Around 335 BC Aristotle wrote, Poetics (Περὶ ποιητικῆς) the earliest known work of the theory of drama. So comprehensive is it, that it is still used by literary theorists, writers, educators and directors of theatre of film. Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters [2002, Michael Tierno] is a modern application and case in point.
Interestingly, the whole work was lost to the Western world for a long time until the Middle Ages when part of the original was discovered, through an Arabic translation of the scholar Averroes.
In the work, Aristotle defines “poetry”, a term which in Greek literally means “making” and includes treatises about drama, comedy, tragedy, satire, lyric and epic poetry.
He outlines various rules for the construction of drama, which still form the bedrock of story telling and narrative theory. These include [among others]:
- Character [ethos] is the moral or ethical character in tragic play and supports the plot. Their personal motivations somehow connect parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear.
- The tragic accident or crisis, is what happens to the hero because of a mistake he or she makes (hamartia). That is because the audience is more likely to be “moved” by a character driven accident than by a random occurrance. A hero may have made the mistake knowingly (in Medea) or unknowingly (Oedipus).
- Discovery must occur within the plot and the poet should incorporate complication and dénouement or resolution within the story. The poet must express thought through the characters’ words and actions, while paying close attention to diction and how a character’s spoken words express a specific idea.
- Catharsis, or tragic pleasure, is the experience of fear and pity produced in the spectator. According to Aristotle, tragedy arouses the emotions of pity and fear in order to release the audience and purge away their excess. Aristotle also talks about “pleasure” one gets from contemplating the pity and fear that are aroused through the play.
- Aristotle defined levels of narration and audience knowledge of what is happening in the plot. His tripartite division of characters, means some are in a superior position (βελτίονας) to the audience, and know more than the audience. Most narrators know the full story and so are superior to the audience. Other characters are in an inferior position to the audience (χείρονας) for example a character could be lost yet we audience members know that around the corner lies the murderer waiting for them. Finally, some characters are at the same level (τοιούτους) as the audience, and as they discover truths, so does the audience.
Interestingly, Aristotle points out that the origins of tragedy stem from the dithyramb or Dionysic rites and the origins of comedy, stem from phallic processions. These pagan rituals continued throughout the classic period until they were discontinued under Christian Emperors such as Constantine. Unfortunately, drama and theatre itself along with the works of classical authors such as Aristotle were consequently lost throughout the dark or medieval ages.
However, Aristotle’s theory of Poetics, underpins the logic and structure of all epic narratives, including the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures.
To Aristotle, tragedy 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. Within the order, the characters act knowingly and unknowingly act, facing crises often by their own mistake [harmartia]. Interestingly harmartia is the same Greek word used by biblical writers for sin . Artistotle’s tragic characters experience catharsis, or the purging of emotions, through the denouement or resolution of their wound [harmatia]. This occurs through satisfying of the logic of the universe within which it is set. This satisfaction creates pleasure within the audience through the purging of emotions.