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Friday, April 5, 2019

Soap Opera And ‘As The World Turns’–Life As Daytime Television

‘As The World Turns’, the most popular and longest-running soap opera in American television history (1956-2010) was an American cultural con, and a rival to the works of the best American playwrights, said a well-known theatre critic.  

‘Apostasy’, shouted those who found the soap opera praises of the critic ignorant, low-brow, and impossibly self-serving.  Yet he had an undeniable point.  Didn’t soap operas present the same dramas of greed, ambition, frustration, power, frailty, sickness and death as our greatest playwrights? The works of Williams, O’Neill, Albee, and Miller all deal with honor, morality, courage, jealousy, hope and love, he said, the stock-in-trade of soap operas.  Plays may present these themes 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 present the human condition better than  good, old-fashioned, well-made popular television.

Image result for images soap opera as the world turns

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  express ambition, frustrated anger, and danger.  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,  cruelly attractive, expressive, ironic, and frightening, and a contrast to the heroine, the hero, and their families.

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 best of American daytime television – Days of Our Lives, All My Children, Guiding Light and Another World – are no different; dramatic recreations of the ordinary problems and crises of the American family.  They are, and as their longevity attests (some with a forty-year run) compelling.  Although cast, direction, and storylines always change, the central themes of love, suspicion, jealousy, resentment, deceit, and duplicity never do.  The soaps simply add melodrama, beauty, and wealth to the most common, universal, and familiar family stories.

Image result for images soap opera days of our lives

The genius of genre does not rely on classic suspension of disbelief – accepting the unlikely as an enhancement of one’s own life – but complicity.  The audience knows exactly how the plot will turn because they have been in it themselves.  Adultery always has its comeuppance.  Lies are always found out. The greedy and the ambitious always come a cropper.  Love is at best a fiction.  The essence of the soaps’ dramatic tension is not what will happen or if, but how.  While themes remain the same and characters remain recognizably ambitious, deceitful, etc., each is unique.  One is a vixen, another a seductress, a third a villain; and while the overall plots never vary, the stories evolve differently.

Shakespeare understood this perfectly.  He knew that although human nature has never changed – always self-interested, aggressive, territorial, and self-defensive – times, circumstances, and characters themselves are unique enough so that familiar stories are always compelling.  The audience knew their kings quite well.  English history was nothing but endless palace struggles for power, authority, and wealth; but playgoers knew that Henry IV was no Henry V; that Richard II was a far cry from Richard III; and that powerful women, equally ambitious, would use wiles, sex, intimidation, and cunning would always get their way.

Image result for images richard iii olivier

The Elizabethan audience was no different from those watching As The World Turns.  Denouement was a forgone conclusion, but no one knew exactly how in any particular play or melodrama the story would unfold; and like Elizabethan audiences soap opera viewers were never entirely sure that such predestination would always prevail.  Perhaps the adulterer might get away with his deceit; the murderer his crime.  Rarely does this happen on stage because not only does it rarely happen in real life, the audience does not want it to happen.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser is the story of a young ambitious man who, having risen well above his social station, hopes to marry into high society.  An affair with a factory worker leads to her unwanted pregnancy and murder by her lover.  She is disposed of, gotten rid of, and eliminated.   The genius of Dreiser’s plot is not whether or not Clyde will escape justice, but how.  The denouement is certain, but the actual fate of Clyde Griffiths is not.  An American Tragedy is the story of his psychological unravelling, and his persistent, painful attempts to go on with his social life while increasingly panicked by guilt and the thought of execution that holds the reader, not the inevitability of his capture and punishment.  We know that he will be caught, recognize his self-justification and self-serving moralizing, but are never sure how the story will turn out – what the delicious final judgement will look like.

Image result for images cover dreiser american tragedy

While we may say that life’s priorities are social justice, environmental reform, economic equality, and a return to reason and compassion; and while achieving them may be a serious preoccupation, they are simply distractions, diversions, and hobbies.  They are nothing compared issues of marriage, family, and children.  Donald Trump and the climate can wait when children go awry. 

However, while we may think that life is a serious affair, it is not.   How, when looked at from afar – perhaps through the lens of the director of As the World Turns -  can the predictable and predictably melodramatic episodes of family life ever be considered serious?  Anything that is so obvious, so inevitable, so inescapable be anything but daytime television? Our own personal lives may be painful, regrettable, and unremarkable; but observed they are great entertainment.  Life is always lived on at least two levels.

Most philosophers have focused on universal meaning.  Life either is purposeful, worthwhile, or meaningless, ‘nasty, brutish, and short’.  Suffering either is or is not a way to salvation.  Salvation is either predetermined or not.  We live either in the best of all possible worlds or not. Dostoevsky added a divine variable to the equation.  His Grand Inquisitor condemned Christ for children’s suffering, offering promises of salvation but doing nothing to alleviate the misery, penury, and hopelessness of everyday life.

Yet why must there be such a distinction? While political decisions may have consequences, politicians themselves are circus performers, carny barkers, and snake oil salesmen.  While salvation and redemption are no laughing matter. the antics of televangelists and big-top tent revivalists are.  While environmental concerns may be real and consequential, the hysteria of environmentalists is vaudeville at its best.  Donald Trump’s policies may be either far-looking or retrograde, but his performance is pure circus side show.  There has never been a time in American politics when a carnival has come to down and so few people attend.

Looked from the same perspective is a carnival, a delicious soap opera, grand guignol, and theatre of the absurd at its best.

Thornton Wilder had a different vision, more understandable and more common.  Our Town is a play about the people of Grover’s Corners, a small town of simple values and ambitions; but where people take their ordinary lives for granted.  When they die and look down upon themselves and their lives, they feel nothing but regret.  They never paid attention.

Wilder’s perspective was a replay of traditional moral and religious thought.  Life, he said, does have universal value, ignored, and only too late realized. He has taken sides when no sides are to be taken.

Soap opera is not only a wildly popular cultural genre, but an expression of this most rational, amoral conclusion.  Daytime television has no moral or intellectual pretentions; but in its one-size-fits-all universality has hit the nail on the head.  Given but the space between armchair and television, life is a very, very amusing affair.

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