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Deus Ex Machina: The Origins

Two weeks ago, I griped about how Enterprise, the last Star Trek TV show to be aired on television, resorted to using a tired old trope called deus ex machina in their plots. But deus ex machina is not a […]
| Jun 19, 2013 | No comments |

Two weeks ago, I griped about how Enterprise, the last Star Trek TV show to be aired on television, resorted to using a tired old trope called deus ex machina in their plots.

But deus ex machina is not a recent phenomenon, nor am I the first person to complain about it. The origins of deus ex machina come to us from ancient Greece, more specifically from their theatre productions (and yes, I’m enough of a snob that I spell live theatre with an r-e as opposed to an e-r).

To understand what a deus ex machina was back then, we have to understand how a Greek stage was set up.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2007-05-10_Epidauros,_Greece_5.jpg

Greek Theatre at Epidauros (from Wikipedia)

In the picture, we’re looking down at the main stage, which was a big circle. Behind the circle would be a large building that slightly overhang the stage. Within the upper floors of said building would be a series of cranes that could be used to lower scenery or even actors onto the stage.

It became a convention in Greek theatre to lower an actor portraying a god from a crane at the end of every play to set things right again. A good example of this is found in a trilogy of plays called the Oresteia by Aeschylus (and I’m going largely from 20 year old memory here, so I might get some of the details wrong).

In Part I, King Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War and figures that he’ll just slip back into his civilian life. No such luck. His wife, Clytemnestra, is upset for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that she’s been having a lengthy affair with another man and didn’t want that to end with her husband’s return. So Clytemnestra and her lover murder Agamemnon and figure that they’ll get away with it.

In Part II, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s son, Orestes, comes home and discovers that Mom murdered Dad and her lover is now ruling as king. Orestes decides to avenge his dad and murders Clytemnestra and her lover.

In Part III, the gods are upset at Orestes because of the whole matricide business. They unleash a group of monsters called the Furies who are threatening to destroy pretty much everything. Orestes flees to the temple of Apollo for sanctuary.

At the end of the play, an actor portraying Apollo is lowered on a crane and declares that Orestes has done all the proper sacrifices, thus freeing him from his guilt. The Furies are sent packing and Orestes is free to go.

This convention of using gods to miraculously resolve all of the conflict in a story fell into disfavor. Even Aristotle, in his seminal Poetics, “argued that the resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from previous action of the play.” This criticism didn’t kill the convention, obviously. It continued to be used and is still used to this day.

But here’s what I find interesting: in Greek theatre, the deus ex machina wasn’t considered a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it was the expected ending of a dramatic story.

So where am I going with this? I’m not entirely sure myself. Come back in two weeks to find out.

 

John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. Keep up with him at JohnWOtte.com.

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Paul Lee
Member

Maybe the problem only arises when the deus ex machina is expected or predictable.  To be truly great, a story has to have a twist, a turn of circumstance coming from outside the box, offering a transcendent view of the characters’ trials and relationships.

At the end of the play, an actor portraying Apollo is lowered on a crane and declares that Orestes has done all the proper sacrifices, thus freeing him from his guilt. The Furies are sent packing and Orestes is free to go.

The obvious difference between that and the Christian story is that this depicts justification without atonement.  Apollo doesn’t do anything other than proclaim that Orestes is off the hook…. and presumably all the problems Clytemnestra caused were no big deal, either.

Galadriel
Guest

I think Bainespal has a good point–the less expected a De Es Machina (Dex, as it’s referred to in the Fables graphic novels) is, the better it is.  On the other hand, some things that may seem Dex-ish can be woven into the story, such as the conclusion of L.B. Graham’s Binding of the Blade  series

Teddi Deppner
Guest

“So where am I going with this? I’m not entirely sure myself. Come back in two weeks to find out.”

Love the honesty there, John! There are plenty of times that I have a thought rolling around my head like a tangled boulder of yarn and just want to grab a loose end and start unraveling it. Seeing your post makes me feel that maybe that’s not such a bad approach. Especially with an active commenting community like we have here.

Although I can and do feel “cheated” by some “Dex” endings (thanks, Galadriel, much easier to type), I often think it’s unfair that we can’t use them as authors. So many things in life show up with no explanation or warning. Why do we have this pre-disposition to reject it in a story?

And speaking of predispositions, why is it that when it’s trouble, most people say, “Well, it was bound to happen!” and when it’s showers of blessing, they say, “Well, that’s not going to last!” Is it just today’s culture, or has that been around for a while? Seems like it’s been around a long time.

Anyway, when it comes to stories, I don’t mind a little salvation out of nowhere, as long as it’s handled well. As long as there are precedents and the total end result doesn’t come across as all “rainbows and unicorns”.