The X Factor

31/08/2011 13:04 BST | Updated 30/10/2011 09:12 GMT

Greek philosopher and tragedian, Aristotle, devised six elements of drama which have guided the work of playwrights and dramatists for over 2,000 years. Within the parameters of his classic three act structure, these elements are:

1. PLOT - what happens in a play; the order of events, the story as opposed to the theme; what happens rather than what it means.

2. THEME - what the play means as opposed to what happens (plot); the main idea within the play.

3. CHARACTER - the personality or the part an actor represents in a play; a role played by an actor in a play.

4. DICTION/LANGUAGE/DIALOGUE - the word choices made by the playwright and the enunciation of the actors delivering the lines.

5. MUSIC/RHYTHM - by music Aristotle meant the sound, rhythm and melody of the speeches.

6. SPECTACLE - the visual elements of the production of a play; the scenery, costumes, and special effects in a production.

In addition, Aristotle defined tragedy in the context of drama as:

"...the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language; a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions."

If any further evidence were needed that the ancient Greek's definition of tragedy and essential elements of drama were timeless then surely the phenomenon that is the X Factor provides it. Once again the reality TV show created by the ubiquitous Simon Cowell is currently dominating the cultural life of the nation with its ingenious combination of drama, tragedy, music, audience participation and suspense.

That all good drama is conflict is embodied on the show in the constant behind the scenes squabbling among the contestants, scripted or not, which takes place on a daily basis in between shows in the pages of the tabloid press and across the internet.

Meanwhile the subplot, that essential component which any screenwriter omits at his peril, is filled by the ongoing rivalry between the judges. The audience receives enough of a glimpse of this subplot in the barbed comments between them during the show to leave it wanting more, which they duly receive in tabloid accounts of the ongoing behind the scenes animosity and rivalry, thus keep the audience engaged with the show on a daily basis.

Viewing figures for the X Factor consistently trumps those of every other show during the much coveted peak Saturday and Sunday night television slots, averaging in the region of 13 million viewers.

On the show the suspense of wondering who will be ejected each week mirrors the anguish of the contestants as they wait to hear their fate. This is followed by the heightened emotion which comes with the reaction of those acts voted through to the next round on the one hand, and that of the act or acts voted off. The rollercoaster of emotion which ensues - involving crushing disappointment and sadness for those who've been rejected, and relief and joy for those voted through - makes for compelling viewing, as does the reactions of the judges who stand with their respective act or acts and share in their pain, sadness or joy as the decision is announced. The watching audience at home, through being accorded the privilege of influencing the outcome by voting on who stays and who goes, ensures its emotional engagement and empowerment over proceedings.

The performance of each contestant, as they literally sing to escape a fate of normality and drudgery, allows us to imagine such an escape for ourselves. We sympathise with them just as we sympathise with a character in any compelling film or theatre production, and in the process suspend disbelief as they succeed in pulling us into their world.

But it is exactly the theme embodied in the notion of affording this escape where shows like the X Factor distorts the meaning of human existence, divorcing it from its essential social relations and ties of solidarity, compassion and cooperation. These shows invite us to escape our lives, problems, frustrations and fears for those precious two hours every Saturday or Sunday night. This we do willingly, but the price paid for doing so is the deflation we may experience once the show ends and we are forced to confront again the reality of our actual existence rather than the imagined one created by the show.

It is the same experience involved in a visit to the cinema to watch a movie in which acts of heroism and courage are magnified on the silver screen. In the confines of a darkened cinema, we enjoy the visceral experience of being part of a fictional world where good triumphs over evil, the good guys always win, and where courage and heroism prevails. The thrill we experience is often matched at the other end by the sense of deflation and let down we encounter upon leaving the cinema and the world of excitement and moral certainties we've just been part of behind.

At its best drama poses disturbing questions about the world we live in, about the received truths of said world and its smug conceits. By holding up a mirror to society, drama, like any art form, can also provide comfort by depicting conflicts and seemingly insurmountable every day problems that we recognise in our own lives. It creates a circular relationship between the characters acting out the drama and us in the audience, whereby not only are we able to sympathise with the characters and the conflicts they depict, but we are left with the feeling that they sympathise with us and our conflicts. In the process it reminds us that we are not alone in facing those conflicts, which has the effect of fostering a sense of solidarity that gives us strength to carry on.

But in inverse proportion to the level of social and economic injustice that exists in society, we are fed as entertainment a diet of escapism masquerading as drama via the visceral experience of witnessing contestants, plucked from obscurity, being given the opportunity to secure an individual solution to the conflicts inherent within said society. The success of shows such as the X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent, and The Apprentice are a symptom of the desperation felt by millions trapped in low paid and/or unfulfilling occupations, straitened circumstances, and face an uncertain and precarious future.

That the contestants on these shows are willing to compromise their self esteem as a price worth paying for this escape merely reflects the massive promotion of celebrity and fame as being synonymous with happiness and fulfilment in our time.

Musically, we come to perhaps the most egregious aspect of the X Factor. A weekly round of classic and not so classic songs by the world's greatest musical artists and songwriters are covered, but not in an attempt to convey the emotion and power of the song, rather in a contrived attempt by each contestant to impress the audience and the judges with their ability to mimic that emotion. The song is not performed as the end, as an expression of unalloyed human emotion, but as the means to the end; in this case a ticket through to the next round. Each week another song is sung and easily discarded as the contestant moves on to the next, thus reducing music and lyrics to nothing more than a transmission belt to fame and hopefully fortune.

Typically, winners of the X Factor, rewarded with a recording contract, go on to release one single with the objective of it becoming that year's Xmas number one, followed by an album of mostly cover songs. If they are lucky they get to release a second album before being returned to the obscurity whence they came.

Next year, just like the year before and the year before that, there will be another round of X Factor contestants, most indistinguishable from the next, to satiate the nation's need for a visceral escape from the problems of survival which most of us encounter on a daily basis. Like the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, the X Factor acts as both a distraction and a temporary palliative, reinforcing the perversion of human happiness as a by product of extreme wealth and fame.