The leading characters in a good play or film often need to overcome many difficult obstacles before they can accomplish their objectives. Some of these obstacles may be physical, perhaps involving destructive forces of nature, time limitations, or the interference of others. Sometimes the obstacles are psychological, perhaps involving deep-seated guilt or hidden fears. Whatever the type, the obstacles that the characters must confront help create powerful dramatic tension and excitement.
This section contains two different illustrations of obstacles in drama. Below is a scene from George Bernard Shaw’s Candida for you to read, act out, think about, and discuss. This pivotal conversation among the three main characters touches on several obstacles: some actually voiced by the characters, others implied. How many can you identify?
Or, if you prefer making it up as you go, try the improvisation lesson contributed by Jerry Bradshaw of Dayton High School in Campbell County, Kentucky.
Dramatic Obstacles - A Sample from Candida
Obstacles abound in Shaw’s Candida. The young poet Eugene Marchbanks seeks Candida Morell’s love, but there’s one major barrier: her husband. The husband, for his part, wants no more than a peaceful marriage, but the poet questions the older man’s suitability for Candida. Marchbanks tells Reverend Morell that Candida does not need a “moralist and windbag,” but a poet. “I am the man, Morell,” he says. “I am the man. You don’t understand what a woman is. Send for her, Morell. Send for her and let her choose between us.” And in Act 3, Scene 3, Reverend Morell does just that. Here’s what happens …
Come. Out with it!
I meant to prepare your mind carefully, Candida, so as to prevent misunderstanding.
Yes, dear: I am sure you did. But never mind: I sha’nt misunderstand.
Eugene declares that you are in love with him.
No, no, no, no, never. I did not, Mrs Morell: it’s not true. I said I loved you. I said I understood you, and that he couldn’t. And it was not after what passed there before the fire that I spoke: it was not, on my word. It was this morning.
Yes. That was what was the matter with my collar.
Your collar. Oh, James: did you—?
You know, Candida, that I have temper to struggle with. And he said that you despised me in your heart.
Did you say that?
Then James has just told me a falsehood. Is that what you mean?
No, no: I—I—it was David’s wife. And it wasn’t at home: it was when she saw him dancing before all the people.
Dancing before all the people, Candida; and thinking he was moving their hearts by his mission when they were only suffering from—Prossy’s complaint. Don’t try to look indignant, Candida—
Eugene was right. As you told me a few hours after, he is always right. He said nothing that you did not say far better yourself. He is the poet, who sees everything; and I am the poor parson, who understands nothing.
Do you mind what is said by a foolish boy, because I said something like it in jest?
That foolish boy can speak with the inspiration of a child and the cunning of a serpent. He has claimed that you belong to him and not to me; and, rightly or wrongly, I have come to fear that it may be true. I will not go about tortured with doubts and suspicions. I will not live with you and keep a secret from you. I will not suffer the intolerable degradation of jealousy. We have agreed—he and I—that you shall choose between us now. I await your decision.
Oh! I am to choose, am I? I suppose it is quite settled that I must belong to one or the other.
—Quite. You must choose definitely.
Morell: you don’t understand. She means that she belongs to herself.
I mean that, and a good deal more, Master Eugene, as you will both find out presently. And pray, my lords and masters, what have you to offer for my choice? I am up for auction, it seems. What do you bid, James?
Source: Iowa State University’s online concordance of the play.
An Exercise in Improvising
This activity asks students to consider the ways in which obstacles create tension in drama and encourages them to find their own answers through improvisation. It was contributed by Jerry Bradshaw of Campbell County, Kentucky’s Dayton High School.
Instructions and discussion questions follow. When you’re ready, dive into the 20 suggested scenes Jerry has provided (below).
Each of these improvisations provides an obstacle that stands in the way of an objective. The player must find a way to overcome this barrier to his or her objective. Some obstacles are physical, some are psychological; all will challenge the player to find a creative solution to the predicament.
The improvisations are to be performed solo, so that the player can concentrate upon removing obstructions without the help of another person. This isn’t as easily done as you might think. Take, for example, a situation in which a teenage boy needs to get his father’s permission to go to a party. Obviously, the teen’s father provides the obstacle. The boy may try a few methods of his own to overcome the obstacle. But it may also happen that the father gives his permission because he decides that it’s all right for his son to go—without being influenced by the teen at all! These improvisations force the player alone to deal with the obstacle. Since no help is available from any other person, the player must find his or her own solution to the problem.
These solo improvisations are simple to run. The instructor should have the player take the stage or playing area, and then simply read aloud the improvisation starter. The improvisation should then start immediately.
Review the following two guidelines before beginning:
- Work on overcoming your obstacle throughout the entire improvisation. Try as many ways as you can think of to do this. But be warned: You may find yourself in an impossible situation! Keep at it until you have either overcome your obstacle or your instructor tells you to stop.
- Don’t feel obligated to speak. The improvisation may be performed as a pantomime. Most people don’t constantly talk to themselves when they are alone, but some people do like to “think out loud.” If speaking out loud helps, then go ahead and do it; but don’t do it for the benefit of the audience. If the audience doesn’t understand what you’re doing, don’t worry about it. You can discuss the improvisation with them after it’s over.
You may use the following guide questions when discussing the performances with your players and audience, or you may have the rest of the class respond to each performance on paper, collect them, and give them to the performer at the end of the class.
- How did the player attempt to overcome the obstacle? Was an original approach used?
- Did the player clearly understand the objective?
- What might the player have done differently to overcome the obstacle and accomplish the objective? What do you think you would have done?
- What was the player’s attitude toward the obstacle? What was her/his mood or emotional state?
Make It Up as You Go: Suggested Improv Scenes
- You’ve come home at 3 o’clock in the morning. You are standing at your front door desperate to go inside because you have to go to the bathroom—badly. When you reach inside your pocket to get your keys, you discover that they are missing.
- You’re watching a horror movie on television. A very bloody murder scene is taking place. You want to watch because you’re very involved in the movie, but the sight of blood always makes you sick.
- You’re on a strict diet. You’ve set a goal to lose three pounds this week, and you’ve already lost two. You open the refrigerator and see one last slice of your mother’s homemade cherry cheesecake. You’ve never been able to resist your mother’s cheesecake!
- You’re a teen just waking up at 10:30 in the morning. Your house is a mess because you threw a wild party last night. When you realize that it’s 10:30, you begin to panic. Your parents will be home from their vacation at about 11:00. If they see that you’ve had a party while they were away, you’re dead!
- You’re a student whose 10-page research paper is due tomorrow morning. You turn on the switch of your electric typewriter only to discover that it is broken. No other typewriter is in your house, and it’s too late at night to try to borrow one from a friend.
- You’re in a car stopped at a red light when your engine stalls. You try to restart the car, but the engine just won’t turn over. You’re blocking an intersection, and dozens of angry motorists are behind you waiting for you to move.
- Your grandmother has prepared a meal for you: her famous Hungarian goulash. The last time you ate this stuff, it made you so sick that you vomited. Your grandmother is in the next room, waiting for you to finish. You love your grandmother and don’t want to hurt her feelings, but you fear a reaction similar to your previous experience with her goulash.
- You’re in your office working on a report that you’ve promised you would have ready for your boss by the end of the working day. It’s close to quitting time, and you’re far from finishing. You’ve already given him an excuse why you couldn’t have the report completed last week, and you fear that if you don’t hand him the report within the next hour, you will be fired.
- You’ve just hung up the phone after speaking with your daughter. She called to ask you to be careful not to dispose of the contents of a cup that’s on your kitchen counter because her engagement ring is inside the cup soaking in some jewelry cleaning solution. You look on the counter and discover that the cup is not there! You’ve already washed it out, but you don’t recall seeing a ring inside the cup. You fear you may have dumped it down the drain.
- You’re a vice president of a large company. You just hung up the phone after speaking with the company president, who has directed you to fire one of your employees. What he doesn’t know is that this employee is your best friend—a friend who helped you get the position that you now hold! You hear someone knocking on your office door. When you look through the window, you see that it’s your friend.
- Yesterday you met someone to whom you were very much attracted in an art gallery. To make a good impression on this person, you told her (or him) that you were an accomplished artist yourself, even though you have never painted one brush stroke in your life. You’ve just hung up your phone after speaking with this person. She (or he) will be at your apartment in ten minutes to look at your paintings.
- You’re in your bedroom trying to get some sleep, but it is uncomfortably warm, and your air conditioner is broken. You don’t even own a fan.
- You’re a student sitting at a table in your school’s cafeteria doing some homework, a composition for your English class. It’s a very important assignment that your teacher will collect in class next period, which begins in five minutes. Just as you finish the paper, you pick up a glass of soda to take a sip, but you accidentally spill the soda all over the paper, making it completely unreadable.
- You’re in the woods hiking when you realize that you are completely lost. If you don’t return to your campsite within the next few minutes, the rest of your party will be very concerned. Before you left, you were bragging about what a great woodsman you are.
- You hurt your ankle last night, but you didn’t realize just how badly you hurt it until you woke up in pain this morning. Your ankle is swollen, and you can hardly walk. You have to report to your job as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in an hour. The job, of course, requires lots of walking. You’ve already taken all of your sick leave days this year, and you fear that if you don’t show up for work today, you will be fired.
- You’re placing a letter in a mailbox. As you drop it in, the clasp of your watch suddenly becomes unhooked, and your watch falls into the mailbox. The watch was given to you by your dearly departed grandfather; to you, it is priceless. You know that it’s a federal offense to tamper with a U.S. Postal Service mailbox, but you must get that watch!
- You’re in an open area of a park trying to fly a kite, but the wind has died down. Your brother will be meeting you shortly with his 5-year-old son, and you promised the child that you’d have the kite flying high by the time he arrives.
- In ten minutes your dinner guests will arrive. Everything appears to be ready, but when you open the oven door to take out the roast, you see that it is completely raw. You forgot to turn on the oven!
- Your date will be picking you up at any moment, and you’re running a bit late. Your hair is soaking wet because you’ve just washed it. You turn on your hair dryer and nothing happens: It’s broken.