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Thursday, February 22, 2018

My Love Of Soap Opera - The Confessions Of A Theatre Critic

A well-known theatre critic who was known for his fair, informed, and insightful reviews, recently admitted to a love of soap operas – Turkish soap operas in particular.  These were masterpieces of the genre, he said, but should never be considered inferior to what is considered serious drama.  The works of Tennessee Williams, O’Neill, Albee, and Miller all deal with honor, morality, courage, jealousy, hope and love – the stock-in-trade of soap operas.  They may do so more lyrically (no playwright writes more elegant, graceful, and poetic lines than Williams) or more despairingly (O’Neill refuses to let any breath of fresh air enter the Tyrone household) or more honestly (no one is spared in The Price and All My Sons); but none give more to the audience than a good, old-fashioned, well-made popular television series.

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Winter Sun is a Turkish soap opera that meets all the standards of important theatre.  The casting is done with an eye to culture, looks, and talent.  The vixen who ruins the lives of the heroes in pursuit of her greed, jealousy, and vindictiveness is beautiful, but whose startlingly blue eyes set in a hard, imperial face – long nose, thin lips, large forehead -  express ambition, frustrated anger, and danger.  She is thin, long-legged, is as attractive as a runway model and like them lacks sensuousness, physical allure, or personal grace. The hero is tall, dark, and handsome; but is engaging, sensitive, and approachable.  He is, by his looks alone, vulnerable and strong.  The heroine is blond, pretty in an American, California way, has an engaging smile, a soft but not sensual body.  The crime boss is handsome, but dark-skinned -  a contrast to the heroine, the hero, and their families.  He is cruelly attractive, expressive, ironic, and frightening. 

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Despite the demands of the genre (50 episodes in 52 weeks), the quality of acting remains consistent.  The characters’ identity remains strong, the emotion expressed consistently believable, the mastery of dialogue, movement, and presentation perfect. In an ensemble cast of ten, and a total cast of over twenty, there are no weaknesses.  Each actor has been faithful to his character, to the script, and to the intent and overall sentiment of the series throughout.  The direction, less important than acting, script, and casting in a soap opera, is nevertheless noteworthy.  It is the director who must keep up the pace despite the schedule, insist on expressive emotions, and ensure that the cuts, necessary to feature the many subplots of the action, are related, never too abrupt, and pertinent.

The genius of the series is the plot, a story with many twists and turns; many more sub-stories and characters; a mix of intrigue, family drama, crime and punishment, love, sickness and death.  It is ingenious in the way it involves the viewer, understanding his expectations and emotional framework and setting it within the familiar configurations of Turkish culture.  There is no let up to the plot, no end to the deviousness and duplicity of the villains, no lack of compassion and naiveté on the part of the heroes, no surprising coincidence left out, and no lack of surprise, suspense, and ultimately resolution.

The theatre critic wondered whether he was, despite his New York reputation and academic credentials, really just a middle-brow in disguise.  Had he fallen for the ruses, and canny manipulation of the genre just like everyone else in Turkey, the Middle East, and Latin America where the series is broadcast? Or was he on to something? Was there really no difference between the classic dramas written by great playwrights and the team of writers, producers, and directors in Istanbul?

Winter Sun, for example, is about loyalty above all; the importance of family and its fundamental importance in creating and assuring right behavior.  In Winter Sun, The End, and Love is in the Air, family values are tested and finally proven. True, the crises they face are far from ordinary.  The power, privilege, and wealth of the best families and the sympathy, compassion, and understanding of the less well-off are both exaggerations, but only slightly.  In fact the families of these series are far more intact and more ultimately responsible than O’Neill’s Tyrones or Mannons, and certainly those in Albee’s American Dream and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Albee and O’Neill were very pessimistic about families and convinced that although they might be, in Albee’s words, the crucibles of maturity, they were always damaging and destructive.  While that might be correct, it has more to do with abstraction than reality.  More families are like the Demarcans and Hancioglus of Turkish soap operas than those created by Albee, O’Neill, and Miller.

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Winter Sun has its necessary heroes, villains, chases, and intrigues; but it never shies away from moral issues.  In many ways it recalls the Catholic novels of Graham Greene whose stories alone would be page-turners but when the factor of religious faith and doctrinaire observance is added, the guilt, remorse, and demand for forgiveness become even more compelling.  The vixen is immoral, conniving, and soulless; but are her sins forgivable, and if so, under what conditions?  Should a daughter whose father has been exposed as a murderer turn her back on him for ruining her life, her family, and her livelihood?  Or is there room for compassion and loyalty even under the worst conditions?

An artifact of good soap operas is the careful use of knowledge.  Characters are always withholding information from others either to spare them pain or to hide their sins; and the viewer is always in on the secret, watching with frustration as characters miss the clues, buy the lies, and are hurt by them.  Yet such secrecy is a staple of all families, and its consequences are always the same.  The truth will always out, usually to disastrous consequences.

Divorce, separation, abortion, and sickness are always a part of soap operas; and have been the reason why intellectual critics – like the theatre critic – dismiss them.  Yet, what family has not had to deal with these issues, and why should the viewer be any different.  Her commiseration with the abandoned wife, the dying lover, the lost baby, and the recently divorced but still in-love woman is real. 

Yet why, the theatre critic wondered, is this so? If a popular genre does the same thing that the serious theatre intends – to move, to illuminate, to generate compassion, a more universal understanding of the human condition and illustrate how one manages within it – than why is it accorded inferior status?  And why should a play produced on Broadway, the work of an ensemble of actors, directors, producers, script writers, set designers and costumers be any different from a television series which requires the same complement of talent?

Perhaps the greatest American playwright – Tennessee Williams – is the closest to combining soap opera melodrama and serious theatre.  Williams wrote about lonely but courageous women, the corrosive influence of families, the disastrous results of love and the conflicts of class.  He wrote moving, emotive, memorable plays.  One may recall main characters of serious drama – Hedda Gabler, Laura, Rebecca West, Miss Julie, Martha, and all the many attractive heroines of Shakespeare’s Comedies – but we cannot forget Amanda, Blanche, Laura, and Alma and how they made us feel. 

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Laura was lonely, despairing, and timid; alone with her glass menagerie but courageous enough to try the outside world one last time.  He disappointment is painful and permanent  Alma hopes that the young man next door will be her emotional savior from her spinster’s life with a sanctimonious father.  Blanche hopes to escape madness with a man, but left as bereft as Laura and Alma.
At the same time, it will be hard to forget Nisan, Efruz, Havva, Seda, and Toprak – soap opera women who suffer the same dismissal, frustrated ambitions, and hurtful relationships with present or absent fathers as Williams’ heroines.  Does their existence within a popular entertainment drama neuter their empathy and influence? 

The theatre critic decided to live in two worlds, that of Broadway and Istanbul; but he was never again so reverential about what came to New York nor so critical of what came out of Istanbul.

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