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Essay: Stage plays in Ancient Greece and the film Selma

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  • Published: 28 October 2015*
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It was the tradition of the Ancient Greek civilization to have their Tragedies and poetry performed in a stage play; more confident writers would enter their work in competitions and have it compete with the works of other fellow writers. These traditions were carried on and adapted into more modern channels of expression, progressing alongside with the changing times. The Tragedies and poetry that were once performed by actors on a stage for a present audience, are now performed by actors projected onto a screen upon the discretion of the viewer ; more commonly known as film. The tradition of having one’s work compete with others was also carried on and a modern day counterpart being the Cannes International Film Festival. The modernization of the channels of expression significantly affect the process of creation and overall outcome of the work. However the underlying principles of what makes Tragedy efficient and proper, as introduced by Aristotle, and the poet as inspired by the divine, as proposed by Socrates, maintains its place at the very core of it all; an example is the film Dancer in the Dark. In summary the film is centralized upon Selma, a Czech immigrant with a hereditary eye condition and passion for American musicals. After accidentally killing her neighbor, in an attempt to retrieve her savings for her son’s eye operation, she is wrongfully convicted of murder and is sentenced to the death row.The film, which garnered the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival, exhibited the elements of proper and efficient Tragedy and poetry as divine inspiration.
To illustrate, it should be noted that at certain parts of the film Selma made use of the surrounding noise to initiate a musical number; with the exception of the last song, where in the number was unaccompanied by any noise or instrument and Selma was unable to finish her song. These musical numbers were packaged as a daydream as well as a coping mechanism. It depicts how Selma would breakaway from reality during distressing situations, such as upon the realization of the gravity of her crime and the moments leading up to her execution. The performance of the ballads is analogous to the performance of poetry by the Rhapsodes of Ancient Greece. While the disassociation with reality prior to the performance is also analogous to Socrates’ concept of Divine Inspiration as the primary source of the Rhapsode’s driving force. However to concede to the notion of Divine Inspiration would also concede to the idea that the Rhapsode, Selma (and to some extent the actress, Bj??rk Gu??mundsd??ttir, herself), is without talent and incapable of achieving such feats in art without the aid of the divine. Yet, it can be argued that talent and inspiration are forces that complement rather than negate. Inspiration may function as a stimulant for an inherent talent, and the execution of said talent will in turn give justice to the inspiration.
Likewise, the film also conformed to the standards of Aristotelian tragedy. Since Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is an imitation of action, rather than man; in the hierarchy of elements Plot is superior superior to all. According to Aristotle Plot must be whole, complex, must posses magnitude, a single issue and the elements of emotional interest. The film exhibits all of these elements; it his whole as it has a beginning, middle and end. In terms of complexity, the innocence of Selma but wrongful conviction excites pity; while her execution arouses fear. Although the film’s magnitude was twice as long as a regular film, still it is considered to be the proper length because it was able to narrate the plot without being too vast for easy consumption. The single issue in the film is the mistrial that led to Selma’s demise. Finally, the element of emotional interest namely: Reversal of situation, Recognition, and Scene of suffering. The Scene of suffering can be found at the very end, it was the moments of psychological turmoil leading up to the execution and finally as Selma was hung from the gallows. The Reversal of situation is when Selma’s savings became Bill’s,her neighbor, inheritance money. Although the reversal did not occur on screen, it is still an event that is probable within the given parameters of the film; thus it is valid. Lastly, Recognition was achieved during the scene where Selma was going to put away her final salary only to realize that the tin box was empty and Selma realizes that the person with the motive and capability to commit the act was Bill.
Following Plot is Character and Thought, respectively. The Character performs the action, thus reigns over Thought. Aristotle states that a character of Tragedy must be good, true to life, consistent, aim at propriety and must transition from prosperity to despair. The character of Selma conforms to these standards. As a mother Selma wants to provide the best life for her child, Gene, thus she saves her salary and work overtime to ensure that he does not suffer the same eye condition. As a person with a passion for musicals, Selma joins a local theater play and finds music in everyday noise. As a friend, she refused to divulge Bill’s motives for theft, stating that she had promised to keep it a secret, which destroys her only chance in winning the case. As a victim of circumstance, Selma expresses her trust that all of her savings are still intact as she retrieves it from Bill; as well as the grave remorse she experiences as she desperately takes the money by force. Thought, on the other hand, is portrayed through Selma’s song rather than proverbs or maxims. The song, “I’ve Seen It All”, displays how Selma no longer fears being blind and how grand objects have a more simplified version. In the lyrics Selma sing how Niagara Falls, considered to be one of the great waterfalls in the world, is nothing more than water. Another example is the song “107”, which narrates the supposed one hundred and seven steps of the convict to the death row. It portrays how Selma copes with reality using her songs.
Below the level of Thought is Song followed by Diction, both of which are mediums of imitation.The songs are reflective of Selma’s situation and character. An example of a Song is her final one entitled, “Next to the Last Song” that delivered the final blow in arousing the audience’s pity and fear. This was achieved by executing Selma, thus preventing from finishing the song but revealing to the audience the final stanza: “They say it’s the last song/ They don’t know us you see/ It’s only the last song/ If you let it be.” In terms of Diction, the generally short dialogue allowed the tension to gradually build. This was best exhibited in the scene where her neighbor asks for a loan, but Selma refuses for the second time. The conversation did not progress any further but it heightened the sense of foreboding.
Finally, the remaining element is Spectacle. In the hierarchy of the elements of Tragedy, Aristotle places Spectacle as the least relevant element; claiming that a Tragedy need not be an extravagant stage play to achieve its purpose. The “Spectacle” being referred to equates to the special effects, setting, editing, and other components that deal with the visual aspect of the film. With regard to Spectacle the film had minor continuity errors in most of the scenes, it was shot using cheap digital cameras, and settings were very commonplace (a factory, the railroad, a trailer home, etc.). Compared to the usual Hollywood movies that makes use of professional cinema-cameras, flamboyant musical numbers, and high end special effects, the film’s Spectacle is inferior but it did not hinder the arousal pity and fear.
The great interval between the creation of the works of Aristotle and Plato to the production films of the modern day, did not alienate these works from each other. Although some concepts are debatable while others provide an exemplary standard for art. It can be said that the elements of the classics still reign true and are applied to its contemporary counterparts.

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