Critical Concepts

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:

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.

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.  

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.  

  1. When we realize that we are hooked in suspense, we want to be alert to the possibility that part of the story's strategy in doing this is to bring us into contact with a dramatic situation.  
  2. Equally, though, when we find ourselves confronted with a dramatic situation, we want to be alert to the fact that this may be for the sake of ulterior ends.  As the dramatic situation becomes progressively more clearly defined, we want to be asking, "So what?"  Why is the author choosing to put before us precisely this set of conflicts?  Would it make any difference whether the situation were different in this or that respect?  Such curiosity is necessary if we are to tune into the issues the story may be concerned to present for our inspection and reflection.  If we are simply involved in a more or less immediate way in the dramatic situation, we may remain blind to the point of its presence in the story in the final analysis.

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 Glaspell’s 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 Wright’s 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 audience’s 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.

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.

  1. There is the general conflict we come to know of between Minnie and John (his suppression of her need for companionship, through his own incommunicability, his frustration of any impulse on her part to visit the neighbors or even to participate in church affairs, his refusal to bring a telephone into the house), culminating in the specific conflict on the crucial evening:  the husband's flying into a rage at the singing of the canary that has always irritated him, his wringing its neck in front of his wife, her struggle (ultimately unsuccessful)  to get control of her feelings (by turning to her sewing), and finally her somnambulistic strangling of her husband asleep in is bed.
  2. There is the conflict that develops in the course of the play itself (i.e., presented before our eyes, in the present) between the two wives on the one hand and the men folk on the other.  The men repeatedly behave towards the women in a condescending way, belittling their concerns -- and women's work in general -- as "trifles" (in comparison with the important things of life, with which it is the business of men to be concerned).  The women register this attitude from the outset, and increasingly show signs of their resentment of it.  (Their resentment is of course one of the chief factors in motivating their decision, in the play's climax, to keep what they have learned from the men, not only to protect Minnie from what they consider a distorted system of justice but as a revenge against a general male address towards females to which they themselves, along with Minnie, have been subjected).
  3. There is the conflict that emerges from time to time between the two women themselves before they come to their tacit agreement to withhold knowledge of what they have found from the men.
  4. There is the conflict within each of the women, and particularly within Mrs. Peters, who is "married to the law" (the county sheriff), as to whether she will conspire with the other to "obstruct justice" (a felony in its own right) in order to prevent a grave injustice as she privately sees it.  We can think of such a conflict as a conflict of wills within the protagonist(s):  the will to do the right thing as one has been taught, and the will to do the right thing as one has come to see it.

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?

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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      This page last updated 30 April 2002 .