Deus ex Machina

deus ex machina


Another for the pub quiz…

The saying ‘Deus ex Machina’ is used when an unexpected turn of events saves a hopeless situation, e.g: your house is being repossessed when a letter arrives announcing a huge inheritance.

Deus ex machina literally means ‘god from the crane’. Mechane, the word that gives us machine, was Latin for crane.

The phrase is from ancient Greeks and Romans theatre. It was used when an actor, representing a god, was lowered down on a rope to save the day after the plot had become so far-fetched there was no other way out. A contrived ending rather like those children’s books where the characters wake up to find it was a dream.

The problem is that drama relies on dramatic tension; usually provided by things piling up one on top of the other, until everything is out of control.

Tragedies are fine, because everyone dies in the end. But comedies (plays with happy endings) and farces (plays that have you rolling on the floor in laughter) are a bit of a problem because you need to leave feeling good. (In the case of farces the sticky situations are usually absurd or embarrassing – like the famous dick in the apple pie scene in American Pie.)

As the wreckage piles up, like cars on a freeway with black ice, the writer might not be able to save the play without an unexpected plot twist coming to the rescue. At this point, the god was lowered onto the stage.

He or She (because goddesses appeared too) would tell the old goat and his unloved wife that the pretty maid and the handsome slave they had being trying to seduce were in fact their long lost children – kidnapped as infants by pirates; or some such nonsense.

At this point, the husband and wife tenderly embrace for the first time in decades, and look forward to a future together as a real family.

Why the god did not come down at the beginning of the play is never explained. But when you’ve spent 3 hours laughing your socks off (or in the case of Ancient Greeks laughing your sandals off*) at the antics on stage, I suppose you don’t really care.


*Yes, the Romans wore socks! They found  a letter in the Roman Fort of Vinlandia at Hadrian’s Wall from a young soldier’s mum asking if he got the socks she’d knitted.

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