Baron Von Swieten: Mozart, music is not the issue here. No one doubts your talent. It is your judgment of literature that’s in question. Even with the politics taken out, this thing would still remain a vulgar farce. Why waste your spirit on such rubbish? Surely you can choose more elevated themes?
Mozart: Elevated? What does that mean? Elevated! The only thing a man should elevate is – oh, excuse me. I’m sorry. I’m stupid. But I am fed up to the teeth with elevated things! Old dead legends! How can we go on forever writing about gods and legends?
Von Swieten: Because they do. They go on forever – at least what they represent. The eternal in us, not the ephemeral. Opera is here to ennoble us. You and me, just as much as His Majesty.
Kapellmeister Bonno: Bello! Bello, Barone. Veramente.
Mozart: Oh, bello, bello, bello! Come on now, be honest. Wouldn’t you all rather listen to your hairdressers than Hercules? Or Horatius? Or Orpheus? All those old bores! People so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!
— Amadeus (1984)
A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.
— The Empty Space, by Peter Brook (1968)
We were going to send you all a survey, you know.
One month ago, Ben and I were feverishly preparing for next week’s launch. We had an exchange over email about the details of a survey we were going to include with Ben’s essay from early September. The idea was to ask our subscribers what they wanted from a subscription to Epsilon Theory. With that survey, we would also include a request for some demographic information. Income, gender, region, questions about what kinds of decisions you make at your place of employment. Things that would help us sell better, more valuable ads on the website.
Honestly, we already had a pretty good idea what we wanted to deliver through our subscriptions. What we were after was the data. We still kind of want it. We’re still probably going to ask for it some day. But there was an epiphany moment for both of us, I think, when we realized that if we were going to do that kind of thing, we should do it by telling our readers exactly what we were asking for and why. Instead, we were working up some thinly veiled artifice, creating some cartoon in which we’d leverage our goodwill to make our friends pretend they didn’t know what we were doing. What a contradiction it would have been, to launch our vision to help investors and citizens cut through abstractions and to become more honest participants in financial and political markets, by sending out a survey requesting a bunch of personal information under the auspices of interest in the things you care about.
Ben’s fond of quoting Whitman to those who call him out for contradicting what he has written in prior pieces – “Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” We do contain multitudes. You contain multitudes. It is inevitable, when we write so much about the perils of abstraction, that we should begin to regard it as an evil. It isn’t. Memes are self-sustaining ideas that live in the human brain, and they reflect both the good and bad about us. We celebrate Narrative when it is marshaled for positive change. We respect it when it is cleverly applied. We fear it when it is used to stir up fear and division. We loathe it when it seeks to control and direct our lives through nudges under the guise of libertarian paternalism. Language is always an abstraction from some true meaning, or at least from true intent. Consider even my little confession about the survey – was my intent to tell you an honest story in good faith? Or were the words just a convenient mechanism to convey my true intent – that I wish you to see us as honest voices in a wilderness of conflicted Wall Street advice?
There are thousands upon thousands of books from thousands of authors over thousands of years discussing philosophy of language and meaning, from Socrates to Bertrand Russell. It’s not that we think we’ve discovered something new here. It’s that we think we’ve got something to say about how things that are new – always-on news, social media and the class-free global connectivity of the internet – allow each of us to conjure those primal forces to wield the kind of influence that Wittgenstein could never have dreamed of. To stoke the kind of belief in our company’s stock that could endure multiple CFO resignations, multiple SEC investigations and a bizarre public attempt at an MBO. To bring down tyrants and sexual abusers. To solidify our political tribe at the expense of national unity. To sell shoes. To sell football. To increase confidence in financial markets and the collective belief in the political will of authorities to prevent their decline.
For well-intentioned citizens, all this requires a great deal of us. It requires us to have clear eyes when others are leaning on Narrative abstractions to produce a response from us. It requires us to decide how to discern their intent. It requires us to be more mindful of our own ability to manipulate the judgments of others, and to hold ourselves accountable for our intent in doing so. It’s not the kind of thing that political science, business or economic programs really cover. That’s because this isn’t really about politics or economics.
There is, however, a field for which these questions have been the stock-in-trade for 2,500 years. Its lessons are invaluable to anyone who would navigate Narrative-driven political and financial markets. One of its finest books – and a short read, at that – is my first recommendation for anyone who is looking to understand management, communication and civics. The book is called The Empty Space. It’s about theatre.
“Over the centuries the Orphic Rites turned into the Gala Performance – slowly and imperceptibly the wine was adulterated drop by drop.” – Peter Brook
Peter Brook’s 175-page masterpiece seeks to categorize and define the ways in which theatre – which he defines as ‘a man walking across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him’ – is performed. In all, Brook identifies four varieties of theatre: deadly, holy, rough and immediate. Each of them is a pitch-perfect description of the ways in which any performative use of language interacts with an audience, whether it’s a theatre troupe performing a play, a politician giving a policy speech or a CEO discussing earnings.
Brook’s definition of Deadly Theatre will be familiar to anyone who goes to see the theatre from time to time. Frankly, it would be familiar to anyone who has an idea in their head of what a play or opera looks like, because Deadly Theatre is by definition the Common Knowledge about what theatre is. Deadly Theatre is every heavily affected To Be or Not to Be speech. It is every spear-toting, blonde-braided Brünnhilde in an absurdly contoured half-breastplate. It is the understudy of the nth Broadway casting of Alexander Hamilton, watching YouTube videos of Lin-Manuel Miranda from a Crown Heights apartment, desperately trying to recreate the mix of charismatic bravado, ambition and self-consciousness audiences remember from the original character.
Deadly Theatre is a performance that is so deeply abstracted from its source material that it has become painfully, obviously artificial to anyone who is paying attention. A stylish disaster, it looks right, but feels wrong to even the most untrained eye. All that we call political correctness falls into this category. We remember what it is like to be offended. We remember, or think we remember someone telling us about what battles for social justice in the 60s and 70s felt like, or maybe we saw it in a documentary. Then we go through the motions, performing the rituals of offense as best we can remember them. Our friends play the roles of heroes rallying to the defense of the offended.
The parallels with demonstrations of patriotic correctness are no accident, for they are Deadly Theatre, too. We witnessed love of country and acts of service by statesmen and warriors in the past, and instead of studying and internalizing the source of their passions, we perform the outward rituals we remember. The flags. The speeches. The lapel pins. That Lee Greenwood song – you know, the one he wrote before he adapted it to “God Bless You, Canada” for profitable distribution in the Canadian market. Like political correctness, each individual’s actions may stem from good intentions, but empty ritual is still empty ritual.
As investors, once we start looking for it, we realize that Deadly Theatre is all around us. There is the fussy baroque opera of operational due diligence on fund managers. Oh, it’s a flurry of busy-looking activity – the checklists, the ‘process’, the consultant grades – when no manager hiring decision in 10 years has been influenced by this activity, outside of the results of references and background checks. And yet, we – or more accurately, our clients – would take offense at its absence.
There is the big, bombastic, pyrotechnics- and celebrity cameo-laden Broadway show, which is the consultant-led strategic asset allocation review conducted by every institutional asset owner in the world every five years or so. Here are 300 pages of research from our 150 Ivy League-trained analysts telling you why we’ve modified our 10-year assumption for “Emerging Markets” returns by 50 basis points. In the end, because we’ve also modified our volatility assumption and currency expectations, it all comes out as kind of a wash, so we’re not actually recommending any changes. But don’t you feel better, safer after this whole experience?
There is the complex pageantry of pre-Stanislavski Russian theatre that is sell-side stock research. It is produced with flourishes of language, and the patina of knowing expertise. It is consumed by those who say “they don’t use it” to clients and “I only use it to see what others are thinking” to peers, when the way buy-side analysts really consume it is to copy the assumptions into a spreadsheet model, read about the company for a few days, and think really hard about what kind of twist on a ‘key assumption’ sounds like it would appeal to the portfolio manager. Yet all of these forms must be observed.
And these forms don’t emerge out of nothing. They are imitations of something which was once new and real before it was replaced by convention. Some of us remember doing these things when they mattered, or we remember how some professor who did them once described them to us.
To the Citizen and to the truth-seeking investor, Deadly Theatre is moribund. Worthless. To be observed but rejected wherever it manifests. To be ruthlessly rooted out of our own behavior.
“A false symbol is soft and vague; a true symbol is hard and clear. When we say ‘symbolic’ we often mean something drearily obscure: a true symbol is specific, it is the only form a certain truth can take.” – Peter Brook
Holy Theatre is theatre in which those parts of life which escape our senses become manifest. In other words, it is the theatre of true memes, the heuristics and recognized patterns that exert irresistible influence on eusocial animals in a culture that has survived for millenia on the basis of those heuristics and recognized patterns.
It is also, as Brook writes, the true dream behind the debased ideals of the Deadly Theatre. Deadly Theatre succumbs to the belief that somewhere, someone has found out and defined how a play should be done, and that we ought to replicate it. Holy Theatre, on the other hand, recognizes that reproducing the words and motions of a magnificient play at a different place and time will not faithfully reproduce its meaning.
Most of what we call ‘Narrative’ in these pages is Deadly Theatre. It is useful to recognize it, and at times it may be necessary to exploit the behaviors it engenders, but it is a primary source of abstraction in our personal, political and professional lives. As Ben has written, however, memes are often the building blocks of Narrative. Our natural vulnerability to memes lays the groundwork for a Narrative’s spread. So it is that much of Narrative is Holy Theatre. Its informational content is contained in the feelings, emotions, attachments and aversions that it evokes, rather than the meaning of its words. It emphasizes Truth over truth, which makes it a dangerous weapon (for good or ill).
Like anything that we describe by saying “you know it when you see it”, Holy Theatre is hard to describe in words. Except for Ben, who wrote at length about it some weeks ago, in an essay called Notes from a Birmingham Museum:
What makes the museum so effective in communicating a difficult story well? Just that. They present it as a story, as a narrative. Not a cartoon story of Superheroes, although it’s impossible to avoid some degree of hagiography when it comes to this stuff, and not a cartoon story of Social Justice™, either, although here, too, it’s impossible to eliminate completely the heavy-handed nudging of the Smileyface State. No, it’s mostly a story of … people. Of the actual lives of actual people. It’s immersive and it’s real. It creates a compelling narrative arc, but not in a way that feels scripted or forced.
The Birmingham Museum is Holy Theatre. The Julius Caesar production Ben mentioned in Always Go to the Funeral was Holy Theatre. Yet Holy, in the sense we mean here, should not be universally understood to mean ‘good’ like it did in Ben’s note. Just as Holy Theatre may be comedy or tragedy, its manifestations in political and financial markets may be directed toward good or bad ends. George Bush standing on the mound at Yankee Stadium in a FDNY jacket to deliver the first pitch after 9/11 is Holy Theatre, but so is Hitler delivering the Nuremberg Address in 1938. Enemy! is a meme of Holy Theatre, a spell cast by good and evil men alike, and a key source of our present political division. The Hero! meme of Holy Theatre induces us to seek out those who hold themselves out saviors, some of whom truly are, but most of whom are not. The Wizard! meme stokes our passion for genius, for those capable of making deflation or SEC investigations into an MBO-by-Twitter go away with a few magic words.
To the Citizen and to the truth-seeking investor, Holy Theatre should be consumed with eyes wide open. Open to the beauty that only its deep connections with our nature are capable of invoking. Open to see the way in which others who would manipulate us would use it to further their own ends.
“They analyzed the sounds made by clarinets, flutes, violins, and found that each note contained a remarkably high proportion of plain noise: actual scraping, or the mixture of heavy breathing with wind on wood. From a purist point of view this was just dirt, but the composers soon found themselves compelled to make synthetic dirt – to ‘humanize’ their compositions.” – Peter Brook
While all theatre – and indeed, any interaction relying on language – is inherently performative and full of abstraction from true meaning, not all of it is grand and reliant on meme in the way that Deadly and Holy Theatre are. Much of theatre is a joy not because it meets some deep-seated intrinsic longing, but because it meets us where we really are. Physically, emotionally, plainly. Brook calls this Rough Theatre.
Its definition will vary by individual. To Brook, it is salt, sweat, noise, smell: the theatre that’s not in a theatre, the theatre on carts, on wagons, on trestles, audiences standing, drinking, sitting round tables. To me, Rough Theatre is a minor league baseball game. It is a marathon session of D&D. It is a midnight showing of Henry V at the New Globe in Southwark in the rain, teeth chattering with other patrons as Hal strides into the audience to clap hands on strangers’ shoulders and deliver a shouted St. Crispin’s Day speech. It’s a no-BS financial advisor boldly telling prospects that she has no idea where the market is going, and that any FA who tells you that they do is a liar. Anywhere the play is play.
The Rough Theatre is not Truth, but truth. The stories it tells can be direct, foul-mouthed and profane. While it is still subject to the kind of silly exaggerations of Deadly Theatre, there is no malice or attempt to summon memes for some lofty purpose. There may still be abstractions in the performance, but they are of the kind that exist in all language. The aim is authenticity.
And sure, authenticity! itself can be a meme, like an ‘artisanally crafted’ turkey sandwich at a Panera store. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. When I say authentic, I am talking about performances which are delivered in a language, at a place, and at a time that serves the audience, and not the speaker. Rough Theatre in our social and political lives doesn’t really scale, because it is nearly impossible to speak authentically to a big, broad audience. In its native environment among small groups, it is honest advice freely given, without calculation about how it will serve our reputations or our metagame. It is bad news delivered swiftly. It is self-deprecation and lack of pretense.
To the Citizen and the truth-seeking Investor, Rough Theatre is a necessary part our language. Sometimes small-t truth from a trusted friend or adviser is the only thing that can dispel the fear, anger, overexuberance and other emotions conjured by a parade of pompous Truths from Missionaries.
“In the Russian tradition of Stanislavsky, the actor says, ‘I will tell you a story about me.’ In the German tradition of Brecht, the actor says, ‘I will tell you a story about them.’ In the Vietnamese tradition, the actor says, ‘You and I will tell each other a story about all of us.’” – Le Hun
Theatre of the first three varieties has one universal trait: its performers have a meaning in mind before the curtain goes up. That meaning – even in Rough Theatre, seeking to avoid affectation – has been meticulously planned for months. Imagine, if you will, the preparation for a typical play: dramaturgs cut scripts to a director’s specificiations, but also based on their training and experience. Actors memorize their lines, practicing them alone before they later rehearse them with the other actors. Costume and set designers begin their work as well, attempting to reflect the director’s intent, but also their own vision and ingenuity. Director and choreographer set the blocking before a single actor steps on the stage.
Before the first performance, each component of such a production represents an abstracted version of a director’s abstracted vision of what words and instructions on a page written years ago might have meant to a very specific troupe of actors. But even more, each component is necessarily abstracted from the unknowable environment in which the play will be presented on one night or another. The fourth type of theatre, which Brook calls Immediate Theatre – is a response to this problem. Immediate Theatre is dynamic theatre – responsive to time, responsive to venue, and most importantly, responsive to the audience.
It is impossibly tricky to pull off. As any improvisational musician will tell you, your understanding of the underlying chord structure and rhythm of the music must be greater, not less, if you intend to make up the melody as you go. As any portfolio manager keen on making large, seemingly idiosyncratic bets will tell you, it takes more of an understanding of risk and interrelationships between positions to navigate that kind of strategy, not less. So it is that Immediate Theatre requires a near-perfect understanding of the source material, of the other actors, of the meaning embedded in the play, to be capable of responsiveness and adaptation to setting and time, much less to the audience. When this works together, it is magical, if ephemeral. A moment that cannot be recaptured.
In the practical, non-stage versions of the three other kinds of theatre we practice, we engage with society and other people with some objective in mind. Perhaps we wish for them to feel a certain way about us, to see us as kind, or intelligent or credible. Perhaps we wish for them and their influence to diminish. Perhaps we wish for them to select us, to do business with us, to hire us. Every aspect of these interactions is theatre, and in pursuing these objectives, in using language as abstractions of some ulterior intent, we perform a role to an audience. Sometimes that’s the way it has to be.
But there is a beauty to choosing to tell a story about all of us instead of a story about ourselves. That’s what Immediate Theatre is. That’s also what we mean by finding your pack – people whose aims you make part of your own, and whose intentions you trust implicitly. Maybe that pack is your family, your friends, your neighbors. If you’re a financial advisor or investor, I hope it includes your clients. If you become an ET subscriber when we outline how you can do that next week, I hope it includes some like minds you find in some of our interactive features. With these people, we can speak as directly as language allows without fear. We can put words to our intents, as best we are able, and trust that they will be heard.
Even outside of our narrow networks of trust and shared aims, there is still room for incorporating the authenticity of Rough Theatre and the dynamism of the Immediate. The citizen and the fiduciary can still reject the monologues of the Holy Theatre and theatrics of the Deadly in favor of a more direct objective in our performative use of language: to understand and to be understood.
It is our hope that Epsilon Theory can play a small role in keeping this ethic alive. In the meantime, Narrative – both Deadly and Holy – surrounds us, and we will continue to point it out where it exists. Celebrating it, when we think it serves some good purpose. Subjecting it to derision when it is a tool of manipulation and power. Indeed, this is the underlying truth in the multitudes contained in all of us and all our contradictions. It is why we write to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. It is why we write to act boldly but hold loosely. It is why we write to identify a strong set of core beliefs, yet to subject all else to harsh, regular scrutiny.
Ironically, all of this talk has me in a bit of a theatrical mood, so I hope you’ll forgive me (Socrates wouldn’t) one last bit of Holiness from Lord Tennyson, which I think a rather succinct expression of the full hearts with which we carry our vision for this new venture:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
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