Reference Entry

Deus ex machina

F.W. Sternfeld

in Oxford Music Online

Published in print December 1992 |
Published online January 2002 | e-ISBN: 9781561592630 | DOI:

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(Lat.: ‘god from the machine’)

A term used by historians of drama to denote a god who by a theatrical machine (Gk. mechane, Lat. machina) is hoisted on to the stage to resolve the plot, to ‘untie the knot’ (dénouement). Such endings, whether they occur in ancient Greek tragedy or in operatic librettos, are usually unforeseen and sudden, and by extension the term is frequently used to signify any arbitrary resolution of a plot (Paul Valéry has said that all endings are arbitrary). As a rule, the reversal of fortune is from sadness to happiness, and the ‘deus ex machina’ conclusion is therefore a subdivision of the Lieto fine (opera) .

The two treatises on literary criticism that have been used for thousands of years to debate such matters are Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Art of Poetry. Both Aristotle (1454b) and Horace (192) deal with the main artistic problem of the ‘deus ex machina’, namely that playwrights often use the device in a manner that leads to an unreasonable and implausible conclusion (Russell and Winterbottom ...

Reference Entry.  1561 words. 

Subjects: Opera

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