Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon
January 12, 1976
Sometimes it seems that there is no escape from the world of soap opera. Eileen Fulton, who has played the wicked Lisa on AS THE WORLD TURNS for 16 years, was punched in front of Manhattan's Lord & Taylor by an irate fellow shopper who had confused the TV screen with real life. Said Fulton: "At first I thought she wanted my autograph."
An actor on the mystery soap EDGE OF NIGHT was asked by a physician to stop killing off characters. One of the doctor's patients, a 94-year-old woman, was suffering agony over the deaths of so many people whom she felt she knew.
A few years ago, CBS was obliged to eliminate soap opera characters who were poor because the network was receiving piles of CARE packages. When Susan Seaforth Hayes as Julie of DAYS OF OUR LIVES mulled over an abortion, she was mailed pictures of fetuses. And the endlessly frustrated romance of Alice Matthews and Steve Frame drove fans of ANOTHER WORLD crazy.
"Why don't you let them get married?" wailed one viewer. "Four times I've bought a new dress for the wedding. Four times I've bought champagne."
There are worse problems. After "Squeaky" Fromme's attempted assassination of President Ford, CBS affiliate WTVJ in Miami pre-empted five minutes of EDGE OF NIGHT for a news program. The station's switchboard was immediately ablaze with calls. NBC Miami affiliate WCKT had a similar experience recently when Barbara Walters Visits the Royal Lovers pre-empted THE DOCTORS and DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Sighed an employee:
"Finally we had to say, 'Hey, lady, it's just a story.' " Just a story? Tell that to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who slips away from deliberations to ponder DAYS OF OUR LIVES; to Sammy Davis Jr., who is such a fan of LOVE OF LIFE that he made a guest appearance on it; to former Texas Governor John Connally or Andy Warhol, who are among the 10 million followers of AS THE WORLD TURNS, or to Novelist Dan Wakefield, who often bursts into tears at 12:30 when the plangent music of All My Children wells up. At Princeton, something like a quarter of the student body drops everything to watch THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS each afternoon. When Agnes Nixon, who created a campus favorite, ALL MY CHILDREN, asked a group of Duke University students why they watched the soaps, a young man replied: "It's the only constant in our lives."
In fact, there is a separate nation of more than 20 million Americans who weekly follow, or rather participate in, the soaps.
Critic Renata Adler, who became addicted to ANOTHER WORLD six years ago while ill with laryngitis, explains their loyalty:
"When Lee Randolph died, a suicide who had lingered on for weeks, I watched her face being covered by a sheet, and I was ridden by the event. But it was not at all like losing a character in fiction they become more "relevant" and, sometimes, realistic. Today it is common to see such queasy subjects as abortion, incest, drug addiction and venereal disease meshing with the old, familiar workings of unhappy families. This produces the kind of intense melodrama rarely seen in the evening. Currently, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS is helping a woman through a mastectomy with almost excessive realism. ALL MY CHILDREN recently took six months to describe a child-abuse case; HOW TO SURVIVE A MARRIAGE (now defunct) introduced a precedent-setting seduction scene that ended up with the participants in bed discussing impotence and frigidity.
Such raciness is enticing to viewers—and to advertisers.
The fresher, more daring soaps are pulling younger, more affluent viewers rather than the traditional audience of blue-collar housewives and the retired. There is also a trend to give the soaps more time for their vicissitudes. Last year NBC, in a push for supremacy in TV's richest market, daytime programming, expanded its two blockbuster soaps, DAYS OF OUR LIVES and ANOTHER WORLD, to an hour each, smashing the opposing game shows and half-hour soaps. Last month CBS followed NBC with an hour-long version of AS THE WORLD TURNS. More of the 14 soaps now on the air may soon go to an hour too. This shift in the length of the shows makes the ratings battle particularly fierce, with NBC and CBS juggling schedules to gain an edge.
The networks lose money on many of their prime-time shows; they need the daytime profits, which are now expected to show a healthy increase, to finance the more expensively produced evening programs. A show like Kojak costs $250,000 to produce but brings in revenues of only $200,000. To make one week of DAYS OF OUR LIVES costs NBC $170,000; daily advertising revenues are $120,000.
One of the ironies of the soaps' success is that nobody who works during the day can see them. What has become a persistent threnody in American life is shaped by housebound women, students, hippies and the unemployed. This ghettoization of the soaps has kept them freer of the kind of systematic analysis frequently made of sources of popular culture like comic strips and rock music. But now, after more than 40 years of near invisibility, soaps are gaining academic attention. Colleges are offering courses on them. They are being claimed as heirs to the 18th century tradition of the picaresque romantic novel. Others think Daniel Defoe started it all with Moll Flanders. This week, the soaps receive what intellectuals might consider the ultimate accolade: a serious parody. Norman Lear's spoof, MARY HARTMAN! MARY HARTMAN! will start airing on 90 independent stations—often scheduled opposite the very shows it is spoofing.
Seen one, seen 'em all, say cynics. For all their huge popularity and moneymaking capacity, the soaps are something of a mystery hit. For the uninitiated, there is only one word that really describes them: weird. To watch a soap is to be drawn into an enclosed and not particularly welcoming world.
Take the circumstances of AS THE WORLD TURNS, the quintessential "coffee table" drama that is all talk. The tent-pole characters—good, decent people on whom a plot may safely be hung —are Chris Hughes, a lawyer, and his wife Nancy. They are a sixtyish couple living out their days in trauma. Their son, Dr. Bob, is Job. The night he had an argument with ugly Norman Garrison, husband of Bob's second wife Sandy, Norman collapsed with a heart attack, and Bob's current wife Jennifer was killed in a car crash. Later, Norman also died. Meanwhile, Superbitch Lisa, Bob's first wife and once the most hated woman on TV, has a fourth husband, Grant Coleman, and has mellowed. Bob's son Tom is married to the scheming Natalie, whom he defended in court. Bob's sister-in-law, pretty Kim, is married to nasty Dr. John Dixon, who has spent years trying to stop her from running off with handsome Dr. Dan Stewart. Last summer a tornado helped him; it knocked Kim down, causing amnesia.
Now she cannot remember loving Dan.
Things are just as bad over at the Hortons in DAYS OF OUR LIVES —but nipper. Venerable Dr. Tom Horton is presiding over four generations of chaos. His wife's religious faith is wavering.
His eldest son Dr. Tom Jr. has recovered from amnesia. His second son Mickey still has amnesia and is now called Marty Hanson. Dr. Tom Sr.'s granddaughter Julie has been married twice. Recently she fell downstairs, and the baby she was carrying died. Julie is really in love with her late mother's husband Doug Williams. She cannot marry him because she feels guilty. Doug has entered an artificial insemination program so that his child by Julie's mother may have a playmate. Unknown to him, his housekeeper has arranged to be the child's mother. Julie's son David is now living with a struggling black family, the Grants, and falling in love with Daughter Valery.
His abandoned girl friend Brooke tried to commit suicide. This month a couple who are indecisive about their sexual preferences will be introduced.
It appears that the facts of ordinary life must be abandoned when watching the soaps. There are more doctors than there are patients to treat. Amnesia is a plague. Neighbors are not friendly; they are sharks. Despite the melodrama, the surface proprieties are strictly observed; no one, for example, ever swears.
There are no formal meals in soaps—everyone eats snacks. The main job of the characters is to repeat the plot. Sometimes time stops. One woman spent 17 days in a revolving door having flashbacks. Christmas means tragedy, the time when the soaps' already high body count rises. Women are interchangeable blondes who shuttle between two roles: Mother Mary and Lilith. The strongest, in fact the only motivation is love, and the dynamic is fate. Moral principles are enunciated only when they are about to be discarded.
Despite the Pill and abortion, pregnancy still automatically tends to follow fornication. Pregnancy itself is an uncharted condition. One valiant mom expected for 18 months. Once they are born, children are as precocious as the zombies in Village of the Damned. Overnight they turn into voting-age monsters.
The most startling physical characteristic of a soap is its sound. Soaps keen. The plots jerk along in a series of moans.
Years ago, when radio serials were somewhat thin, actors were told to speak in "soap count," a half-step tempo. Thus many characters slur their speech, which suggests a speech impediment or drunkenness. The latter should never be discounted; social drinking seems moderate, but alcoholism now rates as soapland's top personal problem.
Bold analysts of the genre like to call soaps "the people's Iliad" a reference to the gloomy outcome of every story.
Characters suffer fates that would challenge a classical god. Poor Elizabeth Stewart died a couple of days after her marriage on AS THE WORLD TURNS when she fell upstairs and ruptured her liver. On THE DOCTORS, the sinister Dr. Allison killed himself in order to throw the blame on a successful rival. Later in the same show, an urbane psychiatrist, Dr. Morrison, drove his nurse to suicide so that she would not report his criminal behavior.
There is reason, other than art, for these fates. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, then soaps are contrived in a public meeting—writers, producers and the public all pitching in. At a hint of disapproval from the audience, the snappiest soap plot can collapse.
A few years ago, SEARCH FOR TOMORROW introduced a story involving a predominantly black youth center. The audience did not like it, and it was quickly dropped.
This is understandable. Soaps were originally intended to be nothing more than subliminal salesmen. Back in 1933, when their first successful soap, Oxydol's Own MA PERKINS, was aired in Chicago, Procter & Gamble's commercials were skillfully buried in the plot. Writers prided themselves on a seamless blend of message and drama. Irna Phillips, the seminal soap writer who dominated the genre for 40 years, even thought she should forgo her credit to enhance the shows' realism. It was Phillips who anchored the soap to the family and peopled it with professionals. The youngest of an Iowa grocer's ten children, she used her grasp of the powerful mythologies that fill family life to enliven even the most banal script. Four of her shows—DAYS OF OUR LIVES, AS THE WORLD TURNS, ANOTHER WORLD, and THE GUIDING LIGHT—are still running, though she died, at 70, in 1973.
The latter three soaps are owned by Procter & Gamble, which remains convinced that Phillips' homely style requires no updating. The last big-time soap sponsor, P&G runs the shows from Cincinnati with Kremlin-like authority. P&G's six serials (which also include EDGE OF NIGHT, SOMERSET and SEARCH FOR TOMORROW) are reworkings of conventional material and have little of the dash of the newer dramas. "I guess we're awfully dull," admits Joe Willmore, who directs the writers of AS THE WORLD TURNS. "I hate to say it, but I don't want to preach to people about social mores. I want to be largely accepted."
Writers are the kingpins of the soaps. William J. Bell, who writes what the trade calls the "bible"—or twelve-month outline —for DAYS OF OUR LIVES, and scripts for his own soap, THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS, earns more than $1 million a year. Patricia Falken-Smith, DAYS OF OUR LIVES head writer, takes home $250,000, plus $35,000 just for "thinking creatively." The two senior writers under her make up to $100,000 each. Bell is probably even richer than Agnes Nixon, the writer who has welded Phillips' home truths to such trendy themes as cervical cancer, racial prejudice and drug addiction. Nixon has at one time or another written almost every soap and created two: One Life to Live and ALL MY CHILDREN, the thinking man's soap that has a 30% male audience. She is the soaps' crusader: ALL MY CHILDREN went to Viet Nam and is now into women's liberation. After considerable tension, a young black couple have agreed to live in different cities for five days a week so they can pursue their different careers as doctor and social worker. Nixon's most memorable creation, however, was a traditional type, Rachel, the Circe of ANOTHER WORLD. In 1966, when Nixon arrived at WORLD, the show was in trouble. Within a year she had introduced Rachel as a bewitching homewrecker and one of the soaps' durably popular villainesses.
How does one write a successful soap opera? Characterization is the key to a soap's success. When William Bell first thought of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS in 1973, he had in mind only the poor Foster family supported by a wrung-out mom, and the quartet of well-to-do, glamorous Brooks sisters, mired in sibling rivalry. "I look for things that touch people's lives," he explains. "I'm disappointed if my shows don't produce tears from the audience three times a week." Agnes Nixon defines the difference between daytime and prime-time drama as "the suffering of consequences." There is no time at night to experience the result of foolish actions; during the day, that is all there is to do.
It is not true, as is often rumored, that plots are lifted whole from old Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford movies. "I get plots from my own life," says Falken-Smith, 50. "I've been married three times and been around. Most people I know are living soap operas." Falken-Smith got the idea for the DAYS OF OUR LIVES artificial-insemination plot from an ad in the San Francisco Examiner offering $10,000 to a woman who would bear a child to a man married to a barren wife.
Soap bibles are increasingly complicated. In the '50s Agnes Nixon wrote five shows a week. "No one could do that today. Characters do not sit around their coffee cups like they used to," she says. The hour-long format "places a 500% extra pressure on writers," says Falken-Smith. Friday is the most important episode of the week; a cliffhanger is necessary to induce viewers to come back after the weekend. On the slower soaps, it is the only day anything ever happens. Falken-Smith often writes DAYS OF OUR LIVES Friday installments herself; they have recently included a miscarriage, an attempted suicide and a disappearance.
Constructing a week's shows requires the concentration of a Bobby Fischer. Charts of the characters and the available actors (each actor is guaranteed a minimum number of appearances a week) guide the writers as they work. It is an axiom among writers that leading characters' personalities change every two years —that is to say, under their same name. The head writer breaks down the bible's dense plot into brief outlines, which are then turned into scripts by the writers. The dialogue must be virtually flub-proof. Actors move ceaselessly—with the equipment and with their colleagues — so syllables are few and speeches short and clear.
The shows themselves are usually taped only a week in advance. Says Falken-Smith: "If a rival show suddenly pulls a big rating, you've got to be able to counter it with a shift in plot of your own."
Under such pressures, it is not surprising that writers suffer from amnesia too.
It has happened that a woman who underwent a hysterectomy years ago suddenly becomes a mother; nor has it been unknown for a man to marry his sister, revealed years before to have been his father's illegitimate child. DAYS OF OUR LIVES writers literally abandoned Dr. Tom's eldest son, an amnesiac who lusted openly but unknowingly after his sister Marie, finally driving her to a nunnery. Then he went upstairs to bed. That was more than two years ago. Last month he came downstairs. Days' cast expected him to say: "What's for breakfast? I'm famished."
Writers often lose a character for a while or injure him for plot purposes or to test popularity. Last spring Millionaire Mack Corey, the indulgent husband of Rachel on ANOTHER WORLD, was injured in a polo match and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down so his wife would be tempted to fool around. A similar ploy was used by Bell on THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS. When Jennifer Brooks went off with a lover, she went out of focus. Says Bell: "I knew I had to pull back. How more dramatically than to put her on center stage?" Jennifer left her lover and got breast cancer.
Viewers have been writing to Jennifer Brooks about her operation. Actress Dorothy Green has received the letters some what nervously: "It's creepy. I almost feel I had the mastectomy." To be a soap star is to live a double life. "I was paged in an airport by my real name," says Edward Mallory, who has played the troubled Dr. Bill Horton on DAYS OF OUR LIVES for the past ten years, "and I ignored the page. Most of my life I am Bill Horton." Sometimes this goes beyond a joke. David Rounds, who played a suspected child molester, Phil Donnelley, on LOVE OF LIFE for two years, suffered a hiatal hernia brought on by the strain of acting a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Other trials await actors too. Things are slightly less hectic now that the shows are taped. But a complete show must still be rehearsed, blocked and taped within twelve hours. Actors frequently call each other by their real names on-camera or get so confused by stage blocking that they walk through fake walls. Says Art Wolf, a director of ANOTHER WORLD, the most elaborate soap: "The most difficult thing is putting an hour show together so fast." WORLD has 37 sets, a live band and a discotheque; logistics alone requires a small army of a crew. The action is reminiscent of early Hollywood. "You can't spend time refining," says Wolf. "The most important thing is to develop a relationship between the actors." At best, this is tricky: fearful of being confused in the unforeseeable and fast-changing soap milieu, most actors do not learn their lines until the night before.
Oldtimers like Mary Stuart of SEARCH FOR TOMORROW earn $100,000 a year. The average actor takes home $35,000—about what many Broadway stars get. "I got to talking to Julie Harris a few years ago," says Michael M. Ryan, a veteran soap actor who is now John Randolph in ANOTHER WORLD, "and that was what she earned that year. I was horrified." Now Ryan believes that the soaps subsidize Broadway: "If it weren't for them, there would be no actors left in New York." In Los Angeles, where GENERAL HOSPITAL, DAYS OF OUR LIVES and THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS are made, a soap job is almost equally important. Three hundred and fifty actresses showed up recently for a Days audition.
They did not come just for the money. Currently, soaps offer women the widest range of roles available. Still, nobody starts out with soaps as a goal. "When I first went into soaps," recalls Victoria Wyndham, who plays the femme fatale Rachel, "I didn't tell my serious acting friends. I thought they'd laugh. But now I'm proud of my work; some of the best acting, best moments are in this medium."
Many stars, including Ellen Burstyn, Warren Beatty, Lee Grant and Sandy Dennis, have passed through the soaps. Even Lee Strasberg has something nice to say about them: "It's good training; you learn to improvise because you don't know what's going to happen next."
Fans find out what is happening to their favorites through a dozen-odd soap magazines. Daytime TV is the largest and purest: it has a 380,000 circulation and discusses only soaps. Mostly the stories are breathless accounts of stars' offscreen habits and romances. Item: Carolee Campbell is leaving her role in THE DOCTORS to pursue her interest in the martial arts. Last year the mags had some real meat to chew. ANOTHER WORLD Actor George Reinholt, the soaps' bad boy, had so many off-camera tantrums that enraged Head Writer Harding Lemay wrote him out of the show.
That was an impolitic move. Reinholt and Actress Jacquie Courtney (Alice Frame) had become the serials' second hottest lovers (after DAYS OF OUR LIVES' Doug and Julie). Soon after, Jacquie was dumped too. George and Jacquie took the row to the pages of Daily TV Serials. Now George and Jacquie are back together on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, and their onscreen love affair has already pumped the ratings.
Far more modest than the magazines is the Daytime Serial Newsletter ($8 per year; 20,000 subscribers), put out monthly by Bryna Laub, a California housewife. With eight television sets in her house, she tapes each show for later transcription. The idea for Newsletter was her husband's: after Bryna had spent hours on the phone updating her working women friends on their favorite serials, he cried in frustration, "Why tell them for free?
Charge them and you can make a fortune!"
Will the irreverent MARY HARTMAN! MARY HARTMAN! inspire the same kind of fevered loyalty? The first episodes feature exhibitionism, mass murder and impotence. Louise Lasser plays pliable Mary as if in a permanent coma. A fast and funny show, Mary Hartman! underscores the euphemistic nature of the soaps: terrible things may happen, but it is the emotional reaction to them that is emphasized.
But cracking jokes is kidding yourself, and this is bound to bring MARY HARTMAN! a different audience from the people who enjoy taking the real soaps seriously. In fact, all soaps are a solitary trip on which the individual viewer's imagination is given free rein. No two fans ever understand a soap situation quite the same way.
This nebulous quality ultimately makes the characters baffling. Women are at once narcissistic and manipulative as well as sturdy, realistic survivors. Men are both fatherly providers and wicked seducers. Critic Leslie Fiedler, who is faithful to ALL MY CHILDREN, theorizes that soaps are antimale. "First, they show how men exploit women, and second, in a crisis the men are impotent." This may help explain the soaps' unique aspect. Nowhere else in life or drama are both men and women seen to be equally interested in emotional relationships. Psychiatrist Robert Coles, who frequently watches the soaps with the blue-collar and poor families who are the subjects of his studies, thinks they have a philosophic impact. He recalls a working-class woman "who sits down to watch a soap, then turns it off and asks herself what is really the existential question: What is life all about?"
The British serial Upstairs, Downstairs (which will start its third season on public television this week) does not do that. Like the soaps, it is a dense family drama, but there the resemblance ends. Upstairs, Downstairs reflects a society in which masters and servants are bound to each other by shared and common memories. There is an intimacy, both abrasive and comforting, that precludes abandonment, despair and uncontrollable passions. Soap operas, on the other hand, are folk tales that tug at the soul of a nation of strangers for whom television itself is a bond. Tolstoy thought that unhappy families were unhappy in different ways. But a Madison Avenue philosopher, selling sex and suffering in the afternoon, remarks: "Show me an unhappy home and I'll show you a home that doesn't like television."
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