Number Two on my List of Books I Read a While Ago and am Just Getting Around to Reviewing Now is Tennessee William’s classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Streetcar Named Desire. Why did I pick this book up out of all the other books I owned? Well, there was a tweet on my timeline that National Theatre Live was showing their production of Streetcar at the Young Vic (National Theatre Live does an amazing thing and broadcasts live theatre into a movie theatre around the world, so I was able to see a show that was staged in London in the comfort of a movie theater in Brunswick, Maine), and it starred Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois.
Now, I have loved Gillian Anderson since she played Special Agent Dana Scully on The X-Files. To be specific, I have loved her since season 5, episode 12, entitled “Bad Blood,” or as I like to call it, “The Best Hour of Episode Television in All of Televised History and No One Can Tell Me Otherwise.” (Look, I know “The Body” and “The Gift” from Buffy are exceptional, and sure, I’ll even throw the tiniest of bones to “Ozymandias” from the final season of Breaking Bad, but no episode I have watched – yes, even all twenty-six episodes of Hannibal I’ve watched – in all of televised history has made me love it as much as “Bad Blood” did. “Bad Blood” is the Die Hard of television episodes – if it’s ever on, I watch it to the end. I own it through iTunes, so it’s always on my iPod. And if digital media suddenly breaks down, I’ve got a VCR and the episode on tape. IT’S PERFECTION IS WHAT I’M SAYING.) And while “Bad Blood” is clearly superior, Gillian Anderson also plays Dr. Lecter’s psychiatrist-slash-hostage-slash-I don’t know what on Hannibal (and she’s a series regular for season 3!), so basically, if Gillian Anderson’s in something, I’m gonna watch it.
Uh, be right back … in approximately 42 minutes. (“Bad Blood” is on Netflix, in case you’re wondering.)
(I had a thought as I saw the writer credit come across the screen – I’m amazed that the writer of my most Favorite Episode of Television Ever went on to create Breaking Bad. So many thoughts on that … but this is neither the time nor the place.)
OKAY, I can let those two crazy kids get their stories straight another time. I had ordered Streetcar off of Amazon after watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and reading that last year. I watched the Vivien Leigh-starring film about a year ago, but before that my knowledge of this play consisted solely of numerous viewings of “A Streetcar Named Marge.”
So for those of us that didn’t have to read the play at any point during our education, what’s it about?
Blanche DuBois travels from Laurel, Mississippi to her sister’s flat in New Orleans to stay “for the summer.” She is rather mute as to her circumstances, but does tell her sister, Stella, that their home plantation “has been lost.” Then Stella’s husband, Stanley, comes home. There is an immediate contrast between the refined-though-prone-to-hysterics Blanche and the down-to-earth, animalistic Stanley, and that contrast turns into deep tension. Blanche is horrified at Stella’s living conditions: a two-room apartment in the noisy Quarter, and she has to sleep on a cot in the kitchen. She calls Stanley a “Polack,” to which both he and Stella take offense. But since Blanche has no where else to go and no money to speak of, she really doesn’t have any other options.
The play continues and the tension keeps on ratcheting up further. After a poker game one night, a drunken Stanley hits Stella and cuts her face. Stella and Blanche escape to the upstairs neighbor’s apartment, but when Stanley apologizes, Stella returns and they make passionate love. The next morning, Blanche is aghast at the fact that Stella’s not only not leaving Stanley, but likes it when he shows that side of him:
STELLA: Stanley’s always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night — soon as we came in here — he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light-bulbs with it. […] I was — sort of — thrilled by it. [pp. 72-73]
STELLA: You take it for granted that I am in something that I want to get out of. [p. 80]
So as a way to make herself feel young and desirable, Blanche starts going out with one of Stanley’s friends, Mitch. Mitch is softer and gentler than Stanley – the boys routinely make fun of him for caring about his ill mother. But Blanche strings Mitch along, until he doesn’t even know how old she is because she won’t tell him. She’s purposefully vague about the circumstances that let her leave her teaching job early, and how exactly the plantation was lost, and that all comes to a head once Stanley makes contact with someone who travels through Laurel.
Because for all her posturing and twittering, Blanche is nothing more (or less) than a manipulator of men. She was fired from her English teaching job after she seduced a seventeen-year-old student. The family plantation, Belle Reve, was put on the “out of bounds” list for the army base stationed in town. When she lost the plantation, she set up a motel room of ill repute in The Flamingo, a seedy hotel on the outskirts of town. And when she got kicked out of there for her promiscuity, she ended up in New Orleans.
Her lies continue to spiral out of control, as she struggles to build herself a world where not everything hurts – the choices she’s made, the company she keeps, the outlook on her future. Ultimately, the name-calling and tension between her and Stanley finally breaks, and he rapes her – although that seed was planted in the very beginning, when Blanche was flirting with him while Stella was out. Ultimately, Blanche is sent to a psychiatric ward, made to believe she’s going to see her rich ex-beau, Shep Huntley, and Stella and Stanley stay together to have a baby.
A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those plays that can, obviously, take a lot of explication to fully understand. There are so many layers to this: Tennessee Williams’s language choices, the stated fluidity of the scenery, the words that a character says but the meaning underneath them is completely different from what is being said … essays can and have been written about this, and there’s no way I am even pretending that I can do this justice.
What I am going to say – what I am going to recommend – is this: if you are given the chance to see this performed, do it. And while the Vivien Leigh, 1951 movie is very good, there are some important subplots which I didn’t even hint at that are eradicated, no thanks to the Hays code. (One I can allude to: the rape is never fully addressed; Stanley could have just pulled Blanche “offstage” to beat her. But in the end, Stella leaves Stanley, because the Hays Code wouldn’t allow a wife to stay with an abusive husband and/or rapist.)
But remember: one can read a play and get a basic understanding of the plot and themes, but plays were meant to be performed. I truly believe that one cannot fully grasp the entirety of a play without seeing humans inhabit the characters, making choices, using their voice in different inflections. A play needs life to be fully realized. So while I’m glad I read the play prior to seeing Gillian Anderson play Blanche, I learned more about Blanche and her choices and reasons for her actions by seeing it performed than I did by reading the book.
Grade for A Streetcar Named Desire: 5 stars