We have season tickets to our local Little Theater performances, as I may have mentioned before. This year, the second performance is of A Streetcar Named Desire, a show I had no desire to see. I read the play when I was in high school, and have seen snippets of the movie on TV, although I have never wanted to watch it all the way through. I can’t imagine why not: domestic violence, rape, slut shaming, stigmatizing of mental illness, what’s not to like.
John wanted to see it, so I went along. “There is not one likable character in the entire play,” I grumbled, “And the general theme seems to be ‘Eat or be eaten’. Not that I want to bias you or anything.” (Later he was to comment, “The doctor seemed nice at the end”.)
Back when I lived in New Orleans, I tried to work out the streetcar route Blanche Dubois took to get to her sister’s house, although by then all but one streetcar had been replaced by buses. As I’m sure many a tourist has found out, it can’t be done. Tennessee Williams selected the real New Orleans street names for their symbolic value, not the accuracy of their transit routes. So our play arrives already loaded with three streetcars’ worth of symbolism. That makes it hard for our characters to function as real people.
It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the characters. I really do. Blanche’s story is heartbreaking. Stanley finds himself paying for the extended visit of a woman who has said she finds him subhuman, and who he believes may have cheated his wife out of a small fortune. Stella is putting up with their feuds while pregnant through a New Orleans summer. I can sympathize, I just don’t like any of them.
I remember discussing the play with some friends back in high school. Somehow the question was raised of whether you would rather be a Stanley or a Blanche. I am ashamed to say that I did not know back then to point out that those aren’t one’s only choices in life. The play’s ambiguous treatment of violence leaves me wondering whether Williams knew those aren’t the only choices, either. Williams gives a chillingly accurate depiction of domestic violence in Stan and Stella’s marriage, right down to the way everyone except Blanche shrugs it off with, “They’ll be okay. They’re crazy about each other.” Blanche’s sexual activity is presented as far more shocking and deserving of censure than is Stanley’s willingness to use his fists on his pregnant wife.