Inner Conflict

You can’t have drama without conflict but there are various kinds of conflict. I prefer inner conflict because one of my goals is to sort myself out. If I can figure something out about what it is I really want or what it is I should really be doing then the writing will have been a worthwhile endeavor even if my play is never produced. Some people don’t like the idea of writing plays for their own sake. They have no interest in plays as literary works and think a play is a failure if it is never brought to life on stage. But consider this. If writing a play helps you to avoid a tragedy which you can see yourself heading towards then that will probably be far more valuable than any reward the theater community offers. If writing a play allows you to catch yourself before you sabotage yourself then writing the play has paid you for your effort.

My favorite form of inner conflict is the conflict between reason and spirituality. This can also be presented as a conflict between rationality and fantasy, but ultimately I think they are the same conflict. On a more fundamental level, we are dealing with the conflict between the conscious mind (or the intellect) and the unconscious mind (or the spirit). I think the conscious mind concentrates on what we want while the unconscious mind knows what we need but won’t admit we need. What people say concerns what they think they want but what people do reveals what they really need. For example, you may express your disdain for poetry and everything it represents but if you visit the graves of famous poets while on vacation then that action reveals that poetry still matters to you. That is an actual example from one of my plays, The Poaching Of An Aesthete. By the way, I’m not happy with that title. Maybe I will change it to Lured Away. In my play the protagonist is very dismissive of poetry but another character observes that his actions tell a different story. So the conflict is raging within the protagonist who is unwilling to acknowledge that he has not abandoned his literary interests. Needless to say that is highly self-referential. I tend to be very self indulgent in my writing since nobody is paying me to provide a service.

One of the oldest plays to deal with the conflict between reason and spirituality is Euripides’ The Bacchae. I have studied this play intensely. King Pentheus represents reason and authority while the god Dionysus represents the irrational. Pentheus refuses to acknowledge that Dionysus is a god and tries to oppress his worshipers. This dramatizes how we try to oppress the irrational impulses within ourselves for the sake of propriety and social order. For his hubris Pentheus is put under a spell which causes him to act a little rash towards the bacchae (or bacchantes), the worshipers of Dionysus. In the end he is torn apart by the women of his city, including his own mother which is most horrible of all. That Pentheus succumbs to a touch of madness might seem a cheap plot device but it is actually very psychologically astute. When you refuse to pay any attention to the unconscious mind or give it any respect, your mind will play tricks on you. In a very subtle and clever way you will be directed to sabotage yourself and all the while you will think you are being perfectly rational, making the rational choice. In mythology this tendency of the unconscious mind is expressed in the Trickster god. Dionysus is definitely a Trickster god in Euripides’ The Bacchae.

I value my intellectual integrity and strive to be strictly rational. Yet I know that I dare not be too strictly rational if it threatens my spirit. If severe rationality leads me to pessimism and despair I know that my neglected spirit (my unconscious mind) will marshal its forces and mount an attack on my reason. The unconscious mind is very powerful (how like a god) and can easily overpower reason if it is necessary. If the intellect is too strict and refuses to bend to any irrational impulse, the mind can always be broken and humbled. Fortunately, this is a drastic step which does not serve the best interests of the entire organism, so the unconscious mind will only break you as a last resort. All this is perfectly symbolized in Euripides’ The Bacchae. Pentheus would not relent so he had to be broken. This is the kind of disaster that you can see coming if you are willing to learn from the theater and the lessons of the great plays.


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