The Purpose of Drama
A few months back I began writing short stories in an attempt to cultivate my writing skills. I thought it would be a fun thing to do to loosen up my hands a bit and get a good glimpse of the underlying motives of a different kind of genre that I wasn’t familiar with at the time.
And really what better way to understand yourself, than to lock in a room for a few hours with coffee over a blank page and just witness what your mind is going to come up with and what mental chaos unfolds into the white sheet.
And so it started and I spent many many hours busting my head, squeezing every little idea of what I thought would be mildly interesting and trying to craft a series of events that had some sort of cohesion and weren’t completely senseless.
I wrote about an old man with his black cat that refused to accept the death of his children, about a woman locked into her own marriage unable to find any real outlet, a noble scientist getting repressed by an autocratic government, and even some of the bleakest scenarios of a child turning against his father for mistreating innocent people.
They were all quite intriguing to me as I went through them and they all expressed some inner part I contained that would never really pop up if it wasn’t for story-writing.
But what was the point of these stories really? What was the real purpose they were trying to achieve and what was it in them that made it so compelling for others to spend a few hours to read them and relate to them?
When I first thought about this question, I staggered by the depth of the question, found a quick fix by some commonplace wisdom, and left it at that.
Maybe it was a simple projection where people could transpose themselves momentarily to the shoes of someone else and feel things that wouldn’t be really possible in their daily lives. Maye it was all about getting through the whole range of emotions that would seem like a rollercoaster in comparison to our mundane -for the most part- lives.
Or maybe it is much simpler than that and people just trying to pass their afternoon while having some good time going through a story that can spike their adrenaline up.
Aristotle on Drama
Aristotle had a very unique perspective about drama, as described thoroughly in his book ‘poetics’ that tackles the issue with his usual philosophical lenses. He saw tragedy as an “imitation of action” where men get to learn their lesson and expand their consciousness.
Through imitation he describes, children get to grow based on the societal norms, and it is this characteristic that differentiates humans from any other animal as we can be the most ‘imitative’ in nature, in comparison to them.
And the feelings are not really minimized from this process either, where people get to experience the same pleasure as if they were going through it themselves.
This is quite a progressive idea for the time which has now become a common ground among psychologists and there are numerous studies on mirror neurons and the power of influence that people can receive by just witnessing others.
And it is through this little mechanism that Aristotle finds the way to describe its purpose by allowing us to have a catharsis that comes after majestic events without having to face the consequences themselves who would hold us back from immersing into the situation if we were to face them for real.
“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”
And through this process, he describes how someone can reach “catharsis”, a state where the individual is lightened by all the burdens that run in his mind.
A Modern View
David Mamet, a legendary playwright who has written some classic plays like “Glengarry Glen Ross” and he is famous for his strong characters and memorable dialogues, has a unique perspective on the issue as well.
He says “people perceive in terms of cause and effect.” We use it as a survival mechanism with which we model the world and try to make sense of things. Many times we are going to invent the parts that are missing in this equation or look out for them to really be able to understand something.
And this consequently leads to the same pattern being applied in art and the books we read, where everything is created by using this mechanism and the plots are nothing else than an exercise in “cause and effect”.
David’s idea about the purpose of drama is much more primal, instinctive, and succinct and involves nothing more but two things. The pure mental ingredients we use in our daily lives and the desire to be entertained.
He emphasizes that “reason” and the thought patterns of individuals who go by their day-to-day lives are flawed. And thus drama doesn’t want to investigate “reason”. It wants to free us from it and drama is not really different than a comedy that wants to alleviate us from the burden and show us a new way we can relate to the world.
In some sense, Drama is not there to teach us something or to make a point by rationalizing ideas but to entertain us in a place where our consciousness can rest for a while without having it to drag us down.
Drama and consciousness
This is the idea that actually stumbled me the most when I first came in contact with the concept. A story is not told to teach you how to do things or to have some sort of instruction you can get away with to help your life improve. It is not about the character that didn’t pay attention to the signs around him and how he could avoid disaster, or about the hero that knows how to do stuff and he can show us how to do them in our lives as well.
Drama is simply there to expand our consciousness the same way dreams are. They show us a reality we are not that familiar with and we can reach possibilities that we would never think were possible before. Through this mechanism, we can realize potential and feel emotions as we go through the journey that although it has no direct guidelines to give us to follow along, it can help us expand our mental map in ways it wouldn’t have otherwise.