Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 8 October 2014

Barry Jackson’s Birmingham Rep is credited with staging the first modern dress production of Shakespeare with Cymbeline in 1923. Others followed, including Hamlet in 1925, and now a production of, say, Julius Caesar, set in Rome in 44BC, is the exception rather than the rule. In Barry Jackson’s day, the trend which he initiated became known as ‘Shakespeare in plus-fours’.

There needs to be a good reason not to perform a play as the writer intended. The audience should feel that what they have lost (and there are always losses) is outweighed by what they have gained (and that should be more than discovering that human nature is the same now as it was then, which they might have been able to work out for themselves, whatever kind of trousers the actors were wearing).

The losses in A Streetcar Named Desire, as directed by Benedict Andrews for The Young Vic, include New Orleans, the blues, social divisions in the Deep South, brothels and a sense of history. I can’t think of any gains.

Tennessee Williams set his play in a very precise location, a street in New Orleans called Elysian Fields. ‘The section,’ he writes in his opening stage direction, ‘is poor but, unlike corresponding sections in other American cities, it has a raffish charm.’ He goes on to describe the houses in the street (‘mostly white frame, weathered grey, with rickety outside stairs and galleries and quaintly ornamented gables’) and the atmosphere that surrounds them (‘you can almost feel the warm breath of the brown river beyond the river warehouses with their faint redolences of bananas and coffee’).

The director and his designer replace this with a cheap, modern apartment block.

What Tennessee Williams calls in his stage directions the ‘blue piano’ is meant to be a constant reminder of where the play is set. Its importance is made clear in the same opening stage direction. ‘In this part of New Orleans you are practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers. This blue piano expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here.’

The director replaces the ‘blue piano’ with other kinds of music that express the spirit of the 21st century, a different kind of music each time, depending on what is happening on stage when the stage direction asks for ‘blue piano’. So instead of reminding the audience where they are (in a street in New Orleans) and instead of giving a feeling of continuity, of things happening in real time, the music has the very different function of background music in a movie. It is used to enhance the atmosphere of the scene that is being played out on stage, rather than, as Tennessee Williams intended, to remind the audience of other scenes being played out ‘just around the corner’.

The significance of social divisions in the American South in the 1940s is made clear in the stage direction for Stella’s first entrance: ‘Stella comes out on the first-floor landing, a gentle young woman, about twenty-five and of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s.’ The feeling of being somehow out of place among these people in this part of New Orleans is emphasised again in the stage direction for Blanche’s first entrance: ‘Blanche comes around the corner, carrying a valise. She looks at a slip of paper, then at the building, then again at the slip and again at the building. Her expression is one of shocked disbelief. Her appearance is incongruous to this setting.’ The action of the play follows directly from this. Neither Blanche nor Stella belong here. The neighbours, mostly good-natured and easy-going, accept them on their own terms, but Stanley will only accept them on his. The tragic inevitability of Stanley’s victory is clear from the outset in every manifestation of social difference between the principal characters.

Having chosen to set the play in the 21st century when everyone dresses alike, instead of the middle of the 20th century when clothes were an infallible guide to class, the director is unable to interpret the stage directions as the playwright intended. More importantly, the attitudes that prevailed when Tennessee Williams wrote his play are part of history. The victory of a 21st century Stanley who feels threatened by two 21st century women has not the same inevitability. Other social pressures are at work. Then they were all on Stanley’s side, now they are not.

A hotel called The Flamingo in a small town called Laurel has an important place in the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley finds out from one of his many acquaintances that Blanche was asked to leave. ‘The Flamingo is used to all kinds of goings-on. But even the management of the Flamingo was impressed by Dame Blanche! In fact they were so impressed by Dame Blanche that they requested her to turn in her room-key – for permanently!’

Blanche herself, when accused by Stanley’s friend, Mitch, gives it another name. ‘Flamingo? No! Tarantula was the name of it! I stayed at a hotel called The Tarantula Arms!’ It was, she says, the place where she brought her victims. ‘Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan – intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with.’ With Blanche, the distinction between deception and self-deception is so fine as really to make no difference. By the time we come to the last scene, there can be little doubt left that Blanche’s fall from grace, forced by the sale of the plantation by her improvident family, led her one way or another to the brothel.

The brothel, like the plantation, was part of America’s inheritance, one of the last vestiges of French influence in the New World. At the time when Tennessee Williams wrote the play it was already a hang-over from the past and that was the point. There were no more slaves to work the plantations, the old way of life was over, the owners were selling up and, for someone like Blanche, all that was left was the brothel. ‘I think it was just panic,’ she says to Mitch, though perhaps she is really talking to herself, ‘just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection – here and there, in the most – unlikely places…’

The director’s decision to set the play in the 21st century puts all the blame on Blanche. Without the sense of history with which the play, as Tennessee Williams wrote it, is imbued, the production is unable to show the consequences for Blanche of the way the world has changed around her. The incongruity to which Tennessee Williams draws our attention on her first appearance is by definition something that depends not just on Blanche, but on the changed circumstances in which she finds herself. The director is unable, without the historical context on which it depends, to present Blanche as anything other than a woman afraid of losing her youth, a victim of her own delusions.

Gillian Anderson, in this production, made everything she could of that and as much as possible, in her gestures, of the stage direction in which Tennessee Williams writes, ‘There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.’ Ben Foster, however, playing Stanley as a young American of the 21st century, could not possibly live up to his stage direction: ‘Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens.’ The world this Stanley inhabits is the 21st century world of violence and porn. The first indication we get of his sexuality, when he pulls Stella’s legs apart and pushes his face between them, is not, I think, what Tennessee Williams meant by ‘animal joy’.

tennessee williams 01

The subject of my next post on 15 October, a few days before his birthday, will be Dylan Thomas – Singing in chains.

My next Reader’s Diary will appear on 22 October.

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