Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater

Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater

by W. B. Worthen

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The history of drama is typically viewed as a series of inert "styles." Tracing British and American stage drama from the 1880s onward, W. B. Worthen instead sees drama as the interplay of text, stage production, and audience.

How are audiences manipulated? What makes drama meaningful? Worthen identifies three rhetorical strategies that distinguish an O'Neill


The history of drama is typically viewed as a series of inert "styles." Tracing British and American stage drama from the 1880s onward, W. B. Worthen instead sees drama as the interplay of text, stage production, and audience.

How are audiences manipulated? What makes drama meaningful? Worthen identifies three rhetorical strategies that distinguish an O'Neill play from a Yeats, or these two from a Brecht. Where realistic theater relies on the "natural" qualities of the stage scene, poetic theater uses the poet's word, the text, to control performance. Modern political theater, by contrast, openly places the audience at the center of its rhetorical designs, and the drama of the postwar period is shown to develop a range of post-Brechtian practices that make the audience the subject of the play.

Worthen's book deserves the attention of any literary critic or serious theatergoer interested in the relationship between modern drama and the spectator.

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Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater

By W. B. Worthen


Copyright © 1992 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96304-7


Theater and the Scene of Vision


Let me recall a brief, brilliant scene from Chekhov's Three Sisters. Toward the end of the first act, the Prozorovs and their guests retire from the downstage drawing room to the partly concealed reception room upstage, to celebrate Irina's name-day. Natasha arrives, nervously checks herself in the mirror, and rushes to join the party. The forestage is empty, when two of the omnipresent junior officers suddenly appear. Taking out a camera—still a novelty at the turn of the century—they pose and silence the party, taking one photograph and then another. It is a striking moment. Taking a picture syncopates the action and highlights the stylistic transparency of Chekhov's drama. As the characters withdraw upstage, the play becomes lifelike by becoming random, oblique, untheatrical; the photograph stops the action, fixing it as an image for a second or two in the blue halo of the flash. Bernard Shaw remarked that "drama is no mere setting up of the camera to nature" (Preface 197), and Chekhov's camera both asserts the verisimilitude of his drama and denaturalizes it, exposing that "reality" as a rhetorical effect of the realistic stage.

The history of stage realism is often told as a narrative of technical mastery, in which playwrights from Henrik Ibsen to David Storey find their theatrical expression through the practical innovations of great directors: André Antoine, Constantin Stanislavski, Harley Granville Barker, Elia Kazan, Lindsay Anderson, and so on. This parable presents theatrical change as an evolution in engineering, with playwrights, technicians, and directors collaborating to render the world on stage with increasing fidelity and precision. And yet, as Chekhov points out, stage verisimilitude is an effect of where we sit to receive it. The camera—something of a cliché for realism even in Chekhov's day—can only halt and distort the "life" it would reproduce. Chekhov's camera implies that the effect of the "real" arises not from mimetic fidelity but in our relation to the apparatus that discloses it. The effect of the "real" is something that we produce both before us and within ourselves, a world and an interpretation of it, a reading based, as Émile Zola—that novelist, playwright, and amateur photographer—might have put it, on a systematic "amputation of reality" (287).

I want to begin a different narrative, tracing the rhetorical continuity between the experimental era of Zola's naturalist polemics and the equally experimental work of our own realistic theater a century later. Historically, the rise of modern realism in the theater is usually traced to developments in theater technology dating from the mid-nineteenth century. This complicity between dramatic style and stage technology is informed by a sustaining ideology, what Roland Barthes calls the "ideological unity of the bourgeoisie," a unity that "gave rise to a single mode of writing" (Writing 2–3). In Writing Degree Zero Barthes traces later divisions in literary form to the breakup of this unified bourgeois consciousness, and we can certainly see a related development in drama as well: the proliferation of such apparently anti-realistic dramatic forms as expressionism, symbolism, Brechtian epic theater, poetic drama, theater of the absurd, "new realism," theater of images, and socialist drama. In the theater, the hegemony of realism is challenged not simply in terms of the style of the drama, but in the terms of stage production as well—different strategies of theatrical production challenge realism's ways of framing a picture of the world and controlling the audience's reading of it. In this regard the theater tells a somewhat different story than Barthes does, in large part because the rhetoric of realistic production has been much more difficult to suspend, even when the drama it stages seems far from the mode of Ibsen, Chekhov, O'Neill, or Storey. Although competing modes of stage production challenge the rhetoric of realism and the audience it produces, they often bear the traces of the "realistic" designs they oppose.

Realism is notoriously elusive, difficult to locate either as a "style" or at a particular moment in history. Here, I treat realistic theater and drama as an arrangement of practices developed as part of a cultural milieu of which we are still a part. To this extent "realism" is always a shorthand for "modern realism," or for "realistic drama and theater since 1850." The date is less important than what it marks—though 1889, the year of the first unaltered production of Ibsen's A Doll's House in England, comes to mind—for it points to the joining of literature, technology, and society in a sustaining ideological project. That project is what I mean by "realism," the distinguishing marks of which lie in its character as rhetoric, its ways of using theatrical production—conventions of acting, design, direction—to naturalize a particular relationship between the dramatic fiction and the offstage world of the audience. Unlike earlier modes of theater, realism not only asserts a reality that is natural or unconstructed, it argues that such a reality can only be shown on the stage by effacing the medium—literary style, acting, mise-en-scène—that discloses it. What is most characteristic of realism, that is, is not the verisimilitude it claims as its style (as though Hedda Gabler were more lifelike than Medea or Lady Macbeth simply because she speaks prose and owns a practical stove) but the framing machinery that seems to make such lifelikeness appear. Verisimilitude, instead, arises as an effect of the audience's activity, and it is the rhetorical purpose of realistic theater to assert the perception of verisimilitude as the sign of our proper engagement with the play. The modern realistic stage is a device for claiming and legitimating a certain kind of interpretive activity; its technology and techniques work to frame our ways of reading the stage and the kind of meanings we can find there.

Realism provides a way to hold audiences, performers, and drama in a particular relationship; the stage deploys its dramatic and theatrical style to shape certain forms of audience attention, experience, and interpretation. The formal and stylistic markers of realistic drama in this period are familiar: prosaic dialogue, bourgeois setting and subject matter (or, if the setting is drawn from another class, an implied bourgeois perspective on that class), a conflict between internal psychological motives and external economic or social pressures, a rigorously "causal" plotting, predominance of incident, and so on. These are, in a sense, the features of "realism" that the drama appropriated from the novel in the late nineteenth century, and which similarly assert the drama's unmediated transparency to the offstage reality it presents.

To produce this dramatic effect onstage requires an equally articulate theatrical rhetoric, and before turning to a reading of realistic drama we will need to elaborate this rhetoric more fully. Two points are easily anticipated: the pictorial, "photographic" objectivity claimed for the mise-en-scène, and its ability to govern a behavioristic style ofacting. The third moment of this rhetoric—how this complex of dramatic, staging, and acting techniques produces a characteristic experience for its audience—is more difficult to bring into focus, because the realistic theater negates the audience's overt participation in the theater as a necessary part of its proper interpretive activity. Defining verisimilitude as a thorough identification of the drama (present) with its performance (transparent), the theater casts its audience as absent from the field of representation. Legitimate theater experience, and so a proper interpretation of the "knowledge" that realistic drama often promises, can occur only when we have been apparently exiled from the field of theater itself.

The realistic stage works to arouse a familiar modern appetite: the desire to view others as theater from a position of unstaged freedom. We might think of realistic rhetoric in the theater as the body of practices that both stimulate and satisfy this appetite for "objectivity." The desire to produce the stage as object, a photographic slice of life free from the mediation of dramatic or theatrical style, becomes visible in the first polemics calling for realistic experimentation in the 1870s and 1880s. As Zola suggests, the rhetoric of realism claims to duplicate the epistemology of experimental science. Naturalistic playwrights, Zola argues, should imitate "le mouvement d'enquête et d'analyse, qui est le mouvement même du dix-neuvième siècle" (283), by writing ironic, anti-romantic plays illustrating the behavior of characters as the effect of material causes, causes usually located in social pressures or "physiological" urgings. The "science" of theatrical naturalism lies less in the thematics of the drama than in the ideological neutrality it assigns to stage practice, and in the construction of the spectator as a disinterested, "objective" observer. The mise-en-scène appropriates the authority of "science" by assigning a "scientific" transparency to its own instruments, in order to ascribe a similarly scientific objectivity to its audience.

We can see that the machinery of theatrical production is assimilated to notions of scientific objectivity in a variety of ways. Much as the scientist's instruments or the photographer's camera are said to make objective observation possible, so too the technology of the theater is said to determine the "rise" of realistic drama. As Brander Matthews, the first professor of dramatic literature in the United States, found when he surveyed the history of the nineteenth-century theater in 1910, the "real responsibility" for the prosaic style of modern drama "does not lie on Ibsen's shoulders, but on Edison's,—since it was an inevitable consequence of the incandescent bulb" (A Study 64). In The Principles of Playmaking (1919) Matthews clarifies this history:

In the course of the middle half of the nineteenth century the actual stage underwent a transformation. It was so amply lighted first by gas and then by electricity, that the actor had no longer to go down to the footlights to let his changing expression be seen. The parallel wings and borders by means of which interiors had been crudely indicated were abolisht and the compact box-set enabled the stage-director to suggest more satisfactorily an actual room. The apron was cut away; and the curtain rose and fell in a picture-frame. The characters of the play were thereafter elements in a picture, which had a characteristic background, and which might be furnisht with the most realistic elaboration. The former intimacy of the actor with the spectators, due to his close proximity, disappeared speedily; and with this intimacy there disappeared also its concomitant, the soliloquy addrest by a character to the audience for the sole purpose of supplying information. The drama immediately became more pictorial; it could rely more certainly upon gesture; it could renounce the aid of purely rhetorical oratory; it could dispense with description; and it insisted that the performer should subdue himself to those new conditions and to be on his guard lest he should "get out of the picture."


Matthews echoes Zola in treating the representational practices of the realistic theater and drama as the result of evolutionary necessity. Reifying the "fourth wall," displacing the drama from the apron into the recessed box set, integrating characterization with design and costume elements, assimilating acting style to the understated manners of social behavior, and displacing the audience as participant, are all, to Matthews, dictated by the simple fact of their technological possibility. Matthews sees in this technology the origin and cause of realism, but its history is actually bound to the rise of the more spectacular modes of production that dominated other precincts of the nineteenth-century stage: cataclysmic melodrama, Irving's splendid "historical" Shakespeare, the glitter and panache of pantomime and extravaganza. Zola saw naturalism as the result of a positivist literary and social "évolution," both the expression of "l'intelligence contemporaine" and its absent cause, transcending the passing fashions of specific individuals, classes, or institutions (285). Matthews similarly finds the triumph of realism to be implicit in its theatrical environment; although stage technology might sustain a variety of dramatic species, only realism seems fit to survive.

Theatrical realism claims to stage an objective representation by integrating dramatic and performance style into the pictorial consistency of the material scene onstage. The purpose of this consistency is not, in the end, simply mimetic: the aim of realism is to produce an audience, to legitimate its private acts of interpretation as objective. How does the rhetoric of realism cast its audience, and render the audience's typical mode of attention—displaced, absent, private viewing—meaningful? The picture frame of the proscenium not only circumscribes a dramatic world, it establishes the characteristic relation between actor, role, and eavesdropping audience through which its meanings are realized. In Play-Making (1912), for example, William Archer describes the dramatist's craft in pictorial terms: the "stage now aims at presenting a complete picture, with the figures not 'a little out of the picture,' but completely in it" (64). Only by visualizing the stage as a pictorial environment, rather than as a stage set, can the playwright find "a safeguard against theatricality" (13). In part because the actor/character cannot emerge from the "picture," the environmental set becomes a decisive factor in the audience's interpretive activity, especially in its reading of "character." In 1911, for instance, David Belasco used the set for the opening scene of The Return of Peter Grimm to demonstrate the character's implication in a complex of social, economic, domestic, and even psychological histories:

The sun comes brightly into the room. Through the window can be seen tulip beds, other flowers, hot houses, and rows of trees. Peter Grimm's botanic gardens supply seeds, plants, shrubbery, and trees to the wholesale trade as well as retail; and the view should suggest the importance and extent of the industry which Peter has inherited and improved.

(Marker 71)

A character so fully identified with its productive environment is more completely contained within the stage. "Character" is no longer a medium of theatrical exchange between actor and audience—as it was, say, in Shakespeare's or Garrick's theater, where the making of character was more openly negotiated between actor and audience—but one object among many, part of a dramatic ecology the audience can observe but not enter. The objectivity of the pictorial stage both withdraws it from the audience's influence, and claims to render the drama "absolute," as though it were not implicated in the activities of performance and of observation that fabricate it on the stage.

The desire to produce the audience in an "objective" relation to dramatic events also requires an increasingly underplayed acting style. Much as the mise-en-scène frames a coherent picture, purged of the traces of the theater, the pictorial stage suppresses a self-evident style of acting as an object of the audience's attention. Realistic acting erases itself from view, renders the actor the vehicle of a fully coherent "character" already present in the dramatic text. The actor's performance is rendered theatrically invisible, and aesthetically palatable, through a thoroughgoing identification between the conventions of "acting" and the manifest codes of social enactment. The increasingly subtle reproduction of domestic behavior informing English acting from Squire Bancroft to Granville Barker is one instance of this development, analogous to the efforts of Antoine's Théâtre Libre, of the Provincetown Players, of the Irish realists, of the Moscow Art Theater, and later of the American Method. This attitude is evident, too, in popular responses to the theater, which often betray this deeply idealized conception of dramatic performance. When the Times critic A. B. Walkley asks "What is the very quintessence of acting but the effort to bring about the complete identity" between actor and character, he inscribes in that identity a typical hierarchy of value: "If the actor is the part, so that you fail to distinguish one from the other, then he has achieved what he set out to do and he deserves all the praise he gets" (More Prejudice 69). In part, this priority reflects the sense that actors' special personality, their public extroversion, and their professional openness to the view of others necessarily violate the essential privacy and inwardness of the self, of authentic experience. In relation to the roles they perform—where "character" is revealed through indirection, unselfconscious disclosure—actors' public self-representation seems nearly pathological, and so must be neutralized by a mimetic rhetoric that assigns it an instrumental transparency.

The widespread interest in puppets and marionettes at the turn of the century is also symptomatic of the uneasiness produced by the actors' dizzying self-multiplication. Gordon Craig's experiments, Meyerhold's sculptural plasticity, and Yeats's statuesque acting demonstrate the complicity between "symbolic" or "poetic" and "realistic" acting as strategies for audience implication: both claim to produce an ideal "character" by refining the actor's distracting personal charisma from our view. As Walkley suggests in proposing a marionette production of Thomas Hardy's Dynasts, puppet presentation

would clarify, simplify, attenuate the medium through which the poem reaches the audience. The poet and his public would be in close contact. It is, of course, for many minds, especially for those peculiarly susceptible to poetry, a perpetual grievance against the actors that these living, bustling, solid people get between them and the poet and substitute fact, realism, flesh-and-blood for what these minds prefer to embody only in their imagination.


Excerpted from Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater by W. B. Worthen. Copyright © 1992 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

W. B. Worthen is Alice Brady Pels Professor in the Arts, and Professor and Chair of the Department of Theatre at Barnard College, Columbia University; he also serves as Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and as co-chair of the Ph.D. in Theatre Program.

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