Q&A: “Deus ex machina”

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're well-oiled machines…

Q: Hi AWC, I was watching a film recently with a friend and they scoffed at what they called a “deus ex machina”. I nodded and smiled at the time, but please can you help me with what it means?

A: Ah yes, this phrase is much loved by film snobs everywhere.

Q: I know right?

A: Macquarie Dictionary translates it from Modern Latin as “god from a machine” and its meaning as an improbable, artificial, or unmotivated device for unravelling a plot, especially in drama”.

Q: God from a machine? I feel even more confused now.

A: Let’s deal with the meaning first. A “deus ex machina” is essentially when something (a power, event, person or thing), not seen in the story until that point, comes along to save the day. 

Q: Isn’t that just a plot twist?

A: Nope. A plot twist typically stays consistent with character growth and moves the story into new areas in an organic way. Meanwhile, a deus ex machina just turns up like an unexpected guest.

Q: Ooooh I hate that. Can’t they call first?

A: Indeed. It is a contrived “easy fix” that shortcuts the plot and doesn’t care about maintaining a meaningful narrative or character development.

Q: I don’t care if they brought wine, a simple phone call…

A: Are you done?

Q: Yes, sorry. So, do you have examples?

A: Literary examples of deus ex machina include Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where Hymen – the god of marriage – suddenly turns up at the end to untangle everything. Another is HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, where the aliens look set to conquer all until a convenient biological flaw ends their march.

Q: Ohhhh, spoilers!

A: Seriously? It was written in 1898.

Q: It’s on my list.

A: Famous film examples include Superman turning back time to save the world, the eagles swooping in to save Sam and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings and one of the earliest examples, Dorothy declaring it was “all just a dream” at the end of The Wizard of Oz.

Q: Oh yes, the “it was all a dream” one is rather lazy.

A: Yes, and while many often point to writer laziness regarding the introduction of a deus ex machina, often it suits a comedy context – such as the endings of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

Q: But why is it called a “deus ex machina”? It’s still not very clear.

A: Well, remember how we said the term came from Modern Latin? Well it turned up in English in the 1690s, but its true origin was the older Greek term “apo mekhanes theos” – with a similar meaning, “god from the machinery”.  

Q: What did the Greeks want with gods and machines?

A: It goes back to around 500 BC and the days of Greek theatre – with an actual device or machine that allowed the actors playing gods to be suspended over the stage or risen up through a trapdoor. Typically this would coincide with the end of a tragedy to wrap up events and wow the audience with the appearance of this “god from the machinery”.

Q: Hey, what did the Greeks do when their god machine got a screw loose?

A: Please, enlighten us.

Q: They would TITAN it. Bahahahahaaaa.

A: Oh look, what’s this? Some eagles. Must be going…goodbye.

Q: Wha…but… wait, what?

 

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