Register Wednesday | March 21 | 2018

Misreading Blanche

Teenage Hormones Highjack A Streetcar Named Desire

In Scene One of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley Kowalski meets Blanche DuBois and, right after peeling off his tank top, says, "I never was a very good English student." He is referring, of course, to Blanche's profession: in her own words, she has the "misfortune" of being an English teacher, of trying "to instill a bunch of bobby soxers and drugstore Romeos with reverence for Hawthorne and Whitman and Poe!"

Blanche's drive to teach extends far beyond the classroom. In fact, her very survival rests on her ability to deliver an urgent lesson to her sister Stella: that a world of art, beauty, tenderness and refinement-in essence, everything she stands for-is just and necessary. Thwarting her is Stanley, at the back of the classroom (if you will), blowing spitballs, flirting and farting. Blanche doesn't stand a chance.

I feel her pain. Several years ago I decided to teach A Streetcar Named Desire to my grade twelve English class, thinking only of why Streetcar mattered to me-my profound experience watching the film in my late teens, my deep sympathy with Blanche as the victim of bullies, my inclination that Blanche and I were the special, damaged, fey ones with some precious secrets to keep. I also fell in love with Streetcar's eminently teachable qualities. The play has a limpid, almost paint-by-numbers allegorical structure. It's got humour and sex. As an antidote to Shakespeare, it makes a woman the tragic hero. And its message, should it come across successfully, is one any teacher could happily endorse: to understand Blanche's plight, despite her shortcomings, is to ally oneself with sensitivity, to vie for intelligence over instinct, to uphold enrichment, magic and hope over vulgarity and cruelty.

My choice proved fateful. Streetcar has become an unqualified, school-wide nuisance: many teachers who followed my lead have vowed never to touch it again. The play has, in my classroom at least, been the cause of calls home and near-suspensions. It is notorious for ruining teachers' days. What could precipitate such uproar in a small, sleepy, white-bread, overpriced private high school in North Toronto?

Because, without fail, students-delicate nerds and hardy jocks alike-adore Stanley and despise Blanche. Indeed, they have great difficulty seeing the text any other way, despite Tennessee Williams's frequent proselytizing. Granted, this reaction is far from unprecedented in the play's production history: Jessica Tandy, the original Blanche, spoke regularly of exhaustion, of Brando's charismatic scene-stealing, of having to face an audience who "got less and less sensitive" and "who thought [the play] was absolutely hilarious."

Yet, to me, the consistency of my students' opinions indicates more than mere puerility, innocent misapprehension or hormone-soaked Brando-love. I see their response as an interpretive manoeuvre, akin to the nineteenth-century British Romanticists' re-imagining of Paradise Lost, whereby Satan becomes Milton's protagonist over God or Adam. In other words, semester after semester, I witness a bunch of coddled teenagers in designer sweatpants wilfully reorder the text to suit their own sociopolitical moment.

In their minds, Stanley-Williams's menacing, abusive rapist-transcends his own vilification by somehow becoming a valiant, moral quester in search of truth and self-satisfaction. Blanche, on the other hand, is the play's reprehensible figure-her intellectualism, her nervous repression of a loose past, her physical weakness, her gender and her refusal to embrace the inexorable facts of life make her wholly deserving of the punishment Stanley doles out.

Here is a newer, better warning than the text itself could ever give: Blanche's downfall wasn't inevitable in 1947, the year of Streetcar's opening on Broadway; in Stanley-fied 2005, there's no hope of her winning. She is a joke, an anachronism, a nutbar who must be abolished.

Plot summaries from my students' papers-which are, to be fair, by no means inaccurate-tend to illustrate this problem nicely. Invariably, Blanche is seen as an intruder, a freeloader who's come to New Orleans despite not having been in contact with Stella for quite some time. Blanche is then faulted for having lost the family home, Belle Reve. One student, whose disdain is characteristic, describes Blanche's initial "social condescension": her hypocritical judgements of her sister's humble abode and frank, fun-loving husband (after all, beggars can't be choosers). The same student underlines Blanche's consistently suspicious behaviour. She makes "claims" that get "under Stanley's skin"-that she was fired from her teaching job due to bad nerves, for instance. To boot, she tries to steal away his buddy Mitch. Then Stanley, in a phrase that recurs again and again in Streetcar assignments, "gets the dirt on Blanche," fingering her as a pedophilic, alcoholic nymphomaniac. After raping her-or, "giving her a taste of reality"-Stanley ships Blanche off to an insane asylum, where she belongs, so he can be free to live and love with his sensible, loyal Stella.

To sum up, four strikes against Blanche are commonly held in my classroom: she is pretentious and a classist; she does not work and is therefore an ungrateful leech; she is promiscuous; she is a liar.

Given the aforementioned, homo-geneous demographic of white, upper-middle-class teenagers at my school, it is perhaps ironic that Blanche would be impugned for elitism. I notice no shortage of status-mongering and object-fetishizing among them, and it's curious to note that I-a lefty sprung from a solidly middle-class background-am more forgiving of Blanche, whose values come straight from the plantation-hording, slave-owning South. I remember one student in particular trying desperately to understand why she was supposed to feel sorry for Blanche, and then squealing in delight at her sudden epiphany that the character might be a "princess"-"like Paris Hilton!"-and hence worthy of her empathy. What sort of class-based, political affiliations are being evinced here?

Admittedly, there's a troubling fixation in Williams's play with the values and beauty of old money. In many respects, Blanche (like her literary cousin, Auntie Mame) is just an affected, high-maintenance aristocrat, duking it out against the scum who try to marry into her family. But Williams shows that a struggle of this kind has no real victor if the two sides won't budge: Stanley's brutish earthiness is no replacement for Blanche's snobbery, which is why her learning curve in the play is so vital. Ultimately, Blanche's hard-won truth is that the qualities of gentility gained from privilege (generosity, intellect, beauty) can be used as coping mechanisms when privilege falls away-indeed, that privilege demands something of you.

But in a world of Paris Hilton and Fifty Cent, money is money, a vacant signifier. It doesn't elevate you; it decks you out, like Stanley's coloured lights and silk pyjamas. (In fact, when Stanley raids Blanche's trunk in Scene Two, many students are quick to believe Stanley's claim that her tiara is made of diamonds, even though Stella tells us outright they're only rhinestones. All that glitters is, evidently, gold.) Note that most of my students are the children of lean, capitalist-immigrant, Ayn Rand-ish parents and grandparents: like the majority of white North Americans, they are hereditary Stanleys. This generational toiling (and the superfluous comfort it brings) is precisely what entitles them to judge Blanche, to feel that her sugar-coating and pleasure-seeking are perversely unearned. And, unfortunately, the sentiment is not exclusive to my school. It's the conservative, suburban ethos in a nutshell.

The second contention, that Blanche is the lazy, feeble author of her own demise, is perhaps more apt: Williams describes Blanche as "indolent"; like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons, she has trouble operating a telephone; she has Stella wait on her; etc. But Williams's point is that Blanche can't work. A naturalist heroine and thus a victim of her own circumstances, Blanche has been trained not just to be waited on, but to wait idly and softly for a beau to sweep her off her feet. Poor, wonderful Blanche, who hasn't got it in her to run the race-who, moreover, feels that the very ideology behind having to run the race is unjust. Yet my students never fail to read her lack of fortitude as an affront to the corporate guard that keeps things safe and strong. Like a good citizen, Stanley toils for what he's got; Blanche doesn't have a clue how to work, how to earn or deserve things.

From this prevarication emerges the third, sexist double standard that pits Stanley above Blanche in my class: what Stanley can do best, Blanche can also do, except that when she does it, she must be punished. Williams's intent in repeatedly underlining this disparity is to make us pity his heroine. She is, as she herself says, "caught in a trap," tangled in paradoxes of hierarchy, marriage and ageism (at thirtysomething she already has an expiry date on her head).

Yet, for my class, particularly the boys, Stanley is oh-so-cool in his drunken violence and sexual prowess, while Blanche is, to use one student's regrettable wording, "an old hooker." Never mind that Williams never quite affirms her as such: there's enough encouragement elsewhere-that is, anywhere outside my paltry teacherly domain-for the boys to play a game of pimp-and-ho with the text. And so they find themselves flailing against Blanche's daredevil sexuality, their mouths full of teacher-baiting jibes: I recall a memorable screening of Elia Kazan's 1951 film adaptation during which one student murmured, "Get 'er, get 'er" as Stanley chased Blanche, and another told a friend that Blanche had received a "good raping."

Behind these shocking comments is, undoubtedly, a teeming anxiety: many boys (likely virgins themselves) desperately want Blanche to get her comeuppance; like knights in archaic legends, they feel slighted by her not being pure or forthright, as if she has a duty to reveal every presumed sexual transgression she's ever committed. Thankfully, at times, the girls save the day. Confronting the boys (who will, in truth, say anything to ruffle them), they point out that while King Lear is also a deluded, self-serving materialist, we readily give him our pity and fear. But again, remarkably, some girls still fault Blanche for her dishonesty; one of the most baffling comments I've ever heard came from an intelligent and politically aware student who with earnest compassion said, "I'm sure if Blanche had been upfront with Stanley from the beginning, he would have forgiven her."

In a short essay entitled "About Evasions," Williams himself acknowledges all of this pesky, persistent dirt on Blanche: "There were many divergent ideas of Blanche's character, and many widely differing interpretations in the playing of her character among the many productions I saw at home and abroad. She was often referred to as a prostitute; often as a dipso or a nympho or a liar...You may prefer to be told precisely what to believe about every character in a play, you may prefer to know precisely what will be the future course of their lives, happy or disastrous or anywhere in between. Then I am not your playwright....Was Blanche DuBois a liar? She told many lies in the course of Streetcar, and yet at heart she was truthful."

At heart she was truthful. A complex moral distinction for a teenager, and one I was no doubt incapable of articulating at seventeen, when I cried over Vivien Leigh's performance. Now, of course, I have the utmost conviction that the lies Blanche tells are benevolent, gorgeous and necessary. But trying to convince teenagers of that depends on a preliminary belief in the powers of art and the imagination-often as unthinkable to them as Stanley's animalism is to me. Streetcar remains unteachable-yet I go on teaching it. It's codependency and self-flagellation really: maybe this time Stanley will care; maybe this time he won't win.