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.  




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 circumstnces," 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, and if so, exactly how?

(2)  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.

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      This page last updated 02 September 2000 .