The modern cult of the victim was foreshadowed by American playwrights in the 1940s. Blanche DuBois is the classic victim heroine and is almost beyond Jessica Langeby Herb Greer / February 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The moral mess of Dunblane is the latest manifestation of a victim cult which has been growing in politics for almost a generation. Merely surviving an ordeal is supposed to confer moral authority on the victim, who may then strike a pose of chin-up nobility, while fronting a bandwagon for puritanical activists who mean to improve the nation-almost invariably by suppressing some innocent or pleasurable activity. All very bad news for the legal sale of guns and knives, but a wonderful boost for the market in illegal weapons, parliamentary snake-oil and legal nooses.
This modern style of victimism was foreshadowed in the 1940s- not in politics but in theatre, where the Americans altered the nature of the tragic hero. In earlier times he (or she) had to have heroic qualities, which were overwhelmed in a final, usually fatal fall. But in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, protagonist Willie Loman, with no heroic qualities at all, simply falls. By exploiting the compassion and liberal guilt of the audience, Miller tried to give Loman’s (Low-man’s) death a sort of moral cachet. The reasonable answer to that is “Why?” Willie is a self-pitying wretch, a piece of human dross who at last gives up and does away with himself. Such a person-an emotional liability even to his family-should be buried in decent obscurity and left there. Miller’s moral indignation over the demise of this confected victim-hero makes nice lachrymose melodrama, but even a moment’s thought reveals its fake morality.
Tennessee Williams also used compassion as a tool for dramatic one-upmanship. The much vaunted heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire is really a terrible person. Blanche DuBois is Scarlett O’Hara gone rotten inside, with none of Scarlett’s redeeming toughness and all of her faults. Blanche is an unhealthy, sexually predatory, self-destructive fantasist, selfish beyond belief, as demanding (and about as mature) as an infant; in the final analysis she lacks even a decent sense of style. She is not a fallen woman; she had nowhere to fall from, since her gentility is shown to be a sick delusion. Before she appears on stage this pathetic creature is destroyed, and the only dramatic function of the play is to reveal the extent of that shambles and seal it.
I usually leave performances of Streetcar feeling the need for a shower, or one of the hot baths to which Blanche is addicted. This itch is provoked by Williams’s demand that we, the audience, let ourselves wallow in the decay of this repellent creature. Pity is stoked by making the real hero and the only interesting character in the play, Stanley Kowalski, behave as bestially as possible. I have always sympathised with Stanley’s instinctive suspicion of this dreadful woman, and felt, not compassion, but relief when she is finally carted away to her natural home in an asylum. Streetcar is the victim-heroine play par excellence; pure theatre aside, its status as a classic is understandable in terms of the pathological victim worship which has now infected our public life with such priggish malice.
It was no mean accomplishment to construct a play around this carrion creature so totally lacking redeeming qualities. Any redemption must come from the actress. To play Blanche requires a strong blend of theatrical technique and personal charm; plus the ability to suggest a diaphanous physical frailty.
In the current Haymarket production Jessica Lange plays the part of Blanche in the laboured manner of a mediocre pianist who painstakingly presses every correct note, while losing much of the music. Her monotonous pace and unsteady accent (never suggesting Mississippi) let her down; she piles up mannerisms, giggling hysterically, striving to act a robust and somewhat raw-boned physique into something frail and translucent-in vain. Her bravery (she is a screen actress) deserved the cheers, but the performance is pretty tedious.
Toby Stephens, with the much easier task of playing Stanley, is energetically brutal, eyes bright with low cunning, intense enough to make his volatile emotions almost attractive. His bovine wife Stella, Imogen Stubbs, allows the passivity of the part to affect her performance; the result is suburban.
Christian Burgess is sluggish as Mitch, and Stanley’s other poker-playing mates do not spark the crackle of energy which their scenes require. For these (as for many of Lange’s) faults I blame Peter Hall, whose production, score included, is often coarse-grained and lumbering where the play should move like a delicate chamber symphony. The top half of William Dudley’s set could not be seen from the Haymarket’s mid-stalls, but not a lot was lost. In any event, good luck to Jessica Lange. She has charm now; it showed at the curtain call. One day her technical polish may well match her courage and the earnest care she brought to this part; then she will, if well directed, have a lot to offer the theatre. A streetcar named desire
Theatre Royal Haymarket until 22nd March