Believing in the Kindness of Strangers
Believing in the Kindness of Strangers
And all that Jazz…
Underling Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire is a power struggle that comes to a climax with the rape of Blanche. Telling the story of the descent of Blanche Dubois, Williams shows a male oriented view in which Blanche has power towards the beginning of the story, but ends up as a used and battered goods at the end. Whether it be the rape by Stanley or the spurning by Mitch, Blanche is at the bottom of the power hierarchy at the plays conclusion. Working along similar lines to Streetcar is the movie Chicago in which Roxie Heart goes from being at the bottom of the power hierarchy in the beginning, but finishes on top. In the way she accomplishes her dream of being on stage and the way in which she takes dominance in her relationship with her husband Amos, she is able to follow a parallel structure as Blanche, yet persevere and come out on top. By comparing these characters of the two pieces and the way in which the climax is reached, the reader is able to perceive two different ways in which the characters in both stories could have turned out and the effects of their society upon them.
The alpha male of Stanley Kowlaski in Streetcar, through his use of strong and oafish mannerisms, attempts to control the world surrounding him. Whether it be the prestige he has from his job or the way he holds himself in public Stanley demands respect. When first telling Blanche about the Napoleonic code and how “According to which whatever belongs to my wife is also mine.” (1992) it is shown that Stanley wishes to control his wife and the way in which their marriage is constructed. As well, throughout the story, his meddling with Blanche shows that he is unwilling to lose in any sort of confrontation with another. Inevitably this leads to Stanley destroying Blanche in both spheres, both the mental and the physical.
Paralleling a more positive Stanley in Chicago is the lawyer Billy Flynn. Similar to Stanley, Billy makes it his goal to control all the action around him. Unlike Stanley, however, he is a manipulator. While Stanley relies on brute force, Billy pulls the strings of people so that they act in the way he sees fit. Furthermore, unlike Stanley, Billy is only out to control Roxie Heart in the social sphere, ala the courtroom. As such, while he does have the power to destroy her if he sees fit, he takes a more benevolent role. While both characters seem to function as the alpha male in their respective narratives, they are both in turn working towards different ends. Both seek to control what is occurring around them, however, one does it for self-satisfying reasons (Stanley) and the other for his clientele (Billy) as well as for personal prestige.
Though each piece maintains an alpha male at its top of the pecking order, each piece also has the omega male who is, essentially, used by the female protagonist. In the case of Streetcar, Mitch is at the weak end of the power balance. While he does have a good nature and wishes to be with Blanche, he has an apparent naivety to the ways in which he is being abused by her. Despite revelations that he is allowed to see, he refuses to accept the truth until he gets a first hand account of all that has occurred. As such, during Blanche's decline, he is capable of rising above her in the power struggle. When he confronts Blanche in scene nine he points out how he “Doesn't mind her being older than what he thought. But all the rest of it-Christ!” (2029) as he grills her under a glaring light bulb, demeaning her and mentally abusing her in a way that Stanley is incapable of. In the end, it is Mitch who attempts to take advantage of Blanche as compared to Blanche using him for security when he attempts to proposition sex but refuses to marry her stating “I don't think I want to marry you any more… You're not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother” (2031). While before it would have been arguable that he was not good enough for her, through the revelations of Blanche's past, she is no longer good enough for him.
Mirroring the role of the naïve oaf who brings security in Chicago is Roxie's husband Amos. With an air of innocence, he attempts to first take the blame for the murder which she commits, and then goes as far to raise money for her trial. Similar to Mitch, he is unable to see Roxie for the seductress that she truly is. This is perhaps best exemplified when Amos states “Fred Casely? How could he be a burglar? My wife knows him. He sold us our furniture. He gave us 10% off,” after being accused of the murder Roxie commits. The main difference between Amos and Mitch (aside from the marriage factor) is that the society that surrounds Amos is trying to help Roxie as compared to hurt her. Within Streetcar Stanley used his pull to attempt to dissuade Mitch from getting together with Blanche, however, Billy attempts to get Amos to stay with Roxie in Chicago. Due to this, while Mitch is able to get the upper hand on Blanche by the plays conclusion, Amos, still helplessly devoted, is ditched by Roxie as she moves on to attempt to pursue her own path in life.
With the two ends of the spectrum explained, that just leaves the comparison of the central figures of Blanche and Roxie. In the case of Blanche, she is a fairly strong woman who sees what she desires and attempts to attain it through Mitch. With Mitch, she sees security and possibly the chance for some faint resemblance of romance. While the reality of the situation might be one of lowered expectations, Blanche at one point states “I don't want realism. I want magic!” (2029) during her confrontation with Mitch. However, despite everything that Blanche may wish for, she is haunted by her past. The suicide of her husband affects everything she does, and furthermore, she has to have affairs in an attempt to find meaning. This ends up working against her in the most horrific of manners, though. Due to her past, Blanche formulates a debonair persona that she hopes to use to attract the attention and praise of those that surround her. With the burden of her troubled past and the controlling mannerisms of Stanley, though, it is impossible for Blanche to achieve any of her goals. She is merely a martyr of the times, yet another victim of subservience to a male dominated society.
Roxie Heart, comparatively, is a character with a similar structure to Blanche. Just as Blanche has her dreams of romance and a better life with security, Roxie holds unto an ambition to be on stage no matter the cost. In attempting to achieve her goal, she first seduces Amos for a necessary security and then attempts to throw herself at Fred Casley in order to further her career. Just as Blanche must put up a façade to hide her past in front of those that surround her (Stanley, Mitch, Stella), Roxie also attempts to create a persona that will endear her to the public and make them overlook the fact that she is a murderer. Unlike Blanche, though, Roxie is supported by the alpha male of her society, and as such, is able to inevitably achieve her dreams, though in something of an unbelievable fashion.
With the parallels between the main characters of the story, it then becomes a matter of what makes one tragic and one a light hearted comedy, aside from the musical numbers. The main thing that transforms the comedy to tragedy within the two is the role of the males within the society. In both cases, the females do not have a great deal of freedom and whatever they wish for is almost completely determined by the males of the society. In Streetcar, the wives of the males return to them every night after they are beaten. While this seems illogical, it is based upon the assumption that there is no where else they can go. Once characters reach a certain age, they are dried up, and it is only by the desires of the males to provide that the females can survive.
Within Chicago is the same ideal. While taking place approximately 20 years before Streetcar, woman are still almost completely reliant upon males. In the case of Roxie, she is living with Amos not out of love, but for security. The only way that Roxie is able to raise her status within the society and open up new possibilities for herself is through sleeping with men of power, such as Fred Casley. Despite their best efforts, though, both Blanche and Roxie's attempt to rise in power/security, both end with them being trapped. In the case of Blanche, she is trapped by the revelations of her past. As for Roxie, she is caught for having murdered Fred. It is at this point that the two stories make there divergence that truly separates comedy from tragedy.
In the case of Blanche, the males in her society seek to destroy her. As Stanley says “Come to think of it-maybe you wouldn't be bad to-interfere with” (2035). Rather than attempting to support Blanche, he goes out of his way to force her into an inferior state. Despite the fact that her reputation is ruined through his actions, he sets out to take everything away from her. Stanley and Mitch's actions, on top of the mistreatment she receives previously from her ex-husband, make it is easy to see that the males of the society misuse Blanche in such a way so that she could never have succeeded, all she could have hoped for was perhaps a loveless marriage or a series of affairs. It is her line “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers” (2041) that best sums up the point that her situation is directly caused by the males around her. Due to the dominating male society, Blanche has no choice BUT to go to the institution at the plays end.
While the credibility of Blanche is destroyed by the alpha male within her society, Billy Flynn does his best to create a benevolent persona in the character of Roxie. While the actions of Stanley were purely antagonistic towards Blanche, Billy attempts to create a Roxie in the public sphere that can, literally, “Get away with murder.” As well, the other male in Roxie's life, Amos, continues to support her throughout the show, never once attempting to take advantage of the fame and prestige she garners, or even going faintly beyond the concept of considering a divorce, which is quickly dismissed by Billy. It is through the support of the males within her society that Roxie is able to achieve her aspirations and take the stage in the shows final real.
It is through the parallels of these two works that the reader is able to see the strong role society, and the males within it, can shape the outcome of a story. Without the supportive alpha male of Billy Flynn within Chicago, Roxie would surely have ended up either imprisoned or perhaps worse. If it were not for the meddling of Stanley within Streetcar, the chances would be relatively good that Blanche would have been able to marry Mitch and live as relatively happily ever after as the situation would allow. As well, the influence of those at the top of the power pyramid quite evidently affects the thoughts and actions of those underneath them. Whether it be Billy convincing Amos to stand by Roxie despite the horrible charges against her, or Stanley attempting to dissuade Mitch from going around with Blanche, the head of the society dictates the actions of those beneath them. In this way it is evident that there is a thin line between tragedy and comedy which is created by an individuals society. For better or worse, the powerful males of a society decide whether to make an idol like Roxie, or a martyr like Blanche.