Saturday, July 4, 2009

FLASHBACK: More Wise Words From Irna Phillips

On what would have been Irna Phillips' 108th birthday, I posted an excerpt from an essay she wrote shortly before her death in 1973. By popular demand, here is more from that brilliant essay.

What I try to avoid are fads. Programs that try to stay on top of every turn in the public fancy are doomed to a kind of restless wandering. The writer cannot properly maintain his characterization by this kind of device. Among the daytime dramas now on the networks, it is possible to find several that are engaged in such a hopeless pursuit. One network had murder trials going on in four of its daytime programs at once.

I often listen to other soap operas, not to imitate but to avoid imitation. In many cases, I have shuffled entire synopses because other programs anticipated a plot line that I was considering. But basically I write in a way to please myself. I think the 40 years I have spent writing serials make me a fairly good judge of what plays and what does not.

In a sense, the Nielsen - which, after all, is based on samplings taken in only a limited number of homes in the country - has become a kind of tyrant of the industry. It not only guides the thinking of sponsors and agencies about whether to cancel this program or that, but in the cast of daytime drama it may even dictate what the writer must do with story lines. There is no arguing with the ratings; they stand unassailable in the minds of the network executives and many advertising agencies, who decide how the sponsors' dollars are spent. (I should hasten to add that my own association with my sponsors over the years has been gratifyingly open, honest, and straightforward.) Scheherazade would never have made it throughout a thousand and one nights if Nielsen had been around.

What has kept the audiences involved in daytime drama for all these years? Two great human events were largely responsible for the success of the early years. During the Great Depression and World War II, people had a tremendous need for human contact. Families were drawn closer, even while being rent by the tragedy of privation and war. Communication was important, identification imperative. Daytime drama answered much of the longing these people felt for meaningful and accessible escape and identification. Today, I credit these two elements, plus a third, for the continuing popularity of the daytime serial format. The third factor is a sense of conviction. Taken in order:

1. Escapism. While I reject the theory that the U.S. housewife is a downtrodden and unchallenged slave to her kitchen, I do recognize that her life, as all of ours, contains a degree of tedium and monotony. I think the soap opera listener, therefore, out to be given some insights into other lives and life-styles. She (or he) should be offered the chance to participate vicariously in problem solving, from minor matters such as how to settle a family quarrel to weightier issues such as crime, punishment, and retribution. The listener should be asked to think a little. With it all, there should be some means to achieve the second element:

2. Identification. It is a perilous practice among dramatic writers to allow their situations or characters to become too remote from the average listener. On AS THE WORLD TURNS, for example, I have tried to keep my characters on a life-size scale. They are well off, but not wealthy. They are average in intelligence. My villains (though I reject the concept of the totally irretrievable character) are never so villainous that the listener turns away in disgust. There must be that element of universality in everything - that something that causes the listener to say, "Yes, I have felt that way," or "I have known someone very much like that."

3. Conviction. I suppose there is a little of the evangelist in all of us, and I am no excetion. I have always tried to impart a point of view to my stories, to carry a message, if you will, that I believe is important for the viewer to hear. It is not a heavy-handed message, I hope, but one that comes across only from prolonged exposure to a program like THE GUIDING LIGHT or AS THE WORLD TURNS.

What is the message? Nothing earthshaking. I have tried to let my programs convey my own faith in the family unit - not necessarily the unit of yesterday, but also the possible unit of today and tomorrow. I believe in a stable home, in healthy mental attitudes, in discipline, and in cooperation. The critics say, "But why then do soap operas convey such a sense of overwhelming tragedy, of lives gone wrong?" First of all, I don't believe they do; but as for the tragedy that is seen, I can only point out that unrelenting bliss can be (in dramatic terms) as tedious as unrelenting misery. It is true, however, that there is a school of serial writing that might be characterized as "never a dull moment." I try to leaven my story lines with problems of the sort anyone may encounter from time to time - some of us, to be sure, more often than others. These troubles, or tragedies, are a kind of crucible in which I try to expose the inner strengths and weaknesses of my characters. I ask myself what forms escapism should take - on television or in real life. Many people today simply do not want to face reality, and they look to television to escape it. I believe that answering their need is part of my mission as a writer.

Even Scheherazade must have felt that her storytelling was more than an exercise in lifesaving.


  1. Wow! Just wow! Now we can add Phillips' "three elements" to "Marland's rules".

    Soon, we'll have a concise list of good advice that all the shows disregard nowadays :-).

  2. This essay was especially poignant in light of Guiding Light's cancellation.
    Amazing how the Nielsens still have such power for network execs.
    My favorite bit was the line about Scheherazade.