Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Tennessee Williams and Ivo Van Hove at Home Abroad

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Tennessee Williams and Ivo Van Hove at Home Abroad

Article excerpt

Among the many Williams plays which have been produced in the Low Countries, A Streetcar Named Desire has been a staple, as could have been expected from its status within the Williams canon and that of twentieth-century American drama. Its earliest production dates from 17 November 1948. This was a few months after the by-now venerable Holland Festival had wrapped up its inaugural season, and Pjortr Sjarov had directed a melancholic version of Turgenev's A Month in the Country for Toneelgroep Comedia. Sjarov was a former student of Stanislavsky and for a brief time worked with his artistic rival Meyerhold in St Petersburg before becoming Stanislavsky's assistant at the Moscow Art Theatre.1 For the next twenty years, until his death in 1969, Sjarov's guest productions in the Netherlands would establish the standard performance style of Chekhov's plays, with the lyrical and dreamlike atmosphere arguably befitting a disappearing landed aristocracy incapable of coping with the demands of a new era.

The Chekhovian performance style was frequently adopted for productions of Williams, too, as if retroactively to substantiate J. Brooks Atkinson's somewhat puzzling assessment of A Streetcar Named Desire as a "quietly woven study of intangibles", an assessment hard to account for on the evidence of Kazan's Broadway production.2 In a 1960 interview with Edward Murrow, Williams toned down the resemblance to Chekhov when recalling the movie adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire:

... we had a screenwriter ... working on it, and he started off like it was The Cherry Orchard. You know, he said that outside the mansion, outside Belle Reve, you could hear them chopping down trees. And I said, "Oh no, this isn't The Cherry Orchard quite". And so this poor gentleman from Hollywood [Oscar Saul] was taken off the script and I had to write it myself, which I probably subconsciously wanted to do all along, so I gave him the axe. [laughter]3

In a subsequent interview with John Gruen, Williams appeared more lenient or honest when identifying Chekhov as a major, if not "the chief!,] influence on [him], as a playwright".4 Since his undergraduate days Williams has indeed been partial to Chekhov, to the point of creating in The Lady of Larkspur Lotion an alter ego of himself who identifies with the Russian master and of adapting The Seagull in The Notebook of Trigorin. Blanche DuBois' name is also meant to recall The Cherry Orchard. As she explains to Mitch, it means "white woods. Like an orchard in spring! You can remember it by that."5

For those with a short memory, certain translations, like Eric de Kuyper's, which was used by the Flemish director Ivo van Hove in 1995, rendered explicit the reference to Chekhov. They insisted it be a "cherry" orchard and thereby anticipated the Young Man's "cherry soda" in a passage van Hove especially appreciated.6 This slight poetic license with Blanche DuBois' name presumably also alerts spectators to Natasha's dismissal of the musicians in Chekhov's Three Sisters, when Stella sends the poker players packing.7 Such deliberate metatheatrical recapitulations of theatre history supplement A Streetcar Named Desire's forceful re-enactments of idyllic and traumatic pasts, already doubled by the secular routines of poker games, movies and bridge.8 These re-enactments contribute to what van Hove considers an "angstwekkend pessimistisch stuk, dat niemand toestaat zieh te ontwikkelen en iedereen vast zet in de modder".9

Hence, the director, whose theatrical roots go back to the performance tradition, troubled these re-enactments' repetitive temporality by what seemed an undodgeably present, catastrophic time. In the same performance tradition, van Hove also used explicit nudity, no longer hampered by the constraints that governed Kazan's 1947 Broadway stage or his 1951 screen adaptation. As such, van Hove provided perhaps less A Streetcar Named Desire for the 1990s than a restoration of what Williams may have intended, regardless of those reviewers faulting the Flemish director for having drowned the playwright's lyricism. …

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