Aristotle s Rules For Tragedy Laid Down In Poetics As They Apply To Blood Relations By Sharon Pollock
Aristotle could be considered the first popular literary critic. Unlike Plato, who all but condemned written verse, Aristotle breaks it down and analyses it so as to separate the good from the bad. He studies in great detail what components make a decent epic or tragedy. The main sections he comes up with are form, means and manner. For most drama and verse, Aristotle s rules are a fairly good measure of the quality of a piece of written work. In modern day however (modern meaning within the last century), certain changes in the nature of dramatic writing have started opening a gap between Aristotelian criticism and what is actually being produced on the stage. Changes in values and techniques brought about by Stanislavsky and some leaders of the popular feminist movement have shifted the direction of theatre. In light of these changes some of Aristotle s rules are not applicable anymore. That is not to say that they are not sound. They simply do not apply.
Sharon Pollock, one of Canada s great female playwrights and a strong leader of the popular feminist movement, is one example of a writer that breaks Aristotle s mold. Her play Blood Relations sits on the edge of what Aristotle would call tragedy.
Aristotle states that the form of tragedy is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude (Aristotle 6). Here we have Lizzie Borden murdering her own parents in a fit of rage. The murders happen after years of abuse and negative attitudes from almost everyone she knows. The act of murdering one s parents is far from noble. It could however, be seen as noble seeing as the reason Lizzie kills them is to stand up for her freedom of thought and direction in life.
According to the rules laid down in Poetics, pity and fear arise through misfortune and the recognition of the possibility of falling upon similar misfortune (13). In Blood Relations, pity arises out of the way that Lizzie is treated by her parents and by the way her life turns out after the murders. The reader recognizes that he or she could encounter the same circumstance. Lizzie was fairly stable and snapped into a murderous rage with no prior warning. The fact that she gains no reward for her actions adds to the tragedy of the plot but strays from Aristotle s stipulation that a villainous character must not fall into bad luck from good (13). Lizzie s loss of her family ultimately drives her into a life of loneliness and misery. Furthermore, on the subject of pity and fear, Aristotle professes that truly pitiable occurrences take place between close relations. Parent-child relationships are about the closest relationships that there are.
There is no choral section. Therefore, there is no episode. The entire play could be referred to as a complete exode, that is, one complete section of a tragedy after which there is no song of the chorus (12). This can be accounted to the changes in dramatic trends due to Stanislavsky among others. The constant switch between the dream state and present reality can be compared to a chorus in that the characters in the dream sequences tell the stories of the events prior to the murders. These dream characters dominate a good portion of the play, whereas the chorus is an occasional part in classic tragedy.
Blood Relations contains only seven characters, all of which are essential to the plot. None of the events in the plot are irrelevant. All characters and events have an evident effect on the outcome of the play; they are all part of the whole (8). In terms of length, this play is compact. There is no needless banter. It is easy, therefore to comprehend. The reading of such a play will not have the same effect as it will on the stage. It does display the same emotion but not the same intensity as the stage production. The observation of performance allows the audience to soak up displayed emotion rather than processing it mentally, which takes away from the intensity of the play. The emotions are the same, just not as big.
Means can be defined as the language that the writer uses to convey the plot. In tragedy, the language is supposed to be artistically enhanced so as to take it to a higher level (6). This goes along with the fact that plays are dramatizations of events (3). In the case of a dramatization of actual events from history, it is the job of the playwright to make the incidents pleasing to the eye and exciting. After all, the purpose of drama is to entertain the audience. In the case of Blood Relations, the language used does not seem artistically enhanced. In fact, it is carefully written to give the dialogue an earthy feel. Words are chosen so as to make the dialogue more interesting but at the same time as real as possible, common.
The script itself is not very long. It takes approximately an hour and thirty minutes to read and is not difficult to comprehend. The characters lines are packed with the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of speech. It flows. Any pauses that are written into the script give it a relaxed mood. Because there is no remorse in the lines, they take on a dark quality, almost creepy in parts. It is not that they are dead or lack emotion. It is not that Lizzie does not care about the memories that are being conjured up in her mind; it is more like she is tired and really does not want to be bothered to remember.
In terms of manner (2), there is no music. There is no poetic quality to the narrative elements in the story. The plot is portrayed solely through speech, and actions referred to through speech. The way in which the story is told is nothing more or less than sufficient. The main focus is not the events in the plot but rather the development of character. Fantasy mingles with reality to create a spectacle that is pleasing to both the eye and the mind. The sections of the plot which are based in reality, namely interactions between The Actress and Miss Lizzie snap the reader out of the dream at times when there is some point to be made or when the plot takes a turn. Aristotle does not speak of this type of play between fantasy and reality but he would find it quite fascinating. To him, it would be a higher form of drama because it not only imitates history, but creates something new. He says that man learns his first lessons through imitation, and all men find pleasure in imitations (4).
In regard to character (15), the female traits are exactly opposite to what Aristotle laid down in his rules. The women in the play are very strong in character. They exhibit the cleverness and strength of will that Aristotle associated only with men. After all, it is the count of a woman killing her parents with an axe. Pollock was admittedly a member of the popular feminist movement. Therefore, it is understandable that she would create strong, manly characteristics surrounding her female characters.
There really is no hero or villain in this story. The characters come across as being very complex, not wishy washy, but grey in terms of good and evil. Aristotle s rules on reversal do not apply to a lot of modern dramas, including Blood Relations , because so many of them deal with that grey area where in it is hard to determine who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Good and evil meld together so that someone who would normally be thought of as psychotic becomes the character that the audience feels sympathy for. This is applicable to plays within the 20th century more so than say Shakespeare or Marlowe. (16)
The events covered in the course of the play span a period of a couple of days. The play is centered around two major events, surrounding by incidents leading up to those events. Conversations and interactions in the first act lead to the killing of Lizzie s birds, which is the first major event leading up to the murder of Mr. Borden and Mrs. Borden.
The problems in most modern plays seem to be more complex than those of before. By modern I mean those written in the past century. Since the society they deal with has increased in complexity, the poems and dramas written today, dealing with current trends and conflicts, come across as more complex. Values have changed drastically since Shakespeare s time, never mind Aristotle s. In light of these changing values, not all of Aristotle s views are applicable to modern theatre. That is not to say that they are not sound, just that they do not apply.
Aristotle. Poetics. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Ed.David H. Richter. 2nd. Ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 42-64.
Pollock, Sharon. Blood Relations and Other Plays. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981.
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