Sympathy for the Villain?

May 31, 2015

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.

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