What follows are laboratory notes for a playwriting essay I am working on entitled “Dangerous Mixing: Genre Defiance”. I was recently inspired by a quote from playwright David Hare who asserted that the best work is “outside genre.”
If it seems I am dwelling on A Streetcar Named Desire, it is because seeing the entire text done on stage has returned me to the play itself. I have revisited areas that I felt I was hearing again for the first time. I am still amazed at Williams’ ability to mix literary styles in creating potent, defamiliarizing effects. In other words, despite being called a drama, Streetcar actually defies genre. It is a dangerous mixing of forms and styles, a chemical compound of precisely picked elements. It creates something unique, original, and, ultimately, undefinable. At its most basic level, it is funny until it isn’t. And then it is horrifying.
The best way to explain what Williams is up to is by looking at one of his harshest detractors. The powerful New York critic Mary McCarthy wrote a scathing review of the Elia Kazan’s original production:
This variation on the mother-in-law theme [instead of a mother in law who comes and gets in the way, it’s a sister-in-law] is the one solid piece of theatrical furniture that A Streetcar Named Desire can show; the rest is antimacassars. Acrimony and umbrage, tears, door-slamming, broken dishes, jeers, cold silences, whispers, raised eyebrows, the determination to take no notice, the whole classic paraphernalia of insult and injury is Tennessee Williams’s hope chest. That the domestic dirty linen it contains is generally associated with the comic strip and the radio sketch should not invalidate it for him as subject matter; it has nobler antecedents. The cook, one may recall, is leaving on the opening page of Anna Karenina, and Hamlet at the court of Denmark is really playing the part of the wife’s unwelcome relation. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Farrell rattle the skeleton of family life; there is no limit, apparently, to what people will do to each other in the family; nothing is too grotesque or shameful; all laws are suspended, including the law of probability. Mr. Williams, at his best, is an outrageous writer in this category; at his worst, he is outrageous in another.
Had he been content in A Streetcar Named Desire with the exasperating trivia of the in-law story, he might have produced a wonderful little comic epic, The Struggle for the Bathroom, an epic ribald and poignant, a comedie larmoyante which would not have been deficient either in those larger implications to which his talent presumes, for the bathroom might have figured as the last fortress of the individual, the poor man’s club, the working girl’s temple of beauty; and the bathtub and the toilet, symbol of illusion and symbol of fact, the prone and the upright, the female and the male, might have faced each other eternally in blank, porcelain contradiction as the area for self-expression contracted to the limits of this windowless cell. Mr. Williams, however, like the Southern women he writes about, appears to have been mortified by the literary poverty of such material, by the pettiness of the arena which is in fact its grandeur. Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and the mother in The Glass Menagerie, he is addicted to the embroidering lie, and though his taste in fancywork differs from these ladies’, inclining more to the modernistic, the stark contrast, the jagged scene, the jungle motifs (“Then they come together with low, animal moans”), the tourist Mexican (“Flores para los muertos, corones para los muertos”), to clarinet music, suicide, homosexuality, rape, and insanity, his work creates in the end that very effect of painful falsity which is imparted to the Kowalski household by Blanche’s pink lampshades and couch covers.
Agree with her or not, like Jeremy Collier’s Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, McCarthy knows exactly the thing on which she casts her jaundiced eye. For our purposes, her personal taste (or the play she would like written, for that matter) is secondary to her understanding that Williams’ is not content with a simple structural approach. She clearly sees he is reaching for something beyond a series of slamming doors and a power struggle over a household. She perceives, quite correctly, that Williams employs a traditional comic structure and then darkens the palette by investigating the inner reality of his central character. She sees it correctly; she just doesn’t like it.
Williams is engaged in some complicated mixing here. He is attempting to amalgamate wildly divergent literary genres. Not only is he wrestling with the mother-in-law comedy McCarthy perceives, but he is also injecting a strain of psychological horror from a distinctly American author: Edgar Allan Poe. That action is present both in the on-the-noses references Blanche makes to the author and in more subtle structural ways involving her gradual, and induced, unravelling. Take the time to reread the play, and compare Blanche’s late monologues to Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart or his The Black Cat.
Into this mixture, Williams then reaches for more beakers and pours the textures of The Deep South and that distant planet known as The City of New Orleans into his concoction. With those two additions bonded to his chemical compound, the two aforementioned structures are not in contrast but are fused into something uniquely Williams. In fact, you can argue that the creation was so original that he, even he, was never quite able to replicate the results. You could also go further to argue that those attempts at replication blew up in his face.