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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Life As Soap Opera–Since When Has American Life Been More Than Soppy Melodrama?

Although Turkish soap opera and many of its lesser imitators have been maligned as treacly, soppy, and not worth the time, there is very little difference between them and ‘serious’ drama.  The best of both deal with love, hate, jealousy, greed, sickness, and murder and as such do what art is supposed to do – share common feelings and experiences and in so doing raise sensibilities about life, death, and living.

Image result for images turkish poster for winter sun turkish soap opera

Tennessee Williams, perhaps America’s greatest playwright, has been criticized as a borderline melodramatist with the tendency to portray overwrought emotions, to write hyper-lyrical and operatic prose to elicit facile and predictable reactions, and to craft plays with Hollywood screenplays in mind while penning the fireworks between Blanche and Stanley or Brick and Maggie; or the tearful longing of Alma for young Dr. Buchanan or Laura for her Gentleman caller.

Yet this not harsh criticism but praise. We remember Williams’ plays not necessarily because of his lambent verse or finely drawn insights into human behavior, but because they are close to our popular, very vernacular lives.

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We remember his plays more than those of Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill, whom many consider far and away the better dramatists because of their realism and social relevance, because they have been acted by Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando.  Williams was quite aware of this, and was very involved in casting.  He was interested like all artists in receipts, popularity, and historical recognition and Hollywood beauty would help assure them.

Williams was an important playwright because he combined lyricism, drama, intrigue, and melodrama.  The audience feels for his characters, empathizes with their struggles and grief, understands them on an emotional, visceral level.  

The blend of brilliant, evocative, powerful writing, a touch of the dying swan and the operatic diva, persistent themes of sex, violence, and madness made his plays unforgettable.  A theatregoer might nod knowingly about the fate of the Tyrones, the Mannons, or the Lomans, but he leaves the theatre tearful about that of Blanche, Alma, or Laura.

The harshest of Williams’ critics – those favoring the more severe, classical plays like Death of a Salesman and dismissing Williams as a second–rate Hollywood screenwriter – have missed the point.  While audiences may watch the slow decline and ultimate tragedy of Willy Loman with empathy and can understand the degrading nature of American capitalist society as the Socialist-leaning Miller presented it, he is remote from their lives.  

Miller has indeed written a modern-day Greek tragedy about the downfall of a hero with a tragic flaw, so deep an irremediable that it causes his ruin and those around him.  Just as Oedipus, Antigone, and Oresteia are remembered more for their moral philosophy and lamentation about human nature than the personal, emotional fate of their protagonists (filed away and forgotten), so are Miller’s Death of a Salesman and All My Sons.

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Perhaps the most easily recalled of Shakespeare’s plays is King Lear because it, like Williams’ works, deals with the nasty and all-to-common reserves of family jealousy and greed.  There is a classical element to King Lear. Unlike Big Daddy Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof who, despite his power, wealth, and authority, is simply a dying man to be manipulated, exploited, and robbed by Maggie and Mae; Goneril and Regan are insidious and evil. 

Central to the play’s classicism is Lear’s own moral myopia which weakens him and makes him vulnerable to the prey of his daughters.

In both cases, however, we easily recall the central dramatic premise of both plays – two ambitious women, a dying old man still hoping to determine his fate, and supporting casts of weak, willing husbands.  While we remember Hamlet, it is because of residual memory, of college classes, and our first encounter with Shakespeare, we cannot forget the seductive wiles of Maggie, the confused sexuality of Brick, or the powerful, surprising love of Big Daddy. 

Such empathy is not because Williams is our contemporary, his and his characters’ struggles modern and understandable; but because of the (melo)dramatic displays of a human nature we recognize all to well in us. 

The reason for the popularity of Turkish soap operas is their canny reenactment of the dramas experienced by all families.  To be sure, their villains are villainous, the plot twists are manipulated by seasoned directors, the intrigues are familiar and never surprises, but this in no way dilutes the emotional impact of the shows.  Operatic excess is part of the recipe for television serials.  Similarly, it is a good reason for watching Williams’ plays.

Looked at from the obverse – these plays are successful, timely, and memorable because we are villainous, melodramatic, impossibly arrogant and greedy, jealous, and seamy. What Turkish dramatists have done is to improve our lot, to trim the most absurd ambitions, the most rutting sexual fantasies, and the most illogical love affairs and craft them into a higher order of drama, something perhaps more fitting, or at least more respectful.  

Soap operas are not trivial.  There are no families that have not experienced the stuff of Kara Sevda or Kuzey, Guney.  No family is exempt from wayward husbands, rotten children, bitches, harridans, and clinging mothers-in-law; from lying, deceit, and dark, permanent grudges and jealousies. .

Life at the top is no different.   There are no tragedies, no epiphanies, no Pauline conversions, no mature coming of age.  All is about excess, glitz, glamour, exceptionalism; mean streets and the Wild West.  

Richard Nixon is certainly grist for the mill of Turkish soap opera with his palace intrigues, festooned praetorian guard, off-with-their-heads rule, deceit, and bald-faced lies; but he is too smarmy for television.  He looks like Uriah Heep, acts like Fagin, and has not one drop of innocence or redemption in him.  ‘One of us, one of us’, goes the refrain of the misfits in the movie, Freaks, and we are all Richard Nixons in the making.  

We are also the shamelessly adulterous, lying politician who used hiking the Appalachian Trail as cover for weekend trysts with an Argentine firecracker, or ‘business trips’ to deter the press from snooping in the rooms of the Mayflower where a former governor had a sexual encounter with Washington’s high-priced hookers; or the fake, staged, tearful ‘confession’ of a shameless evangelical, obvious, sneak.

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If American life under Donald Trump was not a soap opera, a five-star operatic melodrama, then nothing was.  He of yachts, arm candy, resorts, Las Vegas, Hollywood, and the mean streets of New York.  Braggadocio, Borscht Belt humor, indifference to received political wisdom and the decorum of Congress were all his.

He played to the bourgeois, low-brow, slot-machine players and ambitious country crackers. He strutted, paraded, shouted, and waved the American flag, and everyone loved it.  

Now that Joe Biden is in office, a dour sanctimony has replaced the fun and games.  Biden wanders down Pennsylvania Avenue with a fixed smile, a vacant, nobody home stare, and a face mask. 

The American public, save for a few die-hard coffee table liberals, aging followers of Samuel Gompers, women who love marches and solidarity, want Donald Trump back; or if not Trump himself then someone who speaks for them.  They want no agendas, white papers, policy forums, and roundtables, but showgirls, big hairdos, flashy cars, and patriotism.

There is a good reason why Hollywood and Bollywood movies and Turkish, Brazilian, and Mexican soap operas have hundreds of millions of viewers.  We can’t get enough ourselves, especially if we can be dressed to kill, have money, women, and fancy cars.  We are in no mood for Aeschylus.

The world is becoming more American.  French intellectuals try their best to stop the dreck from washing up on Normandy beaches, but no dice.  The French have given up on Sartre, Descartes, and Moliere and finally come down to the common cultural denominator.

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There was a brief moment when the American public had a glimpse of high culture in high places; but an appreciation of the sophistication and good taste of the Kennedy years – Robert Frost, Pablo Casals, and Chippendale furniture – was fleeting and disappeared within the more appealing and American sexual exploits of a tomcatting president.

All this is what makes America exceptional.  We make no bones about our middle-brow tastes.  In fact we glory in them.  This whole business about climate change, Black Lives Matter, the glass ceiling, the gender spectrum is an unpleasant, boring, and tedious distraction.  We are not like these ‘progressives’, intent on ‘making a difference’, changing things, fretting and worrying. 

Soon this miasma will pass and Donald Trump will be back in office; and America will, after only a short hiatus, return to its roots.

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