Monday, October 14, 2013

259. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

To begin with, this is a fantastic play. The themes it covers are as relevant today as they were at the time and a simple twitter search will support this: the play is still acted on stage and the people still love it.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) is about the effects of society's buckram moral dictates and norms on those who stand against them - individuals who, in living their lives and expressing themselves, go against these formalised regulations. It is easy to take today's liberties, and society's indifference to certain behaviours, for granted. It is easy to think that it has always been like that. The truth, however, is that the strong-hold of society - usually through religious dicta - on the actions of the individual means most of the freedom enjoyed today has at one time being fought for. Even today, the black American society has a dictum against their kinds who go about in their natural woolly hair. Ask Gabby Douglas, when she won Olympic gold in Gymnastics. 

Tennessee's play deals with some of these issues such as marriage, rape, homosexuality, and the whole women empowerment movement. In its treatment of marriage, or society's views on marriage and the value it places on it, Tennessee is in the same category as Thomas Hardy, who treated this in his book Jude the Obscure. Even at a young age, Blanche was pesky; she acted like the elder sister; and she married young. Later in life, Blanche lost the family's property, then moved to live in a rundown hotel. Her bid for companionship and to assuage her numerous losses in life saw her dating several men; and it was this that brought her into direct confrontation with society, violating one of Laurel's (society's) cardinal law: a young woman must live as a young woman does, and if she should date, she should date only one man and not pretend. Or something of that sorts for it was this that led to her ostracism by the Mayor of the town, who together with the people saw this as morally unsound and base. However, Tennessee's provocation of society's mentality went beyond Blanche's mere multiple-dating of men and her perceived lies. As if multiple-dating in a 1947 America steeped in its moral stricture was not enough, the author added a dose pedophilia, which got Blanche the termination from her teaching job for 'getting mixed up' with a seventeen year old boy.

But there is more. Blanche herself was not free from society's moral morass. She had suffered a mental breakdown when her young husband committed suicide after she had told him that she saw what he (the husband) and his older friend did and that it 'disgust me'. It was this loss of a loved one, for she dearly loved him, coupled with her loss of the family's estate that led to her breakdown and her wanton behaviour. Yet, like all societies, the people of Laurel loved to excise the 'damaged' limb instead of stitching it up.

To escape all these, and perhaps to start over, Blanche sort solace in Stella, her sister who lived in Elysian Fields. Tennessee's deliberateness kicked in here, for Stella's marriage to Stanley was anything but heavenly. In fact, the marriage was full of abuse that had it not being people's perception of marriage and of an unmarried woman, she would have divorced him. Rather it kept both Stella and Eunice - her neighbour - married to their abusive husbands. Ironically, it was the troubled Blanche who saw the uselessness of Stella's situation and the unworthiness of Stanley. But trapped by desire and locked in 'what-society-will-say' thoughts, Stella considered not her sisters advice. Marriage at the time was worth more than freedom, and an unmarried woman was seen and considered as a floosie.

Stella, so much in love with the idea of marriage - and not the marriage itself or the man in it - would not let go of her marriage to follow Blanche or to openly believe her that her brute Stanley had sexually abused her but instead she would work with Stanley and their neighbour, Eunice, to get rid of the psycho who was bent on bursting their marriage bubble, their Elysian Field. 

And this they did. However it is not Stella's guilt or Eunice's reassurance that she had done right by having her sister incarcerated in a mental home that is profound but rather Blanche's statement to the doctor, when she was being led away. She said to the doctor and the nurse
Whoever you are - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
This statement highlighted her helplessness and her rejection by society and family. It indicates how she is just a chaff in the wind, following wherever it chooses to blow. It shows the value that was placed on marriage to the extent that a woman could give up on her sister for a man who frequently abused her. So great was Blanche's rejection that even when she finally decided to settle down and start all over again with Mitch, it failed. Mitch was shocked by what his friend Stanley had told him and was concerned about what his mother would say. The hypocrisy of Mitch was that though he would not take Blanche as a wife, he would want to sleep with her, and this was the hypocrisy that thread through the story.

Initially, one would think of Blanche as the victim; however, all the seemingly sane individuals were victims of society's laws. For instance, tied by her strange desire to remain married, Stella would, a minute after being physically abused by her husband, not only forgive her but end up curled in his arms in bed, with promises of 'it-will-not-happen-again' and even defend his actions. In one instance, she says to Blanche who was pointing her elder sister to the grievousness of her mistreatments:
I know it must have seemed to you and I'm awful sorry it had to happen, but it wasn't anything serious as you seem to take it. In the first place, when men are drinking and playing poker anything can happen. It's always powder-keg. He didn't know what he was doing. .... He was as good as a lamb when I came back and he's really very ashamed of himself.
In fact, not only did Stella defend Stanley but she did not even consider the abuse she suffered, choosing rather to talk about the radio he smashed in his fit of anger:
What other can I be? He's taken the radio to get it fixed. It didn't land on the pavement so only one tube was smashed.
Stella's such matter-of-fact statements on Stanley's abuse is what makes it worth critical observation. And it was clear from their conversation that it started right after they married:
No, it isn’t all right for anybody to make such a terrible row, but – people do sometimes. Stanley’s always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night – soon as we came in here – he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light-bulbs with it.
Stanley himself, thinking of his family as perfect - per the marriage, did not need Blanche to destabilise their lives, or break that illusion of paradise. It is based on this that he consistently abused Blanche with the motive of getting her out of their 'perfect' lives.

This is a satirical take on society and like all plays, it distilled just a portion and expanded it for your conscience to mull over. The Elysian Fields was filled with marital problems and abuse, and it was desire through the vehicle of marriage that got them there. This is an interesting play.
This was a selection of the Writers Project of Ghana's Book and Discussion Club for the month of September. In October we are reading Chuma Nwokolo's The Ghost of Sani Abacha. Follow us on twitter @WritersPG and our discussions at #wpghbookclub.

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