Dramatic Situation | Conflict
One of the chief sources of people's absorption in stories, from time immemorial, has been their capacity to identify with people who are involved in conflicts.
To have a conflict, we have to have two things, and these things have to be not merely different or even opposite from each other but actively opposed to each other.
Thus none of the following phrases suffices to specify a conflict:
- King Lear's daughters
- MacBeth's desires
- Hurricane Dolores
- the unconscious arrogance of the men towards the women in Susan Glaspell's play Trifles
- Mrs. Mallard's feelings towards her deceased husband (in Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour")
Each of these does touch upon something that qualifies as a conflict, but to formulate the conflict in question we have to say more. In some cases, we need to spell out some other element external to it it which it is involved in some competition. In others, we have to spell out what elements within the situation the phrase points to are working in opposition to each other.
- In Shakespeare's King Lear, the protagonist's two older daughters are hostile to each other (each strives for complete control of the kingdom their father has partitioned between them) and each ends up at odds with her father as well (Lear insists on being treated with the respect due a royal father, but as soon as he has abdicated in their favor, these vipers treat him as a nuisance to be rid of). Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, remains loyal to her father, but earns his ire, and disinheritance, because she will not compete with her sisters in proclaiming her profound love for her him in a contest for his favor, because she regards this as an unnecessary and debasing ritual.
- MacBeth's desire for fame and power is at odds, and his desire for his wife's respect, are at odds with his conscience, when he gives in to her goading and murders King Duncan, a guest in his castle, in order to acquire the throne for himself.
- Hurricane Dolores battered Corpus Christi, Texas.
- In Trifles, the women feel insulted by the men's condescension towards them.
- Mrs. Mallard's feelings towards her dead husband are ambivalent: on the one hand, she things of him with love and respect, and with appreciation for his love of her; on the other, she feels resentment at the fact that, as a married person, one cannot live for oneself alone, but subordinate one's own desire to the larger relationship.
Although the elements involved in a conflict often exhibit a stark contrast with each other, a conflict is not the same as a contrast. We can have a contrast without any conflict whatsoever.
- In Trifles, for example, we are confronted with two women who are importantly different from each other. Mrs. Hale is familiar with the background of the woman who has just been jailed on suspicion of murdering her husband. The housewife on the neighboring farm, she also feels guilty for having continually put off visiting Minnie Wright, who suffered terribly from the isolation imposed by her husband. Mrs. Peterson is a townswoman, unfamiliar with the principals in the disaster. And as the wife of the county sheriff, she (in his phrase) "married to the law." In the course of the play we learn that she herself is familiar with deep depression, having lost a two-year-old, then her only child, when she and her husband were homesteading up in North Dakota.
- Here we have a contrast that, as it turns out, eventually does contribute to an important conflict, as well as to its resolution. But until these differences motivate some friction between the women, however muted, deflected, tactfully expressed and negotiated, there is no conflict. Even when such a conflict eventually does emerge, we will not have described it if we confine ourselves to noting points of contrast, as in the description we've just examined.
- Often stories, plays, films will use contrasts as convenient markers for characters in conflict. But the job then is not to mistake such contrasts -- red hair vs. gray hair, white dress vs. red dress, shabby sandals vs. spiffy tango shoes with spats -- for the personal traits or values whose tangling with each other does constitute the conflict these other traits are deployed to point to. For more on how systematic contrast can be used to generate implication, see the discussion on foils.
Of course, there are single terms that do denote a conflict: "war," "struggle," "contest," "indecision," "ambivalence," etc. But these in themselves refer to situations in which at least two factors are opposed to each other. To specify a particular conflict we need to go into more detail about what exactly the factors are that are in in opposition to each other.
The conflicts that are the bread and butter of much fiction are of course conflicts that solicit the audience's identification with one or more of the characters. This identification can be distant or intense, simple or complex, partial or "whole," but if the conflict is going work by way of absorbing our interest, it will have to solicit identification.
A dramatic situation is a situation, in a narrative or dramatic work, in which people (or "people") are involved in conflicts that solicit the audience's empathetic involvement in their predicament. Often we are plunged directly and immediately into a dramatic situation, right at, or shortly after, the opening of the story or play. (In such cases, it is the business of exposition to acquaint us with the basic facts we need to understand in order to grasp, at least initially, the dramatic situation.) In other works -- for example, those which use suspense to catch the audience's initial attention -- the exposition will be employed to generate instead some dramatic question.) Sometimes, though, the dramatic situation gets introduced more gradually, as the action unfolds. (This may happen in works that use suspense to capture our attention while we become acquainted with additional objects of interest.) Some stories engage our interest in dramatic situation for its own sheer excitement (often a dramatic question comes to attach to a conflict's outcome), while others exploit it to draw attention to some ethical or prudential point (a "moral"), or to interest us in the peculiarities of character of one or more of the agents involved in it. And when we become enmeshed in a dramatic situation, we may find that its nature turns out to be more richer and more complex than it did in its first emergence in the story, or that its nature changes in ways we need to pay attention to.
The point of these reminders is that we want to avoid hobbling ourselves with the illusion that all stories turn exclusively, or primarily, or even at all, upon conflict. We want to keep ourselves open to the possibility that the piece with which we have to do is designed to satisfy other, or additional interests.
This kind of alert flexibility in the use of the concept is essential if our reading is to be tactful rather than clumsy -- it the concept is going to foster our engagement in the variety of experiences literature affords, rather than to hedge and hamper it.
Examples and further clarification
Susan Glaspells play Trifles opens with 5 people entering the kitchen of an Iowa farmhouse on a winter morning. Three are men: the county prosecutor, the county sheriff, and the owner of a neighboring farm who the day before happened to visit the house and discovered his neighbor, John Wright, strangled in bed, and Wrights wife Minnie in a strange mind-wandering condition, barely able to attend to his questions, and with no apparent idea of what has happened. The other two are women: the wife of the sheriff and the wife of the neighbor. They have come along to gather some clothes for Minnie Wright, who is now in custody in the county jail on suspicion of murder. The two lawmen have come to try to discover what might have been a motive for Mrs. Wright to have killed her husband. Without a convincing motive, the prosecutor will be unable to prove an essential statutory element of the crime of murder (in either the first or second degree). These facts which the playwright brings out by having the prosecutor ask the neighbor to review the events of the day before are thus main elements of exposition in the overall plot of the piece: they constitute the initial situation from which the drama to come unfolds. As such, they establish the initial dramatic question which directs the audiences attention to the events that immediately follow: will such a motive be found?
They do not, however, constitute what in general usage is
termed the dramatic situation
of the play. Nor is the dramatic question (just referred
to) the same thing as the play's dramatic situation. This
doesn't become clear to us, in this particular piece, until
somewhat later on. In fact, one function of the dramatic
question -- which has to get laid on the table almost immediately
-- is to hold our attention until we can get oriented with the
deeper concerns of the piece, among which can be the thematic
issues at stake in the various conflicts the piece is designed to
involve us in. (For more on the distinction between
dramatic question and dramatic question, see here.)
Some stories plunge us directly into the initial dramatic
situation itself. But others, like this play,
introduce us to the dramatic situation (or, if we prefer, to a
set of interrelated dramatic situations) only after some further
events have transpired.
- This means we want to keep distinct in our mind the concepts of dramatic situation and exposition. The situation presented in the exposition may or may not corresponded to what we are here calling a dramatic situation -- or even to the particular dramatic situation with which we are first made familiar.
- Moreover, exposition (as the term is used in discussion of works of literature) is not synonymous with dramatic question. (Exposition has the job of raising, in the audience, the dramatic question. The two are no more the same than a launch pad or rocket fuel is the same the payload.) Exposition can also acquaint us with the dramatic situation. As it happens, this is not the case in this particular play.
- So, too, we don't want to confuse the concept of dramatic question with the concept that concerns us at the moment, dramatic situation. Both dramatic question and dramatic situation point are objects of audience involvement in the action. The first has to do with curiosity over outcome. The second has to do with the enlistment of our feelings, through our willingness to imaginatively identify with agents and forces at work in the story, in situations of conflict. A given work may seek to engage us in both dimensions, or in one (primarily or exclusively) or the other (ditto). It can of course be the case, in certain plots, that our suspense over how things will turn out is a suspense over how a particular conflict we care about will be resolved. (In Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge," the reader identifies intensely with the protagonist's desperate struggle to escape being executed as a spy captured in enemy territory, and this hope that he will manage to prevail is as wedded with anxiety over whether he can survive, as one side of a coin is with another .) But this does not establish that in general suspense is always and only over how a particular conflict will turn out, or that if we identify closely with a protagonist who is involved with a conflict we are necessarily in doubt as to how the conflict will be resolved. Sugar and cream show up in many a cup of tea, but that does not mean sugar is cream.
- We may want intensely to know how an experiment will turn out, but we need not necessarily worry about whether a partisan of this or hypothesis at risk in it will be proved correct or disappointed, or have some other stake in the outcome (whether, for example, it will lead to a new treatment for cancer in time to save someone we care about).
- The audience of Oedipus the King knows from the outset not only that the action will end in disaster, but just exactly what that disaster will consist in. (The fact that this famous play is strikingly without a dramatic question has if anything enhanced the fascination of audiences over the centuries with the predicament of the protagonist, and is an important clue to what Sophocles' overall thematic concerns may be.)
- The fact that dramatic question and dramatic situation are logically distinct is also an important factor in our being able to be interested in re-living an imaginative experience we've already been through -- seeing a movie again, or re-reading a story.
- In rare instances, a work will dispense with both conflict and suspense, and seek to engage the audience in some other kind of interest. (Well, this is rare in stories and plays, but something of a staple, perhaps, with lyric poetry, as it is with high didactic art, like Alexander Pope's verse Essay on Man or Jonathan William's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.") Some cups of tee have lemon instead of sugar or cream.
- For more on the distinction between dramatic situation and dramatic question, go here.
Note that in the play we are considering, Glaspell's Trifles, there are several conflicts of will -- and/or will and impulse, will and institution -- that are important in the larger situation the play brings to our attention.
Not all of the conflicts we have summarized above constitute the play's dramatic situation, as that term is used in precise parlance.
The question arises: does the dramatic situation have to be disclosed at the outset of the story or play? Is a dramatic situation (as the term is in fact used) the situation of conflict with which a story or play begins?
Having noted all this, we would want to stress that a practiced reader will be alert from the outset to any clues that might help clarify what counts as a situation the story or play is presenting for our engagement in. That reader will also be interested in any situations of conflict prior to the primary action to which the story directs our attention in the course of developing whatever dramatic situations it presents. The fact that we have no special term for referring to these does not mean they aren't worth actively taking into account!
Does a conflict that is put before us in the present action of the play or story have to be resolved, to count as an instance or part of its dramatic situation?
There does not seem any point in limiting the concept in this way. The purpose of the notion in the first place is to focus our attention on a particular kind of source of audiences' imaginative involvement in the actions presented narratives and dramas. In Trifles, the conflict between the women and the men is not disqualified from being spoken of as one of the play's dramatic situations (or part of the play's dramatic situation) just because it is not resolved at the end of the play. Indeed, the play is so constructed as to invest its hopes of staying power with the audience in the fact that larger conflict between the women and the men remains open when the curtain falls. The various issues connected with this conflict are, if anything, even more central to the ultimate theme of the work as a whole than those the audience is left to ponder in evaluating the women's decision to withhold what they know.
Both sets of issues are bequeathed to our further, self-conducted deliberation. (Glaspell could have arranged to include a debate on the question of whether their decision is justified -- for example, by developing in a different way the conflict between the two women, or by adding a scene in which they reconsider what they have done. But she elected not to, and the effect is to make us responsible for deciding, and preferably in our discussions with each other. The purpose of the play thus seems to have been to stimulate a discussion on the matter, not to direct the audience as to how such a discussion should end up. There are no doubt several reasons for this. The play would have had considerably less punch if it had been extended in this way: the result would have been dilution rather than intensification or essential clarification. And, given the cultural situation of the audience to which the work was originally directed, going the next step may simply have been out of the question in any case: it is enough of a job just to get people to play along far enough to be able to open the question of whether such an obstruction of justice (or "justice") in such circumstances could be fairly judged to be just, but for such an audience to sit by and be instructed how and why the question should be answered one way rather than another might be simply too much to expect. Finally, conclusions that we think the way to for ourselves are ideas to which we are far more likely to be committed, perhaps even to the point of action, than those we have passively agreed to under preachment, however skillful.
But the more general question of what the conditions might be on which a genuinely just truce might between men and women could be arranged is even more important to Glaspell's heart. And this is not something that can be decided in one author's play. Any solution tacked on to the situation of the play is bound to strike the audience as "false," because it would seem contrived. however sound it might actually be. (Even if it were raised only hypothetically on the stage, it might come across as "unrealistic under the circumstances," and thus as "idle speculation." How the circumstances themselves would have to be changed - what all this would entail!-- has to be bequeathed to society at large, or initially by various sub-groups within it willing to experiment with concrete alternatives for organizing the power relations among people. The resolution of this conflict-- the deepest one the play wants to get the audience to reflectively and emotionally engage itself with -- has to be left to the audience.
That is why we would be at cross-purposes with our own motives in formulating the concept of dramatic situation in the first place if we were to decide to insist on a definition that excluded situations of conflict a story or play raises that do not get resolved in the course of its action.
The questions to ask when we tune into a
dramatic situation are rather:
(1)Is it resolved?
(2) How exactly did it come into being as it did, and to develop (or fail to develop) as it did? What are the crucial causal factors and conditions at play in its working out, and in its reaching this particular resolution, or this impasse?
(3) What possible thematic purposes might be served by presenting for our inspection a dramatic situation that changes, or doesn't change, in precisely this way?
A final question might be raised before we leave this topic. Should we say of Trifles that it presents us with three distinct dramatic situations? Or should we say that these all together make up the dramatic situation, but that this dramatic situation is complex ("has several distinct aspects")?
Reflection will show that it makes little difference which of these two usages we adopt. But some important cautions are in order. We want to take care to avoid confusion. And when we invoke a concept, we want to be mindful that we do not do this just in order to say something with it, but to some further end. We want to use the concept to help us notice what needs further to be noticed, not to bring our attentions to a dead end.
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