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Popularity and Excusing Abuse:
The Problem with A Streetcar Named Desire
Guest Post By Michael Zimmerle
Okay, so I've gotten kind of embroiled in this whole “Streetcar” business. I wasn't really looking to spend time writing essays on the nature of gender relations and how particular works of art affect gender equality. I didn't really want to sink my intellectual teeth into the finer points of how various interpretations of a work enforce outmoded and potentially destructive social conventions. I have enough to deal with trying to get a group of recalcitrant teenagers to invest a little time in learning how to actually read, write, and speak the English language. But my wife had some investment in the issue, so I had a look at the pertinent topics and interviews. If I had been looking for a way to disengage from the situation, this was a mistake.
Here's the situation in a nutshell. An actor my wife and I both admire is starring in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. I wondered why anyone would be producing this play, even if I could understand why an actor would choose to act in it. I have come to think of “Streetcar” and the rest of the author's work as “Tennessee Williams Sweat Plays” (thanks to my friend Tim for the term). Most of the works are set in the Deep South, with high temperature and humidity, and deal almost exclusively with some sort of dysfunction. They give me a slimy feeling, like I need to shower with copious amounts of soap and all the hot water. In general, they go nowhere, no one learns anything, no one changes, no one decides to make any effort to become a better person. There are a few exceptions, but the predominant feeling is one of falling into a cesspool and deciding it is just too much effort to wade out. Besides, all our friends are here. Sure we hate each other, but what the hell? There's bourbon. Williams did write some interesting characters who, while being largely despicable, do offer challenges to actors. I understand the desire to look for difficult or challenging aspects in a chosen field. It is a chance to push one's self professionally. And it can be very rewarding if successful. Bully. I was ready to just chalk this up to the kind of notch-in-the-belt choice an actor might make. Challenging, resume building, diverting.
Then I started reading some of the interviews that the aforementioned actor gave, and found myself baffled by by what I was reading. I was reminded of the tendency of some academics to generate theses that seem to have relevance only in the Bizzaro world. “WHAT? Where do you get that? How can you possibly find that?” or “Are you really that clueless? Do you have NO IDEA what the abusive pattern is? Have you never heard of the cycle of violence?” I even found myself saying, “Oh, you poor stupid fuck.” I really meant that last one, as I do have some sympathy for someone who doesn't recognize that he is saying things that support a social pattern of abuse, which I am fairly confident that, if asked directly, he would vehemently oppose.
As I see it, the difficulties I have with this situation come down to two things. The first is really an artist's right to defend a work of art. In some ways, this is an unassailable issue, as it comes down to personal aesthetic and interpretation. I happen to hate Moby Dick, while other English majors find it a fascinating and captivating work. To me it is only a classic because someone else said so, not because it's a particularly good piece of writing. “Streetcar” fits into this category for me. As I stated earlier, I find almost nothing redeeming in most Williams plays past the historical significance. Williams did something groundbreaking in putting ugly issues on the stage. I understand that this was happening at a time when society was working very hard at denying that there were any ugly issues. This trend has continued to the present in theater and film where there is an admission that life doesn't always have happy endings. Sometimes that makes for good story telling. Sometimes we can take a good lesson from a disturbing, even repulsive tale. However, I personally find it important that the characters show at least some sign of learning that lesson themselves. I don't find this to be the case in most of these “Sweat Plays.” A more contemporary example is the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas. It won numerous awards, garnered critical acclaim, was a great way for the actors to stretch themselves, and was to my mind, two hours that I will never get back. No lessons learned, no hope generated, no character development arc. This is not my kind of story. If an artist wants to defend this type of art, I suppose it is his right. If he finds something worthy in a static morass of fucked up individuals, so be it. I've seen enough of that in my actual life. I'll pass.
The second issue is a good deal more difficult to recognize and explain, and it is far more important. It is the societal and individual tendency to excuse abuse or find ways to sympathize with the abuser. It is the attempt to justify abusive behavior by focusing on the abuser's deep internal state or external charm. Time and time again, I have seen abusers excused by claiming that they are good at heart, or suffering from internal trauma, or that they just love so deeply that they act out, or they just act the way they have been taught, blah, blah, blah. More energy goes into justifying why they can't change than goes into demanding that they must. Oh, there is some token comment that perhaps an abuser should change his ways, but there is no insistence that they do so. It is as if we think that beaten, bloody, or dead “loved ones” are preferable to making an abuser responsible for his behavior.
In a recent interview on Playbill.com the actor in question said: “It's him protecting what he loves and he loves his wife, he just has these severe handicaps in dealing with other people.” This is exactly the kind of thinking I mean. This is a blatant justification of Stanley's abuse by calling it love and a kind of social awkwardness. Oh, well if that's all it is, then Stella should feel sorry for Stanley when he beats the shit out of her. The truly horrifying thing is that for generations women have been told just that. When I read the above quote, I could only shake my head. Here was a man that I have grown to respect as an actor and as an intelligent human being, spouting an attitude that has damaged both men and women for ages. The really sad thing is that finding sympathy for an abuser may point to a genuinely caring heart. It indicates that the speaker believes that there is good in the abuser. That's not a bad thing if you are a therapist dealing with someone who is actually willing to correct his behavior. It's also vital to an actor trying to legitimately portray a character. But for anyone else, it just enables the abuser. It provides an excuse. “It's not my fault I hit you, baby. It's 'cause I love you too much.” Love is the thing that makes an abuser realize that he is hurting the beloved and STOP DOING IT!
The comments that this actor has made make me think that he really doesn't have much awareness of the mindset of most abusers or how the typical cycle of violence works. Abuse, like rape, is not about love or sex. It's about control and power. Regardless of the capacity for actual love that an abuser might have (a dubious supposition in most cases), the behavior and the feelings leading up to an abusive incident stem from a desire to control or exercise power over another person or a situation. The motivation is rarely, if ever, actually love. Stanley is not protecting his love; he is protecting his familiar situation, a situation that he has control over, the woman he has control over, the group of friends he has control over. He is even exercising control over and protecting his own bitterness and dysfunction. When Blanche comes in, he finds himself with a variable that he needs to find a way to control. Blanche threatens his dreams of money, his relationship with Stella (not by questioning his love, but by questioning his behavior), she even threatens his friendship with his buddy, Mitch. She has to be taken down. Stanley can't control Blanche, so he destroys her. Mercilessly. Utterly.
I'm beginning to hear reviews for preview performances of “Streetcar,” and I'm slightly horrified. Apparently, the director has taken a tender approach to the relationships, and the cast has done a wonderful job of portraying the characters and the director's vision. From the same interview:
But, at the same time, I think there are moments that I have found, especially this time around, where he has this little boy in him still that is incredibly lovable as well. There are moments with Stella where he just doesn't want her to leave. It's a fascinating play.
People are coming away thinking that they have just witnessed a love story. They seem bent on making excuses for Stanley's behavior, using ambiguity of staging to suggest that there was no rape, lauding Stella's dedication to her man regardless of her bruises, and otherwise getting caught up in the passion, while totally missing that this is a play about an abusive lout (narrowly) avoiding being brought to task for his abusive behavior.
Herein lies the crux of the abuse issue: Behavior. It doesn't matter what the core issues are, it doesn't matter how charming, how wounded, or how potentially lovable a person is. The abusive behavior has to stop before any of the rest can even be addressed. In this same interview, the actor does say:
I think what's interesting is that he wrote this play in 1947, and now here we are 40 odd years into the post-feminist era, and I think playing a man of that archetype is very interesting now. Because there are parts of it where you can see how men without therapy, men without support groups, men without any sort of spirituality, got a very bad name for men. There is this interesting merging of this sort of animal attraction with him and Stella. With the perspective that I have from stuff that I've gone through, you read it and you cringe. You know what he's doing and it's so brilliantly written – and even with it being written years ago – you still know these people. I know Stella and I know Stanley.
Yes, we know them. We know them and we weep that they are still suffering from the same dysfunction. But I weep for a society that hasn't learned a damn thing in 40 years. We are still making excuses for men who beat their wives, who destroy lives because they are given every excuse not to get the kind of therapy the actor mentions. The fact that many people have developed sympathy for such and abuser and his doormat wife only reinforces how important this issue still is. After decades of feminism and other activism on the part of women and men, we are still finding ways to try and gloss over the horror that Williams put on the stage in 1947. People, the abuse has to stop before any healing can even begin!
There are countless stories and fairy tales where a man learns his lesson at the hand of his wife. Some gentle, some violent. The fairy who becomes a mortal's wife on condition he never raise a hand to her. He does and she disappears with all her wealth and the children. The woman who is beaten by her drunk husband and then breaks his arm with a frying pan when he passes out. The woman who tells her new husband that if he ever strikes her she will leave him and then does so after 65 years of marriage. Where are these stories? The last one I remember is the 1984 made for T.V. The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett, about a woman who, after years of abuse and marital rape, kills her husband by setting his bed on fire. One reviewer on The Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) credits this movie with giving her the strength to leave her abusive husband. And yet, after all this time and hard work, we are still producing plays and movies that ask us to sympathize with abusers, excuse their behaviors and claim that sex and passion excuse everything.
Simply stated: To portray an abuser as a sympathetic character, and to portray an abusive relationship as at all romantic, is to excuse and encourage abuse and dysfunction. Hey, artistic community, wrong message.
I have only one last parting shot. I'm afraid I can't claim that this is anything other than a dig, thinly veiled as a life lesson. Two last quotes from the actor. The first from the Playbill.com interview and the second from a different interview on New Haven Register (nhregister.com).
This is really very personal for you.
(Actor): Yeah. It's my play. And I belong to it. So you know, I don't really want to see somebody else having sex with my wife. [Laughs.]
(The actor's) most recent “play” was a benefit staged reading with William H. Macy in Santa Monica in July of Williams’ last play “Small Craft Warnings,” playing a character he calls “a ashed-up Stanley.”
“It’s weird and interesting that this character keeps following me every few years,” he smiles.
It has been my personal experience that if an issue keeps coming up in my life, it usually means I haven't learned an important lesson. It would be frankly unfair and belabor the point to make suppositions about what these statements might mean for the actor, but perhaps we, as a culture can take the lesson. If we are having this discussion about the portrayal of abuse and dysfunction in the twenty-first century, we still have a long way to go.
Time For Brownies and Milk.