“A Streetcar Named Desire”

and other tragedies of possibility in families


If asked to describe your most vivid understanding of family dysfunction, quite possibly you’d refer to a book, play or movie. Commonwealth and The Vanishing Half come to mind. Artists frequently explore failed relationships, their best efforts distilling truths that illuminate our present moment. As a social worker immersed in family drama, recently I found a strange tonic in the family pathos in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If, as Augusto Boal states, artists “help people to think … to see what they are looking at … to hear what they are listening to,” then perhaps I’m not alone in using fiction to put me in touch with reality.

Tennessee William’s Streetcar could be a case study for family therapy training. It is not just the story of an individual, the troubled, tender

Drawn by Michele Rosenthal

Blanche DuBois, trying to hold on to her sanity. It’s a story about societal pressure, a clash of the Old South (embodied by Blanche) and new industrial working class (Stanley, her brother in law). And it’s a story of psychological pressure, a fleeing from the past (Blanche attempts to rewrite her past, omitting her homosexual husband’s suicide) and preserving the present (Stanley exposes Blanche’s true past to preserve his household). But utmost, as Tennessee Williams said, it is “a tragedy of incomprehension.”

Liv Ullmann (Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty Images)

Blanche and Stanley are people from divergent contexts unable to see each other for who they really are. Liv Ullmann, who directed Streetcar on Broadway in 2009, notes “Stanley is as threatened by her [Blanche]. He calls her an intellectual. She’s a teacher, she knows everybody, everything. And he’s losing his — he’s losing the respect of his wife, the respect of who he is.” Blanche, trying to “fill her empty heart,” attempts to pull Stella in by convincing her that Stanley’s is at best common, more likely a brute. Blanche’s emotional emptiness makes her recoil from Stanley’s intimacy with his wife Stella, who is also Blanche’s sister. Stanley isn’t about to share Stella. Valuing intimacy from different vantage points, Blanche and Stella are threatened by each other.

Ullmann speaks like a family therapist when she clarifies that neither Stanley nor Blanche is the center of the play. She says that whomever is interacting on stage is the center of the play. Each character fears being misunderstood and defends who they are. I flash upon this insight as I sit with the Mitchell family as they describe the chaos produced by their 9 year-old’s behavior. In some ways, witnessing family drama is family drama whether it’s on stage or in your living room.

The Mitchell parents alternatively depict their son James as both an innocent “straw that stirs the drink” and a tyrant laying siege to the family. The parents live separate lives together and the siblings’ individuality is more pronounced than any bond. The disruptive James is unmoored and impenetrable. When I respond individually to the powerlessness they must feel, their response tells me that I have not listened hard enough. Unwittingly, I have joined the family dynamic of misunderstanding. I am missing the context of their need to disconnect. What is the undertow that keeps them from mending a clearly sinking ship?

I surmise that a struggle for intimacy is at the center of the Mitchell family conflict. At the next meeting, I ask, “who left the marriage?” Confusion ensues as both parents focus on the lack of a separation or divorce. Eventually, the 9 year-old, casually detached and fiddling with a robot until now, looks at me and says, “I want them to come back.” “Who?” I ask. “Both.”

9 year-old James is trying to salvage control for all he’s worth amidst a turgid current of disengagement. And underneath the external conflict there’s a 9 year-old who’s struggling to connect, to find an intimacy that can withstand his lack of emotional continuity. Can anyone truly understand that?

In Drama of Intimacy and Tragedy of Incomprehension, an essay about Streetcar, Bert Cardullo distinguishes a tragedy of necessity or individual fate from a tragedy of possibility or chance. He notes the former (think Greek tragedy), paraphrasing Auden, elicits the feeling, “What a pity it had to end this way.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times Cate Blanchett and Joel Edgerton in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The latter, a tragedy of interaction, a tragedy of possibility, elicits: “What a pity it was this way when it might have been otherwise.” The difference is not trivial. Often families like the Mitchell’s focus on an individual child who is struggling because a tragedy of fate (perhaps genetic traits can’t be influenced) is easier to bear than a tragedy of possibility (perhaps boundaries and intimacy could have been negotiated).

William’s writing allows us to identify with the imperfection of the human condition, to move close to understanding. Mistakes are not incidental. Watching others’ lives, we can not call right what we know is wrong, and, at the same time, simplistic labels of good and evil disappoint our sensibilities like a poor resolution in a photograph. We may even experience the emotion in the room as within our selves. But while a theatrical experience opens me to themes and feelings relevant to helping the Mitchells, it does not do the work of family healing.

I will return to the Mitchell’s with renewed clarity. Art doesn’t provide a blueprint for working out the complexities of intimacy. However, by dramatizing the price of not recognizing each other, the cost of not accepting the consequence of our decisions on others, plays like Streetcar embolden me. I am challenged to both recognize each person and feel what I am experiencing. Having to prove my worth to every new client is humbling. Acknowledging others’ right to make choices I can’t condone frustrates me. Sometimes, my goal is simply to create space, a buffer from reaction, so that people move from Act 1 to Act 2 with less harm. That’s my Everest — affirming with others that we can’t go it alone is both powerful and risky.

Joe Weber crafts language to capture and explain complexities to motivate individuals and communities to improve health. He works in public health.

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