Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams’s Greatest Creation

Vivien Leigh said it tipped her over into madness. It left Ann-Margret “twisted and shaking, confused, agitated, and staring ahead in a daze.” For Jessica Lange, “I don’t think there is anything more emotional and physically exhausting than this part for a woman,”  Says Patricia Clarkson: ”I’ve never underestimated the power of Blanche.”

They all portrayed Blanche DuBois, a character in “A Streetcar Named Desire” who has “fascinated generations of audiences – and actresses – around the world,” Nancy Shoenberger writes in her new book “Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams’s Greatest Creation” (Harper, April 2023, 240 pages)

Shoenberger aims to tell the story of Blanche by devoting a chapter to each of seven actresses who have portrayed her, starting with Jessica Tandy, who originated the role in the 1947 Broadway production, although Williams initially wanted silent screen star Lillian Gish for the part.

The most famous Blanche is surely Vivien Leigh (the actress pictured on the book’s cover), who replaced Tandy for the 1951 movie opposite Marlon Brando. Before the film, Leigh had performed the role on the London stage for eight months, which was not a healthy experience for a woman who had already had episodes of bipolar disorder. Interestingly, although Leigh’s performance was acclaimed, the play was not well-received in England.  Laurence Olivier, who directed Leigh, his wife, in that production, felt compelled  to defend it from criticism: “A Streetcar Named Desire is a fine piece of work. The fact that it can be accepted as a piece of salacious sensationalism is a reflection upon the audience, not upon the author.” Ironically, Olivier didn’t really understand the play, according to the author, who makes a convincing case he bungled it, by making cuts to the text and costuming “his Southern belle in prim English tweeds of shoddy quality, which undercut Blanche’s flirtatious, Mardi Gras gaiety..”

The most rewarding of these actress chapters is the one on Patricia Clarkson, who portrayed Blanche in 2004 at the Kennedy Center, because it’s largely based on an extensive interview the author conducted with the actress, who explains her interpretation of the character at length. It’s a mistake, she says, to see the play just “as poetic realism, but forget the hardcore reality.” Blanche’s obsession with her appearance “is not frivolous. It’s something that is ingrained and hard core inside of a Southern woman,” says Clarkson, who grew up in New Orleans. She sees Blanche as an “exceptionally bright woman” who was probably “a very good teacher. Especially in that day and age, she was highly educated, highly well read. She was just magnificent—this beauty in a small town who was smarter than anybody. I think she used it to her advantage, but not in a mean way. She lived well until everything just turned for the worse.” 

The least rewarding of these chapters is the one on Cate Blanchett, because it discusses not just Blanchett’s portrayal of Blanche in director Liv Ullmann’s 2009 production of Streetcar at the Kennedy Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music; the author also spends more pages than I could tolerate discussing Woody Allen’s 2013 movie “Blue Jasmine,” apparently justifying this digression because Blanchett portrays a character modeled on Blanche, and the movie borrows most of its plot from Williams’s play.

There is also an unfortunate passage in the book’s introduction in which Shoenberger riffs on Ben Brantley’s review of Blanchett’s performance in the BAM production: “Ben Brantley wrote, ‘The genteel belle, the imperious English teacher, the hungry sensualist, the manipulative flirt: no matter which of these aspects is in ascendancy, Ms. Blanchett keeps them all before us.’ The seven actresses I’ve chosen to write about—Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Ann-Margret, Jessica Lange, Patricia Clarkson, Cate Blanchett, and Jemier Jenkins—embody different aspects of this rich, multifaceted character. If Blanchett manages to keep them all before us, Jessica Tandy was more the ‘imperious English teacher,’ Vivien Leigh and Jemier Jenkins the ‘genteel belle’ with a dollop of snobbery, Ann-Margret the ‘manipulative flirt,’ Patricia Clarkson ‘the hungry sensualist.’ In terms of the degree of madness each reflected, Jessica Lange seems the most fragile, Ann-Margret the toughest, whereas Jemier Jenkins saw the character as basically sane but driven to disaster by her untenable position.”

Once you read through the chapters, though, the distinctions among the portrayals turn out to be not as self-evident, nor the performances as one-dimensional, as the author’s introductory summary implies. But I call this passage unfortunate because it is easy to infer from it that the author feels Blanchett gave the best performance of all of them, but this is unlikely to be Shoenberger’s intention;  she never explicitly makes such a claim. 

Indeed, the author offers scant critical judgments or original insights into Blanche, relying largely on others’ reviews of the productions she details (many of which she didn’t see), and on published comments from the artists involved as well as other published sources.  The book has unearthed no fresh revelations, and (in what feels like a lapse in editing) it makes some of the same familiar observations in chapter after chapter..

But if it’s no scholarly deep dive into its subject, “Blanche” is a quick, fun and fruitful read that offers a glimpse at the way some very fine actresses go about their work, and allows us to revisit some of the exquisite details of the play.. By reacquainting us with individual moments and  specific traits of Blanche and the other central characters, and providing a new lens through which to explore Williams’s work, the book renews or reenforces our appreciation of the playwright’s talent.

“Blanche” asks us to consider why so many people are still so taken with Blanche DuBois.

“We empathize with her hard life, and also because she’s funny,” replies Jemier Jenkins, who portrayed Blanche in a 2018 African American Shakespeare Company production in San Francisco. “She’s a mess, but she wants better.” The same could be said of herself, Jenkins says.

What I found most fascinating about Blanche in “Blanche” is what inspired Tennessee Williams to create her. His inspirations included the City of New Orleans and the actress Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead initially turned down the role, finding it too close to home, reportedly remarking: “How would it look—an aging, promiscuous Southern woman who drinks too much playing an aging, promiscuous Southern woman who drinks too much?” Ironically, when she finally took on the role, at Florida’s Coconut Grove Playhouse, in 1955, she was panned for camping it up. “It’s the only time Blanche has been played by a drag queen,” Williams joked,

The book dwells on the connection to Williams’s sister Rose. Rose was the obvious model for Laura in “The Glass Menagerie” but the author makes a compelling case by pointing out traits Rose shared with Blanche DuBois, such as an interest in beautiful things (clothes, flowers, jewelry, a dedication to her appearance, the death of a love interest at a young age, but also, more crucially:  Rose made the claim that her father sexually abused her, an accusation her mother dismissed as a sign of mental illness, which led to her being lobotomized and institutionalized for the rest of her life. Similarly, Blanche’s sister Stella refuses to believe that her husband Stanley raped her, and Blanche too winds up institutionalized.

“The more I work with the character of Blanche, the less insane she seems,” Elia Kazan, the original director of Streetcar on Broadway and in Hollywood, once wrote.

One of Tennessee Williams’ main inspirations for Blanche DuBois was himself. He gave his character “his own predilections—his love of poetry, his preference for the gentility of the Old South as experienced at his grandparents’ gracious home….his own reliance on the enchantments of alcohol, with its ability to let one forget, and sometimes to let one remember.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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