The Ethos of Drama
Rhetorical Theory and Dramatic Worth
For the first time in the history of drama criticism this book uses traditional rhetorical theory to evaluate moral values in plays from Shakespeare's time to the present. In an accessible style free of jargon, Robert King first reviews other theories and critiques of drama to show that they ignore or minimize the argument from moral worth (ethos), the rhetorical proof that earns a speaker or work its credibility. As the literary genre most dependent on an audience for its full realization, drama in performance, he argues, offers rich opportunities for rhetorical criticism while those plays of social or political relevance virtually demand an ethically grounded approach.
Proceeding from this premise, this innovative book insists on the continuing relevance of traditional rhetoric as crucial to an appreciation of aesthetic strategy and moral worth in plays from the Early Modern to contemporary periods. Guided by the steps of stasis theory, the author's analysis moves from matters of fact ("Is it?") to judgment ("What is it?") to the question of ultimate ethical weight: "What is it worth?" Ethos is applied as a standard for discovering a play's worth in its control of syntax, diction, and stylistic devices; likewise it is used to judge character and persuasive argument. Among the artists discussed: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, John Dryden, Thomas Otway, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, and Bernard Shaw.
Commenting in general on plays he has seen in performance, King applies ethical theory to the values of various dramatic techniques like costume, staging, action, and role playing. As an ultimate test of the theory, his concluding chapters study plays that respond to questions of overriding moral concern: the Holocaust, apartheid, and nuclear weaponry.
Robert L. King is professor of English at Elms College in Massachusetts. He is contributing editor in drama criticism for The North American Review. His more than 70 essays on rhetoric and theater have appeared in popular, literary, and scholarly publications from the New York Times to English Literary History.
PRAISE FOR THE BOOK
"This book is at once deeply conservative and surprisingly revolutionary: conservative because it grounds drama in a traditional study of rhetoric; revolutionary because it argues that drama can have an ethos, a quality of moral authority. . . . The quality of King's prose is simply superb: lucid and crisp, with just the right blend of theory, contextual matter, and close textual analysis. King himself is clearly a master of rhetoric."—James C. Bulman, Henry B. and Patricia Bush Tippie Professor of English, Allegheny College
"In an innovative twist, this book uses traditional rhetorical theory to evaluate moral values in plays from Shakespeare's time to the present, including works by Anton Chekhov, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, Eugene O'Neill and Bernard Shaw. In an accessible style, King, an English professor at Elms College, applies ethical theory to the values of dramatic techniques like costume, staging, action, and role-playing." —Holy Cross Magazine
"Written without clunky jargon, this persuasive book offers a useful tonic for overly theorized and amoral approaches to drama. . . . Recommended." —D. Pesta, Choice
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