What’s Your Point of View?: Perspective in “The Poetics of Aristotle – III”

In the first two sections of The Poetics of Aristotle  (which I reflect on here and here), the medium and the objects of the play are addressed.  In section III,  Aristotle considers another aspect of drama —

Oedipus at Colonus by Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust 1788 French Oil by mharrsch

       There is still a third difference—the manner in which each of these objects may be imitated. For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration—in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged—or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us.    

      These, then, as we said at the beginning, are the three differences which distinguish artistic imitation,—the medium, the objects, and the manner. So that from one point of view, Sophocles is an imitator of the same kind as Homer—for both imitate higher types of character; from another point of view, of the same kind as Aristophanes—for both imitate persons acting and doing.

Playwrights choose the genre (medium) in which they tell the story, the characters (objects) who make up the story,  as well as the narrative perspective (manner) from which the story is told.  Homer, for instance, wrote his classic The Odyssey from the perspective of the hero – Odysseus.  Similarly, Sophocles writes Oedipus the King from the perspective of Oedipus.  Aristophanes, on the other hand, tells the classic sex comedy Lysistrata not only from the main character’s perspective, but through the dialogue among the characters and the songs of the choruses.

I’m not certain what Aristotle means by “higher types” of character.  Perhaps he is referring to the heroic qualities of both Odysseus and Oedipus and their special relationship with the gods.  What I take from this, is that, in good drama both heroic and common characters are shown to act and do things that make sense and that contribute to the plot of the story.

Thus far, I’ve chosen to tell the story “Liberty” from a third-person point of view.  Interestingly, however, all the scenes center on the main character of David.  Nothing takes place that David doesn’t witness, yet he is not the one telling the story.  The only hints we get about what is going on in David’s head is from what he says, from a few of his gestures, and from some carefully selected “soundtrack” music.

Aristotle concludes this section identifying some of the debated geographic and etymological origins of Comedy and Tragedy which I didn’t think would be fruitful here.  One comment he includes is –

… some say, the name of ‘drama’ is given to such poems, as representing action.

Again, action is central in the creation of drama.  When I was chatting with my former theater professor ab0ut the subject of extensive dialogue in drama, I brought up the example of the movie, “My Dinner with Andre” (a film depicting a conversation between two intellectuals that enjoyed a great deal of critical acclaim in the 1980s.)  Essentially, his response was the exception only serves to prove the rule.

I am certainly being mindful of including action in the story “Liberty” as it develops.  While it is true that it is still mostly dialogue (as is “The Pursuit of Happiness”), the dialogue drives, describes, and in some cases dictates the action.  I don’t believe a play has to have sword fights or sex scenes to be good, but neither can you simply record a Twitter conversation about a recent bowel movement and call it good theatre (although I imagine if it hasn’t been done, it will be soon).

(image above “Oedipus at Colonus by  Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust”  from mharrsch, some rights reserved)

One thought on “What’s Your Point of View?: Perspective in “The Poetics of Aristotle – III”

  1. I don’t claim to know anything about the “classics”. I never studied them – in fact, I only went as far as junior high school. It’s true, as you say, that “action is central in the creation of drama.” We’ve all of us read stories by would-be authors whose writing consists of nothing but dialogue – and in some cases, very bad dialogue:
    “Why did you come Anne?” said George
    “I came here to see you George.” said Anne
    “Why did you come to see me, Anne.” said George.
    After half a page of this you’re going cross-eyed – if you haven’t already fallen asleep.
    Give me fiction with drama, good descriptions, some sneaky twists to the plot and meaningful dialogue every time.

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