Sympathy for the Villain?

I was thinking about the concept of grace last week when I flashed on a scene from Streetcar Named Desire.  Blanche hears a declaration of sorts from Mitch and, recognizing the man provides a real lifeline to her, responds “Sometimes there’s God so suddenly!”  I smiled at Blanche’s recognition of Grace until I remembered what I think of her.  Friends and neighbors, I hate Blanche duBois and I don’t care who knows it.  That aging, insecure, Southern Belle works my last nerve and I’d rather sympathize with the devil.

 Think about Blanche’s role in the play – She’s the fly in the ointment, the wrench in the machinery and the source of the play’s conflict.   She shows up at her sister Stella’s home uninvited and unannounced to sponge off her for the rest of the play.  Okay, everyone needs help now and then but does Blanche show an atom of gratitude?   No, that narcissist takes up the center of the stage, hogging the bathroom and the liquor, and expects her pregnant sister to wait on her hand and foot.  She never tries to get a job or her own place and when she’s not demanding sympathy or the red-carpet treatment, Blanche runs down her brother-in-law, Stanley because she and Stella had “superior” childhoods. Even if this is true (and one of the things we learn about Blanche is her propensity to lie) Blanche’s upbringing gives her only the veneer of gentility, not the substance.  She’s a dishonest, lazy, manipulator who seeks out grown men for gain and teenaged boys for sex.  She can’t be trusted around innocents of any age and her perpetual role of victim warps the people who would help her along with those who resist her game.  She almost deserves what she gets.

Mind you, I’m not fond of Blanche’s adversary, Stanley, either.  The Id to Blanche’s Ego, Stanley is a creature of drive who goes through life focused only on his own needs.  He expects prepared meals to nourish him, poker with the guys to entertain him and a wife to pleasure him once the poker boys go home.  He doesn’t mind pleasing his wife but he doesn’t mind hitting her either.  Stanley has the emotional development of a toddler but he dominates his world through brute, physical strength.   If someone threatens Stanley’s world, or picks at Stanley too long, he retaliates, dismantling his enemies’ defenses and grinding them under his heel.

So who, between these two, who is Streetcar’s villain?  (The only other alternative is Stella, the sister/wife torn between Blanche and Stanley in the play’s tug-of-war.)  Neither character is malevolent by nature, only incredibly self-centered and driven.  Given her background and lack of resources, Blanche’s only developed survival skill involves manipulating the kindness of strangers.  Likewise, Stanley’s defense mechanism is to smash anything that manipulates or threatens his spot in the world.  So, in some ways, the outcome of the Streetcar is set when Blanche boards the bus for New Orleans, well before the curtain rises.  This is the story of flawed people on a collision course driven by compulsions they can’t sense enough to change.

Maybe that’s why people are still interested in this play, almost seventy years after its first production.  Because of their flaws, Streetcar‘s characters are people, like the ones we see in the mirror.  None of us are Stanley or Stella or Blanche or Mitch but we share some of their weaknesses and strengths.  To one degree or another, we are all inadvertant bystanders, victims, and predators, still searching for a moment of Grace.

There’s a story that needs to be told

Me, I’m a fool for history.  Show me a place where something really happened and tell me the story so I can see it in my mind and I’ll be your friend forever, even if the story is sad.  So much has happened where I live that I’ve always got plenty to read but there’s one bit of regional history that I haven’t found captured in books.  It’s time someone wrote about the Rhythm Club Fire.

It happened seventy-five years ago today, in Natchez, Mississippi.  Natchez was a medium-sized county seat then of about fifteen thousand people, sixty percent of whom were African-American.  Because this was during the cruel and moronic Jim Crow period, the town was effectively split along racial lines and white and black people co-existed with a minimum of interaction.  The divide was so deep, I’ll bet that almost half of Natchez had no idea their town was known as a place for great music.

A few years before, a group of African-American entrepreneurs (self named, The Money-Wasters Social Club) had turned a long narrow building in the business section of town into a nightspot called The Rhythm Club.  The place may not have looked like much from the outside with its tin walls and shuttered windows and the interior decorations consisted of Spanish Moss draped from the rafters, but people didn’t go there to look.   This was the era of swing music and the Money-Wasters made the Rhythm Club a regular stop for black dance-bands touring the South.   The Rhythm Club became the local place to go to hear music, cut loose and have fun, until April 23, 1940.

That night, the Rhythm club was stuffed with people, despite the sixty-five cent admission: Walter Barnes, a gifted musician and band leader was there with his orchestra and seven hundred or so people, including some music students and their teachers, had found their way through the front door entrance to the dance hall in back so they could hear the great band play.  Then around eleven thirty, a spark by the hamburger stand and only exit caught that dry, Spanish Moss draped through the rafters.  Now dry plants are potential fuel already but this stuff had been sprayed with a petroleum based insecticide so it was essentially a match waiting to be struck.  The flames started shooting across the ceiling, people began to scream and run but the fire was between them and the exits.  Walter Barnes and his orchestra tried to calm the crowd with music, but they were trapped in with that inferno.  Over 200 people died in that fifteen minute fire, including the bandleader, Walter Barnes.

The aftermath was horrendous.  The local hospital and the black undertakers are overrun with victims and some of the burned are sent home without treatment.  At least 60 of the dead couldn’t be identified and were buried in an unmarked, mass grave outside of town.  The newspapers arrived, along with the Red Cross but there isn’t a lot of follow up.  And all of this leads to questions.

How did the town of Natchez deal with this hideous tragedy?  Were the lost and injured remembered by all or was the event seen only through the the filter of segregation?   What happened to the black power structure of Natchez after that night took so many of its members?  What treatment was available or recommended for someone with serious burns at that time?  How did the injured recover?  Did they recover?  How do you go on living after coming through something like that?

A small museum, a handful of websites and one or two films talk about the tragedy but I haven’t located any books that research this subject in-depth.  Creating one would be a job for a historian who can devote years to the project but it’s a subject well worth chasing.  If reading books about disaster has taught me anything, it’s taught me these stories are so much more than about how people died; they’re about how people lived, what they cared about and why they should be remembered.  I hope somebody writes about Rhythm Club Fire because I want to read that book.

The difference ‘tween diamonds and pearls

When you’re an English Major, you have to deal with Jane Austen.  She’s one of the writers whose work you have to know before you graduate, like the medical students have to pass A&P.  This can be a problem because readers love or they hate her books with a passion.  There’s no middle ground.  Granted, Mark Twain said an ideal library contains none of her stories but his heroes create their own destinies by ignoring the rules of their cultures. Miss Austen’s characters don’t have that luxury.  They have to carve solutions to their problems out of a narrower field.  Nevertheless, constraints don’t defeat Austen heroines, they enhance them. Difficulties turn Jane’s women into jewels.
Pressure abounds in Pride and Prejudice.  The Bennet daughters are all old enough to marry but there’s an unspoken demand that at least one of the girls marry a man with money.  Mr. Bennet has no savings and his death would leave any dependent family homeless. The two older sisters know this although both would rather marry for love than a fortune. They also live in a world that runs on gossip and rumor and it’s hard to find the truth.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth Bennet withstands the stress with good sense and humor, refusing to marry the wrong man or  avoid the right one, once she sees him.  She can be misled into a mistake but no one can push Elizabeth into acting against her own conscience or will.  Instead, she stays true to her convictions and charms us with her sparkling wit.  Pressure makes lesser women crumble; it shapes Miss Bennet into a diamond.
Pressure isn’t what bothers Elinore Dashwood as much as heartbreak. Within the first two chapters she’s loses her father and the only home she’s ever known.   Then the family of the man she cares for treats her badly.   Elinor keeps most of this incredibly painful stuff to herself since her mother and sisters share at least two-thirds of her heartbreak and she doesn’t want to add to their burdens.  So Elinor becomes the Dashwood who faces reality and tries to get on with life, no matter how hard that is.  She persuades her mother to live within a budget and maintain good friendships with the neighbors who like to help their family.  She begs her younger sister, Marianne, to  behave respectably in public since good manners and reputation are only assets their family has left.  No matter how unhappy she is, Elinore returns malice with civility and kindness with generosity to make life as pleasant as she can for everyone. Her disappointments become the seeds that start her selfless generosity and compassion for others like a piece of sand becomes the instrument that starts a pearl. If Elizabeth sparkles like a diamond, Elinore’s kindness gleams through Sense and Sensibility like a pearl that’s caught the light.

Perhaps Miss Austen’s books aren’t for everyone and it’s odd they’re classified as tales of romance.  They’re not about adventurers but conventional people living conventional lives and they’re downright unromantic when it comes to the subject of money.  They honor the tedious virtues of patience, loyalty and truth while making fun of snobs and fools.  But they are intelligent, humorous stories and they’re all about the art of the possible.  And their heroines are gems.  You just have to choose your preference, diamonds or pearls. 

The Villans of Oliver Twist

Full disclosure:  I love the novel Oliver Twist but I can’t say I love the title character.  He cries far to easily for my taste and he’s altogether too sweet for words.   Dickens wanted to show Oliver’s basic gentle nature couldn’t be corrupted by the environment he lived in but basically his protagonist is a Casper Milquetoast.  When people are kind to him, he laps it up and soaks them with tears of joy.   When they are unkind, he leaves and cries on himself.  A very soggy kid, needing someone to rescue and rehydrate him.  Occasionally, Oliver will stand up to a bully but on someone else’s behalf, like his dead mother. In this book it’s a lot easier to like the bad guys.

They have all the best lines in this book.  No one has ever developed supporting characters as thoroughly and lovingly as Charles Dickens and the villains in Oliver Twist are either strong and bad (like scary Bill Sikes) or weak and bad.  You know who the fun ones are, right?

Of course there’s Fagin.  A fence and corrupter of children, Fagin sees himself as the ultimate pragmatist.  People do have a habit of buying things that burglars are likely to steal but that’s not Fagin’s fault.   All he does is take the stolen goods off the burglars’ hands and send them back into the economy to be purchased again.   And he doesn’t put the stray children into London’s streets, does he?  Of course not.  Fagin will tell you, he’s providing a service getting those children shelter (in abandoned, unsafe buildings) and teaching them trades.   All right, he trains them to become petty criminals, but Fagin didn’t criminalize their behavior.  That was the work of Parliament.   That’s our Fagin, the man with a reason for everything.

 Then there is the wonderful Beadle Bumble (you can tell what a bumbling, bumptious oaf he’s going to be with that name) who takes careful inventory of Mrs. Corney’s possessions before he proposes marriage to her.   He’s so pompous and mean to everyone else, you can’t help but cheer when the coy Mrs. Corney becomes his tyrant after marriage.  English majors, feminists and law students all cheer when, apprised that the law assumes a man is in charge of his wife’s behavior, Bumble responds, “ If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”

The weakest of the bad boys is Noah Claypole, a sniveler if  there ever was one.  He’ll bully half-starved orphans because he’s better fed and knows the names of his parents (That’s all the genealogy Noah knows but it’s enough) but turns up his nose at snatching handbags because old ladies tend to fight back.  Big, bad Noah Claypole has to take ‘the kinchin lay,’ when he becomes a full-time criminal.  That is he steels the errand and pocket money from children who still have their moms.   His zenith is achieved when he becomes a stool-pigeon.

One of the characters that rarely makes it into an adaptation is Charley Bates, a friend of the Artful Dodger and fellow pickpocket.  Charley stands out against the rest of the bad guys because he’s cheerful.  Unlike the saturnine Dodger and Sykes, Charley  spends most of his time laughing.  He’s just as much a pickpocket as the Dodger but Charley can’t help seeing the funny side of life.   When he witnesses the violent side of crime, Charley rethinks his options and becomes an honest man.  

 And then there’s the Artful.   Jack Dawkins, ladies and gents, immortalized forever as The Artful Dodger.   Although he’s not as adorable as Jack Wild portrayed him in the 1960’s musical adaptation (where huge hunks of the story were chopped off) The Dodger steals every possible scene in Oliver’s life story and has to be transported to Australia to keep from absconding with the ending.  He’s cunning, naughty, impudent, deceitful and a wonderful counterpoint to the perpetual victim, Oliver.  

In the end, Twist is a serious story about the effects of poverty and I am glad that the book helped some real people and that the fictional Oliver eventually obtained enough security to stop dripping tears at the drop of a hat.  He deserved a happy ending, as did the poor of Victorian England.   But if Mr. Dickens had written sequels, as so many writers do these days, I wish he had told of Jack’s life in Australia.   The Dodger Down Under would have sold!