Desperate choices in a Streetcar Named Desire

December 10, 2015

We must all face at times what the poet Hart Crane calls a “desperate choice” in the verse used as the epigraph to A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. It is no wonder that Williams chose that phrase to introduce this play; certainly, those two words are behind much of the tensions in this extraordinary work, which I was fortunate to support last year when it was staged at the Old Vic in London with Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster.

The central characters – Stella and Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski and his gambling friend Mitch – must all face desperate choices based around sexual attraction, loneliness, depression, illness, ruptured dreams and alienation. These play out in a hothouse atmosphere of poverty and faded grandeur mixed with hard reality.

While the story progresses we watch in escalating horror as Blanche and Stanley become gripped in a bitter dance of wills that can only end in degradation for both.

Even so, within the play, Williams offers us glimpses of lost humanity. Blanche tells her would-be suitor Mitch: “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

Who couldn’t identify with that? Life – and our emotional reactions that often override common sense – presents us with many challenges and some of these may force desperate choices on us too. How far are we pushed, or how low may we be forced to stoop?

Think of Stanley wearing his pride like armour, unaware that it is also a mechanism by which he controls his simmering rage. Then strip away that carefully constructed identity, and we all learn there is no protection from his anger (for him or for the DuBois sisters).

Could part of his fury be that Stanley feels he has not enough choices, even desperate ones? Lost in his own testosterone-fuelled misery he cannot see a pathway to peace, a choice of a happy ending, so he winds himself further into the knot of despair where all the options and endings are terrible.

When the curtain falls, the audience may leave his “desperate choices” behind, but what of their/our own? Are we ever free of the need to make difficult decisions?

Perhaps the question to ask is, should we be? As humans, do we want a destiny which is pre-ordained, safe but rather dull, with no room to progress and no space for dreams?

I don’t think we do. Even brutish Stanley – with his lack of prospects – believes in the power of change: “Luck is believing you’re lucky, that’s all…,” he says. “To hold a front position in this rat-race, you’ve got to believe you are lucky.”

So if we want to be open to possibilities and to make the most of them, we must also accept that this means facing some difficult choices. We must do so with courage, honesty and integrity. Perhaps then we can achieve justifiable contentment with the roundabout path our hearts insist upon.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions