Monday, September 26, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 5: Aristotle

The Guru: Aristotle
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:

  1. All heroes must come from royal families (An idea that poisoned English and French drama for centuries.)
  2. The whole drama should take place in one day in one place. (Ditto)
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
Tomorrow, we’ll jump all the way to the 20th century. Sorry, slavery-lovers.


sean1 said...

Talk about starting at the top! And here I thought you were going to lead with Syd Field.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible he doesn't like a happy ending because he's talking about Tragedy?

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, but he specifically describes why happy endings are inherently unacceptable and unsatisfying.

j.s. said...

Buried within two of those bits of questionable advice are some helpful nuggets of goodness.

I'd say the hero being royalty relates both to the "why him/why her/why should we care" question and to the overall stakes of the story -- concerns that drive development and audience interest to this day. Aristotle probably simply couldn't imagine how a story-worthy event -- with adequate stakes and a relatable hero -- could happen to an everyday person.

Then there's the classical unities of time, place and action -- the story about one problem that unfolds in one location in one day. This often gets knocked as old-hat irrelevance at worst, stage-bound drama at best. But, um, contained thrillers anyone? Not to mention geniuses like Tarkovsky who came around to this idea too (STALKER, THE SACRIFICE). Sure, it isn't a hard and fast rule, but it is a powerful tool for ratcheting up tension and it speaks to the never-ending desire of story development folks for some kind of "ticking clock" (to bind time to action) even if the story takes place in different locations and over days or weeks.

Matt Bird said...

I think the "royal blood" rule was a garbled version of three rules that are actually good:

1. I've said before that the hero needs to have decision-making authority. In Aristotle's time, only the royals had that.

2. It's not like he wanted to exalt their royal status. He felt like heroes had to topple mightily and therefore you should start with an aristocrat, simply because they'd have the furthest to fall.

3. The ending should be ironic. If bad things happening to good people is ironic, then bad things happening to the very best people is even more ironic.

j.s. said...

When you put it that way it makes me sad that Aristotle never got to see BREAKING BAD.

Anonymous said...

The Poetics is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Aristotle examines the successful dramas of his day to see what they have in common.

It is not Aristotle's fault if all the protagonists are royal.

Also, the dramatists worked only with stories already known to the audience. When Tiresias tells Oedipus "You, you yourself, are the killer whom you seek," the audience already knows that, but they are purged of pity and fear by seeing the story acted out.


Matt Bird said...

Hmm, I gotta disagree, unless our modern translations are changing his tone. He's very didactic: “It should have for its subject a single action” etc. He's saying how he thinks things should be, not how they are. In fact, he frequently complains about all the plays he's seen that disobey his ideal rules.