Playhouse Tuesdays: The Clearing & A Streetcar Named Desire
July 15, 2015
by erica wachs, prose reader
Wow, I’ve missed writing this blog. I am studying abroad in France (and am still here for another three weeks, albeit with a more normal schedule), and have been mostly occupied with lots of homework and French practice. But, never fear, I’ve still had time to read two magnificent plays that I want to talk about today: The Clearing, by Helen Edmundson, and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. I’m going to go a bit meta today. Rather than describe a facet of each piece that I liked, I’m going to try to connect these two vastly different plays. I think what ultimately connects both pieces is how they are shaped by their sense of history: the history that serves as the grim backdrop The Clearing, and the history that surrounds the fame of A Streetcar Named Desire.
I’m sure most of you reading have read, seen, or heard about Streetcar, as it’s regarded as one of 20th century America’s theatre masterpieces. If anything, you probably know the famous, “STELLA!” cry that has been spoofed in a myriad of ways. If you need a quick plot refresher: Stanley and Stella are married. Stella’s washed-up sister Blanche moves in after losing the family home and fortune, in an attempt to rebuild her life, but ends up increasingly at odds with Stanley. You probably do not (or maybe you do, I should never judge my audience) know Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing, which depicts the British attempt to solve the “Irish Question” with Cromwell’s 1653 ruling, proclaiming, “all members of the Irish nation were to remove themselves west of the River Shannon into the area of Co. Clare and the province of Connaught,” (Peter Berresford Ellis). What I loved about The Clearing, besides its decidedly strong, poignant writing, was how conscious it was of itself. Edmundson, a British woman, writes about the oppression of the Irish. Her protagonists, an English nobleman and his headstrong Irish wife, go from loving couple to bitter enemies because of the 1653 ruling. This play knows that it cannot stretch beyond the bounds of its context, which is echoed in its writing, characterization, and, ultimately, ending.
In what can only be described as a painfully awkward guest lecture for my Shakespeare class this past semester, the TA presented a theory written about in The Haunted Stage by Marvin Carlson. The theory is that every play has its ghosts: the ghosts of the actors who have played certain roles and the productions that overshadow future ones to come. Carlson goes on to assert that Hamlet is the most haunted play in history. Hamlet may place first, but I’d say that A Streetcar Names Desire deserves a spot on the Top 10 List. What’s interesting to consider here is not how or why these plays continue to be produced despite the daunting task of living up to the plethora of famous performances that haunt the show, but how that history makes the play unknowable, or more aptly, untouchable. People produce plays for many reasons. One of them is the desire to feel and be human, to recreate the stories we are often afraid to live in reality. As a young country, America doesn’t have extensive history from 1653. But we have shows like Streetcar that create a grand history for us. However, another reason to perform is to tell the stories that actually transpired in history, stories like The Clearing, a depressing chapter in a nation’s history that I’m sure some people would be more than happy to forget. These two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. We see glimpses of The Clearing’s prejudice in our modern world; England and Ireland’s prejudice continues to produce headline-deserving difficulties. As an American, I can’t help but think of the prejudices and stereotypes still attached to multiracial couples. On the flipside, sometimes audiences don’t want to see history repeated, but rather watch an isolated story where, through public knowledge, they know they will ultimately be untouched by the events in the show, like Streetcar. There is a time and a place for plays about history to take center stage (ignore the pun), and there are other times when “classics” like Streetcar need to be in the spotlight (again, ignore the pun) to give an actor, a theater, a business, and a country a legacy. Either way, both senses of history are able to shape, inform, and build future productions—which both continues the theatrical cycle and creates new opportunities for old stories to have fresh beginnings.