The Book: Poetics
The Year: 335 BCE, or thereabouts
The History: Aristotle (student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great) lectured on every subject under the sun, including the proper form and function of tragic plays. (There was possibly a companion volume on comedy, but that’s lost today.)
Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: “The character will be good if the purpose is good. This rule is relative to each class. Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.” Okee-Dokee then.
Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful: I was assigned to read this on the first day of film school, but it didn’t do me much good. Students are hardwired to reject restrictions, so they pick up structure books looking for an excuse to fling them across the room, and Aristotle has no shortage of those:
- All heroes must come from royal families (An idea that poisoned English and French drama for centuries.)
- The whole drama should take place in one day in one place. (Ditto)
- In general, like most of the gurus we’ll look at, he’s overly didactic (“These are the only possible ways”), practically begging the student to find an exception and therefore reject everything.
- He had little use for happy endings, referring to the third act strictly as “the unraveling.” He didn’t leave any room for triumph.
Useful Wisdom: That said, re-reading it for this entry, I was shocked at how many of the book’s truths I had rejected only to “discover” them for myself much later. These include:
- Drama is about a person’s problem, not their life in general: “For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.”
- One problem should rule the story: “It should have for its subject a single action, whole and complete, with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
- The purpose of good writing is to take the “and then, and then” randomness of life and transform this into the “and so, and so” flow that exists only in fiction. (For some reason, Aristotle’s Greek is usually translated into Latin here, so this is called post hoc vs. propter hoc)
- The best dramas end in a realization (ignorance to wisdom) and a reversal (good fortune to bad, or vice versa). These can happen one after another, but in the very best stories, they happen simultaneously.