Aristotle Drama and the Classic form

Readers of my blog know about my obsession with the classic form. Even if none of us had ever read the work of Aristotle, we know and understand the fundamentals of good drama when we discuss plot, characters and story. However, it took someone like Aristotle to explain exactly why great writers stokes audiences. Aristotle dissected the fundamentals of plays to discover the key principles of classic drama. Poetics freed writers to expand the classic form and this is why Aristotle’s principles of writing good drama continue to be of great significance today.

I studied Poetics because it was vital for me to have Aristotle’s key principles present in my work after I discovered that all the works that stoked me from childhood to adulthood originate from this form. Upon studying the work, I soon realised this classic form also exists in music and poetry I love. The problem for me is to be able to express Aristotle’s fundamental principles without it feeling contrived when you write. There is usually a flow which takes shape when this happens. I myself, am put off by contrived situations on screen and in print. I now realise the only way to avoid this is to practice until the the form becomes second nature in my work. Only then, will I be able to play with the form. I examined the work of Aristotle sometime ago but I now intend to return to the work again and I hope this is useful to other writers like me. Apologies if it is basic but I believe in starting from somewhere.

Aristotle, who lived between 384-322BC, wrote ‘Poetics’ but the work is not known to have been widely circulated or published in his lifetime. The discovery of Poetics years after Aristotle’s death has since influenced the dynamics of writing drama and poetry. The impact includes but is not limited to Poetics being properly translated in Italy during the Italian Renaissance and the time of Shakespeare in 1600. An Oriental version existed in 935AD. The classic form highlighted by Aristotle can be found in the works of Henrik Ibsen, Alfred Hitchcock, Arthur Miller, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon etc. The impact of Poetics has been considerable. I have written a short summary of Poetics but the original text, which is only 50 pages is a great read. It can be found at this url:
http://www.online-literature.com/aristotle/poetics/
 
Poetics looks at the fundamentals of writing great tragedy. Aristotle believed the art of good dramatic tragedy was personified by the works of the Greek playwright Sophocles who was constantly voted as the most popular by audiences. Few of Sophocles plays now survive.

These are the fundamental principles of classic drama: –

Poetics considers tragedy to be the dramatisation of a sequence of events which cause a situation to go from good to bad in a logical but surprising way. The dramatic events must show not tell what actually happens and must function according to the laws of logical probability or necessity. The events must evoke strong emotions such as pity caused by the character facing ‘unmerited misfortune’ or fear caused by relating to the character facing adverse circumstances. 

The plot should be an arrangement of events derived from an unbroken chain of cause and effect. The beginning, middle and end must have causal connections comprising a holistic whole to ensure audiences do not suffer from a suspension of disbelief or become disengaged from the plot. This is like looking at one’s own life, it is not split into dates but events which shape-shift into the life we have and know.

Aristotle acknowledged good characters must be complex, never stereotypes. The character like all human beings must have a flaw. This flaw must cause their situation to go from good to bad where they lose something of importance be it power, status or even risk their own lives or loved ones. Aristotle believed a good character has to be highly renowned and prosperous for the fall to be truly tragic. 

The character’s speech or action must express their character and their personal motivations must support the plot and its overall holistic theme. There must be continuity.

The written character must be relevant to the role, provide a picture of their morality, be true to life and show consistency through necessity and probability. This realism must also show an otherness which shows the representation of perhaps what may be a greater capacity in all human beings. Today, we may describe this as human ideals but these attributes will be universally recognised in heroes and heroines. A great favourite of Hitchcock and Spielberg is where the ordinary person becomes extraordinary in particular circumstances.

Poetics is the basis of Western drama and is used by playwrights and screenwriters alike. Poetics is the standard text in Hollywood but some choose to digress from the classic form. Therefore, most of us know the classic structure of all drama but choose to watch drama at the cinema, TV or theatre rather than the amphitheatre.

DEERS OFF – #Gointothestory DAY 9 scene

EXT. WOODS NEAR ALEXANDRA PALACE, LONDON – DAY

North American white tailed deer STAG Harry and FAWN Micky eat twigs and look out to London.

HARRY: Here we are in London, I can smell the pollution Jerry described.

MICKY: Scotland’s the place we want to be Dad.

HARRY: You got to think of property prices son?

MICKY: We won’t need a house to protect us in Scotland.

HARRY: Scotland’s got too many food banks son.

MICKY: It gets better and better.

HARRY: You got to start thinking with your stomach son.

MICKY: I do Dad, all the time, apart from one time.

HARRY: Food banks mean no one has food son.

MICK: Red deer said we should go back to where we came from?

HARRY: And what was that Red’s name again?

MICKY: Tufton Victor Osborne.

HARRY: And did you tell Tufton about dangers in the US?

MICK: Red said it’s worse here. Red dreams of going to Cayuga heights.

HARRY: Tufton doesn’t want immigrants like us.

MICK: They have immigrants like us in Scotland.

HARRY: It won’t be any different there son.

MICKY: DAD, I saw a video about the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.   

HARRY: I’ve warned you about watching TV.

MICKY: No one can shoot us in Scotland Dad.

HARRY: And this has got nothing with you trying out at the Edinburgh fringe?

MICKY: Mum thinks you could develop a Scottish nose.

HARRY: No Tufton’s there I bet, talking smells.

Harry raises his white tail and twitches. Harry runs and Micky follows and they are gone.

A small child appears after peeing in the bushes.

is this a date?

they were proper like

what?

you know

what?

they were doing this

is this a date?

no

but it could be?

not really

might turn out?

maybe

answers on a postcard

we’ll see

what made you think of there?

what’s wrong with it?

we do this there

so what?

it’s a cemetery

it’s beautiful

so is my you know

what?

but it’s not a show

ow ow ow

what now?

it’s too late

for what?

she’s coming…

 

All rights reserved©

How the unexpected can make expected genre films and plays great?

The world of films and plays are always in heavy competition because have the great stories not already been told?

It seems that they have but we all think differently and therefore our story telling is different and some writers go the extra mile to find inventive new ways of telling old stories which continue to advance the form. The original films mentioned below created whole franchises to feed on the original story. The plays continue to be performed and studied today because they still have resonance.

Antigone by Sophocles (A tragedy)

The surprise – The heroine is a strong woman who vows to die to fight for the funeral rights of her brother in defiance of her family, the King and her prospective husband. Context: Women had no rights in ancient Greece.

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (A tragedy)

The surprise: The heroine is an object, a trophy wife who appears frivolous but hides the sacrifices she makes for a husband until she realises she is the hero not her husband and she must leave to truly become a free and independent woman. Context: The ending of Ibsen’s play caused a furore. The role and rights of women in the public and private sphere were subjugated but change was in the public consciousness

Othello by William Shakespeare (A tragedy)

The surprise: A heroic man whose self doubts as a Moor kills the beautiful and faithful wife he loves through listening to machinations of a faithless and jealous servant.

Alien by Dan O’ Bannon – Story by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett (A horror)

The surprises:  A horror set in space where a woman heroine is forced to defend herself against and kill an intelligent alien who is born inside a male crew member. The alien comes out at the dinner table.

The Matrix by brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski (Sci-fi)

The surprise: The hero’s double life results in him being targeted by the police and authoritarian forces. Coincidence and symbols save him and the hero discovers that the reality he knows does not actually exist. The surprise is what he believes to be true is not true and vice versa.

Star Wars by George Lucas (Sci-fi)

The surprise: The hero Luke discovers the evil Darth Vader is his father and his sister is the beautiful Princess he felt compelled to save and he can overcome his ego to use the force without resorting to the evil path.

This list of great films and plays is not exhaustive but seeks to illustrate a point.

The classics – Storytelling, Scriptwriting and Poetry©

Aristotle’s Poetics is an ancient Greek text which considers the fundamentals of great tragedy. Poetics continues to be used as a source for studying the art of writing drama because it expects a script to respect and connect with the creativity of the film makers (all those working in a film) and the audience. Poetics continues to help improve understanding about the dynamics of writing drama and poetry as well as challenge and refresh ideas.

Aristotle believed the art of good dramatic tragedy was personified by the works of the popular Greek playwright Sophocles whose plays were regularly voted as the audience favourite. Aristotle’s text on tragedy was created as a result of trying to analyse the reason for Sophocles success. Scriptwriters and film makers continue the vital work of analysis today. Few of Sophocles plays survive but the ones that do continue to have the power to connect with audiences. Aristotle’s text tells us how much work a script that can touch audiences requires.

Aristotle lived between 384-322BC, wrote ‘Poetics’, which is not known to have been widely circulated or published in his lifetime.  Poetics was rediscovered and translated fully during the Italian Renaissance and the text was revived again in 1600 and may have influenced Shakespeare. An Oriental version of Poetics existed in 935AD. Poetics has been lost and rediscovered throughout the recorded history of drama and its resurrection has proved to be a great catalyst for reviving the art of powerful drama. This blog has produced a short summary of Poetics below but the original text, which is only 50 pages should be read and properly considered by scriptwriters, film makers and storytellers. Poetics can be found at this url: http://www.online-literature.com/aristotle/poetics/

Poetics considers tragedy to be the dramatisation of a sequence of events which cause a situation to dramatically reverse from the character’s world perspective in a logical but surprising way. The drama must show not tell what actually happens and must function according to the laws of logical probability or necessity. The plot, which cannot be separate from the events affecting the character, is an arrangement of events derived from an unbroken chain of cause and effect. Aristotle recognised that the characters in a play must be archetypes not stereotypes. The character’s speech or action must express the character and their personal motivations which must in turn support the plot and its overall holistic theme. The character like all human beings must have flaws or a significant flaw. This must cause their situation to go from good to bad (or vice versa) where they lose something of importance be it power or life. The written character must be relevant to the role, provide a picture of their morality, be true to life and show consistency through necessity and probability. The character can also show an otherness which shows the representation of perhaps what may be a greater capacity in all human beings. Today, we may describe this as human ideals but these attributes will be universally recognised as aspirations to transcend the human condition. The events affecting the character must evoke empathy and emotions in the audience.  The beginning, middle and end must have causal connections comprising a holistic whole to ensure audiences do not suffer from a suspension of disbelief or become disengaged from the drama.

Poetics is the basis of Western drama and is used by playwrights and screenwriters alike and is a standard text in Hollywood. Therefore, most of us are well versed in the classic structure of drama but may now choose to watch drama at the cinema or on TV rather than the going to the theatre or as it was then, the amphitheatre.