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.

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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.

Book Review: Let Me Off at the Top!

Let Me Off at the Top!
My Classy Life & Other Musings
by Ron Burgundy

let-me-off-ron-burgundy-coverI finished it! After 11 months of dipping in and out and putting it on my top 5 list of books to slog through this year (this makes 3 of those 5 but 15 total, my highest number since 2012), I’ve read every last precious word. Now I really MUST see the film sequel Anchorman 2, which I have been meaning to do for over a year.

I would like to give this book the top star, 1 out of 5, but I fear being misunderstood. So, “When in Rome!” The out-loud laughter factor, perfect egotistical nonsense, mish-mashed name dropping, swinish pearls of wisdom, nestled gems of hilarity, and echoes of Will Farrell’s rich, melodious Burgundy-velvet voice require my donning this comfortably weighted pile of pressed wood-pulp leaves with no fewer than 4 out of 5 stars. (I also gave Middlemarch 4 but for completely different reasons.)

As farcical faux-autobiography, this classy tome ejaculates thick layers of ingenious offensiveness with delicious impunity. It’s dumb and it’s supposed to be, because that’s Ron Burgundy, but there is also brilliance in this dullard of an all-American, pop-culture sandwich. Brilliance like the “Seven-cheese samurai,” one of Ron’s seven recipes for “effective, sensual breath.”

Vinegar-y vignettes season this extended persona whittling into blood-soaked splinters, and by using surprisingly few French words. The jackalopes tale is killer. Non-sequitur running heads in each chapter, tales of brutality and family loyalty in Haggleworth, Iowa, and at Our Lady Queen of Chewbacca High School, and all the variations on the theme of drunken sexual escapades with the famous and infamous of all genders bespeak a compression of coarse coal into even coarser foggy diamond.

Some dull moments lovingly caress pre-emptive punch lines and weave holey sweaters’ worth of delightful absurdities, punctuating a reading with outbursts of appreciative hysteria. “It’s science.” Guffaws galore indeed, Mr. B, guffaws, chuckles, snorting chortles, suffocated hisses, hyena cackles, and non-stop grinning the rest of the time.

The opening disclaimer and author’s note set a mighty tone of baseless hauteur. However, adding a misdirecting table of contents would have been a great way to further christen the chaos, and a journalistic absurdity of a bibliography in the end matter could have made for a well-popped cherry on top.

Ridiculous histories of Mexico, two sets of monotony-mitigating photo spreads, and anecdotes of age-old journalistic and celebrity rivalries, along with many more slivers of heavenly manna, dribble glintingly off the sexy, whiskered lips of our fearless (because unconscious) San Diegoan news anchor-legend. I can’t wait to listen to the condensed audio book!

Overall, you’re right, it’s “one hell of a book.” Kudos to you and your intrepid news team, your noble friend and dog Baxter, and your “lover, sexual partner, woman I do it with, wife, and female fellow anchorman” Veronica. Bravo, book maker, for your soft, shiny hair and towering height, brute strength and persistent belligerence. You have proven yourself a choice, tender morsel of late 20th-century American journalism and classless white manhood.

Of this equal target and slingshot shooter of satire on the reeking, Scotch-backwash aftermath of personal and American triumphs and failures, I say, Pour me another glass, maestro!

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Poor Charlize Theron

Warning: Explicit language

Maybe Sideshow Charlize should get that leg length reduction surgery that is so popular with the disenfranchised supermodels these days.

ASSHOLES WATCHING MOVIES

Because we all have deep wells of sympathy for gorgeous, billionaire blondes, here’s why Charlize Theron thinks you should feel sorry for her today: she’s just too pretty!

“Jobs with real gravitas go to people that are physically right for them and that’s the end of the story,”says the woman who won an Oscar for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

“How many roles are out there for the gorgeous, fucking, gown-wearing eight-footcharlize model?” Charlize said in the May issue of British GQ, whining that “when meaty roles come through, I’ve been in the room and pretty people get turned away first.”

This coming from a woman who not only has a robust career as an actress, but also makes millions on the side every year modelling for Dior and the like. Sucks to be her!

Weirdly, her best example of beauty-discrimination is a role that she actually did…

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Five-Phrase Friday (20): Eliot’s Ironies

Happy New Year! Welcome to another round of posts celebrating that peculiar space in the English language between word and sentence–the phrase.

In this edition, I’ve sampled full clauses from sentences in a book I’m currently reading. These sometimes facetious truisms (per the narrator’s point of view) in George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch arrive in a variety of contexts: ironic description, suspect character mindsets and motivations, and subtly clever admonitions that also seem to treat characters with the utmost generosity of spirit.

I’ve affectionately marked the following excerpts with my pen while reading the book, which I bought after reading just a few pages of my library copy.

  1. “the most glutinously indefinite minds enclose some hard grains of habit” – narrator, Book I, Chapter I.
  2. “wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions” – narrator, Book I, Chapter III.
  3. “when a woman is not contradicted, she has no motive for obstinacy in her absurdities” – Mrs. Cadwallader about Dorothea’s refusal to marry Mrs. C’s match for her, Sir James Chettam, Book I, Chapter VI.
  4. “the world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome dubious eggs called possibilities” – narrator, Book I, Chapter X.
  5. “correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.” – Fred, Book I, Chapter XI.

So why choose these examples? It took a little thought, but these are my best justifications.

(1) I was amused by the synchronicity in the way the first one’s metaphor indirectly speaks to the gluten-free craze of late. Gluten certainly has not come up as a subject in any other classic novel I’ve read so far.BookCover_Middlemarch_Norton

(2) The dilemma presented by the truth of the second example is intriguing–is it more important to strive to think right or end up right? “Road to hell” and so forth.

(3) Given its source and her motivations, the sexism and staunch beliefs of number three’s character made me grin.

(4) I admire the elegance in the thinly veiled cynicism of the fourth one.

(5) The frankness of number five and the irony of sharing it as part of celebrating the English language feel like the perfect way to start the year. Plus, it’s good to eat a little humble pie every once in a while (barring any gluten allergy or sensitivity, of course).

The rhythm, word choice, flow, sophisticated ideas, and spirit in Eliot’s writing overall have been a pleasure to experience. I hope to find the story just as enjoyable as I make my way through it. This is my first time reading the book, or any Eliot, and I have more than half of it still to read before the book club meeting in February.

Wish me luck–and stay tuned!