Theater A Streetcar Named Criticism
posted by July 14 at 17:30 PMon
Mary McCarthy practiced criticism, unlike Jen Graves, who practices criticism when she writes about art but merely deploys synonyms for “I don’t like it” when she writes about plays on Slog that she thinks I have thought too highly of. Cornered just now about her uncharacteristically undefended critique (Blanche, we are told, is “bad”—how laconic!), Ms. Graves said that she did not want to go into it—the practice of defending her assertions with particulars—because Mr. Kiley, our man in the theater department, had not yet published his review of the show. Naturally, I encouraged Mr. Kiley to share his not-yet-published review of A Streetcar Named Desire, which he did, which means, I think, that now we will hear from Ms. Graves her thoughts in full regarding the “bad” Blanche and the “not quite good” Stanley and the “better than she had any right to be” Stella. (Right, Ms. Graves?) “Bad” how? “Better” how?
Let us dive back into the Mary McCarthy essay, from which we can all learn lessons, even Ms. Graves, about asserting things and then defending them. (Hi, Jen!) This will be a long quote, just to provoke a bunch of comments about how long quotes are, like, really difficult to scroll past or whatever.
This variation on the mother-in-law theme [instead of a mother in law who comes and gets in the way, it’s a sister-in-law] is the one solid piece of theatrical furniture that A Streetcar Named Desire can show; the rest is antimacassars. Acrimony and umbrage, tears, door-slamming, broken dishes, jeers, cold silences, whispers, raised eyebrows, the determination to take no notice, the whole classic paraphernalia of insult and injury is Tennessee Williams’s hope chest. That the domestic dirty linen it contains is generally associated with the comic strip and the radio sketch should not invalidate it for him as subject matter; it has nobler antecedents. The cook, one may recall, is leaving on the opening page of Anna Karenina, and Hamlet at the court of Denmark is really playing the part of the wife’s unwelcome relation. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Farrell rattle the skeleton of family life; there is no limit, apparently, to what people will do to each other in the family; nothing is too grotesque or shameful; all laws are suspended, including the law of probability. Mr. Williams, at his best, is an outrageous writer in this category; at his worst, he is outrageous in another.
Had he been content in A Streetcar Named Desire with the exasperating trivia of the in-law story, he might have produced a wonderful little comic epic, The Struggle for the Bathroom, an epic ribald and poignant, a comedie larmoyante which would not have been deficient either in those larger implications to which his talent presumes, for the bathroom might have figured as the last fortress of the individual, the poor man’s club, the working girl’s temple of beauty; and the bathtub and the toilet, symbol of illusion and symbol of fact, the prone and the upright, the female and the male, might have faced each other eternally in blank, porcelain contradiction as the area for self-expression contracted to the limits of this windowless cell. Mr. Williams, however, like the Southern women he writes about, appears to have been mortified by the literary poverty of such material, by the pettiness of the arena which is in fact its grandeur. Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and the mother in The Glass Menagerie, he is addicted to the embroidering lie, and though his taste in fancywork differs from these ladies’, inclining more to the modernistic, the stark contrast, the jagged scene, the jungle motifs (“Then they come together with low, animal moans”), the tourist Mexican (“Flores para los muertos, corones para los muertos”), to clarinet music, suicide, homosexuality, rape, and insanity, his work creates in the end that very effect of painful falsity which is imparted to the Kowalski household by Blanche’s pink lampshades and couch covers.
All right, Ms. Graves. Out with it. (And, it must be admitted: your opinion of the sound design is not wrong.)