2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Drama, Expressionism, Gay Lit, Gender Studies, GLBT, Literature, Madness, Play, PTSD, Sexuality, Tennessee Williams, Tragedy

Thoughts: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

12222A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 24

A Streetcar Named Desire is my first experience with Tennessee Williams.  Going into this work, I knew very little about it and I knew very little about the writer.  As it turns out, I may have just discovered a new favorite.  Williams was a semi-openly gay man (at the time of this publication – he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations.  A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text.  The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the “New South.”  It is also about Stella’s husband, Stanley.  He is disturbingly sympathetic – an evil man who one can’t help but identify with.  Not since reading Lolita and encountering Mr. Humbert Humbert have I felt so simultaneously enthralled by and repulsed by a literary character.

Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet.  It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career.  These secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable. Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze.  This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play.  Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering.  The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say – Stella.

What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and I hear this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about story (though that is there too, obviously).  The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (and, to my knowledge, it has only been done perfectly well in one instance – with is that of the first staging, including Marlon Brando).  Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male – the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home.  Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.

He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control.  This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, I would argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace.  The film, though perfectly cast and lovingly produced, unfortunately changes the ending and one of the most important dialogic moments, which eliminates the modern and tragic elements of the play.  This is a great disappointment, as the play itself is perhaps perfect – which is simultaneously why it is one of the most often produced, most sought out by high-profile actors, and most disappointingly delivered.

This is one of the most moving, enjoyable, disturbing, and surprising works that I have read this year.  I am eager to read more from Tennessee Williams, hopefully in the very near future (I’m considering pursuing him as a project, after finishing with John Steinbeck).

Notable Quotes:

“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely.”

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Book Review, Comedy, Creative Non-Fiction, Drama, Edward Albee, Fiction, Madness, Marriage, Play, Psychology, Sexuality

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD:  59


 4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is intoxicating – literally.  With every turn of the page, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the twisted mind of the play’s main characters, George and Martha.  This married couple, daughter of the College President and Professor of History, horribly stagnant in his career, bring a fresh young couple (the new Biology professor and his wife) over for drinks after a late faculty party at Martha’s father’s house.  If the scenes reflect the actualities of “behind the scenes” University leadership life, then perhaps college education should not be such an American ideal.   The examination of mental instability (i.e. sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and schizophrenia) are riveting and terrifying all at once, particularly as the story unfolds and more and more truth is sucked out from the multitude of fictions.  The dangers of the enabler, to, and the perverse pleasure which can be gained from progressing another person’s instabilities and delusions is interesting and embarrassingly amusing.  The description for the play states that one of the greatest points for this drama is its dramatic revelation at the end, and I must agree- though I saw it coming from early on, many readers probably will not and, regardless of knowing or not knowing, the revelation and its subsequent impact on the small party is stunning.


 4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The two main characters, George and Martha, are brilliantly rendered.  As their mania unfolds, the reader twisted personality traits – their motivations, desires, and failings – all come to light, in such a loudly subtle way, seen seldom in any piece of writing.  Their son, too, and Martha’s father, though the reader never actually meets either of these characters, are so well described and recalled by George and Martha, it is almost as if they are active characters in the play – something Albee deserves immense credit for having achieved, as it adds an interesting sub-plot which advances the over-the-top major scenes quite nicely.   Also, the younger couple, Nick and Honey, is developed just as much as they need to be in order to allow George and Martha’s story unfolds.  They are there to serve a purpose, which is to allow George and Martha’s “games” to progress, their animosity to reach the boiling point, and the great truth (or lie) be revealed in the final pages.  It also allows the reader to contrast a simple, well-planned, and expected “romance” (Hope and Nick) with a ravenous, destructive, sickening lasting-passion (Martha and George).

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

In a play or drama, the biggest indicator of great “prose” is really great dialogue, scene direction, and description.  This play in particular does not have much scene direction, though the points where Albee does make suggestions as far as stage placement, facial expression, etc. are so well-thought that the play almost requires nothing else (each director will be able to make this play his/her own, but with the direction Albee affords, it is almost certain that the most important moments will be executed in the right ways).   The character reactions and descriptions, too, are simply stated, but make all the difference; such as when Nick, after finally picking up on the nature of Martha and George’s disturbing tete-a-tete is directed to be: “Stretching . . . luxuriating . . . playing the game) – perfection.   What really progresses this play, though, is the interaction between the characters – the simple, flippant replies, the overly-dramatic reactions to the most mundane situations – Nick’s embarrassed replies; Honey’s confusion and naivety.  Each of the characters is completely “on point,” though the only one who really seems to develop at all is Nick – and this is fitting, because George indicates that Nick will, indeed, be the one to move forward, while the rest of them remain stagnant in their lives, relationships and, most notably, careers.  The most development, though, is not with characters – but with the story itself.  Still, it is the characters and their dealings with one another which allows this development to occur and to work.

Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

One of the most interesting elements of this particular story is that it deals with characters that are completely mentally unstable and irrational – illogical in every way, but working in what one would assume to be one of the most sound, logical professions, higher education.  Who could be more staid and calm than a History professor?  Who could me more respectable and proper than a University President’s daughter?  Edward Albee grabs us from the start by putting these seemingly simple character types into a relationship which is highly volatile and unpredictable, in a setting which should be nothing but calm and moderate.  The inclusion of the two “new kids” on the collegiate block adds much in comparison – as if to say, with age and experience comes not wisdom, but insanity, so be warned!  Of course, Albee is not making generalizations about all Academicians, or all History professors, or all Biology professors’ wives; but, still, he does seem to be saying: “Dear reader, take another look – things are rarely what we expect them to be.”  The nature and art of psychological warfare is put under the microscope and outcome is extraordinary.  Watching Martha and Gorge go back-and-forth with their “games” is at times invigorating, at times exhausting, but always interesting and unbelievable (except that it seems entirely natural).  Sexuality, too, as well as alcoholism, politics, and science vs. society are all discussed as a part of the dialogue of this one evening, and these elements progress the story further into madness and resolution.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Psychology, Madness, Marriage, Sexuality, Schizophrenia, Sociopaths, Delusions, Academia

Notable Quotes:

“Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?”

“Martha, in my mind, you are buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose — it’s much quieter.”

“I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there! Finally snapped! And– and I’m gonna howl it out! And I’m not gonna give a damn what I do, and I’m gonna make the biggest goddamn explosion you’ve ever heard!”