Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Barbara McManus on Aristotle

Back in 1999, Barbara McManus did all the hard work for me, by creating a webpage that explained tragedy. The notes on this page are a dialogue between her definitions and my my responses.
Flowers won't excuse plagiarism, Vile

You can spot my replies as they are in italics and usually trite and petulant.

Definition of Tragedy: “Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.” (translation by S. H. Butchet)
The treatise we call the Poetics was composed at least 50 years after the death of Sophocles. Aristotle was a great admirer of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, considering it the perfect tragedy, and not surprisingly, his analysis fits that play most perfectly.

It's a strong start: Aristotle is already up to his usual tricks of breaking down an object into its parts (he says something about 'the soul of tragedy being plot' somewhere, a typical example of how he gives metaphysical concepts a grounded function). There is a problem with using Oedipus as an object-lesson: since part of Aristotle's aim was to show how to write a good tragedy (David Wiles, Aristotle's Poetics and Ancient Dramatic Theory), I reckon he was trying to get playwrights to copy his favourite work.
I wonder whether Aristotle's six parts are already in a hierarchy, with plot at the the top and melody (music) at the bottom. As I remember, he didn't like the Chorus much (too much God business for a materialist like Aristotle), so slapping their contributions down would make sense.
We also get katharsis mentioned. It's a shame that the meaning of this word is not clear to me. It might mean ritual purification - in line with the religious foundations of drama - or simply puking up unwanted emotions. 



Tragedy is the “imitation of an action” (mimesis) according to “the law of probability or necessity.” Aristotle indicates that the medium of tragedy is drama, not narrative; tragedy “shows” rather than “tells.” According to Aristotle, tragedy is higher and more philosophical than history because history simply relates what has happened while tragedy dramatizes what may happen, “what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.”
 History thus deals with the particular, and tragedy with the universal. Events that have happened may be due to accident or coincidence; they may be particular to a specific situation and not be part of a clear cause-and-effect chain. Therefore they have little relevance for others.
 Tragedy, however, is rooted in the fundamental order of the universe; it creates a cause-and-effect chain that clearly reveals what may happen at any time or place because that is the way the world operates. Tragedy therefore arouses not only pity but also fear, because the audience can envision themselves within this cause-and-effect chain.

So, problem one, for me: history isn't as good as tragedy, because it is factual (and the more something is like philosophy, the better it is. Hmmm). This doesn't necessarily fit in with what I Know of Aristotle elsewhere: he is the biologist who likes to arrange things into particular groups. I detect the influence of the Mighty Plato here - no bad thing in itself, since I like Plato better (big ideas and allegories, and plenty of comedy as his hero Socrates takes down other thinkers in the dialogues). But it doesn't feel as if Aristotle is being himself. He is answering Plato's complaints about theatre (of which more, I am sure, anon) by using a Platonic position. 

Plot is the “first principle,” the most important feature of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents”: i.e. not the story itself but the way the incidents are presented to the audience, the structure of the play. According to Aristotle, tragedies where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the character and personality of the protagonist. Plots that meet this criterion will have the following qualities.

 See Freytag's Triangle for a diagram that illustrates Aristotle's ideal plot structure.




I wonder whether the speech from Anouilh's Antigone says the same thing, only in Occupied France...

The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job. Anything will set it going: a glance at a girl who happens to be lifting her arms to her hair as you go by; a feeling when you wake up on a fine morning that you'd like a little respect paid to you today, as if it were as easy to order as a second cup of coffee; one question too many, idly thrown out over a friendly drink--and the tragedy is on.

The rest is automatic. You don't need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled since time began, and it runs without friction. Death, treason, and sorrow are on the march; and they move in the wake of storm, of tears, of stillness. Every kind of stillness. The hush when the executioner's axe goes up at the end of the last act. The unbreathable silence when, at the beginning of the play, the two lovers, their hearts bared, their bodies naked, stand for the first time face to face in the darkened room, afraid to stir. The silence inside you when the roaring crowd acclaims the winner--so that you think of a film without a soundtrack, mouths agape and no sound coming out of them, a clamor that is no more than a picture; and you, the victor, already vanquished, alone in your desert of silence. That is tragedy.

Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless. It has nothing to do with melodrama--with wicked villains, persecuted maidens, avengers, sudden revelations and eleventh-hour repentances. Death, in a melodrama, is really horrible because it is never inevitable. The dear old father might so easily have been saved; the honest young man might so easily have brought in the police five minutes earlier.

In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone's destiny is known. That makes for tranquility. There is a sort of fellow-feeling among characters in a tragedy: he who kills is as innocent as he who gets killed: it's all a matter of what part you are playing. Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn't any hope. You're trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is shout. Don't mistake me: I said 'shout': I did not say groan, whimper, complain. That, you cannot do. But you can shout aloud; you can get at all those things said that you never dared say--or never even knew till then. And you don't say these things because it will do any good to say them: you know better than that. You say them for their own sake; you say them because you learn a lot from
them.

In melodrama, you argue and struggle in the hope of escape. That is vulgar; it's practical. but in tragedy, where there is no temptation to try to escape, argument is gratuitous; it's kingly.


The plot must be “a whole,” with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning, called by modern critics the incentive moment, must start the cause-and-effect chain but not be dependent on anything outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are downplayed but its effects are stressed).
 The middle, or climax, must be caused by earlier incidents and itself cause the incidents that follow it (i.e., its causes and effects are stressed).
 The end, or resolution, must be caused by the preceding events but not lead to other incidents outside the compass of the play (i.e., its causes are stressed but its effects downplayed); the end should therefore solve or resolve the problem created during the incentive moment.
 Aristotle calls the cause-and-effect chain leading from the incentive moment to the climax the “tying up” (desis), in modern terminology the complication. He therefore terms the more rapid cause-and-effect chain from the climax to the resolution the “unravelling” (lusis), in modern terminology the dĂ©nouement.

Bloody hell: McManus does a good job of tugging out Aristotle's meaning here.I think he is essentially saying that the plot should not rely too much on events outside of the script - the stuff in Oedipus that leads up to the tragedy - and the aftermath - ought to be mentioned, but not pivotal. 

This reads like straight observation though: I am struggling to think of how, say, in the introduction the causes can be overplayed and the effects underplayed. The effects are what we see on stage, so will naturally be stressed... maybe the beginning of the Oresteia provides this, where the Watchman and Clytemnestra bang on about the Trojan War and the waiting for the men to come home?



The plot must be “complete,” having “unity of action.” By this Aristotle means that the plot must be structurally self-contained, with the incidents bound together by internal necessity, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention, no deus ex machina.

That is a swipe at Euripides - he loved having the gods turn up and sort shit out. Sometimes a mortal gets to have a shot on the God Machine (Medea), or the Discouri turn up and explain divine will (Helen).

 According to Aristotle, the worst kinds of plots are “‘episodic,’ in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”; the only thing that ties together the events in such a plot is the fact that they happen to the same person.

Beckett gets the bum's rush over two thousand years before his birth.


 Playwrights should exclude coincidences from their plots; if some coincidence is required, it should “have an air of design,” i.e., seem to have a fated connection to the events of the play.

And Les Miserables... well. I can give that a nod of approval...

 Similarly, the poet should exclude the irrational or at least keep it “outside the scope of the tragedy,” i.e., reported rather than dramatized. While the poet cannot change the myths that are the basis of his plots, he “ought to show invention of his own and skilfully handle the traditional materials” to create unity of action in his plot.
The plot must be “of a certain magnitude,” both quantitatively (length, complexity) and qualitatively (“seriousness” and universal significance). Aristotle argues that plots should not be too brief; the more incidents and themes that the playwright can bring together in an organic unity, the greater the artistic value and richness of the play. Also, the more universal and significant the meaning of the play, the more the playwright can catch and hold the emotions of the audience, the better the play will be.
The plot may be either simple or complex, although complex is better. Simple plots have only a “change of fortune” (catastrophe). Complex plots have both “reversal of intention” (peripeteia) and “recognition” (anagnorisis) connected with the catastrophe. Both peripeteia and anagnorisis turn upon surprise.
 Aristotle explains that a peripeteia occurs when a character produces an effect opposite to that which he intended to produce, while an anagnorisis “is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined for good or bad fortune.” He argues that the best plots combine these two as part of their cause-and-effect chain (i.e., the peripeteia leads directly to the anagnorisis); this in turns creates the catastrophe, leading to the final “scene of suffering”.
Unsurprisingly, the complex plot has a moral dimension, I'd say. That fits in with the general idea of Aristotle's intentions, I guess.


I think that will do for the moment. I have to put my hands up and say that McManus did all the hard work here (although actually reading Aristotle is hard enough... and I am giving another link to her page as some sort of thanks...)

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