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Two Sagas


One of Western literature’s most famous opening lines -- “All happy families are alike; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way,” from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina -- has never been more true than during the last two months on Sunday night TV.

There, PBS’s “The Forsyte Saga” and HBO’s “The Sopranos” have fought to the death for our attention, each with its parallel dispiriting saga of threatened ambition, bad offspring, adulteries, betrayals, brutal punishments and sudden deaths -- some of them well deserved.

Seldom have the last quarter of 19th-century London and the last eight weeks of the cities clustered around the north end of the New Jersey Turnpike seemed more alike.

There are differences, of course. The British upper-middle class speak softly without opening their mouths or even moving their lips; New Jersey mafiosi yell #@%&*!! at the top of their lungs and poke their fingers in your chest.

The British drive to their country estates in clippity-clop carriages, moving so slowly that you wonder whether they will arrive before next week’s episode; the Jerseyites drive their SUVs lickety-split to the strip club or at midnight to the Hudson River to dump a corpse.

The Forsytes and friends engage in sexual activity usually fully covered in billowing nightgowns. Their purpose is to quickly conceive and deliver sons, and only sons, to protect the family fortune. For them a fully clothed kiss can be as passionate as a Puccini last act, even more so than the marital act. The Soprano couplings are naked and wild, often elevated by heroin, and seldom with a spouse. Their purpose -- pure self-gratification. The hug and kiss are the greetings of two mobsters, one of whom will be “whacked” within the hour.

The Forsytes control their family and punish their enemies through gossip, social ostracism and cutting off their allowances. The Sopranos enforce discipline by threats, whippings, garroting and the cutting off of heads and hands.

The Forsytes, though presumably members of the Church of England, are secular. Their gods are: themselves, their property, and -- though far down the list -- the British Empire. The Sopranos are materialists. Boss Tony S. lives in a big house with a swimming pool and a new “entertainment” center with a screen as big as his bed. All his assets are in bushels of cash hidden from his wife, locked in a trash can at the pool.

But unlike the British, these middle-class Jersey Italians are religious. They have two kinds of priests. First their real priests, who are their psychiatrists, who listen to them, separated only by a symbolic coffee table, and respond with questions -- “Why do you think you feel like that?” Then their Catholic priests, who speak to them from behind their huge rectory walnut desks and deliver canned consolations like, “God has his own reasons for letting this happen to you.”

But Soprano Catholicism carries over into their work. Recently, when Christopher stuffed the sliced-off head and hands of Ralphie into a bowling ball bag and buried them in a ditch, he paused to make the sign of the cross. Perhaps “The Sopranos” and “The Forsyte Saga” differ most in the process of their creation.

Though I am sure the whole season is well-mapped out, “The Sopranos” has the feel of being written from week to week, feeding off current events and the real-life tabloid lives of the cast, some of whom actually are or have been criminals. James Gandofini, who plays Tony, has been in and out of drug rehab and is divorcing his wife. Robert Iler, who plays his son, was arrested for a mugging last year. Following an early-October episode where the mob put the heat on some Native Americans (Indians) who were protesting the Columbus Day Parade, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg invited two cast members to march with him in the Columbus Day Parade and was told by the parade sponsors, who feel the show insults Italians, to stay home.

My theory is that the writers get together and read “Hamlet,” where, when the curtain comes down on Act V, eight of the 10 principal players lie dead by stabbing, suicide or poison. Then they draw lots to determine which and by what means one of their players will be out of work within a week.

“The Forsyte Saga,” however, takes its inspiration from the first two of three John Galsworthy novels -- The Man of Property and Indian Summer of a Forsyte and In Chancery -- written right after World War I and published in the 1920s, and then the landmark BBC TV series (in black and white), which pioneered the “Masterpiece Theater” miniseries form with 26 episodes in the 1969.

The volumes were in our family library when I was a boy; but only last week did I take them off the shelves of our college library. One copy printed in 1922 had never been touched: Its pages were still uncut.

As TV, it’s wonderful, even better than the books -- and, in the long run, better than “The Sopranos” -- though we really have to consult the books or a Web site to be sure whose cousin is whose and who is that whiskered fellow in the crowd who gets such deference. If we have missed this round, it should pop up again if there’s justice in TV land. Sequels will appear next year, and the old version will soon be available on DVD.

What’s it about? The Forsytes, as a family, number themselves in the hundreds, and, insofar as the middle-class financiers control British social and political life, they represent the British Empire. Collectively they don’t come across as a malevolent force. Though individually they are as screwed up -- as today’s headlines on Princess Diana’s butler testify -- as today’s British royal family.

Yet they all wear top hats and evening clothes to breakfast, and the appearance of propriety is the only value at stake.

The bounder, drunken husband of Winifred Forsyte takes off to Argentina to tango with his mistress, and the central character, Soames Forsyte (Damien Lewis), Winifred’s brother, sends private detectives to spy on his own wife, Irene (Gina McKee), who has deserted him, to get evidence of infidelity to support his divorce, so he can marry a French girl, Annette, whom, he thinks -- perhaps because he has sexually stereotyped the French -- will give him the male heir Irene has denied him. We have been treated to a scene where Irene, who married Soames only under the condition that he would free her if the arrangement didn’t work, after forced intercourse, goes right to the tub to wash herself out. Are you with me so far?

On one level, the level I think Galsworthy intended, this is the story of Soames Forsyte, the 40ish, tight-lipped and uptight fellow who controls the legal and business fortunes of the family. He is a “man of property” in the fullest and worst sense. He imagines he owns all his relationships -- from the new country proto-Frank Lloyd Wright house a creative “buccaneer” architect is designing, to his wife Irene, a young widow who married him only because she needed stability and who hates him.

On the second level, it is Irene’s story. She manages to seduce or enamor, one way or another, the architect, who was engaged to Soames’ niece; Soames’ ancient uncle, who leaves her a lot of money; and Soames’ cousin, an artist who had left his original wife to run off with the governess 25 years before.

Meanwhile two handsome nephews, 19 and 20, because of their macho rivalry, enlist to go fight for the British Empire in South Africa in the Boer War. The whole tone of the story changes. The outside world has intruded with questions that transcend adultery -- like war and death.

As the red-coated troops march onto their ships and the band plays “Soldiers of the Queen,” we think of both the old and recent versions of The Four Feathers, where signing up was a burst of idealism, and “Breaker Morant,” where the same march was an ironic comment on the British hypocrisy that motivated the Boer War. We are not surprised when one nephew dies and the other stumbles home without a leg.

Reality has intruded on the Forsyte world. Not that they would all notice.

In the final scene, Soames has married Annette, who does not love him, and made her pregnant. But the doctor tells him that an operation might save her life but lose the child. To not operate might possibly, but not likely, save both.

The TV version has conditioned us to see Soames as an absolutely unfeeling creep, to cheer for Irene, the woman who married him for money, who had a fling with his architect, and casts spells on the Forsytes young and old who stumble into her web. He tells the doctor to not operate, to take the chance of bringing both mother and child through.

The decision was right. Annette lives, though she can have no more children. And the expected “son” is a girl. Yet, Soames picks up the child and sees her as beautiful. He is transformed. He has become a human being.

In the book, Soames exults that the girl is “his.” She is property. With either interpretation, it is as lyric a moment as TV -- or literature -- can offer.

We cannot expect a similar redemptive scene in “The Sopranos.” Tony Soprano blows his top and orders retribution over the deaths of a horse and a dog. That is the limit of his compassion.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth of St. Peter’s College, in Jersey City, N.J., is author of Fordham: A History and Memoir (Loyola Press). His e-mail address is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002