The 'Soaps' Fade But Do Not Die
The daytime radio serial is no more, but devotees of anguish need not despair.
The soap opera survives - with some differences but lots of heart - on TV.
By Thomas Meechan
New York Times
December 4, 1960
The last of the radio soap operas has faded into electronic oblivion. Gone from radio are the daytime serials that once were the staples of the networks, the darlings of the soap and cereal sponsors; that provided empathic drama for twenty million housewives. Gone are Mary Noble, backstage wife of Broadway's most handsome actor, and Our Gal Sunday, lady to Lord Henry Brinthrope, the most handsome and richest of England's nobles.
But soap opera lives in - on television - although in a modified form. There is now a neat afternoon spread to enchant the lives of the listener-viewers between the end of the breakfast dishes and the beginning of dinner preparations. And the titles of some of the new favorites indicated a lot of heart still remains - e.g., AS THE WORLD TURNS, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW, THE SECRET STORM and THE EDGE OF NIGHT.
Before looking at soap opera in its new guise, let us consider what it was in its heyday. The programs, each of which was fifteen minutes long, followed a structural pattern almost as rigid as that of the Shakespearean sonnet. The typical specimen began with an electric organ playing the program's theme music, often something vaguely classical, after which a deep-voiced and almost frighteningly reverent-sounding announcer intoned the name of the program and repeated the epigraph which preceded each day's episode.
In the case of THE ROMANCE OF HELEN TRENT, to take one example, this was the solemn statement that the program's heroine had promised "to prove to herself what so many women long to prove: that because a woman is 35, and more, romance in life need not be over, that romance can live in lire at 35, and after." (For Helen Trent, who was presumably 35, and more, in 1933 when the story first went on the air, romance apparently left life at 55, and after, for it wasn't until just last June and 7,220 daily episodes that the program finally bit the dust.)
More often, though, the epigraph was in the form of a question. OUR GAL SUNDAY, for example, was the story that asked, "Can a girl from the little mining town in the West of Silver Creek, Colo., find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman, England's richest and most handsome lord, Lord Henry Brinthrope?" (The answer to the question, by the way, was "No." With the possible exception of Stella Dallas, no fictional heroine of our time suffered quite so much continued unhappiness as did Lady Sunday Brinthrope.)
Once the preliminaries were out of the way, the announcer swing into the commercial, usually a message extolling the virtues of Duz, Rinso, Super Suds or a similar "washday product." Then he lowered his voice and became a narrator, leading into the day's episode with a whispered sentence or two which set the scene: "It's just after dinner in Rushville Center, and Ma Perkins is in her kitchen talking with her friend Shuffle. As we listen in, a distraught and puzzled Ma is saying ...."
The plot was then under way and the performers were on for the next ten minutes or so, with occasional shifts of scene bridged by organ music, sound effects and a brief word or two from the announcer-narrator. In the land of the soap opera, people spoke at so astonishingly slow a pace that a conversation which might have taken ordinary human beings a scant three minutes could easily fill an entire day's episode. Time, in any case, had a curious way of standing still in the daytime serials - Ma Perkins might sit for three days talking in her kitchen "just after dinner" and Bill Davidson, the small-town barber-hero of JUST PLAIN BILL, often took as long as a week to shave one customer.
The soap opera's plot, invariably turned on some excruciating crisis in the life of one of its characters. This might be a financial or marital crisis, but on most occasions it was something a good deal more dire - John's Other Wife fighting for her life after an automobile accident; Young Widder Brown struck with amnesia; Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, on trial for murder. In the small towns which dotted the map of soap-opera land, there were, on the average, perhaps 300 per cent more automobile accidents, sudden onslaughts of exotic ailments, and murders for which the wrong person was put on trial than there were in any comparable group of small towns in the real world.
In their heyday, the soap operas dominated radio time from 10 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, and the dedicated and more masochistic housewife could listen to as many as twenty-eight a day.
No one was ever able to discover precisely why these women enjoyed the programs, although a number of eminent psychologists and sociologists studied the phenomenon for years in an attempt to find a definitive answer.
A number of these students of American subculture pointed out, however, that the soap opera - dealing as it did with ordinary small-town women and endowing their lives with romance, glamor, mystery and danger - lent vicarious excitement and even a certain dignity to the otherwise drab and degrading life of the housewife, and that this was the reason for the programs' popularity.
There was, too, a second theory that since the life of the soap-opera heroine was so filled with pain and tragedy, the housewife enjoyed the programs because she then felt less anxiety about her own real problems, which seemed trivial in comparison.
Actually, as many psychologists indicated, the programs were continuing morality plays, and had the ancient atavistic appeal of the morality play and of the fairy tale. In the land of the radio soap opera, good always triumphed over bad, justice over injustice, and all heroes and heroines were totally good while all villains and villainesses possessed no redeeming qualities. The stories were simple, easy to follow and, in a sense, timeless.
The question, of course, now inevitably arises: What happened? Why did the radio soap opera become extinct? The answer is a complex one, but the demise is principally the result of the rise of television, and not, as many suspect, because the housewives grew tired of the dramas.
Soap-opera misery has undergone some changes, however, in its transfer to TV. The greatest difference is that because television is visual, the characters and actions have to be more believable. On radio, Thanksgiving dinner would begin on Monday and the turkey and cranberries weren't eaten until Friday, while the characters explained their troubles to the accompaniment of drumsticks dropping and forks banging against the plates. On TV, the whole meal is finished in one sitting.
Again, all those dread diseases and auto accidents and earthquakes obviously cannot take place on camera in the studio. A neat fire in the closet is considered good visual action on TV.
Some of the new plot developments in television would never have happened in radio soaps. A female character on a TV soap, for example, can become pregnant, out of wedlock - a crisis that would have been unthinkable in the days of Big Sister and Aunt Jenny. In this respect, the TV stories have followed the frankness that has invaded other aspects of American entertainment in the past decade. And it is even possible for bad to triumph - temporarily - over good in the TV soaps.
The television serial is a good deal more sensible, plausible and dramatically sound than its ancestor - but, many veteran soap-opera fans feel, somehow less fun. Radio's dream world has been invaded by too much reality. On radio, a woman's pregnancy could last for two years; on TV, a baby is born in a mundane nine months. And people grow old on TV, instead of remaining that same indeterminate age for years. Video heroines smoke and drink and have even been known to utter an occasional "hell" or "damn."
The people in the TV soaps, finally, talk at a normal rate rather the astonishingly slow pace that characterized radio's people. If a housewife lef the kitchen and walked into another room to perform a chore, she would turn up her radio and could still hear what was going on in Rushville Center. The slow action and drawing voices were perfectly adapted to housewife travel from room to room - you could miss several minutes without losing the story line.
The TV soaps require visual presence, though undoubtedly some housewives do following their "GUIDING LIGHT" by turning up the set when leaving the living room - audio without video. Because of the general need for presence before the picture tube, the TV soaps are not likely to reach the vast audience that listened to the soaps on radio.
However, there is some comfort for students of soap opera and nostalgic experts on this American subculture. Cannot an argument be made that the so-called "family" programs during the evening are soap operas, too? The June Allyson, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck shows - if these aren't nighttime soaps, then surely they are first cousins.
The girl next door, the kid brother who lies then gets a lecture from Dad, the Mother who is surprised with the new washing machine, the blond at the office who turns out to be not a vamp but an honor student at State - all these venerable B-picture story lines now gladded the evenings of the whole family after the supper dishes are done. Thus, what the housewife cannot hear by day, she can see at night.
The nighttime series on television are happy soaps, in contrast to the afternoon soaps, which are sad soaps - and both differ from radio's soaps, which were neighborly, miserable and diseased. The old radio slogan, "It takes a heap of trouble to make a house a home," still applies, but not in spades, in the new era of realistic but happy television.