Since the beginning of the history of the theatre, playwrights have used games of chance as an effective dramatic device. Cards, dice, roulette wheels, bets and wagers have fuelled plays, operas and entertainments of all kinds.
The opposing personages in a bet, the rivalry involved, and the life-or–death nature of the result makes every wager a drama in miniature. Conflict, tension and climax are the essentials of good theatre.
In the lyric theatre, gambling scenes have also provided composers with ideal circumstances for big ensembles – with multiple voices weaving together in the increasing tension as the outcome of the wager comes closer.
A bet has been the spine of many musical works from 'Cosí fan Tutte' to 'My Fair Lady'. A wager is the central plot device in both these works. Not for money, but to see which way the cat – or rather the heroines – will jump.
All sorts of legends surround gambling. One of them is that those who are unlucky in love are lucky at games of chance. It's this ancient belief that lies behind the scene in 'La Traviata' in which the rejected Alfredo wins huge sums of money as he plays faro. He then throws his winnings at Violetta’s feet. For this insult, he is forced to fight a duel. As in so many stage works the gambling ends in violence.
Another ancient belief that hovers around games of chance is that the Devil and his friend Death are gambling men. In folk tales and in popular prints the devil is often to be seen playing at cards for the souls of the damned, who might be redeemed if luck is with them. Death too can be glimpsed being temporarily appeased and asked to call again later by offering to play him at dice, or deal him a hand of cards.
No doubt these sinister shadows that darken games of chance have grown out of the parallels that the risky nature of games of dice and cards have with the uncertainty of life itself.