Deus Ex Machina

god from the machine

A deus ex machina [dey-uhs-eks-mah-kuh-nuh] (Latin: ‘god out of the machine’) is a plot device whereby a seemingly inextricable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. The phrase comes to English usage from Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica,’ where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a god from the machine to solve their plots.

He refers to the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a crane (mekhane) was used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine referred to in the phrase could be either the crane employed in the task, a calque (loan translation) from the Greek ‘god from the machine,’ or the riser that brought a god up from a trap door. The idea is that the device of said god is entirely artificial or conceived by man.

The Greek tragedian Euripides is often criticized for his frequent use of the deus ex machina. More than half of Euripides’s extant tragedies employ it in their resolution and some critics go so far as to claim that Euripides was the originator of the device. In Euripides’ play ‘Alcestis,’ the eponymous heroine agrees to give up her own life in order to spare the life of her husband, Admetus. At the end Heracles shows up and seizes Alcestis from Death, restoring her to life and to Admetus. A more frequently cited example is Euripides’ ‘Medea’ in which the deus ex machina is used to convey Medea, who has just committed murder and infanticide, away from her husband Jason to the safety and civilization of Athens. In Aristophanes’ play ‘Thesmophoriazusae’ the playwright parodies Euripides’ frequent use of the crane by making Euripides himself a character in the play and bringing him on stage by way of the mekhane.

Aristotle criticized the device in his ‘Poetics,’ where he argued that the resolution of a plot must arise internally, following from previous action of the play: ‘In the characters too, exactly as in the structure of the incidents, [the poet] ought always to seek what is either necessary or probable, so that it is either necessary or probable that a person of such-and-such a sort say or do things of the same sort, and it is either necessary or probable that this [incident] happen after that one. It is obvious that the solutions of plots too should come about as a result of the plot itself, and not from a contrivance, as in the ‘Medea’ and in the passage about sailing home in the ‘Iliad.’ A contrivance must be used for matters outside the drama—either previous events which are beyond human knowledge, or later ones that need to be foretold or announced. For we grant that the gods can see everything. There should be nothing improbable in the incidents; otherwise, it should be outside the tragedy, e.g., that in Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus.”

Aristotle praised Euripides, however, for generally ending his plays with bad fortune, which he viewed as correct in tragedy, and somewhat excused the intervention of a deity by suggesting that ‘stonishment’ should be sought in tragic drama: ‘Irrationalities should be referred to what people say: that is one solution, and also sometimes that it is not irrational, since it is probable that improbable things will happen.’

During the politically turbulent 17th and 18th Centuries, the deus ex machina was sometimes used to make a controversial thesis more palatable to the powers of the day. For example, in the final scene of Molière’s play ‘Tartuffe,’ the heros are saved from a terrible fate by an agent of the compassionate, all-seeing king — the same king that held Molière’s career and livelihood in his hands.

Sometimes, the unlikeliness of the deus ex machina plot device is employed deliberately. For example, an offbeat scene in ‘The Life of Brian’ involves Brian, who lives in Judea in 33AD, being ‘rescued’ from a high fall by a passing space ship. Likewise, a deus ex machina was used as a pivotal plot device in the film ‘Adaptation.’ When the main character seeks screen writing advice from a veteran of the film industry, he advises, ‘Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina.’ A deus ex machina is later employed in the film in the form of an alligator attack that saves the main character’s life.

Director Richard Kelly put the phrase in his film ‘Donnie Darko’ to show that there was some kind of advanced machine someplace in the future at work, manipulating people and sending signals to Donnie in Middlesex. When Donnie mentions this in the film he comes to realize that there really is a Deus Ex Machina. Donnie mutters, ‘Deus Ex Machina, our saviour’ as a car driven by Frank stops nearby, which startles his attackers and causes them to flee. The car acts as the deus ex machina; that is, the unexpected or unprobable device that is introduced to resolve a problem, thus it is Donnie’s ‘saviour.’

The classic novel ‘Lord of the Flies’ uses a deus ex machina in its conclusion when the savage children are rescued by a passing navy man. The author William Golding uses this technique to convey to the audience the terrible fate which would have afflicted the children (in particular Ralph) if the navy man had not arrived at that moment. The plot of ‘The War of the Worlds’ is succinctly resolved at the end of the novel with Earth-based diseases that affect the invaders to a disastrous degree, thus saving the world when the invaders were seemingly unconquerable.

A deus ex machina is generally undesirable in writing and often implies a lack of creativity on the part of the author. The reasons for this are that it does not pay due regard to the story’s internal logic and is often so unlikely that it challenges suspension of disbelief, allowing the author to conclude the story with an unlikely, though perhaps more palatable, ending. The deus ex machina is often considered to be a poor storytelling technique by critics because it undermines the story’s internal logic, although it is sometimes employed deliberately for this reason. Following Aristotle, Renaissance critics continued to view the deus ex machina as an inept plot device, although it continued to be employed by Renaissance dramatists; Shakespeare used the device in ‘As You Like It,’ ‘Pericles,’ ‘Prince of Tyre,’ and ‘The Winter’s Tale.’

Towards the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche criticized Euripides for making tragedy an optimistic genre via use of the device and was highly skeptical of the ‘Greek cheerfulness,’ prompting what he viewed as the plays’ ‘blissful delight in life.’ The deus ex machina, as Nietzsche saw it, was symptomatic of Socratic culture that valued knowledge over Dionysiac music and ultimately caused the death of tragedy: ‘But the new non-Dionysiac spirit is most clearly apparent in the endings of the new dramas. At the end of the old tragedies there was a sense of metaphysical conciliation without which it is impossible to imagine our taking delight in tragedy; perhaps the conciliatory tones from another world echo most purely in Oedipus at Colonus. Now, once tragedy had lost the genius of music, tragedy in the strictest sense was dead: for where was that metaphysical consolation now to be found? Hence an earthly resolution for tragic dissonance was sought; the hero, having been adequately tormented by fate, won his well-earned reward in a stately marriage and tokens of divine honor. The hero had become a gladiator, granted freedom once he had been satisfactorily flayed and scarred. Metaphysical consolation had been ousted by the deus ex machina.’

Nietzsche argues that the deus ex machina creates a false sense of consolation that ought not to be sought in phenomena and this denigration of the plot device has prevailed in critical opinion. Some 20th-century revisionist criticism suggests that the deus ex machina cannot be viewed in these simplified terms and argues rather that the device allows mortals to ‘probe’ their relationship with the divine. Rush Rehm in particular cites examples of Greek tragedy in which the deus ex machina serves to complicate the lives and attitudes of characters confronted by the deity whilst simultaneously bringing the drama home to its audience.

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