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Monday, February 19, 2018

Tennessee Williams And Turkish Soap Operas–Can They Be Compared, And If Not, Why Not?

Tennessee Williams, arguably America’s greatest playwright, has written some of the most memorable, moving, and touching plays ever.  One may remember Hedda Gabler, Christine Mannon, Miss Julie, and Rebekka West; but one feels for the fate of Blanche Dubois, Laura, and Alma.  Blanche’s madness, frail dependence on others, flight from a painful past, and sexual incompleteness are unforgettably sad.  She is frail, heroic, and confused – a beautiful, sophisticated woman whose emotional delicateness and troublesome family history have made her suspect and strange, hungry, vulnerable, and fair game for sexual predators.  Laura like Blanche is also fragile and delicate.  She is timid and uncertain, afraid to take even the smallest steps outside the world of her glass menagerie.  When she finds the courage to meet her Gentleman Caller, but finds all her expectations broken and discarded, she can only return to the loneliness of her small world.  Alma, the daughter of a preacher, brought up with a harsh Puritanical rectitude is, like Laura, desperate for human, sexual contact.  Yet, even though she finds the courage to defy her father and meet with her own Gentleman Caller, it all turns bad, sordid, and pitiful.  She, unlike Laura has no place to return to, and she is even more alone.

Image result for images the glass menagerie

Hedda Gabler is a remarkable woman, a person of absolute will and ambition; and she, like Ibsen and Strindberg’s other willfully ambitious women are memorable for what they represent – Nietzschean overreaching, Shakespearean evil determination, and brilliant sexual canniness.  They are Victorian women who, frustrated by their inferior social position, lack of legal rights, and subject to the worst excesses of patriarchy, not only find ways to best the men who oppress them but destroy them.  We remember the women of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Shakespeare not because of affect but effect.  They represent philosophical and social principles; how human nature – always territorial, self-interested, self-serving, aggressive, and ambitious – will always out.  The playwrights have used their characters to display the power of human nature and the particular aspect of will.  We may admire these women who have defied misogyny and social injustice, but we never feel close to them.   Perhaps it is their strength that is off-putting, but more likely their otherworldly, metaphorical character.  Hilde Wangel, the woman who sends the Master Builder to his death to demonstrate her power over him and her defiance of God, is unsubstantial.  She represents human nature in relief.  She is not real, but she could be.

Image result for images diana rigg as hedda gabler

There are as many romantic subplots in Chekhov’s plays as any good modern potboiler, but they come to nothing.  Astrov and Serebriakov’s young wife are too unsuited to be lovers.  Vanya, too, is seduced by her, but cannot consummate his desire because he lives in his own self-centered, egotistical world.  The three sisters are all in love with someone, but the love is either disappointing or unrequited.

In other words, sensibility, art, and intellect all very much occur separately but not together. Chekhov was in some ways that perfect triangle of all three.  He was a doctor, an artist, and a writer; and in his short story The Artist he grappled with the relationship between science (intellect) and art.

"When science and art are real, they aim not at temporary private ends, but at eternal and universal -- they seek for truth and the meaning of life, they seek for God, for the soul, and when they are tied down to the needs and evils of the day, to dispensaries and libraries, they only complicate and hamper life. We have plenty of doctors, chemists, lawyers, plenty of people can read and write, but we are quite without biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, poets. The whole of our intelligence, the whole of our spiritual energy, is spent on satisfying temporary, passing needs.

The highest state of being, suggests Chekhov, is the unique combination of all three; but somehow even if that happy fusion were to occur, life itself conspires to dilute, defuse, and derail the best higher intentions.

Image result for images chekhov

Is Tennessee Williams’ art of a higher achievement than Chekhov, Ibsen or Strindberg? Does the creation of a personal, affective link between his characters and his audience of a higher value than the creation of an abstract virtue personified? Does the fact that we shed a tear over Blanche’s sorrowful end, Laura’s brutal rejection, and Alma’s profound sexual and human disappointment a tribute to greater art?

Arthur Miller is seen by many to be the superior playwright by critics who find Williams’ lyricism and melodrama obvious and uninteresting.  Miller, on the other hand, is a moral playwright, dealing with honesty, duplicity, moral failing, and human incompetence in the face of moral choice.  The Price, The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, and All My Sons are plays about deceit, irresponsibility, and moral failing; struggle, weakness, human weakness,  and precipitous fall.  Miller’s characters are also vehicles for his own moral vision.  They like the characters of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg have been created for a purpose, not as emotive individuals.

Image result for images cover all my sons

Eugene O’Neill, the third playwright in the American triumvirate, is the most accessible.  His early plays verge on melodrama, and his more mature works are painful, oppressive personal and family tragedies.  He like these other playwrights has created characters to represent something rather than to be something.  Mary Tyrone certainly is a recognizable, real character – a selfish, destructive woman who uses her dependencies to dominate her husband and son.  She is unattractive and unsympathetic.  She was not created for anyone to care about her one way or another.

If it is at all true that great drama should be judged in part by its evocative, emotive power; and if Tennessee Williams is an excellent example, then why should popular dramas be classed in the same category and judged as such?  Turkish soap operas – most notably Winter Sun, The End, and Love is in the Air – are brilliant in their understanding of human nature; the inevitable crises, ambitions, frustrations, enmities, and selfishness of families; jealousy, sexual competition, and conflicts between family and individual loyalties; the nature and satisfying pursuit of revenge; and the disruptive, painful experiences of disease, disadvantage, and death.

Image result for images turkish tv series winter sun

Scriptwriters are canny in their ability to draw in the viewer, to create immediate empathy or antipathy with characters, to create suspense and anticipation.  To tease, provoke, anger, and resolve.  They know when to draw out a dramatic scene, and when to bring it to a close.  They know when to jump to an interrelated scene, follow its character and drama, and move progressively to a resolution.

Casting directors are equally brilliant in their choices.  Beauty is never enough but affective beauty is.  The villain in Winter Son is stunningly attractive but with cold, harsh, and frighteningly impersonal looks.  Her brilliant blue eyes and model’s features belong on a soap opera villain.  The audience hates her but cannot turn away. 

Producers know the medium, the audience, the culture, and the constraints of time and budget.  They are savvy about making every scene indispensable and emotionally necessary.  Ample tears, compassion, emotional hurt and tragedy must be frequent but never overbearing or repetitive.

Turkish soap operas are now second only to the US in export sales.  According to NPR, Turkey is now second only to the U.S. when it comes to the production and global distribution of TV dramas. Magnificent Century, a period drama about the life of an Ottoman sultan and his powerful wife, aired in 47 countries.  One Thousand and One Nights, a show about a widowed architect who sleeps with her multimillionaire boss to cover her son’s medical expenses, aired in 46 countries. 

The success of Turkish soap operas, especially in the Middle East, has to do with many factors especially the ‘soft’ handling of religious-traditional-secular issues and a focus on the new independence of women; but the key is melodrama – the lives, loves, intrigues, misfortunes, and successes of recognizable Turkish families. As Time Goes By, one of Turkey’s best-known soap operas. With its winding plot and 1980s nostalgia, the series was an instant-hit, shooting to record ratings when it premiered in 2010. Some episodes have commanded almost 60 percent of Turkey’s television audience. Since then, the show’s popularity has quickly spilled across borders. Now in its third season, it is broadcast in 34 countries, from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia.

Image result for images turkish tv series as time goes by

By focusing on family issues—taking the Latin American telenovela formula and essentially making it their own—Turkish dramas have struck gold in international markets, says Fredrik af Malmborg, managing director at Sparks Network, a global distributor of soaps. While American series that deal with the family are usually sitcoms, “Turkish shows dare to take family stories seriously, and that has very broad appeal,” says Malmborg.

Turkish dramas are as focused on human nature, foibles, desires, and disappointments as the plays of Tennessee Williams.  The characters are memorable, and while they are often formulaic they are never dry, sterile, or academic.  What more is there to learn about human nature than we already know? We turn to both drama and soap operas to see it played out in a thousand entertaining forms.  What makes them so popular? They are good.

Anything that has broad appeal is automatically suspect in the eyes of traditional reviewers.  If tens of millions of viewers could be watching and enjoying Turkish soap operas, how could they possibly be?  How could anything mass produced, predictable, and simple be considered anything but popular entertainment? Even Graham Greene, author of some of the most morally complex yet compelling dramas of recent decades felt obliged to divide his work into ‘Entertainments’ and serious works.  Most critics agree that the distinction is unnecessary and unmerited. Greene easily crossed over from a popular genre – spy novels – to dramatic fiction.  Why do literary and theatre critics, then, dismiss any form of popular culture as insignificant?

Image result for images graham greene writer

Is the purpose of art to enlighten? To educate? To move?  A case can be made that the best Turkish television serials do all three.  Winter Sun is educational and instructive for its careful representing of a changing Muslim society.  It is enlightening because of its personal insights into the most common human sentiments – jealousy, envy, revenge, and ambition.  The subject may not be new, but the way the series’ producers and staff have configured it to display a range of moral, emotional, social, and family reactions to provocative events is certainly compelling.  The series is most certainly moving.  There is no way not to feel intense dislike for the vixen, sympathy for the wronged wife, hatred for the evil-minded, greedy, and manipulative father, happiness at the goodness of the hero.

The discussion of the nature of art is by no means new, and there is still little agreement on whether crafts are art or commercial products; whether landscapes and portraits have the same artistic value as the highly psychological works of Kiefer and Bacon.  And so it goes with soap operas and theatre.  It is probably time to let go of labels and academia and be moved, enlightened, entertained, or educated.  Period.

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