In the Poetics, a document commonly known amongst theatre scholars, Aristotle clearly defines the six facets of tragedy which are, in essence, the six facets of drama itself: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle. The order of these six elements correspond to their importance in a piece of theatre. Accordingly, Aristotle’s work claimed that plot, above all, was the central trait of a good play with character one rung lower on the ladder, so to speak. He went so far as to say, “Without action tragedy would be impossible, but without character it would still be possible.” The modern audience may find this confusing or strange as claim. In general, both audiences and critics of contemporary theatre latch on to the construction and portrayal of character above all else. But I would argue understanding the validity in Aristotle’s claim is vital to contemporary theatre, even if character has climbed the ranks.
Think of today’s popular theatrical works. They are celebrated for their complex, intriguing, and relatable characters. More and more, the appeal of a play or musical becomes a character people can see themselves in, a character people love to hate, or a character that makes people question the line between good and bad. The development of characters that feel real becomes the desired and yet near-impossible task of a playwright. In modern drama, audiences search for realistic depth even in non-naturalistic pieces. No longer are one-dimensional, melodrama-type characters the norm. Good and evil are not effective character descriptors. Today, character are often both or neither. We love characters that intrigue us, confuse us, anger us.
Critics, too, seem to focus ever more on the role of complicated characterization. In his New York Times piece on Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, Ben Brantley focuses nearly the entire article on the characters archetypes and subsequent divergence from those archetypes, giving less time to the story itself. He writes, “This process of individuation is all the more impressive for its refusal to present its team as a classic band of archetypes. Any early assumptions you may make about X being the smart one, Q the one with the eating disorder, Y the boy-crazy one, Z the troublemaker may apply to some degree, but they also fall apart quickly. After all, these lives are still in flux, and the soccer field is a crucible of sorts for personalities yet unformed.” The Wolves is now a hugely popular play being produced at regional theaters and colleges across the country, often directly because it offers so many diverse and interesting characters for actors to create and audiences to dissect.
In contrast, once can look at a classical example from the age of the Poetics, Oedipus Rex, and argue that the plot itself is tragedy with or without the specific leading character. In fact, Oedipus himself is not an entirely empathetic character. He is victim to the classic fatal character flaw: hubris. His excessive pride in the face of many warnings lead to his ultimate downfall. (A sidenote: many modern characters are victim to the flaw of pride as well, though we typically see them depicted as damaged or empathetic villains with a backstory to explain their pride. I would point to characters like Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a character who is clearly detrimentally proud but as a result of deep trauma. Oedipus, on the other hand, has no psychological explanation to his hubris. He is merely full of himself.) Greek audiences would still find tragedy in the story of Oedipus, still feel the catharsis, but most scholars would argue it was not because Oedipus himself was one to weep for, but rather that the dire unfolding of the story was so gruesome and tragic in itself. This returns to Aristotle’s claim that plot can exist without character but character cannot exist without plot.
Classical plays also made much greater use of a chorus than more modern pieces of theatre, again suggesting that storytelling was a crucial aspect of production, perhaps even more than character acting as we think of it today.
So, what caused this shift? How did Aristotle’s founding principles of drama turn on their head? I do not have the over-arching answer to this question. I am inclined to believe it is a complex blend of increasing interest in and understanding of human psychology, the evolution of fields like anthropology, and the changing reasons people seek out theatre. In the time of the Greeks, theatre was a godly activity. It was used to worship and uphold their gods. It was used to communicate life doctrines and purge toxic emotions. While some of that may still be true today, largely theatre today is used to build empathy and understanding, explore and question the human experience, and, most simply, to entertain. Therefore, it is more desirable to audience members to see intriguing human beings on-stage. That doesn’t mean characters need to be naturalistic. Experimental theatre can be equally as character driven. In those cases, one often finds audiences drawn to characters out of a need to understand why they are acting in an unexpected way.
I don’t write this to suggest that plot has become unimportant in contemporary theatre. Rather, I find it an interesting study into the function of theatre in society. It is hard to pinpoint why theatre is important to any individual or community. Theatre may be ever shifting, but regardless of whether audiences want a gut-wrenching tragedy or a loveable villain with a power ballad, the fact that Aristotle’s Poetics endures as a relevant and debatable document thousands of years after its conception illustrates a larger point: theatre is a living thing with a vast genealogy. I’d argue that you will better understand contemporary theatrical mediums with a concrete knowledge of where the art form has been before. Even new-age, experimental plays, with very few exceptions, follow the general rule that characters act because they want and conflict (plot) happens because there are obstacles to that want. Juliet’s obstacle in Romeo and Juliet seem more tangible than Willy Loman’s in Death of a Salesman, which in turn may seem much more tangible than Prior Walter’s in Angels in America. Regardless of how conceptual or interpretive plays become, regardless of how much more complex and nuanced characters’ psyches become, the basic principles of Aristotle remain true in 95% of contemporary theatre. Theatrical experiences that are immersive and variant like Sleep No More, which has a clear plot line behind it but plays out in a non-linear, experiential manner challenge the idea that tragedy must have a sequential order of incidents to be successful. Still, shows like Sleep No More make up a relatively small portion of mainstream theatre in the United States; and, it still utilizes aspects of classic, Aristotelian drama. It is a piece meant to around fear and pity in its viewer. As a theatre artist, be it playwright or actor or designer, it is important to remain connected to the genes of the art form that have served us as a human species for centuries upon centuries. Even if Greek or Renaissance forms feel antiquated, they are the shoulders upon which modern artists stand. And, whether you gravitate to plot or character or even spectacle or thought, the truth remains that each is present and each is essential to good drama. I would implore us all as artists to find harmony rather than dissonance in the evolution of our crafts.