are the masters of reality, manipulating reality to avoid paying their existential dues. Each of the Kellers—Mother, Chris, and Keller—pursues a complementary strategy that, while cunning, falls short. Opportunity cost is there lurking, biding its time, like the neighbourhood kids:

Keller [laughs]. I got all the kids crazy!

Chris. One of these days they’ll all come in here and beat your brains out. (13-4)

Mother knows the truth, knows that Keller ordered Steve to ship the cracked heads, knows that Keller framed Steve. She knows that, for his choices, there is a price to be paid. Three years ago, her son Larry flew on a mission. He never returned. Even though he never flew a P-40—the airframe into which the heads were mounted—in her calculus, if Larry were dead, Keller is the murderer. But no. God is on her side. God would not allow it. “God does not,” she says, “let a son be killed by his father” (68). God will lift the burden of opportunity cost from her.

If God exists, Larry will return. That is a mother’s faith. Until his homecoming, she devises alternate means to sustain her faith. Her neighbour, Frank, is an astrologer. In astrology, there is a prodigy known as a “favorable day.” On one’s favorable day, death looks away. “The odds are a million to one,” says Frank, “that a man won’t die on his favorable day” (66). Larry had went down on November 25th. To find out if November 25th was Larry’s day, Mother has Frank cast his horoscope. It turns out that it was his day. The chances are 999,999:1 that he is alive. The apple tree further validates her. The morning of the play, it was blasted down by the wind. It was blasted down because it was an abomination. Memorials are for the dead.

But Mother only buys time. She is fooled by randomness, confusing the static in the starways and the blasts of wind for a signal. God is not on her side. The universe feels no sense of obligation. In a show of dramatic irony, it is her insistence that Larry is alive that forces Ann to produce Larry’s suicide note. It is this note that undoes the Kellers’ mastery of reality.

Chris, unlike Mother, does not know the truth, does not know Keller ordered Steve to ship the heads, does not know Keller framed Steve. He is a dreamer, has not reached the jaded age. He weighs reality in the scales of his inexperience. In his inexperience, the only measure he knows is that of the responsibility of “man for man,” and so he judges all hearts (36). Into his heart will not enter that Jim could choose a bigger bankbook over being a better benefactor to humanity. Into his heart will not enter that Keller could choose the business over his responsibility to fellow human beings.

With his depth of conviction, Chris is persuasive. Every few years, he tells Jim he would be happier helping the sick by being an underpaid researcher rather than an overrated doctor. His persuasiveness alarms Sue, who, worrying about the size of Jim’s bankbook, asks Ann to move away with Chris (44). His persuasiveness also convinces George to disown his own father:

Chris [sits facing George]. Tell me, George. What happened? The court record was good enough for you all these years, why isn’t it good now? Why did you believe it all these years?

George [after a slight pause]. Because you believed it … That’s the truth, Chris. I believed everything, because I thought you did.

His conviction casts a reality distortion field. Keller cannot be guilty because he is the best of fathers. If he were guilty, the court would have determined so. But he is fooled by his goodness. The depth of his conviction never penetrated below the surface simplicity of his inexperience.

Now Keller: not only does he know the truth, he has fabricated the truth. He is the interior dramatist. If the neighbourhood kids have heard disturbing rumours, he will create a spin:

Keller. Actually what happened was that when I got home from the penitentiary, the kids got very interested in me. You know kids. I was [Laughs] like the expert on the jail situation. And as time passed they got it confused and … I ended up a detective [Laughs.]

Mother. Except that they didn’t get it confused. [To ann] He hands out badges from the Post Toasties boxes. [They laugh.] (29)

What federal penitentiary? Nothing is amiss. He manipulates reality: he is a detective, the cellar his jail.

So too, when George questions Keller’s innocence, Keller distorts reality. He reiterates how Steve was a small man who “never learned how to take the blame” and reinforces his position with a litany of examples (63). There was the time Steve almost burned down the shop and blamed the mechanic. There was the time Steve lost money on an oil stock and blamed Frank (64). There is a pattern here, argues Keller: Steve did wrong in shipping the heads and, because he was a small man, blamed Keller. Though Keller can win over some of the people most of the time, he cannot win over the iron law of opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost rears up in the explosive conclusion to act two when the Kellers’ contrasting realities collide. Chris finally tells Mother that, come hell or high water, he will marry Ann, Larry’s fiancée. Mother, however, cannot accept Larry’s death. Cornered, she says things to Chris it were better not to say:

Mother. Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father. Now you see, don’t you? (68)

She draws her line in the sand. If she loses hope, she will kill herself (22). Her last ditch gambit, however, comes at a tremendous cost. She preserves her hope by admitting, in so many words, that Keller has been guilty all along.

After her burst, she exits, leaving Chris to confront Keller. Keller confesses. He was responsible for the heads. He knew lives were at risk. But he did it for Chris, did it to save the business. Chris rebukes him and, having surfeited his rage, exits in despair.

Keller and Mother regroup. She suggests that it is time for him to pay. Between the horoscopes and revisionist narratives, the past is catching up:

Mother. I think if you sit him down and you … explain yourself. I mean you ought to make it clear to him that you know you did a terrible thing. [Not looking into his eyes] I mean if he saw that you realize what you did. You see?

Keller. What ice does that cut?

Mother [a little forcefully]. I mean if you told him that you want to pay for what you did.

Keller [sensing … quietly]. How can I pay?

Mother. Tell him … you’re willing to go to prison. [Pause.] (76)

Keller will have none of it. Chris will forgive him. “I’m his father and he’s my son,” he says, “and if there’s something bigger than that I’ll put a bullet in my head” (77). Family will lift the burden of opportunity cost from him.

As Mother draws her line in the sand, Ann will not stand by idle. She has come 700 miles to marry Chris. She will prove to Mother that Larry is dead. She has a letter, a letter from Larry, his suicide letter. It is the atom bomb of letters. In it, Larry tells Ann not to wait. Larry has heard Keller and Steve have been charged. “Every day three or four men never come back,” he says, “and he sits back there doing business.” “I could kill him,” writes Larry (83). But instead of killing Keller, he kills himself, flying into the void.

After Chris reads the letter to Keller, Keller realizes the game is up. Keller had been put out when he was ten years old. He had lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. To ensure his sons would have an easier life, he has avoided paying his opportunity costs. He avoided the cost by framing Steve, by perjuring himself, and by distorting reality. He tried to get around the cost by making money, passing the business on to Chris, helping George set up, and welcoming Steve back into the business. He came so close to having his cake, and eating it too.

When it started unravelling, Keller could still count on the support of his good son, his dead son, the younger, perfecter son who understood the cost of a buck. But the letter strips him of his final hope. After he reads the letter, Mother, with a dark premonition, cuts in:

Mother. Larry was your son too, wasn’t he? You know he’d never tell you to do this.

Keller [looking at letter in his hand]. Then what is this if it isn’t telling me? Sure, he was my son. But I think to him they were all my sons. And I guess they were, I guess they were. (83)

The letter brings the masters of reality back down to earth. The Kellers thought they could dream the dream, and live it too. But they could only delay the day of reckoning. Mother loses her religion. Her faith that Larry would return was bought at the cost of God and the stars. For her, the stars will forevermore wander random pathways, silent, dumb. Chris, on the other hand, buys experience at the cost of his worldview where the money is clean, the courts are just, and the fathers are like Jesus. Then, there is Keller. He buys a better future for his family at the cost of his integrity. In the dog-eat-dog world of tragedy, it is either responsibility to family or responsibility to humanity, but not both. The Kellers were only mortal gods, building houses of cards.

The Dismal Art

Tragedy, like economics, is a dismal art. Tragedy is an economics of the final resort that examines the opportunity cost of being alive. While participants in hunters’ markets, farmers’ markets, and stock markets come together to value beavers and deer, fruits and vegetables, and stocks and bonds by the opportunity cost concept of one beaver for two deer, patriots come together on the marketplace of the tragic stage to value their devotion to the new ideals of Pax Americana. Economists price goods. Dramatists price dreams. To define the price, both identify what is given up in exchange.

To price out intangible assets, one turns to tragedy because tragedy is a valuing mechanism for human assets. Economists can tell you a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, but not how much the milk of human kindness costs.[7] To find out how much the milk of human kindness is worth, one turns to tragedy. In a world of privation, where the shortfalls are perpetual, there are no free lunches, only opportunity costs. Because of the opportunity cost mechanism, tragedy establishes the price of the all-too-human as the next best alternative that is given up in exchange.

The function of drama as a valuing mechanism is unique to tragedy. Miller could not, for example, have priced out the cost of the dream if he had set the action in a comedy. Comedy is a world of plenty. There is no opportunity cost in comedy: it is a world of free lunches. Compare the father Micio in The Brothers, by Roman comedian Terence, to Keller:

Micio. He dines and wines and reeks of scent: I pay for it all. He keeps a mistress: I shall pay up as long as it suits me, and when it doesn’t, maybe she will shut his door on him. He has a broken door-lock; I’ll have it mended. He has torn someone’s clothes; they can be repaired. (344)[8]

Both Micio and Keller provide for their sons. In the world of comedy, the limit of Micio’s largesse is whether “it suits me.” Micio, flush with cash, effortlessly provides for his son. For Keller, however, to provide for his sons in the world of tragedy, he must feign illness, lie, perjure himself, put his reputation on the line, throw his neighbours to the wolves, and endanger the lives of others’ sons. The brutality of tragedy is what makes it a great valuing mechanism.

As a valuing mechanism, Miller uses it to explore the price patriots pay to live the American dream. What is the cost of being a good husband? To become a good husband, one gives up the dream of true research. What is the inverse cost, the cost of being a researcher? That cost works out to be the additional income of $185 per week that is lost when one gives up the general practice. What is the cost of a mother waiting for her son? Her other son picks up the tab. “We’re like at a railroad station,” says her other son, “waiting for a train that never comes in” (21). What is the cost of solidarity with fellow human beings? The cost of solidarity is life; the war kills those not greedy enough of their lives. What is the cost of standing up for justice? The cost is the ties that bind together families. What is the cost of saving an engagement? The cost is turning a blind eye to a father-in-law’s crimes. What is the cost of becoming practical? The cost of practical society life is to watch “the star of one’s honesty” go out (74). What is the cost of money? Money, in All My Sons, comes at the price of integrity. What is the cost of being a good father? The cost is your life, all your sons will spit you out.

In All My Sons, each time the subsidiary characters are confronted with several alternatives, they choose one, eliminate the others, and are left with a certain “wisp of sadness” (6). The wisp of sadness is the surface manifestation of the invisible hand of opportunity cost at work. Keller, however, wants it all, choosing—simultaneously—the best of every alternative. Every time the future proliferates and forks, he is there having his cake, and eating it too. But opportunity cost is an iron law. It will find a way through the sliding door of chance.

By the efficient mechanism of opportunity cost, Miller asks how much runaway patriotism costs. Uncle Sam had made it the patriotic duty of each American to make money. All My Sons, however, steps back and dramatizes how, behind every beautiful thing—the smiles and the “attaboys,” the long driveways and the mansions on the hill, the new fridges and the fast cars—lay some kind of pain. In dramatizing the cost so beautifully, it caught the imagination of a new generation of theatregoers and created, in the process, the uncreated conscience of American patriotism.

[1] Arthur Miller, All My Sons (New York: Penguin, 2000). Text references are to page numbers of this edition.

[2] Christopher Bigsby, introduction to All My Sons, by Arthur Miller (New York: Penguin, 2000), xxiv.

[3] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations: Books I-III, ed. Andrew Skinner (London: Penguin, 1999), 1.2.2.

[4] Oxford Latin Dictionary, 1st ed., s.v. “decido.”

[5] Miller, Death of a Salesman, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Penguin, 1999), 74.

[6] On comedy as a world of plenty, see Edwin Wong, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected (Victoria, Friesen Press, 2019), 234-6.

[7] On tragedy as a valuing mechanism, see Wong, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, 79-110.

[8] Terence, The Brothers, in The Comedies, trans. Betty Radice (London: Penguin, 1976).

– – –

Thanks for reading. This series of readings are based on my new theory of tragedy, called risk theatre. Risk theatre understands tragedy as a valuing mechanism, and makes risk, chance, and uncertainty the fulcrum of the dramatic action. Reviews of my book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, are available here. Risk theatre is the basis for the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. Other readings in this series include essays on MacbethOthello, and Seven Against ThebesWhen the world gives you risk, make risk theatre.

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

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Playwrights explore chance in its many guises. To create a play, playwrights collide want, will, and intention with accident, chance, and fortune. In the no-man’s land between accident and intention, drama arises. Where accident intensifies the protagonist’s will, comedy results. Where accident eclipses the protagonist’s will, tragedy results. Chance is a playwright’s plaything because uncertainty, being unknown, is inherently dramatic.

In the tragedy Othello, Shakespeare explores chance by asking: “How high a degree of probability must one attain to have a sufficient basis for judgment?” Shakespeare sets the backdrop by crafting characters who are not what they seem. Their actions, reputations, and speech belie their being. When seeming and being are at odds, certainty goes out the window. Only the uncertain parts and probable fragments are left behind. In this world, there is no knowing, only thinking:

IAGO. My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO. I think thou dost. (3.3.119-20, emphasis added)

The play follows Othello as he pieces together broken probabilities, looking for the chance event so convincing that it rules out every doubt. He looks for a tattered proof known as moral certainty.

Je Est Un Autre or “I is Another”

Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in . . .
Your beds! (2.1.109-13)

“Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none” (3.3.129-30). But that is not the case here. By cleaving apart seeming and being, Shakespeare creates a setting to explore chance. In Othello—to take poet Arthur Rimbaud’s memorable idea, Je est un autre (“I is another”)—each character is also “another.” Appearances deceive. When characters seem to be such, but are, in reality, another, understanding and certainty become best guesses. By cleaving seeming and being, Shakespeare takes the audience into a world of probability, a world where there is a chance of being correct and a chance of being incorrect. In this indeterminate world, characters weigh probabilities, form plans “probal to thinking” (2.3.333), and search for moral certainty, the probability that is so high that, even though uncertain, is called by the name of certainty. The tragedy is that even moral certainty is less than certain. Like bells in the parlours or men who might seem none, moral certainty only seems to be the real thing.

Iago seems honest. His epithet is “Honest Iago.” “Honest Iago,” says Othello, “My Desdemona I must leave to thee” (1.3.295-6). Roderigo entrusts him with his wealth and fastens each hope to him (1.3.363-80). Desdemona confides in him (3.4.133-41). “I never knew,” says Cassio, “A Florentine more kind and honest” (3.1.40-1). Iago’s seeming, however, belies his being. “I am not what I am,” he says, “but seeming so” (1.1.59 and 64).

Desdemona seems dishonest. “I do beguile,” she says, “The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (2.1.122-3). “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see,” warns her father Brabantio, “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.293-4). “Swear thou art honest,” demands Othello, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” (4.2.39-40). Her seeming, however, belies her being. She is a true heart.

Emilia seems bawdy. “She’s a simple bawd,” says Othello (4.2.20). In between Cassio’s kiss and his suspicions of her infidelity, Iago remarks her services are for the common use:

EMILIA. I have a thing for you.

IAGO. You have a thing for me? it is a common thing—

EMILIA. Ha? (3.3.305-7)

Though seen as a bawd who would sell great vice for a small price, she ends up buying virtue at the cost of her own life, at the last standing between Iago’s maleficence, Othello’s rage, and Desdemona’s helplessness, exposing the wickedness of both her husband and Othello. Not even Othello’s sword can silence her virtue:

EMILIA. Thou hast done a deed [He threatens her with his sword.]
—I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known
Though I lost twenty lives. Help, help, ho, help! (5.2.160-2)

Her surface appearances belie her core values. By judging her by her surface appearances, Iago, who knew her best, seals his doom.

Othello seems a man for all seasons. The assembled Venetian senate regales him as “all-in-all sufficient,” “a nature whom passion could not shake,” and one whose virtue lay beyond “the shot of accident” (4.1.264-8). He is of such steadfast repute that, when Emilia inquires whether he is jealous, Desdemona replies: “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.30-1). His seeming, however, belies his being. In reality, he proves insufficient, full of passion, and most susceptible to accident and chance.

So too, in the play’s macrocosm, the invading Turkish fleet seems sometimes smaller, sometimes larger. And, whether larger or smaller, sometimes it seems to bend for Rhodes, and sometimes for Cyprus. Its size and trajectory belie its intentions (1.3.1-45). Though the senate would rather act on certain, rather than probable intelligence, because the enemy projects a false gaze more full of seeming than being, the senate must act on probabilities. So too, Othello, Roderigo, Desdemona, and the other characters looking on at the grand pageant must hazard the probability of being caught on the wrong side of seeming and being.

In this play populated by topsy-turvy Je est un autre types, Iago presses the confusion forwards. Iago is an obsequious go-getter. His primary weapon is dissimulation. To enrichen himself, he plays panderer to Roderigo, though he panders nothing. To rise up the chain of command, he devises a way to cashier Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. He will persuade Othello that Cassio cuckolds him. To this end, he employs a series of strategies. When convenient, he spreads rumours that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s younger wife. He starts with Roderigo:

IAGO. Lechery, by this hand: an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together. Villainous thoughts, Roderigo: when these mutualities so marshal the way, hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, th’incorporate conclusion. (2.1.255-61)

and then moves to Othello:

IAGO. I lay with Cassio lately
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs—one of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate
That gave thee to the Moor!’ (3.3.416-28)

If there is a kernel of truth Iago can explode into reckless speculation, he will do so:

IAGO. She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks,
She loved them most.

OTHELLO.                     And so she did.

IAGO.                                                   Why, go to, then:
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father’s eyes up, close as oak—
He thought ‘twas witchcraft. But I am much to blame,
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.

OTHELLO. I am bound to thee for ever. (3.3.209-17)

When all else fails, Iago practices psychological warfare. Through insinuation, he gets Othello to convince himself. Conclusions drawn when one convinces oneself root more firmly than persuaded proofs:

IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO.                    He did, from first to last.
Why dost thou ask?

IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.

OTHELLO.        Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

OTHELLO. O, yes, and went between us very oft.

IAGO. Indeed?

OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO. Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
What dost thou think?

IAGO. Think, my lord?

OTHELLO. Think, my lord! By heaven thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.94-111)

Despite the rumours, speculations, and insinuations, Othello sees, or believes he sees, Desdemona’s true heart:

OTHELLO. What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me,
I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. (3.3.341-4)

Beginning to suspect foul play, he retains enough good sense to demand proof from Iago, telling Iago to provide proof, or his life:

OTHELLO. Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof, [Catching hold of him]
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! (3.3.362-6)

Nothing improper has transpired, and, as a result, Iago has no proof, cannot come up with a proof. He reaches an aporia. But, in a twist of fate, chance provides Iago proof.

A Handkerchief, Spotted with Strawberries

Desdemona has on her person a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. It is of an unusual provenance. Artifact like, it was sewn by an ancient sibyl during moments of inspiration. Hallowed worms spun its threads and maiden’s hearts stained its cloth. It was given to Othello’s mother to charm his father, and damnation to her if she lost it. She, however, saw it in her safekeeping until she died, at which time she gave it to her son. He, in turn, gave the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries to Desdemona (3.4.57-77).

Halfway through the play, Desdemona takes out the kerchief to wrap Othello’s head. He has a headache. It falls off. In their haste to meet dinner guests, they forget the napkin. Emilia, having been asked by her husband many times to steal it, chances upon it. She gives it to Iago, unaware of why he should want it (3.3.288-332). Through the accident of the dropped napkin, Iago has an opportunity to bolster his flagging argument.

Once he has the handkerchief, Iago can produce the wicked proofs required by Othello. He begins by planting the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom. Next, he tells Othello he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with it. This, in turn, prompts Othello to ask Desdemona for the napkin. She cannot produce it, and, fatally misjudging the gravity of the situation, asks Othello to reinstate Cassio. This drives Othello into a huff, who finds it incredulous that Desdemona not only has the appetite for another man, but also has the appetite to demand from him his favour.

At this point, Othello is getting a bit run down. His epileptic attack as he visualizes the intertwined lovers is a physical analogue of his broken internal state. Even now, however, standing in his mellow-fading glory like a black Caesar, he demands proofs. As he recovers from the epileptic attack, Iago provides verbal and ocular proofs, one by cunning, and the other by another stroke of chance.

Iago arranges for Othello to overhear his conversation with Cassio. While getting Othello to believe he is questioning Cassio about Desdemona, he actually asks Cassio about Bianca, a strumpet overfond of Cassio. In hearing Cassio tell Iago of his extracurricular activities with Bianca, Othello believes Cassio refers to Desdemona. Then, in a second twist, as Othello eavesdrops, Bianca comes out of nowhere to rebuke Cassio. Cassio had found the handkerchief in his chamber, and, appreciating the design, had asked Bianca to make a copy. Bianca agreed, but, on second thought, believing the handkerchief to be a gift from a rival, now finds it beneath her dignity to do any such thing. That Bianca appears at this moment surprises Iago, who had planned many things, but not this godsend. When she rebukes Cassio, Othello draws the conclusion that, first of all, Desdemona was in Cassio’s chamber, and, second of all, Desdemona has given Cassio the handkerchief as a token of her affection. Though Bianca does not mention Desdemona, it is a short leap for Othello, a general accustomed to making snap judgements on the field of battle, to conclude that Cassio’s hobby-horse is none other than Desdemona:

BIANCA. Let the devil and his dam haunt you! What did you mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now? I was a fine fool to take it—I must take out the work! A likely piece of work, that you should find it in your chamber and know not who left it there! This is some minx’s token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse; wheresoever you had it, I’ll take out no work on’t!

CASSIO. How now, my sweet Bianca, how now, how now?

OTHELLO. By heaven, that should be my handkerchief! (4.1.147-56)

Who else but Desdemona could have left the napkin there? The scene with Bianca and Cassio convinces Othello. He resolves to kill them both. He has proof. Or so he thinks.

If Emilia had—as Iago requested—stolen the napkin, the tragedy would have taken on a more ominous tone: the sound of good and evil clashing. But that is not what happens. The sound of good and evil clashing is dull. Emilia, rather, finds the napkin by chance. Chance is more interesting. That she finds it by chance leaves the audience with a sense of wonder and awe: wonder at how impartial chance should have become Iago’s partisan and awe over the extraordinary consequences that follow.

At one moment chance saves, sending a storm to drown the Turkish fleet. But in the next moment, chance casts down, putting the napkin into the wrong hands. Chance’s fantastic nature makes it a wonderful dramatic pivot. Othello himself, a crack storyteller, engages chance to woo Desdemona by telling her the stories of “battles, sieges, fortunes,” “most disastrous chances,” and of “moving accidents by flood and field” (1.3.131-6). These accidents he lives to tell, but the tale of the dropped napkin another will tell.

Chance fascinates because every eventuality lays within its grasp, given enough time. But even given its myriad combinations and permutations, some eventualities are more probable, some, less so, and others implausible unto impossible. This feature of chance—that some probabilities are more likely and others less so—allows Othello to draw fatal proofs.

Five Sigma Events, Significance Tests, Moral Certainty, and Iago’s Gambit

In the character Othello, Shakespeare has created a sceptic to rival Sextus Empiricus. For Othello, it was not enough that Iago was the most honest of Venetians. Nor was it enough that Iago had stood shoulder to shoulder with him, comrades-in-arms on the front lines. It was not even enough that Desdemona’s own father warned him to be wary. Othello, after all, had heard the wise Duke rebuking Brabantio for acting on circumstantial evidence:

DUKE. To vouch this is no proof,
Without more certain and more overt test
Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him. (1.3.107-10)

Othello will not be a brash Brabantio. He will demand a certain and more overt test:

OTHELLO. Make me to see’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life! (3.3.367-9)

Now Iago is in a jam. Othello demands proof, or his life. Iago cannot make Othello see it, as there is nothing to see. Othello himself, likewise, is in a jam. He must judge a covert crime, and, having judged, kill. He can count on neither Desdemona nor Cassio to fess up: unchaste eyes must never name the things unchaste hearts cannot do without. When Iago proposes the test of the napkin, however, Othello has a path forward:

IAGO. But if I give my wife a handkerchief—

OTHELLO. What then?

IAGO. Why, then ’tis hers, my lord, and being hers
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.

OTHELLO. She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that ? (4.1.10-5)

In Iago’s gambit, the napkin will stand in for her honour. Since Desdemona is honourable, the likelihood that she gives away the token of her honour is low. Because it would be an outlier event to see the napkin in the hands of another man, if it is seen, the likelihood is high that the observation is significant. The test of the napkin—coupled with both Iago and Brabantio’s warnings—may constitute, therefore, a sort of proof that, while not absolute, demonstrates infidelity beyond a reasonable doubt. This probabilistic proof that “the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on” is the best proof available in the indeterminate world of the play. The idea that random chance may—or may not—engender absolute truth is the powerful idea Shakespeare plays with.

Though it was not until 1668 that philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz formally associated probability with certainty by arguing that, given a sufficient probability, a degree of moral certainty could be achieved, it is clear that Shakespeare was already thinking along these lines in the opening years of the seventeenth century. Probability is in the air. Mathematician Jacob Bernoulli in the late seventeenth century would quantify these thresholds: something possessing 1/1000 a fraction of certainty (0.1%) would be morally impossible, whereas something possessing 999/1000 a portion of certainty (99.9%) would be morally certainty. The standard is flexible. Modern statisticians use anywhere from one to five percent significance tests to establish certainty. Different fields likewise require different levels of certainty. When physicists used a sensitivity of three sigma to validate discoveries (corresponding to a 99.7% chance that the result is real and not by the action of chance), they found that, because their work involved a multitude of data points, they would arrive at many discoveries which would be later proved spurious. Accordingly, when searching for the Higgs boson, they adapted a five sigma threshold. This threshold translates to a 99.99994% confidence level: the chance that the discovery is an anomaly is roughly 1 in 3.5 million. Even with a five sigma sensitivity, however, the chance that the observation is a fluke and not the real thing remains. Moral certainty is a subjective and pragmatic standard. Too low a threshold results in false discoveries and too high a threshold results in no discoveries. The question is: does Othello achieve moral certainty and, if so, to what degree?

The first great critic of Othello, Thomas Rymer, found the proof of the handkerchief so implausible as to be risible. To Rymer, Othello was acting without any kind of certainty, let alone moral certainty. In 1693, he voiced his misgivings in a jingling couplet: “Before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Everyone knows that Michael Cassio is the great arithmetician of the play, not Othello. Perhaps Othello had miscalculated the odds?

What Iago wants is for Othello to assemble all the information—the warning from Brabantio, the accusations from Iago, Cassio’s frequent associations with Desdemona, Desdemona’s importuning, and so on—so that the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs” (3.3.444, emphasis added). Probability theory in the time of Shakespeare and Rymer was in its infancy. That is not to say, however, that Othello could not intuit conditional odds: that is, in effect, what he does. So too, without formal probability theory, Iago well knows that many less plausible proofs may add up into one great proof, saying: “This may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (3.3.432-3).

The formal calculation of conditional probabilities lay in the future. That future arrived in 1763 when Bayes’ theorem was posthumously published. Thomas Bayes was a mathematician and Presbyterian minister. His contribution to probability theory was a formula to calculate conditional probabilities, a way to revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Iago’s hypothesis that many lesser proofs constitute one great proof. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Rymer’s couplet, to see whether Othello’s proof be mathematical, and, if so, to what extent.

To determine the posterior probability—that is to say, the revised probability that Othello has been cuckolded after the test of the napkin—we require four probability values. The first two values are P(C), the initial or prior probability that he has been cuckolded, and P(~C), the initial or prior probability that he has not been cuckolded. Before Iago’s gambit, Othello’s opinion on whether he has been cuckolded appears evenly divided:

OTHELLO. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [Iago] art just, and think thou art not. (3.386-8)

Given what he says, we can assign a value of 0.50 (with 0 representing an impossibility and 1 representing a certainty) to P(C)and a similar value, 0.50, to P(~C). The odds he has been cuckolded are 50:50.

The third probability value is P(H C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue suggests Othello believes that, next to catching the lovers in the act, the test of the handkerchief is a great proof. The value of P(H C), while not 1 (which is an absolute certainty), must approach 1: perhaps 0.90, representing a 90% chance, is reasonable.

The final probability value is P(H ∣ ~C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests true hearts give away telltale tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. As a result, the likelihood of P(H ∣ ~C) is quite low, having an order of magnitude of 0.01, or a 1% chance.

Here is what Bayes’ theorem looks like when solving for P(C H) or the posterior probability that Othello is a cuckold, should he see his napkin with Cassio. The formula takes into account his initial, or prior belief, and revises it to take into account the test of the napkin:

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

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

Putting it all together yields this result:

0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the five sigma standard (99.99994%) used in high energy physics, its significance falls within the one to five percent tests used by modern statisticians. The napkin brings him to a point of moral certainty, the degree of probability one must attain to act. The jealousy was tragical because the proof was mathematical.

Is Othello correct to believe that he has caught the lovers in his mousetrap? That, I think, is the question Shakespeare invites us to ask. The answer—like many answers in the great plays—is fluid. Some may argue that P(H ∣ ~C)—the odds that Desdemona gives away the napkin and is true—is too low at 1%. People with the truest hearts, may, some of the time, give away treasured tokens as though trifles. Changing P(H ∣ ~C) from 0.01 to 0.10 (from 1% to 10%) would decrease Othello’s confidence level from 98.9% to 90%. There is now a 10% probability that what he sees is a pageant of chance rather than a proof of infidelity. Others, however, would argue that starting from a 50% prior probability of being a cuckold is egregiously low. Given the constant goings-on between Cassio and Desdemona as well as warnings from both Desdemona’s father himself and the most honest person in the room, Othello’s initial belief, or the prior probability P(C), that he has been cuckolded should be much higher, perhaps closer to 80%. Now, even with P(H ∣ ~C) at 0.10, Othello can still be 97.3% certain he is a cuckold. If P(H ∣ ~C) stays at the original 0.01 and the prior probability Othello is cuckold rises from 50% to 80%, the posterior probability of being a cuckold after a positive napkin test rises to a confidence-inspiring 99.7%, equivalent to the three sigma threshold used by physicists until rather recently.

By cleaving seeming and being in twain, Shakespeare invites the audience to explore probability and its ramifications. Would different ages, ethnicities, and sexes input different values into Bayes’ theorem? How high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty must also contend that, in the final examination, he was wrong. Those who contend Othello failed to achieve moral certainty would do well to wonder how yesterday and today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matters of life and death on less stringent significance tests. Othello makes us wonder: should graver actions demand higher levels of certainty? Not only that, it also makes us wonder if our interpretations of Othello reveal something about ourselves. Do we allow Othello to judge after receiving a tip from an honest source and catching the culprit in the mousetrap? And would these same people who say no to Othello allow Hamlet to judge after receiving a tip from a possibly dishonest (and diabolical) source and catching the culprit in another sort of a mousetrap?

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is the one of the richest crossroads in interpretation today. Through a twist of chance, Shakespeare takes Othello from good to great: since chance is indeterminate, interpreters of the play will forever debate whether Othello achieves moral certainty, and to what degree. Othello makes us think on the role of chance in theatre and in life.

Whether Heads of Tails, Chance always Prevails

In this essay, I have argued that chance and probability form a basis of interpretation. In Othello, Shakespeare represents chance in the form of a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. The action pivots around the errant handkerchief because its journey gives Othello the proof that Iago could not provide. Chance supplies the proof because it is made up of probabilities, some common, some uncommon, and others so uncommon as to stand outside the prospect of belief. For Othello, it stood outside the prospect of belief that the handkerchief could have went from Desdemona, to Cassio, and then to Bianca, unless Desdemona were untrue. To Othello, Iago’s extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence, and, through chance, he witnessed an extraordinary proof. Whether or not this proof achieves a point of moral certainty, however, will be a point of debate forever, as chance is, in the last examination, subject to uncertainty. Othello, read through the lens of chance, makes for great reading for pollsters, jurors, insurers, high energy physicists, ethicists, medical researchers, and anyone else corroborating theories based on many observations: there is always a risk that what appears certain is only a statistical anomaly that has the seeming of truth.

From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk. And what better for today’s days of risk than to look at tragedy as a theatre of risk? When life gives you lemons, make all of theatre a theatre of risk and you will see not only the play, but all of life, through new eyes. “O vain boast, / Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now,” says the one who has seen the power of chance in all its guises, sometimes raising up, and other times casting down (Othello 5.2.262-3).

In Othello, Shakespeare has drawn a moving portrait of the empire of chance in its limitless power. When want, will, and intention collide with accident, chance, and fortune, no matter how strong want, will, and intention are and how unlikely accident, chance, and fortune were, chance finds a way. Some thought that the gods were fate. Others thought that politics or character was fate. But, really, chance is the rebel fate. Certain proof of this lies in the great mystery of tragedy, the mystery of how, whether heads or tails, chance always prevails.

_ _ _

If you have enjoyed this reading of Othello, here is a link to a reading of Macbeth from the perspective of chance. Those interested in the role of chance in ancient drama may want to click here. These “risk theatre” readings are derived from arguments in my book presenting a new theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Ask your local library to carry a copy! Risk theatre is more than theory. It is also the basis of the largest playwriting competition in the world for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. The competition brings together playwrights, writers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and audiences to explore the many guises of chance and uncertainty. Click here for more info on the competition. Thank you for reading.

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

Review of Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity – Karl Jaspers

1936, English translation 1965, Johns Hopkins UP, trans. Charles F. Wallraff and Frederick J. Schmitz, 509 pages
Originally published as Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens

Reading this book is a serious undertaking. It’s a book about a philosopher (Nietzsche) by a philosopher (Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism). It is well-researched, covering Nietzsche’s published materials, unpublished fragments, and letters. In this work, Jaspers reveals the ties between Nietzsche the man and Nietzsche the philosopher. From Nietzsche’s correspondences with musician Peter Gast, theologian Franz Overbeck, classicist Erwin Rohde, his mother, his sister, and others, Jaspers paints a portrait of a lonely individual, somewhat timid, a social misfit, yet extraordinarily polite, and, above all, one bound by the consuming idea of his task: the revaluation of all values.

To Jaspers, Nietzsche’s solitude was a function of the importance Nietzsche attributed to his task of revaluing values, and how his contemporaries could not come along with him: for them, to succeed in the world, they had to also subscribe to morality, Christianity, the idea of Germany, marriage, political correctness, having the right friends, and holding the right views–even if all these notions were based on false values. Some could watch Nietzsche railing against these false values. But it was painful watching him destroy his career. Even though some could watch, no one could come with him. He had to go it alone. Perhaps his friends who watched from a distance were right. When Nietzsche collapsed in 1889, he was nobody and many of his friends were important somebodies. As Jaspers recounts, Nietzsche was self-publishing his books. There were no readers. He was admitted to the Basel asylum as a civilian, denied access to any special treatment or services. The tables have turned now, as many of the somebodies of Nietzsche’s time are only today remembered in their connection with Nietzsche.

In the revaluation of all values, Nietzsche turns the world on its head, much like how Christianity turned the Roman world and values on its head with its “first shall be the last and the last shall be the first” credo. In place of the soul, Nietzsche gives us the will to power. In place of God, Nietzsche gives us the superman. And in place of metaphysics, Nietzsche gives us the eternal recurrence. The will to power is the will to live dangerously, the will that yes “Yes.” The eternal recurrence is the sense of déjà vu, except with a much more badass name. And the superman is the individual who, with the highest form of the will to power, can say yes and affirm all of existence, both its best moments and its darkest. The superman is the individual with an appetite for life. Here I wrote a piece in an honest jest of Freddie Mercury as a modern-day superman.

Jasper’s book, lovingly written, but not to the point of worship–for example, while extolling Nietzsche’s breathtaking insights, singles him out for the crudity of his logical forms and method–is easier to read than Nietzsche himself. But it can be a tough slog for lay readers. The nice thing, however, is that Jaspers quotes so much of Nietzsche that it is a pleasure to read. Nietzsche–as Nietzsche himself described–is, along with Heinrich Heine, the best of the German stylists. His turns of phrases–whether one understands them or not–are beautiful to read. Take for example this turn of words where he talks about his process of overcoming: “Shake me together with all the tears and all the misery of mankind, and I must always rise to the top, like oil on water.” His images are powerful because they are full of action. What is more, his images and aphorisms are fascinating because they’re the sort of things I wish that I could write but know I can’t. There’s something uncanny in how he sees the world. Like how he describes his favourite philosopher (the pre-Socratic Heraclitus), there is, too, in Nietzsche, “a gap in his nature.”

For All His Power, Nietzsche Could Not Foresee His Own Demise

In 1881, while walking through the forest by Lake Silvaplana, the idea of the eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche. In 1883, the idea of the superman and the will to power dawned on him, and he recorded the discovery in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1888, he was overjoyed, feeling the task of merging these three concepts into a grand unified philosophy close at hand. By merging metaphysics with mysticism, he would overcome nihilism. God is dead; long live the superman. But there was a problem: Nietzsche realized the eternal recurrence may be indefensible and the will to power unprovable. To put the plug in nihilism, he would have to demonstrate the mechanism through which the eternal recurrence recurred and establish why nature would will to power.

Jaspers recounts some of Nietzsche’s joyous letters of 1888, that great year, but not great in the sense that Nietzsche foresaw. Nietzsche felt himself close to that secret of the grand unification. Glimpses of the solution were coming to him. Soon, he would grasp the whole:

But the decisive symptom of the new condition is a euphoria which appears only occasionally in the course of the year but is constant during the last months. This tone is softly heard first in letters to Seydlitz (Febr. 12, ’88): “The days here come along with an impudent beauty; there never was a more perfect winter.” To Gast he writes (Sept. 27, ’88): “Marvelous clarity, autumnal colors, an exquisite feeling of well-being on all things.” Later on: “I am now the most grateful person in the world–of an autumnal mood in every good sense of the word: this is my great harvest time. Everything is easy for me, everything turns out well for me.” “I am now of the absolute conviction that all has turned out well, from the very beginning; all is one and has one purpose” (to Gast, Dec. 22, ’88).

For all his powers of insight, little did he know, he would come to harvest his sorrows. Less than two weeks after his December 22nd letter to Gast, he would collapse into an insanity from which he would never emerge, dying of pneumonia twelve years later.

It fills me with wonder, how faraway so close he was. And I wonder how many of us too will be struck down, faraway so close to fulfilling our task.

What Nietzsche Can Do for You

There’s so much to read these days. Why should you read Nietzsche, or, for that matter, read Jaspers reading Nietzsche? Like no other writer, Nietzsche inspires. One of the best things about Jaspers’ book are the glimpses of how Nietzsche’s contemporaries saw him through their correspondences. From the letters and correspondences, you can see how Nietzsche inspires even the greatest minds. In Nietzsche, they see the traveler, going it alone, ascending the most dangerous peaks. In that moment, how could they not be filled with awe and wonder? Here, for example, is Erwin Rohde, one of the preeminent classicists (or Altphilologen as they are called in Germany) of the nineteenth century, and author of Psyche (still in print today) writing to Nietzsche. They became acquainted while studying under Friedrich Ritschl, one of the gods of philology:

“To me it seems at times like a defection that I am unable to join you in fishing for pearls in those ocean depths and must instead amuse myself and take a childish delight in gudgeons and other philological vermin” (Dec. 22, ’71). “And so I feel again as I always did when I was together with you: for a while I am elevated into a higher rank, as though I were spiritually ennobled” (Dec. 22, ’79).

When one reads Nietzsche, one is filled with the radiance of life and possibility. Perhaps it is because Nietzsche was constantly striving to rise out of the pit of nihilism that one descends into once God is dead that he charges his writing with an infectious purpose and drive that touches all his readers. It was the case with me. Nietzsche was that distant star that I have followed for so long. If you are looking for your calling, read Nietzsche. Your destiny will beckon. Whether you can follow is another question.

I first encountered Nietzsche in my early teens through his book: The Birth of Tragedy. In that book, he said things like: “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world can be eternally justified.” Imagine the effect of this on a teen who was used to reading Hardy Boys novels and watching He-Man cartoons. Nietzsche, compared with everyone else, spoke with such immortal purpose. I was hooked. I decided that I too, would write a theory of tragedy, which, after reading Nietzsche, seemed the highest of all human endeavours.

To prepare myself for the task, I enrolled in Greek and Roman Studies: Nietzsche, before the classicists threw him out and the philosophers welcomed him, had started out as a classicist. At UVic I studied under Laurel Bowman, and at Brown, under Charles Fornara and David Konstan. Because Nietzsche was also published in a peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate, I thought I would do the same, and wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Then, later, after two failed attempts, I succeeded in combining probability theory with literary theory and produced a new theory of tragedy based on risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Finally, to take my theory from page to stage, I inaugurated the world’s largest playwriting competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year.

All this from a spark that shot off the embers of Nietzsche’s thought. It has been a whole life of inspiration. I promise you too, that you will be inspired if you read Nietzsche. Is that a good enough reason to pick up Nietzsche over some other writer?

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

Author Blurb

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), a founder of existentialism, studied law and medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and received his M.D. degree in 1909. He taught psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, and philosophy at the University of Switzerland. His books include General Psychopathology, also available in paperback from Johns Hopkins.

Book Blurb

Nietzsche claimed to be a philosopher of the future, but he was appropriated as a philosopher of Nazism. His work inspired a long study by Martin Heidegger and essays by a host of lesser disciples attached to the Third Reich. In 1935, however, Karl Jaspers set out to “marshall against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man they had proclaimed as their own philosopher.” The year after Nietzsche was published, Jaspers was discharged from his professorship at Heidelberg University by order of the Nazi leadership. Unlike the ideologues, Jaspers does not selectively cite Nietzsche’s work to reinforce already held opinions. Instead, he presents Nietzsche as a complex, wide-ranging philosopher–extraordinary not only because he foresaw all the monstrosities of the twentieth century but also because he saw through them.

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s MACBETH

The true star of Macbeth is the low-probability, high-consequence event. And the true story of Macbeth is the hero’s reaction to it. In this tragedy, a man is transformed by a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, in the beginning raised up by chance, and, in the end, cast down by the same power he hoped to harness. Macbeth is the story of how low-probability, high-consequence events encouraged a man to wager all-in, thinking that he was bound for glory, and of how the random element fooled him.

For the dreamers who believe that low-probability, high-consequence events could be tamed through progress, the play warns of evil’s allure and the follies of ambition and confidence. For others, whose powers of recognition are clearer, and who perceive the random element working at each existential juncture in life and in history, the hypotheses of other-worldly powers, ambition, and confidence were redundant. To them, Macbeth tells an all-too-human story of how, because of our innate predilection to scorn chance, having always satisfied our intellectual biases by seeking any other explanation than one which involved the random element, we thought ourselves lords of chance and became, instead, the fools of chance.

The definition of a low-probability, high-consequence event is one in which, before it happens, is considered improbable. Sometimes the possibility it can even happen cannot be imagined, such is its remoteness. Examples include the Gutenberg Press, the rise of the personal computer, or the Gunpowder Plot. We can know that a low-probability, high-consequence action has occurred by watching the reactions. Sometimes, it prompts the one who has seen it to alert others. “From the spring,” says the dying Captain, “whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells: mark, King of Scotland, mark” (1.2.27-8). Other times it elicits disbelief. “Nothing is,” says Macbeth, “but what is not” (1.3.144). Sometimes, one takes one’s own life: this was the case of the “farmer that hanged / himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4-5). Having bet all-in on a bumper crop, when waylaid by the low-probability event, out of rent, out of food, and out of luck, he hangs himself. The danger these events present is that, though they were impossible to predict beforehand, after they happen, we retrospectively invent simplistic explanations of how they arose. In doing so, our sense of comfort is misguided, as we fail to give chance its due. This danger extends to the criticism of Macbeth.

In Macbeth, the action pivots around four low-probability, high-consequence events. The first is when, contrary to expectation, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. The second is when, against all hope, he becomes king. The third is when Birnam Wood, impossibly, comes to Dunsinane Hill. The last is when, beyond nature’s permutations, he meets a man not of woman born. That each of these events will happen is foreshadowed by the Witches—Shakespeare’s agents of improbability—to Macbeth, who, in turn, rejects each as being out of hand. By dramatizing the path from prediction to rejection to fulfillment, Shakespeare makes probability the play’s true theme: what happens when more things happen than what we thought would happen happens?

To most people, the Witches are not agents of improbability, but rather supernatural agents. Like the oracles of old in Greek tragedies, the Witches would prophecy to Macbeth his fate, fate being the antinomy of chance and probability. But, the funny thing is, to dramatize fate—to bring fate onto the stage—fate had to be cast into the play as a random event that takes place against all odds. That such an event could have taken place against overwhelming odds is then attributed back onto the powerful action of fate. The feeling of surprise that a miracle has occurred is the proof that fate exists. But really, there was no fate, only the fulfilment of a low-probability, high-consequence event that the audience appreciates to represent fate. Fate in tragedy is a literary artifact, is probability dressed up as fate. In this way, Macbeth, by exploring fate, became a venue to explore the impact of the highly improbable. Wherever there is fate, there is also chance: the way fate manifests itself in literature is by overcoming the random element. At last, fate and chance are synonymous, two sides of the same coin.

Macbeth begins with Scotland in alarm. The first crisis sees the rebel Macdonald leading Irish soldiers into Forres. King Duncan sends in Macbeth and Banquo. But, in the act of dispatching Macdonald, a second crisis strikes. Seeing Scotland convulsed by civil war, Sweno, Norway’s king, seizes the moment. He allies with another Scottish rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. With covert support from the thane and fresh Norwegian troops, they open a second front at Fife. Macbeth and Banquo remobilize to win the day. The opening action sets the scene for the first two of the four low-probability, high-consequence events.

After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, on the road to Forres, encounter the Witches:

Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?

1 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

2 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

3 Witch. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.47-50)

The first Witch accosts Macbeth by name and title. This draws his attention: when his father died, he had become Thane of Glamis. The second Witch teases him with a present tense pronouncement, calling him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth finds this both disturbing and unlikely. The news that Duncan has executed the traitor and given his title to Macbeth is still in transit. Then, the third Witch goes in hook, line, and sinker, hailing Macbeth as tomorrow’s king. Macbeth finds this impossible:

Macbeth. Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1.3.70-8)

The Witches vanish. At that moment, Angus and Ross enter. Acting as though the mouthpiece of chance, Ross hails Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor:

Angus. We are sent
To give thee from our royal master thanks,
Only to herald thee into his sight
Not pay thee.

Ross. And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine.

Banquo. What, can the devil speak true?

Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Angus. Who was the Thane lives yet,
But under heavy judgement bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.
Whether he was combined with those of Norway,
Or did line the rebel with hidden help
And vantage, or that with both he laboured
In his country’s wrack, I know not,
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him. (1.3.101-118)

Macbeth’s surprise—“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”—relays to the audience the improbability of what is happening. Banquo too, stunned, says: “What, can devil speak true?” a little too loud.

As the true star of the show, not only do low-probability events change our perceptions of how many things there are in heaven and earth, they also change the plot’s trajectory. Macbeth, previously fighting traitors, turns traitor. With the low-probability event, Shakespeare boldly pivots the trajectory of the play. The imperial theme begins.

Shakespeare’s Swans

Part of the good interpreter’s task is to sound out yesterday’s iambs on today’s instruments. For yesterday’s plays to jingle and jangle to modern ears, new approaches are required, approaches which resonate with today’s preoccupations. Today, there is a preoccupation with low-probability, high-consequence events: 9/11, the Great Recession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Deepwater Horizon, and other events give us reason to reflect on how nothing is impossible, once it happens. In the last decade, a new term has arisen to describe these events: today, we call them “black swans.”

The term “black swan” comes from Roman antiquity, and its journey to the present day has been itself swan buffeted. In the beginning, it meant something entirely different. The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term in the Satires where he likened a wife, perfect in all her virtues, to “a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan (6.165).” Since it was believed that the perfect wife does not exist, the black swan became a byword for the impossible. This was the term’s first meaning.

In 1697, European explorers sighted black swans off the coast of Australia. With one sighting, the improbable overcame the probable and a belief system—that all swans are white—fell. As a result, the term was orphaned. In 1843, however, John Stuart Mill reinvented it. In A System of Logic, Mill transformed the term from an expression of impossibility (which it could no longer denote) into a visual representation of the power of the unexpected. In Mill, the black swan is the empiricists’ bogeyman. It symbolizes the philosophers’ horror of how one observation can wreck any number of inferences based on any number of observations made over any immemorial period of time. In philosophical circles, the black swan came to symbolize the danger of formulating general principles from particular observations, otherwise known as the problem of induction. Another swan event, however,  was required for the term to enter the public consciousness.

In 2007, mathematician, options trader, and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb released The Black Swan. He argued that Wall Street’s risk management models, far from containing risk, exacerbated risk and endangered the financial system. Being rooted in the idea of past as prologue, these models gave traders false assurances that they could wager all-in: every swan will be white and events progress forwards, inexorably, quiescently, in a predictable steady state. But, if time were a punctuated equilibrium and arrived in fits and starts like ketchup out a glass bottle, full of revolution, a world of hurt awaits. Taking the cue from Mill, Taleb called these unforeseen, unexpected, and catastrophic events black swans. Mainstream financial pundits, busy riding the boom, disregarded Taleb, whom they regarded as an eccentric voice crying out in the wilderness. But, without warning, the Great Recession broke out in 2008 to break each one of the world’s oldest and most decorated financial institutions. The timing of Taleb’s book—having come out the previous year— seemed prescient.

Though experts disavowed that such a catastrophe could be ascribed to as fleeting a notion as chance, Taleb’s ideas were backed by a badass image (a sinister swan) and hardcore math (attacking the venerable bell curve). When the media suggested that the Great Recession could be understood as a swan event, a low-probability, high-consequence event precipitated by, of all things, chance, a firestorm of controversy ensued. It was at this time that the term “black swan” to denote the impact of the highly improbable entered the popular consciousness.

Before there was Taleb, there was Shakespeare. Only Macbeth was not taken as a warning of the highly improbable, but rather, a warning of the dangers of confidence, ambition, and evil. Perhaps that was because people did not associate Shakespeare with probability theory, which, having been recently founded in the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy. Shakespeare, however, grasped with his playwright’s intuition the inordinate impact the highly improbable. Consider his use of the improbable elsewhere to generate fantastic outcomes: Desdemona, in Othello, dropping the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries or the letter-carrier, in Romeo and Juliet, being caught in the wrong house at the wrong time. Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—also warns of the impact of the highly improbable (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of curious improbabilities and now, when they are all the rage, is the time to talk about Shakespeare’s swans.

The Imperial Theme

Shakespeare’s understanding of the highly improbable and its dramatic applications can be illustrated through Macbeth’s interaction with Angus and Ross. Macbeth’s question: “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” is spoken from the viewpoint of his initial reality. In this reality, Duncan is his cousin and king. He will lay his life on the line fighting foreign kings and native rebels to defend this reality. In this reality, all swans are white. But the moment Angus and Ross confirm the second Witch’s pronouncement, Macbeth sights the black swan. A new reality opens, one in which he is king. It is the improbable that draws him to the existential fulcrum. In this reality, having seen the swan, he knows the impossible is possible. The plot pivots into the imperial theme.

Finding himself, unexpectedly, Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth muses: “Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.118-9). The greatest that lies behind is to be king. Not only have the Witches prophesied thus, Ross, in his fruitfully ambiguous phrase that the new thaneship is “an earnest of greater honour,” intimates that Macbeth could be named heir apparent, a declaration consonant with the system of tanistry used in medieval Scotland where the crown, not yet bound by primogeniture, would revolve between collateral branches of the leading families.

Why would the greatest lie behind? We perceive the past, not the future, as that which lies behind. “Leave the past behind,” we say. We perceive the future as that which lies ahead. “Look to the future,” we say. The future is something we see approaching. Our expressions reflect our biases. Since we fear uncertainty, we disarm it by putting it in plain view. To highlight the role of the unexpected, Shakespeare turns convention on its head by placing the future behind, rather than before Macbeth. The future now steals up to Macbeth with the result that, when it catches him, it takes him by surprise. The image highlights the elusiveness of chance: not only does it lie in the future, sometimes we cannot even see it coming.

The improbable event has so unseated Macbeth that he allows himself to consider murder. But the thought of murder is so abhorrent to his previous beliefs that his hair stands on end and his heart knocks against his chest (1.3.137-44). His last recourse to preserve his previous reality is, ironically, to trust chance: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” ( As soon as he considers it, however, Duncan names his son heir. Crushed by having the prospect of the crown presented and ripped away, Macbeth moves further towards murder with his “Stars, hide your fires” soliloquy (1.4.50). Within a day, Duncan will be dead, clearing the path for Macbeth to be invested at Scone. The imperial theme is complete.

The Engine of Suspense

After the first two swan events take place, two remain: Birnam Wood and the man not of woman born. When Macbeth faces his first setbacks, he seeks a fresh start and goes back to where it all began. He will seek the Witches. All they presaged has come to pass. They said he is Thane of Cawdor, and it was confirmed. They said he will be king, and he became king. They said Fleance would found the Stuart line, and Fleance proved hard to kill.

To show Macbeth the path forward, the Witches conjure three Apparitions. The first Apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Even without the Apparition, Macbeth knew Macduff would be trouble: Macduff had declined to attend both the coronation and the state dinner. The second and third Apparitions prove more helpful, setting in motion the last two low-probability, high-consequence events:

2 Apparition. Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies
And sleep in spite of thunder. Thunder

[Enter] : a child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

What is this,
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?

All.                               Listen, but speak not to’t.

3 Apparition. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. Descend[s].

Macbeth.                       That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good.
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom. (4.1.78-99)

Like the prospects of becoming thane and king, Macbeth finds the likelihood of either eventuality so low as to approach nil. His courage swells with apodictic certainty:

Macbeth. Bring me no more reports, let them fly all;
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? (5.3.1-4)

Exactly as Hecate predicts, Macbeth, consumed by certainty, begins reciting the Apparitions’ words like a novel mantra:

Hecate. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace and fear;
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (3.5.30-4)

He repeats it to the Doctor: “I will not be afraid of death and bane,” he says, “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.59-60). “Thou wast born of woman,” he says, gloating over Young Siward’s corpse (5.7.12). He becomes another of chance’s fools.

In addition to all the functions mentioned earlier—driving the action forwards, exploding and reshaping worldviews, and pivoting the plot—black swan events also fire drama’s engine of suspense. They are part of a metatheatrical game played between dramatists and audiences.

A funny thing is that low-probability events, while low-probability to the characters (who are invariably blindsided by them), are, from the audience’s perspective, high-probability events. When the second Apparition tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth understands that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of the opposing belief. They understand that a man not of woman born will certainly strike Macbeth down.

Similarly, when the third Apparition tells Macbeth that “until / Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill /Shall come against him,” Macbeth understand that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of another belief. They understand that, like a Houdini or a David Copperfield—Shakespeare will wow them by pulling off the impossible in plain sight. The moment the Apparitions speak, the theatregoers start trying to figure out how Shakespeare will accomplish the impossible. On the one hand, the playwright telegraphs cues to the audience, and, on the other hand, the audience tries to figure out these cues. This metatheatrical game between playwrights and audiences is drama’s engine of suspense. With a few cues, the dramatist stokes the fires of a thousand imaginations.

When the Apparition tells Macbeth that he will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Shakespeare is telegraphing to the theatregoers that it will happen. Since it is not immediately obvious how Shakespeare can accomplish this, the theatregoers try to figure it out. As they try to figure it out, they feel the thrill of suspense. “Am I on the right track?” thinks one. “This is how he will do it,” thinks another. In these thoughts is the magic of suspense, and its magic increases with improbability. To bring about a probable event only requires the skills of a probable dramatist. To bring about the improbable event requires the skills of a most improbable dramatist. In this way, when Macbeth responds to the Apparition by saying, incredulous: “That will never be,” the audience understands it two ways. On the one hand, Macbeth is saying that it cannot happen. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare saying to the audience through Macbeth: “If I pull this off, you will admit I am a dramatist of the most improbable skill.” And so, this game of suspense between dramatist and audience plays out.

As the endgame approaches, Malcolm closes on Inverness with the English forces to revenge his father. Shakespeare has a chance to locate the action. The English, being unfamiliar with the terrain, request a bearing:

Siward. What wood is this before us?

Menteith.                                  The Wood of Birnam.

Malcolm. Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The number of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us. (5.4.4-7)

In the cat and mouse game of suspense, this is the moment the audience has been anticipating. Shakespeare satisfies the audience in the following scene where the Messenger arrives, breathless:

Macbeth. Thou com’st to use thy tongue: thy story, quickly.

Messenger. Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do’t.

Macbeth.                       Well, say, sir.

Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

Macbeth.                       Liar and slave.

Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming.
I say, a moving grove. (5.5.28-37)

From two scenes earlier, they know that ten thousand march on Inverness. In any other play, the Messenger would have simply reported that troops approach under camouflage. In this play, however, Shakespeare plays up the improbability of the commonest of tactics to place the audience in check. He has brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

Though the improbable has, once again, happened, Shakespeare reminds the audience through Macbeth that their game is not done. The man not of woman born still lurks, undiscovered:

Macbeth. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none. (5.7.11-14)

The probable, most of the time, prevails over the improbable. The improbable, however, has one decisive advantage. The probable can occur many times, and that is all that it can be: probable. The improbable, however, only needs to happen once. So it was with the black swan and so it is with Macbeth. As the end approaches, Macduff finds Macbeth:

Macduff.                      Turn, hell-hound, turn.

Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Macduff.                      I have no words.
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.

Macbeth.                       Thou losest labour;
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.

Macduff.                      Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.3-16)

Checkmate. The improbable man is the man born from caesarean section. The suspense, building since the second sabbath, resolves. The audience feels entertained, having seen how Shakespeare brings to pass the highly improbable, and many times.

Tragedy is a compact between dramatist and playwright. Its structure consists of a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, foreshadowed and fulfilled. Tragedy showcases the playwright’s ingenuity in bringing about the highly improbable. Minor feats of improbability for minor playwrights and major feats of improbability for major playwrights. Such a reading interests us, who are today most interested in finding new ways to explore the unexpected, as more and more, we see that in life as in tragedy, the more improbable it is, the harder it hits.

Not Intended Consequences, but Unintended Consequences

Tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events to remind us how good actions can have bad consequences. Unintended consequences arise when the swan event happens because the world has been changed: though no one knows what to do, everyone must act quickly. When Sweno and the Thane of Cawdor see Macdonald revolting, they must act at once, risking all: there is a tide in the affairs of men. This all-in risk, in turn, further antagonizes the unintended consequences: the greater the risk, the further the risk taker’s resources are stretched beyond what the risk taker can cover. The risk taker stands naked in the rain. Actions made in the new world, made in haste and multiplied by risk, tend towards unintended consequences.

Macbeth’s quest for the crown is set against the backdrop of all the failed attempts on the crown. Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor dared, and lost their lives. Sweno dared, and was out ten thousand dollars. The opening action establishes that, in the world of this play, the highest risk enterprise is to reach for the crown. Despite the risks, however, the play also establishes Macbeth’s competency to fulfil the task. He was the one who thwarted the ingrates and upstarts, who, by all accounts, had been within a hair’s breadth. If they had been close, Macbeth, who was by far greater than them, could entertain higher hopes. Duncan, an armchair king, hardly stands in his way. From the outset, to kill a king is, paradoxically, presented as both the riskiest and the most assured task: riskiest because the others had failed and most assured because Macbeth is like no other. The deed needs to be fraught with risk to cement Macbeth’s daring. But the deed also needs to be most assured so that when the unintended consequences occur, the audience is surprised. This is the pleasure of tragedy.

Having seen what happened to Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth knows the risk of “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.27-8). In awe of risk, he changes his mind, telling Lady Macbeth they will go no further. “I dare do all that may become a man, he says, “Who dares do more is none” (1.7.38-9). Despite his ample resources and insider knowledge, Macbeth remains circumspect. He refuses to act unless every question mark is removed.

At this point, Lady Macbeth offers the failsafe of failsafes. In addition to the assurances they already possess, she proposes to frame Duncan’s chamberlains for the murder. She will ply them with wine so that they can access Duncan. Once murdered, she will smear them with royal blood and set their weapons—now the instruments of murder—next to them. Everyone will be in a deep sleep after the long day. When the murder is discovered, Macbeth will, in a fit of rage, murder the chamberlains. The truth will die with them. None will know. Her plan, being foolproof, convinces Macbeth. Every question mark disappears. “I am settled, “ he says, “and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.1.80-1).

They put the plan into action. As expected, it works perfectly. Macbeth become king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, drawing suspicion of murder on themselves. No one knows better. The play shows them controlling, taming, and mitigating the foreseen risks. But then play turns to the unseen risks in the unintended consequences of their actions, cascading one after another in a beautiful sequence of mischance.

Macbeth had wanted to become king. But he cannot become the type of king he had expected. The best he can do is to become a tyrant, a degraded form of a king. This is the first of the unintended consequences. Now he begins consorting with murderers. Friends must die, and Fleance too. But when he marks them with death, further unintended consequences result. To be sure, ghosts can be found in Shakespeare’s other plays. In the world of this play, however, ghosts are like Juvenal’s black swans: they do not exist. Now, for the first time, the undead rise:

Macbeth. Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murder is. (3.4.73-81)

Macbeth, too, could not have foreseen how Lady Macbeth, entrenched within her iron will, would crack under pressure. Nor could he have foreseen that the moment he masters stoicism, hardening himself to all perils, is the moment Seyton breaks the news:

Macbeth. I have supped full of horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton. The Queen, my lord, is dead. (5.5.13-6)

Lady Macbeth, too, generates unintended consequences. She had wanted to become queen. But she can only be a posthumous queen, a degraded form of queen: Seyton, as she dies, first addresses her thus.

How did Macbeth fall, Macbeth who removed every last question mark? Some say he fell because of overconfidence. If you believe he was overconfident, ask yourself if Shakespeare could have done any more than what he did to justify Macbeth’s confidence. He gave Macbeth the competence. He gave him insider knowledge. He gave him the best-laid plan. Why should Macbeth not have been confident? His confidence is grounded. He was confident, but did not fall as a result of confidence.

Others say Macbeth fell through uxoriousness. He should not have listened to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, however, had the foolproof plan. Her plan is shown to be successful. The suspicion of the murder falls on Malcolm and Donalbain. He was swayed by Lady Macbeth, but did not fall through uxoriousness.

Then, there are those who say he fell because of his ambition. The world of the play, however, encourages ambition. The throne is ready for a shaking. Macdonald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Sweno all sense a changing of the guard. Later Banquo—and perhaps Donalbain—entertain their own imperial themes. The king is a poor judge of character, easily deceived, and cannot take it to the field. God had already deserted him: he can only send his wounded to the surgeons, other kings heal their subjects by a divine touch. Macbeth was ambitious, but his ambition was justified.

If not confidence, uxoriousness, or ambition, why did he fall? I think he fell through chance, the unexpected, more things happening than what he thought would happen, black swans, uncertainty, unknown unknowns, and low-probability, high-consequence events, the effects of all of which were compounded by risk. While indiscriminate evil cannot explain why Malcolm should ask the troops to cut down the boughs of Birnam Wood, chance multiplied by risk can. By chance, Macbeth meets a man not of woman born. By risk, he dies. Had he not put so much on the line by killing Macduff’s wife, babes, and lord, the encounter may have been less grievous.

Chance and the unexpected appear to the mind as a gap in nature, as a vacuum where there should have been knowledge. The intellect is poorly designed to comprehend the dark night of chance: though the math to comprehend chance was available from antiquity, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that probability theory laid down its footings. The intellect strives at all times to prove that everything happens for a reason. Thought finds a world where the random element runs amok false and impenetrable. Thought abhors empty space, rails against wild things.

When the world confronts timid natures with accident and uncertainty, they feel pity and fear. Pity for the tolling of the bell and fear that they too are exposed. These natures, who needed to reassure themselves from chance, sought to contain it, some by devising simplistic explanations (overconfidence, uxoriousness, ambition, etc.,) and others by devising complex metaphysics (the forces of darkness and evil). With these objectively questionable and subjectively comforting explanations, they allayed their fears, saying to one another: “Be more modest in your ambitions,” “Do good,” and other like refrains, thinking that with a change in behavior, next time they could stop Birnam Wood. Their explanations are from the point of view that the mischance of men’s ambitions are caused by man, and not by chance.

When the world, however, confronts more ambitious and confident natures with accident and uncertainty, far from pity and fear, they feel wonder and awe, wonder at how an individual, so full of fire and the seed of greatness, could be struck down by chance, and awe for the smallness of man in the boundlessness of randomness. They see that the killing risks are not the risks they see, but the ones that cannot be seen until after. They see that greatness is not without risk, and that there is a price to live dangerously. These fiery natures Macbeth marshals forwards, into the unknown, into risk, into the dark night of thought, as though saying to them: “Friend, dare to live dangerously, and you too shall die. Why the fuss? I also died, who was better by far than you.”

To these souls on fire, the highest honour is to join Macbeth and the pageant of tragic heroes who, having climbed past every ladder, found a way to climb on top of their heads, ever higher, higher than Ida’s peaks and Icarus’ flight. For them, to live is to dare. But it may be that there are other readings, and that there are as many truths to Macbeth as there are hearts, some circumspect, some like fire, some obsequious, some firing out their chests like cannons, some lily-livered, some cold as iron, hard as rock.

Littlewood’s Law

Some find the concatenation of low-probability, high-consequence events in Macbeth beyond belief. How could one individual become thane, then king, fall into tyranny, lose his lady to madness, see the wood come up the hill, and then meet a man not of woman born? That this too is part of an all-too-human heuristic that shuns chance and uncertainty can be demonstrated through Littlewood’s Law.

J. E. Littlewood, a twentieth century Cambridge mathematician, believed that exceedingly improbable events happen more often than we anticipate. To demonstrate his hypothesis, he devised a thought experiment. First, he called these unanticipated events miracles. Next, he defined miracles as events a million to one against. Through the observation that we experience many events each day, he demonstrated that we encounter the highly improbable monthly:

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

In life, it is thought that we experience a handful of defining moments, moments full of miracle and wonder such as comings of age, marriage, and convalescence. The implication of Littlewood’s Law, however, is that these existential fulcra whereon life hangs in balance happen more often than we anticipate. Life, far from being a steady state with gradual change, is in a constant state of revolution. The moments of respite are as infrequent as the major upheavals are frequent. In this probabilistic existence, we find ourselves often standing, like Macbeth, outside the safety of circumscribed beliefs.

Macbeth, in dramatizing the crossroad between probability and life, not only illustrates that more things can happen than what we think will happen, but also that these more things happen more frequently than we allow. These strange concatenations of events in the play may be more emblematic of life than critics have allowed. Even in a world of pure good, and one in which the drives of ambition and confidence are constantly held in check, we should expect to see a Birnam Wood event, by chance alone, on the average, every month.

The Old Master

Part of the reason so few have based their readings of Macbeth around low-probability, high-consequence events is that such readings are inherently paradoxical. The low-probability event is only improbable to Macbeth. To the audience, it is a high-probability event. This paradox drives critics to look elsewhere for the play’s keys. Many have done exactly this, basing their reading around ambition, hubris, error, uxoriousness, or the insidious action of evil. It need not be so, as the paradox is easily resolved: it exists to generate suspense. Another reason, however, why so few have tried this reading is that it flies in the face of the old master, Aristotle.

Just as the intellect abjures the role of chance as a causal factor in life, it is perhaps fitting that the greatest of intellects would abjure the role of chance from the construction of the best of plots. Aristotle declares in the Poetics that tragedy dramatizes the sorts of thing that could happen. Tragedy deals with probable events:

It is also evident from what has been said that it is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kindsof things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. (1451a)

Not only should tragedy deal with the probable, he goes on to say that chance events, being signs of inferior plot construction, are to be avoided (1454a-b). The net effect of his condoning the probable and condemning the improbable was to preclude chance and the highly improbable from the discussion of tragedy. It is a shame.

Aristotle had reasons for banishing the improbable. He was trying to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had found tragedy to be degenerate and unceremoniously banned it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a-e, Republic 607b). To rehabilitate tragedy, Aristotle gave it a social function. To Aristotle, theatregoers seeing the consequences of characters’ actions onstage would better understand the consequences of their own actions offstage. For this stage to street transference to work, however, actions had to be repeatable. For actions to be repeatable, they had to be probable. If a flaw onstage would lead to a similar fall offstage, nine or ten times out of ten, then tragedy could fulfil its social function.

In rehabilitating tragedy, Aristotle turned tragedy into a distant early warning of poor character. For the next two thousand years we would talk about how irascibility led to the fall. The fall was precipitated by confidence, stubbornness, ambition, and other behavioral factors that the agent could change, and by changing, escape tragedy. By neutering the improbable, Aristotle rehabilitated tragedy.

Aristotle has ruled the roost for two thousand years. In new millenniums, however, we seek new truths. In this age of the unexpected, we seek and find, through Macbeth, a new truth for tragedy that speaks to the pervasiveness of the random element. From its dramatization of black swans, Macbeth gains its overwhelming impetus. By affirming how the unthinkable happens again and again, Macbeth touches all the themes of our day. What is more, tragedy is once more dangerous. When it is dangerous, it is exciting and fit entertainment for the highest natures.

The Great Race

In this reading of Macbeth, I have shown how the action pivots around the fulcrum of the low-probability, high-consequence event. By the advantage conferred by this force multiplying machine, with the lightest touch the dramatist can provoke characters to abandon belief systems and risk certain comfort on uncertain hopes. Risk unbound, in turn, leaves characters susceptible to the unintended consequences of their actions: the more risk they assume, the more susceptible they become to each tremor. All the meanwhile, the dramatist plays a metatheatrical game with the audience, creating suspense by dangling before the audience the prospect that he will bring about an event so rare and wild that any lesser dramatist would cringe at the attempt. From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

This concludes my study of probability in Macbeth. I needed to write this, because, to me, this play was like a great race in which runners would compete, and, in the course of the running, they would run across banana peels. Some of them they would see, and jump over in great leaps. Some of them they would not see, or see too late, and slip. The runner, who led by an overwhelming margin in the final stretch, slips by accident and is unable to cross the line. This same runner, while jockeying for position earlier, had also pushed last year’s winner into the ditch.

Now, listening to the commentators, I was surprised because they would never declare these falls as accidents. Instead they would say that this runner slipped because he ran too ambitiously or that that runner slipped because he ran with too much gusto. As for the frontrunner who never crosses, this, according to them, was to show that cheaters never prosper. If you saw the play as I do, would you not yourself have needed to say this, that it was not error, hubris, confidence, or justice that causes the fall, but that the fall results from something much simpler, namely that, in a course full of banana peels, more things may happen than what we think will happen?

This reading is based on my new theory of tragedy, which is laid out in my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, now in its third year. Thank you for reading.

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

2021 CATR Canadian Association of Theatre Research Paper Proposal

Earlier this year, I had a chance to talk about my new theory of tragedy called “Risk Theatre” at the Canadian Association of Theatre Research (CATR) conference. Let’s see if risk theatre can make a second appearance at CATR next year. Here’s my 250 word proposal. If it’s accepted, it’ll end up as a 15 minute presentation. Fingers crossed!

Low-probability, High-consequence Events in Life and in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
If we look at theatre as a stage where low-probability, high-consequence events play out, it will help us understand today’s crisis. But this requires reimagining the way we interpret theatre. In life, when crises break out, they are often unforeseen and unpredictable. We have mental biases, however, that compel us to come up with simplistic explanations of how they could have been prevented. Our mental biases do not admit to the action of the random element. As a result of these biases, our sense of security is misplaced.
Interpreters of theatre, like the engineers and scientists who analyze what went wrong, have these same mental biases. They look at what went wrong and find simplistic explanations. “This character had hubris,” some say. “This one was too trusty,” others say. The play becomes a moral lesson. But what if dramatists were trying to say something else? What if they were dramatizing the effects of the unexpected?
I will demonstrate this idea by reading a play we all know—Shakespeare’s Macbeth—through the lens of probability. I will argue that Shakespeare creates a world in which Macbeth’s confidence is justified. The problem is not the plan, but rather the impact of the highly improbable. The play then ceases to be a moral lesson and becomes instead a warning that the improbable may impact us more than our biases allow us to believe. The art of tragedy, I argue, talks to us in times of crisis because it simulates the effect of unknown unknowns on the stage.
Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

THE VALUE, a Tragedy by Nicholas Dunn – 2020 Risk Theatre Winner

Later this year I’ll workshop and direct a staged reading of Salt Lake City playwright Nicholas Dunn’s The Value, the winner of the second annual Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition. Out of 135 great plays, jurors Kelli Fox, Anthony Giardina, and Anthea Williams nominated The Value for the grand prize.

This will be my first time workshopping and directing a play. Why am I doing this? I’m doing it to align myself with the risk theatre project. The project evolved in three phases, and in each phase I had to adapt, and in different ways. The first phase involved putting my thoughts into a form that could be shared. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected accomplished this. It was a good start. But insufficient: people needed a reason to read it. This led to the second phase of the project: The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. By creating an international competition around the book, I gave people a reason to read it. This was good. But insufficient. The goal of the risk theatre project is to invite people to consider the impact of the highly improbable. By dramatizing unintended consequences and the impact of low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, theatre could become a microcosm of life, could show us the possibilities. That was the goal of the risk theatre project: to show how intertwined life is with probability and chance. To accomplish this goal, not only was the book and the competition necessary, it was also necessary for me to direct the play to make risk palpable.

In the workshop and staged reading, I could focus on black swans, fat tails, the impact of the highly improbable, complexity, unintended consequences, low-probability, high-consequence events, probability, chance, and all else that falls under the rubric of risk. This would be a one-of-a-kind workshop and staged reading. With its laser focus, the bonds between drama, chance, and uncertainty would be revealed.

When the competition first started, I projected that, after ten years, risk theatre would become a household word. Hey–if you’re going to start something, you need to believe. Looking at things probabilistically (which is my favourite way of looking), I thought there would be a good chance that, after ten years, a few of the winning plays would have entered the canon. Once they became classics, they would–due to the “halo effect”–raise people’s awareness of the risk theatre theory of tragedy. Today I don’t believe that anymore. I think I was wrong.

Over ten years, it may be that many of the plays entered in the competition would go on to find success. Of this I’m sure. Powerful movers and shakers in the theatre world have heard of, and follow the competition. They like what they see from Gabriel Jason Dean (last year’s winner) and Nicholas Dunn. They talk with their friends who are also gods of theatre and at some point, something’s going to happen. But something else will also happen: over time, the ties that bind risk theatre to the winning plays would also fade. Risk theatre would become a footnote in the play’s history, one of its many accolades and prizes. I will be forgotten.

If I wanted people to associate the winning plays with risk theatre, I couldn’t wait for people to make the connection: “Ah, this is why this is a risk theatre play.” I would have to write essays and articles on why I thought these plays were paradigms of risk theatre. People would then discover these essays and articles in tandem with the plays. And then, and only then, would risk theatre gain traction.

Would you like to know a secret? It explains why I’m going about the way I do. I didn’t discover Sophocles’ Oedipus rex or Shakespeare’s Hamlet first. I discovered Aristotle, Nietzsche, and other writers who wrote about Oedipus rex and Hamlet first. It was Aristotle and Nietzsche who turned me onto drama. Just as the fame of Oedipus rex grew in tandem with Aristotle and is inextricably tied with Aristotle, perhaps the fame of The Value and the future winners of risk theatre will also grow in tandem with the risk theatre theory of tragedy. That would be my wish.

A question: what’s the difference between the best plays written today and the best plays written of the past? What’s the difference between Dunn’s The Value and, say, Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus? It’s not the theme, as each play examines an issue in depth: Dunn examines value in art and in life, Aeschylus justice, and Marlowe the limits of salvation in the face of a hardened heart. It’s not the writing, as each play has its purple passages, from Cassandra’s meditation on human frailty:

Alas for human destiny! Man’s happiest hours
Are pictures drawn in shadow. Then ill fortune comes,
And with two strokes the wet sponge wipes the drawing out.

to Faustus’ eleventh-hour plea:

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!-
Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!
Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!-
Where is it now? ’tis gone: and see, where God
Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!
Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,
And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

to McEvoy’s paroxysm of emotion as he lays eyes on the German painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Summum Bonum:

Oh. I … I can’t believe it. Just how… The color, the looseness, the fluidity of line, the harsh–almost violent–application of hues. Vibrant and dark at once. It’s the blue… The blue raging against yellow… (sighs) No second-guessing. And it’s here. My god, it’s in this room.

If not the theme nor the writing, then what is it? The difference between the best plays written today and the best of the past is that there is a considerable body of scholarship examining yesterday’s plays.

When playwrights write, I don’t think their aim is to create a classic. Of course, I can’t be sure, but a thousand other things likely come to mind during the creative process than: “I must create a masterpiece that will endure forever.” Maybe there’s a character that’s been haunting the playwright’s imagination. “Will she fit into this play?” the playwright wonders. Maybe there’s a local theatre or artistic director that is looking for a certain type of play. Maybe the play has complex casting requirement and the playwright wonders if actors are available. Perhaps the playwright is concerned about raising with funds to workshop the play. There are a thousand things the playwright could be thinking about other than entering the canon. Classics are not consciously created. This begs the question then: how are classics created?

Achilles was a great warrior. But where would Achilles have been if Homer had not sung of his tale in The IliadWithout Homer, Achilles would have been forgotten. E. L. Kirchner was a great artist. But where would Kirchner have been were it not for McEvoy’s devotion? Without McEvoy, Kirchner’s renown would have been less. Convention has it that the author creates the classic. I wish to reexamine this. If Aristotle hadn’t written The Poetics, perhaps Sophocles’ Oedipus rex would not even have survived. In truth, while the artist creates the masterpiece, it is the interpreter who transforms the masterpiece into the classic. Canadian pianist-interpreter Glenn Gould transformed the works of Sibelius and Orlando Gibbons into classics. Catalonia cellist-interpreter Pablo Casals transformed Bach’s Cello Suites into a classic. If Casals had not wandered into a Barcelona thrift shop, the Cello Suites would have languished in obscurity. The relationship between the doer and the interpreter was succinctly captured by Alexander the Great when he visited Achilles’ tomb in 334 BC. He pronounced Achilles fortunate in getting Homer as the herald of his fame to posterity. Classic works of art are born when writers write about works of art.

Mind you, that someone thinks about and writes an essay or gives a talk on your work doesn’t always mean that your work is on its way into the canon. Far from it. But there’s two telltale signs that you’ve made it. The first is when you get roasted. And the second is when academics start speculating on the odds and ends in your work. What a delight it must be for artists (unless you’re Bob Dylan) to see people studying their works and to see critics staking their careers on conflicting interpretations. With that, let’s turn to The Value.

The Price is What You Pay, The Value is What You Get

Dunn announces that The Value will examine the idea of value–whether human, material, artistic, or societal–in a pair of opening epigrams:

Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. –Marshall Sahlins


… when the dominant myth is not “to possess is to give” but “the fittest survive,” then abundance will lose its motion and gather in isolated pools. –Lewis Hyde, The Gift

The first epigram hints that the play explores how characters react within the capitalist structure to the proposition of scarcity in the face of plenty. Ian fulfils this opening pronouncement as the play progresses. While the meaning of the second epigram isn’t as obvious as the first, it also foreshadows how the quartet of characters will react with one another.

Although I haven’t read Hyde’s book, I looked it up. I’ll run down to Munro’s Books to pick it up. It looks fascinating. The idea behind The Gift is that by giving we increase abundance and by self-interest we foster scarcity. Taken together, the quotes imply that it isn’t capitalism, but altruistic acts within the capitalist structure that make the land flow with milk and honey. Inversely, selfish acts within the capitalist structure strips away society’s riches, even should modern society be richly endowed. The idea behind The Gift resonates with me on a personal level: since establishing The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition three years ago, I find myself working harder and making more money for the express purpose of giving more money away in the competition. If I had been working for my own ends, I would have generated less abundance. Let’s see how these ideas play out in The Value.

In form, Dunn’s The Value is an example of what risk theatre calls a parallel-motion tragedy. The distinguishing feature of parallel-motion tragedies is that multiple protagonists strut their stuff on the stage. Parallel-motion tragedies entertain by dramatizing the feedback between different characters’ intentions. Feedback loops in turn bring about the unexpected ending. Examples of parallel-motion tragedies include Corneille’s Cinna and, more recently, O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.

Four characters acting at cross-purposes interact in The Value. There’s Ian, a tradesperson by day, perhaps one of these types who’s a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Perhaps he’s a failed electrician who wires low-voltage security systems. In the opening scene, we see him changing out of his work clothes. As he changes, he steps outside of himself, is no longer the tradesperson. He imagines himself meeting a lady at swanky party. In their imaginary conversation, he acts out their encounter:

Ian: What do do? Oh, I’m a… investor. An entrepreneur. I’m a banker. Wall street, you know, stock market bullshit, insider trading, fucking up people’s retirement, fraud, hookers, blow, typical American dream stuff…

As he goes on, he quickly ramps up from the likely to the unlikely. In a few words, Dunn conveys Ian’s primary trait: appetite. Ian wants more. And there is something uncanny about his appetite: what Wall Street trader, when introducing himself, brags about engaging in illegal insider trading? First impressions are critical, and in Ian’s first impression, he lets off that there is something crooked in his understanding of the American dream.

Then there’s Zoey, a few years younger than Ian. Her and Ian have had something in their past. Exactly what is left unspoken, but clear enough. What we do know is that while she screwed up, it was Ian who left:

Zoey: But you fucking left.

Ian: Yeah.

Zoey: You left us! That wasn’t an accident. That wasn’t a mistake. That was a choice. To abandon.

Ian: Of course I left. Why the fuck would I hang around? I’m not your caretaker, or your brother’s or anyone else–

Zoey: We depended on you.

Ian: You think I was gonna stay there forever, running dope or some whit my whole fucking life?

As the play progresses they address the unfinished business between them.

The third of the four characters is Victor, Zoey’s brother. Like the others, he’s a small time criminal. He’s underrated and belittled. The runt. His want of self-esteem marks his reactions to the others:

Victor: I’m fuckin’ sick of being pushed around.

Zoey: We all are!

Victor: I loved that dog. I coulda taken care of him. Isn’t that why we got him? God, I’m not a fucking idiot. Okay, I’m not stupid!

He’s volatile and explosive, the perfect character to put a twist into the action.

The final character is McEvoy, the museum curator. He’s the one who sets the play in motion by asking Ian to steal back a painting with an unusual provenance and name. The painting, by German expressionist painter Kirchner, had once belonged to McEvoy’s grandmother. Confiscated by the Nazis, it was to be destroyed as “degenerate” art. But it somehow survived. McEvoy requested the Kirchner exhibition for the museum. He got it. When the crates arrived, Ian happened to be wiring the security system. With his knowledge, he could steal crate #32. But since he was working at the museum, he couldn’t steal it himself. That’s where Ian brings in Zoey and Victor. He would tell them how to get in. They would steal it. They would split the money. The catch, however, is that McEvoy and Ian never agreed beforehand to a price. This crack gives Dunn a springboard into examining not only the value of art, but the value in knowing what is enough.

Risk theatre argues that the fundamental structural unit of tragedy is the troika of temptation-wager-cast. Something motivates the character to act. To fulfil the heart’s desire, a wager is formulated: the milk of human kindness for the crown would be the example from Macbeth. Then the die is cast. That’s the point of no turning back. In a risk theatre reading of The Value, one of the first things we’d do is to analyze characters’ motivations in terms of how they formulate their wagers. What they’d be willing to lay on the line is telling.

In Macbeth, one of risk theatre’s paradigm plays (the other being Aeschylus’ grandiose and belligerent Seven Against Thebes), the witches tempt Macbeth. In The Value, it is McEvoy who tempts Ian by asking him to steal the painting in crate #32 (which is incidentally, if you’re from Salt Lake City, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz’ retired number). For Ian–as for Macbeth–the payout is uncertain. To cash in, he has to take risks:

Zoey: You know, there seems to be an awful lot of guesswork in you plan here tonight!

Ian: Right, it’s a chance! An opportunity. They’re rare, and sudden, and yeah, usually a gamble. But that’s how we get ahead.

That’s what Ian’s after: to get ahead. As we see in the opening scene where he pretends to be a high-roller, Ian’s tired of himself, tired of who he is. “We’re climbing the food chain. Tonight,” he says with an exclamation point. Ian bets that McEvoy will pay them out and that Zoey and Victor can steal the painting. It’s a pretty good bet. There’s no hubris involved. Anyone in Ian’s position would have made the same wager.

For Zoey, it’s not about money or climbing the food chain. For Zoey, it’s a chance to start afresh with Ian after their former turmoil and separation:

Zoey: I just… I know that… I hurt you and I don’t know–I don’t know if–

Ian: Don’t… don’t worry. It’s me.

(He sits on the edge of the bed, closer to her. Pause.)

Zoey: I was glad when you asked me. I’m glad that you trusted me to do this. It feels good to do this together. To go all “whatever” on these motherfuckers.

Her bet is that the heist will bring her, Ian, and her brother back together into a family unit. Again, it’s a likely bet: she is attracted to Ian and Ian to her.

More mercantile aspirations guide Victor. Whereas for Ian, the money represents the chance to “climb the food chain,” for Victor, money is simply what it is. Hellhounds on his trail, the heist gives him the chance to pay back debts beyond his more honest abilities.

If more mercantile aspirations guide Victor, less mercantile aspirations guide McEvoy. Kirchner’s painting Summum Bonum (“the highest good” in Latin, more on its fascinating name below) has haunted McEvoy’s imagination since a child. The painting belonged to his family, was stolen from his grandmother. To possess it again is to reconnect with his family and that sense of fascination, wonder, and awe. He bets that Ian, for a price, can help him. But at what price? And so, we come across the kernel of Dunn’s tragedy:

McEvoy: This piece. This is the one, the only one, that… that I would go to such lengths to acquire. Not for any kind of monetary justification or, or, or prestige associated with possession. But for, for reasons that… motivations that I doubt the three of you could comprehend.

Zoey: What do you mean by that?

McEvoy: I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have thought of doing this for anything off the wall. This is the only one I would even think–

Ian: I get that, but why?

McEvoy: I’m not interested in the price.

Ian: I am.

The painting over which they’re negotiating is called Summum Bonum, or “The Highest Good.” Clever. How much is the highest good worth?

The real-life Kirchner–the founder of the artistic movement Die Brücke (The Bridge, an allegorical bridge from old to new) along with Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff–was, just like Dunn’s Kirchner, a painter in pursuit of a new artistic mode, a painter searching for an impulsive reaction to life. Primitivism rather than clinical technique underlie his paintings. A Google search brings up many of Kirchner’s works. There’s a Self-Portrait as a Soldier (1915) and a late-period Archers (1935-37). One of his paintings, Berlin Street Scene (1913) sold for $38 million in 2006. But no record of a painting Summum Bonum comes up.  While the painter Kirchner and his mode of expression are real, perhaps the painting at the center of The Value is Dunn’s invention? It would be an ironic twist on the characters’ attempts to negotiate a price–they are negotiating a price for ostensibly a painting, but really, they are arguing about what the highest good is worth. The title of the painting, if it is Dunn’s devising–and even if it isn’t–immeasurably deepens the play’s philosophic stage. The title is a brilliant device.

Ian, Zoey, and Victor have no idea what they’ve stolen. They know it’s a painting. They know it’s in crate #32. They know McEvoy wants it. But here’s the kicker: Ian and McEvoy had never agreed to a price. It was one of those: “If it gets done (and I’m not sure it will), let’s talk about it then” transactions. This allows Dunn to launch into a discussion of value in art and in life.

The discussion of value begins in the motel room where the thieves are holed up. They try, at first unsuccessfully, to get onto the internet. Their ignorance of what a powerful plaything they’ve stolen complicates things. To them, Kirchner’s Summum Bonum looks similar to the thrift-store landscape painting in their room. Even after they get onto the internet, without the artist’s name and the name of the painting, how would you search? The thieves start speculating:

Victor: I had a paint by numbers book as a kid that looked like this. Remember Zoey? That’s what this looks like! You think this is worth thousands of dollars?

Ian: Tens of thousands.

They start speculating on two threads: 1) the painting is valuable enough to make it into the museum and 2) the painting is valuable enough for McEvoy to hire them. On that hunch, Victor guesses that, even though it looks like “a five-year-old’s finger painting” it’s worth thousands. Ian, more in tune with the risk McEvoy has taken in requesting the exhibition and hiring them, guesses that it must be worth “tens of thousands.” For good measure, even though Victor believes it’s only worth thousands, he also adds that rich folks will likely offer them a premium. To Victor, that’s how the rich and famous work:

Victor: Yeah, these rich pricks spending all this money on shitty art you can’t do nothing with. They’ll probably pay more than it’s worth, right? I’ll be he would. I’ll bet.

To Victor and Ian, the painting has a perceived value: McEvoy wants it, wants it bad. McEvoy wanting it gives the painting value. To both Ian and Victor, the painting is without any intrinsic value: it’s a “piece of shit,” as Victor puts it. By going on perceived value, all they can conclude, however, is that “they’ll probably pay more than it’s worth.” But, with perceived value, the question comes back: what’s it worth?

That’s the best the trio can do until they get the internet working. Once they connect, it’s still a problem though: it’s hard searching for an image without knowing the artist and the name of the piece. Zoey comes up with the idea:

Zoey: We just find a way to compare it to something else out there that has a dollar sign attached. If the search is, you know, generic enough it shouldn’t matter, right?

They see something that looks similar, an expressionist painting from the same era:

Ian: Right here. Right here. Let’s see… 1909 modern expressionist… blah, blah, blah, at Phillips de Pury, New York… sold to… some asshole for sixty thousand dollars.

By comparing Kirchner’s piece to others of a similar vintage, they’re able to establish the relative value of Summum Bonum: if a similar painting sold for sixty thousand, then it too should fetch a similar amount. While perceived value is based on perception, relative value is based upon comparing like specimens. Perceived value and relative value are just the beginning. There are other means as well. As they compare and contrast art pieces to determine its relative value, they then stumble onto a third means of valuation:

Victor: Holy shit! Sixty grand. For a picture! This guy has that kind of cash?

Ian: He’s stuffed up, believe me. And as bad as he wants it, he knows it’s gonna cost him.

Zoey: What if it’s worth more than that? It could be couldn’t it? Or what if it’s worth less?

Victor: Worth less?

Ian: It could be, I don’t know. How can you tell with these? But with the risk we took, and what it is, yeah, I think we can make that work.

In this third means of valuation, Ian wants to be compensated not for the work of art itself, but for the troubles he’s taken to obtain it. Ian comes close to a kind of absolute means of valuation: they are to be remunerated for their time planning and executing the heist as well as for danger they put themselves into. If they are caught, there could be jail time, community hours, and lost opportunities elsewhere. They are to be remunerated for the next best thing they could have done that night, had they not carried through the heist. There is an opportunity cost of the next best thing that is lost when they chose to break into the museum. In this third means of valuation, the painting is like a diamond buried deep in the ground. Its worth is to be understood absolutely in terms of the resources that are required to extract it from the ground: equipment, labour, some sort of safety premium from the dangers in excavating, remediation of the mine, and so on.

In the negotiation, McEvoy sits across the table from Ian. Their physical, cultural, and social differences couldn’t be starker. Ian is tough; McEvoy is scholarly. Ian labours with his hands; McEvoy works behind a desk. Ian lives on the fringes of society; McEvoy comes from an old family which receives gifts from painters of renown. These differences manifest themselves in the negotiations.

To McEvoy, Summum Bonum is priceless. That’s its perceived value–not too useful for exchange. Relative value also fails as a means of establishing worth. To McEvoy, it’s one of a kind, there’s nothing like it:

McEvoy: The painting is more than, than just pigment and canvas. It is blood. It is… It is feeling. It is hope and despair. It is humanity at its basest and its most glorious. It is Kirchner. It is refugees and prisoners and graves. It is my family. It is mine!

That leaves absolute value. He will pay not for the painting–which is priceless–but for the services rendered in obtaining the painting:

McEvoy: But, but we never discussed–I mean, we only agreed that–

Ian: We agreed I could get it, and you could pay for it.

McEvoy: I–Pay you for the act of doing it! And when we talked, it was only you. Just you, no one else!

Ian: Yes.

McEvoy: You said that was on your end. That it doesn’t–

Ian: It doesn’t. I’m not talking about the number of people, I’m talking about the deal. The exchange. For the painting, prized, prestigious, an appropriate price.

McEvoy: (getting heated) And what do you deem appropriate? You, what? Broke a window? Disabled a security camera?

Both McEvoy and Ian agree that the painting should be valued in absolute terms–a good start. For doing the deed, McEvoy is prepared to pay $20k. When Ian balks, McEvoy increases the offer to $25k. At this point, Ian counters with $70k, anticipating that McEvoy will settle at $60k, which he does. McEvoy, however, has $25k on hand. He’ll have to round up another $35k, and come back the next day. This delay gives a chance for the unexpected to creep into the play. Just after McEvoy leaves, the headline of the heist breaks. They see it on the computer. And they see that the headline announces a fourth method of valuation. The market value of the painting, the headline announces, is $24 million.

The market value is the price an object of exchange can fetch on the open market. An open market is one in which all the buyers have equal access. The painting, of course, can no longer be sold on the open market: it has been stolen. So, it’s not quite worth its market value any more. But it likely can fetch more than the $60k McEvoy and Ian agreed to.

When McEvoy returns a little later, impossibly with the $60k, Ian drops the atom bomb: the price has jumped up to approach the market value. Ian doesn’t even name the price. It simply is beyond what McEvoy could ever hope to raise. McEvoy counters with another basis of valuation, the concept of net present value. Net present value is the idea that certain money today is worth more than uncertain money tomorrow. And, what is more, net present value takes into account the value net of all considerations, a major one which is the painting no longer exists on the open market. The range of buyers has dwindled. And whoever buys it will never be able to sell it on the open market, or even display it:

McEvoy: You can’t auction it, you can’t advertise that you have it. You don’t know who to look for to sell it illegally. It is now only worth what someone like me can give and what people like you can find.

Ian: People like–

McEvoy: It won’t be millions, I promise you.

Ian doesn’t bite. Maybe we won’t get $24 million. But he’ll take his chances. McEvoy, sensing defeat, tries one last time to draw the negotiation back to the painting’s absolute value, the price it takes to acquire it:

McEvoy: Sixty thousand for the, for, for your services. For your…access. For the act of, or acquiring it. Not for the painting itself. The painting is what am after, not you, and sixty was the price that you named.

McEvoy’s last-ditch plea falls short against Ian’s obdurate power play. He’s sent packing, and the play pivots from an examination of artistic value to an examination of human value.

A central tenet of risk theatre is that tragedy examines the opportunity cost of choice. When we choose, we lose the next best thing we could have done. The opportunity cost of choice is expressed in tragedy through the hero’s wager: for a chance to obtain the heart’s desire, the hero must lay down something dear, something human. The pivot to human value allows Dunn to explore the human price Ian is willing to pay to climb the food chain. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, is a valuing mechanism. By dramatizing the hero’s wager, we learn what our humanity is worth. Shakespeare did it in Macbeth. How much is the milk of human kindness worth? Who knows? The milk of human kindness–otherwise the emotion of compassion–isn’t like milk, which can be bought for $4.69 for a gallon. But in Macbeth, we find out that the milk of human kindness is, in fact, worth a Scottish crown because that’s what Macbeth antes up for a chance at the crown. In The Value, Dunn sets up a similar wager. This wager invites the audience to consider what human relationships are worth. It is questions such as these that make tragedy the greatest show on earth.

If Ian’s wager is that he can go up the food chain, Zoey’s is that, by participating in the heist, she can make Ian feel her love. Despite their lovers’ hurts, Ian is her man; Ian is family, family in the same sense that the characters in The Fast and the Furious franchise (who also live outside society) understand family: family is a sacred obligation:

Zoey: Family means … where you come from, who your people are, what you have to do to make it. Those bonds are…they’re sacred.

In the same way, as, say, Abbie Putnam in Desire Under the Elms wagers that her sacrifice can make Eben feel her love, Zoey puts her and her brother Victor at risk by trusting Ian. But when she senses that Ian won’t settle for $60k, she rebukes him, and explosively:

Zoey: My turn. And listen how easy this is, to communicate, when the concept is plain and simple. This is about need. The three of us need money. And the three of us need each other. Those are the things we need to survive. You know that, don’t you? That we need each other? I thought you did know that–finally–but maybe you forgot again when McEvoy told you what we had. But the painting is nothing. It’s fucking splotches of color on cloth. Soon, one way or another, it’ll be gone. And when it disappears it makes no difference. But I’m here. You’re here. And that does make a difference. It doesn’t have to disappear. It can stay. You’re right. This is opportunity. To fix things. To survive together. To maybe get to a place where having something is just as fulfilling as wanting it. I came here for you. I did this for you. I risked everything for you. Because we are kin. Now we can sell this stupid useless thing to McEvoy, make his fucking life complete, and walk away with enough money to go somewhere, somewhere different, and start over. I need that. You need that.

Ian: Zoey…

Zoey: You need me. The question is, do you know it. Do you finally know it? If you do, you’ll sell the painting and we’ll be unstuck. If you don’t this is it. This is the last time we see each other. This isn’t a hustle it’s the goddam truth. So make this right. There. See how straightforward that is?

In this explosive rebuke, Zoey hits upon a fundamental tenet of risk theatre: material items have a dollar cost and spiritual concerns have a spiritual cost. One cannot buy spiritual concerns and other affairs of the heart with money. One cannot put a dollar value on spirit, the all-too-human, heartache, longing, joy, and courage. These human concerns can only be exchanged for other human concerns. Tragedy exists, argues risk theatre, to dramatize this truth. It is a counter-monetary art.

The painting exists in the realm of spirit, in the realm of the all-too-human. It’s true value, as McEvoy argues, is to be measured in terms of the sacrifices Kirchner underwent to create it:

McEvoy: And you’ll never appreciate it for what it represents, and what it cost–beyond money–for the artist who achieved it. You do not know who he was, what he endured. The hours of study and practice, of the pressure required to be the one to create it.

In the end, Kirchner paid the price by committing suicide. The true value of the painting exists in the realm of spirit insofar as Kirchner gives up his life to give it life. Whether $20k, $60k, or $24 million, cash is an inappropriate means of valuing Summum Bonum, the highest good. But if Ian exchanges the Kirchner to make the family whole, he would recognize its true value. Kirchner gave his life so that other lives may be made whole. Is this not a beautiful conceit and the very soul of drama?

Tragedy, says risk theatre is about a gamble, a wager, a bet. Ante up for a chance to win. Go all-in. Make a delirious bet. Dunn’s characters go all-in, each of them. The bet is good, argues risk theatre. Why would rational characters deliberately sabotage themselves by making a stupid or boastful bet that attracts the wrath of the heavens? And so, we see that the bets Dunn’s characters make are reasonable. But something happens. This is tragedy, after all. Something happens, says risk theatre, because of risk. Risk is the pivot. Characters, says risk theatre, trigger the highly improbable because they take inordinate risks. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when the thieves discover what they’ve stolen in a low-budget smash and grab: a $24 million dollar modern classic, thought to have been lost forever. What were the odds? They were surely low. But the consequences rock Zoey, Victor, Ian, and McEvoy’s worlds. And the audience is left asking a question we would do well to ask ourselves: “How do you price Summum Bonum, the highest good?”

In answering this question–and this is how I’ll direct the play–I’ll take the side of McEvoy: its true price is the human price Kirchner paid to paint it. Everyone who assigns it a cash value gets it wrong: that’s the tragedy. McEvoy understands its true price, but cannot unlock its value. If he obtains the highest good, he’ll lock it up in a cabinet-prison, bringing it out every so often to feel its power. He’s a hoarder. That’s his tragedy. Ian, who understands the price of everything but the value of nothing, can’t get it right either. He doesn’t know who he is, what he has. He’s a pretender, standing on one peak, already envisioning himself on the next. He would do well to hear an old story between writers Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Joseph Heller. The story takes place at a private Shelter Island party, hosted by a Wall Street banker:

Kurt: Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel CATCH-22 has earned in its entire history?

Joseph: I’ve got something he can never have.

Kurt: What on earth could that be, Joe?

Joseph: The knowledge that I’ve got enough.

That Ian doesn’t get it that Zoey and Victor can get him “enough” is his tragedy. Zoey, unlike the others, can unlock the value of the highest good: the price Kirchner paid to paint it is the cost of what it takes to reunite her family. Give up the painting and make the family whole. That’s a legitimate use of the highest good: Kirchner’s sacrifice makes good her broken family. Suffering for suffering. Just as risk theatre theory predicts, human concerns can only be paid in the currency of blood, sweat, and tears, either our own, or that of others. The highest good can only be exchanged for other intangible goods that also are of the highest order. These are the human, all-too-human goods. But she lacks the power to make it happen. That’s her tragedy.

“What can the highest good get you?” That question, I think, encapsulates the reasons why the jurors nominated The Value for the grand prize. I feel its power. Now the task is to take this message from the page to the stage.

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


Out of 135 entries, 17 semifinalists remain to contend for glory of the $9000 first prize and four $525 runners-up prizes in the 2020 RISK THEATRE MODERN TRAGEDY COMPETITION. THANK YOU to everyone for participating and CONGRATULATIONS to the semifinalists (plays will remain blind until jurors nominate the winner):

Paletas de Coco
The Forgotten Language of the Handshake
Raw: A Love Story
The Hunt for Benedetto Montone
Capital Punishment
Big Ed, the King of Swatsville
Waafrika 1-2-3
You are My Sunshine
Winter Wheat
The Value
Spin Moves
Lydia 2018
Children of Combs and Watch Chains
Gadson’s Folly
Edit Annie
Mercy Rising
The Blue Whale

Would that I could have started a competition where everyone would have been a winner. But, as it is, some yield glory so that others may win it. The situation reminds me of a passage in Homer’s epic poem THE ILIAD, considered by many—including Plato—to have been the first tragedy. Of course a playwriting competition is different than mortal combat on Scamander’s banks. But the ethos I find similar. In this passage, Sarpedon sums up the heroic code to his squire, Glaucus:

Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.

If it seems strange to bring up this passage in relation to the competition, perhaps that is a sign of how times and thought has changed between Homer and today. For the daring ones willing to take a chance, the 2021 competition is now open and accepting entries at https://risktheatre.com/

Stats, stats, stats!

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 14 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Singapore. 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 20,175 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2511 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: Brown University, Palatine Public, 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, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, Russian State Library, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, and Westchester Community. 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





Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

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


Stats, stats, stats!

THANK YOU, assiduous playwrights, for entering! The 2020 competition is closed to entries (adjudication underway) but the 2021 competition is open to entries. 135 plays have come in from 4 continents (North American, Oceania, Europe, and South America) and 9 countries (USA, Australia, Canada, UK, NZ, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Brazil). The competition website is at https://risktheatre.com/. Here are the country breakouts:

USA 102
Canada 14
United Kingdom 8
Australia 4
New Zealand 2
Ireland 2
Italy 1
Portugal 1
Brazil 1

Of the American entries, 71 are from the east and 31 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (28 entrants). Go New York! Australia is also off to a good start, already exceeding last year’s entries. Canada finally awoke. We didn’t hit the 182 entries from 11 countries from last year. But that means the odds are better for all those who participated. Go playwrights!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 89 men and 46 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 only a handful of female tragedians: Elizabeth Cary (The Tragedy of Mariam the Fair Queen of Jewry, 1613), Hannah More (Percy, 1777), and Joanna Baillie (various plays and a theory of tragedy based on the emotions, nineteenth century). The times, they are a changing! Thank you to assiduous reader Alex for writing in about More and Baillie.

Last month the https://risktheatre.com/ website averaged 51 hits a day. The top five countries clicking were: US, Canada, UK, Australia, and Brazil. 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 19,828 and growing. So far, so good for this grassroots competition!

My award-winning book, eBook, and audiobook (narrated by Coronation Street star Greg Patmore) THE RISK THEATRE MODEL OF TRAGEDY: GAMBLING, DRAMA, AND THE UNEXPECTED hit the bookshelves in February 2019 and has sold 2369 copies. THANK YOU to everyone for supporting the book—all proceeds help fund the competition. The book is a winner in the Readers’ Favorite, CIPA EVVY, National Indie Excellence, and Reader Views literary awards as well as a finalist in the Wishing Shelf award.

Please ask your local library to carry this exciting title. To date, the book can be found at these fantastic libraries: Brown University, Palatine Public, 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, Westchester College, Cambridge University, Fordham University, SUNY Cortland Memorial, Russian State Library, SUNY New Paltz, SUNY Binghamton, Glendale Public, Benicia Public, Santa Clara County Public, Glendora Public, Cupertino Public, Milpitas Public, St. Francis College, Noreen Reale Falcone Library, Southern Utah University, Daniel Burke, Manhattan College, Humboldt County Public, Santa Ana Public, and Westchester Community. 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





Here are links to YouTube videos of me talking about risk theatre at NNPN and CAMWS panels:

Stay tuned. Semi-finalists announcement late July. Finalists announcement early August. Winner announcement mid-August.

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

Review of The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

pages 61-359 in The Portable Chaucer, translated by Theodore Morrison, Viking 1949

Author Blurb

Chaucer is the cornerstone of English poetry, and he gave to the world exactly what a great poet should give: new types of fictional characters, new expressions of human feeling, and a unique personal style. This volume brings together some of the choicest riches from the heritage left us by this fourteenth-century genius, put into modern English by Theodore Morrison, who is himself a gifted poet. He has admirably succeeded in producing a faithful rendition of the original, recapturing Chaucer in all his earthy vigor and timeless humanity, while removing what to many readers is the obstacle of the Middle English idiom.

Translator Blurb

Apparently in the 1940s this was not a necessary section of the book.

The Canterbury Tales

What a splendid and vigorous work. When one of the Wife of Bath’s husbands recites to her night after night the stories of bad women (Eve, Delilah, Eriphyle, Deianeira, etc.,), she clocks him one and rips apart his book. When the drunk Miller tells a tale of a cuckolded carpenter, the Reeve–who is a carpenter–returns the favour by telling a tale of students who have extra-curricular fun with a dishonest Miller’s wife and daughter. Some of the travellers are too drunk to stay on their horses. The details of their adventures are quite graphic as well. Chaucer’s stories remind me more of Catullus poems about getting ‘radished’ than later English literature. While later English poetry becomes more refined, it loses Chaucer’s vital drive. If you like music, it is sort of like Baroque versus Classical: Baroque, while earlier, is much more rhythmically intense and forwards hurtling.

This was a fun book to read. I hadn’t expected it would be. The last book I had read from the Middle Ages was the Venerable Bede’s history of the church, and that was decidedly less entertaining. I think what makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales so vibrant is that the character types are instantly recognizable from the drunk cook to the greedy summoner to the assiduous student. Human nature has not changed all that much from the 1400s.

Chaucer’s characters represent a cross section of occupations in the Late Middle Ages. One fun exercise to see how things have changed since the 1400s is to see which occupations survived. Have you met the trades Chaucer encounters? Here are my answers, yours may be different:

Inn Owner – YES, I have met latter-day hoteliers
Knight – NO, I have not encountered any knights in my days
Squire – NO
Yeoman – NO (a yeoman is someone who owned land that would yield an annual income of 40 shillings. This is interesting, as in the feudal system they valued land by the income it rendered rather than the price of the land itself)
Prioress – NO, I have not encountered any prioresses
Nun – YES, I have never talked with a nun, but I have seen them abroad
Monk – YES, I have never talked with a monk, but I have seen one, and in my hometown
Friar – NO
Merchant – YES
Clerk – YES
Lawyer – YES
Franklin – NO, though the position is remembered in surnames, e.g. Benjamin Franklin
Craftsmen – YES
Cook – YES
Shipman – YES
Physician – YES (thank goodness they practise the modern variants of astrology and humorism)
Wife of Bath – YES
Parson – YES
Plowman – NO
Miller – NO
Manciple – YES, though they are called purchasers instead of manciples
Reeve – NO
Summoner – NO
Pardoner – NO
Canon -NO

Of the 25 common occupations in the 1400s, 13, or about half, are known to me. In several hundred years, perhaps half of today’s occupations will still be around. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? One thing that reading classics gives us is an appreciation of the larger picture. And Canterbury Tales, which continues to be read over 600 years later, is well-equipped to show us how some things have changed and how some things have stayed exactly the same.

The Canterbury Tales and the Art Form of Tragedy

One thing that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much from the 1400s to today is the popular reaction to the dramatic art form of tragedy. Two of the storytellers in Canterbury Tales tell tragic tales: the Monk and the Physician. The reactions of the other pilgrims to the Monk’s Tale gives you an idea of the general lack of appetite for tragedy at that time (Knight and Host speaking to Monk):

“Stop!” cried the Knight. “No more of this, good sir!
You have said plenty, and much more, for sure,
For only a little such lugubriousness
Is plenty for a lot of folk, I guess.
I say for me it is a great displeasure,
When men have wealth and comfort in good measure,
To hear how they have tumbled down the slope.
And the opposite is a solace and a hope,
As when a man begins in low estate
And climbs the ladder and grows fortunate,
And stands there firm in his prosperity.
That is a welcome thing, it seems to me,
And of such things it would be good to tell.”

“Well said,” our Host declared. “By St. Paul’s bell,
You speak the truth; this Monk’s tongue is too loud.
He told how fortune covered with a cloud–
I don’t know what-all; and of tragedy
You heard just now, and it’s no remedy,
When things are over and done with, to complain.
Besides, as you have said, it is a pain
To hear of misery; it is distressing.
Sir Monk, no more, as you would have God’s blessing
This company is all one weary sigh.
Such talking isn’t worth a butterfly.

The reaction to tragedy today isn’t much different. With so much storm and strife happening in life, people today echo the Host and the Knight’s cry: “Enough of tragedy, give us musicals and comedys!” This is a shame, as the art form of tragedy–by dramatizing the amazing twists and turns of fortune–is one of the greatest shows on earth. How can tragedy be repackaged so that people say instead: “More tragedy please!”

If you ask these same people who don’t like tragedy: “Would you be interested in seeing a show on uncertainty and chance?” they would say: “Yes!” The same events responsible for the storm and strife in life have created a groundswell of interest in the role uncertainty and chance play in life. All of a sudden, people are saying: “Wow, the unexpected sure has stolen us on us. How did this happen? I am interested in chance and the unexpected. Where can I learn more?” This is the ticket in repackaging and reimagining tragedy for the 21st century.

To me, tragedy is synonymous with the dramatization of low-probability, high-consequence events: they are one and the same. The only difference is that the Hosts and the Knights have no stomach for tragedy while everyone loves anything to do with uncertainty and chance. So why not repackage tragedy as a theatre of risk?

This is exactly what I’ve done in my new, 21st century theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” If you’re curious, ask your local library to carry a copy of my book on literary theory. It’s called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is the theatre that dramatizes what every theatregoer wants to see: the impact of the highly improbable. If you like the old name, call it tragedy. If you like the new name, call it risk theatre. They are one and the same. The king is dead, long live the king.

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


Harvard UP, 2016, 300 pages

Do Not Name Your Well After a Cursed Town Destroyed by Capitalism

When you’re planning to drill 5.5 kilometres down from sea level into the payzone where explosive, scalding gases charged at 14,000 psi are waiting to blow up your rig, you would think you’d name the well something auspicious. You know, something like “Lucky 7.” But no, BP decided to name their well “Macondo.” Macondo is a cursed town which was destroyed by capitalism. With a name like that, you’re just asking to be struck down.

Do Not Celebrate Mission Accomplished Too Soon

On the day of the blowout, BP and Transocean VIPs came aboard the rig to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s stellar safety record: zero lost time in seven years. Less than an hour before the blowout, they were finishing up a meeting. The last topic was a question tabled by the BP vice-president: “Why do you think this rig performs as well as it does?”

The scene from Deepwater Horizon’s last day reminds me of the plays the ancient Greek wrote. When Agamemnon, the Greek king comes home after winning the Trojan War, he feels confident enough to tread the purple as he alights from his victorious chariot. This act–not unlike the VP asking: “Why is this rig so great?”–seals Agamemnon’s doom. Have we not learned that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident?

I think we all could benefit from going to the theatre once in awhile. Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, two plays where the hero is most confident before the fall, are recommended watching for MBA candidates, engineers, and systems analysts. These plays dramatize real-world risks that the equations and formulas don’t tell you: do not celebrate mission accomplished too soon. In fact, even after the mission is accomplished, keep your celebrations lean. Some of the things they don’t teach at business school they teach at a theatre near you.

The Edge

During drilling, a dangerous event known as a “kick” happens when pressurized hydrocarbons enter the well. They shoot up the riser and blowout the rig. To isolate the hydrocarbons from the rig, drillers keep a column of mud between the rig and the hydrocarbons. The weight of the mud in the well, which can vary from 8.5 to 22 pounds per gallon, counteracts the pressurized hydrocarbons at the bottom of the well.

Mud used to be just that: mud. Today mud is a base fluid mixed with a heavy mineral such as barite. Too little mud, and the hydrocarbons can come up the riser. Too much mud, however, results in another dangerous situation called “lost returns.” The diameter of the well varies from three feet at the top down to just less than a foot at the bottom. The sides of the well are fragile. If the weight of the mud is too heavy, it breaks apart the sides of the well, and the mud is irrevocably lost beneath the sea bed. When the mud is lost beneath the sea bed, the hydrocarbons can enter the riser, blowing out the rig.

Boebert and Blossom refer to the art of keeping a well safe as staying on the right side of “the edge.” When a well control situation such as a kick or lost returns happen, the risk of going over the edge rears its ugly head. They quote Hunter S. Thompson on what it means to go over the edge:

Hunter S. Thompson likened the transition of a situation or system into disaster to what can occur when a motorcyclist seeking high-speed thrill rides along a twisting, dangerous highway:

“The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

Complexity or n(n-1)/2

After a well is drilled, the rig caps the well. At a later date, another specialized rig comes to set up the well for production. To cap a well is a complex procedure with many moving parts. To illustrate how adding tasks to the procedure quickly increases the complexity, Boebert and Blossom site a fascinating formula:

Planning for the abandonment of Macondo was extremely complex. The fundamental source of that complexity was a phenomenon well known to systems engineers: the number of potential pairwise interactions among a set of N elements grows as N times N-1, divided by 2. That means that if there are two elements in the set, there is one potential interaction; if there are five elements, there are ten possible interactions; ten elements, and there are forty-five; and so forth. If the interactions are more complex, such as when more than two things combine, the number is larger. Every potential interaction does not usually become an actual one, but adding elements to a set means that complexity grows much more rapidly than ordinary intuition would expect.

I find complexity fascinating because it leads to “emergent events.” Emergent events, write Boebert and Blossom, arise “from a combination of decisions, actions, and attributes of a system’s components, rather than from a single act.” Emergent events are part of a scholarly mindset which adopts a systems perspective of looking at events. Boebert and Blossom’s book adopts such a model, which is opposed to the judicial model of looking at the Macondo disaster. The judicial approach is favoured when trying to assign blame: the series of events leading to the disaster are likened to a row of dominoes which can be traced back to a blameworthy act.

Unlike Boebert and Blossom, I study literary theory, not engineering. But, like Boebert and Blossom, I find emergent events of the utmost interest. I’ve written a theory of drama called “risk theatre” that makes risk the pivot of the action. In drama, playwrights entertain theatregoers by dramatizing unexpected outcomes or unintended consequences. These unexpected outcomes can be the product of fate, the gods, or miscalculations on the part of the characters. But another way to draw out unexpectation from the story is to add complexity. That is to say, if there are two events in the play, there is one potential interaction; if there are five events, there are ten possible interactions; ten events, and there are forty-five. The trick for playwrights is this: how many events can you juggle and keep the narrative intact?

Luxuriant Retrospective Position

“Luxuriant retrospective position” is Boebert and Blossom’s term for “armchair quarterback.” They acknowledge that the project managers, drillers, and engineers were not operating from a luxuriant retrospective position. Many of them were doing the best that they could with an incomplete understanding. Often, when I read books breaking down disasters, the writers point fingers from their armchair perspective. This, to me, smacks of the same hubris they assign to their targets. It is like saying you would have a military historian rather than Napoleon fighting all your battles because the military historian can see things that Napoleon could not. It is quite decent of Boebert and Blossom to acknowledge how they are looking at things from hindsight.

I’m writing this in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. In a year down the road, the books will start hitting the shelves telling us what we did wrong, telling us how we could have saved lives, and telling us how, if we had looked at things rationally, we could have done so easily. Many people will read these books, and parrot them. Will you be one of these people? Who would you rather fight your wars, the general Napoleon, or the historian Edward Gibbon? Who would you rather manage your money, John Meriwether (architect of a doomed hedge fund) or journalist Roger Lowenstein (who wrote a book exposing the errors of the doomed hedge fund)? Would you rather have BP’s team run the oil rig, or Boebert and Blossom? If you had said Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, think again. Can those who understand backwards also act forwards? There is actually a story, a true story of how Napoleon appointed the mathematician Laplace to be the minister of the interior. Laplace, like Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, would have taken a scientific approach to administration. Good, you say? No. Napoleon fired him for “carrying the spirit of infinitesimal into administration.” There is a tragedy in how those who understand backwards cannot act forwards.

Book Blurb

On April 20, 2010, the crew of the floating drill rig Deepwater Horizon lost control of the Macondo oil well forty miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Escaping gas and oil ignited, destroying the rig, killing eleven crew members, and injuring dozens more. The emergency spiraled into the worst human-made economic and ecological disaster in Gulf Coast history.

Senior systems engineers Earl Boebert and James Blossom offer the most comprehensive account to date of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Sifting through a mountain of evidence generated by the largest civil trial in U.S. history, the authors challenge the commonly accepted explanation that the crew, operating under pressure to cut costs, made mistakes that were compounded by the failure of a key safety device. This explanation arose from legal, political, and public relations maneuvering over the billions of dollars in damages that were ultimately paid to compensate individuals and local businesses and repair the environment. But as this book makes clear, the blowout emerged from corporate and engineering decisions which, while individually innocuous, combined to create the disaster.

Rather than focusing on blame, Boebert and Blossom use the complex interactions of technology, people, and procedures involved in the high-consequence enterprise of offshore drilling to illustrate a systems approach which contributes to a better understanding of how similar disaster emerge and how they can be prevented.

Author(s) Blurb

Earl Boebert is a retired Senior Scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.

James M. Blossom gained his engineering experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the General Electric Corporation.

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