Thursday, March 21, 2013

Ancient Greek Theatre: Origins of the Term "Deus Ex Machina"


Deus Ex Machina means "God from the machine," and refers to the practice pictured here, of lowering god-characters to the stage to save the day.
In ancient Greek theatre, actors portraying gods were lowered to
the stage floor with a mekane, or machina.

In order to fully understand the term "deus ex machina" as it's used today, it's important for a reader to understand the ancient Greek origin of the term.


Theatre history experts and scholars agree that ancient Greek theatre is the basis of all Western theatre and dramatic writing. It is no surprise, then, that the term deus ex machina, which originated in ancient Greece, is still used today.


"God From the Machine"


Translated, the Latin phrase deus ex machina means “god from the machine.” This phrase originated because of the ancient Greek playwrights’ use of a stage device, what was called a mekane or a machina (Brockett & Hildy, 2008). Simply based on how the words look and sound, it’s easy to see that these words refer to some type of machine. In this instance, “the machine” was a crane, either installed to lower an actor onto the stage floor or to raise an actor through a trapdoor onto the stage floor. Oftentimes, this actor was portraying one of the various Greek gods or goddesses, hence the phrase, “god from the machine.”


Deus Ex Machina as a Plot Device


However, as time went on the physical device came to be relied upon not only as part of plays’ spectacle and staging, but as a plot device. According to Brocket and Hildy, “Its overuse in the last part of the century (especially by Euripides, who often employed gods to resolve his plots) led to the term deus ex machina, god from the machine, to describe any contrived ending” (2008, pg. 27).

An example of this would be the ending of Euripides’s play, Medea. At the end of this play, Medea escapes the scene of her crimes in a dragon-drawn chariot sent by her grandfather, the Sun-God. The crane, the mekane, would have been used literally to hoist the actor from the stage, while at the same time the escape of Medea “neatly” ends the play. This type of plot device has been criticized as bad writing by critics since Medea’s original production in 431 B.C.E. (pg. 14).


The Contemporary Use of the Term Deus Ex Machina


Even today, those who criticize or review new films and plays will sometimes refer to a contrived ending as deus ex machina. In this type of contemporary contrived ending, a more metaphorical god or a godlike figure appears seemingly out of nowhere to solve a main character’s problem or resolve the plot of a story. The use of this type of contrived ending is often used as a joke in dramatic or cinematic parody, and its use in more serious drama is discouraged.

Presumably, this "mechanical" ending is a way for a writer to achieve an ending as desired without having to work out a more logical and realistic chain of events. Although most people would very much appreciate being saved from foreclosure, for example, by an answered prayer for a money tree, most people recognize that this is not a probable solution. In film or theatre, this type of ending would be considered a deus ex machina.


Want to read more about theatre?  Try
 Production Dramaturgy: What's a Dramaturg Do?


References

  • Brockett, O.G. & Hildy, F. J. (2008). History of the theatre (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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