An introduction to the first great work of literary criticism
Aristotle was the first theorist of theatre – so his Poetics is the origin and basis of all subsequent theatre criticism. His Poetics was written in the 4th century BC, some time after 335 BC. The important thing is that when Aristotle’s writing his Poetics, Greek theatre was not in its heyday, but was already past its peak, and Aristotle was writing a good 100 years after the Golden Age of Greek tragic theatre – so in many ways it’s like a contemporary critic writing about the plays of Chekhov or Oscar Wilde. It’s past, the writers of the plays are already long dead, but they’ve survived and Aristotle is writing about them and highlighting their importance. What follows are some notes towards a summary of, and introduction to, Aristotle’s Poetics – the first great work of literary criticism in the Western world.
So, what does Aristotle say? ‘Tragedy imitates the actions of the best people in society, and comedy the worst sorts of people in society’. His Poetics is really an attempt to analyze those features that make some tragedies more successful than others. What makes a great tragedy? His essay is an early example of Empiricism – a philosophical tradition which regards observation of sense experience as the basis of knowledge. Observation: we need to remember the theoros of both ‘theory’ and ‘theatre’: the act of adopting the role of the spectator in order to analyse something. Read the rest of this entry
The best Restoration comedies and tragedies
Restoration comedies and tragedies often get overlooked in our rush to celebrate the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Yet any survey of English literature would be substantially poorer if it didn’t mention Aphra Behn, William Wycherley, or William Congreve. Below we introduce ten of the greatest works of Restoration theatre – comedies and tragedies, though mostly the former.
John Dryden, Marriage a la Mode. Probably the earliest of the great Restoration comedies, this play premiered in 1673 and was written by the first official Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. Interweaving two separate storylines, the play features plotting and deceit, thwarted marriages, and squabbles over property – all ingredients that would become firm favourites in later Restoration comedies.
William Wycherley, The Country Wife. For many years – indeed, the best part of two centuries – this play, now regarded as a classic and widely studied in universities, was effectively absent from the English stage, thanks to its bawdy content and sexual explicitness (instead, a version written by the pioneering actor David Garrick, called The Country Girl, was staged). First performed in 1675, The Country Wife features several interwoven plots, including a young country girl’s marriage to the older Pinchwife (hence the play’s title). Intersecting with this plot line is the lecherous rake Horner’s plot to seduce women by, of all things, pretending he is impotent… Read the rest of this entry
Fun facts about the ancient Greek playwright
1. Of the ninety or so plays Aeschylus is thought to have written, only seven have survived. And one of those we cannot be absolutely sure he wrote: scholars have questioned whether Prometheus Bound, one of the seven surviving plays attributed to him, is actually his work. The six plays that we can confidently attribute to Aeschylus are: The Persians (one of the few Greek tragedies to be based on recent real-life events), Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, and the Oresteia trilogy, comprising Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Read the rest of this entry