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…