Tuesday, December 23, 2008

From the Pickwick Papers to Passions

For the holidays, I thought I'd share three "gifts". Seriously, they have been gifts to me...they are excerpts from a remarkable book from 1987. The book accompanied a museum exhibition on the history of the soap opera in the United States (and, to some extent, internationally).

The excerpts that follow in this first post (more to come on other days) come from a historical article, entitled "Serial Seduction", by Ron Simon, who curated the exhibit. The article is a tremendous resource, providing a genuine critical review of the soap genre's history from the emergence of serial (English) fiction to the present (well, 1997). The article comes from this (sadly) out of print book. I urge you to get a remaindered copy though...the whole book, from cover to cover, is an awesome read for fans of the genre.

The second post is here.

There is method in the madness of my posting this: I'll come back in my next post to talk about some of the "lessons learned" in this article and how -- again, as with Marland's rules -- they often seem to be ignored.

The remainder of this post is quoted excerpts from that source.


Prelude


Is it possible that Irna Phillips, the former schoolteacher who became the doyenne of the soap opera, was somehow influenced by philosopher George Santayana's dictum, "another world to live in ... is what we mean by having a religion," as she created and then developed the daytime serial over forty years? Phillips certainly approached the genre with a spiritual discipline and intensity, and in 1964 even titled one other creations Another World. More than any other art form, the soap opera creates an alternative world, where the characters and their environment seem to exist in a parallel dimension. Unlike individual works of art—a poem, novel, or film— which require Coleridge's temporary "suspension of disbelief," the serial demands ongoing belief and a daily commitment from the follower. Such surrender to an imaginative universe has engendered a loyalty and devotion that supersedes all rules of engagement: perhaps that is one reason why the soaps and their enthusiasts have been treated with suspicion, and sometimes contempt. The well-made classical work of fiction is conscious of its structure: exposition in the beginning leads to a well-reasoned middle, culminating in the catharsis of the denouement. The never-ending soap, however, is a relentless series of beginnings and middles, without any final resolutions. The soap's characters take on a life of their own, often growing beyond the intentions, and even the lifetime, of the original author. When Guiding Light turned sixty in 1997, the serial had already outlived its creator, Irna Phillips, by twenty-three years. As they say, "life is short, and art is long," but how did an art get this long?


Since the beginning of mass culture at the turn of the nineteenth century, authors and entrepreneurs have tried to hook an audience and keep it coming back for more. Magazines, books, comic strips, and films have all employed a serial narrative to actively engage consumers. The soap opera was an invention of American radio, perhaps the only new term created by the media. Critic Gilbert Seldes thought that the serial was "[radio's] single notable contribution to the art of fiction."- This new form offered writers no temporal restrictions and thus the ability to achieve a whole new way of storytelling with a realism unheard of in any other art. Over time, the daily soap exploited the defining quality that made radio and then television distinct from other artistic experiences: their pervasive presence in the home, day in and day out. Characters could live, love, and die, experiencing the same happiness and hardships through the years as their audience. No doubt this is why a special kinship arose between soap characters and the listeners and viewers, a relationship so intense that psychologists have been analyzing the bond for more than fifty years.


It is certainly not the nature of a genre to have a single inventor, but the soap opera comes close, having been suffused from the beginning with the philosophy of Irna Phillips. More than sixty-five years after her first serial aired on radio, most of the television soaps can be traced back directly to Phillips and her disciples. How Phillips came to engender the serial tradition in broadcasting is a story worthy of the master herself. And like much that she wrote, it still continues today.


The Serial Narrative Before Radio


One can date the start of the serial narrative as we understand it from 1836, when publishers Chapman and Hall offered fledging newspaper columnist Charles Dickens the opportunity to sustain a story in monthly installments to accompany the illustrations of popular cartoonist Robert Seymour. Dickens was asked to write about the comic exploits of a metropolitan club whose members would include character types that mirrored the new urban population. Publishers had issued completed stories in serial installments before, but this was the first time that a story was published without the ending in sight. The Pickwick Papers became the 1830s equivalent of a pop culture phenomenon. The publishers had at first set a print run of four hundred copies; by the end they were printing forty thousand. One contemporary commentator wrote that "needy admirers flattened their noses against the booksellers' windows eager to secure a good look at the etchings and to peruse every line of the letterpress that might be exposed to view, frequently reading aloud to applauding bystanders ... so great was the craze." From that point on, the serial narrative combining the word and the image has thrived.


In America in 1850, Harper's Monthly magazine inspired the development of the serialized novel, and American readers found themselves immersed in the continuing tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Henry James. As in England, readers identified with the characters and actively sought out fellow subscribers to discuss what was going to happen next. In fact, many publications had a regular forum that allowed readers to offer their feelings on the developing action. Such camaraderie has been part and parcel of the serial narrative ever since, as anyone in a soap opera chat room on the Internet can testify. At the turn of the century the serial narrative was further popularized in daily newspapers through comic strips, descendants of the drawings that accompanied the Dickens installments. One of the earliest "funnies," A. Mutt (later to become Mutt and Jeff), was conceived by Harry Conway "Bud" Fisher and began running in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1907, appearing seven days a week. Fisher understood the power of the comics to bring readers back morning after morning. Increasingly, he showed his protagonist, compulsive gambler Augustus Mutt, engaging in activities that could be resolved in future strips.


The next advance in comic strip serials involved a penetrating look at everyday family life. Cartoonist Sidney Smith and his publisher Captain Joseph Patterson of the Chicago Tribune conceived The Gumps to be a visual equivalent of Theodore Dreiser's social-realist novels. The Gumps were a typical American family yearning to experience the prosperity of the Jazz Age. Smith wanted "everyday things to happen to them,"'' which found a resonance in the audience. When one of the characters died after her wedding was disrupted, there was an outpouring of emotion across the nation.


Print and pictures also coalesced in a serial narrative for the movies. Charles Dwyer, editor of The Ladies' World, involved his magazine readers in a contest to predict the fate of virginal heroine Mary, whose fictional story, featuring a portrait by Charles Dana Gibson, appeared in a 1912 issue. Dwyer joined forces with Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope Company, and Mary's adventures were soon presented monthly both in print and film. Noticing the public's enthusiasm, the Chicago Tribune combined a continuing newspaper scenario with a biweekly screen version of The Adventures of Kathlyn, spawning a cycle of women-in-peril imitations. The serial, thus, became a part of regular moviegoing, especially for adolescents, who enjoyed the continuing exploits of such heroes as Tarzan and Dick Tracy, who were also comic strip favorites.


The Serial Comes to Radio


Much of the mystique of radio derived from the compelling power of the individual voice. Think of the intimate chats of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the crooning of Bing Crosby, or the harangues of Father Charles Coughlin. But no single person, regardless of how artful, can sustain an audience day in and day out. Dialogue between two people, however, has been the basis of daily radio serials for many years. The roots of the serial lie in the intimate conversation of two characters eavesdropped on by an entire nation: Amos and Andy, Ma Perkins and one of her daughters, Reverend Ruthledge and a parishioner of The Guiding Light.


The serial first came to radio in 1926, when the Chicago Tribune decided to bring a comic strip and its daily newspaper audience to its station, WGN. The Gumps, those middle-class dreamers, were chosen. Two veterans of touring comedy and minstrel shows, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, were approached to lend their voices. The two performers, however, proposed another series more in keeping with their training. They suggested a serial about two poor black Southerners, Sam and Henry, who were forced to migrate to the big city. The Gumps went on the air without them, but for two years Sam 'n' Henry was broadcast six nights a week in ten-minute episodes. In 1928 Gosden and Correll wanted to syndicate the show nationally, so they left WON to create a similar series, called Amos 'n' Andy, for a competing radio station, an NEC affiliate, owned by the Chicago Daily News. As audiences identified with the economic hardships of the two displaced Georgians, Amos 'n Andy became broadcasting's first mass phenomenon, a nightly ritual for most of the nation. Radio writers began to copy the Amos 'n Andy formula and created programs with fictional locales peopled with characters who reflected universal emotions: Paul Rhymer evoked the entire small town of Crooper, Illinois, through his characters Vie and Sade; Carlton Morse delineated the Barbour clan of Sea Cliff, San Francisco, in One Man's Family; and Gertrude Berg, creator of The Goldbergs, made millions of listeners care about a poor Jewish family on New York's lower East Side.


Nearly all of this earliest radio programming was scheduled in the evening, because executives were concerned that housewives would not be able to concentrate on a program while performing their chores. During the formative years, radio was, as one scholar has noted, an "evening, family, and father-controlled entertainment."' That soon changed as the home products manufacturer General Mills looked for ways to integrate information about the home into an instructional program for women. In 1926 the food company created the character "Betty Crocker" to give daily hints on how to shop and take care of the home more efficiently. The late twenties saw a boom in these specialized programs for women. NBC created The Women's Magazine of the Air to combine ideas and entertainment of "genuine inspiration and help." Procter & Gamble became one of the main sponsors of the series and advertised three times during the week: health and beauty on Monday, underwritten by Camay soap; "Crisco Cooking Lessons" on Thursday, spotlighting "everyday dishes that are new, simple and different" and Ivory Flakes' fashion trends on Friday. The manufacturer encouraged listeners to request companion guide booklets, which further connected the audience to the program.


Irna Phillips


Now enters Irna Phillips, the former teacher who was struggling to break into radio as an actress. She began her career as host of the inspirational show Thought for a Day for Chicago Tribune's WGN in 1930. Station executives were not satisfied with her thespian talents and suggested that she take a crack at scriptwriting to create a serial along the lines of their previous successes, The Gumps and Sam 'n Henry. Phillips melded several key elements in her work—the structure of the serial, the homey philosophy of the woman's program, and aspects other own lonely, introspective life—to create one of the most resilient genres of broadcasting, the soap opera. Few writers would have such an impact on the history of radio and television: Phillips's disciples, Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell, have kept her paradigm going after more than sixty-five years. Despite this achievement, Phillips has gone largely unrecognized outside the scope of daytime radio and television broadcasting. She is not mentioned in Eric Barnouw's sweeping history of the mediums, and her one-time bosses, David Sarnoff at NBC Radio and William S. Paley of CBS Television, give no credit to one of their key moneymakers in their autobiographies.


Phillips's first series, Painted Dreams, debuted unsponsored in the fall of 1930. In it, she formed the bedrock of all the soaps that followed—a core family surviving the trials and tribulations of daily life. Phillips focused on the role of Mother Moynihan, a part she played herself, who oversaw a large family and ran a boardinghouse. The scripts emphasized the domestic sphere and personal relationships; Mother Moynihan's biggest worry was the future of her youngest daughter Irene, who fancied herself a modern girl, ambitious for a successful career very much like the creator herself. The tensions between the old and new ways of life were played out in a series of interlocking story lines as characters grasped for their own happiness. Phillips was also shrewd enough to develop ideas that might interest potential sponsors, arguing that for any radio series to be a "utility to its sponsor, [it] must actually sell merchandise; otherwise the object of radio advertising has failed." Among other story elements, Phillips conceived of an engagement and wedding that offered the possibility for product tie-ins.


With a good head for business, Phillips saw the national possibilities for her daily serial and wanted to sell it to one of the networks. She took WGN to court over their claim to the copyright of Painted Dreams, but lost the case. Then, acting as an independent producer, she retooled her concept for the NBC Chicago affiliate WMAQ and created Today’s Children for national network broadcast. The program's opening epigram delineates a major principle of all soap opera: "And today's children with their hopes and dreams, their laughter and tears, shall be the builders of a brighter world tomorrow." Mother Moynihan became Mother Moran, but in Phillips's mind both were modeled on her own mother. So closely were reality and the fictional world intertwined for the creator that when her mother died in 1938, a heartbroken Irna Phillips decided to do the unthinkable in the soap world—she canceled her own serial.


In 1937 Phillips, wanting to capture "life as most of us know it," created her "never-ending" saga, The Guiding Light, which has become the longest-running drama in broadcasting history. In the first incarnation of the serial—the life and times of a nonsectarian minister, Dr. John Ruthledge, and his flock in small-town Five Points—Phillips fully realized the essence of the soap opera: a continuous series of first and second acts, with a complex juggling act of dominant and secondary stories that never reach a final denouement. A year after the series began Phillips supervised publication of a companion volume for fans that traced the backstory (the unwritten history that exists before a soap goes on) of The Guiding Light (Ed: Oh how I'd love to see this book), "authored" by the fictitious Dr. Ruthledge. In it she made clear that each character's pain and confusion is interlocked with others in the community. Rose Kransky, for example, born of Jewish parents but refusing to define herself by orthodox rules (very much a reflection of Irna herself), was nurtured by her friendship with Mary Ruthledge, the Reverend's daughter. If Phillips felt the pain of Rose Kransky, her alter superego was Ruthledge, whose philosophy was that "no matter how difficult your problems may be ... others have been faced with the same obstacles, and with faith and determination and courage have managed to overcome them."10


By the early forties Irna Phillips was assigned the mantle "Queen of the Soap Opera" by the press. She served as independent producer of her work, packaging entire programs for a sponsor, generally Procter & Gamble, the genre's leading impresario. Working on several serials at the same time, she was generating two million words a year, the equivalent of approximately twenty-five novels. When five serials became too taxing, Phillips hired assistant writers to fill in the dialogue after she blocked the story, but she continued to be the wellspring of plot devices, one of which became a staple of the genre, the amnesia story line. To get them to tune in again, she once said she liked to "cliff-hang" her audience.


There was such a defined universe to a Phillips serial that three of her stories were programmed consecutively to constitute The General Mills Hour, which ran for one year in 1945. Within this larger narrative framework Phillips allowed her characters to drift from serial to serial. One of the remaining examples of this experiment of running together programs that are connected by the characters and themes of one creator is a remarkable self-reflexive deliberation on the nature of the soap opera. In the broadcast of May 7, 1945, the eve of V-E Day, Phillips has a character, a World War II veteran, produce a radio drama about his own disability. The fictitious broadcast is listened to and discussed by the other characters in all three serials, who comment that radio stories "taken out of life" can help make "their own" lives better.


The Hummerts and the Serial Factory


Frank and Anne Hummert provide a fascinating contrast to Irna Phillips. Frank Hummert had been working in copywriting and advertising when he noticed "the success of serial fiction in newspapers and magazines." In the early thirties, he decided to translate that serial narrative to the infant medium of radio. He wanted his radio dramas to accommodate the daily pattern of the homemaker, but at the same time to offer a release into the world of romance and fantasy—very different from the "real" world of Irna Phillips. He worked with his assistant Anne Ashenhurst (whom he married in 1935) and writer Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews to devise fantasies to help alleviate the boredom and repetition of ritualistic housework. By the mid-forties the Hummerts were producing twelve serials a day and were operating what was derided as a soap opera mill, which now might be considered the prototype for a television soap opera's writing staff, where various aspects of the scripts are written by different people.


Each Hummert serial answered a basic rhetorical question, around which multiple plots were woven. For Our Gal Sunday the question was "can this girl from a small mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?" In Backstage Wife the audience learned what it meant for Mary Noble, the small-town Iowa girl, "to he the wife of a famous Broadway star, dream sweetheart of a million other women." Most of the Hummert plots focused on the gap between the wealthy and the aspiring middle class, bringing comfort to millions of listeners who were struggling with the reality of deprivation, first during the depression years and then World War II. A notable example is the Hummerts' 1938 adaptation of the 1937 film Stella Dallas. In the Barbara Stanwyck movie, the self-sacrificing mother is resigned to wait outside the gates of a mansion, feeling she is not good enough to attend her daughter's wedding to the son of the wealthy family. The Hummerts reconcile that disjunction in their fantasy world, and the mother, still obviously from a lower class, feels right at home in the grand Grosvenor mansion and helps both the upstairs and downstairs characters with their problems. Thus, the Hummerts did not try to reflect reality, but rather to improve it, or, as Frank Hummert stated, to paint "against the canvas of everyday American life."


The Daytime Controversy


During the early forties there were more than seventy daytime serials on the air, listened to by approximately half of all women at home. Beginning in 1939, the genre was regularly referred to as "soap opera" by the press, mocking these sentimental tales that were sponsored almost exclusively by manufacturers of household products, especially cleansers. Educators and psychologists were disturbed by the morbid content of the soaps, also called "washboard weepers," and tried to analyze why the audience was habitually addicted to endless stories of calamity and unhappiness. As the country prepared for war, cultural critics theorized that all the suffering on the airwaves was undermining the moral fiber of American womanhood. New York psychiatrist Dr. Louis Berg compared the repetitiveness of the soaps to Hitler's propaganda machine, claiming that each was corrupting the human nervous system.


In the wake of the widespread success of the soaps, a small industry trying to understand the effects of long-term listening began to flourish. Paul Lazarsfeld, director of the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University, discovered two almost contradictory gratifications that women received from the soaps: the first, pure escapism, removed the listener from the drudgery of daily life; and the second, moral guidance, helped the housewife solve her own personal problems. In examining the audience, various studies sponsored by the networks proved that there was little difference in social and cultural activities between listeners and nonlisteners.


Although fantasy remained a consistent aspect of soaps, during World War II the radio serial matured to create more story lines about the realities of wartime. Stella Dallas worked in a munitions factory; one of Ma Perkins's sons died on the European battlefield. The real change in the radio serial, however, came after World War II, and not from reformers hut from the television industry, when major daytime sponsors such as General Mills and Pillsbury were lured to the new medium, leaving a major vacuum in the radio schedule. Without the hacking of a single advertiser, radio networks experimented with programs that attracted multiple sponsors, including talk and variety programs. By the mid-fifties, many broadcasting executives felt the serial was a product of depression America and had outlived its usefulness, although the radio soap lingered on until 1960.


The Soap Opera on Television


Despite the serial's proven success in magazine publishing, at the movies, and on radio, there was genuine resistance by television executives to employ the form. One of the visionaries of early television, NBC president Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, felt that the old radio soap opera technique would not work in a visual medium "because of the higher absorption and tension demands of television over radio."' Prime-time entertainment first hit its stride in 1948 with the success of Milton Berle's translation of vaudeville to television; it would take at least three more years for the soap opera to successfully adapt to the new technology.


While the established networks, CBS and NBC, concentrated on weekly programs for their nightly schedules, it was newcomer DuMont that experimented with the low-budget serial. In 1944 Lever Brothers sponsored television versions of two radio soaps, Big Sister and Aunt Jenny’s True Life Stories, on DuMont's New York affiliate, and two years later DuMont created the serial Faraway Hill especially for the network. Its producer, David P. Lewis, searched for techniques that would not require total viewer attention, allowing the housewife time "to turn away and go on peeling potatoes or knitting." He devised a stream-of-consciousness technique, an offscreen voice that probed the interior motives of the series heroine, Karen St. John, a widow searching for emotional refuge in the country. The most successful television programs immediately after World War II, however, were live remote broadcasts, especially boxing, and the studio-bound Faraway Hill faded after three months. Even Irna Phillips failed in her initial attempt, a reworking other first radio serial Painted Dreams, because she made no concessions to the visual medium.


One influential experiment from Chicago, a production center noted for its low-key realism, was Hawkins Falls, a self-proclaimed television novel about a typical small town that wistfully evoked an earlier America whose way of life was being transformed by the fifties flight to the suburbs. Although this rural community with a population of 6,200 was too far removed from the contemporary American experience to make the show successful in terms of the great soaps (Hawkins Falls ran three months in prime time and four years in the afternoon), the genre had finally found a template that would be developed further by co-creator Roy Winsor. In 1951, a veteran of the Hummerts' Ma Perkins, Winsor used the dominant heroine archetype from his predecessors' tradition to build the first viable soap, Search for Tomorrow, around one female character, Jo Tate. (Jo was played by the indomitable Mary Stuart from day one until the serial ended in 1986.) Winsor insisted on a bare-stage technique for his series and emphasized the close-up to connect his characters to the audience. There was no need for elaborate sets or long shots, since most of the action took place in the living room or kitchen, key places in the geography of a soap. The critical importance of Search for Tomorrow is that it found an audience that was emotionally invested enough to make a daily commitment, which proved that the serial had a future on daytime television.


Ten months after Search, Irna Phillips brought The Guiding Light to television. Reverend Ruthledge and his family had been written out of the series years before, and "the guiding light" in the title no longer had religious connotations, but rather the camaraderie of a loving family in times of upheaval. The core family was now the Bauers, a German American brood trying to find a better life, first in Selby Flats, a fictionalized West Coast suburb, and later in Springfield, the prototype for the midwestern towns that would provide a haven for most of the soap world.


When Phillips first brought the show to television, the series followed the fifteen-minute format of the ongoing radio program. Up to this point, soaps had always run fifteen minutes, which came to formalize the way a story progressed. Then, in 1956, she created As the World Turns and threw out the rules of the radio serial. With this new series she pioneered the first thirty-minute drama, and in the process, reconceived the genre for the visual medium. Few people at the time realized that the thirty-minute serial revolutionized the dynamics of serial storytelling. The longer format allowed Phillips to underline two central tenets: that the heart of the serial is the exchange of feeling and memories between two characters; and that any incident should not affect a handful of characters but the whole community. Serial tellers now had the time to go beyond the core family and explore two families from different social classes, reflecting the search for the American dream of advancement and happiness.


Phillips's other groundbreaking work came in creating the visual look for the entire genre. She worked with her producer/director from radio, Ted Corday, to create an intimate style that emphasized the interior lives other characters. Slow, lingering close-ups during intimate revelations became the visual paradigm of the serial and presented many possibilities for character revelation.


As the World Turns was structured around the patrician Lowells and the solidly middle-class Hugheses, a clan whose ambitions and frustrations would be a motif for over forty years. It also provided the dominant story line of the late fifties, the romance between Penny Hughes and Jeff Baker, played by Rosemary Prinz and Mark Rydell, who later became a film director. The impetuous Penny and the spoiled Jeff, whom many consider soap's first "supercouple," gave youth its own reasons in the television soap. Phillips, with a new generation of writers, was able to reflect the rebellion and disillusionment of the developing youth culture, while still keeping the family-oriented serial intact.


Daytime Versus Early Prime Time


Whatever the ultimate root of the critical prejudice against the television soap opera, it is interesting to note that it existed from the beginning, even when daytime and prime-time dramas were much closer in tone and style. During the fifties, daytime serial and live drama shared many of the same aesthetic values: both emphasized psychology of character and the power of the revelatory close-up; both employed actors who had training in the theater and writers working in the realistic tradition of the Broadway problem play; both were performed live, solidifying their association with a theatrical experience. The phrase that defined the apogee of anthology drama, Chayefsky's "this marvelous world of the ordinary," could equally apply to the best of lrna Phillips. Yet whereas the masters of live drama—Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and Gore Vidal—were praised for authenticity and depth, there was little critical appraisal of any kind for daytime.


By the end of the decade, serial and prime-time television were on divergent paths. West Coast studios were producing the evening schedule, and television was no longer live hut recorded on film, with Hollywood production values. (Soaps were broadcast live until the late sixties and then performed as if live, on tape.) The first genre to conquer prime time, the Western, underlined the rigid dichotomy between television in the afternoon and in the evening—the soap opera and the horse opera. Daytime was the province of perceived feminine values, talk and negotiation; prime time was the arena for masculine resolve, on the range or in the streets. Soaps catered to character growth and memory—Bert Bauer matured from an anxious housewife into Guiding Light's philosophical matriarch—while prime time was an existential wilderness, where lead characters acted without the past as a guide. The new heroes of prime time, Cheyenne and Matt Dillon, discovered themselves anew each week, continuing characters without the benefit of the soap's connecting memories.


A Look at Sponsorship


Throughout the fifties the most successful serials were put together by advertising agencies for a sponsor. This sponsor-originated formula had its roots in radio and ceded production control to the agency, which in theory better understood the needs of its intended audience. CBS dominated the daytime ratings because of its alliance with Procter & Gamble, which worked directly with the early soap auteurs, Irna Phillips and Roy Winsor. September 3, 1951, proved to he a defining day for P&G: it not only debuted Search for Tomorrow, but also marketed two new products, Joy and Spic and Span, to its largely female audience. With the sponsor owning the production, the network's role was passive, providing the airwaves and exercising little creative authority. To compete with P&G's tightly controlled schedule on CBS, both ABC and NBC decided to package their own soaps, assuming greater control over daytime programming. After several misfires by both networks, in 1963 ABC hired Frank and Doris Hursley, longtime writers of Search for Tomorrow, to create a "daytime Ben Casey” the popular evening series starring Vince Edwards. The hospital, that dramatic intersection where personal and professional spheres collided, had been a fixture on radio serials. Irna Phillips had remarked that doctors especially were "an integral part of everything I have written," introducing the first serial surgeon on The Road of Life in 1937. It is ironic that in the early sixties daytime executives were looking to prime time for inspiration, instead of the soap's own considerable history on radio.


The Hursleys' creation, General Hospital, was produced at the ABC facilities in Hollywood and brought a new element to the soap. Until then most of the serials had been produced in New York, with roots in the city's performing arts heritage. Beginning with General Hospital, soap producers on the West Coast started their own tradition, using videotape, but searching for the more polished look and artful camera angles associated with the movies. Casting directors now searched for actors who had performed on film, whether in the movies or on television. The star of General Hospital, John Beradino, had previously been featured in the syndicated series I Led Three Lives and worked in such genre series on film as Cheyenne and The Untouchables. In 1965 the collaboration between Hollywood and the serial was further solidified when Columbia Pictures Television became a partner in another medical soap, Days of Our Lives. Although created by Irna Phillips and Ted Corday, an East Coast team, Days featured Hollywood leading man Macdonald Carey. It was the first serial to be broadcast in color, although for NBC, which had pioneered color technology in the early fifties, this was late in the game for bringing color to the daytime soap.


Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell


Irna Phillips taught her most gifted progeny, Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell (who were toddlers when the domestic soaps began), not only story structure and character development, but, more importantly, a respect for the metier. In Nixon's words, from this respect emerges "the ability and capacity to develop one's craft and perhaps even raise the standards of the form.19 Both Nixon and Bell served an arduous apprenticeship under Phillips, and emerged with the belief that soap opera had meaning and relevance in the turbulent world of the late sixties.


Nixon began as a dialogue writer on Phillips's Woman in White, a radio serial about the checkered romance between a nurse and a fledgling surgeon. She wrote scripts for early television anthologies and developed the inaugural stories for Search for Tomorrow. Returning to the Phillips fold, she wrote for Guiding Light for thirteen years, eight as head writer, and co-created the defining television soap, As the World Turns. During these years with Phillips the Nixon touch emerges in her treatment of Bert Bauer, the "tentpole" character of Guiding Light. Bert, played by Charita Bauer for thirty-five years, had matured into the homey philosopher of the series by the early sixties, and viewers were stunned when she underwent treatment for uterine cancer. Nixon had struggled with P&G executives and network censors to have Bert first undergo a Pap smear test. Capitalizing on the temporal quality of the serial, Nixon played the cancer story line out over many months, educating her public about the necessity of medical prevention. The soap form and the pedagogical story coalesced perfectly, and the positive viewer reaction suggested a more sophisticated audience than the industry had realized.


While she was head writing Guiding Light, Nixon had created the bible for what would become All My Children. Procter & Gamble was not able to find a slot for it, but offered her head-writing duties on a struggling show, Another World, which Phillips and Bill Bell created in 1964. Much has been written about Nixon's ability to dramatize topical issues, hut here she displayed her mastery of traditional soap fundamentals. Nixon revived Another World with a romantic triangle that sustained itself for more than seven years. With the success of General Hospital on ABC, the network allowed Nixon to create a signature series, One Live to Live, allowing her to realize a personal ambition to take soap operas out of WASP Valley. She conceived a multicultural community of ethnic types and challenged her audience to confront their prejudices. While prime-time television was receiving congratulations for starring Diahann Carroll as the innocuous black nurse on Julia, Nixon developed a black character, Carla Gray, who was passing for white. In superb use of dramatic irony, the audience was clued in to her heritage before her suitors, a white doctor and a black intern.


Nixon consolidated soap traditions and advanced the respectability of the genre. While she maintained the theatrical base other mentor, having all her serials produced in New York facilities, her work has made creative use of videotape. (Two important examples are the exploration of the fantasies and desires of lead characters, notably the split personality of Victoria Lord, and going on location outside the studio, as for the unscripted Odyssey House sequences for One Life to Live.) Most importantly, she sustained the moral seriousness that characterized Phillips's creations. When her story of a peace activist was debated in the New York Times, Nixon brought daytime to a critical plateau it never had reached. Her examinations of the generation gap and sixties politics predated by several years prime time's breakthrough series, All in the Family.


Bill Bell was in advertising before Irna Phillips made him dialogue writer on the Guiding Light in 1957. Working in the same room with Phillips he co-wrote As the World Turns for nine years, where he developed the ability to capture an audience with expansive storytelling, and to allow stories to go on past the traditional breaking points. Remaining in Chicago, Bell was appointed head writer of Days of Our Lives on the West Coast in an effort to salvage one of Phillips's floundering co-creations. Sensing a potential audience fascination with abnormal psychology, Bell ventured into sexual territories hitherto unexplored anywhere in television. His signature storyline for Days was the return of an amnesiac Korean War veteran, whose looks had been horribly disfigured in captivity. Having undergone plastic surgery, he returns unrecognized to the nurturing community of Salem and falls in love with his sister. Integrating such sexual taboos as incest and rape into the narrative of the soap has remained Bell's specialty.


Where the center of Phillips's soap universe had been the kitchen and the living room, Bell staked his claim to the bedroom. His first creation with his wife, Lee Phillip Bell, The Young and the Restless, took for granted the sexual revolution that was sweeping America. Although he appropriated from Phillips the two-family schemata that he knew so well, Bell focused on the sexual desires and entrapments of the younger characters. The Young and the Restless, packaged by Columbia Pictures Television, furthered the integration of Hollywood production values into the serial. Bell and his production team cast glamorous model types for lead roles and photographed his stars in sensuous lighting. There was no mistaking a Bell close-up; its lingering caress would have made Garbo or Dietrich proud. In 1987 Bell underscored the Hollywood connection with his next creation, The Bold and the Beautiful, by setting the serial in Los Angeles, one of the few specific sites in the soap world, and by concentrating on the chic fashion industry.


One of the many defining legacies of the Phillips-Nixon-Bell collaboration is the soap archetype that transformed and defined the entire genre: the bitch goddess. Since the sixties no character has energized more plots than the girl from the wrong side of the tracks who will stop at nothing to achieve material happiness. The once-passive Cinderella of radio serials, a lowly commoner waiting to be swept off her feet, was transformed in the early sixties into a hurricane of lustful desires. Phillips and Bell conspired with actress Eileen Fulton to create the prototypical home-wrecking villainess of unlimited ambition, Lisa Miller on As the World Turns. Nixon revitalized Phillips and Bell's Another World with the Bitch of Bay City, Rachel Davis, who lusted after power and privilege. Rachel was modeled on a character that Nixon envisioned for her own soap, which took five years to find a sponsor. When that serial, All My Children, was finally produced in 1970, Nixon unleashed Erica Kane as a conniving teenage vixen. After years of amorous escapades and serial marriages, Susan Lucci's character has become the femme fatale incarnate. For Nixon and Bell, who have led the way in exploring family problems, the avenging goddess archetype borrows from the Hummerts' tradition an element of pure fantasy, thereby giving their work the possibility of outrageous fun and exaggerated melodrama that is missing from their mentor's.


The Monty Revolution


By the mid-seventies most soaps had expanded into an hour every day. As production became more costly and complex, the role of the executive producer became as crucial as the head writer's. It fell to the producer to fuse the writing and production teams into a unified whole, sustaining the look and rhythm of a specific soap world, day in and day out, fifty-two weeks a year. Producing the equivalent of more than 100 movies, the executive producer was like the mogul of old, overseeing a highly coordinated studio.


The producer who epitomized this new power was a longtime veteran of the field, Gloria Monty. A director of Roy Winsor's The Secret Storm for sixteen years, Monty left, and experimented with ways to make daytime drama less studiobound. She directed the first daytime special shot entirely on location, This Child of Mine, but when she was put in charge of General Hospital she changed all the rules. During her first meeting with Tony Geary, the actor confessed, "I hate soap opera." Monty replied: "Honey, so do I. I want you to help me change all that."22


Monty subverted all the strictures that she had learned during her live television days in New York. For one thing, she wanted the pacing of a prime-time program, so she eliminated the long pauses of the serial and ordered more than twice the number of scenes per episode of the average soap. In addition to redesigning the sets and costumes, she challenged the form itself. She romantically paired troubled teen Laura Vining with the streetwise, antihero Luke Spencer. United by a problematic rape scene, which Monty labeled a "choreographed seduction," but which others saw as unmitigated violence, Luke and Laura spent the summer of 1980 on the lam, an unprecedented story line that liberated the characters from the established community. Monty enlivened the escapades with homages to Hitchcock and, particularly, to Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. With the new look capturing a youthful and collegiate audience, General Hospital became a cultural phenomenon; a benchmark equal to anything in the history of television.


Serial Memory


For almost fifty years, beginning in radio, the techniques and strategies of the daytime serial were rejected by evening entertainment. Prime time's major experiment with the serial, Peyton Place (1964-69), had limited appeal; only the heavily promoted first season reached the Nielsen top twenty-five programs. Nighttime's most successful use of the genre was parody, epitomized by "As the Stomach Turns," a series of sketches on The Carol Burnett Show, and the almost surrealistic serials Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Soap. In the late seventies, with competition from the cable industry, network producers began looking for new ways to capture an audience. They reconsidered the form of the soap opera, a genre that they had derided for years. Both Dallas and Dynasty employed the cliff-hanger to engage an audience in the continuing sagas of greed and lust in a core family, the Ewings and Carringtons, respectively. In the eighties, the writers of episodic television, wanting to find more dimensions for their characters, experimented with stories that lingered over many episodes and with characters who had a consciousness of their own histories. Several prime-time series did pioneering work in employing the serial structure, including St. Elsewhere, Cheers, and L.A. Law. But the place it really all began for nighttime was Hill Street Blues.


Whereas Joe Friday of the fifties Dragnet seemed to have neither a personal life nor any memories of his previous cases, Captain Frank Furillo entered the landscape of Hill Street Blues with a complicated backstory: a son and an ex-wife, a job in turmoil, and a budding romance with the district attorney. Importantly, Furillo's history was not just a premise. Co-creator Steven Bochco used the details of the character's life to spin story lines that explored the private and public turmoils of Furillo's life each week, interlocking those situations with equally rich vignettes of ten or more characters. This soap opera structure forms the basis for the powerful storytelling that characterizes Bochco's series. The audience is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of the Hill Street station, gathering memories of the series and its characters over many years.


Time and memory for both the characters and the audience are at the heart of the soap opera. While prime-time programming since Hill Street has incorporated the serial as a sustaining narrative element, there is no way that evening drama can match how familiar a character can become to a soap opera viewer: the combined run of Hill Street Blues and Cheers equals approximately one year's worth of any hour long soap. Moreover, the very narrative structure of the soap demands that the viewer bring memories of the pain and joy and subtle emotional nuances to each scene.


When characters with such rich, penetrating histories as Victor Newman and Nikki Reed on The Young and the Restless or Alan and Monica Quartermaine on General Hospital confront each other, the viewer fills in the sustained silences and piercing reaction shots that characterize the genre with a keen knowledge of their pasts, thus becoming an important partner in the scene. This deep, emotional involvement in a story that is unfolding day by day over years is ultimately the triumph of the soap opera. No other art form can achieve, much less sustain, this kind of connection with an audience for so long in such a deeply satisfying way.


The audience for the daytime serial is following in the footsteps of Dickens's passionate admirers, who likewise embraced fictionalized characters as another family: that has been the essential quality of the serial, linking story with audience. The history of the soap opera on radio and television, lasting more than sixty-five years, is in itself a continuing story, with the work of lrna Phillips being carried forward by Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell. As new creative forces enter the world of daytime, whoever carries on the work of Nixon and Bell well into the twenty-first century will by lineage have some connection to Irna Phillips, no doubt reaffirming her vision that "we do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand other worlds."

2 comments:

n69n said...

i loved this, so fascinating & informative!
i posted a link to your piece @ Pine Valley Podcast!

thank you for sharing!

MarkH said...

Thank YOU Norn! Your art is truly an incredible interpretive lens on daytime! Thanks for sharing it.

Norn's website is: http://www.nornsisland.com/