Known as ‘Queen of the Soaps’, Irna Phillips was an American screenwriter who was best known for creating the first American television daytime soap operas, including Guiding Light and As The World Turns. In her writing, Phillips focused on the psychological realism of her characters and introduced many of the soap opera motifs – such has cliff-hanger endings – which can still be seen on screen today.
Born in 1901 to a Jewish family in Chicago, Phillips was one of ten children. Her father, William, died when she was eight years old. When she was 19, Phillips became pregnant and was abandoned by the father of her child, eventually giving birth to a stillborn child. Phillips would later use this experience as the genesis for Guiding Light, a soap opera which she created in 1937.
Phillips attended the University of Illinois where she studied Drama. After she graduated, she failed to find work as an actress and so spent the next seven years teaching English and Drama. During her time away from work in the summer, Phillips worked for WGN, a radio station in Chicago.
In 1930, while working at WGN, Phillips was asked to write and act in Painted Dreams, a radio soap opera about the generational divide between women. The fictional Irish-American family that Phillips created was headed up by a widowed matriarch, and the show, which initially only featured female characters, was immediately popular with it’s predominately female audience. Critic Les White argued that during her time writing Painted Dreams, Phillips developed three themes which she would return to throughout her career: a woman choosing her career over a male love interest, single motherhood and a protagonist searching for their true family.
As Painted Dreams was beginning to gain popularity, Phillips was fired from WGN. She quickly went on to create Today’s Children, a very similar daytime radio soap opera about a large Irish-American family, with WGN’s rivals, WMAQ. In 1949, Phillips created These Are My Children for television, which was an amalgamation of Painted Dreams and Today’s Children. These Are All My Children was the first soap opera broadcast on American television.
In 1956, Phillips created As the World Turns. The show premiered in 1956 as a 30-minute show. The running time was a risky innovation on Phillips’s part because at the time all other soap operas ran at 15 minutes. By developing As the World Turns as a 30-minute show, Phillips was able to craft in-depth stories and focus on characterisation. Her producers and advertisers were initially sceptical of the length of the episodes so Phillips negotiated a contract which meant that As the World Turns could not be cancelled until it had been on-air for a year.
Phillips’s gamble paid off and As the World Turns became one of the most culturally significant American soap opera in the TV landscape, holding the title of the highest rated daytime soap from 1958 to 1978. As the World Turns emphasised character complexity over plot and dwelled on the nuances and contradictions of human emotion, which forged an intimacy between the audience and the programme because the viewers were invested in the psychological make-up of the cast of flawed characters. Phillips also pioneered the use of the TV ‘close-up’, furthering this feeling of intimacy.
As her career continued, Phillips became known for cliff-hangers, the use of organ music to move between scenes and introducing professional characters, such as doctors and lawyers, to the soap opera lexicon. In terms of style, Phillips tended to concentrate on the day-to-day troubles which affected women and their families and she veered away from populist sensationalism.
Phillips also inspired a new generation of soap opera producers and mentored Agnes Nixon, who created All My Children, and William J. Bell, who created The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. Phillips never married and adopted two children, Thomas and Katherine.
Irma Phillips died in Chicago in 1973. At the time of her death, four of her soap opera creations were still airing including Guiding Light and As the World Turns. Guiding Light would go on to become one of the longest-running television shows in history, ending in 2009 after an uninterrupted 72 years on the air.