Aristotle thought that the enjoyment of watching drama came from the innate human pleasure to be found in imitating and observing imitation. Another way of expressing the pleasure that the audience of drama experiences would be to say that the pleasure comes from recognition; whether of character, emotion, event, idea or experience. This idea has been refreshed several times since Aristotle’s day; ‘the shock of recognition’ is Herman Melville’s memorable descriptor for the experience of finding your own life reflected at you in a book and his phrase has since been deployed to explain the joy of reading by sources as eclectic as Edmund Wilson and Barry Jones.
If it is true that as far back as ancient Greece the shock of recognition was understood to be the chief reason audiences enjoy drama, it might be thought odd that ancient Greek drama did not contain many ordinary citizens. Indeed, Aristotle thought it was a fault of a play to include them. It was better for audiences to watch representations of characters greater than themselves—this increased the potential for both tragedy and moral instruction. Although there are many things that can still be recognised in such a play, presumably the downside was that the characters were less relatable, the imitation less recognisable and the enjoyment (if it is to be found in the recognition of imitation) lessened.
Embrace Australia’s finest writers: subscribe to Meanjin
Subscriptions start at just $5 a month — which goes directly towards our writers’ fees.