IN THE REHEARSAL ROOM
Director Benedict Andrews talks to Jerwood Assistant Director Natasha Nixon about directing A Streetcar Named Desire.
Natasha: We’ve spoken a lot in rehearsals about how the play works simultaneously on two levels: the realistic and the mythic. How has this affected your process?
Benedict: In the final scene, Blanche says, “I’m just passing through.” Streetcar describes this passage. Elysian Fields is the last station on the long journey from her past, the home plantation Belle Reve, to her future existence in the ward of a psychiatric hospital, her terminal. The play is the last downward turn in the spiral of her disintegration. It is also an act of purgation – a kind of ritual journey through the underworld.
In New Orleans, Tennessee Williams found a way to situate his play on the intersection between the everyday and the mythic. The play moves simultaneously on both these dimensions. The scene is an actual street with a mythic name, Elysian Fields, and Blanche rides an actual streetcar named Desire to get there. In Stella and Stanley’s cramped apartment lives are lived in too close proximity. The enormous drives of the mythic level charge the minutiae of everyday life. The realism is a skin – or a kind of cage, as in a Francis Bacon painting – in which the characters are trapped and defined. Beneath it, you hear the gears of the mythic engine grinding the wheels inexorably forward.
The play takes place on a borderline, a seam between reality and it’s inverse. Under a naked lightbulb, Blanche cries out – “I don’t want realism. I want magic.” Stanley’s visceral realism and Blanche’s ecstatic affectations are two different aspects of theatrical truth. Raw physical presence versus the artifice of the mask. Truth and illusion weave through the play like the inverting surfaces of a Möbius Strip. We watch the characters turned inside out by the shapeshifting force of desire. It rips them apart. Streetcar takes place on this seam, this rent in reality.
I don’t think you can get to both these levels at once in a ‘chocolate box’ realism set – you know, with wallpaper on the walls and every detail filled in. Every production I’ve seen like that makes me feel I’m missing a dimension. Our set is an engine for the play. It sets it in inexorable motion. It’s relentless, doesn’t stop. It disorientates and makes dizzy – like Blanche’s illness. It invites us to peer in at the raw, utterly private emotions of the people in front of us, but doesn’t let us get too comfortable in that. It’s a skeletal realism that invites the invisible forces of the mythic dimension into play.
Rehearsal is like choreographing a boxing match or the territorial negotiations of animals in a cage. At the same time, we’re plugging into the raw drives. Desire is a blind cyclonic force wrecking the characters, like Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans. It is the Real behind the realism. A horrific Real, which they recognise and try to flee. Stanley and Blanche know it from the moment they lock eyes on each other. At the end of Scene 10, before he carries Blanche’s inert body to the bed, Stanley says, “we’ve had this date with each other since the beginning.” The mythic circuitry has them trapped.
I’m not interested in realism for it’s own sake. I miss that in productions which mistake a fidelity to the play’s original setting for its actual truth. Wrapped up in a museological production, the characters become quaint people from an idealised past whose problems remain safely in the past. They are so much more than that. We are invited to get close to them in all their messy, ugly, beautiful, raw life. Yes, there’s a powerful drug of nostalgia and loss in Streetcar, but when that becomes the first and only thing – for instance, in a production’s fetishistic nostalgia for 1940’s period detail – the piece stops being about what it is actually about, which is sex and the cataclysmic force of desire. Every single heartbeat of the play is predicated upon sexual hunger and the bruises and damage caused by that. The way people hide from it, the way people go after it, the way people destroy each other because of it. The great muscular realism of the mid-Century American drama of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller aspires to a ritualistic, tragic transcendence. Warning of the dangers of a these plays becoming ossified as museum pieces, Miller wrote, “Streetcar is a cry of pain; forgetting that is to forget the play.”
We’ve touched on Blanche’s journey, but what Stella has escaped from is also profound. Ten years have passed since the sisters have seen each other, and there’s a lot at stake for Stella when Blanche arrives…
Ten years before the events of the play, at the age of sixteen, Stella makes a radical decision. She leaves her family and her privilege, goes out into the world. She ends up in a place that is as far from her wealthy upbringing as possible, married to Stanley, a man who is the opposite class of the men she grew up with. In the Quarter of New Orleans where they live – a poor, rough area where sex, violence and passion are out in the open – Stanley is her drug. Until Blanche arrives, she lives in a kind of blind heaven, in permanent, forgetful, erotic bliss. Williams describes Stella as possessing ‘narcotic tranquility’. From the instant Blanche walks back into her life, Stella knows she’ll have to make an unbearable choice, have to lose one of the people she loves. She won’t keep both Stanley and Blanche. One will be lost, sacrificed, destroyed. Stanley and Blanche fight for possession of Stella. She’s the battleground where their destructive hungers play out. Audience to their brutal desire, Stella sees everything, knows exactly what’s going on. She knows these two willful people better than they know themselves, and vainly tries to put out the fire in which they burn.
She’s also the apex of another fight – the epic cultural clash which the play enacts. Stella is between worlds. She belongs both to Stanley’s new America as well as the old South where she and Blanche were born and raised. The play stages the death of an older American order and the growth of the post-war American Empire. Stanley says, “I’m not a Polack. People from Polack are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is one hundred per cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it…” Stanley and his poker mates are servicemen retuning from recent American conflict, bearing the scars and pride of service. Blanche is the last survivor of an older America, a wealthy, decadent, incestuous culture. The old South, that Belle Reve stood for, is now dead. Blanche is the last refugee, a Queen in exile from a bankrupt culture. As in Chekhov, The Cherry Orchard in particular, Streetcar describes the last days of one era and the ascendancy of the new. In this case, a new America fuelled by sex and the selling of sex. A Desire factory. A pornography machine. A military machine. Streetcar lays bare the raw circuitry of the American Dream. A mythic machinery where everyone is a junkie to Desire. Where all that counts is the ruthless belief that you can be someone. Where as Stanley brags in the final scene, “Luck is believing you’re lucky.”