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Literary Critique





Anthony Steyning


Don’t get me wrong, A Streetcar Named Desire’s a great rhythmic title and what Tennessee Williams was truly terrific at: serving up seductive labels to stir our imagination well before we would take in his plays. Titles used the way a second-hand car dealer deploys banners and flags or Eugene O'Neill strang out Moon for the Misbegotten or Long Day's Journey into Night, but yesterday's masterpieces often making today's tedium, leaving us wonder if a playwright merely hit upon a grand tag first only then writing a play around it like bait before the catch. Until he got stuck, struck by the even worse great American disease of self-parody of the sort that so pathetically afflicted musical talents like Liberace and Elvis. But what the hell, the marquee's everything, isn't it? Too bloody bad contrived applause leads to artistic death small doses at the time, authors as salesmen ultimately having put on offer very little else. Yet rewarded with lauding by the hour, flattery by the line and also what in the end did Mr Williams in, which is a shame. Yes, all of it starting with titles just being titles, for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has nothing to with cats on tin roofs, and as far as I know Night of the Iguana never sports a lizard on stage, he might as well have called the piece Night of the Chihuahua.As for The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More, well, all right, perhaps a half symbolism or a cute metaphor there, but you do get my point.

Thus with A Streetcar Named Desire in fact having little or nothing to do with streetcars. A work containing no more panting or slow-burning desire and emotionally crippled characters unable to unconditionally acknowledge and accept one another and what this leads to, than creations by other dramatists tall and short. Of course everything can be made to fit, including the Elysian Field neighborhood of New Orleans, suddenly a Purgatory rather than the vaunted mythical Valhalla for our frolicking heroes, but convenient poetic license aside, shouldn't metaphors apart from being beautiful, make some unexpected sense?

Unless, of course... they were nothing of the kind.


Beside the 'Tennessee' business, the slickness of the State nick-name (Imagine Sir Normandy Halliday?) plus Mr Williams’ imaginative but rather baroque southern language and much name-dallying instead of tight, contemporary plots, speaking a handful of languages myself it always amazed me how European theatre folks took his titles so literally and his work in such vapid  awe. For on another level, would anybody in his right mind ever announce Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood as Below Lactic Forest? Yet that sort of mechanical stuff gets paraded around by civil-servant run, state funded continental European theatre all the time. I mean, a look at the Welsh map quickly reveals there in fact exists the remnant of a forest quaintly called Milk Wood. And certainly, it's rather difficult figuring out what milk and woods have in common, but that's the way it is and there's nothing we can do about it. It's the one part Mr Thomas didn't make up. So once there existed a milky white forest, one more commonly associated with Siberia than with Wales. So what! Perhaps already then an obscure metaphor, though certainly not one now. Either way Milk Wood, being a 'nom propre', to be left alone in the way that Montenegro never gets translated as Blackmountain or Carlsberg and Monte Carlo as Charlie's Mountain. What gets translated is the 'Under' part, the preposition, leading to something like

                                En dessous Milk Wood

                                Sotto Milk Wood

                                     Onder Milk Wood 

                                Unter Milk Wood

                                Debajo Milk Wood

or whatever, in a given idiom. But what at this particular time provokes my brief outburst is the ridiculous translation of A Streetcar Named Desire by those same state perpetrators. For 'Desire' shouldn't be translated into something that despite Tennessee Williams' naughty insistence never was. A Streetcar Named Desire’s a clever take all right, it has the makings of such a magnificent metaphor, except that this streetcar rides for real, in New Orleans, and an old rickety affair it is. With as end of the line the Desire neighborhood where Desire Street and Desire Parkway reign. In fact End Line Desire or A Streetcar Named Oblivion would have been a far more apt title for the play, given its dramatic surge. Still, it does ring so much better than, say, Subway Line Idlewild Airport, if, all the way back in the late forties the plot had been set in Queens, N.Y.

The problem then with the Europeans is never taking the trouble to travel to New Orleans, and in translation augmenting William’s little title fraud to a degree bordering lunacy. Coming up, and translating it all straight back for you, with titles like Trolley Car Line Greed, producing an image of someone compulsively absconding with public transport units. (Damn, there comes another one. I'm getting mighty tired of this! Do I get anything else done today?)


So that what this is all about is not so much Mr. Williams but the dutiful, industrial productions of his work in Amsterdam, Prague, Antwerp and like cities: all that lazy European hero-worship. Or better still, the living off international name-tags, the going along blindly of it, the lacking of all pride of it, the sad absence of critical judgment of it, the seeking to be looked up to as an important cog in the theatre trade without having a grain of creative judgment or ability oneself. Serving up and getting away with risk-free, pre-approved works: the frequency with which these and other 'known' plays are repeated, staggering. This no longer about stage art, but about attempting to obtain stature by association. Making that this is about robbing great talent, playwrights nearer by, of oxygen, of  opportunity. Those who wait and wait and who are often shut out until they die, as production budgets, inevitably limited, get squandered on 'recognition' pieces, produced like cultural pabulum, bad translations mostly adding insult to injury.

- Did you like it?

- Oh, darling, It gave me the shivers. It was so dutiful...

- Pardon me?


Anyway, when traveling around Europe, should you notice the staging of yet another Tennessee Williams play, advertised for the 100th time in Zurich, Zagreb or Modena, try not to be impressed. And if you haven’t got a clue which particular play’s up except for the author’s name below it simply because you don't understand the local language, don’t worry. Neither likely do the comfortable, don't-rock-the boat, hip-on-the-surface-but-tragically-conventional chaps behind such stage fluff. All of it productions by committee, with predictable results.

Shocks, maybe it's just me, but I don’t think these ego-tripping, falsely anointed fonctionnaires should ever mount another Trolley Car Line Greed again. Anymore than they would A Highway Job Called Robbery, by the superb Oxfordshire Smith.


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