Aristotle, the Poetics and The Modern Era; A Critical Inquiry into Understanding the Implications of the Aristotelian Philosophy on Theatre

History attributes Aristotle’s birth to 384 BCE, and for 62ish years, he lived a modest life, first as a student to Plato, then later as a teacher and philosopher to men of Athens, not the least of which was Alexander the Great, son to Philip II, King of Macedon. His legacy survives, owing to a great many moments of luck. Aristotle himself was not a massively prolific public writer, and many of his treatises were written esoterically for his students at the Lyceum. When he fled to the isle of Euboea after a wave of anti-Macedonian sentiment rose up in the wake of Alexander’s death, he passed his life works to his Lyceum successor, Theophrastus, who passed them onto his nephew, Neleus, who hid them in a cave, where they lay dormant for several hundred years until they were discovered by another philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes.

Translated, edited and published, Aristotle’s work would find new life in the Renaissance era and has remained an influential work of thought that has transcended the context in which it was written to inform authors, playwrights, philosophers, scientists and creators in societies around the globe. In the 2,500 years since its inception, one of Aristotle’s most influential works the Poetics, the first ever extant treatise on dramatic & literary theory has gone on to live an extraordinary life as a monumental cornerstone of critique and abstract theorem, all while inspiring deeply controversial principles that are hotly contested even to this day. In learning about Aristotle and pondering on the Poetics’ potency that lies beyond Aristotle’s somewhat cryptic esotericism and its effects on the theatre of the modern world, some interesting conjectures bubble up from the deep void that we will herein discuss.

Distilling the abundance of questions that one may conjure while reading Aristotle, three principal ideas about the intentions & subsequent effects of the Poetics formulate. The first: Aristotle, while lacking the linguistic objects to elucidate his meaning, is describing multiple processes at work when he is describing “poetry”. In one such way, the psychological implications of “imitation as learning” is his way of relating to us the anthropological concept of enculturation (and later acculturation) as they coincide with conceptualizations of the performative aspects of culture and identity. Aristotle uses “poetry” as an intersection of conscious and unconscious imitation as performance of culture, and “poetry” that preserves & ennobles performance of culture. This is the concept of “Theatrx” (pronounced as theatre) that I introduce later in this paper to explain these separate but overlapping theoretical principles alluded to, but for lack of linguistic objects (and our missing contextualization) within the text, Aristotle is unable to fully articulate for us. The second: In writing the Poetics, Aristotle is offering a “higher” explanation of the descriptively universal principles (a tautological concept I will explain in detail further on) of “poetry” herein theatre & theatrx, and specifically its culminating form, the pureness of tragedy as it extends from the imitation of the natural process of “civilized” (read: social) human interaction. This “higher” (read: enlightened or Divine) explanation is not an absolute claim for the due process by which all theatre should be conducted were Aristotle a theatre critic, but a proposed model for maximising the potential effects of the dramatization of human interactivity-identity-culture (re: Theatrx). And finally the third: Aristotle’s proposed model is then by necessity of its construction a subjective commentary on the effectiveness of Theatre as it exists, how it best should connect humans to the human condition through the dramatization of Theatrx (cultural performance & identity politics) which posits the man himself as a critic of Theatre and simultaneously postulates a framework by which a critic may then serve Theatre for its betterment or detriment in official regard as a “critic”.

I posit that these principle ideas of the Poetics are the roots to the crucial misgivings modern era armchair philosophers and ersatz theatre critics attribute to the work of Aristotle. And as a result, have formulated incongruous maladaptive doctrines of the Poetics that continue to shape guiding thought around what is and is not, theatre. These maladaptive doctrines are best described by noted English theatre director Peter Brook, a man once given the title “our greatest living theatre director”. In his seminal literary work on modern theatre, Brook describes four domains of theatre: Holy, Rough, Immediate and Deadly. For our purposes we concern ourselves with Deadly theatre (and Holy, but later on) in this way, and use Brook’s definition to expound on our principal ideas, and ones direct from Aristotle the layman forgets exist within the Poetics.

As all four of Brook’s domains exist within a metaphysical state, what he calls the theatre of the invisible, he does not give a full-on, Merriam-Webster definition for Deadly theatre (or any other of his terms). What Brook attempts to do is glean a sense of working order that constitutes Deadly Theatre, out of the metaphysical realm into the physical realm. Much like any description of The Way in the Tao Te Ching, no physical description of metaphysical Deadly theatre could ever fully encompass the entirety of Deadly theatre. Much like a 2D drawing of an object can only represent, not embody, a 3D object, our understanding is limited and incomplete by virtue of our perception and cognition. Brook explains that Deadly theatre is one that “[conforms] to these canons… that makes [them] pass as living truth” and that “meaning never belongs in the past…so each new generation finds the grand manner more and more hollow, more and more meaningless” (Brook, 1968/1996).

He further explains that as “theatre is relativity…the deadly trap is to divide the eternal truths from the superficial variations; this is a subtle form of snobbery and is fatal” (Brook, 1968/1996). And its fatality is inherent because Brook presupposes “the vehicle of drama is flesh and blood… the vehicle and the message cannot be separated”. To rephrase in an attempt to clarify: the “empirical truth” of theatre cannot be disengaged from the modality by which it is expressed, human performance, and in its inseparability lies its flaws; flaws that Deadly Theatre directors, actors, playwrights and critics, in supplanting their own perceptions of the Poetics, attempt to buff out to shape themselves ever closer to the Grand Manner which is held supreme above all others. A Grand Manner believed to be laid out by Aristotle’s Poetics but no more resembles the pure truth than any other Deadly misinterpretation. The armchair philosopher and ersatz critic reads the Cliff Notes of the Poetics and sees the Grand Design of six elements of tragedy as blueprints to greatness, and not the tangible injections into reality of the metaphysical connection to the human condition they more accurately represent

You have undoubtedly witnessed Deadly Theatre. It is spectacle for the sake of spectacle. It is the hemming and hawing over which way to better pronounce Shakespeare’s dialectical prosodies to be more “authentic”. It is the “nightmare of vast feuds over tiny details; of surrealist anecdotes that all turn round the same assertion” (Brook, 1968/1996). As Brook warns us: “there is a deadly element everywhere; in the cultural set-up, in our inherited artistic values, in the economic framework, in the actor’s life, in the critic’s function” (Brook, 1968/1996). It is billion dollar movie franchises, community productions of the same retinue of shows year after year. In a way I believe it is Aristotle’s distaste for the double issue. The dual outcome undermines the emotional impact of pure Tragedy — Grief metered by the convenient happy ending; a weakness he equates “symptomatic of an ethical failure” (Heath, 2009). The “just desserts” ending where the villain is punished, the good guy saves the day, and all is right in the world; this too, is Deadly Theatre, as once it may have been an original idea, that now is ancient canon in the modern world. One that has passed “from the lively to the moribund” (Brook, 1968/1996). Deadly Theatre bellows out its siren song in single review tweets, and one-star Amazon reviews. It is the riptide in conversations about what’s binge-worthy or not.

Aristotle, in his treatise on poetry that would become to be known as the Poetics, created the cornerstone on which all western theatre traditions are built, and his influence is still widely felt today; even as this work is largely incomplete and become a focal point of stagnation because of the tropes by which modern theatre still deeply relies on, the underpinnings of the Poetics and ultimately Aristotle’s archetypal structuring of many prominent theatre traditions are profoundly insightful, and deserve continued study for insight and relevance in the modern era. It is now that we turn to dissect the hypothetical principles laid out before in turn and judge their meaning.

Foremost, we look directly to Aristotle’s words and work so that we may be clear of the foundations on which we must stand to then see clearly the enervated state it subsists within modern theatre culture today. Aristotle builds his argument for tragedy through a series of points. With each, he presupposes acceptance of the former, in order to grasp the entirety of the concept he attempts to describe. This concept-staggering follows a path that we will explore at length in this first principle. Imitation is the first concept Aristotle brings to us in the Poetics — more specifically “mimêsis”. Dr. Eugnene Garver, whose formal notes on the Poetics have stood as the formal baseline for decoding Aristotle for nearly 20 years, explains that mimêsis is not only in reference to the making, but to the product, and most importantly “mimêsis does not have the connotation of copying” (Aristotle & Garver, 2005). Therefore we must attribute more substance to the meaning of the narrowly translated “imitation” that Aristotle actually attempts to convey. Imitation in this way is more complex and dynamic, akin to spiritual inhabitation, the way one “becomes” another, or singularly the metaphysical way one adopts an identity. This is the first divergence I make note of. As Aristotle did not have the field of psychology or anthropology to empirically validate his hypothesis with actual data, he had to invent the concepts he was creating. To this end, when Aristotle writes:

First the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. (Aristotle & Garver, 2005)

He is explaining a dual-fold process, one that he does not have the linguistic objects to do so effectively to his purpose. Firstly, in anthropological terms, what he is explaining is the process of enculturation: “we learn to become members of our group both directly, through instruction from our parents and peers, and indirectly by observing and imitating those around us” (Brown et al., 2020). The imitation of others is the primary modality we experience the world, find our places within it and “become” human, with identities, perceptions, beliefs and socio-cognitive tools to perform the culture that has shaped and become us, back to the world. Aristotle then gives simple purpose to this explanation:

The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure…thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah that is he’. (Aristotle & Garver, 2005)

In psychology we recognize this principle as the firing of mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex throughout the motor system, including the ventral and dorsal premotor cortices and primary motor cortex, as well as being present in different regions of the parietal cortex. Mirror neurons are the function by which we perceive a behavior in the world and then re-enact it within our mind and body. Mirror neurons map behavior, and emotion onto the somatosensory and visceromotor sections of the brain, and in doing so, create within our biology the realness of perception, morphing witnessed action into original conception. Mirror neurons are the reason smiles and yawns are said to be contagious, to witness (or even hear about) an action, mirror neurons recreate it within our mind and body. According to many psychologists, this may be the reason why we are so affected by film and television (and theatre!) because our mirror neurons do not distinguish between “fantasy” and “reality”. We map actions witnessed or heard onto our mind as if we were enacting them ourselves and we then react to the consequences of the perception that what we are witnessing is happening to us through biological processes of the amygdala, HPA axis and hundreds of other biological and psychological contributions to sensory perception and management. Aristotle’s use of mimêsis makes more sense here when related to anthropological and psychological concepts he had no way of explaining or communicating with the limits of his language 2,500 years ago.

Aristotle’s consideration then in this way is that imitation is a function of our natural biological functions; our curiosity and empathy inherent to our humanness. The intention of integrating the intentionality of then purposeful-imitation into natural-imitation (as it simultaneously extends from it) serves then as a “higher” purpose of exploring the morality and conditions as humanity. Daniel Balderston explores this with the Muslim philospher Averroes’ thoughts on Aristotle: “the liminal is the space of poetics” (Balderston, 1996). Which we might explore to mean in the context of purposeful imitation & natural imitation, the intermediary space between self-awareness & will is where imitation lies. And this purposeful + natural imitation, identity, enculturation is the concept of Theatrx I seek to introduce. It is the first that we engage with. Performing culture, the awareness of identity and the personal agency of choice through will; when American musical theorist and philosopher John Cage says:

“Theatre takes place all the time — wherever one is — and art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case.”

This is what I propound as Theatrx. A third definition for the psychosocial underpinnings of Theatre that takes place in a Theater. Allan Gilbert, in his critique of Aristotle’s four species of tragedy, reminds us “a topic developed at length is man’s advance from primitive to civilized life” (Gilbert, 1947). A topic Aristotle is acutely focused on throughout the Poetics and even more so in Rhetoric.

This then more fully explains Aristotle’s focus on Tragedy as the supreme form of poetry, because “Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality” (Aristotle & Garver, 2005). In the end, we are not “happy” by mark of quality, it is through our actions that we can be said to derive happiness from them. From the natural imitation (theatrx) to the purposeful imitation (theatre) Tragedy attains its lofty positions in Aristotelian ascription because it preserves & ennobles theatrx. Margaret Finkelberg in her work on Aristotle and Episodic Tragedy says of tragedy:

If the action represented in poetry is of the right ‘philosophical kind’, the emotions of fear and pity aroused in an audience who are fully absorbed in the action would purge the soul and thus allow an ordinary man, by sharing for a while the defying experience of characters, one arrives at the kind of pleasure which comes as close as possible to the pure cognitive pleasure experienced by the philosopher (Finkelberg, 2006)

Of course Aristotle would then relate the “highness” of pleasure of Tragedy to the heights of logic a philosopher attains. In witnessing Oedipus, Aristotle may have connected his catharsis for the protagonist unto himself in the same bone fide way “learning” creates endorphins in the brain. The oneness of experiencing characters as ourselves and the “learning” that accompanies that experience is what it means to be human to Aristotle. Finkelberg posits: “if literature does not supply us with plots, we find them in American made-for-television films, or by default on the front page stories from Kuwait” (Finkelberg, 2006) and we must ask ourselves of that thought: Did Aristotle touch upon a descriptively universal affectation of human nature when he connected learning-natural imitation-purposeful imitation-tragedy? That we biologically & psychologically construct “narrative” formulations of the world, non-episodic stories, of which tragedy is the “highest” order because it most purely preserves and ennobles the frailty of the human condition and the method by which we experience that condition?

Malcolm Heath in his work Should there have been a Polis in Aristotle’s Poetics? has much to say on these questions. To ascertain Aristotle’s decisions for the order of “highness” and “lowness”, in relation to his three forms of poetry (theatre) Tragedy, epic poetry, comedy, we draw forth a conclusion that if imitation is humanness, then “highness” is then “closeness” to metaphysical humanness; civility, rationality, logic. Whereas “lowness” then is its antithesis and is closer to the chaos of being uncivilized or closer to animal-ness. Heath asserts, “comedy, defined as an imitation of inferior actions, also demands ethical judgment in poet and audience” and reminds us “Politics for Aristotle, is the ‘architectonic discipline…[and] conceives that there could not be a human activity that is not answerable to politics’’ (Heath, 2009). Which then if we extend to its maxim, theatrx and theatre are inherently political (and by extension ethical) as they are human activities. To which he conveys “if poetry is ethical, it is social; society is implicated in any human activity with ethical dimension” (Heath, 2009) and further elaborates with, “of course if poetry is a universal human practice, no particular social context is implied. The society involved in any actual poetic practice is necessarily some particular society, for the simple reason that all actual societies are particular societies ‘’ (Heath, 2009).

Here again, Aristotle’s preconceptions about human mimetic tendencies and “how poetry is rooted in anthropological universals: the natural human inclination towards imitating and taking pleasure in imitations” (Heath, 2009) lead us ultimately toward Tragedy because as Aristotle offers us “experience-based recognition that certain ways of composing tragedies are effective into a rational understanding of why they are effective”(Heath, 2009). Heath leads us now onto the second principle of this works with two distinct and important concepts (mentioned briefly earlier) we will explore as the foundation for Aristotle’s focus on tragedy; descriptively universal: “you will find it in every human society” (Heath, 2009); and normatively universal: “it is something that every [society] would have to acquire if it is to have achieved it optimal development”(Heath, 2009).

Heath alleges “since poetry is rooted in natural human instincts common to all, we would expect its most primitive forms to arise spontaneously in every human society” (Heath, 2009) which we understand is in part what Aristotle communicates when he talks about the naturalism of imitation & learning in all humans. Heath adds this crucial piece which marks an important dialectical shift, “the behavior of humans is far more open to modification by habit, and also by reason, than that of any other animal” (Heath, 2009). The modification by reason marks the interpersonal shift from natural imitation to purposeful imitation, and societal shift from theatrx to theatre. Megumi Sata, in her comparative work of Aristotle’s Poetics and culturally renowned Japanese Noh playwright Zeami’s Teachings on Style and the Flower, brings us evidence of the impact of many Aristotelian principles in Japanese culture, in relation to imitation. Observing that”both societies (Japanese and Ancient Greek) being polytheistic and both theatre forms having ritualistic origins” (Sata, 1989) both philosopher-poets have similar ideas of what imitation consists of. Aristotle saying, “they while reproducing the distinctive form of the original make a likeness which is true to life, and yet more beautiful” (Sata, 1989) and Zeami saying,

He must imitate down to the smallest detail the various things done by persons of high profession, especially those elements related to high artistic pursuits. On the other hand, when it comes to imitating laborers and rustics, their common-place actions should not be copied too realistically” (Sata, 1989)

Zeami echoes Aristotle’s thoughts about high and low imitation, in regards to Tragedy and Comedy and with an added dimension of high and low imitation within a Tragedy or Comedy. Sata presents us with the Zeami versions of a well constructed plot and gifts us another concept that affirms this process of learning in what the Japanese playwright calls “fulfillment”. Through equal endowment of jo, ha, kyū (the japanese equivalents of beginning, middle and end, in a plot) in the construction of a tragedy “one’s own consciousness of one’s art will follow the proper process to genuine fulfillment” (Sata, 1989). Aristotle cites Oedipus as the supreme tragedy, the one by which all other tragedies must strive to achieve equality. As he says “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Sata, 1989), we understand deeper that Aristotle in having witnessed Oedipus himself may have had his own mirror neurons activate, and the catharsis he felt was a deeper (or higher) understanding, however brief, of Odepius’ humanity through empathy with his own.

That brief enlightenment, connection to something esoteric, what Brook calls Holy Theatre, changes us. This I believe is the “pleasure of learning” Aristotle speaks so often of, and it is why Tragedy is given supremacy over Comedy because in preserving yet ennobling the human condition it is isolated and focused for a moment. To borrow from the Tao, we briefly connect to The Way, and take back knowledge that has changed us, even if we cannot entirely elucidate what that change is. Zeami, too, hammers this point home when he affirms “when the audience can express its astonishment as one with a gasp, the moment of Fulfillment has come” (Sata, 1989). Imagine oneself in the seats, at the theatron of Delphi and watching Oedipus Rex for the first time. The hubris of a king among men learning that his arrogance and folly was repaid in kind by the fulfillment of the prophecy at his birth. The revelation he did indeed murder his father and bore children with his mother. The gasp must have been audible throughout the crowd of thousands, and the power of that moment probably rippled out like an electrified tidal wave. And being a man of thought, who sought to contemplate the meaning of existence and the purpose of life as the purpose of his life, he ought to have been familiar with the eureka feeling that begets a moment of enlightenment and uncovering of a potential truth of the universe. Catharsis is powerfully felt, it is no casual thing. But where Tragedy is the penultimate expression of catharsis, Zeami breaks from the ancient master and does not speak of ideal dramatic form. His advice is to decide all matters in reference to the audience’s taste, nature and psychological condition:

When the location or the occasion demands, and the level of the audience is low, the actor should strive to bring happiness to them by performing in a style which they truly can appreciate. When one thinks over the real purpose of our art, a player who truly can bring happiness to his audience is one who can without censure bring his art to all” (Sata, 1989).

To take into account the always separate nature of Tragedy and Comedy in the time of ancient Greece, Aristotle’s offering of a “higher” explanation for the process of tragedy (rooted in imitation, constructed of the six aspects) as it extends from the natural process of human theatre, might then be seen as not an absolute claim for the descriptively universal truth of all Theatre, but a normatively universal truth for the culture/society of Theatre in his day and a simulacrum for the maximizing of the potential for the dramatization of human condition-culture-identity or what I now refer to as Theatrx. Put in another way, Aristotle claims Tragedy is the highest form of Theatre because it brings us connection to humanity through catharsis/Fulfillment, in a way that Comedy of his day could not. But Zeami gives clarity and grounding to the actuality of Aristotle’s claim by reminding us that adapting our theatre imitation to the audience who will bear witness to it, in forms of imitation they have experienced and are geared to receiving, is the true ideal method to achieve catharsis/Fulfillment, regardless of it being comedy or tragedy; imitation of Kings or Peasants.

Aristotle is first and foremost a philosopher, and we often forget that is the lens by which he wrote the Poetics. Because taken as a critic’s analysis of Theatre, the Poetics is dreadfully narrow-minded. Of the three most well known playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes (and the dozen other Tragic writers and perhaps fifty or more Comedy writers) we have written knowledge of, Aristotle cites only a handful? Surely we must take into account personal taste, and as brilliant as Aristotle is, he was still a man with distinct preferences and foibles. Looking to Brook, we are provided a clear definition of a “good” critic (we will shortly define a Deadly one). He says:

…the more the critic becomes an insider the better. I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening…the vital critic is the critics who has clearly formulated for himself what the theatre could be — and who is bold enough to throw this formula into jeopardy each time he participates in a theatrical event” (Brook, 1968/1996).

Does Aristotle fit this definition? Only some of the way. The Poetics is without a shadow of a doubt Aristotle’s formula for theatre, but is it what theatre could be or is it more what it ought to be? It is Aristotle’s philosophical leanings that are his undoing, and while we may never know if there were in-fact updated revisions to the Poetics where the man amended his position, challenging old assumptions and fighting the rotten status quo; to take the Poetics as it stands, as a theatre critic’s review, is to bind it to the Deadly for all time, for “the critic who no longer enjoys theatre is obviously a deadly critic, [and] the critic who loves the theatre but is not critically clear what this means, is also a deadly critic” (Brook, 1968/1996). Aristotle explains “the poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artists must of necessity imitate one of three objects, — things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be , or things as they ought to be”(Aristotle & Garver, 2005).

But to truly sit with the gravity of that thought one comes to recognize the nature of perception confounds each of those objects and we then realize objects are: 1.) what they are outside of our ability to perceive them, 2.) what they are according to our ability to perceive them, and 3.) what they could be according to our ability to imagine them. These then do not exist as separate Venn diagrams; they are all simultaneously true at once. To then read further is to realize Aristotle himself meets the guidelines of his own (adapted from Glaucon) deadly critic; ”Critics jump at certain groundless conclusions; they pass adverse judgement and then proceed to reason on it; and assuming that the poet has said whatever they happen to think, find fault if a thing is inconsistent with their own fancy” (Aristotle & Garver, 2005). Allan Gilbert, in paraphrasing Aristotle in his article Aristotle’s Four Species of Tragedy, remands critics when he writes: “just because there have been poets before him strong in several species of tragedy, the critics now expect one man to surpass that which was the strong point of each one of his predecessors” (Gilbert, 1947). And while Aristotle makes clear the point that he does not hold the playwrights of his day to that standard, he still sets the bar as the definition of all “good” tragedy: the six characteristics by which one should follow to achieve catharsis and highness. In one breath he lifts the yoke of burden off the shoulder of current playwrights when he says:

“the critics misrepresent the poets, for it is true that there have been poets good at using in a play one, and only one, of these four parts, but critics now expect any poet to do as well, in a single play, with all four parts as an earlier poet has done with the one part he was most skillful in” (Gilbert, 1947).

And then sets it down on the shoulders of future playwrights when he pronounces:

“A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan…while reproducing the distinctive form of the original, make a likeness which is true to life and yet more beautiful. So too the poet…should preserve the type and yet ennoble it…these then are the rules the poet should observe”(Aristotle & Garver, 2005).

We look to Aristotle’s teacher Plato now and see clearly the roots from which the Poetics grew. Margalit Finkelberg in her work Aristotle and Episodic Tragedy speaks of Plato’s influence in shaping Aristotle’s reactionary position in Politics, Rhetoric and Poetry. She writes:

Plato was the first who consciously employed such devices as a remedy against reader’s emotional identification with the characters…it is Plato who should be considered the first representative of the anti-Aristotelian theory of poetry, even if he expressed these ideas several decades before the Poetics was written. (Finkelberg, 2006

Plato’s theories about theatre regard mimesis “as the art of producing phantoms of reality” (Finkelberg, 2006), a concept Brook reworks as Rough/Immediate Theatre in his formative text. Aristotle deviated explicitly from his former master in his paragon placement of mimesis, as an ”art that enables the representation of the universal, purified of the accidental aspects of empirical reality” (Finkelberg, 2006). Studying Plato gives us great insight into Aristotle’s thought process because it is evident how much “Aristotle puts highest what Plato puts lowest”(Finkelberg, 2006).

How much of what Aristotle wrote is informed by his emotions surrounding the teachings of his former mentor? Aristotle’s “right” kind of tragedy allows a fully engrossed audience to walk the path to catharsis, and experience pure philosophical cognitive pleasure, whereas Plato “interpreted this very experience as contamination of the soul by emotions” (Finkelberg, 2006). Plato purports the misogyny of Logic as Superior to Emotion in his teachings which then helps form the basis of Aristotle’s “opposite” to his mentor where Logic can integrate/absorb Emotion and catharsis is pure philosophical learning pleasure through emotional connectivity to the humanness of characters in Tragedy. Finkelberg asserts:

The Aristotelian way is to exploit the tendencies that, as Plato also recognized, are inherent in our response to the mimetic art, and to cultivate the latter as a form of art that is both intellectually satisfying and aesthetically enjoyable (Finkelberg, 2006).

Lacking linguistic objects to assert this himself, we ask of Aristotle in the Poetics, is that the descriptively universal affect he alludes to? That because we biologically & psychologically construct “narrative” formulations of the world, non-episodic stories by which we experience the world, therefore self-contained plot driven stories of tragedy are placed upon the “highest” pedestal as the elysium all theatre should strive to realize? Forest Hansen in his work A Broadway View of Aristotle’s Poetics reminds us of an important point, one that we must question of the Poetics, and query deeper into the space of “did he ask this of himself” and that is: “but like many great works, it can easily become part of an unexamined way of thinking. Its shortcomings should also be appreciated” (Hansen, 1969). Daniel Balderston in his article The Poetics of Poetics, citing esteemed Muslim philosopher Averroes’ argument:

The theory of the philosophers that universal exist only in the mind, not in the external world, only means that the universals exist actually only in the mind, and not in the external world, for the meaning is that they exist potentially, not actually in the external world; indeed if they did not exist at all in the outside world they would be false.(Balderston, 1996)

Take this into contextualization of Aristotle philosophical informing of theatrical criticisms, Balderston quotes Jorge Luis Borges: “divinidad sólo conoce las leyes generales del universo” meaning;

“Divinity only knows laws of the general universe and species, not the individual” (Balderston, 1996).

Ultimately acknowledging Aristotle’s comments on Poetry as not divine (read: absolute descriptively universal truth), and belonging to the realm of the individual, Balsderston argues, through Averroes and Borges, that Aristotle, in writing the Poetics did not set out to lay down the rules for all poetry forever, but merely comment on his individual belief of the importance of what connects us from unconscious performance of culture to willful performance; from theatrx to theatre. Just as well because Hansen gives us pause to look holistically at whether or not Aristotle was cognizant enough to critique his own work and check for fallacies, inconsistencies and biases. Brook says this another way, and one that tarries on considering the implications the Poetics has rendered on the entire pantheon of Western theatre, in that meaning both is lost to the past by the machinations of time, and “meaning never belongs to the past” (Brook, 1968/1996). Contrary to Aristotle’s attempt to lay down what he believed to be a pathway to cathartic truth, Balderston notes that “knowing and not knowing; in this paradox resides one of Averroes fundamental insights…revelation itself is somewhat suspect as faith requires closure” ​​(Balderston, 1996).

“In proving foresight may be vain: The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,” — Robert Burns wrote in his poem To A Mouse in 1785. We cannot know why Aristotle wrote what he did, nor could he fathom his Lyceum lectures being translated into hundreds of different languages and being debated, studied, pored over thousands of years later. To this end we discuss now Aristotle’s six elements model proposed in the Poetics, by necessity of its continued relevance, is in fact a a subjective commentary on the effectiveness of Theatre as it currently existed (in his time) and how it best should connect humans to the human condition through the dramatization of Theatrx (cultural performance & identity politics). Which simultaneously posits the man himself as a critic of Theatre and postulates a framework by which a critic may then serve Theatre for its betterment or detriment in official regard as a “critic”.

Speaking earlier of a humans discovering tragedy through course of social & civil evolution, Aristotle’s assertion that humans will naturally optimize it over time begins our line of query, where we must first ask what is the purpose of optimization in relation to something as fluid and dynamic as tragedy, or more cogently humanness, for that matter? Accepting Aristotle’s earlier notions that constructs the pedestal on which philosophical catharsis is the ultimate aim of the higher form of uncompelled and willful performance (theatrx & theatre), we see that optimization is the paving-of-the-pathway to catharsis, yet theatrx & theatre existed communally well before cities and civilizations. And as we can speculate that the storytelling of shamans, healers and elders around campfires and in caves undoubtedly gave its listeners a measure of (what Zeami would say as) fulfillment; why then optimize what can be reached through equifinality? Heath quotes Aristotle saying:

Once self sufficiency has been secured, it becomes possible for humans to pursue goals that go beyond mere survival. The city comes into existence for the sake of living, but it continues in existence for the sake of living well” (Heath, 2009)

But Aristotle in Poetics catches the fallacy of this; “for assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second is or becomes, men imagine that, if the second is, the first likewise is or becomes. But this is a false inference” (Aristotle & Garver, 2005). Talking here of the fallacy of affirming the consequent, Aristotle commits his own fallacy in the assumption that optimization is the natural course because humans move beyond survival. The premises of optimization are themselves fallible, and from this we deconstruct the wholeness of the Poetics in the broad assumption that the six characteristics is the method by which pure Tragedy, higher than Epic Poetry and Comedy achieves the highest philosophical plateau of catharsis. In actuality (normatively universally), theatrx & theatre will never be “optimized” (read: perfected). Zeami knew this in the 13th century:

“Successful performances depend on the changing tastes of each generation…success can only be assured when various elements are properly matched — the level of play, the skill of the performer, the discernment of the audience, the performing area, and the occasion itself” (Sata, 1989)

What is “best’’ is known to the individual because it is arbitrary. Catharsis was Aristotle’s “best” and we must do well to remember this and to take it, and him, off from the pedestal lorded over theatre for the last 2,500 years. Sata does exactly this, and incidentally conceptualizes the Brookian concept of Holy Theatre when she supposes:

The tradition of Western dramatic theory that Aristotle established has long viewed drama as a unidirectional process wherein the artistic achievements of the playwright are presented to an audience through the medium of language with the help of acting (gesture). Although the audience is the object of the tragic aim of catharsis, the catharsis does not depend on the nature of the audience. (Sata, 1989)

Looking beyond optimized (read: perfected) forms of theatre, aims of catharsis, and the rigid structure of the six elements, can loosen and become tools by which theatre can be willfully developed, not walled in by adherence to tradition. Brook’s Holy Theatre, or the Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible, is truly the higher form Aristotle is attempting to actualize with his leaning-on catharsis. Again lacking the linguistic objects, Brook attempts to describe the indescribable, a fourth dimension we only become aware of once we are in it, describing “audiences all over the world will answer positively from their own experience that they have seen the face of the invisible though an experience on the stage that transcended their experience in life” (Brook, 1968/1996). Fulfillment, Catharsis, Holy Theatre, these are all the same concepts, realized centuries apart by philosophical thinkers touched by Divinity (for lack of a better word) and given a glimpse of The Way.

But any description of The Way, is not The Way and thus we see each of these philosophical ways coincide, and differ in their conceptualization. Aristotle’s folly is his insistence of “logicalizing” qualitative judgements of theatre aesthetics; “his principles, which with his characteristic logic he has pushed to a radical conclusion, have led him into a cul-de-sac” (Finkelberg, 2006). If the audience can be moved to catharsis by the mere reading of Tragedy through the medium of imitation (plot & character), what then serves the purpose of qualifying the manner of imitation (diction), and the objects of imitation (thought, spectacle, song)? If “beauty depends on magnitude and order” (Aristotle & Garver, 2005), it does so as it relates to our ability to perceive the wholeness of that magnitude and order. This thought process is Deadly Theatre;

“It is, after all a defect of our own imagination and a legacy of later drama which leads us to think that everything needs to be presented visibly in order to make an impact on the audience: deaths unseen but told are just as much a part of the plot of a Greek Tragedy as those which are seen, and they are every bit as real to the audience. (Rees, 1972)

Brook details an exercise he conducted to a group of actors at a University that perfectly illustrates this affectation. Asking a volunteer to read a list of names typed from a monologue in Peter Weiss’ play about Auschwitz, The Investigation, they were “too struck and too appalled” to be caught up in the performative acts of reading for an audience, and the crowd in reacting to the realness of the non-performance-performance fell silent. “The very first words were loaded with their own ghastly sense and the reader’s response to them. Immediately the audience understood” (Brook, 1968/1996). And yet calling upon a second volunteer to read a list of names from Henry V “all the faults of the amateur actor appeared. One look at the volume of Shakespeare had already set off a series of conditioned reflexes to do with speaking verse” (Brook, 1968/1996). Brook’s dialogue with the group after about the difference is deeply important:

When he had finished, I asked the audience why they could not take the list of dead at Agincourt as seriously as the description of death at Auschwitz. This provoked a lively exchange.

‘Agincourt’s in the past.’ ‘But Auschwitz is in the past’ ‘Only fifteen years.’ ‘So how long’s it got to take? When’s a corpse a historical corpse? How many years make killing romantic? (Brook, 1968/1996).

What has become of the Poetics and the six elements, is that they have lived long enough to see themselves to become the villain. They are tools of Deadly Theatre, rigid walls that enforce one man’s arbitrary system and are so institutionalized we hardly see them for the prison they have become. We are sparrows in a cage. Born into it, we have no conscious knowledge we can fly beyond its boundaries because we maintain the borders out of adherence to tradition. But not even then are the six elements always normatively universal tools of Deadly Theatre. A playwright, or creator can utilize them in part, in whole or discard them for something else. Aristotle discussing “good” tragedy implies the existence of “bad” tragedy, yet their arbitrariness as aesthetic interpretations leads to a spectrum of good, bad and combinations of the two.

Only if it is a true, well done tragedy can one get the “full impact” from simply hearing it read, yet “bad” theatre in this way can still be seen as “good”. As a prime example, the Rocky Horror Picture Show is ostensibly “bad” by Aristotelian standards. Absolute swiss cheese of a plot, utter nonsense characters, basic diction, little thought, wild irreverent song, and unabashed spectacle. Yet it’s widely regarded as “so bad it’s good” by audiences around the globe. What might Aristotle say to the phenomena of its impact on social & pop culture, despite being a debauchery of tragedy? Is there merit to descriptively universal qualifications when a “bad” tragedy can, in performance, be “good? Hansen asks & answers “What are the best musicals?” in examining our question of merit and his response further clarifies our stance on the Deadliness of the six elements in the modern era:

One answer is, ‘Inspect them and you’ll see’. To anyone who attends to the performance of Pajama Game and Brigadoon, say, it should be obvious that Brigadoon is the better musical… not because the critics have said so (if any have) or because Brigadoon had a longer run (if it did) or because it sold more records (if that is the case. One simply perceives that it is better, if not in the same way that we perceive that someone is taller than someone else(Hansen, 1969)

Excellent evidence for Zeami’s critique that the immediacy of the audience (and by extension the culture of the era) is important & relevant to any discussion of “best” and any discussion of the qualities that define “better” are only relevant to the immediacy of context as the immutability of change inherently calls into question the efficacy of any absolute truth of “better” or “best”. If one is to take the six elements and the relevancy of the Poetics as immutable law for the modern day, one exhibits the qualities of a Deadly Theatre playwright, actor, critic, or participant. But taking the six element and Poetics not as absolute universal law as is presupposed of Aristotle’s intentions in writing them and “by contradicting himself from one text to another, by thinking through paradox… a critic attentive to the particulars of the text he comments…can be used productively at almost every turn of contemporary theoretical work” (Balderston, 1996).

Or in other words, one can see the flaws and contradictions of the Poetics and six elements and use them, for their flaws, to attain catharsis/fulfillment/Holy Theatre in real time for their audience, not in merely a philosophical suppositional way. If we found the six elements “these particular complications in all or most [plays], we could call them principles or rules of the [play]” (Hansen, 1969). This is inductive logic, and ultimately fallacious thinking because it presupposes what came is indicative of what should always come, and while Aristotle “acknowledges that no play has all [six elements], nor is it vital that a good play even have most of them, but the best plays generally exhibit most of these characteristics” (Hansen, 1969) it is the Deadly Critic expecting the play must exhibit all of them, the Deadly Playwright unable to imagine a play without exhibiting them, and the Deadly Audience that cannot expand their enjoyment to anything outside of them. Hansen asks the question that we come to now in assessing the effectiveness of the elements and the Poetics on theatre as it exists today; Did Aristotle go wrong?

No. He merely pre-supposed there was only one way to achieve his catharsis, Zeami’s Fulfillment, Brook’s Holy Theatre, through the modality of tragedy and then perpetuated unfounded thinking as the highest form and aim Theatre can attain, and any author aiming anywhere else is aiming Empirically lower. It is centuries of modern theatre interpretations who have gone wrong; perpetuating clearly flawed logic as absolute truth, stymieing the potential for creative work outside of the Aristotelian curriculum.

All things considered, the Poetics is a monumental triumph, a profound philosophical elucidation of literary concepts that has influenced generations writers, creators, both in the Theatre world and outside of it. Millions, and millions of people have been touched with the power of this work through first, second and third hands. Like the “six degrees of separation” game of a certain actor, Aristotle’s connections to works of nearly every era after him associate him with nearly every arena of creative literary work and subsequent adaptation. Firstly, Aristotle’s work is limited however by the lack of linguistic objects we have today, ones that we can use to expand upon and possibly clarify many of the esotericisms lost in the context of the time in which it was written, and give rise to a new definition, Theatrx, that helps us materialize tautological concepts Aristotle does not in the Poetics. Secondly, the misgivings of presupposing the six elements as descriptively universal processes obfuscates the reality of the faulty logic behind the proportions, and breaking the cycle of its absolute importance allows for the reshaping of the elements functions and purposes within Modern theatre spheres. And thirdly, seeing the elements, the Poetics and Aristotle himself as not “objective truisms” allows for actualized, relevant critique of Theatrical works to function in an immediate and authentic way, instead of echoing ad nauseum a failing of standard adherence to the elements in their critical order as the highest duty a theatrical work ought to serve.

This critical look at the Poetics and Aristotle intends to pull him down from the pedestal of Philosopher-Legend and remember that he was too, a man. His works may yet survive, but we must not uncritically adore them, their worth and meaning swelling to insurmountable proportions, and the words becoming unto dogmatic doctrine. Meaning never belongs in the past, and with every age and generation, we must again reconvene our traditions to assess their meaning, worth, purpose and fundamentally their impact. What stories lie beyond the canon of plot-character-diction-thought-spectacle-song? What might we conceptualize if we expand our horizon beyond a border we believed to be absolute? Without Aristotle’s willingness to declare faith in his beliefs, his fervency behind the search for objective, Divine truth, our world may have taken an entirely different course, and be unrecognizable if we could perceive that alternate reality. For good, or bad, the Poetics exists, and informs writers, playwrights, directors, actors and many more in theatre (and film & television) to this very moment. Shakespeare once articulated “all the world’s a stage”; knowing that Aristotle alluded to this a thousand years before he did seems to make its relevance all the more important now.

References

  • Aristotle, & Garver, E. (2005). Poetics and Rhetoric. Barnes & Noble Classics.
  • Balderston, D. (1996). Borges, Averroes, Aristotle: The Poetics of Poetics. Hispania, 79(2), 201–207. https://doi.org/10.2307/344881
  • Brook, P. (1996). The empty space. Touchstone. (Original work published 1968)
  • Finkelberg, M. (2006). Aristotle and Episodic Tragedy. Greece & Rome, 53(1), 60–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4122460
  • Gilbert, A. H. (1947). Aristotle’s Four Species of Tragedy (Poetics 18) and Their Importance for Dramatic Criticism. The American Journal of Philology, 68(4), 363–381. https://doi.org/10.2307/291527
  • Hansen, F. (1969). A Broadway View of Aristotle’s “Poetics.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 3(1), 85–91. https://doi.org/10.2307/3331465
  • Heath, M. (2009). Should There Have Been a Polis in Aristotle’s “Poetics”? The Classical Quarterly, 59(2), 468–485. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20616699
  • Rees, B. R. (1972). “Pathos” in the “Poetics” of Aristotle. Greece & Rome, 19(1), 1–11. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642517
  • Sata, M. (1989). Aristotle’s Poetics and Zeami’s Teachings on Style and the Flower. Asian Theatre Journal, 6(1), 47–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/1124289

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John Erik Roh

John Erik Roh

Coach, Counselor, Consultant. Helping men heal & changing the world. Join me in The Way Forward™️.

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