Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois

It seemed appropriate to be waiting on two self-described Southern belles to get into Streetcar at BAM last week. Nothing says “Southern” like being late to your own party. We were four, and at least three of us hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line, or as another of my Southern friends likes to call it the “Manson-Nixon” line. Ah the South! Home of pecan pie, obsessions with purity (mostly sexual), vowels longer than a summer sunset, religious revivals held in circus tents, Wal-Mart superstores, and — these days especially — widespread dependence on food stamps.

Even the anxiety that we might be late was somehow pleasant. It was both an anticipation of that space cadet glow you get from seeing some live theater, and the feeling that things move slower in The Big Easy — so slow it would be almost criminal to show up on time. And this one promised to be good: Cate Blanchett is playing Blanche Dubois, whose name, as Blanche herself tells us, means “the white woods.” Blanchett is also willowy and white, fair and elegant. Her skin is so pale and luminescent, her eyes so icy and blue, her lips thin and her teeth white as wintermint chicklets. As Ben Brantley says Blanchett as Blanche is by turns “the genteel belle, the imperious English teacher, the hungry sensualist, the manipulative flirt.” Yes indeedy.

Her cast mates in this Aussie production (originally from Melbourne) are equally physically suited for their roles. Joel Edgerton as Stanley Kowalski is wonderfully muscular in every sense. He is as compelling and coarse, as vital and working class as Brando. And Robin McLeavy as Stella is perfectly feminine: sensual and forgiving to a self-destructive fault. Many reviews have praised this production to the skies, and I can’t disagree. The show runs through this weekend, and if you can beg, steal, or murder for a ticket, it is well worth the jail time. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when the curtain came down at the end of the play, and Brantley isn’t being (too) hyperbolic when he says “Blanche’s burden, in existential terms, becomes ours. And a most particular idiosyncratic creature acquires the universality that is the stuff of tragedy.” It really is that good.

The other bit of critical consensus says that Blanchett’s performance refocuses the play on Blanche, which has been dominated by charismatic Stanley Kowalskis since Brando inaugurated the role in 1947. Come to think of it, Brando also played Stanley in the movie, which, like the play, was directed by macho man Elia Kazan. Blanchett and director Liv Ullmann have brought out a latency in the text that has never before been seen in full daylight, an interpretation in which Blanche is a Tragic Hero, worthy of Shakespeare or Sophocles, and most definitely Streetcar’s center of gravity. But as yet none of the critics have mentioned why this might be important.

In order to say why I think this production is significant, we’re going to have to go all the way back to post-WWII 1947 when the play was first produced. It was a time of fedoras and Harry Truman. Three years after the final destruction of Old Europe and the remnants of its aristocractic traditions, the United States and the Soviet Union were left as the only two kids on the block. The former was a new kid, historically speaking, full of vigor and sex appeal. (We gave the world jazz 20 years before, and were about to give it the obscenely sexy, hip-swinging rock ‘n’ roll.) The latter was also a new kid — very new — who was as dirty and irreverently working class as the Pole Kowalski, and these slavs were also bent on world domination through animal cunning and force — just like Kowalski. Were you an American capitalist or a Russian communist? Though they hated and feared each other, they were the same in respect of thier vitality, and Europe was truly the odd man out. (Kazan himself was proof that you could start as a commie and become an all-American capitalist in one lifetime.)

But for people living south of the Manson-Nixon line WWII was not the defining event of triumphant America. Their Great War was and continued to be the Civil War. My grade school history teacher told us that when she was in sixth grade in the 50s, her history teacher refused to work in a room that had a picture of Lincoln on the wall. For better or worse, Blanche and her feudal, aristrocratic traditions, tied to the land as represented by Belle Reve, have been supplanted by the growth of the industrial north. The Second World War (in which Stanely presumably fought) was a triumph for Northern barbarians, not for the still impoverished, ante bellum south. I knew in my DNA that Kowalski was a true carpetbagger, but I didn’t appreciate how much a WASP Southerner could hate the Catholic, slavic Stanley until I saw this production.

It is commonplace to point out the struggle between illusion and reality, chivalric romance and modernity, delicate femininity and coarse masculinity that is thematized throughout the play. Blanche is celebrated as a dreamer who is reluctantly pulled to earth by Stanley’s coarseness. But in fact she left the place of dreams long before the play begins, and she is as much her own enemy as Stanley is. The key word for her is “old.” she is too old to dream, and Stanley — who is young — is very ready to remind her of this fact. The critics like to put an Oprah-esque gloss on Blanche by saying she “soars spectacularly on the gossamer wings of fantasies that allow her character to live with herself.” But I think they protest too much. Blanche’s crime, like King Lear’s, is that she has truly outlived her usefulness but refuses to jump on the ice floe and make a graceful exit. Blanche doesn’t put a paper Chinese lantern on the bare bulb that hangs in the Kowalski boudoir because she likes to live in the soft glow of fantasy; she does it because in direct light you can tell that she’s old, not-so-fresh, and probably past her sell-by date.

Kazan and Brando — themselves non-Anglo immigrants who lived in the industrialized North — read Williams’s play as a terrible celebration of masculinity and a defeat of feminine fantasy because America at that time was a celebration of masculinity and a defeat of the old, irrational myths of genteel birth. And they missed the quiet tragedy of Blance because for them her fate was sad but not tragic. I’m not saying that’s a fault. Straight, white(ish) Americans just didn’t “get” tragedy in 1947. Really, we never have had a taste for it.

While sitting in the theater watching this production it occured to me that there has been a lot of tragedy on stage and screen this year, from Hamlet to Precious to Brothers, and it occured to me that America might — just might — be getting a taste for the stuff. Collectively we’re a gang of awkward, permanent adolescents, shallow and self-absorbed if not self-obsessed. If you’re sad, take a pill. If that doesn’t work, take Abilify ™ the Modern Neurotic’s anti-depressant suppliment. If that doesn’t work, choke down as much Flavor of Love and The Hills as you can before retching — it’s the equivalent of a TV lobotomy. But what if that doesn’t even work? You might have to go back to an acient remedy — tragedy.

And that seems to be what Americans want these days. On one hand, the triumph of Manson-Nixon was not to rebirth the South like a Phoenix (AZ) of economic, sun-belt prosperity. The economic boom in the South since the 70s has been entirely built on housing construction, Wal-Marts, and union busting. The triumph of Manson-Nixon was a vibrantly reactionary, racist politics that impoverished the country and sold us out to private contractors and Bush-Cheney robber barrons. Meanwhile, some new kids have appeared on the block, and they don’t look anything like their parents. I’m talking about formerly “Third World” countries (ahem, China, India), global carpetbaggers, who appear all too ready to pick up the pieces and put us to work learning Mandarin and Hindi for their off-shore call centers. Suddenly Blanche’s tragedy — being faced down and raped by history — has become a collective American experience, and no longer a Southern one. And that is why this play is so resonant here, now.

So is it tragic or ironic that it took a theater troupe from Australia and a director from Old Europe to see this?