Another important concept introduced in Aristotle’s Poetics is catharsis, relating particularly to tragic drama. Unlike comedy, which Aristotle defines in relation to “low”, or “ugly”, characters, tragedy concerns “high” actions represented in dramatic form, rather than narrative form (which belongs to epic).
His usage of the term has provoked much debate. There is no exact definition, but it is generally taken to refer to an almost therapeutic, or purgative, process by which audience members learn to comprehend human suffering without experiencing it to the same degree of intensity as is represented on stage.
Tragedy effects through pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.
Catharsis can extend one’s imaginative sympathy and, as such, guide one’s behaviour. Tragic drama, then, has social meaning.
In the 1930s, the German Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht (1898—1956) took up a polemical, or controversial, stance against Aristotle’s concept of catharsis, as part of his theorization of a politicized non-Aristotelian theatre. Brecht objected to the concept of catharsis because it presumes an audience of separate individuals, rather than seeing the audience as a political collective, capable of thinking and reasoning in response to the action presented on stage.
The audience’s identification with the “inexorable fate” of the tragic hero obscures the reality of human agency in socio-economic processes.
The Aristotelian play is essentially static; its task is to show the world as it is. The [Brechtian] learning-play is essentially dynamic; its task is to show the world as it changes.