Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Independent Dependents"

Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version

From the original production

From the original production

by Douglas Messerli

Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire (New York: New Directions, 1947)
Tennessee Williams (screenplay), Oscar Saul (adaptation), Elia Kazan (director) A Streetcar Named Desire / 1951
The death on September 11th, 2002 of actress Kim Hunter sent me back to Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Hunter played Stanley Kowalski's wife Stella in both the 1947 stage production and Elian Kazan's film of 1951.

Although I have seen the film numerous times, and watched it again last week, I have never seen a staging of the work. I was only six months and a few days old at the time of its original production, and, although I am sure the play is popular with some college and repertory theater groups, the intense acting required from its two major figures, Stanley and Blanche, make it a very difficult play to revive, although Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange were fairly well received in the 1992 Broadway production, which I also missed.

Accordingly, I have spent the past three nights rereading the play, which allowed me some new perceptions about this work.

Because of the stunning acting of both Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version, it has always appeared to me that their characters are at the center of this work, and the very acting styles they embody—Leigh's highly theatrical performance and Brando's influenced strongly by the Actor's Studio method acting—created a high tension that drove the work into its near manic expressions of cultural extremes, one of Williams' major subjects.

This time, however, after watching both the film and reading the text, I realized—much as I did for O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night in My Year 2004—that the actual fulcrum of the work was an apparently weaker figure, in this case Stella.

Although all of the characters in this play must function in an ensemble manner, their radical differences in acting styles, language, and personalities is what the work is about. Indeed, one might almost argue that each of the three major figures living in the Kowalski hovel have an act devoted to them: Stella is the dominant figure of Act 1, Blanche of Act 2, and Stanley of Act 3. In Act 1, Stella is the first figure we see in the play, and draws both Blanche and Stanley to her throughout.

Williams' stage directions make quite clear that Blanche is the center of Act 2:

Some weeks later. The scene is a point of balance between the plays two sections, BLANCHE'S coming and the events leading up to her violent departure. The important values are the ones that characterize BLANCHE: its function is to give her dimension as a character and to suggest the intense inner life which makes her a person of greater magnitude than she appears on the surface.

The rape and its aftermath ends in Blanche's fall and departure. In Act 3 Stella is simply compelled to accept Stanley's version of reality, and he and his poker-playing friends are quite clearly in charge, as he returns to being the rightful "king" of his "domain."

In short, Williams attempted to give equal weight to all three characters. Yet, Stanley and Blanche stand out, primarily because they are both such absurd figures. At times Blanche seems to be performing more in the manner of the mad scene in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermor than in an American-conceived stage drama, yet she is often quite capable at punching back at Stanley with realist-like quips. For example, she comments to Stanley upon meeting him:

You're simple, straightforward and honest, a bit on the primitive side, I should think.

And throughout the play she devastatingly puts Stanley in his place, as when she hands over the papers detailing the loss of her and her sister's home, Belle Reve:

There are thousands of papers stretching back over hundreds of years affecting Belle Reve, as piece by piece our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic
fornications—to put it plainly. The four-letter word deprives us of our plantation, till finally all that was left, and Stella can verify that, (Moves to him, carrying papers) was the house itself and about twenty acres of ground, including a graveyard to which now all but Stella and I have retreated. (Pulling papers out of envelope, dumping them into his hands on table. Holds empty envelope.) Here they all are, all papers! I hereby endow you with them! Take them, peruse them—commit them to memory, even! I think its wonderfully fitting that Belle Reve should finally be this bunch of old papers in your big, capable hands.

For the most part, however, Blanche is not as realistically combative or even insanely abstracted as she is simply witty. Like a campy gay man of the old school dressed in drag (is it any wonder that she demands the lights are left low?), Blanche is a ridiculously humorous figure, and I think we have to admit that ridiculousness, accepting the comic elements of the entire play, if we want to understand Williams' characters. Even simply addressing her sister, Blanche is a "hoot" who would be at home in any gay bar of an earlier generation:

Stella, oh Stella, Stella! Stella for Star! ...But don't you look at me, Stella, no, no, no, not till later, not till I've bathed and rested! And turn that over-light off! I won't be looked at in this merciless glare!

Along with dozens of such lines ("Never, never, never in my worst dreams could I picture—Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe—could do justice!," "The blind are leading the blind," and her renowned last line, "Whoever you are—I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers"), Blanche's dialogue belongs more to the world of melodrama and camp epics peopled with the likes of Lana Turner and Charles Ludlam than the world of a former beauty from the South. Williams points this up even more dramatically by portraying her husband—a nervous, soft, tender boy—as having been gay (which in the film is almost erased) and revealing that, although she poses as a virginal beauty, Blanche is well known back in her home community of Laurel, Mississippi for her sexual excesses, including bedding down with one of her own 17-year-old students. If Jessica Tandy or Vivien Leigh hadn't so brilliantly defined the role of Blanche, Ludlam might later have been an appropriate choice.

While Brando may seem, at times, to be performing a role from the realist school of Clifford Odets, Williams gives Stanley lines that catapult him into a kind of loony soap-opera or a vaudevillian production of Tobacco Road. Stanley's hilarious fascination with the idea of the Napoleonic Code, his famous deconstruction of Blanche's clothes trunk ("Look at these feathers and furs that she comes here to preen herself in! What's this here? A solid gold dress I believe! And this one. What is these here? Fox pieces! Genuine fox fur pieces half a mile long! Where are your fox-pieces Stella? Bushy snow white ones, no less! Where are your white fox-pieces?"), and his macho-laden outburst against his sister-in-law and wife ("That's how I'll clear the table [he has swept the plates and food to the floor] Don't ever talk that way to me. 'Pig—Polack—disgusting—vulgar—greasy!' Them kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister's too much around here. What do you think you two are? A pair of queens? Remember what Huey Long said—'Every man is a King!'—And I am king around here, so don't you forget it!") all point away from a realist construction. Like Blanche, no matter how Brando might believe he's portraying a kind of reality, Stanley is an absurd stereotype born in theatrical fantasy rather than New Orleans' Elysian Fields.

How then does Williams "get away with it," so to speak? Why do we truly care about and become moved by these larger-than-life figures. For unlike Rhett Butler of Leigh's Gone with the Wind, we are compelled in Williams' drama "to give a damn."

In part, of course, it is the remarkable acting. I never saw Tandy play the original Broadway role—although I've seen her in other roles, and I am certain she was splendid—but Leigh is quite simply a genius given the slightly confused mix of poetic fragility, wonderment, and sexual distractedness through which she realizes Blanche. Brando may talk, at times, like an illiterate beast, but his sexuality is evident in every smirk of his lips and swing of hips. And despite his masculinity, which can even be scented over the smell of lit-up celluloid, there is something almost feminine about everything below his waist.

Increasingly, however, I have come to see that Stella is most important in bringing the play and its characters any credibility. If A Streetcar Named Desire has any realist potential, it lies in her character, who, although constantly abused by both husband and sister, quietly loves while attempting to disabuse them of their fantasies. She is truly the star brought to earth, a figure fecund in her ability to love and nurture. And the power of Stella, who time after time refuses to enter into the gushing anger and self-hatred of Williams' comic types, keeps silent or leaves the room or house, demonstrating a strength that helps us to recognize that there is an underlying reality, a secret humanity to both Stanley and Blanche.

For the dueling couple, appearing as rivaling individuals of astounding independence, are one and the same thing, exaggerated portraits of the extremes of society. And in that sense they are also dependent on each other as types. Both Stanley and Blanche are naturally sexual beings who live in imaginary worlds where they drink, gamble, and incessantly bathe their bodies—he in sweat and beer, she in scalding water—requiring them to endlessly undress and dress. Both seem defined by but also estranged from their cultural and social identities. As Stanley remarks as he is about to sexually attack: "We've had this date with each other from the beginning."

Stella is a steady force of balance between these two, and her child, we can hope, will incorporate the imagination and animal sexuality that lie in both Stella's sister and husband.

Unlike Kazan's film, where, upon her horrific realization that Blanche is now insane, Stella turns on Stanley, rushing up the neighbor's staircase to escape her bestial lover (a second—and I have always felt a permanent—ascension of the star to its natural habitat), in the script, Stella stays in the arms of her husband below, while he, for one of the few times in the drama, attempts to comfort her:

Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now, love. Now, now love. Now, love....

In that gentle reiteration of the present, we realize that Stanley has perhaps changed ever so slightly. The past is over, a new world possible, a world determined by love.

Los Angeles, April 9, 2009
Revised, April 10, 2009

Copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Messerli

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