Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In Praise of Southern Women Characters (and an Uncanny Playwright)

This festive season is seeing an odd confluence of great Southern women characters. Today is the anniversary of the 70th premiere of the film Gone with the Wind. As I have written before, I am a huge fan of the film and the novel. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of immense imagination and will, undone by her inability to imagine the love that is right beside her in the man of Rhett Butler.

My thoughts of her are mixing with the shadows of Blanche Dubois, another great Southern character of American literature. I have not seen Cate Blanchette in the current BAM production, but I have now heard Liv Ullmann speak her thoughts about directing the play, and they were so full and articulate that it as though I have seen her stage vision.

Loss Upon Loss

I always wonder about the broader lives of characters I like. Would Blanche Dubois have read GWTW? It was a million-seller in 1936 when it was first published. We meet Blanche in 1947 (the play is set in its contemporary time), so I think it’s likely that she would have read the novel.

There she would have found the real Southern Belle in Scarlett, bred for institutionalized civility and chaste flirtations in a world where everyone knew and followed the rules. Scarlett’s world will be torn to shreds by the Civil War. She will lose Ashley to Melanie, (her first husband in the book to the war), her mother to typhoid, her father to a broken neck, her food to Sherman’s siege of Atlanta, all before intermission. In Part 2, she will (almost) lose Tara to the tax collectors, (her second husband to a raid on shanty town), her unborn child, her precious Bonnie Blue, Ashley to the veil of death, and just when the scales fall from her eyes about Rhett, she will lose him as he walks out of her life, caring not a damn.

This fate echoed in my thoughts as I read John Lahr’s beautiful summation of Blanche’s lot in the New Yorker:

“As the play unfolds, the extent of her losses becomes clear: she has lost her husband, her family home, her job, her good name, her purity, and, ultimately, her sanity.”

Two Southern characters with overwhelming loss react in very different ways.

Whose Reality Is It Anyway?

Scarlett’s loss strengthens her in wave upon wave and steels her will. As the world of “cavaliers and cotton fields” is dying, she herself will smash society’s rules as she dances in widows weeds, flaunts her money during Reconstruction, and becomes a businesswoman managing her lumber mill herself.

As the film explains in 6-foot tall type:

Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...

That storybook society had a sense of unreality about it, and the nation suffered the bloody tearing down of those dreamy ways. Scarlett’s sanity stays intact, but her father Gerald O’Hara loses his mind when the illusions are gone and he has only the reality of his dead wife and his beloved Tara is in shambles.

Blanche suffers from the fates dismantling her life. She tried to overcome the horror of her early marriage to a homosexual, but a divorced woman in the South at that time was desperately alone. “They” would not let her back into society, and that began the spiral down that lead her to her younger sister’s doorstep, and Stella and Stanley’s cruelty toward her. She tried to give herself some illusion that she isn’t as old, or worn, as she is, and that she might still have a chance with a good, simple man like Mitch. But when he finds that she has misrepresented her own story, he is horrified and will have nothing more to do with her. That seals her fate and leaves her vulnerable to Stanley attacking her.

In the end, Scarlett isn’t Blanche--even though she lies just as much, and is enveloped in a fantasy-- because at each important juncture she is able to align herself with a man who keeps her respectable. She marries Wade Hamilton and Frank Kennedy and finally Rhett, and they allow her cover in society so that she can do more of what she wants. Poor Blanche had no such support, and the reality is such an exposed woman is in serious trouble from all sides. Society doesn't know what to do with such a woman. And so the sanitarium; in another century there was the convent.

The International Streetcars
Liv Ullmann is a unique presence in film history. That open, lovely face, the artful character roles. She is the very essence of woman: what a excellent force to direct the play Streetcar.

I once knew this play very, very well. When I was in college at Southampton, the local amateur theater troupe The Maskers learned there was an American at the college, and sought me out to help them with their American accents for their Streetcar. Like a piece of music, when you are involved in several weeks of rehearsal and 6 performances, you know it from the inside out. This English Blanche was channeling Vivien Leigh’s interpretation--not a bad thing to do.

How wonderful that Leigh, a woman with the demons and strengths of Scarlett and Blanche, was brilliant in giving them both to us for the ages.

Every woman knows the undercurrents of these characters. It's startling and helpful and poignant to see the stuff of life so transformed by the art of a man named Tennessee.