by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - March 12, 2007) As you enter the Turbinehallerne, one of the four stages of The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, the set for Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire says it all.
On the left stands a ramshackle shack made out of assorted plywood; on the right, a downed telephone pole lying on its side with all its split wires exposed; in the center, the remains of a corroding 1950s Chevy which has seen better days. A yodeling hillbilly sits in the car strumming a banjo and howling country-and-western songs while, at intervals, his wild lady friend shoots ducks with a sawed-off shotgun and flicks the downed birds into the open car. The ramshackle house, which one feels is inhabited exclusively by drop-jaw hillbillies in the lowest reaches of Appalachia, is surrounded on all sides by great swathes of dirt and gravel that, when the rain effect is turned on, turn to mud. An oversized American flag serves as a bedspread in the rickety bedroom that is hung with clear-plastic, see-through drapes; the inhabitants are drunken rednecks who whoop and holler the way rednecks are supposed to do. If the scene suggests anything of New Orleans where it is supposed to be set, it is the city immediately after Hurricane Katrina has swept through obliterating all traces of what little civilization may have existed there before.
It is into this scene that Blanche du Bois arrives to reunite with her sister Stella, and it is here she encounters an intoxicated Stanley Kowalski and his band of savage Kallikaks, and it is here that Tennessee Williams is massacred, eviscerated, and ultimately tossed into a shallow grave.
When we first encounter her, Blanche is desperate for an alcoholic pick-me-up and eventually finds some stabilizing booze in the trunk of the Chevrolet. No longer attempting to pass herself off as a well-bred southern lady with refined manners, she cavorts flagrantly with the hillbillies, provokes them into random fondling and lechery, and appears to be quite at home with the dregs of civilization that inhabit this sparsely-furnished holler. Stanley is Brando's working-class savage carried to the nth degree; a loud, violent, and primitive yokel who brandishes his protruding paunch with unconcealed pride and, from the moment he first eyes her, is harassing his wife's sister and provoking her lust. Mitch, the blue-collar friend of the Kowalskis, is as predatory and crapulous as all the other yokels who inhabit this Ozark enclave. Although sister Stella half-heartedly tries to impose some restraint on her husband's Neanderthals, she seems to fit right in with the turbulent, banjo-thumping, boozed-up society into which she will shortly bring her and Stanley's newborn infant.
This is a production that stands Streetcar Named Desire on its head or, more accurately, hammers it into the ground. All the class subtleties and fancy airs the playwright conferred upon Blanche to up-market herself in her new environment and all the conventional aspirations for a loving relationship intended to civilize Mitch are thrown to the wind. The lowest, dumbest, most primitive precincts of the illiterate south stand here as a rollicking symbol for all of America.
In the denouement, instead of being had only by Stanley, Blanche is gang-raped by four of the lecherous hillbillies and then strangled by sister Stella, presumably because her shady life as a prostitute having been revealed to all, she is now thought to be common goods. Although Mitch was as rapacious as any of the other gang-bangers at the encampment, he experiences a final moment of repentance throwing himself mournfully on the muddy grave into which Blanche has been unceremoniously dumped.
Preposterous as these garish choices are, I would be scanting Emil Hansen's production to suggest that it didn't yield some new and disturbing moments in a play about which everything that could possibly be conjectured had already been said. Seeing Blanche gang-raped in an abandoned Chevy has its moments, as does her pathetic last-minute flight from her attackers in a mud-drenched party gown, and even Stella's strangulation of her wayward sister makes one wonder what she might have felt when she discovered her husband was shagging Blanche while she was giving birth to his baby. But after bending over backwards and sideways to acknowledge these passing frissons, one has to conclude that director Hansen has proceeded logically from a fatuous premise to create a preposterous mise en scène. The premise would appear to be that all of America is rapacious, savage, manipulative, predatory, and sub-human.
The other message the production consistently conveys is the director's neurotic contempt for women as exemplified by the methodical degradation of Blanche throughout the evening. Ditte Hansen's wildly-clanging southern belle is constantly in shimmering white party dresses that inevitably get dragged through the mud along with their owner. Right from the start, Blanche is set up as a sacrificial victim and director Henson gets his rocks off humiliating her as if she were Mussolini's concubine and, like the played-out dictator, deserved to be hung upside down from the nearest lamppost. The final scene of the original play in which Blanche is to be interred in a state institution by a gentle keeper has been cut and replaced by Stella's strangulation of her whorish sister. Where Williams opted for tenderness and poignant understanding of Blanche's plight ("I've always depended on the kindness of strangers"), there is no sign of the kindly doctor nor, to the best of my comprehension, is Williams empathetic line spoken. In its place is the brutal strangulation and the muddy death and the sense that there is no limit to the defilement to which Blanche must be subjected.
Where moments of passion or strong emotion are required, the director, realizing the actors cannot provide them, substitutes overpowering mood music: Billie Holiday singing one of her early blues or Elvis rendering "Love Me Tender" to convey Mitch's attraction to Blanche. When an emotional climax is required, he trots out strobe lights and deafening blasts of thunder on all the speakers. All these lighting and acoustical effects really do is underscore the paucity of intellect that has gone into this wayward production and the vacancy of human feeling that lies at its heart. Theatrically, this is the kind of harebrained radicalism that turns one into a conservative.
One has to point out that this is no small-scale, struggling, avant-garde theatre group experimenting with tricky and unorthodox choices but a branch of the leading theatre in Denmark, the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen. It is the kind of waywardness that invites both critical denunciation and an overpowering sense of vengeance. One doesn't simply want to cite the director's faults, one wants to strangle him the way he strangled Tennessee Williams and toss him into the same kind of muddy grave into which he has consigned Blanche. The engraving on his tombstone would read: "So must it be with all pretentious, conceptual directors who trample American classics and dare to foist their warped and overheated imaginations upon the brilliant work of master playwrights."
Productions like this Streetcar are part of a much greater issue -- namely the limits, or lack of them, that pertain to "concept productions." Personally, I have always contended any production that is not conditioned by the creative imagination of a conceptual director is not worth the cheapest seat in the uppermost gallery. A play is an invitation for an imaginative director to reconfigure it so that its essence registers with a contemporary audience. The director's sensibility is the sieve through which the playwright's work must pass if its impurities are to be strained away. A finished script accepted for production waits to be incorporated with the creativity of the theatrical team to which it is assigned. Even if one disagrees with this premise (as many do), the practical working conditions of theatre nevertheless prove it true. Without the insights of a company of actors monitored by those of a sensitive director, theatre simply doesn't happen.
But it is not enough merely to have "a new concept" about a play. Its informing idea also has to be on the same, or higher, intellectual level of the original work. Being quirky, novel, eccentric, or shocking are not intrinsic virtues in the interpretation of a play -- merely choices that forestall routine or conventional experiences. There is something to be said for walking into a production of Hamlet and finding it set on a glacier, in a swimming pool, on the planet Mars, or in a Turkish bordello, but once one has acknowledged the surprises there is still the obligation to deliver the substance of Shakespeare's play and if your brilliant innovations wither two minutes after they register, the jig is up.
To demonstrate their modernity, contemporary directors look for (and find) new and unexpected insights in masterworks -- be they of the 16th or the 20th century -- but unless those insights proceed from the original work and ultimately return to their source, an audience is being asked to appraise not the work itself, but the ingenuity of the artists who have piggybacked on it.
Startling audiences with dazzling and unexpected interpretations has become the stock-in-trade of the theatre and where the traditions are deepest (Germany, France, Italy, Scandinavia), the innovations have become the most extreme. Critics have played along with the new trend. They too are bored by dutiful replication of staid classics. They, like many in their audience, want to be jolted out of the doldrums of seeing the same old play do the same old thing in the same old way. Their hunger for novelty is so great it can be satisfied with the flimsiest of new ideas, so long as they are quixotic, unexpected, off-the-wall or shocking. No one -- not even drama critics -- would accept a powerful jolt of electricity administered by a small-scale device concealed under their theatre seat. Unfair, they would cry; presumptuous, juvenile! But many of them accept the equivalent of arbitrary jolts when translated into the mise en scène. Once the desideratum is established and newness is the criterion, demand for novelty increases like a pandemic. We turn to each other in awe and ask: who would have thought that Midsummer Night's Dream could be set in a vast public lavatory or "Coriolanus" in a cabbage patch? How inventive, how fresh, how unpredictable! -- All right, I exaggerate, but the principle remains intact. Unless we can cross-reference a startling new conception of a play with the breadth, shape, and spirit that made the play remarkable in the first place, we are only wanking -- and with very little hope of achieving orgasm. But for many in the theatre today, the wanking itself is sufficient.
Which, circuitously, should bring me back to Emil Hansen's Streetcar Named Desire, but the prospect of reconsidering it in light of the previous polemic is so depressing, I must beg off. However, I will say this: if you are passing through Copenhagen and are an admirer of Elia Kazan's New York stage production or Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh's performances in the film version, I strongly urge you to drop into the Turbinehallerne. Misery, they say, loves company.
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