God Out of the Machine – Theatrical Literary Devices

This week I have been training teachers in Category 1 IB Theatre in Singapore, and one thing that came up when we were looking at the Director’s notebook, is that the students do need to learn how to analyse theatre text and understand literary devices. One such device that is fun to focus on is the deus ex machina (the translation from New Latin is ‘god from a machine’). This term comes from the staging in Greek theatre where the stage machinery, or crane (mechane) was used to literally lower the god from a machine, at a great height, onto the proskene.

The idea of the deus ex machina was introduced by Aeschylus and was coined from the conventions in Greek tragedy to refer to the moment in the play when the god enters and resolves all the problems that have been caused throughout the rest of the play. It also refers to an improbably device used to resolve the difficulties of the plot. One examples is from ‘Knight and Day’, which I was watching the other night, where the sleep inducing drug was used on several characters – they were given the drug just as things were getting dangerous or complicated, and they would come round after this drug induced sleep, to a world where all the problems had been resolved!

One definition of deus ex machina is:

‘Something or someone that comes in the nick of time to solve a difficulty, especially in works of fiction.’ (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/deus-ex-machina.html)

 

You can watch this video to find out more about the context of the term in Greek tragedy:

 

In theatrical terms there are many ways to use this.

  1. You may want your students to find texts where this devise is used – you may want to start with Shakespeare and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’
  2. You may explore how the device is used in films in terms of plot structure and resolution, for example in ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Matrix’ or ‘
  3. In literature there are many examples, and writers you may want to refer to are: Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and the Harry Potter series.
  4. There are also theatrical techniques that have been employed by theorists and companies that work with the same idea – you may know ‘Basic 5s’, an improvisation game where the 5th character to enter the scene resolves the problems brought by the previous two characters. Boal also uses the idea in his forum theatre where the spect-actor steps in to bring about change for the good of the group – in essence truing to resolve all the problems presented in the previous scenes.

 

For the benefit of your students they may want to use deus ex machina as a starting point for collaboration and devising. It could take the form of:

  • An event (a change in the weather, stormy to calm waters etc)
  • A character (fairy godmother, knight in shining armour)
  • An object (sleeping potion, key, letter)

Etc

The main point being that the event, character or object changes the course of events in the theatre piece, resolving conflict, finding the answer to problems and bringing about solutions.

I plan to use this with my students in the next few weeks as a starting point for work, so I hope that you find it useful in text analysis and theatrical structure.

Sources inspired by:

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/deus+ex+machina

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/deus-ex-machina.html

http://literarydevices.net/deus-ex-machina/

http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/LX/DeusExMachina.html

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