Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams

I know I saw this movie once upon a time, but it must not have made that much of an impression on me; reading the play was like coming to the story for the first time. Oh sure, I did remember the famous (or infamous) scene of Brando with his torn shirt yelling "Stella!" at the bottom of the staircase, and the last line by Blanche about relying on the kindness of strangers. But the overall guts of the play? Not so much.

In case you've never read or heard of it, Williams' play takes place in New Orleans and illustrates the differences between two sisters, both of whom were raised as "Southern belles". Blanche still maintains that she is that polite, genteel Southern beauty, despite a setback here and there, while her baby sister Blanche has married Stanley, a hard-working, hard-drinking guy who is anything but genteel. When Blanches comes to visit Stella, she is shocked and appalled at the "squalid" conditions she finds, almost as much as she is by Stanley's blatant sexual nature. Blanche maintains that she is still mostly a non-drinker and that she's just had a bit of bad luck, thus her "extended" stay at her sister's.

Stella may have her suspicions about her older sister, but Stanley knows exactly what is going on. He knows that Blanche is not even remotely what she claims to be; she definitely has a drinking problem, and she's not nearly as "virginal" as she pretends to be. Stella may have grown up on the plantation, but she's now firmly rooted in the reality that is New Orleans. She loves Stanley and he loves her, something that Blanche seems blind to.

The play basically follows the family members through a summer at Stanley and Stella's apartment. It's fairly obvious from the start that Blanche isn't playing with a full deck, or at least, it was to me. She's been traumatized by the long-ago suicide of her husband, she's drinking way too much, and there's the fact that she was left behind to deal with the deaths of their parents as well as several close relatives, deaths that required funerals and payment for said funerals. Blanche has lost the family home; she's broke, out of work (thanks to what appear to be possible affairs with students at the school where she taught), and has been thrown out of the seedy hotel where she was living "back home". It's interesting to watch the two sisters cope with their lives; Stella has learned how to adjust and adapt to her new surroundings/fortunes, while Blanche is basically stuck in the past.

Of course, this being a work of Williams', there's not really a happy ending per se. Blanche and Stanley have an "encounter" which results in her being sent to an asylum. I wasn't sure how to read that scene; Stanley either rapes her or merely has rough sex with her. Given Blanche's true nature, it's hard to believe that it's rape. Indeed, Stanley says something to the effect that it's inevitable what's about to happen between them. The only thing that did bother me was that it also appears that Stella knows what happened - and doesn't seem to care. Or maybe she's just better at hiding her feelings than Blanche. Either way, it's not a pretty picture.

I would definitely recommend you check this out if you're not familiar with the story. It's an interesting play, one that I will probably read again down the road; I'd be interested to see if I catch things/interpret things differently next time.

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