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

There are still arguments about Blanche DuBois, the central character of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, 75 years after she first appeared on a stage, draped in fake fur and costume jewelry, engaged in a performance to maintain the illusion that she is still desirable.

Is she a hopeless victim? A shrew? A nymphomaniac? A drunk? A schizophrenic? A pathological liar? Or merely a woman who has lost everything and needs a little kindness? Nancy Schoenberger leads us through the performances of some of the leading ladies that have played the part—Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Ann-Margret, Jessica Lange, Cate Blanchett, Jemier Jenkins, and Patricia Clarkson—In Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams’s Greatest Creation, teaching us that Blanche has been or can be all of these things.

Why is Blanche what Tennessee called “the red flag of modern drama” to actresses? As he told me in 1982, she’s the female version of the man he became in the early 1940s, when he finally succumbed to sex, still hosting the “soul of a poet.” He was a recipe of “hormones and mildew and fear,” an “intoxicating gumbo,” effeminate, repressed—constantly performing in hopes of finding comfort among others, and terrified of discovery.

Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski) with Leigh in a scene from the film.

“As a homosexual?,” I asked. “God, no,” he said. “As someone with a dream of being of any worth.”

Women sought to comfort and protect him, and men, particularly straight men, found him both fascinating and repellent, which, he quipped, was “almost precisely what the best sex required.” Jessica Tandy told me that Tennessee “imagined that if he were ever walking a plank or waiting for the guillotine to fall, he would tell stories rapidly.” Just like Blanche.

Blanche is charming, cunning, seductive, pedantic, brash, terrified. As Uta Hagen, who replaced Tandy in the original Broadway production, said, “What other part gives you so much?” Hagen loved the contradictions in the character. Blanche would interrupt a blow job, she believed, to tell Stanley that his compliments on her techniques contained grammatical errors.

As Uta Hagen, who replaced Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production, said, “What other part gives you so much?”

The study of a theatrical character is typically the material of dissertations, PowerPoint presentations at festivals devoted to playwrights, introductory college courses. (Tennessee called these classes “dread in the afternoon.”) But Schoenberger is not only a gifted writer; she is also a daughter of the Deep South, New Orleans in particular. Her parents were born in the city and lived near the Audubon Zoo, both claiming they could hear the lions roaring in the night.

Visiting her grandmother, Schoenberger ran with newspapers over her head to protect herself from mosquitoes. She lived among hydrangeas whose color had been altered by rusty nails driven into the soil. She slept to the accompaniment of cicadas and tree frogs and was visited by visions in the night brought on by the heat. This is the atmosphere that Tennessee hated, and even when I met him, during a moderate September in New Orleans, he still blotted himself with a handkerchief or used blotting papers to remove oil and sweat from his face. “I never typed without sweat falling on paper,” he said of his early years. “I sought air-conditioning as fervently as I sought God.” And yet: “That damned heat creates the most beautiful foliage.”

Tennessee Williams at the opening of a Los Angeles production of A Streetcar Named Desire, 1973.

Schoenberger knows a Southern woman is expected to appear cool and collected, pretty and painted, patient and sweet, no matter what the weather or her desires might be doing to her. In this environment, Blanche requires a mask of respectability, but the mask is thin, tattered, ill-fitting. Schoenberger writes that Tennessee’s anti-heroine “loves and needs her libations, the bourbon in her coke, the quick drinks stolen when no one is looking. She needs them as she needs her hot baths—to soothe her nerves, to let the sweetness of brief oblivion erase the furies of memory. It’s a source of much of the play’s humor—the secret tippler pretending to abstain from alcohol––but it’s also what helps tip her into the past that she is trying desperately to escape. It’s her way out, but it’s also her way in.”

“She just wants to cool down,” Tennessee told me. In a note to actress Carrie Nye, who was assigned the role of Blanche in Pennsylvania, Williams wrote, “She just wants a full heart, an empty mind, and a place to sleep that isn’t dangerous.”

Schoenberger, the author of the excellent Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood, and the invaluable Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century (with co-author Sam Kashner), has also written some poems in the voice of Blanche’s gay husband, which might have been collected from the floor of the Kowalski apartment after Stanley dared to touch and disturb them. Her composition of an obituary for Blanche is priceless. A line from the obit: “Before her death, Miss DuBois requested that in lieu of donations, please send flowers.”

I imagined Tennessee reading that, laughing heartily, and raising a glass to Nancy Schoenberger.

James Grissom is the author of Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog