"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, December 17, 2012

In Praise of Eccentric Women

I have just finished reading Streetcar Named Desire for the tenth time at least, and am even more seduced by Blanche Dubois. For the first time I appreciated her humor, her sarcastic lines about Stanley the Ape, the greasy, smudged, and inarticulate husband to her romantically besotted sister.  I am even more sympathetic to her as she descends into madness and loneliness relying only at the end of her life as she knows it “on the kindness of strangers”.  We will never know why Blanche went mad, or why, child of a reputable, aristocratic family of Mississippi, she needed the promiscuity and sexual solace of strangers; or why she couldn’t negotiate a reasonable settlement for Belle RĂªve; or what led her to a liaison with a young boy.  All we know is that she did; and frail, unstable, and needy, she sought a link to her romantic and idealistic past, her sister Stella.

Blanche is outrageous in her dismissal of Stanley and the whole idea of the virile, sweaty male and at the same time is coquettishly demanding of his sexual attentions.  The sexual tensions between Blanche and Stanley, although stereotypical in many ways (was it the homosexual Williams who created the impossibly Ur-male, Stanley?) are some of the most erotic in theatre.  Williams already celebrated the most un-PC relationship imaginable – primitive, unsocialized, bestial Stanley and cavewoman Stella, wet with passion as her brute husband drags her to bed; and added Steve and Eunice, the upstairs neighbors, as accompanists to the pre-human bacchanal; but when he put Blanche and Stanley together, he created the sexual encounter of all theatre. Blanche is pure, desperate, ragged sexual passion, derived from a lifetime of semi-madness, Southern fantasy, and post-War frustration. Stanley is an animal, pure lust and desire, but understanding women completely.

Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the most Shakespearean of Williams’ heroines.  She is not unlike Cleopatra, Margaret (the wife of Henry VI), or Constance (the mother or Arthur in King John).  She is single-minded of purpose, canny, manipulative, and brilliant in her desire to secure the wealth of the realm.  But she is far sexier, sensual, and aware of her femininity than any woman in Shakespeare.  Maggie knows that she can have any man, but wants only Brick.  Maggie is compelling because of her frustrated passion and her ambition. The object of her desire is Brick, scion of the Pollitt family, hero of the Ole Miss football team, Apollo, and graceful image of manhood.  Even though Brick is uninterested in Maggie, and wallows in his own shameful guilt and self-flagellation, her female passion for him is clear, direct, and palpable.  We will never know whether Maggie is a gold-digger, a young woman in love with an ideal, or a redeeming spirit who knows that she is the only one who can save Brick.  She is as intriguing and beguiling as any female character in theatre.

Cleopatra is perhaps Shakespeare’s most maturely designed woman.  She is everything that a man could desire – she is beautiful, powerful, intriguingly playful and diffident, theatrical, calculating and sensual.  It is for these supra-female qualities that Antony falls completely off the rails.  He should have known better to trust Cleopatra who deceives him not only once but twice and leads to his downfall and ruin at Actium; and yet we sympathize with Antony.  None of us could resist her charms and the charms of the luxuriant, sybaritic Egypt. We never feel sorry for Antony, poor besotted, older gentleman; nor feel any regret at Cleopatra’s demise; but despite her duplicity, her mendacity, and her total pragmatism, we cannot take our eyes off her.  She is Woman.

Few men would admit to a desire to be married to Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) – portrayed at the beginning of the play as a vixen, a harridan, a succubus of unimaginable proportions.  Or is she? In the great Tantric struggles between men and women, who would not want Martha as an ‘opponent’? She has the absolute, pure, unadulterated power of Durga The Destroyer; yet she is as needy as Blanche. Who among us would not choose Martha as a sexual partner, a woman willing to play out her primal, Freudian passions? Would any of us choose a well-brought up, well-mannered, temperate, conservative, and circumspect woman of a good family instead of Martha?

All of Shakespeare’s, Tennessee Williams’, and Edward Albee’s women are compellingly attractive.  There isn’t a shy, shrinking Violet among them.  Take Tamora, the Gothic Queen who engineers the rape and mutilation of Coriolanus’s daughter; or Dionyza who is capable of unimaginable cruelty to assure the supremacy of her own daughter; or the imprecating, incessant demands of Margaret, Constance, or Joan of Arc?  The women of Shakespeare’s Comedies run rings around their men, and any of us would love to be in the same amorous arena as Rosalind or Beatrice.  Although some men would willingly enter into a ‘traditional’ marriage of male supremacy, most of the rest of us would rather take our chances with Maggie. Blanche, or Cleopatra. We might lose, but the fight would be worth it.

I think most of us marry calm, centered women as an anchor.  We would destroy ourselves if left to marry Martha, Cleopatra, or Maggie would last years not decades,and the scars would be more memorable than the sweet dreams.  And yet, who is in our wet dreams or in our daydreams?  These demanding, overtly sexual and psychically sensitive women.  Our wives put us to sleep, but it is a protective, mothering, consoling sleep.

I have known women for whom reality is only an inconvenience.  I learned to accept their fantasy vision of life and never to challenge them on ‘the truth’, or never to accuse them of evasion or fearfulness; and in return I got everything.   If I entered their unreal world with no reservation, no reservation would be imposed by them.  Most of these women were, like Blanche, skating on the thin ice of madness; but yet there was no ignoring them.  These were women who were still working out sexual fantasies, powerful jealousies, envies, and raw adolescent desires.  There is no more complete, unmitigated, uninhibited passion than that with a woman who prefers the twisted dark side.

When I was much younger, I resisted.  I challenged these women on the veracity of their accounts.  There was no way that X could possibly have been the patroness of Ecuadorian arts and music; or that Y could have been a diva in Andy Warhol’s Factory.  I wanted proof, demonstrable evidence, reality. My relationships with them were fitful and unsatisfied.  They knew I was judging and unwilling.  Only one said, “Ronnie, do you know what you are getting into?” referring to her other, underground, drug-accompanied, bisexual, but totally uninhibited world?

Another was damaged, hurt, and disconsolate at my calling her out, calling her bluff, putting my well-researched cards on the table. Was it absolutely necessary that I disrobe her illusions in public?  There really was no reason for Stanley to undress Blanche and expose all her weakness and unmoored fantasy.  Yes, she had been sarcastically critical of him, the bestial Polack, the unwashed, untutored, and unrefined brute; and he had more than enough reason to be cruel to her; but he could no more restrain himself or deny his primitive nature than she could.  I did not have to speak the truth.

As I got older, I willingly entered the world of these demanding, dependent, and needy Martha’s, Maggie’s and Cleopatra’s; and paid no attention to their stories and creations.  I no longer needed to know where reality ended and where fantasy began.  It was no different, in a way, than the relationship that I had with my 95 year old aunt who had long ago fled to the irrational world of Alzheimer’s.  She was still my funny, irreverent aunt; but her world was this strange amalgam of daytime TV, her remote past, and the confines of her convalescent home.

Even at my age I am still attracted to eccentric women, those with impossible stories of divorces, absent fathers, driven mothers, and adolescent escapades.  Women who love to dress up, to exaggerate, to go girly or bespectacled office assistant, to wear perfume, make up, rouge, mascara, bright lipstick at 29 before they need it; and to become desirable, indecipherable, and totally irresistible.

I attended the funeral ceremony of a former lover, and speaker after speaker told of her commitment, compassion, duty, and hard work.  She was the ideal co-worker and government employee. No one mentioned her sardonic dismissal of this life, her private unbridled sexual rapacity, and her true love.  She barely managed to keep this double life in balance – the professional life which gave her public respectability; and this private life of brutal sexuality and emotional profession. I loved her more for her willingness to totter on the line between the two, always fighting for balance, than for the unrestrained wildness of her desire.  She was my Blanche.

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