Arthur Miller’s Definition of Plot as Conflict Is a Misnomer

The Dramatist, the magazine of the Dramatists’ Guild recently republished an excerpt of Arthur Miller’s essay “What is a Play.”  In the excerpt Miller says, “A play is conflict or it is nothing.” Then to better explain what he means by this he says, “I have an engineering analogy: If you build a bridge to go across a river it obviously has to go from one point to another point. …And I think you’ll find that plays that work, that people identify with, have a structure, maybe not an obvious one, but it’s there.” Miller is defining conflict in terms of engineering and structure. When you are talking engineering and structure you are talking vector theory.

Vector theory describes precisely forces and their behavior. Miller again explains what a play is by saying, “when you have one force and it’s in conflict with another force, it creates a third force which then finds itself in conflict with a fourth force. A play is the gradual evolution, dialectically, of a theme.” According to vector theory, converging forces create a new force just as Miller describes. Using the idea of forces to describe building a plot that is thematically sure, as Miller means, is to use vector theory to build your plot. Miller gives a great example with Hamlet, pointing out that Hamlet’s seeing of his father’s ghost sets the forces of the play in motion, and they are going to interact in a precise, essential way. Miller is absolutely right that the forces established in Hamlet must behave in a precise, essential way. What happens to forces when they converge is mathematically, elegantly precise.

While Miller splendidly describes a play as a structure shaped by theme, his nomenclature of “conflict” is off. Forces do not always conflict, but to form a structure they do always converge which means the forces are transformed in known ways when they come in contact with each other.

Let’s take Miller’s analogy of the bridge again. There are several different types of transformations happening in this image. In the literal, engineering sense, the materials used to build the bridge are transformed. They are structured to create a bridge and so are no longer planks, beams, and nails, or steel, cables, and bolts. They are now a bridge. There is no conflict between planks and beams or steel and cables; nevertheless the elements of the bridge have been transformed into something new, a usable, essential structure. The bridge is created without conflict (unless city permitting is involved) and the forces of the bridge’s creation allow for other forces, those who cross the bridge to move also without conflict. Further, the fellow who needed to cross the river now can. She is no longer stuck on one side, a positive resultant achieved by the joining of positive forces, all those forces involved with building the bridge. The river is no longer a divide; it is now something powerful and appealing visually and musically that is beneath our feet.

When forces converge they are transformed, for better or for worse, and it is that transformation which is the essence of a play. Ultimately, I think it is this transformation that makes for plays that profoundly move us. We leave the theater transformed by works like Miller’s The Crucible.


About Cynthia Clay

I was judged to be a computer program on Shakespeare at the First Loebner Prize Competition of The Turing Test—a truly science fictional experience. I'm an author who likes to write sf, fantasy, updated versions of old myths.
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