Monday, October 31, 2011

A Streetcar Named Depressing

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out the streetcar route Blanche Dubois took to get to her sister’s house, although by then all but one streetcar had been replaced by buses.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. 

Even before Stan becomes openly violent, we can see the classic signs of an abuser. He responds to one of Stella’s requests with an affronted “Since when do you give me orders?” and answers her reluctance to do something with “I told you to”. It’s obvious where the power lines are drawn in this family. Stan also assumes wrongly that Stella’s lost inheritance is half his, but inheritances and property owned before the marriage are treated as separate property in Louisiana. At the same time, he treats his income, which is community property, as all his. The day after Stanley hits her, Stella tells Blanche that Stan doesn’t give her “a regular allowance” but that he gave her ten dollars “to make up for last night”. So to Stanley, what’s Stella’s is his and what’s his is his. Blanche quite rightly sees this as frightening, but because Blanche’s opinion of Stanley is mixed up with her ideas of gentility and breeding, she can’t make her case convincingly. Stella doesn’t see herself as being in trouble, and Blanche might have been just as critical of a working class descendent of recent immigrants who treated Stella with gentleness and respect. 

So there’s a tragedy brewing here, and it’s not the one that ends the play. In the scene with the poker game and the following one, we see the whole cycle of violence: the tension building phase, the violent outburst, and the honeymoon, starting with Stanley’s poignant calling to Stella in the street and continuing with his giving her ten dollars. What Stella doesn’t know is that in the cycle of violence, over time, the honeymoon phase becomes shorter and shorter and eventually ceases to exist. 

Stanley blames Blanche for the growing cracks in his marriage, and begs Stella to remember how they used to “get those colored lights going”. Unfortunately for Stan, Blanche is not his real problem. Even if she had stayed in Laurel living out her role as the dipsomaniac school teacher who only sent Christmas cards, another relative who drinks constantly, invades their privacy, takes a lot of baths, and shows only a tenuous grasp of reality testing is about to arrive on the Kowalski doorstep in the form of a baby. Blanche provides a foreshadowing that I doubt the author intended, but one way or the other, the honeymoon is going to be over. 

In the meantime, there is Blanche. Blanche with her pretensions of gentility even though she has a sex life. How dare she. And how dare she have had sex with other men and not be willing to put out for her suitor Mitch. True, it is hard to make excuses for her sexual exploitation of one of her students, but five years later in Tea and Sympathy, Laura Reynolds will have sex with one of her husband’s students and she’s the heroine, not a slut. Of course, Reynolds only motivation is to keep the student, Tom Lee, from thinking he is gay, or so she tells herself. In the 1971 film, Summer of 1942, Dorothy, a recent war widow, has sex with a 15 year old in what’s billed as a “coming of age” movie. Two other movies from the same year, Red Sky at Dawn and The Last Picture Show featured relationships between teen boys and older adult women. So why does poor Blanche, who at least has the excuse that she is permanently stuck at 16 herself, get blamed for a relationship with someone who is  over the age of consent? Blanche is a snapshot of mid-twentieth century attitudes toward women and sex: don’t have sex because you like it, do it for someone else; once you have decided to become “promiscuous”, there is no going back to restraint; and worst of all, sexually active women are more horrifying than violent husbands. Mitch could say with a straight face that Blanche is “not clean enough to be in the same house with my mother” while he plays poker with a man who punches his pregnant wife.

In reading reviews of the 1951 movie version, I found out something I did not know. In the film version, Stella leaves Stan after he rapes Blanche, because the Hays code demanded that rape must be punished. Here’s something I never thought I would say, let’s hear it for the Hays code. The Hays code only allowed the rape scene to be shown at all if done “tastefully”. One reviewer commented that when scenes omitted by Hollywood censers were added back in later years, the rape actually appeared “less brutal”. Yes, what we really need is a less brutal, more “tasteful” rape in a drama about pretense and reality. Damn, I need to quit buying these cheap irony meters.

Williams was not happy with the “Hollywood ending” of the film and I have to say I agree with him. Stella is not going to leave Stan, because she has nowhere to go. As we learn from Blanche, all their family and property are gone. With Blanche committed to an asylum, Stella has nobody and nothing but Stan. She tries to pretend that the rape is just one more of her sister’s fantasies, but she knows the truth. Stan knows she knows the truth. Stan is going to have to punish her more and more for knowing the truth.

The final irony is that as Blanche is taken away, the victim of her delusions, everyone else can pretend that they have no delusions of their own. Stan can pretend that soon he and Stella will get those colored lights going again. Stella can pretend that the rape only happened in her sister’s imagination. Mitch can pretend that his friend’s violence is somehow more defensible than his girlfriend’s sexual past. And the audience can pretend that years down the road, Stella and Stan won’t have a tragedy of their own, one that could easily end with one of them dead. Blanche, the victim of illusions, saw that more clearly than anyone else.


  1. Wow, powerful commentary on a play I have always found very problematic. As someone who has worked at a shelter let me say you absolutely nailed the dynamics of the abuser/ee realtionship.

  2. Thanks for the nice comment. There's a reason I know so much about the dynamics of abuse, but fortunately I got out of that situation. I like your word "problematic" for this play. It's a masterpiece, but a very disturbing one. Much like the books you've been reviewing lately, it's hard to tell the author's point of view toward his characters' behavior.

  3. This is a good commentary. This play has been historically well thought of with great reviews but I find it dark and depressing, with its themes of domestic violence, dysfunctional relationships, delusions, insanity, homosexuality, suicide and rape, as well as other things. The commentary was correct - there are no likeable characters in this play.