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Another Howlingly Wrong Interpretation of Aristotle, 19 April 2011
So, did you know that Hollywood execs assess screenplays using 'exactly' the same criteria found in Aristotle? Or that the film 'Rocky' can be analysed following the 'story structure' of Sophocles' 'Oedipus Rex'?
And did you know that Aristotle talked about 'the three unities of dramatic action: time, place, and action'?
Neither did I! That's because he did nothing of the kind.
Poor Aristotle, and poor us! Crumpling under this veritable barrage of howlingly wrong interpretations of an ancient fragment of literary criticism by a terrific guy who was writing a work-in-progress, always looking out for new ideas, testing out his theories and modifying them as he went along.
To treat his 'Poetics' as a completed and revised treatise of the art and craft of drama is an insult to a great mind. Only one quarter of his works survive. He wasn't interested in setting the Ten Commandments on How To Write a Play in stone. And, my God, he'd be furious if he could see how perversely his work has been misinterpreted. And, crucially, he did not formulate ANY theory.
For centuries, commentators, not bothering (or too ignorant) to analyse the precise meaning of his original Greek, have misunderstood the terms Aristotle uses for describing the elements of drama which have been translated as `plot', `action' and' character'. Without knowing that many Greek nouns lack distinct equivalents in modern languages, and that Aristotle frequently gathered several concepts under a single term, they have seriously perverted his ideas. So let's hear what Aristotle was really saying and restore his ideas to their full glory.
One of the most glaring misinterpretations concerns Aristotle's statements about plot and character.
We need to understand what these terms mean to Aristotle. His word `muthos' for example has almost always been translated too narrowly as `plot'. In the full Greek meaning, muthos includes not only the circumstances and incidents which form the main part of what we call the `plot', but also `character' in the full dramatic sense of `characters producing actions'.
So the reason Aristotle says that 'muthos' `is the first principle, and, as it were the soul of a tragedy', is that the `plot' is the design through which character derives its meaning and dramatic value. 'Muthos' means much more than a sequence of outward actions. It embraces material which the dramatist arranges to draw out the profoundly INWARD forces of the story.
His use of the term `action' has also been wildly misunderstood.
`Action implies distinctive qualities of CHARACTER AND THOUGHT; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these - thought and character - ARE THE TWO NATURAL CAUSES FROM WHICH OUTWARD ACTION SPRING' (my emphasis).
In other words, for Aristotle `action' embraces not only deeds, incidents, situations, events - the outward events - but also psychological processes, and the motivations which underlie what characters do and say. He does not think of action without fully realised characters, and not only that, he pays special attention to their ethos or moral being and their 'dianoia', their intellectual life.
So when he places 'muthos' as the first of the elements to be analysed in a tragedy, he is talking about the outward, external actions which are THE MEDIUM BY WHICH THE INNER ACTION IS REVEALED. Even this does not exhaust the meaning. What commentators down the centuries have ignored is this: Aristotle took it for granted that the sole purpose of drama is to explore what it means to be human.
Everything that expresses the mental life falls within Aristotle's sense of `action'. For him the action that art seeks to reproduce is mainly an INWARD PROCESS, an emotional energy. Character or the psychological reality reveals itself through a sequence of externalised emotions and thoughts, responses and decisions. These actions may realise themselves in a single moment, passing moods of feelings, a particular emotion.
The outward actions, for Aristotle, then, issue from deep sources - psychological motivation. 'Muthos' is the essence of a play's true significance because the emotional effect which the actions are designed to produce is inherent in the artistic structure of the whole.
What's absolutely crucial about Aristotle's ideas on drama is that it is an organic unity, an inward principle which reveals itself in the form of an outward whole. He insists, above all, that the structure of a play is not a mechanical piecing together of incidents, which is how most screenwriting manuals describe structure, but a vital union of elements. The causal connection binds together the different parts of a play - the emotions, the thoughts, the decisions made - or avoided - with the external events inextricably interwoven. There is nothing arbitrary about how to organise the succession of scenes.
Aristotle talks of a beginning, a middle and an end, but nowhere does he attempt to mark at what point the `middle' is to be placed. Also, he makes a point of not laying down any precise rules about the length of a play.
So, I don't know how any criteria of assessment can be `exactly' the same as those used by Aristotle about Greek Tragedies which is the premise of Tierno's book, when there are quite a few times when the philosopher's remarks are at complete variance to what the plays he's writing about are actually like. (For example, Aristotle implies that characters are fixed either in their true nature or out of it, and change by sudden reversal, but Aeschylus' Orestes and Sophocles' Philoktetes grow before our eyes in a nuanced psychological change). Aristotle wasn't saying that it is the outward action that is all-important.
And - No, Aristotle never talked about `The Three Unities' as another author of a best-selling book on screenwriting has claimed. He never so much as mentioned `unity of place', and his views about the time-span of the action in a play were not at all dogmatic. Like so many Renaissance scholars and writers, the Italian theorist Lodovico Castelvetro wildly misinterpreted the ancient philosopher's words, and made up `The Three Unities' (of time, place and action). Unfortunately, everyone assumed this was a prescriptive from Aristotle himself.
So Aristotle's ideas on drama have been contaminated into a travesty of one of the most profound and illuminating explorations of art in western civilisation.
If you want to find out what Aristotle was really saying, read a translation of the original - carefully.