The Soap Opera by David Ives is a brilliant, absurdist comedy about a mechanic with a disturbing attraction to his washing machine. This one-act play deals with issues of consumerism run amok and how a collective obsession with consumer products has come to serve as an unhealthy substitute for authentic romantic relationships among Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. The use of tropes from soap operas are used by Ives to bookend the plot in cultural signifiers that are often responsible for the kind of consumerism that he seeks to comment on.
The casual manner in which the repairman tries to reserve a table for two at an upscale restaurant is the first hint viewers see that he regards his Maypole washing machine in an anthropomorphic way. Even the name of the washing machine, ‘Maypole‘ is not just a woman’s name but also a knowing reference to the real-world Maytag washing machines made famous by the Maytag Man commercials of the 1960s. In the next scene, the repairman explains how he came by his fixation with Maypole, describing it as a “mystical monolith. An ivory soap tower. One block of some Tower of Babel.” (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 53). His view of it in Oedipal terms further cements it in the repairman’s mind as an object of forbidden desire.
He describes this early relationship with his first washing machine when he was a child as a “freudian minefield” (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 53). This suggests that his attraction for the Maypole is tied up with a psychological fear of the filth that was a constant element of his childhood. Because his washing machine became the focal point of how he cleansed his clothes, the repairman became psychologically wedded to the Neptune IT-40 in his early years, and the Maypole afterward.
This strange attachment to a household appliance is complicated however, by his relationship with Mabel. The repairman, Manny, describes Mabel as “perfect too, in a flawed human way” (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 53). Another element of the play that is interesting is the way in which Manny and Mabel make out, which is on top of the machine while a full load is running. Even during a heavy make-out session, Manny must have the machine cycle going to experience the kind of pleasure that consummates their relationship.
Manny’s idea of perfection finds expression through the question he puts to Mabel that Maypole is “a machine that’s faultless and flawless and has none of our stupid human feelings and failings” (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 53)? This suggests that his ideal relationship, and by extension that of many Americans caught in the consumerist wave of television ads and shows hawking household appliances day and night, is stripped of any genuine human emotion and is instead tied to an object that will provide ready-made answers to the questions of life both large and small.
This is an attitude that is, like Manny himself, ultimately immature in an emotional sense, and devoid of a deeper humanity that both gives and takes in an exchange between partners, that while often far from perfect, remains one of the most rewarding experiences an individual can have. Mabel’s attempt to define her relationship with Manny as one that is the love of her life fails to understand that in a way, she too has become little more than a household appliance to him. When she does finally with an ultimatum to choose between the washing machine, and her, Manny is unable to break the bonds of his obsession in favor of something less static and more real.
It is the way in which Ives anthropomorphizes the machine into the form of a woman however that is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the play. Her offer of a handkerchief to replace the one he has given the weeping Mabel is the only first of a sustained attempt by the playwright to illustrate how co-dependent American consumers have become on material things advertised relentlessly through the medium of television. In a sense, Ives’ work in this portion of the play foreshadows the equally fruitless obsessive compulsive behaviors many people in the present decade have toward another electronic medium that has taken over a good portion of their lives, the internet.
The audience then sees Manny talk to his machine. The attempts of Maypole to compare what it can offer Manny to the things that Mabel can offer him are obviously absurd, yet they symbolize the kind of unsatisfying substitutions that consumers of western-societies make every day. The outdated traditions of worshipping at the altar of religion have given way to a worship of technology that a washing machine or any other household appliance represents. It has come to consume so much of the daily lives of people like Manny that even when offered a second chance at a loving, stable relationship with Mabel, the machine demands precedence.
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She returns to live with him, and together they attempt to make a life together, but Manny, unbeknownst to her, has been unable to give up his attachment to the Maypole. While one might think that the fact they are both sleeping in a utility room would tip her off, that his purchase of rare fabrics are in truth only attempts to satisfy the needs of his washing machine, Mabel only realizes at the last minute (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 55).
The Maypole is an item inherited by Manny after the death of his mother. In an exchange with Mabel and the machine, it becomes clear that Manny has come to imbue Maypole with all sorts of qualities in the same way that people in the present attach anthropomorphic qualities to cars and other items. When the machine asks by way of comparison if Mabel knows who wrote Gotterdammerung and Mabel answers in the negative, the Maypole promptly tells him that Wagner wrote it.
The comedic elements of the play should not be underemphasized. The maypole’s demand for a dryer “For companionship” is both funny and a scene that cuckolds Manny in much the same way that happened to Mabel (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 58). Ives creates parallels between the maypole and an actual woman in this funny exchange that has the Maypole wanting the dryer so that they can create “little Maypoles!” (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 58). Manny’s line that: “her inner timer told her it was time for a dryer and how could I deny her” is a brilliant take on the intuition that many women often cite when desiring children to round out their marriage (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 59).
The way in which the machine begins to complain about how difficult it is to “be perfect all the time” is yet another example of Ives using recognizable scenes from many marriages to comment on the Western obsession with material goods at the expense of religion and morality (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 59).
It is only when the Maypole begins to make one demanding request after another, and begins to complain like a middle-aged housewife, that Manny begins to long for the relationship he had with Mabel. The ending that this leads to is interesting for the attitude it expresses toward relationships between men and women and how much how much of an impact that material things can have on how long they endure. Manny finishes his tale to the Maitre ‘D with a request for a table for two, just as he began the play. His statement that he had “always wrecked the perfect” is a way of letting go of his obsession with the Maypole and reclaiming his life, the life he could have had with Mabel (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 60).
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Suddenly the imperfections that Manny had seen in Mabel, and rejected for the Maypole take on a new gloss of desirability in the face of the washing machine’s unceasing demands. Her statement that she can’t seem to remove the jelly stain that had annoyed him for so long becomes a reason to love her, strangely enough. He even waxes poetic about it, calling it the “Rorschach blot of the human heart” (Ives and Dramatists Play Service (New York N.Y.), 60). The imperfect has become what is perfect for Manny then, while Mabel expresses her love for him in a language that only he would be able to understand, using the handkerchief as a metaphor for her feelings for him.
The way in which Ives exposes the fallacies of western-oriented consumerism and how it relates to romantic relationships is both unusual and impressive. He uses the washing machine as a stand-in for familiar female figures that range from what might be termed the perfect woman who tries to satisfy the needs of a mate, to a more shrewish version usually met in middle-age who makes one demand after another that in a way that can sour a man on marriage.
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The symbols that Ives uses are important to the play’s ability to communicate the ties between people and products that he seeks to illustrate. The use of the soap opera introduction is of particular interest. It brackets the play within a popular format that is both familiar to the audience and filled with opportunities that are rich with interpretation. The use of Mabel’s jelly spot is also vital for the way it symbolizes the idea of human imperfection and why it is at first unattractive to Manny but later in the play comes to assume an important factor in his decision to choose her over the Maypole.
Through his use of social and economic symbols to comment on the problematic relationships between men and women in American society, Ives achieves an important breakthrough in the absurdist school of the one act play. He provides his audiences with a powerful look at both themselves and the flaws inherent in a culture that places so much importance on the accumulation of material things that it often loses sight of the elements that truly makes relationships work. These elements include an acceptance of people as they are and not in the impossibly perfect models marketed by advertisers during commercial breaks of a television show. It is an important lesson that The Soap Opera illustrates with a rare and piercing insight.