Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named DesireA Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As Harold Bloom always liked to point out, drama was not American literature’s strong suit. Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller are good, but not up to the standards of William Faulkner or Wallace Stevens. More recently, August Wilson is an exception—he can stand without embarrassment next to Toni Morrison (a judgment with which Bloom would have agreed, by the way)—and another might be Tennessee Williams, who prefaces his most famous play with some well-known lines from Bloom’s beloved poet Hart Crane:

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

Besides being a first signal of queer subcultural allegiance in a play that combines camp melodrama with high tragedy, as Wilde’s Salomé before it wedded Decadence to devotion, Crane’s quatrain sets the tone: the desperate and degraded people we are about to see in their desperate and degraded circumstances are a visionary company; consequently a moral judgment or a sociological appraisal, while they may serve some ends, will also be beside the point.

Morally, Williams gives us no one we can approve: his hero is a greedy brute and a rapist, his heroine an emissary of the bad old South and a sexual predator in her own right. The characters who orbit them offer only seedy, hypocritical respectability or sexual helplessness, or both in unappetizing combination. Sociologically, Williams is acute about the social context of this 1947 play. He dramatizes a conflict between the Old South and the New America. Blanche Du Bois, almost the last of a family of Southern gentry, has lost the old homestead and comes in desperation to live with her sister Stella in New Orleans’s French Quarter, where the urban, cosmopolitan, miscegenated, and déclassé environs affront her aristocratic sensibility. She soon confronts Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, a veteran and worker and “white ethnic” who quotes Huey Long’s populist motto, “Every Man is a King!” against Blanche’s devotion to the romance of aristocracy.

There is “something about [Blanche]…that suggests a moth,” as William’s poetic stage directions put it, aligning her to the soul in its flight to fiery destruction (and one of Williams’s prospective titles was The Moth). Stanley, by contrast, is all animate matter and no spirit; I quote William’s stage directions again:

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, dependency, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying center are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humor, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer.

But if Stanley, who holds Stella in an almost involuntary sexual thrall, is appetitive, he also represents the base cunning of the modern world, as he schemes to get whatever inheritance Blanche has into his own hands. He searches moreover into the secrets of her past, which are considerable. There is, first of all, her early marriage to a closeted gay man driven to suicide by her homophobic taunt, “You disgust me…” Then there is her string of lovers to whom she turned to salve her psychic pain, culminating in her seduction of a 17-year-old boy, which got her dismissed from the high school where she taught English.

Blanche in her seductiveness is not above cunning herself, given her limited economic options in a man’s world: “I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion, but when a thing is important I tell the truth…” If we have no cause to lament the destruction of the old white Southern aristocracy, we still might sympathize with a woman whom the modern world leaves not enough to do in its aftermath. The brilliance of the play in a sociological perspective is that if we leave out gender and sex on the one hand, and what we might call the human psyche or spirit on the other, and only consider the social forces in play, then we will easily side with Stanley. Yet matters are not so simple, or so sociological.

First, as the title indicates, Williams works from an essentially Freudian or modernist model of the subject: people are driven down tracks long-laid by the unstoppable force of desire. In a modern tragedy, this psychological doom plays the role fate held in the ancient drama. Before he rapes her at the drama’s climax, Stanley tells Blanche, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” as if there could be no other end to the conflict between male animal id and female spiritual superego. Whatever the state of Williams’s own psychoanalytic knowledge—I am not a scholar of the playwright—we might add Jung to Freud while we’re at it: all biographical commentary dwells on Williams’s lifelong attachment to his sister, whose mind was effectively destroyed by the period’s monstrous psychological “science,” a fate echoed by Blanche’s own capture by the forces of psychic order at the end of Streetcar’s line. Jung would accordingly have seen Blanche as Williams’s anima, his unconscious surrogate in the drama, and Blanche’s attachment to the Romantic literature Williams’s sensibility keeps alive in the midcentury supports this identification:

I don’t even know my multiplication tables! No, I have the misfortune of being an English instructor. I attempt to instill a bunch of bobby-soxers and drug-store Romeos with reverence for Hawthorne and Whitman and Poe!

As does the stagecraft that turns this play at times from social realism to Romantic monodrama: much of the second half—how much?—flirts with hallucination and takes place in Blanche’s mind as we are privy to the sonic discord that fills her decomposing psyche. Earlier on, Blanche, Stella, and Stanley discuss astrology:

STELLA: Stanley was born just five minutes after Christmas.

BLANCHE: Capricorn—the Goat!

STANLEY: What sign were you born under?

BLANCHE: Oh, my birthday’s next month, the fifteenth of September; that’s under Virgo.

STANLEY: What’s Virgo?

BLANCHE: Virgo is the Virgin.

STANLEY [contemptuously]: Bah!

That randy Stanley is goatish seems obvious, though more intriguing is the connection of his sign to the genre of tragedy, etymologically a “goat song,” though no one quite knows why the genre acquired this name. As for Blanche, she is no virgin superficially, as Stanley’s rude interjection reminds us, but what the world sees as her delusion and what Williams invites us to read as her Romantic ideal remains inviolate and intact by the conclusion. She is defeated on the material plane, but not the spiritual. Animal desire—part of Williams is of course attracted to this too, especially when it wears the colors of democracy—can only win in the animal world; but the play overall, and therefore the spiritual triumph, belongs to her.

Not everyone sees it that way, in the play or out of it. Mary McCarthy, for one, wrote a famous dissent in the Partisan Review, mocking Williams for his identification with his heroines both in this and the earlier Glass Menagerie (1944), and deriding his taste for “clarinet music, suicide, homosexuality, rape, and insanity” as inherently false, just as Blanche’s ideals are false. This objection to extremes, launched from a realist sensibility, demonstrates the problem drama faces in the modern world, the topic with which I began.

If a tragedy is no longer a goat-song, a fertility dance or propitiation of gods, if it was upstaged as popular entertainment over the last two centuries both by the novel and by cinema, then how can its concentration of energy and intensity into a two-hour magic circle seem anything other than an imposture? Williams, like many dramatists, was helped by being adapted as cinema—Brando turned Blanche’s play into Stanley’s movie by routinizing id as Method—and he also, like O’Neill before him, novelized with his eloquent stage directions to give his dramas a sensual and conceptual dimension they would otherwise lack. But his devotion to extremity links him—honorably, I think—to the ancient practitioners of the rite. And anyway, what would Mary McCarthy have said about Euripides?

Williams’s own favorite among his works was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955, 1974), a real-time drama that dissolves the Old South in a different acid over the course of a stormy summer evening. The later play redeems Streetcar: everything worthwhile in Stanley, but without his worser elements, is embodied in the dying patriarch, the coarse but wise Big Daddy; the irresistible, ambitious Maggie the Cat retains her psychic integrity as Blanche cannot; and the closeted Brick, unlike Blanche’s first husband, manages to get to the end alive. With these revisions to the earlier play’s archetypes, Williams seems to wring a fragile, hard-won optimism from his obsessions, but I find Cat too chatty and over-explicit, with the characters literally shouting subtexts handled more delicately in the earlier plays’ symbolism. Yet in the middle of the drama, in the midst of the stage directions, Williams places an artistic credo with which any great American writer, dramatist or otherwise, should agree:

The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent—fiercely charged!—interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can—but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.

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