Elements of Drama: Conflict

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said “No conflict, no drama”. Conflict is the basis of all good theatre and should therefore be an essential learning component in any high school drama course. Students of theatre must know from the outset that drama without conflict is usually very dull, indeed.

Here is a useful descriptor for conflict I helped write for my state curriculum authority a few years ago:

Conflict generally occurs when a character cannot achieve an objective due to an obstacle. This obstacle may be internal or external – between characters or between characters and their environment. Conflict can be shown in a variety of ways, for example through physical, verbal or psychological means. Conflict can be embedded in the structure of the drama (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Drama Study Design, p.10)

As stage plays begin their life as unperformed literature, let us examine the nature of conflict from a literary perspective. Daily Writing Tips outlines seven types of narrative conflict:

  1. Person vs. Fate/God
  2. Person vs. Self
  3. Person vs. Person
  4. Person vs Society
  5. Person vs. Nature
  6. Person vs. Supernatural
  7. Person vs. Technology

Here, Mark Nichol argues every work of literature is based on at least one of the above conflicts. Stage plays should be no different.

The types of conflict listed above can be divided into internal and external conflict:

Internal Conflict

  • Person vs Self

External Conflict

  • Person vs. Fate/God
  • Person vs. Person
  • Person vs Society
  • Person vs. Nature
  • Person vs. Supernatural
  • Person vs. Technology

Inner conflict usually sees troubled characters (often the play’s protagonist) suffering from inner turmoil. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a fine example. Literary and theatrical conventions of the day enabled the audience easy access to a character’s thoughts. It is no accident literature’s most famous soliloquy “To be, or not to be…” comes from this very play.

External conflict can be between two or more characters and can be non-verbal (psychological), verbal or physical. But some of the theatre’s greatest plays see characters either at odds with their environment or experiencing conflict with the world in which they live. These plays that present us with characters in conflict with society and/or nature often show us conflict on a grander scale than simply characters conflicting against each other.

Yet on its simplest level, external conflict is usually represented by a character whose objectives in the plot are impeded by the actions of another (opposing) character. This type of conflict clearly illustrates the needs and desires of different characters in a play, and without it the drama would be listless. Often (but not always) these characters are the play’s protagonist and antagonist. Conflict in a theatrical performance often differs from tension in that it is normally a more permanent part of the structure of the play, as opposed to a brief moment of suspense that is more transient.

When students in a high school drama class are developing a performance, this usually requires the essential ingredient of conflict. This applies to student works created by both improvising and scripting. In certain circumstances, dramatic works are developed in the classroom that are snippets, workshop presentations etc created for a very specific purpose. These may not require conflict. But as a golden rule, students of theatre should always remember George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote “No conflict, no drama”.

11 Responses

  1. Milos says:

    I have a question. What about the plays of the sort Eugene Ionesco wrote? They don’t contain conflicts.

  2. Emmanuel says:

    thanks for this great insight on conflict

  3. Sasha says:

    Great article! At my college, the theater department uses a very similar classification of conflicts to this with a few slight changes. I think it is a great way to explain that conflict doesn’t have to be just one person versus another. We use Michael Chemers version in his book “Ghost Light,” in which he compares conflict to Brian Johnston’s analysis of the multiple layers of the protagonist in Peer Gynt. Chemers does a great job at explain each of the types and includes an example and exerpt from various plays as well. He also includes another type not mentioned here which is supertextual conflict: how the play interacts with other forms of literature or culture. He has the identification of these types of conflict included as a step in his 12 step analysis of a play, which I think is a great way to get students to think about what is actually going on in a play and how to translate the script to a performance. I definitely recommend reading his take on this.

  4. Keith says:

    This is a really great article! There is so much I can use in my future classes in regards of conflict since it is very essential in a play. Without it, there can’t be a falling or rising action. It is the backbone in the skeleton shape of a play. Also with giving examples of each of the types of conflicts is a great start in using that as a resource and a guide to find other examples.

  5. Valerie says:

    Thanks, Justin! One thing: I notice you didn’t put Fate/God into either External nor Internal Conflict categories. Please elaborate!

    • Ooops! Thanks for spotting this Valerie. That was a copy and paste error from the list in the post. Now fixed. Although a character’s conflict with Fate/God may be an internal process, I place it under external conflict because it is an external force the character is dealing with.

  6. Earl Austin says:

    Thank you, Justin, for your insightful piece on conflict in drama. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to your next posting.
    Earl Austin

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