#670 Novelty at Langham Court
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected
by Edwin Wong
Victoria: Friesen Press, 2019
$19.79 / 9781525537561
Reviewed by Sheldon Goldfarb
The most interesting observation in this book on tragedy by local author Edwin Wong concerns Hamlet. Hamlet’s problem, says Wong, is that he is obsessed with certainty and can’t act until he knows for certain that his uncle is guilty and the ghost was telling the truth. This obsession paralyzes him and leads to disaster.
What an interesting analysis, I thought. It turns out not to be new (a quick Google search turns up others providing the same interpretation, going back decades), but it was new to me and it enriched my previous view that Hamlet is a tragedy of indecision. Yes, there is indecision; but the quest for certainty lies behind the indecision.
And is this quest a result of a lack of trust or faith? I suddenly thought of Othello and his lack of faith in Desdemona. Is this what all tragedies are about? But as Edwin Wong says, all tragedies are unique, a good point to make, though a strange one to emerge in a book that tries to lay out a theory that explains all tragedy.
All tragedy, says Wong, is a tragedy of risk-taking. (But isn’t Hamlet, in his own formulation, the opposite of risk-taking? Hamlet is too cautious to act; how is he the high stakes gambler that Wong sees as the hero of every tragedy?)
For Wong, there is a threefold formula at work in every tragic drama: first, the temptation, then the wager, then the throw of the dice. And confident, swaggering heroes constantly make this wager and then come to grief because of the sudden appearance of the unexpected.
Well, it may explain some tragedies, but all? Hamlet? How about Oedipus? If Oedipus is making a wager, it is that his insight can penetrate the problem of the plague that is afflicting Thebes. And he’s right. He doesn’t lose his wager. He wins. He finds out who killed his father, which is what is needed to end the plague. Only problem: he is the one who killed his father. And once he discovers this, he must blind himself and go into exile.
But maybe that still fits the formula, and yet does it really matter? If all tragedies are unique, who cares what formula they can be fitted into? And won’t there always be some that won’t fit? Othello, for instance. Wong finds that it doesn’t fit because it doesn’t supply a plausible motive for Iago, and therefore, well, it’s not a very good tragedy. Hmm. Same thing for Death of a Salesman: the temptation is delayed too long, and therefore this really isn’t a successful tragedy, not according to Wong. Oh, well.
And why has Edwin Wong suddenly come forward with this theory? Do we need a new theory of tragedy? We’ve had Aristotle and his focus on catharsis, the French classicists with their emphasis on rules and unities, Hegel with his clash of opposites, and Nietzsche with his psychodrama. What now? Why now?
Well, says Wong, we live in an age of risk, of technological uncertainty and hedge funds, nuclear dangers and the uncertainty principle; hence his risk theory of theatre: here is social construction with a vengeance. But somehow this social construct is also supposed to be true; it produces certain rules that tragedians must follow, such as: No flashbacks. Because that leads to telling, not showing (which sounds like the old rule for novelists: show, don’t tell; but that was just a social construct too).
In the end, this is just an odd sort of how-to book: how to write a tragedy. And part of a project for putting on tragedies and commissioning new ones that is now underway at the Langham Court Theatre in Victoria. It is now in its second year, and good luck to it. Will it produce a new Shakespeare? Who knows?
But what really strikes me is another reason for why we have this new approach to tragedy. Edwin Wong is called an award-winning classicist on the book jacket, but all that means is that he had a scholarship while doing a master’s degree. He is not really an academic; he works in business. For that matter, he says that the inspiration for his theory came from an economics text about chance. So now we have economists telling us about literature. Perhaps next we’ll have poets explaining the economy.
But of course nowadays poets and academics tend not to explain things in the public space, and the real reason we now have a risk theory of theatre is that in the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the professoriat we now find non-professionals. Not necessarily a bad thing. The vacuum created by the withdrawal of poets from rhyme and metre led to the rise of songwriters, the Beatles and Bob Dylan.
But I’m not sure an economics text is the best basis for literary theory. Then again, I am much less interested in literary theory than literary practice. Let’s see the plays produced by the risk theatre model, and judge then.
Sheldon Goldfarb is the author of The Hundred-Year Trek: A History of Student Life at UBC (Victoria: Heritage House, 2017). He has been the archivist for the UBC student society (the AMS) for more than twenty years and has also written a murder mystery and two academic books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. His murder mystery, Remember, Remember (Bristol: UKA Press) was nominated for an Arthur Ellis crime writing award in 2005. His latest book is Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories (London: MX Publishing, 2019). Originally from Montreal, he has a history degree from McGill University, a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba, and two degrees from the University of British Columbia: a PhD in English and a master’s degree in archival studies.
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