A journey through sociological & sexual 'rape'
AFTER her performance as Hamlet in the play of the same name last year, I was wondering how Maxine Peak originally a lass from Bolton would manage to tackle the lead role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee William's play 'A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE' now being performed at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. I needn't have worried Maxine rose to the job and took us down into a wounded world of which Arthur Miller described as 'STREETCAR is a cry of pain; forgetting that is to forget the play'.
But how are we to approach such a play mired as it is in the cramped space of a two room sparsely furnished apartment offering us views of a combined living-room and bedroom with a bathroom on the side? When Blanche from Mississippi arrives to live with her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley, in New Orleans she was already what we would now call 'damaged' by having experienced a marriage to a homosexual man who had just died. Then begins the disintegration not only mentally of Blanche, but of the relationships of those who come into contact with her, not just Stanley and Stella, but Stanley's workmates, like Mitch.
Rachel Clements, lecturer in drama, theatre and performance University of Manchester, in the program's brochure writes:
'There are reports that in (Elia) Kazan's 1947 production (on Broadway), some audience members cheered as Stanley carried Blanche to the bed to rape her. Although one hopes this kind of response is now consigned to the past, both Mitch and Stanley's reactions to and judgements about Blanche's sexuality are not so wholly remote.'
And Ms. Clements in keeping with our contemporary 'Women's Studies' addiction continues:
'How far STREETCAR recreates or critiques rape culture sits somewhere between the play, the particular production and each individual audience member.'
That last comment by the academic would worry me if she hadn't concluded:
'But STREETCAR is a social, even a political, play because it works to show us how and why Blanche becomes disbelieved.'
While the play is about an individual's mental condition, and how others relate to how Blanche breaches or disrupts the social order of a tight-knit community, it is also about how the participants can recover social order in the claustrophobic setting in which they all find themselves.
Ms Clements further argues:
'Indeed, the tragedy of the play's closing scene is desperately total: everyone loses.'
In a real sense by excluding Blanche, everyone loses personally in order to recover social, and perhaps political, order and even sanity. Because I believe Tennessee Williams is what I would call a grown-up homosexual he is playing-off realism against a more romantic magical approach in the theatre. Blanche wants she calls magic rather than realism, but being romantic and dancing to music, doesn't prevent Blanche from describing Stanley as a Neanderthal and a Polack*, not to mention dreaming the day away in Stanley's bathroom, playing the radio or drinking his bourbon.
I'm not a professional drama critic, I'm an electrician by trade, who later became an ethnomethodologist (student of people's studies) at Manchester Poly. in the 1970s, but I can see the predictable sociological destination of a claustrophobic society such as that portrayed in 'A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE'.
This is not approve of the physical rape of Blanche in any way, but rather to draw attention to her own sociological 'rape' of the lives of the other characters in the play, especially of Stella and Stanley's private life. One has only to be aware of the underlying cultural, ethnic and clash social-class between Blanche and Stanley in the play to grasp the politics of the play. Having lived in Spain (Mi casa, Su casa) in part of the last half of the last century where the guest may be privileged over the host; I am also aware that in some cultures Blanche's plight may be seen in a different light than that in more Anglo-Saxon cultures such as England or the USA, and it may well be that even in the deep-south 'in the heat of the New Orleans apartment' the attitude to the 'guest' may be different from ours.
* The noun Polack in the contemporary English language, is an ethnic slur and a derogatory reference to a person of Polish descent. It is an Anglicisation of the Polish language word Polak, which means a ... Look up Polack, Pollack, Pollock, or Polock in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.