Most of us encounter the 6 Aristotelean elements of Drama in an English course in high school in concert with a handful of creative writing standards we are taught like Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid of Dramatic Structure, or Northrop Frye’s U-shaped patterns of dramatic structure, etc.
These were essentially the tools utilized to assess our ability to comprehend the stories we read in high school, and ultimately to measure the efficacy of our ability to imitate these structures through creative writing exercises like writing prompts and short stories.
But like many lessons in secondary education, these tools are absorbed, assessed, and rarely revisited explicitly unless the student pursues higher education in a field that demands continued exploration of the subject. Since the recent academicization of playwriting, more and more dramatic writing scholars are met with Poetics by Aristotle, and certain aspects of its content are reviewed, referenced, and reinforced to both comprehend and measure the efficacy of our plays. We are met with questions like, “Could you identify the plot?” and “Who is the main character?” Some of these questions cause anxiety and lead to creative roadblocks because the process of creative writing can become intimate and such interrogation quite often appears intrusive. While it is a skill we must develop in our field, not everyone is comfortable discussing their intimate life in public. In this essay, I intend to provide a brief elemental breakdown of the 6 Aristotelean elements of Drama to hopefully eliminate some of the anxiety around its use in academia and other writing workshops we frequent in our respective playwriting careers.
The 6 Aristotelean elements are plot, character, thought, diction, spectacle, and song. Below are the definitions I utilize to better understand the way in which each element helps me build a play. It is important to note that these elements are already at work in our playwriting, but the more we can identify them, the better we can employ each element, or not.
1) PLOT = What, the main action, which can be described through the character’s objectives. For example, in Lorraine Hansberry’s definitive play, A Raisin in the Sun, the patriarch is dead and his financially fraught family awaits his life insurance check. The eldest son Walter Lee wants to utilize the check to open a liquor store, while his sister Beneatha wants to use the money to pay her college tuition, and their mother Lena Younger, the lawful beneficiary of the coveted insurance check, and therefore has the authority to make the ultimate decision about how to invest it and why. The major dramatic question that is explored through the action in the play is: What to do with dad’s life insurance check?
2) CHARACTER (COMMUNITY) = Who, the protagonist and their relationship to the other characters and to the world they inhabit. I tend to substitute the Aristotelean term character for community to describe more ensemble driven plays. In a rare interview, Hansberry discusses how a traditional protagonist never fully emerges in A Raisin in the Sun; (https://youtu.be/ZkFR_6DGJ3o). While Walter Lee talks the most, his sister Beneatha is certainly an ambitious runner up, and similar arguments are made for their mother Lena. I suppose it depends on the production.
At any rate, this is an example of an ensemble driven play where the stakes are high for all, and the playwright has created space for each character we meet to articulate and defend their ambitions respectively. Such plays are often created by historically marginalized playwrights (e.g. August Wilson, Pearl Cleage) who are more interested in equity than centering one voice. There is something inherently political about it, but I digress.
3) THOUGHT = Why, the psychology behind the character’s action. Why does a character want what he wants? In A Raisin in The Sun, both Walter Lee and Beneatha want to secure upward mobility. Which (sidebar) is a masterclass in creating conflict, because both characters want to utilize a shared inheritance to mobilize their respective career objectives, in order to meet the same psychological need, financial security.
4) DICTION = How, the dialogue, which in addition to action, is a tactic characters utilize to achieve their, often opposing, objectives. Think of the debates between Walter Lee and Beneatha. The dialogue is used to delineate their psychology and defend their plans for the money.
5) SPECTACLE = Where, that which we can see on stage, also known as setting. A Raisin in the Sun is set in a crowded 1950’s tenement apartment on the South Side of Chicago. All of which informs the narrative that will unfold.
6) SONG = Rhythm of speech or the use of literal music. Both of which are utilized to drive a narrative forward, or delineate character and emotion. Or all of that! The rhythm of speech quite often reveals, urgency, mood, culture, etc. Hansberry’s realism is partly driven by declarative speeches (e.g. Walter Lee), and lectures and lessons from Beneatha and Lena Younger.
Thus the 6 elements we utilize to build drama are what, who, why, how, where, and rhythm of speech. This is in part a journalistic approach to playwriting in which we can begin to ask ourselves questions about a play before entering a workshop.
Lastly, there are of course differing genres which inform a plot like tragedy, comedy, procedurals, etc. But I maintain that a plot also inherently unfolds in the relationships we establish in our plays. For example, in A Raisin in The Sun we meet a set of ambitious siblings who need all or part of their collective inheritance to achieve their respective goals. A plot is already made evident in their relationship.
In conclusion, it is important for playwrights to remember that the poets taught Aristotle. He did not teach the poets. He analyzed their work and wrote critically about it. Essentially, he is an ancient critic we are taught to revere. Again, it is important to note that these elements are already at work in our playwriting, but the more we can identify them the better we can describe a play to collaborators who utilize the 6 Aristotelean elements of drama as a frame of reference to interpret modern drama.