Last week I took the two LDs to the cinema to see a broadcast of Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire, from the Young Vic. Apparently, this is a hot ticket, the fastest selling Young Vic production ever.
We studied Streetcar for our GCSE English at school. I was lucky enough to have done my GCSE English in the last year where we were allowed to do 100% coursework, which meant that we had the freedom to study about 10 books over the course and write a few essays/pieces in response to each of them, meaning that I had a very well rounded education in literature, rather than the “teach to the test” mentality these days, which sees either To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men studied to exhaustive depth.
Streetcar is a pretty racy text for fifteen year olds, but my children are about the same age now as I was when I first saw it, I thought it would be nice to give them a bit of culture that they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.
We watched the Marlon Brando film of this at school, over a few lessons, and therefore I didn’t remember the play being quite as long as the bum numbing 3 hours that the Young Vic ran to. I am feeling completely sacrilegious saying this, as people in the audience around us were ooh-ing with appreciation at just about every turn, but despite Gillian Anderson’s magnetic and energetic performance, I did feel that the second half, where there is more confrontation, was a lot more entertaining than the first half, and the first half could have done with a few judicious cuts…
I also didn’t remember the latter stages of film as being quite as disturbing and insightful into Blanche’s mental state as the Young Vic production became. The intensity of the stage setting, the opportunities for sound distortion and the in-your-face theatricalities over the garish exhibitions of Blanche’s mental state – all these were well explored.
When I first studied the play, I remember feeling most sympathy for the character of Stella, Blanche’s sister who was torn between loyalties towards her warring husband Stanley and sister. I’ve always felt slightly ashamed of this, as Stella’s ultimately a pretty passive observer of her own life, a reactor, rather than an actor. However, as the play unfolded, I remembered what it was that appealed to me, which was that Blanche and Stanley are basically both monsters and Stella was the character most invested with human uncertainty.
The monstrosity of Blanche is a pretty weird thing to come back to. When you’re fifteen, you don’t think it’s that odd to have this woman alternately throwing herself at and hiding herself from every male she comes into contact with. As an adult, I was left feeling a bit ambivalent about Blanche’s alternate “come-on”s and “go-away”s towards Stanley, and her ultimate rape. I’m not sure whether this is a brilliant pre-emptor to the date rape debate, or whether on one level, Tennessee Williams is inviting us to say that she deserved it?
I was also left wondering – “Is/was any woman ever really like this?? Is Blanche just a symbol, and weird fantasy projection of how Tennessee Williams wanted to live his own life? And if so, how has this play become so enduring popular?”
It was really interesting, therefore, to read a review in the Times just a week later of John Lahr’s new biography of Tennesse Williams, in which he reveals that Williams’ sister Rose was forced to have ECT and a lobotomy for having “delusions of sexual immorality” about “gentleman callers”. I still think Blanche is a bit of a gay projection, and not a “real” female character, but I think the play’s enduring popularity is to do with Williams’ tenderness and understanding of Blanche, and his willingness to let her have free rein on the stage, however mad she might be. After Rose’s lobotomy, she was unable to live independently, and it was Tennessee Williams, and his estate after her death, who paid for her to have the best institutional care until she died, aged eighty-six.