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

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The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, puts us face to face with the unexpected implications of our actions by simulating the profound impact of highly improbable events.

In this book, classicist Edwin Wong shows how tragedy imitates reality: heroes, by taking inordinate risks, trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Such a theatre forces audiences to ask themselves a most timely question---what happens when the perfect bet goes wrong?

Not only does Wong reinterpret classic tragedies from Aeschylus to O'Neill through the risk theatre lens, he also invites dramatists to create tomorrow's theatre. As the world becomes increasingly unpredictable, the most compelling dramas will be high-stakes tragedies that dramatize the unintended consequences of today's risk takers who are taking us past the point of no return....

378 pages, Paperback

Published February 4, 2019

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About the author

Edwin Wong

3 books29 followers
Edwin Wong has been dubbed “an Aristotle for the 21st century” (David Konstan, NYU) and "independent and provocative" (Robert C. Evans, AUM) for exploring the intersection between risk and theatre. He has published two books (The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy / When Life Gives You Risk, Make Risk Theatre) and over a dozen essays on this topic. In 2022, he was one of three international academics to receive the Ben Jonson Discoveries Award for his work on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In 2018, he founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world's largest competition for the writing of tragedy (risktheatre.com). Wong has talked at venues from the Kennedy Center and the University of Coimbra to conferences hosted by the National New Play Network, Canadian Association of Theatre Research, Society of Classical Studies, and Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He was educated at Brown University and is on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy. He lives in Victoria, Canada and blogs at melpomeneswork.com.

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Displaying 1 - 20 of 20 reviews
468 reviews10 followers
April 22, 2019
Anyone who has taken a story writing or screenplay class in America has likely come across The Hero With a Thousand Faces at some point. If not the exact book itself, then another author has often either borrowed quotes or elements of Campbell's classic hero's journey. Some teachers consider it inseparable to modern cinema and media; it's just about everywhere.

But if Campbell's ideas cause resistance—which is becoming a trend nowadays, in my personal experience at least—Wong's smooth model may be a wiser introduction. Campbell's form may get learners lost in the message, the process, and the terminology for understanding a work. Wong's methodology encourages a focused structure for a character's thought processes throughout the story. It's through establishing their personal risks and the consequences of their actions that there can be a real momentum. For me, and I'm sure others, that is the best-if-felt heart. Makes a story beat and dance with life.

Sure, Wong arranges his processes for the tragedy genre in mind, so there are certain constraints that may not apply. Like a fateful mishap tripping the heroes' supposed victory and leading to a death may not be appropriate for a children's book. But I believe most of Wong's proposed techniques can be used for anything that has a story. I'd recommend this for anyone who wants to write or needs a refresher on character building, not just in the theater world too. Useful framing device if you're feeling stuck.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a nimble read. If I were to criticize the writing, it's close to a dry textbook with cohesive examples. Depending on the type of reader you are, that might mean a fascinating analysis or a snore fest. Several popular Shakespearean examples too, so that might not be up your alley to reread if you've already read so much of Shakespeare.

For me though, I enjoyed the overall experience and I learned something. If I lived in LA, I'd be up to seeing it in person too. Maybe someday, eh?

I received the book for free through Goodreads Giveaways.
Profile Image for Reader Views.
2,125 reviews72 followers
June 17, 2019
Reviewed by Paige Lovitt for Reader Views (06/19)

In “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy,” author Edwin Wong brings tragedy into the 21st century. Tragedy imitates reality. Yet in our modern times, tragedy no longer has the same impact that it used to have.

The last great tragedies were written a very long time ago. To help tragedy make a comeback, the author developed the risk theatre model of tragedy. This working model is to contain original material, while still having roots from tradition. Traditional material might include material from the fifth century Athens, the English Renaissance, or the German Romantics. The author believes that “risk” is central to the idea of tragedy.

Risk Theater supports the idea that every drama act in a tragedy is a gambling act based upon risk. While restoring tragedy to an art in our modern times, current issues must be considered. Incorporating science and technology into tragedies greatly increases the opportunities for something to go horribly wrong. The author refers to this as low-probability, high-consequence risk. There is a thrill that comes from taking such risks. The audience loves a good thrill!

I found “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy,” to be well written and very thought provoking. Edwin Wong has done an excellent job of educating readers on the historical aspects of not only tragedies, but drama in general. Readers will gain a great understanding of the structure, philosophy and poetics of tragedy. In explaining Wong’s risk theatre model, readers will learn how to tie the past aspects of drama into the present. This will enable to do a comparison of the past to the present. The author gives great examples of tragedies to support his information. Readers will then be able to incorporate this knowledge into how modern tragedies should be written using this model. A bibliography is also available in the back of the book. In addition to supporting the information presented, this list can also be used as a great resource if a reader chooses to go more in depth. The index will also make it easier to locate information in the book.

I think that “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy,” by Edwin Wong will be enjoyed by both writers and people who enjoy great drama. For myself, I enjoyed being able to read it a few days before I am to travel to Los Angeles to see a play. Personally, I feel what I learned while reading this will give me a greater perspective on the play. I will be able to view it with more depth. I think that this book would be a great resource for critical thinking courses such as a class on analytical reading.
Profile Image for Conchita Serri.
2 reviews1 follower
March 17, 2019
I had to re-read the "The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy" by Edwin Wong. It was too good. It is a delight to recreate the possible scenarios exposed by the author in a very original thematic treatment of theater that invites further discussion and analysis. It is also a compendium of high academic and cogent discourse, a complete high level 'theory' on how to model and perform stage plays. He couples it with almost a 'how-to' reference guide on how to produce compelling theater by presenting the reader with an exhaustive analysis and classification of different facets of prior stage productions, from the Greek classics to modern times’ productions. The book is chock’full of insights and intriguing revelations. Edwin draws a narrative comparing and contrasting different elements of risk and relates these to modern audiences. The author's vast breadth of knowledge, drawing upon his years of experience as a theatre critic and forward thinker in the performing arts world has crafted together a robust tome with incredible completeness and complexity - which should be on every aspiring playwright's desk. I can anticipate a wave of theater academics referencing this book in their class syllabus.
Profile Image for Charlie.
2 reviews
July 24, 2019
If you love literature--theater, film, novels, history, biography, opera, whatever--you need to read this extraordinary work.

Wong presents a new theory of tragedy, which contrasts those of Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and others. The classic theory, outlined by Aristotle, states that the hero has a "tragic flaw" that causes him or her to make a "tragic mistake." But Wong argues that the hero might not in fact make a mistake; instead he or she makes a calculated risk that backfires.

Wong's approach is especially pertinent to the modern condition. For most of history, the consequences of decisions were for the most part local. Today, even minor decisions can have global repercussions. Also, we live in the age of science, where calculation of odds has become commonplace. many bemoan that this calculation takes the heart and soul out of life. The Age of the Algorithm can, in fact, suck the agency out of even the most strong-willed people.

All the more reason for Wong's brilliant thesis.

If you're an avid reader (which I assume is the case, since you're on Goodreads) or a writer, read this book. It's sometimes dense and filled with examples from ancient literature unfamiliar to many moderns. No matter. Read it--twice. You will never read another work of literature the same way.

(To read my Q&A with the author, go to theelementsofwriting.com/wong.)
1 review1 follower
May 8, 2019
I have just finished reading Edwin Wong's 'The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy 'and, although I was initially skeptical of his bold claim of an original theory of tragic drama, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading about this classicist's main belief. As I turned the pages his theory grew on me and I found myself both convinced and gripped by this new perspective on tragedy. His low- probability, high-consequence outcome theory does indeed resonate with the risk takers of today and I thoroughly recommend this scholarly work to anyone interested in both theatrical and real life tragedy based on risk. As the author himself writes, 'A working model of tragedy that is both original and rooted in tradition.'

A remarkable book in every way. A must for every serious dramatist to read, ponder over and act upon.
July 25, 2019
Tragedy scholar Edwin Wong has combined the elements of entertainment, hard work and the gamble into his kiln of language.

Adding the fire of his mind he has shaped a solid and aesthetically pleasing framework for the aspiring playwright or master dramatic wordsmith.

Wongs' Risk Theatre is a well thought out and flexible structure built with the intention of reviving tragic theatre of the past using modern allegories and scenarios. With his unique model, he poses that nothing worth anything can be gained without considerable risk.

On top of offering us his work, Wong has laid down his own wager, betting that someone risking it all by writing their own play and offering it up for the world to see, can win a considerable prize.

This book is well worth the read. Wongs' powers of persuasion will convince you that he did not use necromancy but only a shovel, a compass and a pen to lead us back to an art that was not dead, but waiting for the right moment to resurface.
Profile Image for Kendra.
Author 15 books42 followers
June 30, 2019
The idea the author promotes in this book is that dramatic tragedy always involves bets: Macbeth bets that killing Duncan will lead to Macbeths’s political ascension, for example. But while the theory is an interesting and potentially valuable one, the author never engages with the enormous body of existing scholarship on the tragedy or dramatic form. His lack of desire or ability to propose his theory in dialogue with theory is a serious failing of the book, and as such I can’t recommend it. This is a shame, because if the author ha chandler the topic using a more scholarly approach, his ideas could be taken far more seriously and as part of the ongoing conversation in theater studies about form, motivation, and other things.
Profile Image for Debbie.
78 reviews6 followers
June 2, 2019
I just finished reading The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected by Edwin Wong. The author introduces Wong's theory of Risk Theatre which is his updating of classical tragedy. Wong emphasizes that his main character usually has a lot at stake, be it his crown, position as a god or a military general. His risk is great but the rewards are even greater. The tragic cycle is complete when the hero goes all in or bets it all in order to achieve his goal. This book would make an excellent theatre text.
June 13, 2019
I've been dealing with theatre actively and academically for many years, and the idea of "tragedy" was wrapped in the mystique of motivations and nobility and flaws that put it out of reach for me as a playwright. This book strips away the mystique and makes the form available to me. Seeing risk as the fulcrum of the action clears my head and lets me see contemporary situations and conflicts in the light of risk and potential tragedy. Especially meaningful to me is the concept of 3 Forms of Tragedy. That supports a variety of plot lines which helps me see more clearly what I have already written, and guides me in what might come. There are not many pages in th book which are without my underlines, or with "stars" in the margin.
Profile Image for Billy Buttons.
Author 19 books106 followers
May 8, 2020
This book was entered in The Wishing Shelf Book Awards. This is what our readers thought:
Title: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected
Author: Edwin Wong

Star Rating: 4.5 Stars
Number of Readers: 17
Editing: 8/10
Writing Style: 7/10
Content: 9/10
Cover: 10/10
Of the 17 readers:
14 would read another book by this author.
17 thought the cover was good or excellent.
11 felt it was easy to follow.
14 would recommend this story to another reader to try.
Of all the readers, 12 felt the author’s strongest skill was ‘subject knowledge’.
Of all the readers, 5 felt the author’s strongest skill was ‘writing style’.
15 felt the pacing was good or excellent.
14 thought the author understood the readership and what they wanted.

Readers’ Comments
‘Theatre analyzed in terms of risk! What a very clever way of looking at things. This author seems to be a very smart fellow. Intriguing.’ Male reader, aged 72
‘What I loved the most about this was how original it was. I read a lot of theatre-related books and this was totally different. The writing is concise and the author’s knowledge of the subject is apparent on every page.’ Female reader, aged 52
‘An interesting, thought-provoking look at classical theatre and risk and how modern theatre must find a way of relating to the modern audience. Although it’s rather wordy and a little re-reading was often in order, it was still a gripping read.’ Female reader, aged 61
‘A cleverly worked out theory on risk/tragedy in theatre and how the audience can connect to it.’ Male reader, aged 52

To Sum It Up:
‘A thought-provoking look at tragedy in theatre. A FINALIST and highly recommended.’ The Wishing Shelf Book Awards
Profile Image for Eugene Melino.
10 reviews
June 25, 2021
Edwin Wong challenges those who would dismiss tragedy as the irrelevant relic of dead white guys. In The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, he shows playwrights and theatre audiences how tragedy speaks truth to our high-risk times, when our superpowers teeter on the brink of mutually assured nuclear destruction, our civilizations face human-made environmental collapse, and our democracies dabble in authoritarianism.

Wong doesn’t offer yet another obscure literary theory, though he has the heavy literary background to do so (he holds BA in Greek and Roman studies from the University of Victoria and an MA in classics from Brown University). Instead, he takes the novel approach of applying risk theory to modernize our understanding of tragedy. His risk model gives new life to classics ranging from Oedipus Rex to Doctor Faustus to Macbeth to Mourning Becomes Electra. Yet, he doesn’t dismiss or even contradict Aristotle, whose Poetics introduced many playwrights to the rudiments of dramatic form. Looking at tragedy from the perspective or risk gives the twenty-first century playwright a more practical framework than Aristotle’s thin volume could ever offer. At the same time, it provides a political, social and even mathematical context that outclasses the often hackneyed advice given by garden variety how-to-write-a-play manuals.

Most interestingly, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy demonstrates how free-will and fate exist together as realities in the human experience. In all great tragedies, ancient and modern, these two contradictory forces battle it out in the flesh. And audiences, ancient and modern, can’t avert their eyes from such high stakes and often bloody spectacles.
1 review
May 28, 2021
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is classicist Edwin Wong's excellent study of the tragic theatre form. It is a passionate and erudite book that shows how tragedies are structured and work and why tragedy should occupy a preeminent place in any society.
The author utilizes the terminology of economics to make a more compelling case for the contemporary readers and artists. Providing succinct examples every step of the way from his deep knowledge of tragic theatre from the ancient Greeks to the recent times he analyses the premises of the tragic heroes' dilemmas, the settings, the social and political background, how the tragic hero are shaped and how their downfall affect their societies and the viewers' hearts.
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a rare book that takes on the nature and structure of tragedy head on. Somehow theatres in the U.S., and all over the world, have ceded the place of eminence to musical theatre. The theatre people don't talk about tragedy any more. If tragedies or tragic heroes don't take on the great struggles human souls are waging in our hearts who would be willing to face off against the existential dilemmas we struggle with and find out what would be truly worthwhile to stake our lives on?
The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a compellingly argued book about the central importance of tragedy in our lives. It would benefit any writer who is engaged in writing on serious subjects. And it would make an excellent choice for required reading for playwriting and advanced theatre classes.
T. Y. Joe, Ph.D., playwright
July 7, 2020
An original and invigorating read, with the provocative thesis that the gods of modern economics have replaced those of antiquity. Wong’s insights into the mechanics of tragedy-writing
provide a valuable counterpoint to more conventional schools of dramaturgy. I don’t necessarily agree with his contention that history always looks to the past, but found his discussion of writing history v. writing tragedy opened up new paths of thought.
Profile Image for Vishesh Abeyratne.
5 reviews2 followers
April 30, 2022
Move over Aristotle, Hegel, and Nietzsche. This is a new, dynamic, and exciting theory of tragedy that engages with the primary force that drives all of our lives to varying degrees: chance. Applying his models to the work of dramatists from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Ibsen to O'Neill, Wong constructs an entirely convincing model of tragedy that is set in motion whenever we make plans or place bets. Every playwright or screenwriter should have this on their shelves.
2 reviews1 follower
February 23, 2020
A most excellent and original work regarding tragedy from the perspective of risks and consequences and how it intersects and reflects within our rapidly evolving world. A book of insights that will be invaluable to theatre goers, writers, directors, actors or as an engaging college text. Highly recommended!
47 reviews4 followers
June 28, 2020
Won this book through Goodreads. Not relevant to me but I passed it on to an actor friend who stated the material was "invaluable and relatable" to his profession. Thanks to the author, Edwin Wong, for offering a free copy through Goodreads.
May 31, 2021
A thoroughly safe engaging and brilliantly insightful work. Edwin Wong’s innovative deep dive into the workings of tragedy is a must-read for any playwright looking to excel in this great genre of dramatic art.
61 reviews
December 29, 2019
Interesting and perceptive approach to analysing and understanding tragedy theatre. Let down by an entirely uninteresting section on money and exchange
Profile Image for Bruce.
1 review1 follower
February 27, 2020
Excellent... somewhat of a modernised poetics (Aristotle)....recommend to thespian, philosopher, literary oriented, and lay....
Profile Image for Robin Rowland.
Author 15 books3 followers
May 13, 2020
Innovative 21st century look at bringing classic tragedy (Greek and Elizabethan mainly) into the modern Chaotic universe.
Displaying 1 - 20 of 20 reviews

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