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.
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.