Euripides and the deus ex machina

Deus ex machina means, literally, God from the machine, and it's a curiously Latin term for what is very much a Greek concept.

To portray the Gods in plays, the Classical Greek actors were lifted in the air using a huge lever system. This is precisely the deus ex machina: an actor portraying a god, hanging from a lever machine.

Of course the audience could see the rope and the lever, but hey, this was early days for special effects. The audience had the imagination to blot out the mechanics. They wouldn't be able to guess which god they saw, but the actor would declare his identity in his opening lines, and the play carried on.

Mary Renault uses this to good effect in The Mask of Apollo. In that story, her hero is an actor playing a god. The audience gasps and the actor looks up to see what the audience can see: the rope is frayed and will snap at any moment and he'll fall to his death. So he does what any good actor would do: he carries on with his lines.

The mechanics of the system worked fine, but there was a problem with the way the Classical playwrights used their divine characters. The gods tended to appear at the opening to set the scene, then they'd disappear, only to suddenly return right at the end and close down the story before it could reach a climax. It's like the writers included too much plot and simply chopped the story off using divine intervention when time ran out.

The technique was so notorious that deus ex machina has come to mean anything which shuts down a story suddenly and without warning, in a completely arbitrary way, thus preventing any natural resolution for the characters.

Euripides was a serial offender when it came to deus ex machina.

I can't help feeling Euripides was born into the wrong time and place. He should have been born in the 20th century, where he would have been totally at home writing post-modernist mainstream literary. Euripides essentially had no interest in plot whatsoever. The plot for him was merely a vehicle to carry his beautiful words and exquisite phrases. If he got to the end of what he wanted to say before the story finished...not a problem. He just introduced a god or goddess as a character, suddenly, at the end, and with no rationale whatsoever, to tie up all the threads of the plot in one momentous speech. Then everyone could go home.

Ion is a good example of his perfidy. In that story an orphan called Ion seeks his true identity. The plot becomes a trifle convoluted. There's a false prophecy which totally confuses everyone. Ion meets his mother, all unknowing to them both. She tries to kill him a couple of times (these things happen). He takes a shot at her too. Then Athena turns up for the first time in the story, and in a single speech reconciles everyone and explains away the early false prophecy with a very dodgy throwaway line. Mother and son for some reason think it's cool that they're related, despite recent homicidal attacks, and everyone lives happily ever after. No natural resolution.

This is almost as ridiculous as following for six years a group of people trapped on an island, with all manner of deep symbolism, intricate plot threads and exotic clues, only to close with a happy, happy, joy, joy ending and all the intricate threads left loose. No one in their right mind would write such an ending these day—oh, hang on...scrap that.

22 comments:

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I'm no longer lost. ;)

Christine H said...

I did not follow the show because I found it a) wierd and b) confusing and c) did I say wierd?

Anyway, my husband and I watched Battlestar Galactica which followed a similar sort of tangled storyline. The writers admitted when it was over that they had no overall story. They were just making it up as they went along. Fortunately, they were able to tie it together at the end.

Apparently the Lost writers weren't so clever.

Christine H said...

P.S. So are you telling us that the dead man who fell from the sky was really an actor on a frayed rope?

Amalia T. said...

And it is with relief that I admit that I never got into that particular time-trap! Six years of my life, saved. :)

Gary Corby said...

Glad to hear it, Tricia :-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Christine!

The dead man who falls from the sky is not an actor.

Although as it happens, I do have notes for a later book, in which Nico and Diotima have to solve a terrible murder during the great drama festival in Athens. There'll be a mysterious man who wears a mask...

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia, I never watched Lost either after the first few episodes. The premise was brilliant, but what turned me off were the constant flashbacks, which in my view were very poor structure. But as a (supposedly) serious writer I did study what they did, because it was so unusual.

L. T. Host said...

Don't even get me started on LOST. I, too, watched the first few episodes and then couldn't take all the mystery anymore.

Overall, I tend to like movies more than TV shows, anyway. Unless the TV shows are off of TV... then I'll watch the series because I know there's an ending (resolution) in sight. Otherwise, it's just a big tease.

There are a few exceptions. I have recently allowed myself to fall into the traps of GLEE, CHUCK, and SUPERNATURAL. If you don't get those shows down there, Gary, you should try to find them online. They are totally worth it.

As for deus ex machina, thanks for this. I think I may have been guilty of something a little similar in my first novel. Whoops.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I love that you used the word perfidy. :)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Susan. Perfidy is kind of cool, isn't it? Usually used by the French, as in "perfidious Albion." Which is rather ironic since Albion is the Greek name for England.

Gary Corby said...

Hi L.T. I think we get Glee here. On your recommendation I'll have a look.

Conversely, I don't know if you get it in the US, but I'm rather fond of Midsomer Murders.

L. T. Host said...

I don't think we get that either, at least not on the standard stations, but I'm sure we can find it online somewhere! I'll check it out-- sounds right up my current mystery-writing alley.

RWMG said...

Is there anywhere on this Earth with a higher murder rate than the county of Midsomer?

Gary Corby said...

Midsomer Murders is set in the totally fictitious county of Midsomer in southern England.

Beautiful landscapes, gorgeous stately homes, unbelievably cute villages, and rarely less than 4 gruesome murders per episode.

It seems Midsomer is populated almost exclusively by highly eccentric if not bizarre characters who are determined to slaughter one another.

The whole thing is overseen by Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, who plays a completely normal Englishman. He deals with the exotic deaths and nutty populace with a completely straight face.

Gary Corby said...

Robert, there's actually a web site somewhere dedicated to tracking the mortality rate in Midsomer. I suppose if you traveled to the middle of a war zone you might be able to match it.

_*rachel*_ said...

I just recently watched... let me check... the first 2.5 episodes, mostly because I heard a spoiler of the ending and thought the concept was kind of interesting. But now I'm facing the fact that it's one long story, I'm not sure if the library has it anyway (and I doubt the more recent seasons are on Youtube), and there are so many more immediately interesting things going on. Same thing happened with Heroes, which I may eventually finish.

When it comes to TV, I go for more episodic formats: Hogan's Heroes, What Would You Do?, and Undercover Boss. No continuum = watch it when you want in what order you want skipping whatever you want.

Anyway, everything seems to be ancient Greek right now, though it varies between the Golden and Classic ages (the reason I know there's a difference is this blog). I always check here, I'm reading The Lightning Thief to my brother, going to see the movie soon, finishing the series myself, and recently read Nobody's Princess and sequel about Helen. That, and the guy next door for a few months was named Pericles. And there was a recent workshop on Greek food. Wow.

Loretta Ross said...

I did not see Lost, as I haven't watched current television in over a decade now. I also did not watch Battlestar Galactica because they MADE STARBUCK A GIRL!! I had a crush on Starbuck, dammit! When I was twelve. I even had a DOG named Starbuck. STARBUCK IS NOT A GIRL!

GRRRRR!

I've heard of Midsomer Murders, but don't think it's available here either. It does sound like a good show. Speaking of the mortality rate, I have a (not yet very well developed) idea for a book series about an old hotel that has an urban legend about it that claims at least one person at or connected to it dies every month.

RWMG said...

I remember there used to be a teaser for Midsomer Murders with mini interviews with the cast and John Nettles (Barnaby) told the story of how a naked body in a field appeared in one episode and was never mentioned or explained because they just forgot about it with so many corpses piling up.

RWMG said...

Oh, and Gary, if you ever go on a book signing tour to the UK and Joyce Barnaby puts in an appearance I would suggest a discreet exit and the first plane home. That woman is lethal to nearly everyone she comes into contact with.

Gary Corby said...

I think I saw that interview! Apparently at one point they tried to reduce the number of killings per episode, but the audience complained.

Thanks for the hint on Mrs Barnaby. And if Sarah the Publicist arranges a signing for the bookshop in Midsomer Worthy...I'm totally not going.

Gary Corby said...

Rachel, you had someone living next door to you named Pericles? OMG, what must he have endured at school.

Good news on the Greek food. It's lovely. And a Mediterranean diet is good for you!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta, love the premise! But will the local population level withstand the damage? I guess that'd be part of the challenge.

Geez, you wouldn't want to reserve a room, would you? At least, not until that month's victim has been done in.