The cruelty of strangers
By Robin Abrahams
Mr. Improbable and I saw New Rep's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" last week. We've basically recovered by now, although we're still subject to flashbacks and other PTSD-related symptoms.
It's an extraordinarily well-done production, and "Streetcar" is one of those plays that, ironically, is so famous no one produces it anymore, so it's a rare treat to see it onstage. But good Lord, is it depressing. And I love me some dark side in the narrative arts--Highsmith, Cronenberg, Plath, Dexter--bring on the night, I say. I'm only happy when it rains. So if I tell you something is depressing, believe me, it is depressing.
I hadn't read the play since my theater-major days, and I'd remembered it as a mostly individual tragedy: Blanche is nuts, and her particular brand of nuttiness sets off an unfortunate chain reaction of events. New Rep's production, though made me realize how much of the tragedy is the fault of culture rather than fate. Rachel Harker's Blanche isn't entirely a wispy, wacky butterfly--she's a relatively strong and down-to-earth woman who realizes, all too clearly, that her only value is in her beauty, and that beauty is fading. It's a beauty she could never quite believe in anyway. The husband she married in her late teens was gay, and his physical rejection of her left her permanently questioning her desirability to men. And being desirable to men is the only chance a woman in her world had for protection, financial support, self-worth. Blanche may be crazy, but I don't know what a sane woman in such an environment would even look like. Perhaps like Stella, who chooses to remain with Stanley despite Blanche's testimony--and the awful evidence in her behavior--that Stanley raped her while Stella was at the hospital delivering their child. That, in the world of "Streetcar," is as much "sanity" as anyone is allowed.
Individual tragedies will always be with us. There will always be people who are bad, mad, and dangerous to know. There will always be unrequited love. But the culture we live in can give us clubs to beat each other with, and "Streetcar" is a horrifying look at the nature of those clubs--denial of homosexuality, ethnic prejudice and classism, racism, and above all the soul-corroding misogyny and patriarchal entitlement that stifles breath like the fetid air of a swamp.
Things can still be bad. Very bad. But at least there are movements afoot to pry some of those clubs from our grasping, frightened hands. For which I am truly grateful.