Roving thoughts and provocations

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Cate Blanchett and Blanche Dubois

Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois (Lisa Tomasetti/Brooklyn Academy of Music)

At one point during Blanche’s final mad scene in the Sydney Theater Company’s much discussed revival of Tennessee Williams’s modern-day masterwork, which just concluded its sold-out run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a woman sitting across the row from me began to sob uncontrollably. Despite her obvious pain, she could not look away from the stage’s brightly lit scene of daytime disaster. One wondered about the source of that spectator’s tears. Was it the sight of Blanche being led to her dark future, her sister Stella’s flush cheeked confusion, or both?

You might recall the moment: Stella has just had a baby. Returning home from the hospital, she sets about restoring order to her home. First things first. She commits her older sister to a mental institution. Stella, it seems, cannot live with this truth: that Stanley, her husband, has raped Blanche. Stella prefers to treat Blanche’s report as further proof of her madness. The new mother loves her sister, but she loves her life more. If she believed any aspect of what Blanche had to say, she’d have to leave Stanley, and forego those aspects of her existence that Blanche envies — and has contempt for. Without a man, though, who would Stella be? Her marriage defines her. To divorce Stanley would mean she’d probably end up as her sister’s custodian, thereby becoming another member of the pitiful, powerless female world Blanche is a member of.

But as Williams makes clear about half way through his 1947 drama, Stella would never dream of leaving Stanley. His crude, working class demeanor degrades the memory of his wife’s genteel upbringing in Mississippi. (“I pulled you down off those columns.”) As a result, Stanley makes Stella feel alive, turned on, present. And in order not to forfeit that feeling, Stella is complicit in her own brutalization, and, ultimately, her sister’s. In fact, Blanche matters less to Stella than her future as a happily conventional woman, dutifully attending to her home, and honoring her husband.

Relatively few feminists have yet to articulate—sans ideology—the ways in which some women may find stereotypical male behavior necessary, if only to act out its supposed counterpart, “femininity.” Part of Williams’s genius, of course, was to recognize this dynamic, and to not overstate it. Still, the playwright’s sensitivity to character—and to female characters in particular—was little appreciated, if not misconstrued and ultimately dismissed altogether, when Mary McCarthy reviewed the show in 1948. In her piece, the writer more or less characterizes Williams as a mincing faggot, dramaturgically speaking, thus unqualified to write about heterosexual lives except as a kind of pornographer. But McCarthy doesn’t stop there; she goes on to equate Williams with his delusional heroine, saying that, as a writer, he seems “addicted to the embroidery lie.”

In the end, McCarthy’s distaste for Williams’s work is not unlike Stanley’s for Blanche’s dreams. Nevertheless, McCarthy was criticizing the play for what it isn’t, which is to say Ibsen-inspired realism; in fact, Blanche’s famous claim that “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” was a cry against the stodgy, realist, and I might add heterocentric theatrical style of the time. (The men in Arthur Miller’s post-war world, for instance, are never without long-suffering wives who put their husbands first.) But McCarthy doesn’t much like Blanche, either. The critic takes after her with the single-mindedness of a misogynistic homophobe. McCarthy writes: “The thin sleazy stuff,” of Blanche’s character “must be embellished by Mr. Williams with all sorts of arty decorations,” because, in McCarthy’s view, there’s so little to Blanche. She even finds Blanche’s backstory frustratingly contrived, saying: “It is not enough that [Blanche] should be a drunkard (this in itself is plausible); she must also be a notorious libertine who has been run out of a small town like a prostitute, a thing absolutely inconceivable for a woman to whom conventionality is the end of existence.”

But part of Blanche’s tragedy is that even though she tries on conventionality when she takes up with Mitch, it doesn’t fit: her intelligence and status as a defiant outsider keep getting in the way. (Stanley and Mitch’s horror and fascination with Blanche’s sexuality is a kind of trope; what really frightens and excites them is her very individual way of seeing things. Blanche can comment on her femininity even as she tries to exploit it. But she knows when she can’t turn the trick, either. Blanche to Stanley: “I cannot imagine any witch of a woman casting a spell over you.”)

Perhaps McCarthy, like Stanley and Mitch, was ultimately too uncomfortable with Blanche’s queerness. She is unmarried, but she has loved. She has no money, no property, and no social equity, and yet her memories of the boys she took to her breast are a kind of sustenance, too. Williams lets us in on Blanche’s difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isn’t enough to be soft.” Blanche to the Young Man she’d like to trick with: “I’m not a conventional person, and I’m so—restless today….” Blanche to Mitch about her dead gay husband: “There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s, although he wasn’t the least bit effeminate looking—still—that thing was there….He came to me for help. I didn’t know that I didn’t find out anything till after our marriage when we’d run away and come back and all I knew was I’d failed him in some mysterious way and wasn’t able to give the help he needed but couldn’t speak of!” Blanche is the forerunner of certain other Williams characters in his gallery of difference.

There is some Blanche in Brinda, the black woman who must endure the crude advances of a white nurse who feels he can treat her badly because she’s black in Williams’s long 1964 story, “Mama’s Old Stucco House.” Blanche’s affectations are less modified in Candy Delaney, from the writer’s 1970 play, “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens….” She is also part of the spirit Williams expresses through his verse in his 1966 play, “The Mutilated”: I THINK THE STRANGE, THE CRAZED, THE QUEER / WILL HAVE THEIR HOLIDAY THIS YEAR / AND FOR A WHILE, A LITTLE WHILE, THERE WILL BE PITY FOR THE WILD. A MIRACLE, A MIRACLE! A SANCTUARY FOR THE WILD.”

In “Streetcar,” Blanche is partly undone by the gossip Stanley spreads about her. He tells Mitch about all the men and boys his sister-in-law’s slept with in her hometown, and how she was suspended from her job teaching high school English. Mitch, feeling duped, goes over to the Kowalskis’ and confronts Blanche. He then tries to sleep with her. Why not? She’s cheap goods. To get rid of him, Blanche threatens to scream fire. Given that Mitch is her last hope of ever escaping Stanley and Stella’s home and living a “respectable” life, Blanche should be hysterical for the rest of the play. But under Liv Ullman’s direction, Cate Blanchett doesn’t vibrate with the kind of intensity and need for acceptance that one generally associates with an outsider. Instead, Blanchett’s Blanche tries to engage with, or defy, the male members of the Kowalski-centered community. Ullman and Blanchett’s Blanche is entirely too sturdy a woman. She’s an intellectually superior being who doesn’t so much engage with her sister as lecture her. Ullman uses her vulnerability to advance the plot; in the process, she doesn’t add anything especially insightful to our understanding of Blanche, and seems to find humor in her nearly indefatigable need to connect.

The actors traverse the large set with little ease, and certainly no understanding of the thick New Orleans atmosphere that Williams insinuates into the action of the play like a minor but important character. Under Ullman’s direction, the Kowalskis’ suffocating apartment is just one more prop, like one of Blanche’s summer furs; Ullman never infuses the rooms with a sense of foreboding, or dread. This is obvious from the moment Blanche arrives. Stella and Stanley aren’t there; their landlady and neighbor, Eunice, shows Blanche in. As Eunice chatters on, Blanche rudely cuts her off. But instead of exhibiting a mix of emotions—gratitude, her own wretchedness—she merely barks at the proprietress, like a drill sergeant. Left alone, the errant schoolteacher spies a bottle of liquor and takes a big, hearty gulp, again less out of a feeling of desperation than as a way of quenching her thirst.

Enter Joel Edgerton as Stanley Kolwalski. While Edgerton stresses—as he must—Kowalski’s physical appeal he, like the rest of the cast (Robin McLeavy’s Stella Kowalski is especially weak; her Stella sounds and acts like an emotionally underwhelmed schoolgirl) shrinks in relation to Blanchett’s star wattage, her air of unvanquished health. Still, Edgerton doesn’t act with any real sense of urgency; he keeps close to Williams’s text while trying not to mimic Marlon Brando, who still owns the part.

One requires a Brando-like intensity to play Blanche, but Blanchett doesn’t yet seem to possess the kind of imagination that understands degradation; she is too competitive a spirit to grovel where Blanche has groveled in order to stay alive. In fact, the moments leading up to Blanche’s rape—the cutting of the final chord of reality—rang especially false, because Blanchett plays it as though Blanche is drunk, confused, fitful, and not as a willing female victim to Stanley’s male need for control; she is ultimately relegated to the life of tragic mundanity she has tried so valiantly to escape, while Stella runs towards it.

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