The term “Deus Ex Machina” was first introduced to me in my Senior year of high school by Mr. Carpenter, who not only served as the superintendent of our school but also taught literature. He was an interesting little man and was the closest thing we had in Okolona to a classics scholar. I must admit that at the time most of us didn’t understand a lot of his literary pronouncements but somehow I never forgot this one Latin expression—deus ex machina.
In my career as an author, I have had to come into very close contact with this phrase because it has everything to do with the art of writing. The term literally means “god via a machine.” In the old classical tragedies, plots got extremely complicated. Many times the only way to resolve all the conflict was to bring a god into the procedure. On stage, literally a god played by an actor would be lowered by a machine or some device like a crane into the proceedings and would miraculously solve everything. In one of the ancient Greek tragedies by Euriopides called Medea, a chariot was sent by the Sun God onto the stage to rescue her from all the mess she had gotten herself into and transport her safely back to Athens. How’s that for quickly untangling a plot?
So here’s what deus ex machina means in writing: It’s a device where you can hastily solve an unsolvable problem by the out-of-the-blue introduction of some new event, character or object. Generally these days it is thought of as a way to move the plot forward when a writer has painted himself or herself into a corner and sees no way out without something that is akin to “divine intervention.” It is employed to surprise the audience and/or to bring about a happy and easy Hollywood type ending. It sometimes is used as a comedic device.
In modern literature, using deus ex machina is generally thought of as undesirable in writing and implies a lack of creativity on the part of the author. Many times the writing becomes so unlikely that it makes one have to suspend disbelief when all of a sudden complicated situations are gotten out of at the drop of a hat. Hence, using this trick is rather debatable and often criticized.
Shakespeare employed the device in several of his plays such as As You Like It. In Romeo and Juliet, however, he doesn’t use a deus ex machina at the end—and of course Romeo and Juliet die. He could have had someone jump in at the last minute though and save them from all the poison and dagger stuff. That didn’t happen, so Romeo and Juliet remains a tragedy. One of my plays, Hotel Virginia, (spoiler alert) has all of the leading characters murdered at the end. Many audience members don’t like the play for that very reason. I am constantly getting suggestions for a deus ex machina ending—someone or something jumping in at the last minute to save all those people and thus have a happy Hollywood ending. I have a deaf ear to them and thus Hotel Virginia remains a tragedy.
The use of deus ex machina remains a popular device in modern films, TV, novels, and short stories. Its range has widened to the point that it is now thought of as an everyday tool in many writing endeavors. Stephen King uses it quite often in his works.
Superman is a perfect example of a use of this procedure. As Clark Kent, he is normal like the rest of us. When he is confronted with an insurmountable set of circumstances, he changes into Superman and can leap tall buildings, has the strength of a God and thus every ability to solve any dire problem.
Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto uses deus ex machina many times throughout the film at critical junctures to save the character Jaguar Paw from death.
Possibly the least satisfactory deus ex machina to the audience is the revelation that all or large parts of what has gone before were “all a dream.” This was perhaps most notoriously used in Dallas, where an entire season was “unwritten” to allow the resurrection of the character Bobby Ewing who had been killed off.
Every James Bond film has him in a car or with a briefcase or pockets full of trick gadgets that save him from all calamitous situations.
In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, just at the point of execution, Hank Morgan realizes that a solar eclipse is about to occur. He uses fake magic words to frighten the guards to release him and his friends.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian also utilizes the deus ex machina for comedic effect. In one scene Brian falls from the top of a high tower, only to be saved by an alien spaceship that happens to be passing.
Most of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas use a deus ex machina to resolve hopelessly complicated situations. Without this device, most of the stories would require either bittersweet or tragic endings.
Generally “deus ex machina” endings are cop outs. One favorite is the use of it in “rags to riches” stories—another old Hollywood standby. Many such efforts find the hero at his wit’s end as how to get his break. At one point he does someone a favor, such as perhaps singing a song that cheers up a sick kid, and guess what? The person’s father just happens to be head of The William Morris Agency and signs the singer to a seven-year contract.
George Bernard Shaw in his play Pygmalion did not believe in having a deus ex machina ending and demanded to keep what he considered a realistic ending. However, when it reached Broadway and Hollywood as My Fair Lady, it had a glorious rags-to-riches, musical, happy deus-ex-machina ending—and made a fortune.
Even though deus ex machina writing is scoffed at by many, it is still happening wholesale in many films and on most of your TV programs. If you ever saw the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, you saw nothing but this form of writing, which was used for comic effect with each of its characters Boris and Natasha, Little Nell, etc. Recently I saw a film entitled The Grand Budapest Hotel and it was overloaded with Bullwinkle type “deus ex machina” incidents.
So, just be aware that even though “deus ex machina” is generally jeered at in literary circles, it is still very much with us as a last ditch effort to get us out of the literary holes we have dug for ourselves.