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Author Topic: Freytag's Technique of the Drama
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I finally found an accessible online English translation of Gustav Freytag's Die Tecknic Des Dramas by Elias J. MacEwan, 1894. Freytag's Technique of the Drama.


University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign sponsored 2007 31 December. A PDF version is 22 MB, a Microsoft sponsored image scan of the 2nd edition from the University of Illinois Library collection. Several pages are torn. A full text version is 640 KB, but sprinkled with OCR artifacts. Free! Bibliobazaar published a new release last August, 2008, going for $22 list at Amazon.

I'm reading it now. It's a little more penetrable than translations of Aristotle's Poetics, but not by much. I'm uncovering gems, though.

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A listing from the table of contents;

Chapter I, Dramatic Action
 1. The Idea
 2. What is Dramatic
 3. Unity--The Law
 4. Probability
 5. Importance and Magnitude
 6. Movement and Ascent
 7. What is Tragic
Chapter II, The Construction of the Drama
 1. Play and Counter-Play
 2. Five Parts and Three Crises
 3. Construction of the Drama in Sophocles
 4. Germanic Drama
 5. The Five Acts
Chapter III, Construction of Scenes
 1. Members
 2. The Scenes According to the Number of Persons
Chapter IV, The Characters
 1. Peoples and Poets
 2. Characters in the Material and in the Play
 3. Minor Rules
Chapter V, Verse and Color
 1. Prose and Verse
Chapter VI, The Poet and His Work
 1. Poet of Modern Times

Well, dress me up as Somerset Maugham and paint me like Rudyard Kipling. I'm only a hundred pages in out of four hundred and I'm already profoundly astonished. I'll be studying this for some time. Would that I could send Freytag's Technique of the Drama back to my eleven-year-old self and encourage me to study it as I'm bound to now.

Freytag, at least through MacEwan's translation from linguistically and syntatically similar German to English, frequently uses "must" and "law" as absolute admonishments for creative writing craft, but not to my mind offensively so. One overarching aspect distinguishing Freytag's approach to writing on writing that recommends him to me is that he instructs based upon audience reception, how best to appeal to audiences, the why's, wherefore's, and how's of craft presented in a way that I've not seen in any other writing tome. However, Freytag was as much a product of his times as Aristotle was of his, as he well notes, and as likely to be biased with androgenous, Tueton-centric, class conscious sentiments. He also uses "poet" the way Aristotle does and "play" the same. For me, the archaic language and complex syntatical constructions are sublimely appealing.

An excerpt from the closing of Chapter I, subchapter 5;
  "If a poet would completely degrade his art, and turn to account in the action of a play full of contention and evil tendency, the social perversion of real life, the despotism of the rich, the torments of the oppressed, the condition of the poor who receive from society only suffering, by such work he would probably excite the sympathy of the audience to a high degree; but at the end of the play this sympathy would sink into a painful discord. The delineating of the mental processes of a common criminal belongs to halls where trial by jury is held; efforts for the improvement of the poor and oppressed classes should be an important part of our labor in real life; the muse of art is no sister of mercy."

In other words, sympathy for the devil does not establish a suitable hero for story.

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That's interesting. I've thought in the last couple weeks about how a hero needs to possess admirable traits readers don't see enough of in real life. Otherwise, readers are left with too many uncomfortable feelings and won't accept the hero.

Thanks for the link and description, extrinsic.

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I've thought in the last couple weeks about how a hero needs to possess admirable traits readers don't see enough of in real life. Otherwise, readers are left with too many uncomfortable feelings and won't accept the hero.

I agree wholeheartedly. Freytag drills into the hoard, expounding in detail why, how, and what constitutes a story-worthy hero and how a nonworthy one diminishes a story (play). He acknowledges that humans are flawed, that principal characters must imitate those flaws, but that even villains and nemeses possess noble qualities, at least in their motivating desires.

Freytag also addresses the usage of "marvelous" supernatural and fantasy characters, their value or failure in story.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited February 23, 2009).]

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I've finished a first read. What a mother lode of information, the Tell I've sought for a decade, and would that I had found it decades ago. I'll be studying this for some considerable time, and expect to find areas for disagreement--perhaps--maybe not.

Freytag explores most every, if not all, aspect of writing discussion here at Hatrack (and every elsewhere in my experience) about creative writing. Sure, it's dated in the examples from plays that he compares--works of Shakespeare, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Sophocles, et al.--and distinctly addresses play-writing. With a slight reinterpretation or a transposition of a word, the text readily becomes as specific to written-word story.

Freytag's analysis of the virtues and failings of Romeo and Juliet are an admirable best practice example for the critiquing process. Huh, nervy, but valid even in the face of modern-day unstilting praise.

From inspiration to drafting to revisions to submission angst to trial rehearsal (offering for trial reading--a first performance) to the benefits of the trial to understanding the marketplace to a final admonishment on decorum for the "young dramatist". In short, an entire writing journey from beginning to middle to end, and in that order.

The ending;

"If the poet has done all this, on the reasonable success of his piece, he will soon, through a somewhat extensive correspondence, be initiated into the secrets of stage life.

"And finally, when the young dramatist has in this way sent the child of his dreams out into the world, he will have sufficient opportunity to develop within himself something besides knowledge of the stage. It will be his duty to endure brilliant successes without haughtiness and conceit, and to accept sorrowful defeats without losing courage. He will have plenty of occasion to test and fashion his self-consciousness; and in the airy realm of the stage, in face of the actors, the authors of the day, and the spectators, to make something of himself worth more than being a technically educated poet--a steadfast man, who not only perceives the beautiful in his dreams, but who shall be honestly determined unceasingly to represent it in his own life."


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I'd be interested in any more 'boiling down' of his ideas/language you might have, Extrinsic.
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As soon as I have a moment to get a round tuit, I'll get to it. Hundreds of pages of transcripts came in today. Work first.
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The Biographical Note relates basic information about Freytag's background, education, and personal history and his publishing accomplishments. Of note, his most acclaimed work is Soll mid Haben (1858), in English translation Debit and Credit, published in 1859. The latter is accessible at Project Gutenberg, though it's not as readably accessible as modern-day readers might prefer.

The Introduction outlines the organizational method of the book through a seemingly casual narrative style similar to an expository composition, yet which is similar to a modern-day scientific approach: purpose, hypothesis, materials used in the text--plays, playwriters, lyric, epic, and dramatic poems and poets, and a countering control example for comparison and contrast--a summary of investigative methods and approaches, and a cursory summary conclusion of laws and practices of dramatic arts. In short, a summary of the essay's contents.

In the seven subchapters of the first chapter, The Dramatic Action, defining what contributes to and constitutes drama (and what is not dramatic) is related. The experimental control is historical accounts, if Technique of the Drama is interpreted as a scientific essay, the control is compared and contrasted with dramatic arts accounts. The control purpose/dramatic purpose concept recurs throughout the essay.

Subchapter 1 explores The Idea from inspiration to transforming it into a dramatic imitation of life. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a focal example deconstructed therein and throughout the essay. Freytag reimagines Shakespeare's inspiration and dramatic transformation process as though he reads Shakespeare's mind.

The reimagined inspiration from page 10 (note its Tueton-centric nature, a noteworthy application of dramatic license, an original, reverse engineered version of the original play's imagined inspiration);

"A young poet of the last century reads the following notice in a newspaper: 'Stuttgart, Jan. 11. In the dwelling of the musician, Kritz, were found, yesterday, his oldest daughter, Louise, and Duke Blasius von Boiler, major of dragoons, lying dead upon the floor. The accepted facts in the case, and the medical examination indicated that both had come to their deaths by drinking poison. There is a rumor of an attachment between the pair, which the major's father, the well-known President von Boiler, had sought to break off. The sad fate of the young woman, universally esteemed on account of her modest demeanor, awakens the sympathy of all people of sensibility.'"

Obviously, an imaginary newspaper account with its inherent brevity in answering the fundamental journalistic questions, who, what, where, when, why, and how to the satisfaction of curiosity-seeking readers. In mentioning the rumor of why the young couple die, the imaginary correspondent has begun transforming an actual though imaginary historical event into a dramatic account. In the why question is the overarching question artfully posed in and artfully answered in Romeo and Juliet. The source of suspense. Though it's a tell of the worst sort, the last sentence of the news report suggests a feature for the story's sympathetic attraction.

And so on the essay goes through the supposed inner workings of Shakespeare's transformation of an imagined newspaper account into an inspiration into a fully realized dramatic account.

[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited March 09, 2009).]

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If there's one thing above all else that appears to more confound emerging writers it's plot (me too, still, in writing, not at all in reading). Plot is dramatic structure in formal lexicon. Running down precisely what plot is led me astray more than anything else. What any one writer on writing topics defines plot as set me off on digressive tangents. Norman Friedman's fourteen plot types is one example. They're not exactly plot types; they're more like generalizations of dramatic premises (aka loglines in filmmaking, the elevator speech pitch in publishing circles), what a plot is about, not what plot is. Same with about every other enumeration of so-called plot types.

In reading everything I've read, fiction or nonfiction story-wise, I've found there's only one form of dramatic structure. Something happened, efforts are made to address what happened, what happened is addressed. Beginning, middle, ending. Universal to story. Not necessarily universal in anecdote, vignette, or spectacle.

(A lot of creative writing lapses mean nothing to most readers if a story has a dynamic plot. That's a major reason why accomplished authors are able to publish popular but less than stellar stories.)

I've dozens of writing tomes gathering dust on my shelves. None relate to plot in an approachable way, if at all. I've scoured creative writing programs' reading lists and audited what of those publications I could, same results. Library offerings, bookstore shelves, suggested reading advices from a host of other sources, more of the same.

Publishers, editors, screening readers, writing professors, accomplished authors, emergent authors, emerging writers, critiquers, consumers, everyone in the lassiez-faire publishing guild system appears to me to believe that understanding plot is something that's acquired by osmosis and can't be learned, taught, analyzed, diagnosed, or grasped. If anyone today truly knows, they keep it to themselves as zealously as Greek artisans kept the secrets of concrete from the Romans.

It was in Freytag's Pyramid that I found the answer to what plot is and stuck to in my ongoing research efforts. A representation of it at Wikipedia helped, but seemed to suggest that tension is not a required feature in story beginnings or endings. When I uncovered an access to McEwan's translation of Freytag's Technique of the Drama, I read it. At last! the answers I'd been seeking. I was certainly ready, prepared, and desparate for them.

Freytag's pyramidal diagram of plot structure is a crude engraving in the book, one of two figures in the entire thing. That engraving bears scant semblance to other renditions I've seen at Wikipedia and elsewhere, which I'd suspected didn't accurately portray plot. Either the someones who've interpreted Freytag's Pyramid didn't understand it or there's an effort to obscure its power for nefarious purposes. I thought, and do now firmly believe the former.

Yet Freytag's Pyramid is a simple line drawing with a few text marks on it intended to illustrate the accompanying content of the subchapter entitled, "The Five Parts and Three Crises of the Drama." In order: Introduction, Exciting Force, Rise, Climax and Tragic Force, Return or Fall, The Force of the Final Suspense, Catastrophe. The forces being the crises.

In my interpretation for present-day purposes (why anon); Introduction and Inciting Crisis, Rising Action (escalating efforts), Climax and Countering Crisis, Falling Action (accommodating to the climax's consequences), Final Crisis and Catastrophe or Eucatastrophe; aka Denouement or Resolution.

Why? I didn't expect to disagree with Freytag. I do in one area. He insists that tragedy is the highest form of narrative arts and that all else is not worthy for creative efforts. He does allow that comedy and spectacle might rival tragedy, in times and places other than what preceded him, other than in his own time and place, and allows for what may come in the future. The transpositions I've listed above account for that probability. Today's readers want melded parts and crises, want happy endings sometimes. An exciting force need not be exciting as long as it's inciting. A climactic crisis need not be tragic as long as it's a countering crisis. A final crisis need not be a final suspense as long as it's a crisis that causes at last a full and completed reversal of fortune for a protagonist. J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term eucatastrophe: It "refers to the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which result in the protagonist's well-being." Eu (Greek meaning good) + catastrophe. [Wikipedia: Eucatastrophe]

Aristotle spoke of unified causation as the need for dramatic movement in narrative. The horizontal axis of dramatic structure.

Freytag builds upon Aristotle's foundation. He primarily discusses tension as a need beside causation for dramatic movement. The vertical axis of dramatic structure.

There's one more axis to plot and that is antagonism. The perpindicular axis of dramatic structure. Antagonism is the opposing forces of purpose and problem that incite crises, escalate efforts, establish and maintain unity, lend dramatic action to causation, tension, and therefore dramatic movement. Antagonism is what compels the influx and efflux of a protagonist's efforts to address a predicament. Balanced but favoring problem's side, antagonism is what keeps an outcome in doubt up until the bitter end of a story. This last, antagonism's role in dramatic structure, that I had to develop on my own as if I had to reinvent the wheel in order to use a car. Freytag hints at and dances around antagonism's role, naming the features of it in plays he examined, but he doesn't settle on it and unravel it's mysteries.

A summary of the basic attributes of plot;
Five parts and three crises: Beginning, middle, and ending
Causation: logical cause and effect
Tension: sympathy (emotional cluster) and suspense (artfully delayed answers to artfully asked questions a story poses)
Antagonism: purpose and problem (opposing or contributing forces)
Unity in all things
Reversal of fortune
Doubtful outcome until ending

The above is a flashcard for filtering, screening, combing tools that I use to evaluate a story available for critique, in progress, or published, mine and other writers'.

I've developed flashcards for each of the other structural and aesthetic story elements' attributes, too: plot, character, setting, discourse; theme, tone, rhetoric, and resonance; which all go to plot as all roads lead to Rome. For example, Character: Narrator, a dramatic persona in a narrative with a standing relative to the action and capable of specific psychic access levels to other characters' thoughts.

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