The “Well-Constructed Fable”

More on history and theater! Found this little bit from Lessing’s Hamburg Dramaturgy.  I am especially interested in the section in which he discusses the authenticity of the fictitious given that it is possible. (if something could have possibly happened, it is as authentic as something that actually happened–at least to the playwright). This raises questions about just how one determines what is possible, but I find this idea of imaginative fictions and their authenticity really sort of compelling, especially when we consider the subjective filters that are inherent in the writing of history.

He writes:

Now Aristotle has long ago decided how far the tragic poet need regard historical accuracy: not farther than it resembles a well-constructed fable wherewith he can combine his intentions. He does not make use of an event because it really happened, but because it happened in such a manner as he will scarcely be able to invent more fitly for his present purpose. If he finds this fitness in a true case, then the true case is welcome; but to search through history books does not reward his labor. And how many know what has happened? If we only admit the possibility that something can happen from the fact that it has happened, what prevents us from deeming an entirely fictitious fable a really authentic occurrence, of which we have never heard before? What is the first thing that makes history probable? Is it not its internal probability? And is it not a matter of indifference whether this probability be confirmed by no witness or traditions, or by such as have never come within our knowledge? It is assumed quite without reason, that this is one of the objects of the stage, to keep alive the memory of great men. For that we have history and not the stage. From the stage we are not to learn what such and such an individual man has done, but what every man of a certain character would do under certain given circumstances. (238*)

Also interesting is this conception of universality he seems to have–and that that is what separates the stage from history. The stage, according to Lessing, can teach us what every man would do in certain circumstances, not just what a particular man would do. This universal element of theater is what makes it more “philosophical.” As I’ve written in some previous posts, the concept of the universal is problematic from a feminist perspective (among many other perspectives), but I am curious to trace how this concept evolves in the arts across cultures.

*Theatre/Theory/Theatre, edited Daniel Gerould.

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