Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Nothing I Own: Original Poetry

And your deep thought from Philosofishal today? An anti-Thanksgiving sort of excerpt from my poem “Nothing I Own” (2010). Inclusion neither constitutes nor forbids endorsement.

And she said to me,
“I would give nothing
That I own, if asked.”
Appalled, I then realized,
Mine is worse, or no better, 
for I would own nothing
So as not to feel obliged.

copyright © C. L. Tangenberg

Looking at just this part of the poem with fresh eyes and new cultural context, I think I’ll file it under Nativism–in all senses of the word. Or Socialism or Communism. Or just re-title it. Or maybe False Freedom. Relativity? Solipsism? Extremism? Bald-faced Sin? Excuses? Seeds of Evil?

But, well . . . how to choose?

Does the first speaker mean she would give only when NOT asked? I.e., it has to be her choice, her original idea? Or, does she really mean she’s keeping it all to herself always?

Is the second speaker, because she is the “I,” the person whose perspective the poem is most squarely about? That would seem to indicate which title fits best.

And yet, can we trust her statement? Are the motivations we claim to have really those we hold? Are the ones we actively claim really the most active among our reasons? How much does social pressure shape our response?

Can there be light, as in true enlightenment, without closely examining the darkness?

Not recalling the rest, can I really analyze only part of a poem, even my own poem, with any authority? How much does context matter? Some say it’s everything. I don’t go quite that far, but it is significant.

So, in order to know what’s at the heart of the art, what message might emerge from the words, you really have to read the whole thing and, in so doing, seek to learn things like:

  • What else was said? What was happening? What is their history? Who are they?
  • Are they both speaking freely or under duress, or is one dominating the other?
  • Is the speech itself merely an instrument of a different, hidden purpose? Is that better or worse? Does she like or dislike her audience?
  • Is it a contest to see who is worse? Americans are generally pretty attached to those.
  • Do they mean what they say, or are they just afraid somehow to be honest?
  • Which is speaking–the authentic self or the wounded inner child?
  • How mistreated do you have to be to feel the need to avoid others at all costs or reap punishment for self-absorption?
  • Is this their way to ensure they get nothing themselves, a sign of self-hatred?

I know. You’ll say I’m reading too much into it, but I’m not really seeing one conclusion or another at all. It’s been too long since I read the whole poem. I’m asking. Because I don’t have the answers. It’s an examination of a small corner of the possibilities of human psychology, social morality, and subjective truths.

So how can I judge? How can you? What can we really know?

If we don’t know what to conclude, there seem to be two active responses open to us. (I’ll get to the passive ones farther down.)

  1. Find out more in order to judge properly, if possible, or
  2. Simply be more open to revelations and to getting it wrong, more tolerant of the lives we are not living in the skins that are not ours, and withhold judgment, learning from the outcomes in the process.

This second option may seem passive, but it is active when it takes skill in self-control to achieve openness, humility, tolerance, and restraint, greater skill than it takes to shout our precipitous verdict from on high.

I try to do the first–investigate–when I can and when I feel it is important to, but I know the effort is often fruitless, takes a lot of time and thought, and rarely aligns with the personal goals that matter more to me, where my energy is better spent. Which leaves the second way.

The active withholding of a decision when you know you’re missing vital information to make it wisely is actually rather wise.

So if it’s not our literal job (yes, literal meaning actual earning of an income to feed oneself and one’s family) to judge something, or if it is our job to know what the heck we’re doing, then what legitimate basis (let alone right) do we have to label someone, to declare a just course, to say what should or should not be done, when knowledge is nowhere to be found?

True freedom is to be measured by what we allow other people in our midst to be and do, not by how free the judging of them makes us feel. A free society must evolve from citizens freeing one another. But do we love liberty or each other enough to evolve into that society? Or, do too many of us prefer the hollow promise of equality and the illusion of government protection to a freedom that demands more individual responsibility?

People seem to love to claim they are holier than thou, which belies any claim to love equality. All claims require basis in fact to be true. And what fact do you know about yourself that cannot be legitimately disputed by those who know you relatively well?

Think about it. All the things we’re most sure of about ourselves–the ones that aren’t patently obvious and therefore unimportant–are often the most objectively questionable. So “Let he among us without sin be the first to condemn” actually means “How dare you condemn, you hypocrite!” There should be no “first” because there is none without sin.

A passive response to not knowing what to make of things, whether it takes the form of forever ignoring a fundamental life question or choosing an arbitrary answer, is more unconscionable to me than the highly visible sins being judged in the first place.

So it has to be either judge wisely or don’t judge, but can such a non-judgmental approach work for everyone, in every role in life?

Can a president, for instance, afford to suspend judgment or be uncertain–ever?

Sure, they have to project a strong front to ward off threats to the country. Frankly, though, and yes, in ironic judgment, I find a publicized persona of sustained high confidence–along with rote, platitudinous rhetoric–in political leaders to be a sign of idiocy and incompetence, not to mention dishonesty. Verdict read. So apparently, the only people I judge harshly and permanently are the judgmental, or those who seem to have more confidence than I. 😉

But in all seriousness: However covertly or discreetly displayed, without actual humility and openness, meaning the capacity to learn, improve, and course-correct, a leader is lost. And what does that make the leader’s country?

Your thoughts?

 

Reflection on “Abandoning Perfection”

A response to the post “Abandoning Perfection” at the blog The Way of Consciousness:

A theme I’m familiar with! I touch on the dangers of perfectionism here and there in my blog. We are all uniquely imperfect, I agree. Perfectly imperfect.

There is so much we don’t know about people’s lives behind apparently perfect facades that it also makes jealousy futile and foolish. The grass always seems greener elsewhere, but once we cross over, it’s not any more. As flawed as life is, I think I’d rather have my own problems than take on someone else’s instead. At least they are familiar.

But you’re on to something there, too, that maybe the things we think are flaws or problems sometimes are instead opportunities, quirks or idiosyncracies, lessons for ourselves or others, or generally purposeful. We unconsciously know we can never really reach perfection, but sometimes it takes intervention to keep us from going after it anyway.

For me, certain struggles I have serve as automatic, involuntary checks against my striving for perfection. I’m grateful for the aspects of my life that have so intervened, as inherently challenging as they are. It’s humbling, and we can all use a little humility, along with a little confidence despite imperfections, in ourselves.

Perfectionism is a dead end and stifles creativity as well as productivity. It can be utterly paralyzing and is definitely stressful. Results are rarely worth the torment. We have to make mistakes if we’re going to learn anything.

Thank you for these reminders and for inspiring me to beat this drum, in solidarity with you, yet agaiDSCN7563wine&bottlen.

And so, a toast to mystery, mistakes, and fruitful flaws.

Cheers. 🙂