11 January 2012

Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

For a time now I've realized that for some reason – or more likely for no reason at all – I've been neglecting to read Tennessee Williams's work, but after reading A Streetcar Named Desire I'm beginning to see what I've been missing. Blanche Dubois represents the decaying Old South, Stanley Kowalski the new aggressive spirit, and essentially Streetcar is a playoff between the two principal characters.

But almost everything in the play seems to take on a symbolic significance: the name of the streetcar and its ironic destination (Elysian Fields, which is replacing Belle Rêve) is perhaps all too obvious, but Stella's and Blanche's lives too are a compromise between old and new – although the new wins hands down, totally dominating both women. Stella has left the beautiful dream, although sexually she's still starry-eyed. But the aptly named Blanche, the ghost of Belle Rêve – and the language of the name prefigures the French atmosphere of the urban New Orleans, while the grammatically incorrect feminine adjective (it should of course be the masculine 'Beau') evokes the two faded Southern belles – Blanche has had to resort to prostitution as the dream crumbled: the Old South is screwed, gone with the wind, and Stella has succumbed, although Blanche still clings to the dream to the point of insanity. In the end she refuses to wake up and smell the testosterone of the poker (poke her?) players who know the geography, and the play's final word is 'stud': the stallion energy (personified above all by Stanley, the phallocratic Pole) has won the game.

Williams's frequent correspondent Donald Windham calls Williams's work 'repressed self-knowledge', and certainly this play seems to contain autobiographical elements, disguised though they may be. Certainly the mental illness of Williams's beloved sister Rose seemed to be in some way subsumed into Blanche's character. And then there's all the gender play, Blanche's homosexual husband, her mixture of fragility and drink-bolstered defiance, the poker and the heavy drinking (as seen Williams's father), etc.

In her introductory commentary to the edition shown above, Patricia Hern mentions that Williams was influenced by D. H. Lawrence, but her quotation from Lady Chatterley's Lover, spoken by the eponymous aristocrat's sister Hilda about Connie's lover Mellors, seems to reveal a little more than the suggested threat and alienation: 'And men like you [...] ought to be segregated: justifying their own vulgarity and selfish lust.' The analogy is clear: Lady Chatterley is dominated, destroyed even, by the working-class sexuality of Mellors in a similar way that the Southern belles Stella and Blanche are destroyed by the working-class sexuality of Kowalski: the aristocracies of both England and the American South are dying. But doesn't what Hilda says seem remarkably appropriate to the South? 'Segregated'? Like the Southern blacks under Jim Crow, whose sexuality had been so feared by the whites, and whose Southern Lady stood as such a bulwark against that power? Is the sentence pure coincidence, or was Lawrence (maybe just subconsciously) thinking of the South?

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