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Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic

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.

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18 Comments

  1. Everything we are and everything in our lives informs our art ….. obviously Williams called on his distress at his sister’s plight. How anyone can lobotomize anyone is beyond me. Just as Joe Kennedy did it to his daughter while his wife was away – and then found out she couldn’t function at all. What makes such monsters?

    • Yeah, that’s an interesting way of looking at it, the character of Blanche being informed by Rose. I am such an art groupie – it makes so much difference to me what I think about people’s art if I know a bit about their background.
      I read an extract from a woman’s book in the paper today – she was kidnapped by Iranians while off the shore of Dubai. They made her put on a chador, which she felt made her feel muffled from the world and therefore less of a participant, and she said what a relief they felt when they could see that this woman was silenced and discomfited. Maybe we don’t lobotomise women any more, but there’s plenty want women to be silenced.

      • And not just in third world odd countries either …… although I do not believe there’s a war on women here in America. I fully believe that’s just a ploy to get women to go vote for them. But then again, I’m not a liberal …….. I get incensed when someone says I’m being put down. You know, if I were, I’m smart enough to figure that out without them screaming it at me all day long!

  2. I studied Williams in-depth in college, an entire course on nothing but his plays, and it culminated with an 8-performance run in which I played Nellie in Summer and Smoke. I think it’s fair to say that T.W.’s representation of “womanhood” is biased. But I agree, that the reason he became an enduring modernist, is that he gives voice to people and topics, who/which have traditionally muted in “polite” society.

    • The response that the play got (I’m now learning on the radio) was amazing. The appetite that there was for something that was not “polite”. I guess similar to our kitchen sink dramas in England, but Oh how much more broad and revolutionary Williams was.

      It’s nice to hear about your acting past. If I ever see Summer and Smoke I will imagine you in that role.

  3. What a great review, I studied Williams for my MA in Drama and his relationship with Rose seems to have slipped into nearly everything he wrote. I haven’t read, or watched it for years but I would be interested in my reaction to Blanche now I’m older.

    • I’m just learning from the radio how autobiographical Williams’ plays were, and how dramatic his family was around him. I’ve got quite interested in characters that we take as symbolic rather than literal recently, as we read 100 Years of Solitude at book group. On the whole, our group found the symbolism really difficult. With age, I see Blanche anew as being totally symbolic, yet as with 100 Years, the play is iconic. I think maybe symbolic characters somehow, if done right, sweep up a whole load of our own emotions and desires and experiences.

  4. Thanks for this. I was unable to go to the screening myself but this has helped compensate. I heard parts of the biography serialised last week on the radio and it certainly makes clear just what a tortured life, both personal and artistic, Williams had. It’s a book that I think I shall be adding to my Christmas list.

  5. I’ve never read the book or seen the film but now I want to! Sounds great, albeit dark. 100% coursework for subjects like English Lit make so much sense, studying to learn how to pass an exam is just pointless in my humble opinion. Makes me want to home educate…

  6. This was fascinating! I am sorry to say that I have never seen a single one of Tennessee William’s plays, though I did know a bit about his life from the wonderful book, Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing which is about some high-profile American authors who liked the occasional glass of bourbon…. Really interesting to hear how Gillian Andersen played this – I do admire her as an actress. And what did the girls think?

  7. I remember being taken to see Hamlet as part of a school party in the 60’s. Only it wasn’t how we learned it at school and it wasn’t what the teachers thought it would be. Dramatic, disturbing and racy (it had Marianne Faithful in it wearing very little). It definitely improved my interest in Shakespeare. Protecting young adults too much can be a stultifying experience. I hope yours enjoyed it.

    • Yes, Hamlet has it all in the no holds barred stakes. I hope mine will look back on it as a moment to remember.

  8. I never saw Gillian Anderson do this, and I am ashamed to say I have never seen the Marlon Brando version. I think I have avoided the Marlon version (or any version) because of the plot. It seems so Southern and hysterical and complicated. I am one for good literature and good movies. However, I do not like a lot of emotional bantering around. I think it is because I am so full of my own ambivalence and hysteria!!!! 🙂

    • Funny, when you are 15, the idea of standing outside in the rain howling is kinda cool and not so odd. It’s only when you’re an adult that you think Maybe there are better ways of dealing with your problems. Maybe it just shows how TW got stuck in that phase of his emotional development all his life. And also the phenomenal way in which we react to it.

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