Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Aristotle: A Double Tragedy. The prologue

Menander, who was a New Comedy playwright, was once asked whether he's finished his latest work. He answered that he's done the hard bit, and now he just had to write it down. The joke being that Menander was big on plot and short on jokes. In fact, that zinger is probably his best line. Consequently, Aristophanes remains the schoolboy's favourite Athenian comedian. He did dick gags.
And so is the opposite, Vile

However, I am wondering whether McManus has taught me enough to write a life of Aristotle as a tragic plot.

First of all - the beginning. Let's see: Aristotle liked the use of myths, and allowed the author to fiddle with the detail. I am going to use the example of Aeschylus' Persians, and take historical fact and treat it like mythology.

Footnote: Aristotle doesn't rate Aeschylus. David Wiles reckons that Aeschylus was too heavy on the sound of language rather than clarity of its meaning (AE Housman nails my memories of translating the bloody Oresteia), and had too much time for both gods (Athena and Apollo sort out the mess at the end of the trilogy) and Athenian patriotism.

The beginning - or, to involve Frankie Howerd, The Prologue. We need a scene that shows the effects of the cause, without over-egging the cause. I've got it.

The Prologue: A watchman on the walls of Athens. He is staring out at a big army of Macedonians, with Alexander the Great pacing in front of them. Shouts of 'you are going down' float across the walls. The watchman gets us up to speed: demagoguery has encouraged the Athenians to square up with the barbarian invaders, and in about fifteen minutes, Athens is going to be pwned.

Interestingly, Aristotle does not divide his plot structure into the noticeable parts of the extant tragedies, but I think this bit is called the parados. The chorus comes on stage. They are going to be poor Athenian citizens (because both Plato and Aristotle had a suspicion of democracy - Aristotle nipped off from Athens during the age of Alexander, as we shall see). The throw down with some tunes and dancing (although spectacle and melody are at the end of Aristotle's list of Tragic Ingredients). They bemoan the sophists who have taught the democratic assembly rhetoric, which has led to the speakers being able to convince the people to have a disastrous battle with the Macedonians.

Footnote: Plato would like that: he had a moan about sophists, and wasn't that keen on the whole Athenian political process. What with them killing his hero Socrates, he wrote this big book called The Republic, which suggested a better political system. I am not sure whether the whole thing is a joke, but he did spend a bit too much time trying to persuade a tyrant in Sicily to act a bit more philosophical.

Hang on, I am not sure my beginning has generated the subsequent plot. I've just stated the situation. This is harder than I thought. Wait... I'll bring on my protagonist. It's Aristotle. With a cheery 'hiya pals,' he bounces on stage and makes a speech about how Cinderella is a very special girl but... sorry, how Plato is a special philosopher but he has got it wrong about drama, and it can be part of a moral education.

Footnote: Casting must be crucial here. Gerard Kelly would have been perfect.

I am struggling to make this particular scenario universal rather than a series of ill-judged pokes at Aristotle.

I am going to race onto the middle: the climax. Again, Aristotle doesn't seem to be that interested in the formal aspects of Greek tragedy, and the middle bit was often an 'agon,' or big row between protagonist and antagonist. Somehow, I am going to have to make this agon between Plato and Aristotle...

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