the Three Unities
a pragmatic stance much like that of Horace. He is a dramatist
writing about the structure of drama. the question is, how is
great drama put together?
addresses the unity of action: "the term unity of
action does not mean that tragedy should show only one
action on the stage . . . . there must be only one complete
action . . . but that action can become complete only through
several others which are less perfect." Subplots are
needed to drive the main action along, but should never begin to
upstage or compete with the main action.
He addresses the
Aristotelian dictum that events in a drama should be causally
connected by affirming it. A poet should not, however, be
required to show "all the particular actions which bring
about the principle one; he must choose to show those which are
the most advantageous." Ultimately though, the principle is
"only a beauty and not a rule."
The action of a
drama has two parts: the complication and the resolution (this
is familiar Aristotelian territory). The complication has only
the rule of probability attached top it, though Corneille
recommends that the poet deal as minimally as possible
(preferably not at all) with events which predate the time
presented in the play. a for the resolution, he abhors two
things: "change of intention," and "the
machine." Change of intention is a sudden and unexplained
change in the motivation of a character, a change which helps
resolve the plot in an improbable yet convenient manner. The
machine is the now-infamous Deus ex machina associated
primarily--or at least originally--with Euripides: this is
the kind of plot resolution in which a god--unintroduced
previously in the play--or some sudden display of magic power on
the part of one of the play's main characters--a power
unmentioned and undisplayed earlier in the drama (Medea
would not come in for this criticism because the title character
was known from the beginning to have magic powers)--imposes
some convenient settlement.
enter and exit the stage for a good reason, but it is OK to
bend this rule in the first scene of each act. A poet should
indicate in the margin that which should not go into the lines:
this helps a reader experience the drama in a way that simulates
the experience of seeing it performed.
As for the unity
of time, Corneille would prefer that action on stage
correspond to real world time. A two-hour performance would
ideally reflect two hours of action. At any rate, the action
should not "go much beyond twenty-four" hours,
although the fifth (final) act may be exempted from the
strict unity of time because "the spectator is by then
impatient to see the end."
willing to stretch the unity of place to the territory of an
entire city, but no further.
He points out
(and this is something I think modern MLA types may have
forgotten) that "the pleasure [spectators/readers] take
in [drama] is the reason they do not seek out its imperfections
lest they lose their taste for it." This should be
emblazoned on every publication which comes out of the MLA and
the NCTE. Perhaps the sublimest thing Corneille says is: "It
is easy for critics to be severe; but if they were to give ten
or a dozen plays to the public, they might perhaps slacken the
rules more than I do." Amen.