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Soap opera

Q From Nick Child: I feel there must be a very obvious reason for the common name of a long-running TV series, soap opera, but I can’t think of it just now. Is it to do with kitchen sink drama?

A I can see why you introduced the idea, but there’s no link between soap opera and kitchen-sink drama, a grittily realistic portrayal of British working-class life that appeared in the late 1950s, for example John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Arnold Wesker’s Roots. Soap opera is an American form, though much copied. Most people these days would associate soap operas with television, but they actually began in the early days of radio.

By the late 1920s, evening prime-time radio was well-established, but radio stations and advertisers were unsure whether anybody would want to listen during the day. All they knew was that the audience would be overwhelmingly female, since in those days few women went out to work. The only model they had was the popular Amos and Andy, featuring the misadventures of two southern black men who had been transplanted to the south side of Chicago (written and performed, such were the times, by two white men), which had been running since 1926 and had been extremely profitable for its sponsor, Pepsodent Toothpaste. This had shown that a daily dramatic entertainment whose storylines ran over many episodes could hold an audience.

The first daytime serial, as the type was formally called, was The Goldbergs, written by and starring Gertrude Berg, which began in November 1929. However, radio historians would argue that it was actually the first sitcom and that the first true soap was Painted Dreams the following year, written by an ambitious Dayton schoolteacher and radio-struck actress named Irna Phillips. After these showed the potential, there was no stopping them and serials such as Myrt and Marge, Pepper Young’s Family, Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent soon became long-term fixtures for millions of listeners.

This is an acerbic later view of the form:

A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.

Soapland I — O Pioneers!, by James Thurber, in the New Yorker, 15 May 1948.

The advertisers who paid for these daytime serials were naturally enough those selling household products. The biggest spender by far was Procter & Gamble, makers of Ivory soap, whose advertising budget for radio in 1931 was nearly half a million dollars. To the cynics who saw nothing good in these daytime serials, to say they existed merely to sell soap was as good a put-down as any, all the better for being accurate. As James Thurber added:

It is the hope of every advertiser to habituate the housewife to an engrossing narrative whose optimum length is forever and at the same time to saturate all levels of her consciousness with the miracle of a given product, so that she will be aware of it all the days of her life and mutter its name in her sleep.

The name soap operas for them came along some years after they had become established, together with other sarcastic epithets such as washboard weepers and dishpan dramas. Though some say soap opera may have first appeared in trade magazines such as Variety, the first example we know of in print is this:

That sort of thing, the elite think, went out with sound — or, at least, with the radio “soap operas”.

New York Times, 12 Nov. 1939.

The second half of the term is less obvious, though it’s not far from the truth to say that they were called operas because they so obviously weren’t. When you think about it, though, they did both dramatise overwrought emotional moments.

However, soap opera had actually been borrowed from a disparaging term for an earlier popular film and radio form, the western. These had been known as horse operas from 1923 at the latest. This was itself a transferred term, as it was first used nearly a century earlier in the UK and US for an equine public spectacle. This is its first known appearance, from London:

M. Laurent has signed and sealed for COVENT-GARDEN THEATRE, and will open with Jullien and his flower-gardens and monster quadrilles. It is said, that after the Jullien era shall have ended, we are to have either equestrian spectacles or a German opera; but that it is not finally settled whether we are to have the Herrs or the Horses — or either. We fear a German opera will not pay, and we hope a Horse opera will not.

The Age And Argus (Middlesex), 31 Aug. 1844. The Age and Argus was several times satirical at the expense of Monsieur Jullien, a French conductor who created low-brow but popular musical spectacles such as the English Quadrille and the Destruction of Pompeii, which involved, another newspaper reported, “the popping of guns, the flashing of blue and red lights, the rolling of theatrical thunder, and the extinction of the gas [lighting], with which the audience seemed highly delighted”. He had come from a summer season at the famous Vauxhall Gardens, which may explain the reference to flowers.

Page created 28 May 2011

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Last modified: 28 May 2011.