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 weekly series with a post each Sunday 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 5: Comedy and Epic Poetry
Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower
type- not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous
being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect
or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious
example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply
The successive changes through which Tragedy passed, and the authors
of these changes, are well known, whereas Comedy has had no history,
because it was not at first treated seriously. It was late before
the Archon granted a comic chorus to a poet; the performers were till
then voluntary. Comedy had already taken definite shape when comic
poets, distinctively so called, are heard of. Who furnished it with
masks, or prologues, or increased the number of actors- these and
other similar details remain unknown. As for the plot, it came originally
from Sicily; but of Athenian writers Crates was the first who abandoning
the ‘iambic’ or lampooning form, generalized his themes and plots.
Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in
verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic poetry
admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They differ,
again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible,
to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly
to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time.
This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same
freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry.
Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar
to Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy,
knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are
found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found
in the Epic poem.
Comedy has had no history, because it was not at first treated seriously. Perhaps now we know why the Academy Awards have not given a Best Picture Oscar to a comedy since Annie Hall in 1977: Because modern folks treat comedy much the same way – apparently – that people in ancient Greece did, considering it to be a lesser narrative form.
I would hope someone steeped in Aristotle could go into more depth about why comedy was considered in this light, but for now I guess all of us who write comedy can take comfort in the observation made by actor Edmund Gwenn whose dying words reportedly were:
All the honors go to the tragedian for chewing up the scenery, while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny, is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through.
Which over time has come to be remembered as this: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Moving onto Aristotle’s second subject in this section, I find this intriguing:
* They differ in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form… Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible,
to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit.
Setting aside the contemporary idea of free verse, historically poetry has had certain narrative forms and patterns. And this is another reason why I think there is a significant point of comparison between poetry and screenwriting.
Although I resist the use of the term “blueprint” to describe a screenplay — because it somehow feels like it diminishes the creativity of what we do as screenwriters — the fact is a script is the basis upon which the people who actually make a movie make the movie. Thus by default, a script has certain conventions, seemingly similar to how Aristotle thought about Epic Poetry and Tragedy.
The trick for screenwriters is to know and understand those conventions, working with and around them so that the creative expression of our story can shine through, not reduced to formulaic writing, but instead come alive within the context of a screenplay’s structure.
I will be curious what, if anything, Aristotle has to say about that very subject in the rest of “Poetics.”
How about you? What do you take from Part 5 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?
See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.
For the entire series, go here.