The Drama of the Essay

A starting point, I suggest, for thinking differently about this strangely familiar genre of the essay–(the essay? somehow marginal yet everywhere we look)–which is to say, rethinking what you might have learned in school, is to focus in on the dramatic elements of the genre.  David Shields alludes to these in his reference to the essay as “theater of the brain”–the writer I steal my subtitle from. This drama reflects an earlier and important insight in the thought of the rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who describes the thinking of essays, and of thinking as such, as a drama–or what he calls, “dramatistic.” As Burke puts it: the essay is an “attenuated play.” Burke’s point is that all or any use of language is a form of what he calls “symbolic action.”  This makes the expression of thought, language specifically, communication generally, essentially rhetorical.  Here is Burke’s definition from A Rhetoric of Motives: “It is rooted in an essential function of language itself, a function that is wholly realistic, and is continually born anew; the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (43). The essay in this sense can be thought of as essentially rhetorical to the extent that language or rhetoric (or more broadly, thinking, as Burke suggests) is essentially essayistic.

In my approach to teaching the academic essay, I build upon this idea of the essay as thought’s theater by comparing the structure of an academic argument to the screenwriting structure of a film, something I name the three-act thesis. You might find this useful as a thought experiment.

Jeff Porter, in his introduction to Understanding the Essay (“A History and Poetics of the Essay”), begins to highlight a few of the dramatic elements of the essay we can continue to think about as crucial to the philosophy of the genre, as well as significant in its rhetoric and poetics. Here are some of the keywords and ideas that Porter addresses, and that we can continue to take up as we read more into the philosophy of the essay in the coming weeks (note: I have added these to our Keywords page for future reference):

crisis, persona, recognition, scene.

I would note, further, that these dramatic qualities of the essay provide a structure, and a kind of contradictory tension, with other qualities we have also begun to take up. I am thinking of the qualities of trial, experiment, wandering, nonlinearity, intimacy, singularity. These are there; indeed Porter emphasizes these characteristics as well. And yet these more personal and private and lyrical qualities of an essay’s thinking (or “thought thinking” as Porter writes it) would seem to contrast with the more public, epic, audience-oriented, structured elements we might associate with drama. Furthermore, we can connect the drama of “recognition” with the rhetorical character of an essay that Moore emphasizes in his notion of “resonance” and the fact that essays, no matter how personal or autobiographical, are written for readers. To call an essay “reader-friendly” is another way to say that it is rhetorical.

Can you describe other dramatic elements of essay writing you have encountered? Does this recognition of the essay as dramatic differ from the understanding you have had of the genre from past experience? If so, how?

As a test-case for rethinking the essay as something more dramatic in the various philosophical, rhetorical, and poetic senses that Porter and Moore have suggested in our initial reading, consider this short essay by a famous American essayist of the 20th century, Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” from her 1969 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.


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