Friday, May 1, 2009


It’s the second weekend of Jazz Fest in New Orleans, and 2009 marks the 40th anniversary for this two weekend long frolic of good food and music. In the internet age, one can even watch the fest live, online. However, if you want to eat, best get on an airplane. One could easily be led to think that post Katrina, the living is again easy. Yet not everyone shares this opinion. Such disparity is unavoidable to me up here in Rhode Island where I have recently been invited to view New Orleans from a perspective far afield from the Fest. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to be able to attend a local theatre that puts on risky stuff, does it well, and asks professional members of the community – myself included - to speak on those events – for continuing education credit no less. Still, some crawfish bread would be nice! In more ways than one this blog entry might best be considered a meditation on an old cliché: You simply can’t have your cake and eat it too. That said, finding that a store near my office is carrying some of Louisiana’s finest helps me cope with being across State lines during the Fest. What I want to address however in posting an excerpt from my talk on the play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is not so much about the relief good food and drink afford, but about the manner in which Tennesse Williams asks his audience to follow the despair of trauma.

An engagement with despair seems such a part of New Orleans as may also be seen in the recently published, The Sound of Building Coffins, a novel in which the author is candid about the promise of rebirth and redemption. While Jazz Fest offers some of the best redemption going from an engagement with despair, my hope in posting this is to underscore the idea that in turning to revelry, we don’t forget care. Further, that if we can situate despair without shutting it away, then revelry becomes a practice that is not escapist, but leads to what may be called rebirth. To that end I am reminded of the characters often encountered in childrens' stories – Shrek and Cinderella for example. These characters represent what is disavowed or shuttered due to being deemed ugly. Fortunately, these stories also tell of a journey in which what is neglected and considered monstrous finds its way into a place of recognition and acceptance – both Shrek and Cinderella find love. In these happy endings we are quietly reminded not to neglect what is disavowed. The story doesn’t end as well in Streetcar. How it will end for New Orleans is still being written.

In Streetcar Named Desire, Stella’s sister Blanche Du Bois comes to New Orleans to stay with then pregnant Stella and her husband Stanley. Unbeknownst to Stanley and Stella, Blanche’s husband has committed suicide after being confronted by Blanche in regard to his sexuality. Following his death, Blanche has lost her job as a teacher due to her own sexual acting out with a student. She arrives, traumatized, and becomes increasingly symptomatic caught in her own mental illness and the unstable dynamic that is Stanley and Stella’s relationship. The play ends with her sister, Stella sending Blanche to a mental hospital after Blanche’s being raped by Stanley. The hospitalization of Blanche allows Stella to ignore what is hideous about Stanley, and in turn Stanley and his friends ignore Blanche’s tragedy as they continue a game of five card stud while she is carted to the hospital.

Mounted as a play in 1947 and becoming a movie in 1951, Streetcar is not a fairy tale by a long shot. It has been considered an American Tragedy. That it was written when America emerged from World War Two places it in a noir valence, challenging the sunny side of the street that typifies the optimism that is central to the American Psyche. To watch the play, post-Katrina, at a time when we are at war and in an economic crisis is to wonder if the spirit of Jazz Fest can lift our spirits to song. As Cinderella rides off into the sunset with her prince, is it possible to imagine Blanche attending Jazz Fest? Jazz Fest itself is certainly complicated. As its corporate identity grows, some wonder how it will continue to engage local culture. Fortunately, pace Cinderella the Ponderosa Stomp is no pumpkin and locals are playing at the Fest.

Is it possible to stay engaged, not forget, and like Josh Charles singing ‘Let the healing time begin’ might we find song in the face of hardship? Charles, like any good bluesman knows I think, how to situate trauma like a true doctor. Last Sunday during Jazz Fest, Charles posted to twitter that Etta James was singing “I’d rather be blind.” Indeed, seeing is not easy. Simply, the ideal bluesman or woman does not deny what is painful, but embraces loss head on – knowing ‘having cake and eating it too’ is a fantasy - that if one is to eat cake, one is confronted with an empty plate. Facing this demands security in the face of lost pleasure.

Are we, like the characters in Tennessee Williams’ play who resume a poker game as Blanche is institutionalized tempted to abandon, forget, deny – mask our care in attempt not to witness the trauma of our contemporary life. Why not? We like to be optimistic and focus on fun. The popular phrase, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is an affirmation of pleasure without consequences – a philosophy that one can have cake, eat it, and ignore the empty plate by moving on - A call to forget care. The plate was disposable??! Word! In this regard, the setting of New Orleans is perfect for the play Streetcar Named Desire.

People have been calling New Orleans “The City that Care Forgot” since at least 1938, when the phrase appeared in the New Orleans City Guide produced by the Federal Writers’ Project. When I first heard this phrase, I thought it referred to the decay of the city in which poor streets, failing schools, and a high crime rate were considered normal. Later, I began to wonder if the phrase was a play on tourist stereotypes in which one is asked to forget their cares and embrace debauchery. It was only much later that I began to consider how these two lines of thinking were related. My dictionary reminds me that care is first considered a suffering of mind akin to grief, and such suffering relates poorly to debauchery and neglect as each attempts to deny or avoid grief. It is pretty obvious that this has something to do with Tennessee’s play, but what does it have to do with desire – a conscious impulse toward something that promises enjoyment? It occurs to me that there is an inherent tension between care and desire. On the one hand desire promises pleasure, while care tips its hat to suffering. Situating care in the face of desire might be considered something that each of Williams’ characters is not well versed, and that this deficiency is at the heart of their difficulties.

There is I think, something traumatic about Stella’s indifference to the radio that has been thrown out of her window, and Stanley’s anger that killed the radio in the first place. However, it is Blanche’s longing for a gentleman who could help her deny that she lost a gentleman and genteel life that is at the center of this play’s narrative. Blanche’s wish to undo trauma by denying it is found in her diagnoses itself – her nerves broke. Blanche tells Stanley, I hurt him the way you want to hurt me – and she embodies a manic enactment of epic fornication – the crime of her late husband in a confused attempt to forget. Too soon, Blanche is undone by Stanley’s screaming of Stella’s name – calling him a wild animal – as she wishes to deny her own identification with wildness in reaction to her husband’s infidelity. In raping her, Stanley starkly enacts a narrative along the lines of, that while Blanche might run, she cannot forget. When Blanche says to Stanley’s friend Mitch that sick people have such deep sincere attachments, it is clear that she is sincerely stuck, and she hears the gun shot of her late husband’s suicide again – a traumatic flashback leading her to tell Mitch how she attempted to fill herself with strangers. For her part, Stella can laugh at the flying radio but not at rape – is it the presence of a baby that engages her care?

Blanche relies wholly on the kindness of strangers – hoping for a transformative engulfment in which her agency is forsaken and bestowed. Mitch tries to give this. Stanley desires it too. Stella, cynical in regard to the desire for attachment knows it is a fantasy. I wonder how the psychiatrist in this play conceptualizes Blanche’s desire to forsake agency. Simply is she seen by her doctor as a welfare subject in need of a paternalistic care or as an active individual who may be capable of reconstituting herself? My experience of the play is that Blanche is viewed as chronically disempowered and will not be engaged in what may be considered an ethics of care. Whose dream is this?

Mary McCarthy disliked the play and felt that Tennessee’s work was in bad faith. One interpretation of what McCarthy saw is that Williams may have unintentionally expressed his own trauma in the play. We know that he lost his mother at age five, and was neglected by his father who was from a southern family that had squandered generations of wealth. Furthermore, while working at his father’s shoe factory Tennessee became attracted to a man named Stanley, and suffered a nervous collapse when the man married. Art continues to imitate life in regard to madness as his sister due to having a lobotomy was lost. When he lived in New Orleans – he wasn’t a native – he had a male lover who wanted a long-term relationship, and was reportedly distressed that Tennessee went cruising nightly in the city. Writing in the New York Times days before the play opened on Broadway in 1947, he describes allowing it to rain through the windows of his hotel room as he could not tolerate success – he goes on to describe the patience of the management as inexhaustible and considers such security of success to be a kind of death – if true security is an ability to tolerate a threat – he sadly confused security and success with the loss of tension. In this, he was quite close to his characters.

Considering that our country’s character has been considered optimist, American tragedy is something that could be called ironic. Some have noted that when the hero is seen to suffer from psychopathology that we move from the tragic to a genre of horror. In this we are left with a hero who is deserted by the crowd – abandoned as monstrous. We might ask if we have been alienated by the playwright. Simply, do we watch this play with the detachment of a voyeur who stands outside the fray in which horror occurs, or possibly with the detached amusement of a tourist who could be seen through the 1970’s and 1980’s, photographing a streetcar in the New Orleans French Market proudly bearing the name "DESIRE" – a possible moment of identification due to the safety of its fiction and temporal distance? Or as those who work with trauma note, doe we risk identification with what is horrific in attempt to dialogue and thereby transmute what appears monstrous?

In that regard as a citizen and a clinical psychologist, I find myself thinking what does being a witness ask of us? The completed suicide of 11-year-old Massachusetts native Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover who hung himself on April 6 of this year following taunts that he was gay is a stark reminder that sexual identity often remains wound up with traumatic intolerance. Geographic terrain offers yet another trauma when building levees doesn’t fall under the category of shovel ready. Tonight Dr. John who is publicly promoting efforts to reopen what was New Orleans’ main public hospital is playing at House of Blues with his band the lower 9, 11. On his latest albumCity That Care Forgot, he sings, “Baghdad got mo power on than my sweet home new orlean.”

History simply can’t be hidden by the desire to do so. Indeed, the game is five card stud. Is it possible to stop playing, making a space for healing and continuity? Good New Orleans theatre has shown a tendency to ask this question with startling clarity.