Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

John Muse reviews Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater

W. B. Worthen. Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater. Berkeley, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. 240 pp.

Reviewed by John H. Muse

When Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater was first published in 1992, it was one of the first monographs to theorize modern drama rather than simply narrate its history or analyze its thematic concerns. This 2015 reprinting is identical to the first edition, but available in paperback for the first time. The book’s signal contribution is its core idea that modern drama—like all theater, or indeed all art—has what W. B. Worthen calls a rhetoric, a set of historically specific conventions that both respond to and frame an audience’s interpretive activity. On this account, audience experience remains technically free but nevertheless predictable, shaped by the interplay among texts, their productions, and the theatrical conventions governing plays and refracted by them.

Three sections are organized around three rhetorical modes—realist, poetic, and political—all of which are implicitly political in that they either enforce an ideological regime (realist), or subversively resist it by reconfiguring language (poetic) or by dramatizing spectatorship (political). The result is a wide-ranging and sophisticated if now familiar account of Anglophone and European drama from the 1880s to the 1980s unfolding in the shadow of realism. The presumed villain in this story, realist theater, enforces a privileged bourgeois passivity by effacing the audience and its agency. Poetic theater resists realism’s scenic hegemony by shifting emphasis onto language, but ultimately leads to the tyranny of language in Beckett’s theater, which makes both actors and audiences subject to the text’s control. The story’s implicit hero is political theater by Brecht, Osborne, Churchill and others, which exfoliates the inherently political nature of theater’s operations and in the process regains agency and interest.

While the book has not changed, it now shows its age. Since the early nineties, other studies of regimes of vision in the late nineteenth century—including Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Attention and Amy Holzapfel’s Art, Vision, and the Nineteenth-Century Stage—have cast doubt on Worthen’s foundational assumption that realism situates the spectator as an objective observer. Indeed, any reader committed to a view of performance as inherently unpredictable may chafe against the book’s confidence that the codes of a given theatrical mode are as calculable as Worthen’s analysis implies. The book remains erudite and suggestive but will be most legible for those who already have a specialist’s knowledge of the field and a high tolerance for dense prose.