Making Up a Good Play in Word and Deed: “The Poetics of Aristotle – Section IV, part 2”

In our most recent post on The Poetics of Aristotle, we explored the pleasure we find in acting out our pain on stage (or observing others acting it out for us).  We left off with an examination of two “directions” in writing drama – one which depicts the nobility of humans (and gods) and the other which satirizes their shortcomings.

Section IV continues to further distinguish Comedy and Tragedy –

As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation, so he too first laid down the main lines of Comedy, by dramatising the ludicrous instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same relation to Comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to Tragedy. But when Tragedy and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets still followed their natural bent: the      lampooners became writers of Comedy, and the Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the drama was a larger and higher form of art.

Homer, according to Aristotle, was able to masterfully imitate the noble actions of his characters while at the same time reveal the absurdity of their excesses.   He is most known today for his epic tragic works – particularly the Iliad and the Odyssey, but Aristotle names another work Margites which reveals his comic side.  Little is known of Margites outside this reference (I did find a Smithsonian article that named it one of the top ten lost books of all time).  Suffice it to say, that it is possible for a great writer of tragedy to produce comic works as well.  Yet, it seems the type of comedy produced by Homer (and perhaps other great tragedy writers) is a “higher form”.  Perhaps instead of resorting to bathroom and body parts humor of a Dumb and Dumber, there would be the intricate plot twists and witty banter as in Shakespeare’s comedies.

The Poetics continues –

      Whether Tragedy has as yet perfected its proper types or not; and whether it is to be judged in itself, or in relation also to the audience,—this raises another question. Be that as it may, Tragedy—as also Comedy—was at first mere improvisation. The one originated with the authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs, which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped.    

Theater began not as a performed script, but as a group of actors improvising.  The Dithyramb, as we discovered  in an earlier post – is “usually a short poem in an inspired wild irregular strain” or “a statement or writing in an exalted or enthusiastic vein.”  As for “phallic songs”, well, let’s just say the Greeks goAt pretty enthused about the male organ and its relationship with fertility.  These two – dithyramb and phallic songs contributed most to comedy (after all, what’s not to find funny about the male organ?).  Tragedy was slower to develop.

Drama by starmanseries

Section IV of The Poetics concludes –

      Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance of  the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles  raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting. Moreover, it was not till late that the short plot was discarded for one of greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the earlier satyric form for the stately manner of Tragedy. The iambic measure then replaced the trochaic  tetrameter, which was originally employed when the poetry was of the Satyric order, and had greater affinities with dancing. Once dialogue had come in, Nature herself discovered the appropriate measure. For the iambic is, of all measures, the most colloquial: we see it in the fact that conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently than into any other kind of verse; rarely into hexameters, and only when we drop the colloquial intonation. The additions to the number of ‘episodes’ or acts,  and the other accessories of which tradition; tells, must be taken as already described; for to discuss them in detail would, doubtless, be a large undertaking.

Aristotle focuses on a number of developments here, but each contribute to a production on stage the more accurately imitates the life the drama is meant to depict.  Dialogue (in the conversational speech of iambic lines) is crucial, as is the division of action into “episodes” and “acts” which give the play a sense of time and progression.

So while dialogue is indeed a later addition to dramatic form, it becomes a tool to enhance the theatrical experience, when done right.  Dialogue which drives and depicts action rather than just meandering around with no clear direction can be a featured aspect of good drama.

(image above “Drama” from starmanseries, some rights reserved)

4 thoughts on “Making Up a Good Play in Word and Deed: “The Poetics of Aristotle – Section IV, part 2”

  1. wow. some of this is way over my head. But I understand that sometimes tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin. Some of the most famous comedians had terrible lives, but learned to see the funny in it.

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