Scene dynamics: the balance of power

Else­where on this site, a scene has been defined as a struc­tural unit within a drama, an arc of change that is gener­ally driven or propelled by a char­acter – or, more precisely, by a character’s agenda; the goal that a char­acter is pursuing. As a descrip­tion, this is more or less accurate but it doesn’t really convey why some scenes are so much more compel­ling than others.

The answer some­times lies not so much with the scale of the drama but with the writer’s gift for human obser­va­tion, partic­u­larly at an anthro­po­lo­gical level. Scient­ists have long claimed that there exists an anim­al­istic base-line to most human inter­ac­tion; that we are, at heart, not that much different from other species that organise them­selves into packs or herds, even if our methods of inter­ac­tion are much more soph­ist­ic­ated and complicated.

We have our own ‘pecking order’ and our own pack leaders, and every social engage­ment between us involves a conscious or uncon­scious testing of each other to estab­lish a hier­arch­ical rela­tion­ship. Keith John­stone in his ground­breaking book Impro gives a name to this: ‘status’.  The beha­viour of human beings together, he claims, involves an endless adjust­ment of status  – it is some­thing that we do, rather than some­thing that is fixed – and we do it mostly to get what we want.

Status adjust­ments are power adjust­ments. We make them phys­ic­ally, verbally and psycho­lo­gic­ally in order to dominate or accom­modate. Status-wise we are all chameleons – you only need to watch people in a social gath­ering to see the way we switch roles and adjust to other’s status levels. (Fascin­at­ingly, adopting a ‘high’ or ‘dominant’ status is not always the most effective method of getting your own way – wheed­ling or cajoling from a ‘low’ posi­tion of power can work just as well or even better.)

The secret struggle

The concept of status, and of a hidden ‘power struggle’ taking place, can be a useful way of height­ening the dynamic range of a scene. Thinking of inter­ac­tions as being, at some level, ‘moves in a game’ adds another dimen­sion to them and helps to bring out the purposeful aspect of char­acter that Aris­totle sees as so important.

The game, of course, doesn’t always have to be combative or confront­a­tional. In these examples below, the scenes all end with a radical shift or redis­tri­bu­tion of power – some­times that is bitter but it can also some­times be joyful, as in these classic seduc­tion scenes. Struggle can have positive as well as negative outcomes.


Getting Hurt 1998

Written by Andrew Davies and based on his own novel, directed by Ben Bolt, with Ciaran Hinds, Helen Cross. Prob­ably the most conven­tional break up in this selec­tion of scenes. It is between two char­ac­ters who are both basic­ally well-intentioned and so the pain comes from the unex­pec­ted­ness of the news and the clum­si­ness of its delivery. Its delib­er­ately under­stated quality makes it both recog­nis­able and raw.

The Secret Rapture 1993

Written by David Hare, based on his stage play; directed by Howard Davies, with Juliet Stevenson, Neil Pearson, Joanne Whalley. One char­acter is completely immov­able in this scene and madden­ingly reas­on­able at the same time. Hare gives her some wonderful lines and makes the tragic conclu­sion almost believable.

Oleanna 1994

In this screen adapt­a­tion of David Mamet’s play, an intel­lec­tu­ally compla­cent lecturer is accused by a student of making inde­cent advances. The struggle for ascend­ancy is very much out in the open here but Mamet’s skill is in making the shift in the balance of power happen in a ‘small’ and subtle moment. This shows great craft and is a hall­mark of Mamet’s writing.


Let’s Murder Vivaldi 1969

Written by David Mercer, directed by Alan Bridges, with Denholm Elliot and Gwen Watford. Emotional viol­ence is far more deadly than its phys­ical equi­valent – that is what Mercer sets out to demon­strate in this deft black comedy. The English­ness of the couple is also a deli­cious ingredient, they apolo­gise for their cruelty.

Read the script

Extract from Let’s Murder Vivaldi (DOC)

Damage 1992

Written by David Hare, directed by Louis Malle, with Jeremy Irons and Miranda Richardson. More memor­able dialogue here from Hare in this scene about a marriage in ruins but also some great obser­va­tion of the inev­it­able bathos when a rela­tion­ship is really over.

Further reading
Inter­view with David Hare about his work as a screenwriter


Closely Observed Trains 1966

Written by Jiri Menzel and Bohumil Hrabal, directed by Jiri Menzel with Josef Somr. Menzel has a truly charming and inno­cent way of symbol­ising sexual seduc­tion. In I Served The King Of England he uses fruit, here it is office equip­ment. In his world, all women are compliant and mischev­ious and all men are grown boys. Refresh­ingly non-PC? It depends on how you see it.

Read the script

Extract from Closely Observed Trains (DOC)

The Cocoa Cola Kid 1985

Written by Frank Moor­house, directed by Dusan Makavejev with Eric Roberts, Greta Scacchi. Down to earth Aussie girl seduces up-tight corporate Yank with a playful game. Possibly the sexiest Santa Claus ever committed to celluloid.

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