Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Irna Phllips Would Have Been 108 Today: Her Essay

Irna Phillips was born in Chicago on July 1, 1901, the youngest of ten children. She was educated at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois. She took graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. Miss Phillips also had an adopted son and daughter. She died on December 22, 1973. During her life she created or co-created numerous soap operas for radio and television including AS THE WORLD TURNS, GUIDING LIGHT, DAYS OF OUR LIVES and ANOTHER WORLD. She is considered by many to be the "queen" or "creator" of the daytime serial genre and was a true pioneer in television. Her life has been documented well in numerous articles and I'll link to some of them here.

In honor of Miss Phillips, I would like to share an excerpt from an essay she wrote later in life about soaps. I was sent this piece via snail mail from a fan and there is no date or reference information unfortunately (I believe it's from late 1972 or early 1973). It was a fascinating read.

The modern soap opera is a living thing. It has a pace and pulse and, it sometimes seems, a will of its own. In AS THE WORLD TURNS, for example, the Hughes family is so well established in my mind and the minds of its audience that the family's behavior and responses are largely dictated by what has gone on before. The Hughes family believes in certain values, and it would be uncharacteristic - that is, dishonest - to tamper with those believes in the story. Contrary to popular opinion, the writer of a daytime serial cannot play God, manipulating characters as if they were puppets. The writer who hopes to have a successful series must think of characters as flesh-and-blood entities.

Part of my particular approach to my characters and my program results from my way of working. I never type my stories, nor will I dictate into a tape recorder. Like Scheherazade, I work best before a live audience; and so I dictate to a secretary who takes down what I say, and this gives me the sense of a responding entity out there. Beyond that, I try to put myself into each role. From the time I was a little girl I wanted to be an actress. So when I dictate a script I become all the people. I find great emotional release in this process. I never think of a vast, faceless audience somewhere out there in Televisionland. Rather, I think of myself as my audience and of myself as performer. In the end, I must interest and entertain me or I am unsatisfied. I cannot write about what does not engage my imagination or curiosity.

Where does the serial writer get inspiration? The answer is, from many sources - newspapers, radio (I turn mine on in the early morning), and, of course, from other people. By and large, people are the best source of information about themselves, and I will talk, literally, with everyone. My circle of acquaintances is wide - doctors, lawyers, workingmen, and TV moguls - and I gain something from each of them. I enjoy phoning people who write in to the show. It surprises and pleases them to hear from a live body at the other end of the mails. One correspondent, a music professor in California, wrote to complain that she felt I had hurt the cause of women's liberation in a script that urged one of my characters, a girl named Susan, to remain at home with her child instead of going out to work. The letter writer was astonished to get my call, and we found we were not so far apart as her letter implied.

I have been told that my programs reflect traditional American values - by which I suppose are meant a belief in God, patriotism and the virtues of a cohesive family unit. I suppose that is right, but it is an oversimplification. I also believe in, and try to reflect, some of today's problems and aspirations. I think my young people are "with it," in the sense that they are concerned about things most young people worry about. One of my characters recently graduated from law school. He did not choose a lucrative private practice, he went into neighborhood law - not quite a storefront lawyer, but almost. He is also very much "into" organic foods and the practical, manual skills which so many of today's young people are turning. Or returning.

With these complications have come the added ones of producing a program on television, as opposed to radio. Radio was a perfect medium for presenting drama. It was possible to paint almost any scene, construct any set, arrange any situation simply by leaving things to the imagination of the listener. A train whistle, the hiss of steam, the voice of a train caller and - presto! - you had created Grand Central Station. You might as easily whisk your audience to a city sidewalk or hospital corridor, with a few instructions to the special-effects department. To perform the same tricks in television requires the extra expenditure of thousands of dollars in sets or the movement of your entire crew and cast to a location somewhere. In the end, the result is still not as good as the mental pictures the audience builds for itself from radio.

Still, soap opera is trying to break the bonds that have held it to a studio for all these years. On AS THE WORLD TURNS, for example, we have begun to experiment with location tapings for special events including the wedding of two main characters.

The mechanics of the soap opera have become enormously more complex since the days of radio when I began to write (and act on) my first original, PAINTED DREAMS. I got that assignment when a programming man called and asked if I could write a family situation show. I had never written one, but I replied, "Of course I can." I never said no to anything. In those days we did everything. We wrote the scripts, directed the shows, played the roles, and did the sound effects. It was a wondrously free and creative time. We didn't worry about things like ratings or censorship.

There is much, much more to this amazing essay that I will share over time.

- FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips "Script Queen" 1940
- FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips "With Significance" 1945
- Flashback: The World Has Turned More than 3,200 Times 1968
- FLASHBACK: Phillips Still In Lather Over Soaps 1970
- FLASHBACK: CBS Slipping From Daytime Lead 1972
- A WORLD APART Creator Dies at 65
- 60 Years Ago Today - The First Daytime TV Soap


  1. I think every head writer and exec producer of daytime drama today could use a refresher course in the Irna Phillips/Douglas Marland school of soap opera story-telling.

  2. I agree. Aside from the writing styles, reading the old interviews just makes me realize how much some of these writers CARED about the genre and how much they invested in them and cared about their characters and the audience.