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.

2013: contents inventoried, the “artist’s way”

I have taken an inventory of art I produced and enjoyed in 2013, a sort of artist’s résumé. Never mind publishing or selling most of these. There are as many things simply enjoyed as created, anyway. This is art for art’s sake, in the spirit of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Behold my “artist’s dates.”

  • 2 acrylic paintings on canvas at Wine and Canvas.
  • 1 acrylic painting on paper, created in the shade of our back deck gazebo one warm, sunny summer afternoon.
  • 1 confidence decoy painting of a wooden killdeer.
  • 3 still-life nature sketches. 1 bunch of crab apples with stems and leaves, 1 canine skull, and 1 set of seed pods in a glass jar.
  • numerous colored mandalas and other pictures using crayons, colored pencils, and markers.
  • created 2 zentangle designs using an extremely fine-tipped black pen.
  • 4 or 5 journal-entry essays.
  • attended 2 plays and a ballet — Richard III, Wicked, and The Nutcracker, respectively.
  • participated in an hour of dance at Dance Dance Party Party-Akron several times.
  • explored several new parks and trails in the Summit County MetroParks.
  • witnessed wildlife including great blue herons, a Cooper’s hawk, tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, cerulean warblers, an eastern meadowlark, tree swallows, American woodcock (at dusk, a lopsided-looking fellow), common nighthawk (same twilight outing), raccoons, red-spotted salamander, deer bucks and does, hummingbirds, rabbits, swallowtail butterflies, a praying mantis, ants in my house, and a hummingbird moth on my butterfly bush.
  • learned about 30 some species of warbler in a five-part nature class.
  • a few poems, one revised and polished (nature themed, of course).
  • visited the Akron Art Museum for 3 exhibits: “Real/Surreal,” “Line, Color, Illusion,” featuring artist Julian Stanczak’s work, and a photography exhibit on the theme of capturing people’s absences, called “With a Trace.”
  • attended the Irish Fest in late summer on the river front in Cuyahoga Falls, watching kids play in the fountain and listening to an Irish band in the amphitheater with friends.
  • tutored students to create satirical cartoons, interpret historical art, and analyze poems, non-fiction, short stories, and novels.
  • read books for classics book club and my own edification.
  • watched many new and recent films and TV shows, as well as old favorites, including Black Swan and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
  • sang in my car, at home, and at a Christmas service.
  • made a collage as one of The Artist’s Way chapter tasks.
  • danced around the house.
  • helped make Halloween cookies and decorate for a dual-purpose Dad’s surprise birthday and Halloween party (he was surprised).
  • browsed and bought handmade jewelry and holiday rubber stamps, and viewed other local artists’ work, at the Cuyahoga Valley Art Center.
  • made several Halloween greeting cards using my mother’s scrapbooking and card making supplies from Archiver’s; sent them to friends and family.
  • met weekly with my Morning Pagers group for brunch at Caffe Gelato in North Canton for mutual encouragement, commiseration, and inspiration.
  • attended off-season NaNoWriMo meet-ups with our Canton regional Municipal Liaison, in addition to writing a novel in November.
  • took photographs at home and out and about; refined and printed some, giving a few as gifts.
  • my first complete novel draft.
  • and much more!

I also completed oodles of morning pages throughout the year.

It’s amazing how much and how well my way has become an artist’s way over the past year. 2014, here I come! I plan to try painting pottery for the first time soon, to continue nature drawing, try other new activities, and develop my skills in some art forms already explored.

My advice to blocked or otherwise yearning artists? Get out there and play the artist’s way. Note: It helps tremendously to read and follow the program of the book. I especially recommend doing this with a friend or a group of fellow creatives to help motivate you and hold you accountable. Play on.