Tennessee Williams: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a quite amazing play. It contains the maturation of some of Williams’ most central themes, such as the burden of the past, the violence of human institutions (again the family is the most visceral and inescapable of these), and the difficulty of honest relationships. The key point to me is that Blanche DuBois was making an honest attempt to remake herself by moving into her sister’s house after fleeing her ancestral home of Laurel. While she certainly made mistakes, she is not a horrible person and did not deserve the abuse she received by her brother-in-law, which ranged from intrusive interrogations, spying, rape, and ultimately exile and institutionalization. As we learn, Blanche has good reasons for her life falling apart. It is striking that compared to the family, the law and the state is actually quite open about giving people second chances. As difficult as it may be to survive the bureaucratic machine of the state after a mistake or a catastrophe, it at least (through systems of parole and bankruptcy) hold onto the mythology of second chances. Stanley (and more hesitantly Stella Kowalski) exploits Blanche’s weaknesses for his own pleasure and domination in the household.

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Stanley is a working class guy and actually has a rather strong relationship with his wife due to their sexual chemistry and regular periods of freedom from each other. Certainly Blanche’s arrival—destitute and homeless although under certain pretensions—disrupts their delicate system. Stanley is eager to defend his little world from what he soon takes to be an intruder. (The hot water bathes seemed quite bothersome.) Class prejudice shapes Blanche’s view of Stanley. She also picks up on his defensive attitude toward his space and his family. “Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and these he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you—you here—waiting for him! Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in the front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking!” (510)

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Blanche may share some of the delusions attitudes of Amanda in A Glass Menagerie, but unlike Amanda, Blanche is really harming no one else with her delusions of grandeur and her promiscuity. If we look at her situation we find much to sympathize with. She was left in the ancestral home with the remnants of a Southern aristocracy (now a gerontocracy). Her job is to bury these elders one at a time. In the end she is left bankrupt and bearing the moral responsibility for being the last member of a decaying dynasty. Her husband killed himself after being exposed as a homosexual. Alone in her hometown she becomes promiscuous and an alcoholic and is eventually kicked out of the hotel she was staying at. She was fired from her job as a teacher around the same time (reportedly for starting a sexual relationship with a student). She certainly could have used some solidarity and support from her surviving relatives. This does not excuse her attitude toward her brother-in-law, which is dreadfully aristocratic.

The tragedy of the play is built on the tyranny of expectations both individual and social. Despite what Blanche says about Stanley, comparing him to an ape, he is as capable as the people of Blanche and Stella’s hometown of using moral expectations as a weapon. It is not clear that he holds them, but he sure does put on the moral outrage when he reports on what his informants tell him about Blanche’s unfortunate past in Laurel.

Of course the play ends with the largely unseen but very ominous threat of the asylum. Stanley arranged for Blanche to be taken in as a ward of a mental institution after her nervous breakdown resulting from Stanley raping her. Signs of her mental deterioration preceded this event and the rape is a tragic addition to her life of suffering. Stanley wanted to get rid of her and likely would have used a similar device to get rid of her. Why is it that in so much art, the police, the prison, the school and other authoritarian institutions are so easily attacked and undermined yet we continue to send our children and our brothers and sisters to these places? Why do not these depictions of institutions do more to undermine their power over our lives?

Tennessee Williams, “Spring Storm” (1937)

One of my goals for this year in my blog is to expand types of writing. Up to now, I have focused on non-fiction writing, novels, and short stories. I think my coverage has been diverse, there are two areas of writing that I have neglected: poetry and the stage. To begin correcting this, I will take the next two weeks or so reading the collected plays of Tennessee Williams, collected in two volumes. An immediate problem that comes up is that my normal strategy of gobbling around 150 pages a day will not work if I want to give each work the attention it deserves. These two volumes collected over 20 of Williams’ plays. If I take it a work at a time, I will risk writing a longer series than even my lengthy looks at Philip K. Dick and Mark Twain. For now, I plan to post everyday one or two plays to keep pace.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm for a playwright course at the University of Iowa. He had previously seen a handful of his works staged by amateur and student groups. Spring Storms was a failure in his course and the St. Louis theater troupe, “the Mummers,” refused to perform it despite putting on some of his other works. He was twenty-six when this was written and he has spent most of his adult life facing the Great Depression. Spending most of that time writing, he attended journalism school and performed various jobs, including working at a branch of the International Shoe Company, which his father manages. His career had a slow start and he attended various colleges. Spring Storm was never performed during Williams’ lifetime.

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The social context of Spring Storms is an old Southern aristocratic family—the Critchfields—in a decline accelerated by the Great Depression. As the older generation of the family sees it, their last asset is their daughter Heavenly. By marrying the son of a well-off family, Arthur Shannon, the family’s financial future can be improved. As with much Great Depression literature, class exists at the center of this play. It runs through all relationships between the characters and drives the major action. None of the younger generation are particularly interested in the class divide, however. Whether this is due to their youthful naivety or a more progressive attitude toward class due to the Depression is open to interpretation. In the background of the Critchfield family is the historical legacy of Colonel Wayne, a Confederate officer who fought at Gettysburg. His portrait hands in the background and is commonly discussed. Heavenly even has conversations with him.

Young Tennessee Williams

Young Tennessee Williams

Four young men and women form the center of the story. Heavenly Critchfield has recently begun a sexual relationship with Richard (Dick) Miles. She suggest to her parents that she is pregnant by him, but this could be a means to avoid marriage to Arthur. Dick is presented as a working class dreamer. Arthur is well-off and has spent some time in Europe, where he sowed his wild oats and enjoyed various privileges that money provides. He is having a relationship with Hertha. Williams describes her as follows. “Hertha is thin and dark, about twenty-eight. Without money or social position, she has to depend upon a feverish animation and cleverness to make her place among people. She has an original mind with a distinct gift for creative work. She is probably the most sensitive and intelligent person in Port Tyler, Mississippi.” (13–14) Unlike Dick, Hertha is smart enough to engage with the world on its own terms. Dick, from a similar class background is more reckless. The initial pairings break class assumptions about who should be with who, but the young people’s indifference to class runs deeper. Arthur holds a grudge against Dick and Heavenly for the insults they lodged at him in school. His money did not translate into class privilege in the context of the playground.

Pushed by her family, Heavenly begins a courtship with Arthur, but she is quite cold and coy with him. She is much more interested in Dick but knows he is unstable. Arthur is filled with jealousy and resentment toward Heavenely and Dick. In a type of misdirected vengeance he focuses on seducing Hertha. His monologue, directed toward Hertha in an attempt to seduce her, is central to the play.

Yes. I told her that I was in love with her, and she said that I should go out and get drunk because that was the only thing that would do me any good. So I got drunk. It’s the first time I ever got drunk in my life and it was swell. Till I started thinking of her making love to Dick Miles. . . . I can forget all that with you, can’t I? You’re a girl, too. You could make love as well as she could. But not with Dick Miles. With me. What are you backing away for? Are you scared? That’s flattering. Nobody’s ever been scared of me before. I was like you, Hertha. I hid behind books all the time because they used to call me sissy when I was a kid in school. I never got over that. Not till tonight when I got drunk. God! I never knew it could be so good to get drunk and feel like a man inside. Literature and the arts. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Concerts, matinees, recitals—what’s all that? If I told you you’d blush. You don’t like that kind of language. Sure, I sat through all that stuff and thought it was great. Got much stuff publishes in those little magazines with the big cultural movements. Art for art’s sake. Give America back to the Indians. I thought I was being highbrow. Intellectual. The hell with that stuff. Dick Mile’s go the right idea. He was one that she gave herself to, not me, not me. The one that got drunk and had himself a good time, he was the one that got Heavenly, and me with my intellectual pretensions, my fancy education, and my father’s money—what did I get? Pushed in the face! (76–77)

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In this monologue, we see Arthur’s class resentment come forth. Whatever freedom his wealth gave him—evidenced by some trysts in Europe and his social clout in the town—he still experiences frustration over the experiences and social circle that his wealth excludes him from. Williams may be feeding into the cultural movements of the Great Depression that focused on the exclusionary nature of class and the divide across America people “the people” and the elite.

Arthur’s sexual aggression toward Hertha leads to her suicide, which his interprets as a murder that he is responsible for. (The stage notes were a bit opaque for me about how she died, whether it was murder or suicide.) Dick, ever a dreamer, quits his work as a local courier and flees both the town and Heavenly. All the characters are thus left alone, their different class backgrounds and perspectives on life making them incompatibles.

Ah, there is much more that could be touched on, most significantly the division between the ages groups and the values changing from nineteenth century to twentieth century America.

Jessie Redmon Fauset, “Plum Bun” (1929)

Earlier, I considered Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, which posited the dilemma between mobility and tradition. The hero of that story was able to escape from confinement and drudgery through most of her early life, but her commitment to the color line, her embrace of a black identity and her ultimate inability to cross that line led to a miserable later life. In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, we see another perspective on the color line. In Plum Bun, Angela Murray, is able to pass as a white (unlike her darker-skinned sister). She takes advantage of this ability, dating white men and pursuing an artistic career, but us ultimately confined by other forces: capitalism, gender, and ultimately race (which Angela can never fully escape).

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Fauset also lived near the color line herself, having been rejected from Bryn Mawr because she was black but only after attending a white school.  She was classically educated  and earned a degree at Cornell.  Despite working for one summer at Fisk, she struggled to find steady work until she starting working as literary editor for The Crisis.  Before getting involved in the literary politics of the Harlem Renaissance (helping some of the major figures of that movement get published), she had worked in both white and black institutions. He was also raised in a large, poor family.  She also had to work at low paid jobs for much of her life, finally accepting a position at De Witt Clinton high school in New York City. Despite the fame she enjoyed in the 1930s, the crude capitalist exchange of bare survival for a life-time of labor evaporated her literary career.

The color line is a theme that these Harlem Renaissance novels I have been reading come back to again and again. One of the later novels of this period, Black No More, goes as far as to create a science-fiction setting where the color line can be completely abolished with a simple medical treatment. This is just a simple reminder that while the image of the Harlem Renaissance is often centered on the lively cultural environment and the debates over the proper use of that culture, almost all of the works were deeply political in their effort to circumvent and undermine the color line.

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I was reminded of Lu Xun’s essay “What Happens When Nora Leaves Home?,” when reading this. Passing is straight forward enough (I hesitate to say easy) for those with the right complexion, but color is not the only barrier to human equality. In this way, the novel asks the question: What happens when Angela leaves home to pass as white? As it turns out, simply passing is not that simple because exposure is always near. This was a truth first described by Charles Chesnutt in the early 20th century with his work on passing. But as a poor woman, Angela faced all sorts of other challenges, which leads to her ultimate decision to stay at the edge of the color line, reflected in her romance with biracial man.

The novel opens with great optimism about the potential freedom that comes from passing. Angela’s point of view seems to be that passing in itself is liberatory, but also foreshadow her difficulties. “Freedom! That was the note which Angela heard oftenest in the melody of living which was to be hers. With a wildness that fell just short of unreasonableness she hated restraint. Her father’s earlier days as coachman in a private family, he later successful, independent years as boss carpenter, her mother’s youth spent as a maid to a famous actress, all this was to Angela a manifestation of the sort of thing which happens to those enchained in might be by duty, by poverty, by weakness or by colour.” (438) Angela’s mother was also able to pass and it was from her that she learned that it could be a rather joyful game to play. It also had market potential. Angela used her ability to pass to seek out financial security. In one sense she is as free as the main character in Quicksand but is restrained by conditions and realities, not the internal acceptance of the ideology of race.

Angela’s search for personal autonomy, made possible by her ability to pass ran into the growing emphasis on racial pride, after she settled in Harlem. “It represented, the last word in racial pride, integrity, and even self-sacrifice. Here were people of a very high intellectual type, exponents of the realest and most essential refinement living cheek by jowl with coarse or ill-bred or even criminal, certainly indifferent, members of their race.” (650) But it also meant that she could enjoy the realities social freedom she was searching for.  White supremacy seemed unable to affect the vibrancy of Harlem.  It was in its own way an enclave that was recasting the color line. In her description of Harlem, we find a hidden discourse of black nationalism.