Saturday, 29 October 2011

Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable: A Streetcar Named Dilemma

One of the pieces I'm doing this semester for my course on American Literature is A Streetcar Named Desire, and since Tennessee Williams is only my favourite playwright you can imagine how ecstatic I am to study his Pulitzer-Prize winning drama. The actual class hasn't been going as well, though. My teacher is particularly difficult and last week an argument came on in discussing Stanley and his relationship with his wife. I'm the only male in the class, so I'm outnumbered but the essential thesis of everyone else was that Stanley and Stella had a prototypical abusive husband/abused wife relationship and Stanley was essentially a heartless chauvinist man - a theory augmented by his rape of Blanche.
Streetcar is one of the few contemporary plays which have managed to seep into cultural consciousness, no short debt to be paid to the 1951 film adaptation of the play which Tennessee wrote himself, and features only one significant diversion from the play. So, the argument though literary based is just as apt to film folk, I think. As is typical of Tennessee the film is so dense thematically there really isn't a black-and-white perspective as to who's good and who's bad - at least, you wouldn't think so which only makes the arguments of my classmates and lecturer that much more confounding. Reading the play recently I was particularly drawn to what seemed to be a psychological battle between the pragmatic and the artistic. Tennessee himself admitted to feeling more sympathy for Blanche, but what makes him such a phenomenal writer is his ability to present the most monstrous aspects of his characters without a smidgen of condescension or judgement. He said somewhere that Streetcar is about the inability of Blanche and Stanley to understand the pain in each other (I paraphrase) which is why I think of the rape less of an animilastic urge, and more of Stanley using the faculties available to him - i.e. his body. It's so easy to get caught up in the heinous act of rape and forget to make any attempt to objectively analyse character motives.
Taking a feminist reading of the play it's easy to suggest that Stanley is the villain, but the play is without a villain, I think. The rational woman would see Stella as an abused wife who only remains with Stanley because she has no options, but the notion is so silly. I always remember the first image of Stella catching Stanley's meat at the play's beginning. Need I go into the innuendo there? Reading literature, or watching film I think it's always a crutch to get bogged down by specific acts and label characters within that realm so it's a shame that the rich text of Tennessee is whittled down to a piece appreciated only for showing how a villainous man succeeding. Everything about the characters are much more nuanced than that by robbing Stanely of his occasion sensitivity and his love for Stella it seems to me a deliberately cruel act of robbing his character of his humanity.
I'm curious. How do the characters of A Streetcar Named Desire hold up to you? Is the play/film's inclinations as rote as showing how an abuser hectors those around him or is Tennessee precipitation more nuanced themes? What do you think?


Jose said...

I wanna study this too!

Alex Ramon said...

Really interesting post, Andrew. I think it’s clear that Williams’s sympathies are, ultimately, with Blanche, but it seems to me to be part of the brilliance - and the power - of the play that Stanley is drawn in more than one-dimension. I came across this quote from TW in the Brando autobiography a while ago: “Blanche must finally have the understanding and compassion of the audience without creating a black-dyed villain in Stanley.”

Alex in Movieland said...

I remember u saying that Kate should've won the Oscar that year, not Viv. :P cruel.
do you still think that?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

jose well study it. :) not like you actually have time, and as i said my teacher is awful so you're not missing anything. you can just read the play and walk around yelling "stella."

alex yes, tennessee's sympathies are clearly with blanche, as are mine actually but i just sort of got annoyed by arguments of blanche's good versus stanley's bad - such a silly notion, i think. someone said that the reason the play worked so well, and the movie too, is because tennessee is pro-blanche and kazan is pro-stanley so the end result is a balance.

alex aaaargh, tough question. it's way difficult, i still say kate because i really do think she's that great as rose but having rewatched vivien's work it is closer than i imagined, they're both lovely.