Thursday, May 12, 2016

Musical Explanation 5/11: A Streetcar Named Desire

"When, finally, she is removed to the mental home, we should feel that a part of civilization is going with her. Where ancient drama teaches us to reach nobility by contemplation of what is noble, modern American drama conjures us to contemplate what might have been noble, but is now humiliated, ignoble in the sight of all but the compassionate."

Kenneth Tynan

What an amazing insight that preeminent drama critic of that mid-century era had. Even today, the two archetypal dramas of American Theater are A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman, premiered within fourteen months of each other under the auspice of the same director, Elia Kazan. Both Salesman and Streetcar are about the same fundamental problem: a small man or woman who aspires to be just a little bit bigger, only realize with crushing finality that their lives will always be unendurably small.

Theater and America never mixed particularly well together. America is too large and fast to be captured by a proscenium arch, it needs the dynamism which camera and film edits provide. And even if America can be rendered properly within a stage, there is still the problem that Americans don't like to be reminded of all those qualities which are the theater's great strengths. Theatrical tragedy excels at showing the fall of its protagonists, but Americans don't like to be reminded of failure. Theatrical comedy excels at showing the ridiculousness of aspiration, but whom among Americans want to be reminded that their dreams are ridiculous?

One might argue that we are not even a particularly artistic country. Art requires the humility to realize that we are well-nigh powerless to the infinity of metaphysical forces that shape us, but the ethos of this entire country was created as a demonstration that we might not be as powerless against fate as life leads us to believe. If we've ever truly excelled in the arts, its mostly in the 'popular arts,' whose purpose deliberately places contemplation as a distant second to entertainment. Within the popular arts, there is plenty of creations with contemplative force, but such contemplation has to be snuck in in a manner that disguises its nature to a public that wants nothing more from their art than entertainment.

There was a brief, mid-century, idyll, when the average American, fresh from intimacy with both Europe's culture and Europe's mortality, thought that they might like an import so un-native to our soil as the arts. But by the 'sixties', the idyll was almost completely over. Art has never again been consumed in America as anything but a luxury product. The great American artistic works which survive to our day in the public imagination generally do so not because of their artistic merit, but because of their superficial gloss. If works like The Great Gatsby and A Streetcar Named Desire survive in the public imagination, they do so not because they are great works, but because they shroud their greatness with a sleazy sexuality.

There is a primal, ecstatic, almost Greek, tragic force about A Streetcar Named Desire which is both its great achievement and its great limitation. Like Blanche herself, the play aspires with great poetic artifice to say something profound about the frailty of civilization, yet all anybody wants with either this play or with Blanche is its superficial and exploitative eroticism. Some call Streetcar the Great American Play, but the truth is that it's not even the greatest play by Tennessee Williams. There is compassion aplenty for the plight of Blanche DuBois, but we're so excited by her descent into madness that we're almost made to root for it. The descent of Laura Winfield is pure understated heartbreak, the descent of Blanche DuBois is a nihilistic operatic spectacle, and we're so thrilled by her private agony that we become complicit in driving her mad.

One of these days, a budding high school feminist is going to wake up in the middle of English class and realize just how appallingly subversive A Streetcar Named Desire is to the mores of our time. When it happens, Streetcar will be taken off America's curricula for a century or more. This is a play that dares to tell a modern audience that masculinity is what it is, and will never change. It dares to tell women that they should know better than to walk into places which they know are filled with dangerous men. And if women go in, it dares to tell women that they should know better than to flirt with dangerous men. Most shocking of all, it dares to tell us that harrowing scenes between men and women are just something that happens in the eternal power struggle between the sexes, and that any attempt to escape from that cycle of violent anger and makeup sex is doomed to end in an unnatural madness.

I say none of this with approval for Streetcar's worldview, I don't even think Streetcar's worldview is anything but a small portion of the truth about eroticism. Even so, in the conflict between Blanche and Stanley, we see nothing less than conflict between civilization and nature. Blanche is more than just a hysterical floozy, she embodies the aspiration which every person who buys a theater ticket holds to learning, to beauty, even to culture and civilization. Blanche is that part of us all that aspires to be something more than animal, but she pays for her aspiration by divorcing herself from her most basic psychological need, which then returns to her with the added strength of a long unnourished part of one's psyche that will no longer be ignored.

But in Blanche's descent, we're not called to identify sufficiently with her, because we're called to identify with Stanley. Streetcar's failure in this regard is not simply a failure of misogyny, though I don't doubt many modern progressives would like us to view it that way - in spite of the fact that if Streetcar took place in 2016, Blanche DuBois would undoubtedly be graduate of Oberlin or Sarah Lawrence, about to attend her fifteenth reunion. Streetcar's shortcoming is a basic failure of compassion, in which Blanche's insanity is deserved because of the airs she puts on as a member of a higher social class against Stanley's direct masculinity. Yes, Stanley's a 'brute' (to use that old gay term), but like any self-respecting member of the modern Tea Party, he's a go-getter who demands results and picks himself up by his bootstraps while Blanche lives like a leech off other people's work. Unlike Laura Wingfield, Blanche is not a fellow being in need of compassion, she's nothing short of unnatural, and therefore her fate is inevitable. "Sure, civilization is nice and all that," the play seems to tell us, "but are you really willing aspire to be all that if it means going without sex?'

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