Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 4: Poetry and the Development of Tragedy

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics.” I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a daily series to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 4: Poetry and the Development of Tragedy

Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them
lying deep in our nature. 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. We have evidence of this in the
facts of experience. Objects which in themselves we view with pain,
we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such
as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause
of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not
only to philosophers but to men in general; whose capacity, however,
of learning is more limited. 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.’ For if you happen
not to have seen the original, the pleasure will be due not to the
imitation as such, but to the execution, the coloring, or some such
other cause.

Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the
instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections
of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed
by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations
gave birth to Poetry.

Poetry now diverged in two directions, according to the individual
character of the writers. The graver spirits imitated noble actions,
and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions
of meaner persons, at first composing satires, as the former did hymns
to the gods and the praises of famous men. A poem of the satirical
kind cannot indeed be put down to any author earlier than Homer; though
many such writers probably there were. But from Homer onward, instances
can be cited- his own Margites, for example, and other similar compositions.
The appropriate meter was also here introduced; hence the measure
is still called the iambic or lampooning measure, being that in which
people lampooned one another. Thus the older poets were distinguished
as writers of heroic or of lampooning verse.

As, in the serious style, Homer is pre-eminent among poets, for he
alone combined dramatic form with excellence of imitation so he too
first laid down the main lines of comedy, by dramatizing the ludicrous
instead of writing personal satire. His Margites bears the same relation
to comedy that the Iliad and Odyssey do to tragedy. But when Tragedy
and Comedy came to light, the two classes of poets still followed
their natural bent: the lampooners became writers of Comedy, and the
Epic poets were succeeded by Tragedians, since the drama was a larger
and higher form of art.

Whether Tragedy has as yet perfected its proper types or not; and
whether it is to be judged in itself, or in relation also to the audience-
this raises another question. Be that as it may, Tragedy- as also
Comedy- was at first mere improvisation. The one originated with the
authors of the Dithyramb, the other with those of the phallic songs,
which are still in use in many of our cities. Tragedy advanced by
slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed.
Having passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and
there it stopped.

Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance
of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles
raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting. Moreover,
it was not till late that the short plot was discarded for one of
greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the earlier satyric
form for the stately manner of Tragedy. The iambic measure then replaced
the trochaic tetrameter, which was originally employed when the poetry
was of the satyric order, and had greater with dancing. Once dialogue
had come in, Nature herself discovered the appropriate measure. For
the iambic is, of all measures, the most colloquial we see it in the
fact that conversational speech runs into iambic lines more frequently
than into any other kind of verse; rarely into hexameters, and only
when we drop the colloquial intonation. The additions to the number
of ‘episodes’ or acts, and the other accessories of which tradition
tells, must be taken as already described; for to discuss them in
detail would, doubtless, be a large undertaking.

As I’ve noted previously, the lens through which I am reading “Poetics” is screenwriting, so while leaving some of the more esoteric history and ideas in this chapter to those in our community steeped in Aristolelianism, let me make these two observations:

Yesterday, we explored the idea that Aristotle’s notion of imitation is applicable to screenwriting as a reference to narrative voice, the unique perspective a writer takes toward telling a story reflected in this nifty little formula: Genre + Style = Narrative Voice. Per Aristotle, imitation is just one “cause” from which poetry sprung. The other is “harmony,” or a term I prefer rhythm.

Anybody who has immersed him/herself in the world of cinema and in particular read a lot of scripts should resonate with the idea of rhythm. As we absorb all these scripts, stories, structures and styles, we turn around in our own writing and “improvise,” testing out what we’ve picked up until we can make it our own. In terms of screenwriting, I would take rhythm to be that Gestalt understanding we derive from our reading and analysis, feeding an intuitive sense of how a story should go.

In that sense, rhythm is hugely important as a corrective to formulaic writing, perhaps the single most common critique of screenplays submitted by outsiders into the Hollywood system.

It is one thing to grab a screenwriting guru’s book on screenplay structure and adopt that approach to writing a script.

It is quite another thing to take that knowledge, along with a lot of other content, pull all that left-brain knowledge into our right-brain, and in combination find the rhythm of each story, to be in harmony with its beating heart and throbbing soul, and create a vibrant living screenplay.

— Since I have taught a university level course called History of American Screenwriting, I am especially attuned to the organic and evolving nature of screenplay form. So when I read this:

Aeschylus first introduced a second actor; he diminished the importance
of the Chorus, and assigned the leading part to the dialogue. Sophocles
raised the number of actors to three, and added scene-painting. Moreover,
it was not till late that the short plot was discarded for one of
greater compass, and the grotesque diction of the earlier satyric
form for the stately manner of Tragedy…

I was reminded of the history of movies. How it all started with this, then this, then to short films like this, then actual short films with plots like this. Then one-reel films. And multiple reel films. Editorial techniques such as cross-cuts and dissolves. Intertitles to convey dialogue. Then sound in 1927 and the subsequent introduction of actual dialogue, and so on.

Thus, when Aristotle reviews the development of the theatrical form of tragedy — one actor, second actor, third actor, dialogue, scene-painting, short plot to stories with “greater compass” — I see a parallel to the evolution of storytelling in cinema.

Here is a takeaway: Screenplays are not a static narrative form, rather an unfolding one, continually pushed and pressed by writers in conjunction with technological advances and audience tastes.

And always there is the individual writer’s unique creativity. Yes, there are patterns and structures and conventional wisdom and all that, and it is critical we know as much as we can about them.

But they ought not restrict us, rather we, as writers, should feel free to stretch the boundaries. First to express our creativity. Second to push this wonderful narrative form of screenwriting to the next level. And the next level. And the next…

Story form evolved in the time of Aristotle. It continues to evolve today, including screenwriting.

See you here tomorrow for another installment of this series.

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For the entire series, go here.


Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 4: Poetry and the Development of Tragedy was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Scott Myers