Jewish World Review Sept. 8, 2005/ 4 Ellul,
No Paper Moon in New Orleans
Everyone is trying to capture the essence of New Orleans, and no
one has ever done it quite as well as Tennessee Williams, whose most famous
play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," captures the frightening aura of a
resilience and change in the city capable of both cruelty and creativity.
Elysian Fields, an avenue, led to a special part of the city where you're
"practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street,
from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown
fingers." Above the "blue piano" rise the sound of human voices, of a
syncopated cadence of French and Spanish punctuating the rugged animal
sounds of a new American English.
A dainty woman of delicate beauty named Blanche Du Bois arrives
in decaying Elysian Fields, embodying a nostalgic, elegant and eloquent
Southern past that, like herself, has become increasingly tarnished. She's
in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, pearl earrings and white gloves,
looking as though she's a refugee from a formal luncheon in the Garden
District. She stumbles upon her sister Stella and her husband Stanley
Kowalski like an anthropologist discovering a new species of man. In scene
one, Stanley throws a blood-stained package of meat at his pregnant wife.
A blind Mexican woman in a dark shawl sells gaudy colored tin
flowers, crying " Flores. Flores. Flores para los muertos. ." Flowers for the dead. The viciously vibrant love life of Stella and
Stanley is juxtaposed against the memory of Blanche's impotent poet husband,
a homosexual who killed himself because he couldn't face the brutality of
Anyone of a certain age can recall the memorable performances of
Vivian Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley. Blanche calls Stanley
a "Polack," and he retorts angrily that he's "one hundred percent American."
As the arguments continue over what and who went wrong in New
Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it's useful to revisit "Streetcar"
for a little poetic understanding. Tennessee Williams's insights into New
Orleans are little less than prophetic. There's the poverty, the growing
acceptance of thuggish behavior and the wishful thinking that accompanies
Blanche can never find enough tinted paper to soften the naked
light of the electric bulb that exposes the ravages to her aging beauty.
Neither can she salvage Belle Reve, her antebellum home in Mississippi, no
more than New Orleans could rely on the levees to save its endearing
decadence. Blanche retreats into madness. The refugees from the storm
retreat into outrage. Those who couldn't, or wouldn't, abandon New Orleans,
like Blanche, were left to be "dependent on the kindness of strangers," and
there were lots of them, too.
Stanley Kowalski's rape of Blanche Du Bois exposes brutality in
sharp juxtaposition to a fading aristocracy of manners. A contemporary
brutal thuggery survives in the vicious looters of the flood, out only for
themselves to take whatever they can find. Stanley Kowalski expressed a will
to live and thrive, symbolized by his sexuality and fatherhood. Raw and
brutal, it's part of the fighting will that must rebuild New Orleans.
Blanche brought magic to the city, but it was magic dependent on
illusion. If Blanche had found herself in a hurricane, she would probably
have continued to sing the romantic lyrics that expressed a yearning for art
and idealism over the raw power of man and nature: "Say, it's only a paper
moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea . . . "
Finally she would go off on the arm of a doctor repeating her
pitiful plea for those kind strangers. Stella would sob for the loss of her
sister, but take consolation in the reality that she and Stanley survived to
hear once more the tinny notes of the "blue piano" just around the corner.
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