For those who aren’t aware, I have a blog called “Operation Opera” in which I hold forth on my favorite art form. Since Virginia Opera is about to premiere a production of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, I’ve been writing about that piece of late.
In the most recent post, I reflected on the relationship between Tennessee Williams' drama and another iconic work dealing with the American South and the tradition of the southern belle, Gone With The Wind.
However, GWTW is far from the only reference made by Williams (and Previn!) to a pre-existing work of literature. Actually, Streetcar is full of such allusions, references and homages. Tennessee Williams appears to acknowledge that his play is treating classic themes that have appeared and re-appeared throughout literary history. With these associations as a given, he respectfully doffs his cap to sources as varied as Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and even Greek mythology.
You miss a lot if any of these escape your attention! So allow me to be your tour guide through Streetcar’s little survey of classic literature. “Is this a complete and comprehensive list, Glenn?” I hear you asking. (You should really lower your voice; the neighbors might complain…) My answer: gee, I hope so! Listen, opera pals, I’m a musician, not a professor of literature. The following examples are those that seemed fairly obvious to me in my own self-taught course of study of the play and opera. I hold open the possibility that there are others escaping my attention. If you think you have found a correlation between Streetcar and, say, Lassie Come Home or Last of the Mohicans, speak up! You can make your case on the Virginia Opera Facebook page. But – you’d better be convincing! In the meantime, here are those that caught my eye.
(Wait: before you start, click here and read about Streetcar’s relationship to Gone With The Wind. Go ahead. <Glenn waits patiently.> Ah, you’re back! Wow, that was fast. Okay, let’s resume.)
First, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Next to “Wherefore art thou Romeo”, the most famous line in this play is Romeo’s paean to his main squeeze: “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.” Of course, this is far from a lone instance of the imagery of light in Romeo and Juliet; such imagery is, in fact, a major symbol in the drama. First catching sight of Juliet, Romeo exults “Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” There are others far to numerous to mention.
In Streetcar, Williams also deliberately chooses light as a major theme. In scene after scene, Blanche DuBois complains of light, covers light with paper shades and attempts to prevent herself from being exposed to the glare of lights. In her fevered mind, any light, whether electrical or sunshine, will expose her dark and secret past of sexual dissolution.
More Shakespeare: Macbeth, and in particular, the character of Lady Macbeth. In Act V, scene I, Lady Macbeth, like Blanche, has deteriorated mentally into a state of utter madness, detached from reality. A doctor and a gentlewoman observe Lady Macbeth as she wanders through her castle, muttering and rubbing her hands. When the doctor remarks on the hand-rubbing, the woman replies,
It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands. I have known her continue in this a quarter of an hour.
Whereupon the madwoman exclaims “Out, damn spot! Out, I say!” We understand she hasn’t long to live.
The corresponding scenario in Streetcar is that of Blanche drawing hot bath after hot bath, much to the exasperation of Stanley Kowalski. In Act I, scene i, Blanche has just arrived following a long trip by rail, so we understand a bath will help refresh her. However, bathing becomes an obsession, one clearly linking her to Lady Macbeth in her desire to scrub away a permanently soiled soul, a soul rendered dirty by guilt over her husband’s suicide and her wanton sexual life.
And the Oscar Wilde allusion? That would be another close cousin of Blanche’s: the princess Salome. (Seen here with the head of John the Baptist - credit: Titian.) Salome, the step-daughter of King Herod of
Like Salome, Blanche’s struggle to retain mental stability is defeated for good with a single act of violence: the moment when she is sexually assaulted by
Finally, we must briefly consider Williams’ allusion to Greek mythology. Blanche’s first words are an example of the standard literary device of poetic foreshadowing. Arriving at
They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!
Here in these twenty-five words is Blanche’s entire odyssey, and a signal of her eventual fate. Both Blanche and her sister Stella (whose life is dominated by her sexual need for
In Greek mythology, the Elysian fields (pictured at right by Carlos Schwabe) correspond to
Today's post comes from our own Dr. Opera, Community Outreach Musical Director Glenn Winters! Read more from Dr. Opera on his weekly blog, Operation Opera, and be sure to catch him at "Opera Up Close" -- lively, entertaining lectures before each production that are free with your opera ticket!
Dr. Winters received his Doctor of Music from Northwestern University, and also holds the B.M. and M.M. in piano performance from Indiana University. His background includes teaching college-level piano, arts administration at two universities, and extensive performing experience as solo pianist and accompanist. As an operatic baritone, Dr. Winters has sung over a dozen principal roles; he made his Virginia Opera debut in the 2004 production of The Merry Widow. His compositions include two children’s operas commissioned by Virginia Opera’s Education department: History Alive! and Tales From the Brothers Grimm. His first book, The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. He joined Virginia Opera’s Education and Audience Development Department in 2004 as Community Outreach Musical Director.
Glenn Winters' book The Opera Zoo: Singers, Composers and Other Primates will be on sale during intermission of all performances of A Streetcar Named Desire. Or, to order by phone, call 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020.