By Stan Greenberg
(The following two definitions are paraphrased from the New Illustrated Webster Dictionary of the English Language:)
Bathos: "Insincere sentimentality."
Pathos: "The quality that arouses emotion, passion, tender feelings, compassion and sympathy."
Now that we have our definitions, we can examine the factors that separate melodrama and soap opera from good literature.
Shakespeare's Hamlet could very well be a soap opera with its intrigue, incest, ghosts, murders and bizarre characters in a royal setting. King Lear, with his two wicked daughters could also fall into this soapy afternoon categorization. Why do they not become mawkish and oversentimentalized?
1. One reason is the language. The language is rich and meaningful. The beautiful use of the English language dialogue bowls us over and draws us into the plot. No trite, lifeless use of words and phrases that make us yawn and doze.
2. Characters. A great writer can establish the motivations of each person in a minimum of time and words. The people are true and recognizable. We identify ourselves, friends, neighbors or antagonists in these descriptions. The invalidity and humanity shine through and believability is the result.
3. Imagery - a natural resemblance in our personal world that we can visualize. The mental images placed before us have meaning and depth, and do not stick merely to the surface. James Joyce used symbolism to engage his readers. Symbolism challenges an audience or a reader to interpret the author's representation of the plot and characters.
4. Philosophical questions. Do we leave the book, theater or cinema with nothing? Shouldn't we have a few questions that haven't been completely answered? The cheap thriller answers everything. All is wrapped up, and the experience is forgotten. The discussions after a worthwhile performance are profound and substantial.
5. Beauty. Beauty is derived in a production through the use of poetic language or meaningful prose, in an effective setting. The experience may shake up and jar the viewer, but the arousal has charm, elegance and grace.
6. Vitality. A sleeping audience learns and experiences nothing. If you add items 1 through 5, the result will have life.
Can we compare Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams to Danielle Steele and Sydney Sheldon? Yes, we can! They are all storytellers.
Fortunately, some writers can tell a story better than others.