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Monday, July 14, 2008

A Streetcar Called Success

posted by on July 14 at 11:34 AM

The production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Intiman right now is really something—amazingly, for such a wax museum of a play, the principal actors burn through the material at a temperature that melts away the wax, that feels organic and unpredictable. They are all, believably, blind to one another, these people. I’d always thought of Streetcar (which I’d only ever read) as a cheesy, mid-century melodrama, a scenery-as-food piece, but I was totally carried along by the performances that Sheila Daniels (profiled by Brendan Kiley last week) got out of these actors.

Last night I was flipping through the Mary McCarthy collection of essays A Bolt from the Blue, which includes theater reviews she wrote for Partisan Review and elsewhere, and I came to her piece “A Streetcar Called Success,” in which she savages Tennessee Williams’ play (she gave me all my ideas about it, it turns out) and, while she’s at it, his entire career. An excerpt from the end, when she goes off about his career:

If art, as Mr. Williams appears to believe, is a lie, then anything goes, but Mr. Williams’s lies, like Blanche’s, are so old and shopworn that the very truth upon which he rests them becomes as garish and ugly, just as the Kowalski’s apartment becomes the more squalid for Blanche’s attempts at decoration. His work reeks of literary ambition as the apartment reeks of cheap perfume; it is impossible to witness one of Mr. Williams’s plays without being aware of the pervading smell of careerism. Over and above their subject matter, the plays seem to emanate an ever-growing confidence in their author’s success. It is this perhaps which is responsible for Mr. Williams’s box-office draw: there is a curious elation in this work which its subject matter could not engender. Whatever happens to the characters, Mr. Williams will come out rich and famous, and the play is merely an episode in Mr. Williams’s career. And this career in itself has the tinny quality of a musical romance, from movie usher to Broadway lights… Pacing up and down a Murray Hill apartment, he tells of his early struggles to a sympathetic reporter. He remembers “his first break.” He writes his life story for a Sunday supplement. He takes his work seriously; he does not want success to spoil him; he recognizes the dangers; he would be glad to have advice. His definition of his literary approach is a triumph of boyish simplicity: “I have always had a deep feeling for the mystery of life.” This “Hello Mom” note in Mr. Williams’s personality is the real, indigenous thing… The cant of the intelligentsia (the jargon, that is, of failure) comes from his lips like an ill-earned recitation: he became, at one point, so he says, “the most common American phenomenon, the rootless, wandering writer”—is this a wholly fitting description of a talent which is rooted in the American pay dirt as a stout and tenacious carrot?

Three thoughts: one, that’s a fucking long paragraph (I even skipped some sentences); two, though this is a pretty convincing, embarrassing portrait of Tennessee Williams’s work, that very work continues to be produced in leading theaters in the country (like the Tony-laden Intiman) while A Bolt from the Blue was most recently seen sitting on bookstore remainder tables; three, God love Mary McCarthy. That bitch could write.

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She could write. Adequately? Poorly?

How is this convincing? There is as much in here about Tennessee Williams' work as there is for an ad for Yuban coffee. And the bible is pretty convincing evidence of a beneficint god?

Posted by umvue | July 14, 2008 12:32 PM

Much of this is true and I doubt that Mr. Williams himself would argue. He was always aware of his success and, moreover, his need for success. I believe his downfall was mistaking voice for style. There is definitely a Tennessee Williams style of play: melodrama centered on a dysfunctional family and/or societal norms, and protagonists that resist them. He wrote his best plays in the 1940s and 50s, the Golden Age of Broadway theater when a play could pack a house just as much as a musical. For an artist, there seems to be a window of time when s/he attains a level of critical and commercial success that enables her/him to do anything, to take huge changes, and move the field in a new direction. When that window closes, it is because the artist -- or, more likely, the artist's patrons -- tries to recycle the elements of that success rather than reinvent and reinvigorate the work. This happened to Williams, and it happened to Arthur Miller. Their plays became rather formulaic. Edward Albee, on the other hand, has always pushed in new directions and remains one of the most daring playwrights we have. That being said, it is pointless to allow an artist's personal life or even motivations to interfere with your enjoyment of the works themselves. (Mel Gibson is a crazy fuck, for example, but he makes damn interesting films.) Ultimately, the success of a Tennessee Williams' play depends on whether or not you can forget about who wrote it as you watch (not read) it. A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, is a brilliant play because I always get lost in its story, characters, and powerful central conflict. As a writer myself, I turn to Tennessee Williams because he was one of our best storytellers, and his characters are deeply memorable, even haunting.

Posted by Bub | July 14, 2008 12:45 PM

The most interesting productions of "Streetcar" that I've seen were the ones in "The Simpsons" and "All About My Mother"...

Posted by michael strangeways | July 14, 2008 1:17 PM

I'll tell you what's on my enormous whozeewhatsit!!!

Posted by Christopher Frizzelle's Enormous Whozeewhatsit | July 14, 2008 1:25 PM

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