dramatism (rhetoric and composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Kenneth Burke
American literary and cultural theorist Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). (Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images)


Dramatism is a metaphor introduced by 20th-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke to describe his critical method, which includes study of the various relations among the five qualities that comprise the pentad: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Adjective: dramatistic. Also known as the dramatistic method.

Burke's most extensive treatment of dramatism appears in his book A Grammar of Motives (1945). There he maintains that "language is action." According to Elizabeth Bell, "A dramatistic approach to human interaction mandates an awareness of ourselves as actors speaking in specific situations with specific purposes" (Theories of Performance, 2008). 

Dramatism is regarded by some composition scholars and instructors as a versatile and productive heuristic (or method of invention) that can be useful to students in writing courses.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Dramatism is a method of analysis and a corresponding critique of terminology designed to show that the most direct route to the study of human relations and human motives is via methodical inquiry into cycles or clusters of terms and their functions."
    (Kenneth Burke, "Dramatism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1968)
  • "What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it? . . .
    "We shall use five terms as generating principle of our investigation. They are: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, Purpose. In a rounded statement about motives, you must have some word that names the act (names what took place, in thought or deed), and another that names the scene (the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred); also, you must indicate what person or kind of person (agent) performed the act, what means or instruments he used (agency), and the purpose. Men may violently disagree about the purposes behind a given act, or about the character of the person who did it, or how he did it, or in what kind of situation he acted; or they may even insist upon totally different words to name the act itself. But be that as it may, any complete statement about motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)."
    (Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives, 1945. Rpt. University of California Press, 1969)
  • The Pentad: Relations Among the Five Terms
    "[Kenneth Burke's] Grammar [of Human Motives, 1945] is a long meditation on the dialectics of interacting systems and clusters of terms that offers an analysis both of the basic forms that 'talk about experience' will inevitably take and of a process by which conflicting accounts of human action may be resolved. Burke begins with the observation that any account of action, if it is 'rounded,' will encompass five issues: who, what, where, how, and why. The paradigm here . . . is drama. These five terms comprise a 'pentad,' and the various relations (ratios) among them define different interpretations of action. Hence, for instance, it makes a great deal of difference whether one 'explains' an action (Act) by reference to the 'where' (Scene) or by reference to the 'why' (Purpose)."
    (Thomas M. Conley, Rhetoric in the European Tradition. Longman, 1990)
  • Dramatism in the Composition Classroom
    "[S]ome compositionists embrace dramatism, some ignore it, and some purposely reject it. . . .
    "Scholars have found in Burke's method diverse qualities, depending on what they seek. Thus, dramatism has a rare synthesizing potential in the diverse and fragmented field called composition. For compositionists in the classical tradition, dramatism has the appeal of corresponding to the topics, using dialectic much as Plato used it and being readily adaptable to social contexts. For the romantics, dramatism supplies a catalyst for the thought processes of writers getting in touch with their own thoughts rather than thoughts of the heuristic's maker. For compositionists concerned with freeing students from dominating or ossifying intellectual systems, dramatism offers the appeal of built-in subversiveness. For those who embrace the process approach, dramatism works well as prewriting and as a tool in revision. For deconstructionists, dramatism offers limitless possibilities for the questioning, transformation, and discovery of underlying implications. Deconstructionists and New Critics both emphasize close reading, which is an essential aspect of Burke's method. For postmodernists in general, dramatism's rejection of both authority and the determinacy of meaning is congenial. The range of student ability levels, subject areas, course objectives, and teaching philosophies that dramatism accommodates is far greater than is widely realized."
    (Ronald G. Ashcroft, "Dramatism." Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory and Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies, ed. by Mary Lynch Kennedy. IAP, 1998)  
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Nordquist, Richard. "dramatism (rhetoric and composition)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/dramatism-rhetoric-and-composition-1690484. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). dramatism (rhetoric and composition). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dramatism-rhetoric-and-composition-1690484 Nordquist, Richard. "dramatism (rhetoric and composition)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dramatism-rhetoric-and-composition-1690484 (accessed February 6, 2023).