Anyone who knows me can’t help knowing that in the last few months I have come to admire a particular celebrity. I’d never heard of this person before May, when a FaceBook acquaintance of mine posted a picture of him, and it struck me forcibly how much he physically resembles the male protagonist of my Caitlin Ross series (who, I feel compelled to point out, appeared on the page years before I’d ever heard of this celebrity). And, yeah, I got a bit obsessed with him, which disturbed me, and which I wished daily hadn’t happened because it brought up all my shit about being the nerdy, unattractive high school chick with the crush on the cute, popular guy. Anyway, I started following his work and reading and listening to interviews with him and he honestly sounds like a super guy, smart and funny as well as physically attractive. And this fandom brought me into contact with some new friends, which was all to the good. Although it does seem terribly strange to me to connect with a bunch of women (and a few men) through our all having a thing for the same guy. It’s a reality I’ve never before participated in. A lot of me is mortified to be participating in it now. I’m a married woman with a loving husband who’s my best friend, who stuck by me through five terrible years when my illness got really bad and I had no medication that worked, who rubs my neck when I have a migraine. (He’s found this whole celebrity crush thing rather amusing, by the way.) I have no call to have a terrible crush on some celebrity. I know he’s not perfect. He’s a real guy who shits and farts and maybe leaves the toilet seat up. I would not last two minutes in his world and I doubt very much he would find anything interesting about mine. Probably if he didn’t look so much like Timber MacDuff, I wouldn’t have a thing for him. Probably if he were just a pretty face with nothing behind it, I wouldn’t, either. But he does look like the troubled romantic hero of my novels—with whom more than one reader has fallen in love—and he isn’t just a pretty face. More than once he’s demonstrated he has a fairly good brain. So I’ve been trying hard to deal with this whole weird reality, having an adolescent crush way beyond adolescence, with limited success.
I started following this guy on Twitter. I’d had a Twitter account for about a year. Before this particular fandom I hadn’t used it much, but I started spending more time there. Twitter is dangerous. It’s a great publicity tool, and a good way to connect with people with whom you might not otherwise connect. And sometimes famous people you follow retweet something or answer a tweet or even follow you back, and then you squeal like a fangirl and try not to pass out. It also gives you a false sense of intimacy with perfect strangers, and the combination of that with fandom is not necessarily healthy. A friend of mine said, “I’d never want to be a celebrity in this day and age, when almost anyone can get in touch with you if they try hard enough.” And I have to agree. Some of the stuff I’ve seen people post is downright vulgar and offensive. Like randomly tweeting to a celebrity that you want to lick his dick or come on her tits, in response to a photo of a cool fish or the mention of a political cause.
How do celebrities deal with this shit? I’ve wondered it a lot in regards to the person I have this crush on, because he’s a bone fide sex symbol. And I’ve seen clips of him on TV talk shows where the audience is comprised of drooling women yelling “Take it off!” as soon as he steps on stage, and I think about how if the genders were reversed, if it were an attractive woman and an audience full of men, people would write scathing articles about objectification and how we’re more than our bodies and how the patriarchy…blah, blah, blah. But for men it’s supposed to be some measure of how studly and powerful they are, and if they object people ask what’s wrong with them. And yeah, I believe women have a right to delight in the male form. I like a hot guy as much as the next woman. But sometimes it seems a little much.
Anyway, I really tried to restrain myself from falling into the Twitter trap—tried not to Tweet him or tag him or say anything weird and stalker-ish. But sometimes I didn’t succeed at that. And one of the places I didn’t succeed with that was about that play.
See, around about Midsummer, the news came out that the guy had been cast as the male lead in a repertory company’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire. When I told my husband about this—he’d played Stanley, himself—he said, “I can’t imagine him in that role.” I said, “I can imagine him in it, but I can’t imagine why he’d want to do it.”
You might be able to tell I am not fond of this play. In fact, I’m not fond of Tennessee Williams in general. Around my house, we refer to his work as “Sweat Plays.” As in, “Isn’t Night of the Iguana another Tennessee Williams Sweat Play?” Because most of his plays seem to consist of an assortment of dysfunctional characters emoting while standing around perspiring in some hot, Southern location. It’s not something that appeals to me. I’ve had enough dysfunction in my life; I don’t need to see it glorified on the stage.
Yet in interviews, my celebrity crush stated repeatedly that Tennessee Williams was his favorite playwright, and “Streetcar” his favorite play. I didn’t get it. I still don’t. And I’ve been pretty vocal in various places about not liking the play, not to be critical, but because I want to understand. I’ve had a couple good conversations with people about it, too. But I didn’t expect the celebrity to acknowledge me—though I did actually ask him right out what he saw in “Streetcar”—and he didn’t.
Anyway. One recent morning I was hanging out on the Internet, as I do most mornings, alternating between cruising FaceBook and chatting with some folks on Twitter and doing research on my current project and stuff. And through a series of bizarre events, including getting a false notification from Twitter that he had started following me, I learned that this celebrity had blocked me from following him anymore. I was shocked and shattered, because I had (and still have) no idea what I did to bring on that kind of action. Over the course of the day, I discussed it with a friend (also a fan), and she was as shocked as I was. Neither of us could think of what I’d done. “I’ve seen fans post WAY worse stuff to him and be WAY more stalker-y,” she said. The only thing either of us could think was that he doesn’t like my expressing my opinion of “Streetcar.” Maybe he thinks it’s bad publicity. And even that doesn’t make sense, because I’m not blocked from tagging him, and there’s nothing to keep me from saying anything about that play that I like. Also, a lot of my contacts retweet everything he posts, so it’s not like I’m completely cut out of the loop.
Really, a simple “Yo, knock it off about the play!” would probably have been effective. But I guess you’re maybe not supposed to engage with fans that way, not knowing if they might be freaky stalkers or what. And he doesn’t tend to engage as much as some of the other celebs who post on Twitter anyway.
I have to admit, I, of course, did have a fantasy where he noticed me. And I guess he did. I just had imagined it somewhat differently.
My husband maintains that the blocking was some kind of weird mistake or glitch. He says, “No actor in his right mind would block a fan unless the fan were a looney like that poor woman from Crawford who stalked David Letterman (she claimed she was having his alien baby and ended in a spectacularly messy fashion a few years ago by throwing herself under a train). It’s just not worth it to alienate people that way.”
But I don’t know. Everyone has triggers that make them do stuff that seems unreasonable to people on the outside. Or maybe he can’t cope with people disagreeing with him, which would disappoint me, but it happens. Or maybe he was thinking, “Shit, I’m in production for this play and I don’t need this kind of negativity.” Or maybe he was having a bad day. It must be a strain, having to be pleasant to people all the time. As a matter of fact, I have some experience of that myself.
The guy’s human; shit happens; don’t take it personally. But I still keep coming back to “Streetcar,” because among the hordes of ravening fans posting photos of their tickets, mine is the lone voice saying, “I’m sorry, but this play stinks. I’m not sure I could sit through it even to watch you.”
* * *
Which brings me to the main point of this essay: The Problem with A Streetcar Named Desire. All the things I think about looking at the play, which I would enjoy discussing with any intelligent theater-lover, whether or not they agree with me. The kinds of things I would have liked to have asked my celebrity crush, and the things I’d like to have had a chance say. I’ve never seen it, but I have read it more than once. And yeah, I have a theater background too, though that’s not where I ended up. So I believe my opinion counts for something.
NUMBER ONE: It’s poorly constructed. I write fiction and essays, not plays. But writing, constructing stories, is what I do. I know very well when it works and when it doesn’t, and “Streetcar” doesn’t work for me. The progression from beginning, to middle, through the end seems arbitrary; there’s no coherent plot. I’ve mentioned above that Williams’s plays always strike me as a lot of people standing around emoting, but at least most of the others—Glass Menagerie, for example—have some kind of storyline. Events build one upon another. “Streetcar” isn’t that way. The individual scenes seem disconnected. Stuff happens, but none of it moves. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s lots of plays without standard plots. But it means that the work needs some other draw, like witty dialog—I don’t think people go to see Waiting for Godot for the plot—or using paper cut-outs to represent actors (in true Brechtian fashion) or actors delivering all their surreal lines from garbage cans. Or characters. You can save any dismal piece of crap if you have good characters. Which brings me to:
NUMBER TWO: There isn’t a sympathetic character in the entire play.
“Streetcar” is a glimpse into the lives of a number of people in a working-class neighborhood in the forties (it was first performed in 1948). The main action centers around Stanley Kowalski, his wife, Stella, and her sister, Blanche Dubois. We also get to see Stanley’s poker buddies and various neighbors. The central conflict, as far as I can determine it, is a power struggle between Stanley and Blanche. The struggle has undertones of class warfare: Stanley is a blue-collar man of his time, a blunt-spoken guy who likes to drink and go bowling, who walks around in his undershirt at home and has limited knowledge of what might be termed “the finer things.” On the other hand, Blanche (and, by extension, Stella) comes from the fading plantation culture and is used to things being more refined. Almost from the moment she arrives, Blanche disparages Stanley for his lack of culture. She is, she claims, used to better, and she can’t understand why her sister married such a brute. Stanley, predictably, reacts by getting sulky and belligerent, probably because he doesn’t like his shortcomings being pointed out by some broad. It doesn’t help that Stanley believes Blanche and Stella have inherited a good chunk of money, being the last of their family. Blanche makes it clear from the beginning that there is no money, but Stanley doesn’t care. He feels entitled to it as Stella’s husband, and when he doesn’t get it he sets out to ruin Blanche, which he does by interfering in her budding relationship with his buddy, Mitch, raping her, and ultimately having her committed to a mental institution when she tries to tell Stella what happened.
I have thought and thought about how, were I directing this play, I could make any of these characters into someone with whom the audience could sympathize, and for the life of me I just can’t do it. The closest I can come is Blanche, because she’s clearly the victim, a woman of little resource fallen on hard times and unwilling to admit to it, who does what she has to do to survive. (Unfortunately, this includes soft prostitution, which gives Stanley a weapon against her when he discovers it.) But even Blanche is difficult, because she’s a pathological liar; she tries to manipulate people and circumstance instead of getting a spine and telling the truth. I guess Southern ladies aren’t trained for that. When it bites her in the ass, you can’t quite feel sorry for her. You feel like you should, because what Stanley has done is so horrible. But really, by that point of the play you just don’t care.
My husband points out that, in the beginning of the play, Blanche describes how, to get to Stanley and Stella’s apartment, she “took a streetcar named Desire to a stop called Cemetery” and asked for Elysian Fields (the Elysian Fields, in case you don’t know, is the section of the classical Greek afterlife where heroes go after they die). To me, this says that the central metaphor of the play is how Blanche’s desire (to regain what she’s lost, maybe, or just for a better life for herself) carries her toward death. In that case, Blanche should be the clear protagonist and the character for whom the audience feels the most sympathy. Except, the play being what it is, the idea doesn’t carry through. It just doesn’t work.
Stella makes me ill. She’s a virtual non-entity who buys into the battered woman mythos. The first time in the play that Stanley hits her—and I get the distinct impression it wasn’t the first time ever—she does take refuge with the upstairs neighbors. Then we get the famous “STELLA!” scene, and she runs right back. She and Stanley fuck like bunnies, and the next day when Blanche urges her to leave her abusive husband, she replies with, “There’s nothing in my life I need to run away from.” It’s not quite as bad as the atrocious line in Carousel—“He hit me and it felt like a kiss!”—but it’s a close second. Let’s hear it for a role model of how to be a subservient doormat. Even after Stanley’s violence triggers the onset of labor—oh yeah, I forgot to mention that at one point in the play we learn Stella is pregnant—she doesn’t get a clue, but continues until the end to wonder how her sister could tell such lies about her husband.
Then there’s Stanley. My celebrity crush was quoted in a recent interview as saying, “Stanley Kowalski is the quintessential male role in American Theater.” Well, kudos for the use of the word “quintessential,” but my response is, if Stanley is the quintessential male role in American Theater, then American Theater is in trouble. In the forties when this play debuted, when domestic violence was still a hush-hush issue and Williams might actually have been challenging social norms by putting it on stage, yeah, okay, I can see why you might say that. But not today. There’s more sympathy to Artie O’Shaughnessy, the male lead of House of Blue Leaves, who cheats on his crazy wife and then strangles her, than there is to Stanley. You might excuse him by saying, “But he really loves his wife and he’s sorry he hit her! You can see it in the ‘STELLA!’ scene!” Well, I’m here to tell you, as a person who’s worked in a battered women’s shelter and had close friends and relatives in battering relationships, that’s the classic behavior of an abuser. It’s what’s known as the “Cycle of Violence.” It starts with a calm period. Then tensions start to escalate. There may be a trigger, or there may not. Sometimes the trigger is in the abuser’s head. The escalation leads to a violent incident, after which the abuser feels extreme remorse. He (or she) apologizes, makes excuses, tries to make up for his (or her) behavior by being extra nice and buying his victim gifts: the “Hearts and Flowers” stage. Then the cycle turns back to the period of calm, and starts all over again.
Please explain to me how Stanley is any different. He batters Stella, she leaves, he feels remorse and gets her to come back, tensions escalate and he does it again, again feels remorse, then takes out his temper and frustration on Blanche by raping her while Stella is having their baby. To make matters even more unpalatable, his line immediately before the rape is, “This has been coming between you and me for a long time!” Excuse me? In what way? Do you mean that Blanche had it coming, to be raped? Even if there’s sexual tension between Stanley and Blanche—and you can read the play that way—it’s still a fucking rape. Saying “it’s been coming” as a justification clearly points out that Stanley feels perfectly fine with putting a woman who in some way threatens him “in her place” by sexually assaulting her. Do we really need to affirm this mindset by claiming he’s the “top-of-the-mountain” role for men?
He’s an abuser. He feels entitled to dominate and control the women around him, and not a few of the men, as well. And the play ends with Blanche getting carted away, and, presumably, Stanley and Stella going back to their dysfunctional life. And if you want to say, “Well, now that Blanche is out of the picture maybe their life won’t be so dysfunctional,” okay. I can accept that she might have been the trigger factor, which is why the play takes the shape it does. But it smacks very strongly of blaming the victim of violence for what the perpetrator did to her. And I’d say the same if Blanche were a male role, although in all probability the same events wouldn’t take place.
I remember, years ago, going with my husband and a friend to see Leaving Las Vegas, a movie about some more dysfunctional people, for which Nicholas Cage won an Oscar. We all sat through it without saying anything. When we left the theater, everyone around us was exclaiming what a wonderful, heavy, insightful, profound movie it was. The three of us just looked at each other. Then one of us—I can’t remember who—said, “Did I see the same movie? Because I thought it was horrible. I could barely sit through it.” Turns out all of us felt the same, because what in the hell is insightful and profound about watching a prostitute enable an alcoholic to drink himself to death?
I feel the same way about “Streetcar.” I’ve known those people. I’ve seen their dysfunction close-up. I’ve done the paperwork. I’ve seen the file marked closed because a woman’s abusive husband finally killed her. I’ve been raped. There is nothing about it I want to see in a play. And calling Stanley “the quintessential male role…” in light of what I’ve seen and experienced really, really disturbs me. It’s like saying “Real men are abusers and rapists.” That can’t be what he meant, can it? Furthermore, the fact that the play is being staged at an institution that has recently had its policy on sexual assault called into question for giving perpetrators slaps on the wrist strikes me as beyond ironic. In my opinion, the only value that “Streetcar” has is historic. Yeah, it was groundbreaking for its time, and should be studied for that reason. Yeah, it paints a picture of working-class people in the post-war South. But, please gods, let’s not go there today.
I’m an educated woman with a progressive mindset. I tend to surround myself with like-minded others, both women and men, and this gives me a certain picture of the way the world is. It makes me sad to think that our society hasn’t come as far as I’d like to think, and that there are still plenty of people out there who can call a play depicting the horrible lives of horrible people “wonderful, poetic, and iconic.”
Obviously, the whole subject is a huge trigger for me, and I should have recognized that to begin with and kept my big mouth shut (or my typing fingers still). But I didn’t. And I wish a whole bunch that I could turn back time and do things differently. I think about Tweeting the celebrity and saying, “WTF?” or “I’m sorry for whatever the hell I did,” but I believe that would just make matters worse. He’s made it clear he doesn’t want to hear from me, and I need to respect that. I also hesitate to air anything in a forum as public as Twitter. (If I could private message the guy, it might be another story. But I can’t.) But at least, if I do decide to publish this—and I’m thinking at the risk of once again making myself vulnerable and maybe garnering A LOT more criticism than I have already, I probably will—I’ve put my views out there. Which is all I wanted to do in the first place.
And by the way, after all that…I’m still a fan.
Addendum: After sleeping on it a couple nights, I did decide to apologize. It just seemed the right thing to do for me. I kept it non-specific, and he may not even see it. But I still feel I needed to.