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Playwrighting: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (Part I)

August 28, 2012

Oedipus and the SphinxAristotle is a master categorizer, which is why I’ve frequently relied on his Poetics around here when reviewing plays. He took the plays of his time, analyzed them, and put that analysis into a slim field guide on the nature of the beast. Some of his analysis may be a little off when applied to the plays of our day and some of his categories more confusing than helpful at times, but he give us a place to start, which is more than I can say for most modern writers.

Despite his dissection of theatre and all of his ideas about hamartia, catharsis, and structure, Aristotle really boils all of art, and therefore theatre, down to one thing: imitation. At a time when literal shit on a stick can be considered art, the essence of art as imitation is an important and helpful thing to keep in mind. It can be dangerous to rely on pagan thought for our definitions, but Aristotle’s skill for observation brings him closer than most, even though he inevitably misses the mark at some point or another.

Growing out of this theory of art as imitation comes Aristotle’s famed Six Elements of Drama[1]: Action or Plot, Character, Thought or Theme, Word, Song, and Spectacle. Playwrights and actors make their imitation in Action and Character, by means of the overall Thought of the play as whole, using the tools of Word, Song, and Spectacle.

These Six Elements and their ultimate inseparableness quickly gave rise to the playwright’s very own chicken-and-egg question: Does the character inform the action? Or the action the character?

The answer has more to do with theology and liturgy than the modern American might like to think.


1. Aristotle actually calls these the Elements of Tragedy. Originally, Poetics had a second part dealing with the nature of comic or satyr plays, but that bit was swallowed up in the fire at the Library of Alexandria. (I don’t wanna talk about it.) The general consensus is the Elements couldn’t really have differed that much, as the satyr plays of Greece were akin to the modern farce, which relies on type plots and stock characters, involving word, song, and spectacle in service to a more ignoble theme. Additionally, the resurrection of Christ has overcome all tragedies, turning them into something deeply comedic. That’s where the elements particular to tragedy (such as hamartia & catharsis) really start to get fun.


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