Book Review, Current Issue, Vol. 34 No. 1

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Edwin Wong. Victoria, Canada: Friesen Press, 2019; Pp. 363.

In 2019, the Langham Court Theatre in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada inaugurated the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, awarding top prize ($8,000 Canadian) to In Bloom by Brooklyn-based playwright Gabriel Jason Dean. Selected from 182 new play submissions from 11 countries, In Bloom focuses on a “well-intentioned, but ultimately reckless documentary filmmaker in Afghanistan” whose actions led to the death of an Afghan boy—a tragedy he lies about in his award-winning memoir.  This 21st century competition for tragic playwriting began as a partnership with classicist Edwin Wong, who lays out a blueprint for playwrights (and the competition’s rules) in The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Wong exalts three golden eras—ancient Greece; the English Renaissance; and German Romanticism—noting that after Eugene O’Neill, whom he cites as the last “true” tragedian in the Aeschylean tradition, tragic art largely vanished. That tradition is premised on a fairly simple formula, albeit with myriad variations: each dramatic action is also a gambling act involving varying degrees of unforeseen or unexpected risks. Wong’s goal with this book, like the contest, is to revivify this tragic principle for our contemporary age in which “low-probability, high consequence events lie in wait” (xxv). Although tragedy may have trafficked in uncertainty since its inception, Wong emphasizes the moral exigencies of examining the upside and downside values of risk and unintended consequences in an era in which there is an over-reliance on technology, nuclear energy, and the variabilities of global economic exchange.

Wong’s overall argument in The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is erudite, elucidated with extensive passages from canonical and lesser-known works and a wide range of theoretical citations. He is partial to the troika, apropos of ancient trilogies, and efficient in outlining the tripartite structure by which characters confront temptation, make wagers, and cast dice. In the first three chapters, Wong elaborates on the gambling metaphor and constructs a lexicon of qualifying terms. His first major categorization is premised on “tempo”; specifically whether the three gambling acts are presented gradually over the course of a play; backloaded, in which time lapses between wager and die-cast to build suspense; or frontloaded, in which the wager occurs early with the bulk of action depicting the ensuing chaos. Nestled within these categories is the frequency of the wager, e.g., standalone, if it occurs once as in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus; parallel-motion, in which several characters confront multiple risk events as demonstrated by O’Neill’s Strange Interlude; or perpetual-motion, whereby one wager generates subsequent wagers as in the Oresteia. Together, these first three chapters become a kind of periaktoi, the ancient, multi-surfaced scene-changing device conjectured by Vitruvius, underpinning Wong’s structural analysis.

This first section grounds the third, “A Poetics of Tragedy: How to Write Risk Theatre,” providing playwrights with a comprehensive, formal analysis of the genre and a toolbox of dramaturgical strategies from which to choose. These “commonplaces” include the following features: a range of heroic types all driven by “white-hot” passions and best represented by elites since they have the most to lose; the interference of unreliable confidantes and meddlers; and dangerous, unstable environs, including, if necessary, the supernatural.

As a writer, Wong’s associative style is entertaining, tempering what might appear to be an overly schematic approach. Moreover, when employing a wide range of ideas from social theory to the physical sciences to elucidate his foundational metaphor, Wong manages some impressive hypothetical risk-taking of his own. This audacity emerges most clearly in the book’s second and fourth sections in which Wong expounds on the philosophy of tragedy and galvanizes his case about risk theatre’s relevancy to modernity, respectively. For example, Wong poses an original paradigm (“the myth of the price you pay”) in which he traces how tragedy developed as a counter-force to the commodification of life via labor, when the psychic and existential dimensions of humanity such as camaraderie, desire, and honor became objects for philosophical contemplation. Tragedy, therefore, emerged when it became necessary to demonstrate that “what is worth possessing cannot be monetized” (107). Relatedly, Wong’s paradigm of “counter-monetization,” refers to the human costs of the wager depicted in tragedy—its irrevocability, gravity, and frequent culmination in death and destruction. The final, equally compelling strand of his argument surveys the time-bound parameters of tragic theories from the French Academy through Hegel and Nietzsche to arrive at our own “risk age,” in which “the scale of technology to do good or to do evil has increased, and continues to increase, by powers of ten” (262).

There is much to admire in Wong’s argument, and it is remarkable how much the language of so many tragedies explicitly allude to gambling, economic costs, and risk-related values, both monetary and existential. Still, there are numerous counter-arguments advanced in the seemingly inexhaustible body of tragic theory that are noticeably absent or side-stepped in this study. For example, Wong’s opinion that the best tragic heroes come from a nobler breed legitimates the aristocratic bias rebuffed by practitioner/theorists from Lessing to Miller. Also, since he devalues the artificiality of the deus ex machina, Sophocles fares far better than Euripides, even though scholars have long argued that the latter’s subversion of tragic structure served to critique Attic social hypocrisies and cosmological fallacies. Further, feminist scholars will certainly reject the phallocentrism and linearity of what is, at base, a reformulation of Aristotelian and neoclassical models; it is noteworthy that Wong does not discuss any plays written by women. Relatedly, although Wong’s aim to rejuvenate tragic theatre is valiant, some consideration of film and, especially, any number of episodic television programs that veer towards tragedy would perfectly illustrate his parallel- and perpetual-motion categories since the cliff-hanger is predicated on temptation, wagers, and risks—and sometimes all three at once. Still, the fact that there were over three-hundred entries in the Langham Court Theatre competition in its first two years and that the top prizewinners, including most of the nine runners-up, are American suggests that risk theatre may well be a fitting response to an era in which the United States confronts improbable, (perhaps) unforeseeable, and oftentimes catastrophic events.

David Pellegrini
Eastern Connecticut State University

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 34, Number 1 (Fall 2021)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2021 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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