The illustration of Trauma Theory and stigmatization has recently been the center of academic discussions as well as theatre productions. Trauma holds a central role in Sydney’s Theatre Company “A Streetcar Named Desire”. One of the reasons why the play has a poignant and affecting stimulus is because, through creative vision, performance and stage directions it illustrates what most productions find extremely difficult to achieve, that being what experiencing trauma must be like. Through the embodiment of the effects of trauma it also engages and enslaves the audience to the unravelling of the theatrical plot, thus luring them deeper into the action taking place on stage. The notion that the play’s central tragic figure Blanche Dubois has endured Trauma is supported by observations made from the original play as well as performances, academic, phycological and critical analysis. Given that the theory of Trauma was not fully developed at the time that the play was written – the term gained official recognition in 1980 – trauma was not fully investigated and anatomised in the original play. The 2009 production of the play directed by liv Ullman and starring Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois, brings a contemporary, modern feel to the original text as it boldly addresses the question of Trauma in relation to the main heroine. My purpose in writing this essay is the attempt to analyse and assess the ways in which the play has engaged with the theory of Trauma as well as the validity of claims suggesting that trauma should not be the main focus of “streetcar”. I will also be examining theatre and performance in relation to trauma and in particular I will attempt to evaluate the extent to which Cate Blanchett’s Blanche Dubois has enriched conversations and debates around the theory of trauma.
A central theme in the Sydney based production is the constant, monotonous and reclusive essence of trauma. Academic Judith Herman declares that “traumatic events shatter the construction of self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.” (1) In his university thesis, Patrick Duggan introduces the idea that Herman’s claims contribute to the argument that theatre is one of the most successful means of exhibiting trauma. “This striking echo of Herman’s assertion that traumatic events “shatter the construction of self”(1) is particularly interesting as it allows us to begin to plot the line between performance and trauma: both share a destabilising power so it would seem that theatre, more than any other art form, is perfectly placed to attempt a dialogue with, if not a representation of, trauma.”(2) Blanche Dubois exhibits characteristics of post-traumatic stress throughout the play. In a Harvard University-based academic investigation, it is stated that: “Critical analysis about the wounded-self and trauma within the play have enhanced character subtext. By acting and reacting in a way consistent with trauma theory and post-traumatic stress disorder, Blanche’s voice and circumstance resound in the theatre of trauma studies.” (13) Indeed, she displays extreme reactions to stimuli from her environment coupled with unexplainable bursts of anger and anxiety. The sense of entrapment that she experiences results to tantrums and panic attacks. Further indications of trauma can be traced through examining Blanche’s fragility and sensitive reflexes, heightened when exposed to irritation. In order for trauma to be fully understood by the audience, the performance has to be dynamic and forceful, establishing a strong connection between the audience – almost of an experiential nature – and all that is happening on stage. With the above in mind, proximity between the audience and performers is of paramount importance in achieving said “experiential connection”. However, despite Cate Blanchett’s outstanding performance, the open space of the Sydney Theatre did not allow the sense of intimacy to be projected to the audience. Several critics pointed out on how the intensity of the performance was lost in the large auditorium. “The Sydney Theatre is rather large, and I doubt, for instance, that anyone sitting at the back of the stalls, or the back of the circle, could have even made out the features on the faces of the actors. But not only that, the room is so big that I think some of the intensity gets lost as it radiates out into the auditorium.” (3) The impersonal nature of the space might have alienated the audience from the main heroine’s subtle movements and gestures, which were used to illustrate the effects of post-traumatic stress. However, the depiction of trauma is not only achieved by the actor’s performances but also through stage directions.
As traumatic events surpass the symbolic, language, however powerful, language and movement are not enough to evoke a sense of what the agony of experiencing past trauma is actually like, especially when explored in a spacious, open environment. In “Streetcar”, director Liv Ullman took advantage of the use of lighting, as well as music and sound in order to trigger “memory” to the audience, of events never experienced by them but by the character of Blanche. According to stage directions, often times when the audience is focused on Blanche, especially her appearance, the lights go dim, signifying Blanche’s denial to fully see herself, as strong light might reveal to her the signs of aging. She does not want to acknowledge those signs, as they trigger memories of her past that are connected to fear of loneliness, which she considers to be related to older age and fear of losing loved ones. Because of Blanche’s inability to face trauma, she results to escaping it by drifting in to an illusionary world, in denial and avoidance of her traumatic past. This theme of illusion versus reality in relation to trauma, is illustrated in the text and through the use of lighting on stage. “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action”(4), Blanche states. In many ways, the naked bulb represents the bare truth. Truth is terrifying to Blanche, as it forces her to acknowledge her past and traumas. Exposure to the naked reality, requires Blanche to look deep within herself. Her avoidance to do so, hints to the existence of past traumas, too painful to be relived. Another devise that is used to evoke trauma is sound. Because Blanche’s husband’s suicide takes place during a dance of polka, that particular sound is carved into her brain as an intense reminder of the event. The music plays in the performance during times when Blanche is unwillingly reminded of the suicide of a man she loved dearly. Even though she unconsciously links the music to the tragic event, the audience gains deeper comprehension of her endured trauma, through the sound being played.
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This particular production of “A Streetcar named Desire” takes upon itself to deeply analyse the traumatic experiences that are motivating Blanche throughout the play. Scolar and dramaturg, Dr Tiffany Ana Lopez has stated in one of her interviews that: “Theatre is a very active and provocative realm for talking about stories of trauma”. She attributes that significance to the fact that theatre can provide the audience with an explanation, “a narrative anchor”.(5) This statement may very well serve as an explanation for the dilemma that Blanche Dubois is as a character. The Sydney Theatre Company production, provides the audience with “a framework of the story”. (5) The traumas that have been hinted on in the original play, are given significance and weight through both Ullman’s director’s vision and Cate Blanchett’s creative approach to the character. “By proxy the actors are taking us out of the shadows of things that are silent and have no testimony. They are giving testimony; they are giving witness.”(5) This viewpoint on the character of Blanche in relation to her past traumas is particularly intriguing as it places Blanche at the center of the production. In most theatre productions of the Tennessee Williams play, especially following Marlon Brando’s overpowering, strong performance in the cinematic adaption of the play directed by Elia Kazan, Stanley is portrayed as a protagonist along with Blanche. However, Blanchett’s Blanche sees Stanley as someone who epitomizes the cruelty that she despises in men, based on her past experiences. In many ways, Stanley as a character facilitates the manifestations of Blanche’s traumas and assists the unraveling of the plot through triggering her past memories. This removes the main focus from his character ark, which ultimately leads to a better understanding of Blanche and her internal struggle with Trauma.
An intriguing element of analysing “Streetcar” is the diversity and range of opinion on the character of Blanche. Peggy Phelan, in her introspection on Trauma, indicates that trauma occurs from human birth, thus surpassing a definite depiction. (6) The author hints to the readers the possibility that trauma is ever so prominent in every person’s life, given that human existence is so closely linked to trauma when considering the circumstances of birth. In many ways, Phelan’s assertion is closely linked with the Lacanian assumption; that normalcy is a human construction, an illusion and in fact neurosis is a characteristic of every human being. Therefore, his claim leads to the conclusion that trauma can be attributed to everyone. With these two assertions in mind, one might discredit the theory that trauma is primarily what drove Blanche to her downfall. This claim poses a question as to whether her reactions towards her experiences are hyperbolic compared to the level of tragedy she is faced with. It also gives way for other opinions on the heroine’s mental health, however misguided. Attitudes and opinions that have been shaped by the critic’s perception of her gender. Especially by earlier critics, Blanche’s uniqueness and complexity have been hugely undermined, resulting into a male fabricated analysis of the heroine which can be considered not only downgrading but also extremely sexist and offensive. In his writings about Tennessee William’s heroines, academic Robert Emmet Jones who referred to women “such as Blanche” as “too weak, passive and neurotic to be tragic”.(7) He also touches on Blanches sexuality by stating that the result of her being sent to a mental institution by the end of the play is due to her sexually overactive and hysterical tantrums, typical to his notion of a “woman”. In complete contrast to Jone’s assertions comes a contemporary review of the 2009 production by Jonathan Kalb. In his commentry on the play, he states: “Blanchett restores terror to the play by performing Blanche’s final downfall as if it were a tragic choice, not the conquest of a helpless victim. Her fall seems inevitable yet chosen, like those Greek heroes Nietzsche describes who yowl a defiant ‘yes’ in the face of the power that crushes them.”(11) His views are echoed by critic Ben Brantley, who declares: “What Ms. Blanchett brings to the character is life itself, a primal survival instinct that keeps her on her feet long after she has been buffeted by blows that would level a heavyweight boxer.”(12) Indeed, what the audience can take from Blanchett’s portrayal of Blanche is a woman who is not overcome by weakness and fragility, but rather a tragic figure, traumatised beyond the comprehension of anyone around her. Traumatised not only through past tragedies but also throughout the play itself. Notably the rape scene, which when presented on stage by a female director, “reads as an act of courage.” What has long been misunderstood as “madness” by audiences and several analysists of the play, manifests itself as a protective shield from trauma in Blanchett’s performance. “Madness for her is clearly just another sanctuary to hole up in while the world figures out how to accommodate its misfits.” (11)
Overall, the assertion that elements of Trauma theory are deeply rooted in the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” gains credibility and recognition through the contemporary 2009 Sydney Theatre Company Production. The misunderstood tragic Tennessee Williams heroine, Blanche Dubois has been reinstated, under the direction of Liv Ullman and the performance of Cate Blanchett as a character faced with post-traumatic stress disorder. By implementing Trauma Theory as an analytical tool through which to rediscover the character of Blanche, deeper understanding of both Trauma Theory and Theatre in relation to phycological manifestations can be gained.
The particular production of “Streetcar”, which has been the focus of this essay, shatters a problematic framework of “Insanity and “Madness” through which Blanche is constantly viewed. The debunking of such fabrications was aided by the use of various studies as well as critical analysis and cross examining of opposing viewpoints. The lack of recognition from the general public and society of some people’s struggle to come to terms with their trauma, is echoed in the naivety with which Blanche’s tragedy is often viewed. Theatre holds a significant role in conveying these manifestations of traumatising experiences which are often overlooked when examining a character’s ark. It can be concluded that Sydney Theatre Company rose to the task of engaging the audience with the complex theory of Trauma, challenging preexisting assumptions and using performance as a means to portray and represent post-traumatic stress while delving into the phycological state of a character whose mental health has been widely debated and discussed by audiences, critics and analysists. The performance challenges those debates while in the process assisting audiences in gaining a deeper understanding of the main character of “A Streetcar Named Desire” as well as the notion of Trauma and how it can be represented on stage.