There is a typical romance scene that appears in ranch romances and in some historical romances, too. The heroine takes a nude dip in the old swimming hole. And the hero comes by and catches her. He either embarrasses her and makes her beg for her clothes, or he joins her and seduces her on the spot, or some version of the two. Regardless, she’s clearly at a disadvantage because he has caught her in the nude. But he’s the man she’s going to end up with, so his unchivalrous behavior is part of a courtship, or at least a sex duel. To a man in love (or even not in love), seeing a healthy, nubile young female rise nude from the water would be exciting. Men’s sexuality is reputed to be distinctly visual in nature. (I say reputed because I have lived long enough to see many flat statements about sexuality revealed as socialized bias and misinformation.) And so it would be a moment of beauty (and lust). I am not sure what the point of this kind of scene is in a romance. Maybe it’s a way of freeing the heroine of the ugly trappings of whatever clothing (and thus behavior) custom demands she wears. Maybe it’s merely a way to get the characters beyond bickering to an awareness of their sexuality and their attraction to each other. But it’s a common scene in a romances and it can be beautiful.
Yet this very scene is one that in a bible tale is all ugliness, “Susannah and the Elders,” and is the basis for an even uglier modern opera, “Susannah.” In the bible, Susannah, a married woman, takes a bath nude outside on her own property, and some men see her. They accost her and try to extort sex out of her. When she refuses, they lodge a false accusation of adultery against her. In the bible story, a champion appears, Daniel, who proves that the men are liars. Susannah’s good name is restored, and her life is saved (since adultery carried a death penalty in those days). Not a pastoral bathing tale, but at least there’s a happy ending for the heroine. The nasty men are put to death.
In the opera “Susannah,” Susannah lives out in the woods, already an outsider in a narrow-minded, small Tennessee town, and she has the habit of bathing nude in a stream. Church elders in search of a baptism stream wander onto her property and see her. And they are aghast (maybe at their own visceral response, too, but they don’t admit it). To their narrow minds, bathing in the open air is a sin. They pillory her in the community for her unseemly behavior. Susannah doesn’t understand it and so the calls to repentance don’t move her. But the town makes her so miserable that she becomes prey to the traveling preacher, a hypocritical man who claims to be praying for her soul, but soon is claiming that he is a lonely man and needs a woman. He seduces her. Eventually, Susannah gets avenged, but by then her innocence, both sexual and psychological, has been destroyed. Proof that being perceived as sexy is enough to turn a woman into a hardened slut, presumably.
What a miserable story! Why on earth does the mainstream of American artistry gravitate to such messed-up, unhappy tales? Why be so interested in showing the bad about people? And why always show sexuality as a destroyer, when it is the giver of life? There is a strong strain of misery in American modern drama. And I have to ask why. America’s 20th century was painful in part, but compared to other countries, we got off lightly. Sure, we had the Great Depression. But we won World War II on foreign soil, not our own. We went on to bask in several decades of economic and political and social world dominance. Which is exactly when Carlisle Floyd wrote “Susannah.” What’s wrong with this picture? I don’t see why serious American dramas, especially operas, are so miserable.
One reason some of us stick to genre fiction is that mainstream writing seems fixated on the unpleasant. In the biblical tale, a savior proves the accusations against Susannah are false. But in the American opera, the town starts off against Susannah and it just gets worse from there. The trouble is, you can’t learn anything useful from a miserable tale like the opera “Susannah.” There is no effective communication, no honest negotiation or arbitration between her and the town. Seeing this opera does not tell an audience member how to rectify a similar problem in her or his own life. In fact, after seeing an opera like this, you might want to go out and slit your own throat because people are no damn good.
What’s so weird about this strain of depressing, supposedly realistic American dramatic art is that it ignores the typical American can-do efforts to triumph over bad situations. We constantly see actors and politicians and other public figures work hard to change the public’s opinion of them. Not merely during political campaigns, but also when they get into trouble (often of their own making, unlike poor Susannah). They use damage control and spin to work on public opinion. They go on talk shows like “Larry King Live” or “David Letterman” and apologize for being idiots. They write confessional articles in Parade Magazine, the multi-million circulation Sunday newspaper insert, or allow an interview with People Magazine, the pro-celebrity gossip rag. Or they stand in front of a press conference with their betrayed wives, and publicly repent. And public opinion swings in their favor.
Not only do we learn how to manipulate public opinion, we also teach ourselves how to mend our personal and business relationships. Books such as Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and Herb Cohen’s How to Negotiate Anything offer methods of learning how to deal with difficult situations. Robert M. Bramson has a book entitled Coping With Difficult People, and there are many more of the same ilk. We have an entire category of books called self-help. So why are American dramatists so fixated on stories in which nothing goes right? On failures? One answer may be that these dramas are merely symbolic to them, and not actually about the characters at all. Thus, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” about the Salem witch trials, is really about McCarthyism. And so is “Susannah,” some claim. But the problem is that these dramas are tragedies. And McCarthyism ended, maybe not with a crystal clear act by an heroic avenger, but with a rising tide of outrage against it. Our serious dramatists have failed to show such public outrage that turned the tide. Yet in our popular movies, public outrage scenes are common. Movies in which the little guy is up against the big evil corporation or political machine routinely end with the populace coming out en masse to support him or her. But these are popular culture movies, not art.
Romances are popular culture, too, and are much disdained because by definition they are success stories. Two people fall in love, conquer obstacles, and end up together. Yes, of course there are moments when communication breaks down, or moments like the classic catching-the-woman-in-the-pond scene, when one character tries to gain an advantage over another. But in romances we get past the sticky situations and resolve the problems. We celebrate the beauty of sexuality, including in a natural setting, and we allow people to be happy. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. Dousing ourselves with depressing stories in which the good guys lose does not help gird us to fight the good fight. We could use some optimism about now. So dip into a romance. It’s bound to cheer you up.