The heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire is famously alert to the significance of names; “Blanche DuBois,” as she flirtatiously points out early on in the play, means “white woods.” (“Like an orchard in spring!”) But the most meaningful name in the play may be the one that, unlike that of Blanche or her sister Stella—“Stella for star!”—is never parsed or etymologized by the characters themselves.
Throughout the published text of A Streetcar Named Desire, the name of the plantation once inhabited by the DuBois family—the “great big place with white columns” that pointedly represents the elevated sensibility to which the white-clad Blanche so pathetically clings—appears as “Belle Reve,” (pronounced “bell reeve”). At first glance, the name looks as if it should mean “beautiful dream”: belle after all means “beautiful” and rêve means “dream,” and Williams’s masterwork is, as we all know, about the tragic destruction of the dreams of beauty to which Blanche, like so many other of Williams’s heroines, so pathetically clings. But of course belle rêve means absolutely nothing in French. For the French noun rêve (the “e” is short) is masculine; if the French Huguenot ancestors of whom Blanche boasts (in the scene in which she translates her name) had wanted to call their estate “beautiful dream,” they would have called it Beau Rêve. What they almost certainly did call it was Belle Rive, “Beautiful Riverbank,” which is, in fact, pronounced “bell reeve,” and which is a perfectly sensible name for a house in the Mississippi Delta.
The elision of the sensible if rather ordinary “riverbank” in favor of the far more poetic if grammatically illogical “dream” is—whether Williams intended it or not—a deeply symbolic one. On the one hand, it may be said to represent the heroine’s approach to life. From the moment she shows up on the seedy doorstep of Stella and her crude husband, Stanley Kowalski, it becomes increasingly clear that Blanche’s aim is to replace the mundane, even the sordid—poverty, disgrace, loneliness, encroaching middle age, all the unflattering realities that she associates, in a telling little outburst early in the play, with the naked light bulb that hangs over Stella’s matrimonial bed—with romantic illusions, using whatever means she has to hand: liquor, deceit, costumes, colored paper lanterns. “I don’t want realism,” she cries during her climactic encounter with her shy, sweet suitor, Mitch, after he’s learned that Blanche’s affected refinements conceal a dirty past, “I’ll tell you what I want. Magic!” The action of the play consists of the proc-ess by which Blanche’s magic is eroded and ultimately pulverized by contact with hard reality, embodied by her brother-in-law, Stanley. It is no accident that Stanley is a sexual brute who smirkingly boasts of having pulled his plantation-born wife “down off them columns” into, presumably, the mire of sexual pleasure—of having, in a way, retransformed “Belle Reve” into the muddy “Belle Rive.”
But the original metamorphosis, the enhancement of common delta clay into the stuff of illusory dreams, of “Belle Rive” into the impossible “Belle Reve,” may be said to reflect another sleight of hand that takes place in the text of Streetcar. Here I refer to the character of Blanche herself. In a notoriously vitriolic denunciation of the play composed immediately after its March 1948 New York première, Mary McCarthy described the “thin, sleazy stuff of this character,” the kind of stock figure—the annoying in-law who comes for overlong visits—who, to McCarthy, belongs more properly to the genre of comedy:
…thin, vapid, neurasthenic, romancing, genteel, pathetic, a collector of cheap finery and of the words of old popular songs, fearful and fluttery and awkward, fond of admiration and overeager to obtain it, a refined pushover and perennial and frigid spinster…the woman who inevitably comes to stay and who evokes pity because of her very emptiness, because nothing can ever happen to her since her life is a shoddy magazine story she tells herself in a daydream.1
It is, to say the least, difficult to reconcile this rude vision of Blanche DuBois with the iconic status she has achieved in the half-century since the play’s première: the vanquished but somehow ennobled female victim of male violence, gallantly exiting on the arm of her executioner, the heroically wounded prophetess of art and beauty in the face of crassly reductive visions of what life must be—an emblem, in short, of culture itself. “When, finally, she is removed to the mental home,” Kenneth Tynan wrote, “we should feel that a part of civilisation is going with her.”2
For a production of Streetcar to work, McCarthy’s and Tynan’s wildly opposed characterizations of Blanche must both feel true. Precisely what makes the part so insinuating is the way in which it manages to hold Blanche’s awfulness and her nobility in a kind of logic-defying suspension. There can be little doubt that the decision to endow her with both monstrousness and pathetic allure was a deliberate one on Williams’s part. As he recalled in his memoirs, Williams began writing bits and pieces of what ended up being Streetcar in 1944:
Almost directly after Menagerie went into rehearsals I started upon a play whose first title was Blanche’s Chair in the Moon. But I did only a single scene for it that winter of 1944–45 in Chicago. In that scene Blanche was in some steaming hot Southern town, sitting alone in a chair with the moonlight coming through a window on her, waiting for a beau who didn’t show up. I stopped working on it because I became mysteriously depressed and debilitated and you know how hard it is to work in that condition.
The close relationship between Streetcar and Menagerie explains a great deal about the later play, and in particular about the special quality of the role of Blanche. As I wrote in an earlier essay,3 the two female leads in Menagerie (based loosely on Williams’s mother and sister), represent—very roughly speaking—two extremes of theatrical femininity: the manipulative monster and the pathe-tic victim. It seems quite clear, from the passage in Williams’s memoirs, that even at the earliest stages of her creation, the character of Blanche DuBois was meant to be an amalgam in one character of both female leads in the earlier play—the manic, yearning woman who trades in destructive illusions and the tragic, passive victim of those illusions. “Waiting for a beau who didn’t show up” calls to mind both Amanda Wingfield, who as we know was deserted by her husband, and her shy daughter Laura, whose lameness will, Amanda fears, doom her to spinsterhood.
Desire, Blanche asserts toward the end of Streetcar, in part as an obscure justification of her own promiscuous past, is the “opposite” of death. As a figure who represents both desire and death, who embodies that typical Williamsesque grasping at beauty and the equally typical failure to seize hold of it, Blanche fuses within herself the confused, frenetically “desiring” Amanda Wingfield with the almost marmoreally passive and funereal figure of the futile Laura (Blanche’s trajectory from desire to death is famously symbolized by the fact that she’s taken streetcars named “Desire” and “Cemeteries” to arrive at the neighborhood called “Elysian Fields”).
This is why, for Streetcar to succeed—for the play to evoke the idiosyncratic quality that is so important to Williams’s sensibility, the tragic allure of broken beauty, the way in which our illusions can be lovely and destructive simultaneously—Blanche must be convincing as both a monster and a victim. Another way to put this is that she has to delude the audience as successfully as she has deluded herself; must force us, as she forces the other characters (at least for a time) to see her as she wants to be seen, as well as how she really is. It’s a fine and difficult line for an actress to walk. If she’s played as a delicate neurasthenic, her tragedy has no traction—she’s just a loon. She is, after all, not an innocent victim: she’s cruel to Stella, irritatingly (and ultimately dangerously) flirtatious with Stanley, manipulative and deceitful with Mitch; and as we know, she herself is guilty of the kind of deliberate cruelty to another human being which Williams held to be particularly reprehensible. (We learn that her young homosexual husband killed himself after she humiliated him at a dance.) If, on the other hand, you strip away all the pathos, she’s just an alcoholic fabulist—the comic strip figure of McCarthy’s vision, the pesky in-law who hogs the bathroom.
It is precisely between the pathological delusions and the unpleasant manipulativeness that the fascination of this character lies. Blanche is enormously appealing, both to the many actresses who yearn to play her and to the audiences who continue to yearn to see her again and again having her nervous collapse, because she has the same kind of outsized, illogical but nonetheless irresistible character that Medea and Clytemnestra do. None of the three is conventionally sympathetic, since they all do reprehensible things, and yet they are unmistakably heroines, too. Like her Greek tragic sisters, Blanche is caught in a hard world, ruled by aggressive men; however repellent the few tricks women have at their disposal—deception, seduction, “magic”—these characters must somehow evoke our sympathies more than our revulsion.
I have dwelt at some length on the character of Blanche DuBois because she is, in a way, a kind of template for the play itself, which like Blanche suffers from a certain degree of illogic, perhaps even self-delusion. I am not referring to certain aspects of the plot or narrative that other critics have found troublesome, in particular the way in which Williams, for neither the first nor the last time, overloads his characters and action with rather an excess of psychological and historical baggage. (Would our sense of the play, or even its meaning, be radically different if Blanche, in addition to being a drunk, having lost the family estate, and having been run out of town for being a tramp, hadn’t also had a gay first husband who’d shot himself at a cotillion? Probably not.)
But it’s interesting how this play, like others in the Williams repertoire, never seems to work through a coherent position with respect to the key terms with which it seeks to create its meanings, terms such as “realism” and “beauty” and “lies” and “truth” and “art.” Perhaps its greatest sleight of hand is to have convinced so many people that it’s about the losing battle between beauty, poetry, and fantasy, on the one hand, and crassness, vulgarity, and brute “realism” on the other—and convinced them to root for the former—without ever quite engaging the provocative question of why “reality” must always be ugly, and why “art,” in these plays, is always presented as a liar, why it always has such an aversion to the truth, to reality—as of course good art does not. In a way, the play, like Blanche, succeeds only if it doesn’t make you wonder about such internal inconsistencies—doesn’t, as it were, make you wonder about “Belle Reve.”
I think it is fair to say that the special complexity and richness necessary for a performance of Streetcar to succeed on its creator’s terms are wholly lacking in the big new production of the play that has just opened on Broadway, starring Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly. As with the equally vacuous production of Glass Menagerie which is running concurrently, the problem lies essentially in a failure by the director and the lead actress to understand the central female part—a particularly costly error when performing Williams. And here again, a concomitant misapprehension about the lead male role makes nonsense of the play’s themes.
Precisely because so much of what Blanche actually does on stage is part of the monstrous aspect of her character—her baiting of her sister, her seductive teasing of Stanley, the toying with Mitch, and of course the ceaseless lying—Williams again and again in his script insists on a certain visual and verbal delicacy and flutter, which are expressions of the other Blanche, the vulnerable and wounded creature who must somehow capture our sympathy. Her “delicate beauty,” he instructs, “must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.”
Indeed, as we know, from the very earliest stages of writing the play Williams conceived of Blanche as a nocturnal creature; we remember that first image of Blanche, before there was even a play for her to inhabit, “sitting alone in a chair with the moonlight coming through a window on her, waiting for a beau who didn’t show up.” The nervous fluttering of moth wings is audible in the speeches that Williams wrote for Blanche, too—in her stammering hesitations and nervous repetitions. (“But don’t you look at me, Stella, no, no, no, not till later, not till I’ve bathed and rested! And turn that over-light off! Turn that off!”)
These qualities are admirably conveyed in Vivien Leigh’s definitive performance in the 1951 film version of the play—a film that every Blanche, and perhaps even more every Stanley, must somehow contend with. It is true that a certain degree of nuance is possible in film, with its close-ups and immaculate sound, that the stage actor must forgo. But even accounting for this, you’re struck by the ingenuity and effectiveness of Leigh’s performance, from the slightly desperate way she clutches Stella’s arm when the two sisters embrace at their first meeting, to the slightly hysterical way her voice hits the word “tired” when she tells Stella, coming off the streetcar, that she’s “just all shaken up…and hot…and dirty…and tired.” And yet she also uses her slightly worn beauty with just the right degree of aggressiveness in her first scene with Stanley—a reminder that the fragility coexists with a certain hardness.
Neither physically nor temperamentally is Natasha Richardson, the star of the new production, suited for this exquisitely complicated role. Part of the equipment that stage actors, far more than movie actors, must work with in creating a character are the bodies and faces that God (or whoever) gave them, and in this respect it must be said Ms. Richardson has much to overcome when it comes to roles that require confusion and vulner-ability. She has the unthreatening, scrubbed, pleasant blond looks you associate with captains of girls’ hockey teams; quite tall to begin with, she has inexplicably been given what looked to me to be six-inch heels to wear in this new production, with the result that she clomps around the stage looming over the other actors, exuding the healthy if sexless glow of an Amazon—or, given her coloring, perhaps a Valkyrie.
To my mind, the heartiness of Richardson’s physique is reflected in her acting. Like Gwyneth Paltrow, another daughter of a famous and gifted actress, Richardson is a star whose performances feel more than anything like the result of an elaborate series of calculations; you feel the will, the determination behind every word and gesture. In this performance, she seemed to be compensating for a lack of natural sympathy with the character by means of exaggerated tics: in particular, her hands shook violently every time she was called upon to suggest anxiety or instability—a caricature rather than a true performance.
And indeed, as I watched Ms. Richardson on two occasions, moving around the enormous and awkwardly designed set (Stella’s two-room apartment is raised on a platform center stage, so the actors are constantly having to step clumsily up or down), I kept trying to think what the awkward bigness, the loping strides, the quality of caricature, the avidity reminded me of. It wasn’t till I’d left the theater that I remembered what it was: drag performers “doing” Blanche. In this Streetcar, you don’t get Williams’s Blanche, with all her queer contradictions, so much as a Blanche who’s been mediated by the performances we’ve already seen—not Blanche but “Blanche,” the quippy camp queen (Richardson plays a good many lines for laughs—as for instance her remark that “only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe” could do justice to Stella’s rundown neighborhood—that, as Leigh’s performance makes clear, are all the more telling if downplayed); Blanche the cultural icon of affirmation and determination, qualities we like to admire in women today.
For all the obvious twitching and slurring, Ms. Richardson’s Blanche looked like a powerful young woman at the top of her game. Watching her I found it hard not to draw comparisons between this Blanche and Jessica Lange’s Amanda Wingfield. In both performances, the appalling, neurotic aspects of the characters (as opposed to mere tics) were being edged out, as it were, by the “strong” side—the side that has greater appeal, in other words, for today’s audiences, the side that allows these women to be heroic in a way we want women to be today.
The big, sexless Blanche of Edward Hall’s new production finds her match in a sexless, big Stanley Kowalski. An obvious problem of casting this part is the gigantic shadow cast by the remarkable, career-making performance by Marlon Brando, which electrified Broadway audiences and was, no doubt to the chagrin of every actor who’s undertaken the role ever since, admirably preserved in the 1951 film. Hall clearly believed that the best way to avoid invidious comparisons was to avoid altogether the idea of casting someone straightforwardly sexy (someone even like Alec Baldwin, who played the role to Jessica Lange’s Blanche in the 1992 revival on Broadway) as Stanley.
But the perverse casting of the excellent but grotesquely inappropriate John C. Reilly in the role of Stanley Kowalski, while it makes us aware that we are in the presence of a director who is eager to “rethink” a classic, suggests that the director does not understand the play. Here is what Williams asks for in his Stanley:
He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens…his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer.
Reilly, who has the physique of a character actor—he’s a big, soft-bellied man who slides easily into roles of long-suffering blue-collar husbands, such as the one in the Los Angeles sequences in The Hours—fails to suggest any of the qualities Williams seeks. The problem is not that he’s rather pleasantly homely, or that he appears to spend less time in the gym than Ms. Richardson does. The problem is that he isn’t someone who strikes you as a cocky “seed-bearer,” or gives you the slightest impression that “pleasure with women” has been the center of his life from earliest manhood. There are large actors—John Goodman, for instance—who have no trouble convincing you that they’re good in bed. Reilly is not one of them.
An intelligent actor, Reilly compensates by giving a performance that emphasizes another much-discussed aspect of Stanley’s character, which is the fact that he’s a working-class American of Polish descent. His Stanley is loud, bearish, crude—someone who corresponds more or less exactly to what Blanche clearly has in mind when she refers to him, contemptuously, as a “Polack.” But the horrible irony of casting Reilly, or of Reilly’s understandable default decision to play him as a crass vulgarian, is that the Stanley you end up getting in this Streetcar is itself a kind of delusion. As the entire action of the play makes clear, Blanche’s harping on the class issue—her insinuations that the “Polack” is an inappropriate match for a DuBois—is a cover for what’s really bothering her, which is his raw sexual power, to which she responds flirtatiously from the very start and which of course comes back to destroy her in the latter part of the play, when Stanley finally rapes her. (“We’ve had this date from the beginning,” he gloats, and he’s right.) To play Stanley as more vulgar than sexy is precisely to shy away from what’s at the heart of the play—sex—as determinedly as Blanche, in her delusional mode, does.
It is unfortunate that neither of the leads in the current production is able to convey sexual heat, since there is evidence that Williams himself recognized that it was precisely that energy, flowing across the stage, that could dissolve some of the objections to the play’s ostensible inconsistencies. In the memoirs, he tells an amusing anecdote about the 1948 New Haven tryout of Streetcar:
After the New Haven opening night we were invited to the quarters of Mr. Thornton Wilder, who was in residence there. It was like having papal audience. We all sat about this academic gentleman while he put the play down as if delivering a papal bull. He said that it was based upon a fatally mistaken premise. No female who had ever been a lady (he was referring to Stella) could possibly marry a vulgarian such as Stanley.
We sat there and listened to him politely. I thought, privately, This character has never had a good lay.
Wilder’s objection arises out of the same critical impulse that fueled McCarthy’s. (“She must,” she complained of Blanche, “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 the power of “a good lay”—and, indeed, of desire—explains a lot of what happens in the play, from Stella’s connection to Stanley to Blanche’s pathetic behavior—her confusion of sex with desire, of desire with love, an emotion to which, in her life, only generic “kindness” has ever come close.
You could, indeed, say that sex is the very core of Streetcar’s commentary on illusion, reality, truth, and lies, since it’s the object of Blanche’s hypocrisy, the vehicle of her undoing. Sex and desire serve the same purpose in this play that poverty and vanity do in The Glass Menagerie: they are the solvents that corrode the characters’ pretensions, the hard surfaces against which their delusions shatter, leaving the vulnerable and pathetic interior visible to our shocked, and ultimately sympathetic, gaze. (The final scene of Streetcar should leave you with the same almost shamed horror that the final scene of Menagerie does.) For the revelation to which this drama leads is that despite her veneer of plantation-bred gentility, Blanche is not as white as her name so famously suggests; she was, we learn, run out of Laurel, Mississippi, for her promiscuity, which culminates in her seduction of an underage boy.
This is why it’s important for the actress portraying Blanche to be able to convey the confused sexual avidity that lurks beneath her blurred and desperate gentility. She may denounce Stanley as an “animal,” but she herself is all too familiar with the animal pleasures he represents. (Similarly, she chastises her relatives for having bankrupted the family through “their epic fornications”—“the four letter word deprived us of our plantation”—although she too, as we know, is an epic fornicator.) Our desire to see Blanche simplistically, as a heroine of the poetic, has made it easy to forget about her carnality, about the fact that she is, in many ways, not the opposite but the double of Stanley. What is moving about Blanche is what is moving about so many of Williams’s pathetic, tortured females: not that she isn’t what claims to be—some kind of virginal “beauty” violated by Stanley’s reductive, goat-like “reality” (Stanley, after all, has intense romantic feelings, and waxes poetic about lovemaking)—but that she can still cling to her notions of beauty after wallowing in so much ugly reality herself.
The tortured complexity typical of the play’s characters extends to its presentation of sex: the action leads to a climactic sexual encounter between the two that is at once a rape and the inevitable culmination of Blanche’s hidden desire. In the film, the sexual energy between Leigh and Brando crackles from the minute she drinks in the sight of him; the fact that Brando—it can be hard to remember this—looked almost shockingly, prettily boyish in the film, despite his muscles, gives texture to the relationship, since we know that Blanche has a special interest in teenagers. (At one point, she makes a play for a newspaper boy.)
But on the stage of Studio 54, there’s no sexual energy, and hence no climax, no provocative complexity—there’s just a lot of noise. Reilly in particular compensates for his lack of allure by turning up the volume, and so you feel the potential of violence in Stanley (a character who, as even his wife admits, loves to smash things) but not the potential seductiveness—the thing that got Stella to come down off of them columns. At a certain moment I realized that he reminded me of Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners—another big galoot who’s rough with the women around him. Without the transformative power of sex—the power that for Williams, in so many plays, can effect the metamorphosis of the ordinary into the sublime, a power that is, like so much else in this author’s work, like Blanche herself, at once base and exalted—the play had indeed become precisely the play that Mary McCarthy said it was: a simplistic farce about annoying in-laws who outstay their visit.
Stripped of its key element, stranded between the “daring” pretensions of its director and subtle text of the play itself, between the tragedy it is meant to be and the comedy into which it can so awkwardly descend, this Streetcar doesn’t take you anywhere—not to desire, not to cemeteries, certainly not to the blissful Elysian Fields. You leave Studio 54, in fact, with no strong emotions at all—certainly none of the deep feelings that Williams at his best can evoke: the odd and illogical admixture of horror and pity and shamed pathos, those tenderer and more awkward emotions whose unflinching exploration is his great talent as a dramatist, his great accomplishment as a humanist.
And a Streetcar thus denatured, one that leaves you politely tepid, that’s about people with no particularly interesting passions, is not only a play Williams wouldn’t have written—it’s a play he went out of his way not to write. What else, after all, can you conclude from another, final oddity in the text of this play that has to do with the meaning of names—with the way in which verbal conventions can get elided by wishful thinking? I have always wondered why, if Blanche DuBois was indeed married at an early age to a tragic young homosexual—and if she is as invested in social propriety as she claims—she is not known, in the play, by her married name. But then, who would want to sit through a drama about a character named Blanche Gray?
—This is the second of two articles on recent productions of Tennessee Williams’s plays.
June 9, 2005
Mary McCarthy, “A Streetcar Called Success,” A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays, edited by A.O. Scott (New York Review Books, 2002), p. 41. ↩
Kenneth Tynan, Curtains (Atheneum, 1961), p. 263. ↩