Picking up on Pathos
So. How is everybody feeling? I know, it’s been a bit rough lately, and as much as we try to think positive, or look forward, our ability to do so is often related to the messages with which we are inundated. While we can select our news sources these days (for good or bad), there are some things we can’t avoid hearing no matter which source we choose. In those (rare) moments when we are all hearing from the same speaker, we have the chance to ask ourselves about how the message is working. Does it work for some groups and not for others? Why? Is there a way to create a compelling message that speaks to all?
Aristotle codified what he observed happening in the arguments he heard and gave names to the three branches of rhetoric at work. I find that naming things makes them more available for use, so Aristotle has my gratitude—for that, and other things. While the word “rhetoric” itself has a pretty bad connotation, it really is a neutral term. It is a set of tools for persuasion, the tools can be wielded by good people, or not good people. The general hope is that the truth will win out in the course of a debate or presentation. Our faith in that hope has been tested in the age of “alternative facts,” and an examination of the tools used to present arguments, or the ability to name them may be a useful way to call attention to their deployment and our ability to recognize them when they arise.
When ASC works with groups on communication, we talk about how to make the message sticky and how to create a desire to listen for audience members. The stickiness comes from how a person chooses and deploys words, taking the audience on a delicious journey of language will make the message appealing. Setting up repetition, bumper sticker ideas, using facts in a compelling way all serve to make the brain want to stay with the idea—Aristotle named this facet Logos. Then, there is the person who is speaking. What authenticity, expertise, excellence they bring to the discussion that compels listening. How someone presents themselves, and, really, who they are that the listener should care to listen, he named Ethos. Then there is the most controversial (for Plato, Aristotle’s teacher and later colleague) tenet of Pathos. Everyone has emotions, Aristotle laid out how the emotions affect the recipients’ ability or desire to hear what someone is saying. As that authority on all things, Wikipedia, puts that Aristotle shows readers that pathos is used “to arouse…emotions in an audience so that a speaker might be able to produce the desired action.” We see this used all over the place today, and have for centuries. Some speakers prey on fear, others on hope; some delight, others disgust. We see those that exploit guilt, and those that tender compassion. As we gear up for rehearsals, my mind goes to those moments in the plays we will produce this year. In Othello, Iago preys on jealousy, guilt, and anger:
Nay, but he prated,
And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms against your honor
That, with the little godliness I have,
I did full hard forbear him.
And in Merchant of Venice, Portia dabbles in justice (and levels at injustice moments later):
The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
And in Twelfth Night, Fabian plays the courage card with Sir Andrew
She did show favour to the youth in your sight only to exasperate you, to awake your dormouse valour, to put fire in your heart and brimstone in your liver.
Each pursues their own ends through the vehicle of pathos—trying to discern what the person they speak to holds dear, and leveraging an emotional connection to achieve the desired result.
I am eager to see how the ASC actors bring these characters to life—and even more eager to see the triumphant return to the playhouse of the most essential member of every production—the audience—return as well.