Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play is a bleak account of the death of one America at the hands of a newer and more brutal version. Reading the play again in 2017 puts this duel between conflicting American values in a new light, one that re-frames the traditional versus modern dichotomy in an interesting and even bleaker way.
When Williams wrote the play, the two Americas he presented were the crumbling grandeur of the South, as represented by Blanche DuBois, against the aggressively urban North, as represented by Stanley Kowalski. Blanche and Stanley’s conflict takes many forms; they compete for Stella’s love and attention, for domestic power and status, and for ideological dominance. Stanley loses some territory to Blanche; she takes over his home as her belongings expand to fit the space, her purchases feminise the apartment, and she hogs the bathroom. She must be entertained by Stella, who thus ‘neglects’ him. Blanche’s presence disrupts his sex life. She flirts with his friend, and drinks his liquor. Her voice fills the scene even when she is off-stage. The Blanche-ification of the apartment can only go so far before he erupts with violence. This is an uprising of sorts, and a decisive one. He reclaims his wife, his friend and his apartment, expelling Blanche to a ‘state institution’ after raping her. The message is clear: the new America is cruel, aggressive, selfish and animalistic. The old way is a shadow of its former self: fragile, traumatised and vulnerable.
I’ve taught this play many times, but this is the first time since the dawn of President Trump, and this clash between two different Americas, one fragile and one cruel, has taken on a new light since then. This is a conflict we are seeing play out every day, between an aggressive and frightening brutality, and a liberalism that seems increasingly vulnerable. Traditional and modern have switched sides; the newer way is paradoxically a more old-fashioned way that rejects the advances of the progressives and will re-take its territory by force.
Stanley can be read as an early MAGA prototype. He is definitely a deplorable. There are Stanleys everywhere you look nowadays. They see women as objects for them to possess, use and dispose of as they wish. They are quick to lose their temper and resort to violence. They see politeness as mendacity; if we consider the paper lantern as a metaphor for political correctness, the sight of Stanley tearing the paper lantern down to reveal the harsh light beneath becomes more significant. For him, it was a lie and therefore a weakness. It was a feminisation of his space. It was a flimsy illusion, an imposition that he will not tolerate. Stanley’s revenge on Blanche is, to him, justified. He is reclaiming what is his, and ejecting the outsider, the interloper intruding on his kingdom. He doesn’t build a wall, but he manages to ‘lock her up’ in order to re-assert his power.
Blanche is haunted by a vision of what might have been. She sees the incoming tide of this ‘new’ world and is horrified, retreating further into herself and a fantasy world that is gentler, more appreciative, because when faced with the reality, who wouldn’t? She is systematically destroyed by her opponent; although she can see the dangers inherent in his power, she underestimates his ability to organise and to act. She is able to see off the fumbling and feeble attack from Mitch, but none of her threats act as a deterrent to Stanley. Her voice is disregarded, her story deemed ‘insane’ and subversive. She is screaming into the abyss — friendless, alone, her experiences reduced to delusions. She is punished for her opposition, for her inconvenient truth. She is an imperfect representation of devastated liberalism, certainly, but she embodies the frustration, fear and vulnerability felt by many in this Trumpian era.
Are we doomed to break under the pressure, like Blanche? I hope not. But perhaps the ability to endure the torment is not the only lesson to be learned here. Did the brutality of Stanley’s ‘victory’ over Blanche lose him any of his core support? In the last scene of the play, it seems that way. Mitch, Pablo and Steve are uncomfortable with what is happening to Blanche, though their objections are largely futile. There is some vocal opposition, and even a momentary uprising against his plan, but these are all shot down, and the poker game eventually continues as if nothing had happened. There may be dissent in the ranks then, but not enough to derail this new era. No, the key player in all of this is Stella.
Sitting in the middle of these two opposing forces, Stella takes on a ‘Middle America’ vibe in this reading of the play. Her choice determines the direction of the play. If she supports her vulnerable sister, she could provide a stronger defence against Stanley. Unfortunately, she is under Stanley’s thrall when it counts, seeing charisma and sex appeal where Blanche sees the true brutality underneath. As the play ends, she weeps at the choice she has made, even as Stanley casually gropes her. She has submitted to her role as his object, deserting the victimised woman who needed her help and support. She is willing to lie to herself in order to justify her choices, and to grant power to a monster. Like Blanche, she is living in a fantasy world, but this isn’t simply an escape from the horror, it is the strongest possible denial of the danger that everyone around her is in when they enable an abuser. She has a newborn baby in her arms as Stanley paws at her chest; does Stanley see his child as an extension of his own ego, or another interloper in his territory, stealing Stella’s body, time and attention?
This is a question that has always haunted me at the end of this play, as it goes unanswered. Stella may be prepared to sacrifice her sister, but would she sacrifice her son? Her sobs show her regret, but is this regret strong enough to make her choose differently if given the option a second time?
Perhaps she would. It’s worth noting that the 1951 movie adaptation of the play changed the ending, having Stella leaving Stanley, presumably for good. The play’s ending was not considered acceptable for Hollywood; it is not acceptable for real life either, but that’s where we are right now.
Is there any hope? I don’t know. I hope there is hope. As someone who tends to prefer magic to realism, there is always a danger of becoming too much like Blanche. She worries about this as well — about being too soft, about needing to evolve, to ‘mix their blood’ with tougher and more assertive people. Avoiding Blanche’s mistakes is a good place to start. Instead of papering over the harshness, we can expose it and tackle it directly. We can stop denying our own shortcomings; if we feel guilty or complicit, if we err, we can face it and refuse to let others use it as a weapon against us.
You cannot fight a Stanley directly; he fears nothing, he knows no shame, and all he cares about is winning. To counter him, you must rely on allies. Blanche’s last words in the play are a favourite of mine (so much so that I named my blog after part of this line): “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers.” As long as you can rely on the kindness of strangers, all may be well. Of course, Blanche says this line to a doctor who is taking her away to an asylum. It is a line tinged with sadness and even more vulnerability. It is an ideal that fails her in a moment of great need. She cannot rely on the people around her in the Quarter, and the man she thinks might come and save her only cares for her in her fantasies. The real world is often a kinder place than that. We need to take Blanche’s ideal and make it concrete. We can reach out with kindness and build networks of alliances. We can ensure that when we call out for help, we call real people. We can stand together and refuse to let the aggressive voices win just because they are the loudest and the most frightening.
Most importantly, we must target the Stellas of the world and break the spell they are under. The Stellas have more choices to make soon, and it is time that they all realised the truth: when Stanley wins, everyone else loses.
I doubt there are any Stellas reading this now, but just in case: Dear Stella, next time he is on his knees, bellowing for your approval, just leave him there. Leave him there, crying and alone. Don’t go to him. Don’t forgive him. Don’t give him another chance. Just walk away. You have allies, real allies, who will welcome you with open arms, and who will do their best to protect you. Choose them instead. Imperfect allies are always better than thugs.