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What Aristotle Knew about Cars, Thermodynamics, and Drama but Didn’t Tell You

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats

I loved my car, but it was breaking down and I couldn’t afford a new one. First the AC went, then the headlights faded, then the rear hatch refused to stay up. In hot August, the passenger window stopped functioning and the button for the driver’s side window broke. One day, I was driving to work and the rear window became so clouded I couldn’t see out of it. When I stopped to clean it, I discovered it was coated with a thick sheen of oil, presumably from the exhaust system. Driving home, I was listening to NPR, cringing at the anticipated expense of taking my clunker to the mechanic, when a little program called “A NASA Minute” came on. Some rocket scientist was talking about how you clean off your desk and, in about a week, it’s littered with crap again. He went on to explain this as a function of entropy: the tendency of universal energy to continually become more disorganized.

Entropy is the basis behind the Big Bang Theory. Once upon a time, the universe was a tightly ordered mass of energy and matter. Then it exploded into disorganization. As it expands, it will continue to become less organized until all its energy is diffused and gone.

“Sort of like my car,” I thought in despair.

My poor Volvo, a product of entropy. Photo by Robert Ruffin.

I took my Volvo wagon to the shop and learned it was going to cost $1,400 for repairs. I didn’t have $1,400. I was barely making ends meet. I couldn’t afford a down payment on a new car and I was pretty convinced my credit was in the tank. So instead of dealing with this new state of affairs, I bought huge jugs of oil—at $20 bucks a pop—and refilled the engine every two days. This, while I endured the perils of driving without being able to see out of my rear window and watching my car billow black smoke. Luckily, one day I was sideswiped by a hit and run. It shattered the side mirror and broke the handles on both doors on the passenger side. My car was toast. I spent the next couple of weeks agonizing over how I was going to get to work. My days were filled with car obsession. When a tire went flat and my jack broke, I was desperate. I went onto a local Toyota dealer’s website and applied for credit, sure Iwas going to be declined. Later that day, I found myself driving home in a brand new Corolla that gets thirty-seven miles per gallon. My old Volvo got twenty-three. The money I’m saving in gas will cover my car payments, which leaves me wondering why I went through all that agony to begin with.

Sound familiar? We all do this in one form or another. We fight change. What I have just narrated is the story of my struggle against the Laws of Thermodynamics, which govern the universe. I hope you will also note my tale was a model of standard dramatic construction. Inciting incident: my car starts hemorrhaging oil. Rising action: I struggle to keep my car functioning. Turning point: I get sideswiped. Climax: I fill out a credit application. Resolution: I come away with a brand new car. Thanks to this experience, I now look at drama in a whole new way.

As a dramatist, I know that dramatic writing mirrors life. If that is the case, then the Laws of Thermodynamics, which govern the very basic behaviors of life, must also be present in dramatic construction.

I learned some interesting parallels between thermodynamics and Aristotelian drama. In general terms, the First Law of Thermodynamics tells us the amount of energy in the universe is constant. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form. The Second Law tells us that energy can only be transformed in one direction, from “usable” to “unusable,” and each time energy is transformed, a little extra usable energy is consumed—there is a loss. In other words, you have to burn energy to use energy. This is embodied in the common axiom “you can’t get something for nothing.” This constant conversion of energy leads to entropy, or a universal tendency towards disorder. Usable energy is ordered. Unusable energy becomes disordered as it is dispersed. Think of it as the oil in my engine. Oil is pumped out of the ground and refined, which takes energy—loss. The oil is put to work lubricating my engine, but it eventually degrades, turns into unusable goo that comes out of the exhaust and clogs up my back window. Chaos ensues.

As a dramatist, I know that dramatic writing mirrors life. If that is the case, then the Laws of Thermodynamics, which govern the very basic behaviors of life, must also be present in dramatic construction. Ergo, in drama, things are constantly shifting from an ordered state to a disordered one, or more precisely, to a reordered one that is slightly more chaotic. If so, then the conflict in drama is the struggle against change in the universal order. Just like my struggles against the universal truth that my car was falling apart. This struggle, as dictated by the Laws of Thermodynamics, most certainly will end in a loss. In the case of my car, I lost my self-respect, a small portion of my sanity, my ignorance about my credit rating, my time, and my beloved Volvo wagon. Even though my new world is reordered—one in which my new Toyota functions quite well—I now have a monthly car payment, giving me something else to worry about. I also can’t haul big theatre props around in my Toyota like I could in my wagon; I have to rent a truck. Oh…and now I live in dread of my new car falling apart.

I’ve looked at dozens of plays through the Laws of Thermodynamics and, in each case, this framework holds true. Let’s take Romeo and Juliet, for instance. At the top of the play, all is ordered in Verona. The Capulets and the Montagues hate each other and are constantly feuding. Shakespeare sets this up in the opening brawl with the Prince’s proclamation that the next fight will be the last. He, for one, is desperate for change. The two families, however, are very used to this order of the feud. It’s their passion; they thrive on it. When Romeo meets Juliet at the ball and love comes between a Montague and a Capulet, disorder enters the equation. From thereon, all actions that drive the conflict are about old order vs. new—hate vs. love. Tybalt challenges Romeo, who refuses out of “love.” Mercutio steps up and is killed. Romeo (“fortune’s fool” with old and new orders conflicted within him) kills Tybalt. Romeo is banished, the Capulets try to force Juliet to marry Paris, the Friar hatches a plot, etcetera. Only when Romeo and Juliet die, do their families accept a new order—peace. But the new order is slightly more chaotic because now the families don’t have their feud to focus on; they have to figure out what to do with themselves. This change does not come without a loss, as the Laws of Thermodynamics dictate; Romeo and Juliet are gone—what a waste.

I could offer other examples, from Hamlet to Barefoot in the Park, but I think A Streetcar Named Desire best illustrates how this frame of reference can inspire interesting interpretations of classic work. It is popularly accepted that the story centers on Blanche, but if you look at the play through entropy, a new protagonist emerges. At the top, Stella and Stanley are in love. Sure, Stanley is a bit of a bruiser, but Stella is willing to turn a blind eye to Stanley’s faults because her attraction to him outweighs any reservations she might have. As she says later regarding Stanley smashing light bulbs on their honeymoon, “I was—sort of—thrilled by it.” Enter Blanche and her new order. She is determined to lay bare what a brute Stanley is, how lowly Stella’s life has become, and she is determined to get Stella to leave. In the popular interpretation of the play, rising action is seen as the conflict between Stanley and Blanche.

We can look at any play within Aristotle’s model (and life) and see it as the story of struggle against change, the inevitable change, and the loss that happens as a result.

In the entropy model, the struggle is between Stella’s desire to remain blinded by love (old order) and Blanche’s determination to open Stella’s eyes (new order). The turning point is Stanley raping Blanche, which leads to the climax where Stella makes the choice between continuing to ignore her husband’s brutality and accepting her sister’s word that he is a thug. Desperately clinging to the old order, Stella allows Blanche to be dragged off to an asylum. Superficially, it appears that Stanley has managed to reassert the old order with Stella’s passive assistance. As Stella says to Eunice, “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.” But Stella, against her own desires, can’t accept the new order, “I don’t know if I did the right thing,” she tells Eunice. Williams perfectly illustrates entropic struggle and loss in the final moments of the play when Stella shouts “Blanche! Blanche! Blanche!” as Blanche is being escorted off and, according to stage directions, Stella “sobs with inhuman abandon.” Stanley also clings desperately to the old order as “he kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse” while he murmurs “now love.” But their relationship is no longer pure or simple. It is tainted and complicated by Stella’s new awareness that Stanley is, indeed, a brute. Williams gives us Stella’s loss of innocence and the chaos of doubt in one neat package.

Whether an ending is tragic or happy depends on whether the universal truth of a new, slightly more chaotic order is accepted. Romeo and Juliet is a happy ending: the families accept peace. Streetcar is a tragedy: neither Stanley nor Blanche accepts the truth. The Drama of My Car is obviously a happy ending: I love the new car and don’t miss my Volvo wagon at all.

Humans are resistant to change; we all know this. But change is inevitable as dictated by the Laws of Thermodynamics. When we struggle against change, something is lost. We can look at any play within Aristotle’s model (and life) and see it as the story of struggle against change, the inevitable change, and the loss that happens as a result. For those of you who trade in your car at the first sign of wear, you accept the new order and there is no struggle. There is no conflict. For those of us who cling desperately to the status quo because we love our old cars and fear buying new ones, struggles abound. This is human behavior in conflict with entropy and the Laws of Thermodynamics. This is drama.

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