A re-post for Tennessee Williams’ birthday about a 2011 production of Streetcar at Williamstown
Directed by David Cromer
Starring Sam Rockwell as Stanley Kowalski, Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois, Ana Reeder as Stella, and Daniel Stewart Sherman as Mitch.
Kerry and I saw it on the day it closed. So this review will be a message that goes out into the universe, to those who can no longer see the performances. That is the beauty and difficulty of live theatre. To quote John Gielgud, live theatre is a “sculpture in snow”. But does that make it any less real? Any less important? No. Laurette Taylor as Amanda in Glass Menagerie in 1946, a performance that very few people still alive saw, changed American theatre. There is no record of it.
Because Streetcar, unlike Glass Menagerie, was made into a now-classic film (yes, Glass Menagerie was a movie, too, but who remembers it?) with Brando’s indelible performance burned into celluloid forever, comparisons are inevitable. Brando IS Stanley Kowalski, and actors have struggled to get out from underneath his shadow ever since. Interestingly enough, Brando isn’t really “right” for the part. He’s far too young, too beautiful, not the beefy brute who is on the page. Williams knew that, Kazan knew that, but they went with Brando anyway (thank God). It became Brando’s role, through and through – they allowed the play to have its own life, rather than just the life they had imagined in the planning stages. I’ve seen scenes from Streetcar in more acting classes than I can count, and it’s hilarious (and scary) but you can feel the ghost of Brando in the room every time.
Scripts are sometimes difficult to read. They require a production to lift it off the page. Streetcar is not one of those scripts. You read it, and it’s all there, right on the page. I’ve read it and not once thought of Brando and how he said those lines. The play is bigger than Brando. To quote Lenin, Streetcar (and the role of Stanley) is just lying in the streets, waiting for someone to pick it up.
And Sam Rockwell just picked it up at Williamstown. The whole cast picked it up. It is a testament to what Williams wrote: that good actors, solid smart actors, can take such a well-known play and perform it to such a degree that you never once think of Vivien Leigh or Marlon Brando. Because, believe me, I’ve seen the opposite: I’ve seen dreadful performances – or okay performances – where the potential in the play hovers on the outskirts, Brando and Leigh and Kazan inserting themselves into it, the memories of the movie between ME and the play before me. But from the first couple of moments of Cromer’s production, with its tremendously cramped set (you really really get the sense of how on top of each other these people are in that space, it became unbearable), I relaxed. The story took over. Comparisons vanished from my mind.
On Sam Rockwell as Stanley
Rockwell’s Stanley was a wiry little pitbull of a guy, rock-hard tattooed muscles, and sweat-drenched hair. He didn’t have to swagger and strut to prove his Alpha Male status (a trap that many lesser actors get into with Stanley). It was his house, his wife, he had no need to prove himself.
It’s interesting because Sam Rockwell has spoken before about how often he plays “beta males” in film, and how, of course, as a man, he wants to play the alphas. He spoke about this in the wonderful documentary about John Cazale, and how Cazale’s example helped him to accept the goldmine that is the Beta Male. “If you ask any actor,” says Rockwell in that doc, “they’re gonna want to play Michael Corleone. They’re not gonna want to play Fredo.”
It was exhilarating in Streetcar to see Rockwell let his Alpha Male out of the bag. It was a disgusting display of slovenly behavior, petty-tyrant bullshit, pouting like a man-baby and then exploding. Alpha Males are often no great shakes (Williams’ point with Stanley, who understood the sexual appeal of the brute, but knew that the Brutes were the essential problem in our culture). But in no way, shape, or form was Sam Rockwell COMMENTING on Stanley Kowalski (another trap with the role, especially for so-called “enlightened” men, who want to “show” the brutality and also comment on how awful it is).
Rockwell is so good he is beyond ego. An actor with an ego (well, of course actors have egos, but I’m talking about something different. I am talking about the Ego that goes into overdrive when threatened) often approaches Stanley with distance, wanting to clue the audience in that he, the actor, is not like Stanley. It’s a hell of a role and not everyone can do it. But Rockwell, down to his posture at the sink, the way he looked around his cramped house, the way he smacked Stella’s ass when he kissed her, inhabited Stanley as though he WAS this kind of man, organically.
And because of that … because of that comfort inside the skin of this man … an extraordinary thing started to happen as I watched.
Now what I’m about to talk about is clear as crystal in the script (although Blanche’s drama often overtakes the other concerns on the stage). But I have rarely seen this particular element shown so clearly. (Brando, of course, got it, but then again, he got everything. I’m talking about actors OTHER than Brando.) What I got from Sam Rockwell’s Stanley, throughout, was that the arrival of Blanche into his little home was deeply disturbing to this simple man. It was disturbing because it started to impact his marriage to Stella, and his marriage is obviously precious and important to him. Everything he does, everything, is not just because he can’t stand a “phony” like Blanche and he wants to rip her illusions to shreds. (This is often how it is played.) Because Blanche is there, Stanley starts to lose Stella as Stella’s alliance shifts to her sister. Stella starts to consider Blanche over Stanley, and this … this doesn’t enrage Stanley because he’s a tyrant. It scares him because he loves Stella. Yes, he probably isn’t faithful to Stella, and yes, he is a pig, but his relationship to Stella is his whole entire world, and Rockwell got that on such a deep level that you started to understand where Stanley was coming from.
This is how disorienting Streetcar is. This is how confrontational it is. Williams did not write about villains and victims. He wrote about human beings. Flawed, messy, selfish, occasionally divine humans. Stanley is included in that, too. Yes, Stanley the rapist is included in that. Can you handle it? Blanche came into his house, she’s a horrible guest, she hogs the bathroom, she puts on airs, yes, but she also has a piece of Stella’s heart, a piece that Stanley can’t access. And this is why he does what he does. Even the rape, as awful as it is, comes out of that emotional anxiety about losing his wife.
Being able to portray such a complex (and yet simple) truth, without protecting himself the actor, is the definition of great live acting. The staging helped. The stage was small, the two rooms were the actual size that they probably would be in real life, so there really was no real “blocking” because people were constantly having to say “Excuse me” and push past each other. Nobody was able to walk in a straight line. The staging was so claustrophobic and Blanche took up so much space that I started to empathize with Stanley. “Is this chick ever gonna leave? I can’t fuck my wife and be as loud as I want to because that bitch is right in the next room. I can’t take a shit in the bathroom without her wrinkling her nose because she smells it. I can’t chase my wife around naked anymore and slap her ass, the way she likes, because Blanche is right there. All the time.” His bullying of Blanche came out of a very logical place, then, and shows the brilliance of Williams’ character development. If Stanley just seems like a random brute who gets off on kicking wounded dogs, then … well, yeah, that’s one way to play it. But that’s not what Williams wrote.
The stakes are just as high for Stanley as they are for Blanche. It’s key that that exists, but so often it doesn’t.
Stanley is losing his wife. He cannot lose his wife. He is not apathetic about Stella. He is caught up in an intertwined hot sex-dance with Stella, and he gets off on the fact that he pulled her down off her pedestal. He is proud of that. Stella is no victim. She’s into him. She chose him. She expresses why she chose him. (Thornton Wilder, after he saw the play, told Williams that he didn’t understand why Stella would pick Stanley. He felt it was a flawed element in the story. Williams wrote later that he listened politely to the Grand Statesman of American Theatre, smiling and nodding and “thank you for your thoughts, Mr. Wilder” but was thinking to himself, “This man has never had a good lay.”)
On the Problem of Stella
I wrote about the problem of Stella in my review of 1982’s Who Am I This Time?, a wonderful television movie starring Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken about a community theatre’s production of Streetcar. Susan Sarandon, a prissy unawakened woman, is chosen to play Stella. To obnoxiously quote myself in that old post, I wrote:
Blanche is, yes, a difficult part. But the really challenging part, the key to the whole thing working, is Stella. Everyone wants to play Blanche, all there are out there are Blanches, but without a good Stella, Streetcar can’t work. Kazan had issues with Kim Hunter in the beginning, so did Tennessee Williams, she pushed too much. She improved, but it goes to show you the challenges in that part. Blanche and Stanley are not the only leads. Stella is a lead as well. Is it enough for the actress to loll about in a negligee, pregnant? No, it is not enough. We must see how far she has fallen. We must see her degradation, her enslavement to sex (willing enslavement), and we must see around her, like an aura, the society girl she once was. If you don’t get THAT, then you don’t have Stella. It is a very very hard part.
Hunter brought a neurotic level of anxious devotion to her husband in the film of Streetcar, codependent. But because of the censorship issues of the time, Stella’s sexual addiction to her husband was (somewhat) downplayed. And, of course, the end of the movie has Stella saying to Stanley, “Don’t ever touch me again” and running upstairs to Eunice, the neighbor. A comforting signal to the audience that Stella would never return to that horrible brute. But that’s not how the play ends. Here is how the play ends.
[Stanley has gone out on the porch and stands at the foot of the steps looking at Stella.]
STANLEY [a bit uncertainly]:
[She sobs with inhuman abandon. There is something luxurious in her complete surrender to crying now that her sister is gone.]
STANLEY [voluptuously, soothingly]:
Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now, love. [He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.] Now, now, love. Now, love ….
[The luxurious sobbing, the sensual murmur fade away under the swelling music of the “blue piano” and the muted trumpet.]
This game is seven-card stud.
While I believe in my heart that nothing will be the same for Stanley and Stella again (and that is their tragedy: Blanche’s tragedy is more obvious but the play is not a “win” for anyone), when Stanley goes to the sex, she succumbs.
Stella says to Eunice, “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.”
Listen to that line. Listen to what Stella admits to.
You see why I think that Stella is the key to the entire thing. Stella is the one who CHOOSES oblivion. She CHOOSES ignorance. She decides to be able to “go on living with Stanley”. I believe Stella does believe Blanche’s story, but she cannot live with that truth. She might as well say, “I couldn’t go on living with Stanley and live with myself if her story is true.” So Stella chooses to disbelieve her sister, thereby consigning her sister to a life of confinement in a psych ward. It’s brutal. Stella is brutal.
Streetcar can survive a weak Blanche, but it can’t survive a weak Stella. With a weak Stella, the play literally cannot be. It’s that strong a piece of writing: one weak element and the whole thing unravels. Who Am I This Time? understands the “problem of Stella”, but unfortunately most productions do not. More often than not, I have seen Stella played as a fussy hausfrau, bustling about pregnant, clucking with worry and anxiety. A domesticated little bird, trying to keep the peace. I don’t mean to be dismissive or mean because I realize how difficult the role is but I literally do not understand how you could read the play and choose to play Stella that way.
What seems to happen is: actresses, without even realizing it, resort to cliches that keep them – the actress – safe, in order to protect themselves from the brutal reality of Stella. They can’t deal with it. They can’t deal with just how narcotized by sex Stella is. Maybe they’re like Thornton Wilder and never had a good lay? It’s unfair to speculate. All I know are the results. The actresses I’ve seen play Stella seem unable to cope with the fact that at every moment of every day Stella is longing to be fucked. She’s always wet. Forgive me for being crass, but that is what Williams wrote and actresses who avoid it are avoiding the role. She SAYS it, too. It’s in the language. This is not just a crazy interpretation on my part. Stella is drugged by how much cock she is getting. When she can’t “have it”, she falls apart. She probably experiences a huge sense of loss the second sex is over because she knows she’ll have to wait a little bit before she can have it again.
He’s on the road a good deal.
Good. I mean – isn’t it?
STELLA [half to herself]:
I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night …
When he’s away for a week I nearly go wild!
And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby …
In the Hollywood of the 1940s, a pregnant housewife being addicted to the dirty sex she is having with her husband obviously wouldn’t fly. So in the film version, the role is presented in a sort of swoon-helpless love kind of way, a neurotic codependent thing … which also CAN work, and what Hunter does does work, but that’s not what Williams wrote. Stella and Stanley have lost themselves in a world of sex and eroticism and Blanche coming to stay has ruined their rhythm. Stanley and Stella are probably suffering from sex-withdrawal.
Stanley pleads with Stella near the end:
Stell, it’s gonna be all right after she goes and after you’ve had the baby. It’s gonna be all right again between you and me the way that it was. You remember the way that it was? Them nights we had together? God, honey, it’s gonna be sweet when we can make noise in the night the way that we used to and get the colored lights going with nobody’s sister behind the curtains to hear us!
Rockwell tapped into that monologue and his Stanley seemed to be generated from those words and those words alone, even in his childish rages and tyrannical demands. He wants it to be back the way it was before. He aches for that “return.”
And if you have a Stella who bustles around pregnant, clucking with worry, then you DON’T have that sick element of Williams’ script, and the entire PLAY cannot even move forward from that fatal mistake.
Stella is the hardest part in the play, bar none. And all props to Kim Hunter, I have never seen a good Stella. Or, at least, not the Stella that Williams wrote. Until this past weekend at Williamstown, with Ana Reeder’s extraordinary performance.
On Ana Reeder as Stella
Ana Reeder brought something to Stella that I have never before seen, and something I have ached to see.
It is Stella who brings about Blanche’s final tragedy. It is Stella who signs Blanche’s spiritual-death certificate. It is Stella who chooses cruelty over kindness, NOT Stanley. And, worst of all, she knows it. Stella will never trust Stanley again. She will never love him in the same way again. She will never again “have his back” like she did in the opening scene with Blanche. It wouldn’t surprise me if Stella became a drunk, in order to drown the guilt over what she did. Her guilt will be unlivable.
Reeder tapped into the sex-thing with an abandon that was breath-taking, equally exhilarating and disturbing. Brave smart actress. Without the sex-thing, you do not understand Stanley’s despair and fear that he is losing her. Without that sex-ache in Stella, he just seems like a brute who hates phonies. Ana Reeder allowed us to see the undercurrent of sexual connection between these two characters, how deep those cables go, how private and sick their little world is … and how letting a third into that circle is destabilizing to a violent degree.
Rockwell’s screaming of “Stella” in the most famous scene in the play came out of a bolt of panic that he had messed it up with his woman, that she wouldn’t come back to his arms. Stanley is a bully but Stella leaving him is terrifying.
Believe it or not, I hadn’t really considered the question before about whether or not such a violent display had happened before in their marriage. In this production, it seemed to me that no, this has not happened before, at least not to that extreme. (Hence the “Stella” wail). Yes, he plays poker with his friends, gets too drunk, and he’s probably roughed Stella up before. Stella describes their wedding night to Blanche and how he went around smashing all the light-bulbs in the room and how thrilling she found it. But Blanche’s presence in his house has ratcheted up his tension. Hitting his pregnant wife is too much for even those rough rough poker-playing guys. Even those assholes are horrified. Stella running upstairs away from Stanley may have happened before as well as she waits for him to cool off … but there was something in the way the scene played in this production that made it seem like every character on that stage was walking into new waters … that things were falling apart. Quickly.
Stella’s fighting back was new in their dynamic, and perhaps Blanche is to blame for it. Rockwell’s mix of rage and tears and childish demands that “Stelllllaaaaaaa” come down to him were filled with PANIC. He crumpled into a ball at the foot of the stairs, sobbing. He looked like a little boy. With hard muscles. And that’s the hook for our Miss Stella. It is that mix that is irresistible to her. Where she finds her strength is in magnanimous forgiveness, sure, but that forgiveness then turns into the hottest sex she has ever had in her life. Sex like that is her oxygen.
Cromer (and the actors) made all of this explicit in Stella’s return down the stairs into the arms of her drunk sobbing husband. This element is in Williams’ stage directions as well. Brando’s performance is so famous, so definitive, that to enter into that scene is a daunting challenge. No one wants to be compared to someone else. Here’s how Williams describes the moment in the script:
[Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the step and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the flat.]
“Her eyes go blind with tenderness.” That’s the key. Blind.
The “Stella” scene ends with a small exchange between Blanche and Mitch, chatting on the steps. Because the stage at Williamstown was so small, you could still see the rest of the dark apartment, you could see Rockwell and Reeder in bed in the shadows. As the scene with Blanche and Mitch played out, Rockwell and Reeder were in bed, and she was pulling his shorts off, and the two were lost in one another, moaning and breathing and sighing, her legs wrapped around his back. Meanwhile, out on the porch, Blanche and Mitch keep talking, pretending they aren’t hearing what they’re hearing. The scene ends with Blanche murmuring, “There’s so much – so much confusion in the world.” I don’t think I ever even heard or understood that line, except in a vague way. The “Stella” scene is such a show-stopper that the Blanche/Mitch scene is forgotten in the shuffle or treated like a coda. Either way, I’ve never seen a production where you hear Stella having an orgasm in the shadows as Blanche and Mitch talk on the other side of the stage. Blanche’s line about “confusion” got a huge laugh in this production, and that seemed to me to be beautifully right. Here, with the sounds of passionate sex surging through the air from right over there, a room away, as Mitch and Blanche have a formal courtly conversation, trying to ignore the sounds they hear … Kerry and I looked at each other, and Kerry mouthed, “OhmyGOD.”
Because that’s what it would be like. That is how Blanche has been living ever since she arrived at her sister’s house, huddled in the fold-out bed in the kitchen, listening to that in the other room.
I don’t know why but I never really got that until I saw Cromer’s staging of it. You could plunge the rest of the stage into total darkness and have Rockwell and Reeder exit in the black to the bedroom. I’ve seen it done that way. I suppose some directors feel that the “STELLAAAAA” moment is the climax and anything afterwards is a denouement. But really: it’s all part of a flow and the sex they launch into is as much a part of the scene as the violence is. The sex explains everything about the relationship. Stanley hits his pregnant wife, she runs away, he falls apart, she comes back to him, and they fuck all night long. Cromer didn’t have them stop at “Stellaaaaa”. He kept their scene, post “Stellllaaaaa”, going.
All of this would be difficult to imagine with a fussy hausfrau Stella, as I have seen it played. Ana Reeder’s desperation for her husband’s hands on her was embarrassing to watch. To repeat my broken record: That is what Williams wrote.
On Daniel Stewart Sherman as Mitch
The wonderful Daniel Stewart Sherman played poor Mitch, the guy who just wants to get married to a nice girl before his sick mother dies. Mama’s Boy. He has the misfortune of meeting Blanche. He is a gentleman, sort of, but he is really one of Williams’ most incisive portraits of how trapped men can be by the double standard foisted upon them by conventional society. Everyone boo-hoos about what the double standard does to women (and yes, it sucks), but it is also damaging to men and it results in behavior even more toxic. Williams understood that so well.
Mitch believes Blanche’s stories about herself, buys the persona she puts out, and desires her because she seems untouched and a womanly belle. (The flip side of this coin, tragically, is that Blanche actually is a womanly belle, and no, she is not “untouched”, but does that mean she deserves the contempt of the world? Is this what we do to one another? Decide who is worth treating kindly?)
Without any specific lines to explain his viewpoint, Sherman played Mitch as a man who sees sex as dirty, something one does with whores. He has split women up into different groups. As long as he believes Blanche is what she says she is, then she deserves respect. But once he hears “the stories”, the contempt (which is actually self-loathing) comes out. He does not see women as people, especially not women with a “past”. He can deal with Stella, because she is married and pregnant and therefore “respectable” and classifiable. (If he only knew that Stella found marriage the safest place to bring out the whore within! Stanley, to his credit, doesn’t seem to have a problem reconciling that.)
Even Sherman’s body language told us how bound up this man was. Sherman is a big man. Mitch needs to be big. It highlights his impotence and ineffectuality. Sherman, encased in a suit for his date with Blanche, seemed, even with his flaws and weaknesses, like a man just looking for love. He’s not evil. He’s not a user. His disillusionment over Blanche’s past is the hurt of a little boy who realizes the princess has clay feet. The undercurrent here is Mitch’s fear about his mother dying.
Sherman kept all of these complex balls in the air simultaneously, and at the very end, as Blanche was being subdued in the other room by the nurse, he suddenly burst into sobs, head down on the table. It was heartwrenching. Such a man, sensitive and good (ultimately), yet repressed and filled with self-loathing about sex, is as much of a stranger in the world as Blanche is, but because he’s a man, with all of the privilege that that implies, he is not as openly trapped. But make no mistake: Mitch is trapped. Things are not going to turn out all right for Mitch. He will never forget Blanche. He will never forget that instead of showing her kindness in her final moments of freedom, he showed her judgment and scorn. He will never forgive himself for that. He will probably never marry. It would not surprise me at all if Mitch became extremely religious, in order to try to assuage his guilt.
On Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois
And now we come to Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois. Hecht has got big shoes to fill as well.
In her first entrance, her voice seemed forced and flat, there weren’t a lot of ups and downs in her tone, and I wasn’t sure what that choice was about. It seemed deliberate. Once I got into her rhythm, I succumbed to what I was seeing: it was the Blanche right in front of me, her own woman, and not the memory of Vivien Leigh.
Here is what I SO appreciated about Jessica Hecht’s performance, and Kerry and I talked about this on the way home. Hecht got the artifice, the need to dress like a lady, to put on airs, and she managed to do this in a deeply human way, and not like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown (how the role is played most often). But, and this is key, she also got Blanche’s streetsmarts, her coarseness, her practical nature. (Leigh got it too, in that one-on-one scene with Stanley.)
Unfortunately, most actresses take the opportunity to turn Blanche into a veritable shrieking-ninny, the ultimate victim of a cruel world. Yes, it is tragic what happens to her, but Blanche herself is not tragic, nor is she a victim. On the contrary. She is a survivor. She represents all that is best in us, the most precious stuff, the most valued. Williams’ play is a critique of the world, not Blanche’s delusions.
Blanche has been immersed in scandal, she has been fired for being inappropriate with a teenage student, she is haunted by her only cruel moment (screaming at her gay husband on the dance floor, a moment that leads to his suicide). She lost the family plantation, and has been holed up in a shady hotel, sleeping with men for money. She entertains soldiers from a nearby military base. The scandal became so intense that she was run out of town. She has nowhere to go, so she goes to Stella’s. A woman with shameful secrets, she is shocked at the conditions in which Stella lives.
Blanche still has the snobbery of being raised as a debutante, an attitude that Stella has given up entirely. Blanche’s obsession with cleanliness makes perfect sense. A woman who was raised to be a lady has become a whore. Her illusions about herself are not indications of her madness. They are indications that her humanity has not been killed yet. She wants to believe that she is still worth something. Who are we to say that Blanche doesn’t deserve love, that she has made herself worthless? (It reminds me of that great exchange in Bull Durham when the trampy woman about to get married she says to Susan Sarandon anxiously, “Do you think I deserve to wear white?” Sarandon replies, “Honey, we all deserve to wear white.”) Blanche sits in that bathtub for hours on end, because she will never get the filth off of her or out of her. I understand Stanley’s rage that he can’t go in there (he has that funny line about Blanche ruining his kidneys), but I ache for this poor woman. She is one of God’s children, she deserves love and kindness just as much as the next person, but the world is hell-bent on destroying her.
You could play Blanche’s obsession with cleanliness as some sort of OCD mania. So so so condescending (and unimaginative) but sure, you could play it that way. But how about being brave and playing it as an obsession because she has fallen so far, she feels so dirty, and will she ever feel clean again?
There are those who see vulnerability and call it weakness. (I’ve heard from acting teacher friends that the young actresses in their class really struggle with Blanche and Stella because they judge both of them as weak, or pathologize them in modern-day Tumblr-esque terms, OR refuse to play the tragedy, because they need to be “on top” in their scenes due to their unfamiliarity with uncertainty brought about by unwarranted high self-esteem. Sorry: just reporting the observations of my frustrated acting teacher friends who are on the front-lines. It takes a lot of work to encourage these young actresses to “crack,” they are so afraid of seeming anything less than “awesome.” Watch Liv Ullmann’s PBS Master Class, and watch her deal with a young actress who tries to play Blanche as an in-control seductress. Naturally, the young actress fails, because that is not what Williams wrote, and Ullmann is kind, but also firm: “Read the script again and try to make some other choices.” But this young girl literally could not allow herself to be a “loser,” which shows that she sees Blanche as a “loser” and everything stops being possible from right there.) Williams was never one of those people who thought vulnerability was weak. Think about it: The fact that vulnerability hadn’t been bashed out of him is still a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Kazan always said that people’s vulnerabilities were their STRONGEST points, NOT their weakest.
Here’s the rub with other actresses who have played Blanche (not all of them, but more of them than not.)
Modern-day actresses are a part of their own time just like anyone else, and many of them see Blanche’s vulnerabilities as weaknesses, so they play them as such. They flutter and whisper and get panicked and breathless, turning up the psychotic fire licking at Blanche’s heels. I realize that this is obviously part of the character. Blanche does, after all, go mad. But if you listen to the language in the first scene she has alone with Stanley … this is NOT an idiot madwoman, cringing and fearful when faced with someone strong. No. No. No. She looks at Stanley, recognizes that she has met her match, recognizes that he sees through her, and – best of all, in terms of complexity – she understands him even better than Stella does. And so she meets him straightup in that scene. She does not hover and flutter and cower. She stands her ground. Jessica Hecht’s Blanche stood her ground.
Not only is it (broken record) what Williams wrote, but the scene was FUNNY. Jessica Hecht’s Blanche was FUNNY. What a relief! Read those lines on the page. She IS funny.
Blanche’s Southern Belle airs ARE airs. She KNOWS that. It was part of her Southern culture, and also part of how she survives. Her “airs” are how she believes she still has a chance to get a good man to marry her. Women tell little lies about themselves all the time and most of the time we know we are doing it. (You know, like saying, “I’m not really hungry” when you’re on a first date. And every man knows this is bullshit, and knows his date is probably starving but won’t eat too much in front of him, and every woman knows it is bullshit, but the SMART man buys the lie, the SMART man understands that he should be flattered by the small deception as opposed to scornful of her little white lie. You want to get laid? Play the game a little nicer and maybe you’ll get lucky next time. We need to be kind to one another about our little illusions and white lies. Sometimes they are what help us to survive.)
Blanche, her lies catching up with her, realizes that the Southern belle mode will not work with Stanley, and so she drops it COMPLETELY in that first scene. Whoosh, it’s gone.
If I didn’t know that you was my wife’s sister I’d get ideas about you!
Such as what!
Don’t play so dumb. You know what!
BLANCHE [she puts the atomizer on the table]:
All right. Cards on the table. That suits me. [She turns to Stanley.] I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is fifty per cent illusion, but when a thing is important I tell the truth, and this is the truth: I haven’t cheated my sister or you or anyone else as long as I have lived.
Blanche being dragged out of the house by a doctor with a hypodermic needle often hovers over the action of the entire play. I suppose that is inevitable, since the play is so well-known, you can’t forget that it is coming. But this goes back to what I’ve said before: you must not play the end in the beginning of the play. Too many actresses make their first entrance as Blanche telegraphing to the audience, “I am going to go cuh-raaaaaay-zee at the end!!”
Therefore, we don’t get the stakes, and, ultimately, we don’t get the tragedy. If the woman needs to be locked up at the beginning of the play, then there is nowhere to go.
Tragedy occurs when you get the sense that events could have gone the other way. That is how we know it’s tragic, when we want to step into the action and start fixing things and clearing up misunderstandings in order to divert the fate coming down the pike. If Stanley hadn’t told Mitch the scandalous stories about Blanche, would Mitch have proposed marriage? I think he would have. Blanche’s past could have remained her own little secret, and Mitch would be none the wiser. He would make a good husband, albeit a little dull, but dull would suit Blanche at this point in her life, and she would have been safe and protected. But Stanley DOES tell Mitch, and from that point on, Blanche’s fate is sealed.
And so playing Blanche as a psychotic upon her first entrance in the play is depriving Blanche of her courageous last stand to have a life of dignity. Yes, it is brutal. Blanche is destroyed and we are forced to watch, with the dreadful realization that all of it COULD have been avoided, but now … it can’t be stopped. When Blanche first enters the play, she is desperate, worn down, and in a panic, as well as horrified at the fact that Stella lives in a slum and doesn’t seem to care. But even with all of that, Blanche is nobody’s fool. She has been living by her wits, and doing the best she can, and, yes, sleeping with soldiers to put food on the table. She has clung to her possessions, her furs, her tiaras, and yes, she drinks a bit to relax, but she’s not in full-on psychotic break until the final act. The FINAL ACT, people! That’s a long time to hold off your crackup.
But dear actresses: Can you be as brave, as strong, as hopeful, as Blanche DuBois? If Blanche DuBois can stand it, then can’t you?
Jessica Hecht can stand it. Her humor as Blanche (she got so many laughs, it was incredible to watch) was that much more awful and sad, because you saw what a great person she was, how capable, how much of an ASSET she was (or could be) to our world.
The “kindness of strangers” line is so quoted as to be almost a cliche at this point, and Cromer managed to find an elegant and piercing way to stage it, basically acknowledging, “Yes. This is a famous line. Here it is.” Throughout the play, every time Blanche walks through the cramped kitchen, she would say to the men sitting at the table, “Don’t get up” even though not one of them ever made a move to get up for her in the first place. The repetition of the “Don’t get up” line, and the blatant disregard the men showed her, ended up being funny in a way. Blanche wants to be around gentlemen, men who would NEVER remain seated when a woman walks into the room. However, this is not her current reality, so Jessica Hecht would breeze through the space, saying, “Don’t get up”, as THOUGH they had all started to stand. It was a condemnation of their lack of manners, although she would never lash out explicitly. A simple “don’t get up” is enough. She is steely in her resolve to value herself, all outer evidence to the contrary.
But during the brutal final scene, when the doctor and the psych-ward matron subdue her, Hecht was thrashing about on the bed, as the matron said that chilling line: “Her fingernails will have to be cut.”
For the following moment, the moment before the “kindness of strangers” line, Williams’ stage directions read:
He takes off his hat and now he becomes personalized. The unhuman quality goes. His voice is gentle and reassuring as he crosses to Blanche and crouches in front of her. As he speaks her name, her terror subsides a little. The lurid reflections fade from the walls, the inhuman cries and noises die out and her own hoarse crying is calmed.]
In the bedroom in Cromer’s set was a dangling bare light bulb, and when the doctor slowly removed his hat, the light went on (or maybe it was on before, but then became brighter, almost blinding), and everything onstage, including Blanche, restrained on the bed, came to a standstill. His removal of the hat was deliberate and graceful, a pantomime of good manners and gentlemanly grace that had been so noticeably absent throughout the play. It was a theatricalized moment, which I really liked. (Liked? I was weeping uncontrollably.) I liked Cromer’s choice to pull that moment out, to make a “bit” out of it, an almost abstract presentation of grace. The doctor, in that slow sweep of his hat off his head, beneath the blinding bare lightbulb, suddenly seemed like an angel. An angel of kindness in the most unlikely moment. A savior. A human being who takes the time to treat another human being with dignity.
What would the world be like if all of us, routinely, were “kind to strangers”? I don’t think there can be any debate that it would be a nicer place to live.
Streetcar is not for the weak-hearted. It is brutal.
Ana Reeder’s shattered response to Blanche being taken away was so filled with guilt that I had to look away from her. When Stella’s sobbing was subdued by the embrace of her husband it was crushing, awful. Her surrender to Stanley’s embrace seemed like the surrender of a weak animal to the strong.
And let me tell you, Stanley’s no dummy. He will not be happy with this new surrendered weak Stella. He has lost her forever. Rightly so, I suppose, but Streetcar doesn’t let the audience off the hook that easily. With Mitch crumpled in sobs at the table, and Stella and Stanley embracing to the side, Blanche, head held high, walked offstage, holding the doctor’s arm as though headed off to a cotillion … and I couldn’t help but think that Blanche got the best deal out of all of them.
At least she lives in truth.
At least she has been kind.