The Use of Dramatic Tension in “Dead Man’s Cell Phone”

Admittedly, modern society has a significant issue with the lack of direct human contact between people, as online lives have their full attention. The play Dead Man’s Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl depicts a gruesome reality that people can find themselves in due to their disconnectedness from direct interactions with others. The element of drama I would like to discuss is the dramatic tension that arises from Jean’s behavior and the truth that is being slowly revealed to the audience.

Sarah Ruhl uses it to make viewers feel uneasy due to the secrets otherwise known only to either Jean or everyone else except her in the story. The first pointer towards the topic of the play is the fact that Jean works at the Holocaust museum. Ruhl (2008) describes her, through the words of Dwight, as a sentimental person who wants to “remember everything” (p. 32). Dwight’s answer to Jean’s behavior shows the position of the author towards the topic: “all the digital – stuff – the informational bits – flying through the air – no one wants to remember” (Ruhl, 2008, p. 32). As the circumstances of how she met with Gordon are only known to Jean, she becomes a medium of this knowledge, which weighs greatly and unexpectedly upon her shoulders. She tries to help other people to remember the dead man at his best, despite not knowing anything about him. Miscommunication due to Jean’s unwillingness to be the one who had to tell the news about Gordon’s death to his close relatives made her an unlikely participant in an odd series of events.

As the audience knows from the beginning that the person at that table is dead, it sets a looming mystery for the characters of the play to discover. By making the viewer the only person who knows the secret of Jean’s meeting with Gordon, Ruhl implements dramatic irony in the play. The audience is put in a state of reluctant anticipation as they are aware that the claims that Jean continues to make are all made up. As Jean keeps getting herself more and more familiar with Gordon’s family, it becomes clear from their reactions to Jean’s claims that there is an underlying secret in Gordon’s relationships.

The play switches to Gordon’s point of view in the middle of the story to complete the picture for the audience. It bears significant importance, as the full meaning of Jean’s claims that she made after Gordon’s death is about to be revealed. Again, as the viewers are the only persons who will know the complete story, the dramatic irony takes its place. His situation is the pinnacle of irony in the play, as the audience learns that Gordon worked as a black market dealer who sold human organs.

However, as the play returns back to Jean as the main character, this dreadful secret is kept away from her. The tension keeps rising as she unwittingly put herself into more bizarre conversations regarding the person she knows so little about. The author continues to use the audience’s knowledge of the full picture to make a particular point regarding the importance of having a direct conversation.

Gordon’s cell phone is a centerpiece of this play since Jean keeps getting phone calls from various people who do not know her that further increasing the audience’s uneasiness. It is a burden to its bearer, both new and old, and a primary source of all Jean’s misadventures. It has a prominent role as both a physical means of connection and as an allusion to the troubles that riddle modern society. Despite this fact, in my opinion, the topic of the usefulness of technology remains open to interpretation, since in the end, by using Gordon’s phone, Jean meets her loved one.

The absurdity of the situations Jean keeps getting herself in is intended to show the dulled-out emotional state of an ordinary modern person. Initially, out of good intentions, the main character has a moral dilemma, yet the people Jean meets are not phased by Gordon’s passing. The progression of the story continually puts the audience at the end of their seats by intertwining Gordon’s complex relationships, unbeknownst to the main character, with Jean’s growing involvement in them.

In conclusion, the play uses dramatic tension to show how communication between people can affect the lives of others. The author provides all the pieces of information to the audience to reveal the full extent of the mess Jean got herself into, which puts them in uncomfortable anticipation. Ruhl (2008) reinstates her point of view on all things digital through Jean, as she says that “when everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there” (p. 35). The fact that Jean never owned a cell phone makes her stand out from the crowd of ordinary people, as she is unaffected by this notion of being alone in the era of digitalization. The main character’s ability to show genuine emotions and intentions allows her to transform the lives of strangers, who are otherwise trapped in their contemptuousness.


Ruhl, S. (2008). Dead man’s cell phone. Samuel French.

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