At the National Theatre in London, Glenn
Close is a definitive Blanche, the desperate heroine of Tennessee
Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. In a memorable performance
that combines sensitivity, vulgarity, and lyricism, Ms. Close
enters the French Quarter of New Orleans to announce to the women
seated on the doorstop, “They told me to take a streetcar named
Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and …get off
at Elysian Fields!” The counterpoint of desire and death is a
leitmotif of the play, as Ms. Close impressively makes clear.
Dressed in white, fluttery and uncertain (Williams says like a
“moth”) she tells herself, “I’ve got to keep hold of myself!”
Her nervousness at meeting her sister Stella (Essie Davis)
allayed somewhat by whiskey, she confesses that through family
deaths they have lost their plantation home, Belle Reeve. The
first of Blanche’s ‘arias,’ on death, symbolized by the streetcar
Cemeteries, is rendered beautifully and lyrically by Ms. Close.
In her first encounter with Stanley,
her sister’s macho hunk of a husband, Blanche uses sexuality as
her weapon. Their
verbal sparring has an erotic undertone, and it is surprising
but significant that Blanche understands immediately the expression
“shack up,” from Stanley’s army past. In a fine interpretation,
Iain Glen brings not only muscularity but also sensitivity to
Stanley, and there is desperate humor on Blanche’s part as she
attempts to explain the loss of the sisters’ property to a man
who believes in Huey Long and the Napoleonic Code (“that which
belongs to the wife belongs to the husband also.”) She is so coquettish
in this scene that Stanley is led to remark, “If I didn’t know
that you was my wife’s sister I’d get ideas about you.”
In this poetic, non-realistic play
Stanley has a poetry of his own that is particularly his; it is
heightened, alliterative, rhythmic, as when he is “unpacking”
Blanche’s trunk: “Genuine fox fur-pieces, a half a mile long!
Where are your fox-pieces, Stella? Bushy snow-white ones,
no less! Where are your white fox pieces?” As has
no actor before him, Mr. Glen (who played Henry V) is adept at
realizing this underlying quality of Stanley’s dialogue.
Ms. Close articulates her performance
so that it progresses to its doomed, inevitable climax.
Alarmed at drunken Stanley’s abuse of Stella at his “poker night,”
the next morning Blanche pleads in what is the most lyrical of
the arias, and the most difficult, impressively expressed by Ms.
Close as she pleads with her sister to leave “ape-like” Stanley,
ending: “In this dark march toward whatever it is we’re
approaching. . . . Don’t – don’t hang back with the brutes!”
Unfortunately this is overheard by Stanley. Realizing that
he may lose Stella if Blanche succeeds, former soldier Stanley
will fight in his own way – coarse, direct, and brutal.
Though Blanche has tried to leave
behind her the encounters with death that drove her to desire
“intimacies with strangers,” Stanley uncovers her promiscuity
in the past and reports it to his buddy Mitch (Robert Pastorelli),
who has proposed marriage to Blanche but now rejects her.
Her one hope for the refuge she sought now dashed, she defends
herself to Mitch, who is about to cruelly expose her face to the
naked light bulb she had masked with a colored paper lantern:
“I don’t want realism. I want magic!…I don’t tell truth, I tell
what ought to be truth.” The end is foretold as the
Mexican Woman enters, calling “Flowers for the Dead,” as Blanche
reprises her vigil with a dying relative, explaining to Mitch,
“The opposite is desire. So do you wonder?”
In the penultimate scene, Blanche’s madness
is convincingly portrayed by Ms. Close, different from her earlier
hysteria, but now seemingly inevitable as the tension mounts to
her rape by Stanley. By the final departure, Ms. Close has created
such strong sympathy for Blanche, the audience is brought to the
terror and pity of tragedy, as she is led away by the doctor,
one of the strangers on whose kindness she has always depended.
The four principals in this poetic drama
are unfortunately placed by director Trevor Nunn within a realistic
setting by Bunny Christie that is at odds with what Williams asks
for in the text.
The Kowalski’s cramped living quarters in which Blanche is “caught
in a trap” with only a thin curtain between the two rooms, in
this production include, via a turntable, the living room, kitchen
with 40’s Frigidaire and stove, bedroom, and bathroom --
Blanche’s unseen (in the text) retreat -- with all fixtures, including
running water. Williams, who attacks kitchen-sink naturalism,
is here presented in entirely realistic terms in an entirely realistic,
Nor does the live music sound like a New Orleans
jazz trio with a “blue piano.” The “rickety outside stairs”
of the fading house he describes here become an ornamental, long
winding staircase resembling a 30s walkway for chorines.
A large bed with interior-decorator long drapes descending from
its head is wrong (Blanche, says the directions, “hides behind
the screen at head of bed.”) The bed dominates the “other”
room, so that nothing is left to the imagination, including Stanley’s
rape of Blanche. The street people at whom Blanche recoils are
more CarolinaCatfish Row, out of “Porgy and Bess.” Vendors parade
across the front of the stage crying their wares (and detracting
from the importance of the single Mexican Woman selling wreaths
for the dead) rather than a few menacing street people seen through
“the back wall of the rooms which have become transparent” that
Williams calls for.
In his autobiography, Memoirs,
Williams sees Blanche as “a relatively imperishable creature of
the stage,” and observes that “nearly all of her cries to the
world in her season of desperation have survived because they
were true cries of her embattled heart; that is what gave them
the truth which has made them live on…” We are grateful
to Ms. Close for her excellent depiction of Blanche and the “true
cries of her embattled heart.
(Observations and quotes from Tennessee Williams
are from my book Understanding Tennessee Williams published
by the University of South Carolina Press, 1995)