The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations
The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations is a descriptive list which was first proposed by Georges Polti in 1895 to categorize every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance. Polti analyzed classical Greek texts, plus classical and contemporaneous French works. He also analyzed a handful of non-French authors. In his introduction, Polti claims to be continuing the work of Carlo Gozzi, who also identified 36 situations.
"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."
This list was published in a book of the same name, which contains extended explanations and examples. The original French-language book was written in 1895. An English translation was published in 1916 and continues to be reprinted.
The list was popularized as an aid for writers, but is also used by dramatists, storytellers and others. Other similar lists have since been made.
It influenced Christina Stead and George Pierce Baker, the author of Dramatic Technique. The 36 situations have been critiqued as being "concatenations of events rather than minimal or isolable motifs".
The 36 situations
Each situation is stated, then followed by the necessary elements for each situation and a brief description.
- a persecutor; a suppliant; a power in authority, whose decision is doubtful.
- The suppliant appeals to the power in authority for deliverance from the persecutor. The power in authority may be a distinct person or be merely an attribute of the persecutor, e.g. a weapon suspended in their hand. The suppliant may also be two persons, the Persecuted and the Intercessor, an example of which is Esther interceding to the king on behalf of the Jews for deliverance from the king's chief advisor.
- Crime pursued by vengeance
- a criminal; an avenger
- The criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the avenger seeks justice by punishing the criminal. Example: The Count of Monte Cristo
- Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
- Guilty Kinsman; an Avenging Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim, a relative of both.
- Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both. Example: Hamlet
- Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
- an unfortunate; a master or a misfortune
- The unfortunate suffers from misfortune and/or at the hands of the master. Example: Job (biblical figure)
- a tyrant; a conspirator
- The tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the conspirator. Example: Julius Caesar (play)
- Daring enterprise
- an abductor; the abducted; a guardian
- The abductor takes the abducted from the guardian. Example: Helen of Troy
- The enigma
- (a Solicitor & an adversary who is refusing) or (an arbitrator & opposing parties)
- The solicitor is at odds with the adversary who refuses to give the solicitor an object in the possession of the adversary, or an arbitrator decides who gets the object desired by opposing parties (the solicitor and the adversary). Example: Apple of Discord
- Enmity of kin
- Rivalry of kin
- Murderous adultery
- a Madman; a Victim
- The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim. Example: The Shining (novel)
- Fatal imprudence
- the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost
- The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim. Example: Kris Kelvin and his wife in Solaris (1972 film)
- Involuntary crimes of love
- Slaying of kin unrecognized
- the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim
- The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim. Example: Oedipus and Laius
- Self-sacrifice for an ideal
- Self-sacrifice for kin
- a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
- The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor. Example: The gospel
- All sacrificed for passion
- a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed
- A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever. Example: Breaking Bad (2008 television show)
- Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
- a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
- The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice. Example: Binding of Isaac
- Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
- Crimes of love
- a Lover; the Beloved
- A Lover and the Beloved break a taboo by initiating a romantic relationship Example: Sigmund and his sister in The Valkyrie
- Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
- a Discoverer; the Guilty One
- The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One.
- Obstacles to love
- two Lovers; an Obstacle
- Two Lovers face an Obstacle together. Example: Romeo and Juliet
- An enemy loved
- a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater
- The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy.
- Conflict with a god
- Mistaken jealousy
- a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake
- The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice.
- Erroneous judgment
- a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One
- The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead.
- Recovery of a lost one
- Loss of loved ones
- Aarne–Thompson classification systems
- Morphology (folkloristics)
- The Golden Bough
- The Seven Basic Plots
- Vladimir Propp
- Schmidt, Victoria Lynn (2005). "Part 3: Adding Stories". Story Structure Architect (First ed.). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 9781582976990. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- Polti, Georges (1921) . The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Franklin, Ohio: James Knapp Reeve. p. 3.
- Figgis, Mike (May 2017). "Introduction". The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. Faber and Faber. ISBN 9780571305056. Retrieved April 21, 2020.
- Burns, Alison; Goodrich, R. A. (2015). "Christina Stead, Georges Polti, and Analytical Novel Writing". Antipodes. 29 (2): 415–28. doi:10.13110/antipodes.29.2.0415. JSTOR 10.13110/antipodes.29.2.0415.
- Lowe, N. J. (June 2000). The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 9. ISBN 0521771765. Retrieved April 21, 2020.