Why should I, an elderly literary gent who spends much of his time reading, talking, and writing about Shakespeare or W. B. Yeats, spend an hour every weekday watching a soap opera? How odd is it that after a hardworking class teasing out the syntax and ambiguities of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, or some complicated Yeatsian lyric, I come home at noon to plunge wholeheartedly into a world not of language but of characters, of people I like or dislike? After warning students not to “identify” with Prospero or with J. Alfred Prufrock, could I be doing that very thing when one of my favorite soap heroes triumphs or suffers? Is it possible to justify the activity of soap-watching not as a momentary fit or frivolous aberration, but as something willingly embraced over four decades?
How did this addiction, if that’s what it is, take hold, not to let go?
It must have begun where things tend to begin, in childhood, when, after school, I would listen on the radio to the adventures of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, a serial brought to me by Wheaties. Sporadic visits to lunchtime soaps like The Romance of Helen Trent or Our Gal Sunday or Ma Perkins (featuring a lovable fellow named Shuffle) helped things along. But it wasn’t until 40 years later that, as a mature adult, I decided to try out a short-lived television soap titled Somerset.
Only a half-hour, unlike the other hourlong shows, it didn’t seem an excessive amount of time to spend on a diversion. When Somerset went under, I moved over to Search for Tomorrow, one of the longest-running of the soaps back in 1976. The star of Search was an actress named Mary Stuart, who, as Joanne, endured many trials, tribulations, and a number of partners, the most interesting of whom was a southern fellow named Martin Tourneur (played, I later realized, by the father of Jennifer Aniston, who hadn’t yet swum into my ken).
Perhaps as a result of its half-hour status, Search fell to the bottom of the ratings, and a local television channel decided to replace it with a mindless talk show. Incensed, I wrote a letter to the powers-that-be deploring this act of wanton brutality. I also sent the letter to our hometown newspaper, which provoked a column about me that was picked up by the national wire services.
Here was a story: How charmingly incongruous that a (respected) college professor should indulge himself in this way! The whole thing, as we now have been taught to say, went viral: “Prof lathers in soaps” was only one of the more inventive headlines the story received. I began to get letters of condolence—all of them from women who, like me, were fans of Search. A lady from Georgia even offered to tape the show as it went along and send me the tapes. My phone began to ring with requests for radio interviews and photo opportunities.
The most exciting of the phone calls was from the producers of Search itself, inviting me to come to New York City and be king for a day, with a tiny walk-on appearance (they eventually paid me $75) and a night’s dinner and hotel room at their expense. Accordingly, I performed my walk-on task, preceding one of the cast into Bigelow’s Bar (“Big’s”), where I seated myself on a bar stool and spoke not a word but was given a beer by Big himself.
All very satisfying, but this was not the end of the saga. Upon returning home, I got another call from New York, this one from the folks at Good Morning America, which featured the glamorous interviewer Diane Sawyer. I showed up early in the morning to be made-up and primed for my seven-minute talk with Ms. Sawyer. Unfortunately, the two-hour show had scheduled too many players, one of whom was the infamous Louis Farrakhan, whose brief career in the news involved his less-than-agreeable attitude toward Jews. Farrakhan preceded me and managed to bewitch the interviewer (not Diane Sawyer) into allowing him extra minutes for his rant—thus cutting into and, it seemed, obliterating my own appearance.
“Sorry!” they exclaimed (including Diane) as I, furiously embarrassed, headed outside for a taxi to the airport and a glum trip home.
As I stood on the curb, my makeup still intact, I was followed and hailed by someone from the show announcing that they had squeezed out a seven-minute spot for me after all. Diane Sawyer was charming, alluding to a line from a Yeats poem about how women “eat a crazy salad with their meat” and suggesting that my crazy salad involved soap opera. What did I find absorbing about this low form of art?