Saturday, July 10, 2010

The 36 Situations

French George Solti (1868-1926) drew up this list of the "36 Dramatic Situations," intended to be a complete categorization of all possible literary encounters. It was a revision of an earlier list by Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi (1720-1806), of which Goethe once remarked, "Gozzi maintained that there can be but thirty-six tragic situations. Schiller took great pains to find more, but he was unable to find even so many as Gozzi."
  1. Supplication
    • a Persecutor; a Supplicant; a Power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
  2. Deliverance
    • an Unfortunate; a Threatener; a Rescuer
  3. Crime pursued by vengeance
    • a Criminal; an Avenger
  4. Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
    • Guilty Kinsman; an Avenging Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim, a relative of both
  5. Pursuit
    • Punishment; a Fugitive
  6. Disaster
    • a Vanquished Power; a Victorious Enemy or a Messenger
  7. Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
    • an Unfortunate; a Master or a Misfortune
  8. Revolt
    • a Tyrant; a Conspirator
  9. Daring enterprise
    • a Bold Leader; an Object; an Adversary
  10. Abduction
    • an Abductor; the Abducted; a Guardian
  11. The enigma
    • a Problem; an Interrogator; a Seeker
  12. Obtaining
    • (a Solicitor & an Adversary who is refusing) or (an Arbitrator & Opposing Parties)
  13. Enmity of kin
    • a Malevolent Kinsman; a Hated or a reciprocally-hating Kinsman
  14. Rivalry of kin
    • the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object of Rivalry
  15. Murderous adultery
    • two Adulterers; a Betrayed Spouse
  16. Madness
    • a Madman; a Victim
  17. Fatal imprudence
    • the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost
  18. Involuntary crimes of love
    • a Lover; a Beloved; a Revealer
  19. Slaying of kin unrecognized
    • the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim
  20. Self-sacrifice for an ideal
    • a Hero; an Ideal; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
  21. Self-sacrifice for kin
    • a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
  22. All sacrificed for passion
    • a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed
  23. Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
    • a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
  24. Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
    • a Superior Rival; an Inferior Rival; the Object of Rivalry
  25. Adultery
    • two Adulterers; a Deceived Spouse
  26. Crimes of love
    • a Lover; the Beloved
  27. Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
    • a Discoverer; the Guilty One
  28. Obstacles to love
    • two Lovers; an Obstacle
  29. An enemy loved
    • a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater
  30. Ambition
    • an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary
  31. Conflict with a god
    • a Mortal; an Immortal
  32. Mistaken jealousy
    • a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake
  33. Erroneous judgement
    • a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One
  34. Remorse
    • a Culprit; a Victim or the Sin; an Interrogator
  35. Recovery of a lost one
    • a Seeker; the One Found
  36. Loss of loved ones
    • a Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner
There are, indeed, only so many stories that can be told; and yet the number of stories is infinite.


Unknown said...

I’m struck that several of the categories can be seen as redundant. Daring enterprise and Ambition seem virtually the same, as do Self-sacrifice for an ideal and Self-sacrifice for kin, unless one assumes, as Solti seems to, that kin and an ideal are irreducibly distinct. In fact, a lot of his list seems predicated on the postulate that kinship, romantic love, and relationships to non-human objects (ideals, etc.) are absolutely different things.

Trying to come up with plots not encompassed in Solti’s list, I hit upon The Godfather. Which plot is that one? You could slot it into one or more of the thirty-six, including Necessity of sacrificing loved ones (Don Vito sacrifices Michael to the continuity of the family) and Rivalry of superior vs. inferior (Sonny and Michael as rivals in who is most worthy to replace Don Vito).

I suppose Solti’s point is not that all stories are reducible to his thirty-six, but only all dramatic situations, so that part of an author’s originality comes in how they weave several of the situations together.

John said...

I suspect you show yourself a modern man in thinking that anything else could be equivalent to kinship. I was also struck by the way kin relationships are singled out in the list, and it seems to me that the list, and the authors of the classical stories on which it is based, assume that feelings for kin are different from any others.

And, yes, I think the items in the list describe scenes or episodes rather than entire long works.