- The Pleasure of the Play
I am an Aristotelian about narrative structure. This is not always a fashionable position, and in some company I know just what to expect: a pop deconstructivist dressing down by those who assume that I must have simply missed the point of poststructuralism and postmodernism. Surely, the nay-sayers claim, no one believes in beginnings, middles, and ends anymore—certainly not since Godard taught us that we don’t need to put them in that order. Isn’t it just obvious (they continue) that we must reject the ideology of wholeness and unity, and opt instead for fragmentation, or self-reflexivity, or other violations of Aristotelian form? And there is no mistaking that, in some quarters, notions like mimesis and catharsis haven’t received much good press lately.
But there are still kindred Aristotelians, and Bert O. States is one. His The Pleasure of the Play takes the Poetics as its pivotal text and sets in motion around it a lively discussion of plays from, yes, Oedipus Rex to The Real Inspector Hound, stopping along the way to consider Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Handke (among others), before concluding with an essay on Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe, a play dedicated to Václav Havel. States adopts an open rather than a closed view of what the Poetics has to say about tragedy, expanding the discussion well beyond tragedy itself, out toward drama and, indeed, comedy. But he is clearly unwilling to go as far as another group of Aristotelians, notably Paul Ricoeur, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Jerome Bruner, who treat narrative as a mode of actual lived existence. States’s objective is to show the continued vitality of the Poetics, especially in terms of what it can tell us about drama in cultural contexts much removed from the one which offered Aristotle his range of primary textual material. [End Page 272]
To be clear, then, States doesn’t claim to be doing either Poetics “scholarship” or exegesis. Indeed, this book is not what one might typically think of as a philosophical examination of the Poetics. Anyone looking for such a thing would do well to consult the excellent but unmistakably philosophical Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics, edited by Amélie Oksenberg Rorty. States is doing something else here. Like Aristotle, he is showing how dramatic structures work.
The book is engaging. It features wonderfully turned phrases, examples that immediately illuminate a point, and nicely interwoven references to a range of theorists and philosophers who only rarely are found in each other’s company, for example: Richard Boyd, Martin Heidegger, Douglas Hofstadter, Wolfgang Iser, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Francis Sparshott, Tzvetan Todorov. Some of States’s more delightful examples might offend Aristotle purists. Hard cheese to them. Consider how States uses Roland Barthes’s analysis of the newspaper feature story, or fait divers, to illuminate the structure of the great dramatic plots. In States’s examples—GENERAL SACRIFICES DAUGHTER IN WEDDING CEREMONY (Iphigenia at Aulis) or WIFE FORCED INTO ADULTERY BY HUSBAND, MOTHER, PRIEST (Mandragola) or, to use Aristotle’s own example, MAN’S STATUE AVENGES HIS MURDER (pp. 67-68)—what each mock headline captures is the peculiar, often ironic, internal logic of drama. For States, this peculiar logic is characterized by events which are simultaneously improbable, unthinkable, unanticipatable, yet—given the unfolding course of actions—uncannily probable after all.
Central to understanding this internal logic is the Aristotelian notion of peripety, the critical “divulging event” (p. 49) which turns out to be just the reverse of what one intended (as for example Oedipus killing his father and marrying his mother). Where Aristotle seems to treat peripety as a mere plot device, States considers it “a principle of plot development.” Thus, the status of peripety as a crucial dramatic plot device is “really a symptom” of its more basic function (p. 86). Peripety as a principle of plot development helps to show why it makes little sense to claim that what narratives imitate is “reality”—peripety is just what “open life” lacks (p...