A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
A Streetcar Named Desire

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, non-symbolic set.

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)