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2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes
Theater - Aristotle and Tragedy


by Prof. Lary Optiz, Theater

Aristotle and theatre? Wasn’t Aristotle a philosopher? Didn’t he invent the scientific method? Well, yes. Actually he was perhaps the world’s greatest know-it-all – at least he thought so. In addition to his nearly 200 philosophical writings and scientific treatises, he also wrote extensively on the art of theatre.

Aristotle was born in 384 BCE in Stagira in Macedonia (northern Greece at the time). The son of a royal physician, Aristotle studied with Plato for 20 years at the famous Academy in Athens. Some time after Plato died Aristotle served as tutor to Alexander the Great. When he returned to Athens after a 13-year absence he created a new school called the Lyceum. He died in 322 BCE.

Pieter Paul Rubens, The School of Athens:Plato and Aristotle (detail) 1510-1511(Skidmore Visual Resources)
Pieter Paul Rubens, The School of Athens:
Plato and Aristotle (detail) 1510-1511
(Skidmore Visual Resources)

For the ancient Greeks the theatre was considered to be an important part of religious observance. Further, they believed that tragedy was the highest form of drama. In 350 BCE, about 100 years after Sophocles wrote Antigone, Aristotle created an analytical treatise on literature and drama entitled the Poetics. In this work he defines tragedy and outlines what we now refer to as the elements of drama. The bulk of the Poetics deals with tragedy and only mentions other forms, such as comedy, peripherally, perhaps because the treatise is an incomplete collection of lecture notes. The Aristotelian interpretation of drama has had a profound impact on our understanding of how tragedy works, admittedly through the lens of one 4th century BCE Greek thinker. Aristotle's vision of the dramatic arts does not necessarily encapsulate the meaning of tragedy during its apex in 5th century BCE Athens, but its influence on western drama and thought left an enduring impact which deserves consideration.

While Plato taught that tragedy is a danger to society because it encourages irrationality, Aristotle argues that tragedy is both positive and useful since it not only arouses pity and fear, but also purges these emotions, and thereby restores harmony to the human soul.
The Nature of Tragedy

According to statements in Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy is defined as:

“An imitation of action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude ... concerning the fall of a man whose character is good ... whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity but by some error or frailty ... with incidents arousing pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”

A dictionary defines tragedy as “any serious and dignified drama that describes a conflict between the hero (protagonist) and a superior force (destiny, chance, society, god) and reaches a sorrowful conclusion that arouses pity or fear in the audience.”

A tragedy is a genre (distinctive type or form) of drama in which the role of humankind in the universe is questioned in a profoundly serious manner. Tragedy assumes that there is something wrong in the universe and a conflict between human goodness and reality is implied. A protagonist (hero) generally suffers some sort of serious misfortune that is not accidental, but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected to the actions and choices of the hero. Humans are seen as vulnerable beings whose suffering is brought on by either or divine actions. A person may be destroyed by attempting to be good or virtuous. This hardly seems fair, but it is often part of the human experience. Why should someone suffer for trying to be good? Given this idea of tragedy, if the gods reward goodness either on earth or in heaven there is no tragedy. If in the end each person gets what he or she deserves, there is no tragedy. Sometimes a main character might have a serious fault, or tragic flaw, which leads to consequences far more dire than he or she deserves.

Tragedy generally has an unhappy ending. Often feelings of pity and fear for a hero are aroused. Indeed, these feelings might be aroused for the human condition itself. However, tragedy is not merely about feeling sad. As we watch the defeat of a virtuous hero we encounter feelings of joy and glory because of humankind’s greatest aspirations, qualities and potential. We admire the hero and, by analogy, we admire and celebrate all humankind. We are hopeful because our belief in the human capacity to transcend evil is reaffirmed.

Aristotle's Six Elements of Tragedy

Other concepts in Aristotle’s Poetics


The Aristotelian Unities

Renaissance scholars interpreted Aristotle’s theories of drama as expressed in his Poetics. They referred to what we now call the Unities of Time, Place and Action.

The unities provide structure and can fulfill a number of functions:

Not all plays follow these restrictive unities. Indeed, the development of drama throughout the ages has involved the exploration of alternate structures. In the 1920’s the German playwright Bertolt Brecht developed an “Epic Theatre” which argued against Aristotelian theatre that point by point. Many modern, avant-garde and post-modern plays have completely and consciously abandoned the traditional Aristotelian unities.

For a complete text of the Poetics in English, with some commentary, click here.

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