As the latest production of A Streetcar Named Desire ends its celebrated two-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Stanley Crouch tells us why Cate Blanchett’s performance has already passed into theater legend.
The production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is already legendary because of Cate Blanchett’s performance as Blanche DuBois in the short run that quickly sold out on the basis of nearly universal praise.
The production clarifies a number of things about our time, the theater itself, and the capacity for dazzlement possessed by audiences lucky enough to see imposingly uncontrived talent flex the nuances of its force in public. Technological fakery dominates our time because it can be imaginative without having to face the narrative demands of work shaped by the subject of human feeling and the roller-coaster life it lives in the world.
This present condition makes more important than ever the fine art of dramatic theater. When we see a performer in the flesh ascend into our souls through the authentic fakery of a marvelous part, we are reminded of the almost limitless power of three-dimensional aesthetic communication. Communication and infinite recognition may be what many mean by God, and every extraordinary performance seems to bring into visible and invisible view the eternal vitality of life itself, arriving through the mediums of the human form and the human voice in perpetual complement and counterpoint.
I might now be less impressed by Cate Blanchett in the famous lead part if she did not remind me of so many women across the color, class, religious, and geographical orders or divisions by which we organize and assess the world. Pretentiously genteel in the face of a world with blood on its teeth, Blanche has become a vital character at the center of modern American theater, primarily because so many people love to watch a woman’s high-toned protective coloration washed away as she is beaten to her knees.
The play reached a worldwide audience through Elia Kazan’s direction of the film and the commotion it made as a new order of performance arrived. The man-child threatened by the presence of his wife’s older sister made Marlon Brando into the seer of an almost revolutionary style grounded in adolescent hostility toward refinement. Vivien Leigh became the confused butterfly whose wings were slowly drenched before being torn off by her proud brute of a dangerously charming brother-in-law. In that relationship, the lower-class king of his dingy domain is enthroned atop a commode and uses a toilet brush as a scepter. The allusion to Ubu Roi is not so far out when we consider the fact that Streetcar Named Desire is set in New Orleans, a patchwork of French, Latin, and Caribbean influences streaming through its food, its talk, and its tendencies to vendetta and masquerade balls.
In a sense the play is a bal masque, as are most of the plays we know from Tennessee Williams, perhaps America’s favorite literary homosexual, whose impact on dramatic portraiture has remained in place since his emergence in the late 1940s. One could argue that the high value homosexuals tend to put on youth and young boys is not only a central Williams theme, but is a direct mirror of the American heterosexual’s preference for fine-bodied young female dingbats. Boys will be boys, whether drooling over and chasing girls or boys. A man is a man, for all that.
For a number of years, I had the comfortable illusion that Streetcar was actually a play about drag queens in which the character of Blanche was actually a Proustian reinvention of a man’s part in a middle-aged female body. A homosexual writer friend who lost it all to AIDS and was himself a pedophile, once told me it was something to think about because Brando came off in the film like the easily identifiable rough trade of surly teenage boys always seen in the homosexual world. "Well, you know what I mean, Brando does look like a hustler in his T-shirts and all, and when he throws the radio out of the window, he reminds us all of the facts that are hard down here in the shadows. It is as true as the nightfall in other ways, too. After he has raged and raged and stomped off pouting, you will hear him downstairs, out in the street, begging to come home. A very normal occurrence if one walks on the wild side.”
Whether or not such things coursed through the playwright’s mind as he used subterranean things he knew in order to make Blanche emotionally full-figured is finally beside the point. Whether Williams learned and sensed them from his life as a homosexual doesn’t much matter because her character stands above the fray as a woman in ever-threatening distress. The ways in which she attempts to defend herself grate on us as much as they do the spiritual ape who walks and talks like the kind of lower-class man ready to destroy anything that challenges his vision of whom should be where and why.
We come to identify with Blanche and fear for her inevitable fate, which is to lose everything, beginning with her mind.
Everything that Blanchett does is somehow transparent in the subtle way that only a remarkable character can be given an inner life when the performer is equal to the task. Blanchett achieves this through a level of nuanced physical and aural orchestration that brims over with virtuoso counterpoint. She has a number of walks that tell us, quite subtly or quite boldly, what she is feeling, no matter what she is saying or how her arms and hands tell us other things. Those arms, hands, and thighs are themselves a miniature band summoned forward to tell us about indecision or confusion or the looming dread Blanche is attempting to beat back by pretending to be harmless, aristocratic, bawdy if the target is young and impressionable enough, or simply in so much need for empathy that her heart is powered into an invisible red dust that grows thicker as the play moves closer to tragedy.
It is a vastly human performance in which Blanchett almost sings certain thematic words or ideas with differently colored intonations that are never overdone but pull the rope of one’s spiritual bell. Through these things she allows us to feel the weathered desperation of a person who has been beaten down by life and who has tried to distract or support herself with what she thought were only choices of improper desire and the forced bottom of life shown those too broke to rise about the muck down below. When we meet her, Blanche already knows that everything she has done achieved nothing. Those choices are secrets that can only make her more vulnerable to a world lacking in compassion and too crude to forgive her because she did not know the consequences of what she was doing.
We come to identify with her and fear for her inevitable fate, which is to lose everything, beginning with her mind.
I have read some dumb feminist interpretations of the production in which power and power relationships are supposed to be seen in a new way this time around but, like all bunk, they miss the point. Art does not hew too closely to ideology, especially if the subject is a person buried up to the neck near an anthill, with the honey of every mistake spread across the cheeks, the lips, the eyelids, and the ears. In lifting Blanche’s fate from anything as cheap as sentimentality or the straitjacket of self-pity, this Australian genius of feeling transforms one while witnessing her at work, and the transformation reasserts itself every time one thinks about what she did, when all is gone but the memory of actual greatness.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year, the first volume of his biography of Charlie Parker will appear.