Blanche DuBois was one of the characters that made me fall in love with literature, made me choose it as my major at university. I studied A Streetcar Named Desire in college and often still think about her character in a ‘What would Blanche do?’ sense. Not that I should be taking advice from a woman as hysterical, deceptive and “lost” as she is. Yet she always springs to mind, most poignantly when it comes to men. I’m forced to argue with myself that she’s not hysterical, she’s passionate. She’s not deceptive, she’s romantic. And the matter of her being “lost”, that’s the one I struggle with throughout the entire play and beyond.
Truth be told, a lot of Blanche’s traits reside in one of my favourite people, my grandmother. It seemed natural writing about her for my first post, my ninety-year-old Granny currently sat in a hospital bed, awaiting further tests and results. Visiting her has been a whirlwind. The first time I went she looked incredibly vulnerable, speaking nostalgically of her time spent in a sanatorium during the war, of losing her parents and dearly beloved sister. On my second visit she was a performer, flirting with the doctors, projecting her voice across the ward, the surrounding patients her audience. During my most recent visit she was uncooperative with the staff, rude to the nurses and acted like a snob towards other people on the ward.
Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois
Actresses taking on the wondrous challenge of playing Blanche on stage have a lot of ground to cover. Fundamentally, an actress portraying an actress. Playing with the variety of aspects to her personality, deciding which to let dominate the performance and which fall to the wayside. Blanche’s actions and words throughout the entire of Williams’ play could be interpreted as tongue-in-cheek, or read literally. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy, which I believe makes Streetcar all the more dynamic. It is a miracle a single audience member is able to identify with Blanche, her behaviour and emotional state fluctuates, the sincerity of her character dwindles.
It may be foolish, but I adore Blanche’s inconsistency and unpredictability. It is arguably the main component to her character that makes her attractive, more than the Southern belle image she clings to under the “naked light bulb”. Blanche accepts her mission to bring magic to the dowdy New Orleans apartment her sister and brother-in-law share. She implores: “I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth!” Leaving a breadcrumb trail of lies obviously worked in her youth, yet when she followed them back to her home Belle Reve she didn’t find what she had hoped for. Stella and Stanley’s apartment is entirely the wrong setting for Blanche’s charades, leading to her inevitable downfall.
But who doesn’t want magic? Blanche romanticises everything, glorifies every experience, even the ones she invents in her head. It’s a struggle most people go through in their lives, a dull ache in the pit of your stomach that is so much more than hunger. Blanche’s boredom leads to her beautiful breakdown and we have the pleasure of watching the event unfold.
“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”
Perhaps I sound a little unsympathetic, but I like to think that Blanche is fully aware of what she is doing. So much of Williams’ writing is littered with metaphors likening Blanche to a fragile moth or butterfly. I don’t buy it. This woman may not know what she wants but she is relentless when it comes to tasting the new things in life. Even the climactic “rape” scene between herself and Stanley, I remember so clearly writing about why what happens between Stanley and Blanche remains ambiguous, putting it down to the social and historical context of the play in my college exam. This argument still haunts me. Consider that Blanche consensually slept with Stanley, it is her guilt which fuels rape allegations. Perhaps she doesn’t approve of the domestic family life her sister is now locked into, Blanche’s response would free her of these ties. Could she have dreamt up the event, in the way the story concludes, Blanche so lost in her imagination and delusions that she is admitted to hospital. Yet the audience more often than not assume she is telling the truth, that Stanley is the villain.
Certainly, I admit this is not a feminist reading of the play. It is entirely plausible that Blanche exercises her ability to seduce, but this does not mean she wishes to act on her overt sexuality that remains so potent in Streetcar. I may be as romantic as Blanche in saying this, but I want to believe as she leaves New Orleans in the arms of a doctor, she does so with a twinkle in her eye. She’s no rhinestone tiara, she’s the real deal.
Even if you honey lambs are not a fan of the theatre or old movies, I advise you go and see it. If for no other reason, Marlon Brando may play a pig but he is a complete hottie in Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation.
Photos: Britannica and NPR