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.

Five-Phrase Friday (27): Oscars Race

The Oscars cometh on February 28, as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy resurges, and everyone wonders just how show host Chris Rock will address it all.

With little viewing experience of this year’s Oscar contenders, I’ve set a preliminary list of Academy Award-nominated films and artists I’d most like to see. I’ve seen and enjoyed The Martian and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (twice on the big screen), but there are many more performances worth seeing, stories worth experiencing. The 88th Annual Academy Awards is just another touchstone of an opportunity to learn about them.

It actually took me until this post to bother to look up the synopses for the films I’m less familiar with, which is ironic since I’m hosting our second annual Oscars party on Sunday. Oh well. I just care more about Outlander than movies right now, I guess.

My roughly prioritized selections are based on genre interests, preferred actors and other movie makers, Oscar buzz, feminist leanings, and sheer curiosity.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road – for the  impeccable and unique film editing of Margaret Sixel, wife of director George Miller, plus Charlize Theron and her women warriors’ badassness. I’d like to get to know Tom Hardy’s work better, too.
  2. The Revenant – Wilderness and Leo and, again, Tom Hardy, and bears and buzz.
  3. Room or Carol or Joy, depending on mood – Curious about Brie Larson’s performance in Room, long-time fan of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, co-stars of Carol; and love Jennifer Lawrence, too. Saw The Hunger Games, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook already, and Joy will be particularly uplifting, I think. Yeah, I guess Joy will be the first of these three that I see.
  4. The Hateful Eight – Tarantino, people. Tarantino. Plus, cast and music.
  5. Spotlight – curiosity about the history/story, plus a great cast.

And as for the snubbed, if I get around to it:

  1. Woman in Gold Helen Mirren seen by some to have been snubbed for lead actress in this and supporting in Trumbo. Co-starring Ryan Reynolds, a WWII Jewish cultural heritage story. Always liked both actors.
  2. Steve Jobs because I like Aaron Sorkin‘s writing; I love Fassbender and Winslet.
  3. Straight Outta Compton – As a white girl and 80s New Wave fan, I’ll get to learn some new things, gain greater music and cultural appreciation from my youth.
  4. Inside Out – It’s supposed to be interesting.
  5. Bridge of Spies – WWII and Hanks usually work. Spielberg‘s the apparent snub here.

I have no desire to see The Big Short, Brooklyn, Creed, or Concussion despite all the hype, mainly due to subject matter, though I’ve heard Brooklyn is also underwhelming.

The Danish Girl sounds interesting, but I have yet to see The Theory of Everything on my DVR, so I haven’t become enamored of Eddie Redmayne yet. I’ve also seen what are probably more compelling transgender works in both film and TV. If anything, I’ll revisit Transamerica, for which Felicity Huffman earned a Golden Globe nod (2005) for playing a male-to-female, pre-operative transgender in a more complex and interesting story. A woman as a man on his way to becoming a woman–how very Shakespearean!

About the awards controversy, it’s more complicated than simple prejudice, injustice, banning, and protest. I doubt most mistakes, if they can rightly be called mistakes, have occurred out of malice. A few other thoughts:

  1. It’s nothing new–as in, not just last year, but decades’ worth of overlooked, deserving artists of color. Therefore, pick your battles.
  2. Whites have been snubbed for meritorious work as well.
  3. What about Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and women?
  4. The problems stem from limitations, both cultural and political, on the front end of movie making more so than at the awards-giving phase. Where are all the female directors? Which movies get made, and which actors get cast, in the first place? Etc.
  5. Besides, as with censorship, some degree of controversy is useful to raise awareness of art that’s worthy of experience and celebration.

So there you have it. If apparent prejudice gets your dander up, by all means join the conversation. It’s still a free country, even for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who by the way, are already making changes to their policies to address concerns about improper bias.

But these are the arts, people; bias is the name of the game. It’s a matter of taste and critical mass. Not everyone can secure a nomination, just as only one can win the award. If everyone’s special, nobody is.

In the end, though, awards and critical acclaim are just a highlight, a blip on the screen of the long cultural arc of arts and entertainment stories. As Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ box office records show, ticket sales can tell a different and equally valid story.

Watch on.

Ocsar Statues Are Made Ahead Of This Year's Academy Awards

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images, 2008

Why I am not Charlie: A pressed post

Why I am not Charlie. Originally posted by A Paper Bird

Okay, so this is not timely commentary on my part. The source content is just so good that I felt compelled–now–to use social media to capture and broadcast what I see as an important message, especially for you, the thoughtful and empowered. Note: In emphasizing that description of “sharing,” I acknowledge the fine point made here that supportive speech and active solidarity are not synonymous.

I see at least two applications of this concept in the pressed post. Using myself as an example: First, I should carefully avoid claiming to do, e.g., human rights work, but I can openly appreciate those who do. Second, and apparently a more difficult concept for many, my defense of one’s right to non-violent expression is not–and need not be–support for the ideas or beliefs expressed.

I found this post after reading visitor comments on A Paper Bird‘s “about me” page, which I sought after being impressed by and tweeting the post Internet entrapment in Egypt: Protect yourself!. I receive a weekly digest from his blog.

After some mental laboring over, and re-reading of, Why I am not Charlie, my eyes have opened to complexities in the nature of satire, nuances I was startled to realize did not arise in my teaching of it to high school English classes.

A Paper Bird has deepened my hopefully growing understanding of the need to think critically and learn (i.e., research and/or ask questions) before either acting or reacting, especially in a provocative, emotional way. Otherwise, one may unwittingly create or perpetuate a distortion of fact and, thus, condone blindness to a truth. Such blindness only enables threats–and increases the potential for threats–to people’s freedoms and lives . . . which is bad.

In the name of sense and reason, let’s all try harder to think first and more carefully. And to shed light, not self-control.