Monday, April 19, 2010

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

 "Please don't get up. I'm only passing through." ~Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The above quote distills for me the tragedy of Blanche DuBois, even more so than the famous line about the "kindness of strangers." Blanche tells a group of poker-playing, beer-guzzling men not to rise for her, as if the thought of rising for a lady would ever occur to them. It is a small but final degradation of many which Blanche experiences in the house of Stanley Kowalski. Yet the viewer is reminded again and again throughout the course of the drama that Blanche's own past behavior has led her to such an utterly sordid end. Not only Blanche's behavior, but her sister Stella's attachment to a rapist, have resulted in Blanche's being taken from the prison of chez Kowalski to the prison of the mental hospital. 

As with all of Williams' plays, the dialog sparkles and even enchants in spite of the undercurrent of depravity. The following is a plot synopsis from 
In the classic play by Tennessee Williams, brought to the screen by Elia Kazan, faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) comes to visit her pregnant sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), in a seedy section of New Orleans. Stella's boorish husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), not only regards Blanche's aristocratic affectations as a royal pain but also thinks she's holding out on inheritance money that rightfully belongs to Stella. On the fringes of sanity, Blanche is trying to forget her checkered past and start life anew. Attracted to Stanley's friend Mitch (Karl Malden), she glosses over the less savory incidents in her past, but she soon discovers that she cannot outrun that past, and the stage is set for her final, brutal confrontation with her brother-in-law. Brando, Hunter, and Malden had all starred in the original Broadway version of Streetcar, although the original Blanche had been Jessica Tandy. Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart for the 1951 Best Actor Oscar, but Leigh, Hunter, and Malden all won Oscars.
When I watched A Streetcar Named Desire as a young person I found it dark and shocking, especially Blanche's proclivities which result in her utter destruction. All I could see was the crazy, drunken old slut; it was quite unappealing. It still is. However, now I am better able to see Blanche as she had once been. I can see the sweet and refined person whose mental and emotional stamina were destroyed by trying to hold onto her patrimony, without any help from anyone. (Stella was too busy romping with Stanley to save Belle Reve or take care of the dying old folks.) I can see the heartbroken wife who gradually awoke to the horror that her marriage was not really a marriage. I pity the fact that the shattered Blanche sought to ease her pain by adopting a promiscuous lifestyle, as have many before and after. In Blanche's case being a sexually "liberated" woman resulted in the further fraying of her psyche; I daresay the same thing has happened to other liberated women as well. All may not end up in the mental hospital, but a little of the soul dies and one's human dignity is tarnished by taking refuge in hedonism.

According to SparkNotes:
Blanche’s sexual history is in fact a cause of her downfall. When she first arrives at the Kowalskis’, Blanche says she rode a streetcar named Desire, then transferred to a streetcar named Cemeteries, which brought her to a street named Elysian Fields. This journey, the precursor to the play, allegorically represents the trajectory of Blanche’s life. The Elysian Fields are the land of the dead in Greek mythology. Blanche’s lifelong pursuit of her sexual desires has led to her eviction from Belle Reve, her ostracism from Laurel, and, at the end of the play, her expulsion from society at large.
Everyone raves about the ground-breaking, soul-searing sexuality that is unleashed in Streetcar, but it is not so much about sex as it is about lust and addiction. It is their addiction to lust that has landed both DuBois sisters in the squalid scenario where they are at the mercy of the brutish Stanley, who expresses his pleasure or displeasure by screaming in the street or by smashing china and light bulbs. Stanley is the complete antithesis of the gentlemen among whom the DuBois sisters were raised; he is a source of fascination as well as revulsion for them both. It cannot be forgotten that it was the DuBois gentlemen whose "epic debaucheries," by Blanche's account, led to the loss of the family fortune. Blanche, who seeks beauty and romance, is hounded by the result of debaucheries, her own and other people's, until the final moment of the play. 



Julygirl said...

When I first saw this film as a young person I thought to myself that a situation like that with all its depravity came only from the mind of the playwright. But now I know better because that, and worse than that, is the daily fare served up in print and other media.

elena maria vidal said...

Exactly. And I have personally encountered too many Stanley Kowalskis, and the Stellas who let themselves be smacked around as long as the sex is great.

Julygirl said...

...and even when the sex is not great. How about when they keep them around when their child's life is in danger!!

elena maria vidal said...

Unbelievable...but it happens.

Stephanie A. Mann said...

I haven't watched the movie all the way through lately, but I would like to because of a comment I read somewhere about the play. Perhaps it was Terry Teachout in the WSJ? The critic said that although Stanley and Blanche receive much of the attention, the key to the play is Stella.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, Stephanie. Stanley and Blanche are fighting for Stella's soul.

blog nerd said...

I've written about this play--it is one of my favorites. Try looking at it this way for a different spin on it: think of it as an allegory for the transition from European dominance to American. Remember the time period--and remember also that the American male was in that liminal zone between WWII and the cold war.

Think of Blanche as old world Europe, think of Stanley as the rising American masculinist culture free from European custom.

It's interesting to think of it that way, yeah?

elena maria vidal said...

Now that is a fascinating way to look at it! I also see it as Blanche representing the Old South, which like Old Europe was gone with the wind.

blog nerd said...

You could say that they are equivalent--that the death of the Old South represented the death of any of the old trappings of European aristocracy.

You can also see what happens to Scarlett as that social transition--what happens to the southern belle when war and liberation hit? I think the casting of Viven Leigh was rather inspired because it delivered that sort of inter-textuality between the two works.

elena maria vidal said...

VERY inspired! I so totally agree with all you say!