Rebel without worrying about applause

What’s the last show you saw that employed a nontraditional structure? Tell us here!

In the last century or so, non-Aristotelian structure has become integral to the theatre, encouraging artists to rebel against traditions and create new forms of their own. Before we define it, however, let’s have a quick refresher on what non-Aristotelian drama resists.

In his Poetics, Aristotle lays out the basic precepts for what we now consider “traditional” dramatic form. Though not a playwright himself, Aristotle responded to the plays of a generation of older writers, such as his teacher Sophocles, whose Oedipus Rex became Aristotle’s prime example of ideal dramatic structure.

Aristotle believed that the playwright’s goal was to create a string of events which would carry the viewer from point to point in a tightly-knit series of happenings. Importantly, Aristotle thought that plot—the cause-and-effect relationship of events in a play—was the most important element of drama, superseding the other aspects he identified: character, diction, thought, spectacle, and music. In analyzing Oedipus Rex, Aristotle set a precedent for much theatre to come, and many of his precepts still constitute the “norm” for dramatic literature.

Much later, in the 19th century, a German academic named Gustav Freytag further codified Aristotle’s methodology into his famous pyramid, which shows an inciting incident leading to a complication, a crisis, a climax, and eventually a resolution.

However, many theatre artists have taken exception to Aristotle’s (and especially Freytag’s) prescriptive thinking about dramatic action and have worked toward structuring their theatre in opposition to traditional Aristotelian requirements.

One of the most well-known of these modernist revolutionaries is the German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht, who penned an essay called “Non-Aristotelian Drama” in order to describe his own work and that of some of his contemporaries who were then outlining a new type of theatre they called “epic” rather than dramatic

Brecht utilized an episodic structure in many of his plays, such as The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Good Person of Szechwan, meaning that one action in the story doesn’t necessarily lead to the next. He believed that in Aristotelian theatre, characters are shaped by the actions that befall them, whereas in epic theatre, characters and their actions are determined by economic and social factors.

Brecht thought that breaking up a play’s events allowed the audience to keep an intellectual distance from the story, thereby freeing them to analyze actions, themes, and underlying politics.

While Brecht was consciously constructing his theatre in opposition to much of Aristotle’s thinking, he acknowledged that epic theatre was only one way of structuring the dramatic event and that, indeed, one could easily use both an epic and Aristotelian approach in a single play. In fact, the episodic structure often appears in many plays and movies that also rise to a climax and fall to a resolution, just like Sophocles’s plays.

Nor is Brecht the only authority on radical form. Artists have a wealth of dramatic structures to choose from, tweak, and reinvent, meaning Aristotelian climactic structure need no longer be accepted as the baseline. We’re all free to enjoy the variety that’s inherent in our theatrical landscape.

Jake Hooker

This video was made by our friends from the Detroit theatre company A Host of People.

Here’s the team:

  • Text and video editing: Jake Hooker
  • Directed by: Sherrine Azab and Jake Hooker
  • Starring: Sherrine Azab, Karilú Forshee, Bethany Hedden, Jake Hooker, and Emily Roll
  • Original music: Shane Chapman

A Host of People is a theatre company that creates art around this question: How can we host more people into theatrical works that are complex and multifarious; work that is poetic, visual, non-conformist, and is looking to free the viewer’s imagination, curiosity and spirit? So we work to entertain and leave the interpretation to you. We invite our audience into our art as we would guests into our home, whether it is in a house, on the street, in a gallery or in a theatre.

A Host of People is a member of Network of Ensemble Theatres.