This article appeared in the March 23, 1975 issue of the New York Times. It is accompanied by photos of Dorrie Kavanaugh (Cathy Craig), Ellen Holly (Carla), Doris Belack (Anna Wolek) and Agnes Nixon.
There's a schism in the world of the Grand Old Soap Opera.
Life can be beautiful/relevant
by Anthony Astrachan


Cathy Craig was a teen-ager who experimented with drugs and was cured of her incipient habit at Odyssey House. She went on to become a reporter for her hometown newspaper, the Llanview Banner, and wrote a nationally syndicated article telling nice people what to do when they get venereal disease. She turned some of her newspaper experiences into a best-selling book of short stories that won feminist praise. She has borne a child without a husband but is enthusiastic about being a "single parent" rather than an "unmarried mother." On a national television talk show, she looked meaningfully down at her bulging belly and asked the interviewer, Melba Tolliver, to call her "Ms."

Cathy Craig is not a real-life feminist but a character in a soap opera, ABC's "One Life to Live." It's recipe for dramatic entertainment includes a large dose of realism, ranging from real-life drug treatment centers like Odyssey House to real-life television personalities like Melba Tolliver. It makes quite a contrast with the classical canon of daytime television drama embodied in CBS's "As the World Turns."

... The contrast between the two programs shows what James Thurber once called "Soapland," like American society as a whole, is torn between the need to keep up with changing realities and the desire to stick to tried-and-true formulas that have never expressed reality - to tell it like it isn't. The search for relevance has led daytime drama to deal with social issues like drugs, venereal disease and the Vietnam war, to take feminist positions on questions like abortion and women working, and to bring blacks and ethnics into the WASP population of Soapland.

..."One Life to Live," which seems the most consistently innovative soap opera, has a recurring feminist story line in the adventures of Cathy Craig. Dorrie Kavanaugh, who plays Cathy, feels that the program has not gone far enough, even though she regards it as the best on the air from the feminist viewpoint. She says the best script she has been given was her childbirth sequence, alone in a snowbound resort cottage with a male newspaper colleague. When he sees her in pain, he says, "Be a brave girl." Between deep contractions, she replies indignantly, "Don't call me a girl! I'm a woman."

Miss Kavanaugh is only half pleased that Cathy could go to bed with another male character, Joe Riley, without being in love with him. "Before, we couldn't say 'Yes,' now we can't say 'No,'" she commented. "That has nothing to do with human liberation. I play a character as though she's liberated, but she's 28, she lives with her parents, she wen to bed with a man once in her life and got pregnant - is that so liberated?"

...Racial attitudes are also changing, a dozen years after the peak of the civil rights movement. Many programs have one or two black characters to put the networks' employment of actors in compliance with the Federal law. "One Life to Live" has gone one step further by making its black characters really important in the story line. Ed Hall, a black police lieutenant, has been written out temporarily because the actor who played him, Al Freeman Jr., went to Hollywood. He will be replaced. Ellen Holly, who plays his wife, likes the Ed Hall role because it calls for a black who comes on like Carey Grant instead of the macho gangsters - like Superfly - who have become models for black children. Miss Holly has been described as a mixture of three racial strains, and there was no doubt that she could pass for white when the story called for it. In the process of deciding to admit she was black, she had romantic involvements that required her to kiss first a white man and then a black, making a Southern red-neck equally indignant about both when he wrote in to protest. Usually, daytime drama shows only two or three blacks in an all-white world, and their problems tend to be classified as human rather than racial. The amount of realism remains a matter of dispute.

"One Life to Live" also tries for a greater degree of realism in having an important set of characters who are both blue-collar and ethnic, whereas most soap operas merely drop in an occasional Italian or Jewish name to add what is thought to be a desirable touch of the exotic. "One Life" also had a Jewish- Christian marriage (until the Jewish husband "died") with one-liners about Christmas and Hanukkah.

The blue-collar couple on this program also provide something else that is a rarity in the old- fashioned kind of soap-opera humor. It tends toward slapstick, as in a scene in which they test a water bed when they set out to buy furniture for their new home. But even the middle-class WASPs in "One Life" are capable of wit by Soapland standards. Joe Riley is painting the carriage house that he and Victoria Lord Riley Burke Riley are remodeling. When Viki applauds his work, Joe says, "Michelangelo, eat your heart out!" She deadpans, "I thought he only did ceilings."

"One Life to Live" and "All My Children" were both created by a woman who cheerfully takes credit for much of daytime drama's new willingness to face social issues - Agnes Eckhardt Nixon.

...Mrs. Nixon likes to introduce into the soaps not only such relevant issues but scenes and people from real life. One of her favorites was the Odyssey House sequence in which Cathy Craig went for her drug cure on "One Life to Live." Doris Quinlan, the producer of "One Life," still speaks proudly of that story. The show spent five days on location at the real Odyssey House in 1970. The cameras shot Cathy with the black and Puerto Rican youths there, and the writers spread the footage over a summer's worth of episodes intended to deliver the message to young people home from school or college. Actors on the show speak of the excitement in the fan-mail of that period, and the ratings went up slightly. (Ratings have actually gone down when other soaps showed less realistic drug sequences.) Amy Levitt, who then played Cathy, says the management thought the Odyssey House youngsters interfered with the entertainment values of the show. She resented what she regarded as a diversion of the story from the ghetto kids to a blue-eyed blond hero with whom Cathy was made to fall in love. Miss Quinlan says, however, the sequence lasted its natural life, ending at the same time as the summer and the Odyssey House footage.

A veneral-disease sequence followed some time later. Dr. Larry Wolek spoke on the subject at Llanview High, which made it only natural for Cathy, his stepniece, to write an article on the subject for The Banner. Mrs. Nixon wrote the "article" herself from research with William D. Schwartz of the Communicable Disease Center of the U.S. Public Health Service in Atlanta. Mrs. Nixon says that more than six thousand people wrote to ABC for copies of the article - an enormous response, especially considering the fact that "One Life" subordinated the V.D. theme to the continuing, disease-free romances that are the living matter of all soap operas.

[Only the OLTL-relevant passages of the article have been excerpted here; in actuality, the large article also contains information on "As the World Turns," "Another World," and "All My Children."]