Aristotle’s Poetics 2370 years later, by Susana Cook
I am interested in looking at The Poetics’ legacy and how after 2370 years it still stands as a ruling force in the world of drama and playwriting. Besides being a thorough compendium of the elements of the tragedy and comedy, The Poetics shows the power of the written word, shaping a culture that will grow at the shadows of the immutable classics. Experimental or innovative efforts in the world of drama or performance end up creating new categories. It is as if the Drama/ Theater/ Playwriting realm could not be transformed or subject to change. When the new form becomes too distant or foreign to the classical ancestor then it becomes something else, a sub-discipline or genre. The domain of theater or drama conserves the specific rules spelled by Aristotle in The Poetics. It is the norm, and moving away from the norm carries the price of expulsion from the world of Tragedy and Comedy. The authors who subverted the rules established at The Poetics become in a way an evidence of the lasting effects of The Poetics and how its mandates survived in contemporary cultural expressions, (although the poetics only address Tragedy, his poetics of Comedy have never been found).
“Whether tragedy has fully realized its possible forms or has not yet done so may be left for another discussion. Its beginnings, certainly were in improvisation. After passing through many changes it came to a stop, being now in possession of its specific nature.” (49) The stop expressed by Aristotle as a present moment was over two millenniums ago, but the dramatic form certainly came then to an irrevocable stop. The shape or specific nature that it had acquired at the moment described by Aristotle created the mold that shapes dramatic writing to this day.
The idea of order that exhumes from The Poetics creates a confining and organized environment. It assumes a unified audience that will respond or react to certain elements of the tragedy in the same way. Aristotle starts his Poetics by establishing universal moral values and a uniformed human nature. Tragedy imitates people who are better than us and Comedy people who are lower than us, “goodness and badness being universal criteria or character” (46). Aristotle refers to human nature as a universal (hierarchical) category with specific characteristics. He attributes then the creation of Tragedy to the “instinct to imitate rooted in human nature” (47). The audience becomes a uniformed entity as well. “We have evidence of this in actual experience, for the forms of those things that are distressful to see in reality, we contemplate with pleasure when we find them represented with perfect realism in images” (47). After establishing a uniformed motivation to the creative act; an identical response to it and universal values of goodness and badness, he describes then the effects. The actions onstage have the purpose to effect fear and or pity in the audience and the play will eventually create the catharsis of those emotions.
I obtained my BA in Drama in Buenos Aires over twenty years ago. As a student, I had to read and write essays about The Poetics. After I graduated I spent many years doing theater in every capacity. I never talked again about The Poetics. I didn’t hear anybody talking about it and I didn’t read any book that cited the work. I recently returned to school to do my MFA, and The Poetics came back as a deja vu in workshops and classes and readings. Maybe because I am myself a person who does not respond to stories with a plot the way that Aristotle expected his audience to react, or maybe it is because I see The Poetics as inevitably connected with school, but it makes me think that institutionalized knowledge of drama relies on The Poetics for the creation of uniformity and order necessary to the narrative of artistic value. The organization of events into a consistent plot structure proposed by Aristotle can be found mostly in mainstream theater and film.
According to Aristotle “the basic principle is imitation” (45) Brecht argued with that statement with his famous: “Theater is not a mirror of reality but a hammer to shape it”. His theater it's usually referred to as Epic or Political Theater. The Poetics teach us that “The soul of tragedy is the plot”. Some authors, like Gertrude Stein argue that “A play doesn’t have to tell a story”. According to Stein, what’s happening during the drama is the theater experience itself. The creation of an experience, according to Stein is more important than the representation of an event. Many people wouldn’t consider Gertrude Stein’s plays to be real theater or playwriting. The same could be said for many people who created new forms, their work was named alternative theater, performance art, interventionists theater, etc. It’s interesting to see how the world of visual arts for example went through so many movements and changes that transformed it essentially but theater rules seem to be frozen in time. Aristotle describes the work of the painters of his time, Polygnotus, Pauson and Dionysius. Looking at those paintings and at contemporary paintings you can see the millennia that went by in the history of fine arts. Contemporary painters don’t seem to be following the rules of composition and structure that the painters of that time were following. But in drama, most of the teachings of Aristotle remain intact and alive at the heart of most contemporary dramas. However a classicist strain runs through all arts, though perhaps it is strongest in theatre.
I find The Poetics to be a valuable historical document of the Tragedy of that time. But I think that it also has served through the millennia the purpose of creating a normative discourse of structure and a hierarchical and unified set of values in the world of drama.
Aristotle’s Poetics. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James Hutton. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company.