In November 2009, the Oscar-winning Australian actress Cate Blanchett undertook the role of Blanche in a notable, much-praised Sydney Theatre Company production. After debuting in Sydney, the play made its way from Australia to London, then on to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, as a cultural exchange. It was one of the few productions of Streetcar directed by a womanLiv Ullmann, the iconic actress best known for her work with the brooding, brilliant Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.
The idea for the production first came about when Blanchett and Ullmann were dining with their husbands in London. A planned film of Ibsens A Dolls House had fallen through, but the two actresses were still interested in collaborating on a project. Someone suggested Streetcar, and Ullmann recalled how her “heart jumped in happiness… because if theres a perfect Blanche that I would know of, it would be her.”
In an in-depth interview alongside Liv Ullmann on The Charlie Rose Show, Blanchett described Streetcar as “a gift of a play,” and she felt that taking on the role of Blanche DuBois was inevitablea project that somehow chose her. Indeed, she would end up playing the role twiceonce in Streetcar, and a second time as a character based on Blanche DuBois in Woody Allens 2013 masterpiece Blue Jasmine.
Whats in a name, except in the odd similarity between “Blanchett” and “Blanche?” Perhaps thats one reason why the actress, on a subconscious level, felt destined to play her. “Blanchett, Blanchethe names seem fated for each other,” Manohla Dargis wrote in a New York Times review of Blue Jasmine.
Blanchett was already drawn to Tennessee Williams because he had been influenced by Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, two towering playwrights she admired. Blanchett felt that the challenge would be to find a balance between a tendency to make the play “very camp or very melodramatic.” “Washington was our first port of call” as a kind of diplomatic exchange between America and the Sydney Theatre Company, Blanchett explained. It was the first time she had spent any significant time in DC, which she found invigorating, as so many cultural reference points suddenly came alive for her.
Reviewing the play for The New York Review of Books, the critic Hilton Als saw in [Cate Blanchett’s] Blanche something new, describing her as a “queer artist,” a version of the eternal outsider.
Reviews for the Kennedy Center production were mostly howls of praise. Adam Green wrote in Vogue that Blanchett “gives a performance as heartbreaking to endure as it is magnificent to behold. I have seen several fine stage actresses try, and fail, to pin down this maddeningly essence of a moth-like creature as it turns out, it took an Aussie to recapture the mercurial essence of a great American character.” Hes won over from the first glimpse of Blanche sitting on her trunk, dressed in finery, hoping to find her way to Elysian Fields. She wears the “haunted look of a woman who knows that she has reached the end of the line.”
Green also praises the Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who played Stanley as a boy-man yet a dangerous opponent, and Robin McLeavys Stella, who “exudes guileless carnal longing for her husband.” In this production, the conflict between the nostalgic gentility of the Old South and the new, post-World-War-II mentality is made clear. Green also singles out Tim Richards as the hapless, would-be suitor, Mitch, and attributes their success, in part, to Liv Ullmanns direction.
DC Theatre Scene, however, faulted the Australian production, directed by a Norwegian, for not capturing the essential Deep South milieu of the play. “It is as though a gifted artist had painted a landscape which had been described… over the telephone, wrote the critic, Tim Treanor. “It has all the required elements, but not the patina of authenticity.”
Ullmann, however, had done her research, taking classes to learn about American blues and the culture of Americas South in the mid-twentieth century. Ullmann told Rose that she felt her discoveries might have eluded an American director “because they wouldnt know that they didnt know. I knew.” She also felt that coming from Norway with an Australian production, “we see things that are very interesting to us because it seems different. I really think its good for a play, like its good for Henrik Ibsen, that foreigners do it. They put humor in where Norwegians dont really see the humor. And then we can put humor into this where maybe Americans dont see that humor, because its new for us.”
She may have gotten the music right and the sprinkling of humor, but the visuals, by several accounts, did not evoke Elysian Fields, New Orleans, circa 1947. Rather, Ullmann explained, she looked to her favorite painter, Edward Hopper, to inform how the audience would see the play and the characters. Hoppers stark, brooding work does convey a searing loneliness, but not the humid airs of New Orleans, or the hothouse orchid that Blanche has become, making her last stand in a florid and filigreed city on the Gulf of Mexico.
Nor did Cate Blanchetts Southern accent ring true as either a New Orleans ormore accuratelya Mississippi accent, according to one of a handful of Southern actresses who had earlier taken on the role. Many actors rely on a generic Southern drawl without making distinctions between regionsfolks from North Carolina, for example, sound distinctly different from folks from New Orleans (whose accent, incidentally, can sound more like a Bronx accent).
When asked if she was afraid of taking on such an iconic role, Blanchett admitted to being terrified.
Ullmann made two interesting changes in the ending of the play. The psychiatric doctor who comes to claim Blanche for the mental institution that Stanley has arranged for her is a grim, no-nonsense figure rather than the courtly Southern gentlemen of earlier productions. And we dont see Blanche dressed in dilapidated finery as shes led away on his arm as if being escorted to a cotillion ball. Rather, she is barefooted, dressed in her white slip, her scrubbed face a hollow mask of what once was.
For Blanchetts Blanche DuBois, Treanor also has nothing but praise, calling her performance “magnificent” and “spot-on.” The critic (also a novelist) notes how she “carried the whiff of doom from the plays very first moment, when she realizes that Stellas financial and social circumstances were not nearly as high as Blanche had come to believe. She knows, at that moment, as we do not until later on, that she is shipwrecked before she sets sail.”
Treanor also notices the oddness of Blanche being allowed to wander into the street at the end of the play, dressed only in a slip and a shawl, and he sees that as proof of her madness. “Where I come from,” he writes, “walking around the streets of New Orleans in your underwear is evidence that you are pretty disturbed.”
The production then moved to the Harvey Theater at New Yorks Brooklyn Academy of Music for a sold-out, three-week run where it continued to garner raves, mostly for Blanchetts performance. As noted earlier, in The New York Times Ben Brantley wrote, “The genteel belle, the imperious English teacher, the hungry sensualist, the manipulative flirt: no matter which of these aspects is in ascendancy, Ms. Blanchett keeps them all before us.” But rather than the “lyric, fading butterfly waiting for the net to descend” of many past portrayals, Blanchett brings to the role a tough instinct for survival, as did Ann-Margret decades earlier. “Theres a see-sawing between strength and fragility in Blanche, and too often those who play her fall irrevocably onto one side or another.”
Reviewing the play for The New York Review of Books, the critic Hilton Als saw in this Blanche something new, describing her as a “queer artist,” a version of the eternal outsider who nonetheless knows her strengths and the source of her endurance. Her longing for a respectable marriageeven to the unlikely Mitchis really a longing for survival, a bid to finally stop struggling and find rest. Penury and loss have exhausted her. She has lost everything but her last scraps of youth and beauty and the moral support of her sister, though she is in danger of losing all of those, as she well knows.
Part of Blanches tragedy is that even though she tries on conventionality when she takes up with Mitch, it doesnt fit: her intelligence and status as a defiant outsider keep getting in the way. Williams lets us in on Blanches difference by degrees, and by having her speak a recognizably gay language. Queer talk from a queer artist about a queer woman. Blanche to Stella: “I dont know how much longer I can turn the trick. It isnt enough to be soft.”
Her love of beauty, poetry, and finery (including her worn-out Mardi Gras gowns) are genuine, but they set her apart in the claustrophobic world of Stanley and his beer-drinking, poker-playing friends. “If you talk about [the play] on the metaphorical level, it is about the death of poetry and that its crushed. That flame of inspiration that Blanche representsthat fragile, ephemeral poetryis extinguished,” Blanchett observed.
Not only are Stanley and Blanche fighting an epic battle for the love and loyalty of Stella, their battle is also a jarring conflict between Stanleys mundane, macho world and Blanches poetic viewthe world by moonlight, the world softened by paper lanterns thrown over harsh lights. “I think [today],” Blanchett says, “an audience looks at the play and thinks about what we lost, that we actually lost those intangible, ephemeral parts. Wheres the poetry in America, wheres the idealism in America?”
Ullmann and Blanchett recalled that they never talked about Blanche as a madwoman. For Blanchett, the pressure of trying to survive with poetry and idealism intact, in a more practical and even brutal age, was too much for Blanche.
In this production, we are in Stanleys domain, which literally has no room for Blanche and her moonlit fancies. Hes the master of his domain, as he proudly asserts, quoting the populist politician Huey Longs declaration that “every mans a king” of his own home. Hes not going to cede an inch of that control to his flighty, half-mad, provocative, and scarily intelligent sister-in-law, whom he suspects of cheating himand laughing at him. In their battle over Stella, he must make sure he still has his wifes complete support and affection. Blanchewho is so foreign to him that he barely understands herthreatens that.
Ullmann understood that Stanley is indeed threatened by Blanche. He calls her an intellectual. Shes a teacher, she knows everybody, everything. And hes losing the respect of his wife, the respect of who he is. When Stanley overhears Blanche describe him as an ape, thats the point of no return for him. Says Blanchett, He really needs to feel he is the king of his little filthy castlefor him that was important.
When asked if she was afraid of taking on such an iconic role, Blanchett admitted to being terrified. Streetcar exists as a masterpiece in cinema as well as theater, so she knew there was a long, available roster of superb performances throwing benign shadows over her performance. Additionally, she commented, Its a very naked play, actually. And its all about the moments when people attempt to see the mask and when they reveal it to themselves.
One mask that Blanche wears is the mask of respectable sobriety. We see early on that the opposite is true: she loves and needs her libations, the bourbon in her coke, the quick drinks stolen when no one is looking. She needs them as she needs her hot bathsto soothe her nerves, to let the sweet- ness of brief oblivion erase the furies of memory. Its a source of much of the plays humorthe secret tippler pretending to abstain from alcoholbut its also what helps tip her into the past that she is trying desperately to escape. Its her way out, but its also her way in. What Blanche reveals to herself is not so much that shes mad, but thatas Ullmann puts it, “shes a drunk.”
I dont know when you become a drunk and when youre not, but she drinks a lot…and [when] you are so threatened, and nobody sees you, and when you then tell the truth…yes, I think you do the unspeakable things. Maybe we all have done thatrushed out of a house crazy, saying things crazy.
Ullmann and Blanchett recalled that they never talked about Blanche as a madwoman. For Blanchett, the pressure of trying to survive with poetry and idealism intact, in a more practical and even brutal age, was too much for Blanche. “I think its very easy to play a mad person,” she says, “but theres more pathos in watching somebody hold on to their sanity.”
For Blanche, the burden of the past is not only the loss of Belle Reve, the loss of her girlish innocence, the loss of a world that recognizes and values “gifts of the mind,” and the loss of her husband; its also the lossat the very end of the playof her hope of ever finding another love. She has been driven into fantasy, which is the only place left where she can nourish her hopes and dreams. Memory and fantasy have become fused, their shared boundary evaporating like the mists after summer rain. Can she come back from this enchanted state?
Tennessee Williams thought that she might return, rested and healed from her incarceration, well enough to open a flower shop, perhaps, in the French Quarter of New Orleans. (I have imagined such a life for her in my invented obituary at the end of this book.) Perhaps that is the life he would have wished for Rose, who spent her entire adult life in mental hospitals.
Tennessee gave Blanche his own predilectionshis love of poetry, his preference for the gentility of the Old South as experienced at his grandparents gracious home (despite the Souths depredations on Black souls, which he addresses obliquely in other plays). He also gave Blanche his own reliance on the enchantments of alcohol, with its ability to let one forget, and sometimes to let one remember.
“My roots as a writer are directly related to having been a queer from birth, and then abused from an early age,” he divulged in an interview with James Grissom. “I sought refuge in alternative realities, because my own was so hateful, untenable. This begins in play-acting, doll-playing, writing down what one has.” Drink, of course, when indulged beyond reason, provides another alternative reality, sometimes soothing, sometimes necessary, ultimatelyfor mostdevastating.
Blancheby Nancy Schoenberger is available via HarperCollins.