– Shrutakirti Dutta
About a year ago, a group of slightly uninspired students met up in college to discuss the staging potential of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie. The brief was to present a paper on said plays while incorporating performance into it for the JUSAS seminar that was to follow in August of 2012. The trick, however, was to do it under 25 minutes.
Clearly, a normative staging would not do. We had to adapt the plays, often fusing scenes, acts, incidents which did not necessarily follow their sequential order. Perhaps to introduce some semblance of order into our slightly chaotic proceedings, we divided the play into two halves. The first was to deal with The Glass Menagerie, the second with A Streetcar Named Desire.
It would perhaps be wise to own up to severe gaps in the storyline at this point. Since for want of time we could no longer rely on the narrative to convey the backstory of each character, we had no choice but to resort to flashbacks. We also had to do the heart-breaking thing of choosing certain scenes with slightly greater significance than others and looking at them in isolation. The reason for doing so was mostly to understand in depth the psyche of the plays characters, focusing on the many layers they presented, often not quite transparently. We deliberately chose to explore certain telling aspects of a character, their particular quirks or obsessions or even their personal dynamics rather than the plot. Superimposing dialogue, context and sometimes even unseen characters onto a scene, we tried to bring out its flavour and tempo, albeit in an accelerated manner.
Thus we opened with Tom’s monologue about The Stage Magician where he introduces the audience to the main characters Amanda, Laura, himself and their father. Interestingly, while the father is only mentioned in the play, serving as the indirect faceless trigger of subsequent events, we chose to give him a somewhat subjective backstory, showing him leaving his home exasperated with the humdrum of daily life.
Next we focused on Laura who posed a bit of a challenge. Conventionally Laura was to be portrayed as quiet, delicate, not without character but utterly passive with only rare glimpses of spirit. Yet it was obvious that a person who had had time to internalize the trauma and hurt of their situation, heightened manifold by how the other characters chose to reflect off her would feel things strongly, be more sensitive to a careless remark, be a lot more volatile than was perhaps allowed her through the course of the script. So we chose to show exactly that. We had on stage two Lauras – one that spoke (very little) and interacted with her immediate reality and the other that tracked her psychological reactions to the same events, ultimately resulting in a breakdown.
Amanda’s character was perhaps easier to establish. She was the archetypal Southern belle of yore who never quite got over the turn of the century; so we gave her airs and quirks that were intentionally jarring and stood out against the backdrop of the play. Once again, our love for the dual personality returned and we split the stage space into two. One half was occupied by Amanda-Present, the other by the sprightly and charming Amanda-Past in order to showcase the unstable and somewhat frightening co-existence of the two in the same person. Resorting to flashback again, we presented Amanda Wingfield as the toast of the town, while simultaneously showing the washed out and indignant Amanda in the present trying to transpose her failed ambitions onto her daughter Laura. In another scene we established the same by means of a single phone conversation had in part by Amanda-Present and Amanda-Past to establish the flawed and often hyperbolic perception of her own reality.
Tom’s character in our production was presented as a bit of a chameleon. He first appeared as “the opposite of a stage magician”, following that up with his military appearance with three other alter egos: Paranoid, Angry and Helpless. Coordinating four men of completely different build and stature to emulate a march and having them work with clockwork precision for the scene was, let’s just say ‘interesting’, but slightly more challenging was envisioning what happened to Tom after he left home.
We zeroed in on his academic aspirations and fashioned him as a Lecturer at a Seminar. One must understand that the crippling sense of guilt that Tom must have felt after deserting his home would have been potent enough to come in the way of his experiencing life. Tom was more faithful than he intended to be, and perhaps because of this we believed that he could never really be rid of the demons that plagued him at home, regardless of how far he moved away. Thus we transposed his former arguments with his mother into this scene as a reflection of his agitated conscience. Tom’s speech falters at the sight of his sister and he leaves the stage.
Contrary to what the reader might believe having read thus far, the production wasn’t solemn throughout. We took ample liberties with the play and set up a musical scene with Laura and Jim where they set their dialogue to some rather sketchy music and flirt and dance on stage. Here again we introduced a third Laura as a sort of wish fulfilling canvas, one who sweeps in during the dance, is confident and robust, but also quickly disappears once the music fades away.
In another mime sequence we establish family dynamics entirely through music and actions. A desperate Amanda cajoles, nudges and ultimately shoves the lone gentleman caller Laura’s way. The music is set to the tone of the action with melodious bars playing at the beginning as Amanda contentedly sways while Jim and Tom associate, only to give way to sudden angry strums of the guitar when she looks disgustedly at her daughter’s listless inability to socialise.
After a close reading of A Streetcar Named Desire, what really stood out to us was the plays passive treatment of domestic violence. That Stella chooses to forgive Stanley so easily did not rankle us perhaps as much as it ought to have and we began to explore why that could be. Obviously domestic violence is a problem that still plagues us and remains just as relevant if transposed onto contemporary times. So we tried to do just that. At the risk of offending Tennessee Williams purists, we adapted the scene to fit the working class picture in Bengal but also kept the original between Stanley and Stella. Regardless of context, the helplessness of the Stella figure was evident in both and the scene retained its potency.
Then came the tricky matter of dealing with Blanche DuBois. One must realise that a fraction of 25 minutes is hardly adequate to explore the many facets of her character, and indeed we had to entirely forgo her troubling past with the young man’s death. Instead we let her general state of unrest manifest itself in the ‘Accusation Scene’ where (unlike the play) we let each character tear her down while she stood in their midst, battling her demons. Since this doesn’t originally happen in the script of the play, we divided Stanley and Stella’s dialogue from Scene Seven and arbitrarily assigned it to the people surrounding the Blanche figure.
By the end of Streetcar, one begins to wonder if Blanche has truly lost her grip on reality, so intent is she to play out her days of prime. She endlessly waits for Shep Huntleigh, going as far as to naively ring him when cornered in the room by Stanley. What becomes obvious at the end of the play are the two completely different scenes playing out simultaneously – one in Blanche’s mind and the other in the Kowalski home. As though to escape a less than flattering reality she recedes further and further into her mind, concocting elaborate stories, choosing to live out the life she did not have through an entire world of make believe, jumbling up her past and present. We chose to end our production with the last scene of the play where Blanche is taken away by the doctor; however, we let the scene segue into Blanche’s subjective perception of the event. By isolating her many seemingly arbitrary sentences from Scene Eleven and then fusing them together we were able to come up with a more than ample ‘Epilogue’, if you will, and surprised to find some degree of coherence in it. Thus we had two renditions of the same event, one sluggishly depressing and the other jubilantly romantic. We played out her expectation versus reality on the stage space and the result was surprisingly moving. I like to think Blanche exited as she would have wanted – gracefully and not without a fair bit of drama.
And so we concluded our production, wishing I’m sure for further analysis and a lot more time to truly gain insight into the characters we played. However, it might be of note to mention that each person in the group played multiple characters from the play, constantly flitting between roles. Despite, and perhaps because of this, by the end of the experience we felt as though we had a more wholesome understanding of the people we were meant to play, having had the opportunity to think from multiple perspectives and bring out each through the course of the presentation.