- The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected by Edwin Wong
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected is valuable for scholars, directors, and playwrights, as Wong sweeps through centuries of theoretical models and classic texts on tragedy and the tragic hero to arrive at a contemporary performance theory he calls risk theatre. In the book’s nine chapters and four parts, Wong posits tragic heroes as characters who meet their fate in unhappy confrontations within the vernacular of gambling thrills and high-stake consequences, intertwined with commodification pushed up against life’s hidden value. He calls the concept putting “a modern face on an ancient art” (xxvi). The ideas provide a fresh, distinctive method for analyzing and staging tragedies.
Wong begins by noting three-part structures and cycles that have informed [End Page 265] human civilizations (e.g., Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government; and life’s journey of birth, growth, and decay). He then proposes his own three-part structure for his risk model (temptation, wager, and cast) or, as he calls it, a “troika of parts” (11). As he moves from his opening to describe and advance his case, he becomes exceedingly invested in this notion of three-part structures. Wong next posits the “arrangement” of his troika of parts: gradual tragedy, backloaded tragedy, and frontloaded tragedy (31). He spells out three guidelines that, if followed, “may result in enduring and memorable creations” (53). He enumerates three forms of risk theatre: standalone, parallel-motion, and perpetual-motion (55–56). He uses his vast knowledge of literature to instruct on “commonplaces of tragedy,” which achieve their effects through “a combination of the three c’s: confidence, capacity, and compulsion” (142).
The author’s primary purpose in adopting a gambling analogy is to grapple with three primary questions: What is tragedy? (chapters 1–3). Why is tragedy what it is? (chapters 4–5). How is it composed? (chapters 6–7). The book then concludes with musings on tragedy’s uniqueness and on the applications of risk theory in other genres and in modernity (chapters 8–9). Wong lays out numerous case studies throughout the book to test his assumptions and reinterpretations of this long-studied genre.
While clearly knowledgeable about an extensive array of topics across time such as economic structures and unintended consequences of a character’s actions, there are lengthy quotes, sometimes too many, from great literary works that he analyzes and then applies his concepts. The writing itself is a mix of conversational, yet philosophical, gestures as Wong connects back to the beginning, middle, and end terminology of Aristotle’s Poetics and to texts such as The Iliad. He makes stops throughout literary history with writers from Shakespeare and O’Neill. He often takes on a prodigious tone in his musings:
“Tragedy makes its characters suffer so that their lives may be transformed into works of art” (29).
“Tragedy, I therefore propose, is an economics of the final resort that examines the opportunity cost involved in being alive” (105).
Wong’s framing of the structure of a tragic plot could parallel, in terminology at least, how others, such as Freytag, have thought about the chronology of a literary plot. In Wong’s sphere, a tragic character is ushered through phases of a predicament and downfall. In the initial phase of his model, the hero is tempted in spectacular events that draw spectators into the action (11–13) (parallel to the inciting incident and rising action). In the middle section, heroes lay [End Page 266] everything on the line after determining “the price they are willing to pay to achieve their desire’s goal” while also spending time in vacillation and strategizing about the hand they hold (16–19) (parallel to a series of conflicts pushing the action forward). The hero’s final point of no return is when the die has been cast and the “Rubicon is crossed,” followed by an aftermath of loss and...