- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Everyone has an image of New Orleans before the flood, even those who have never been there. Every columnist and commentator who ever spent a weekend in the land of dreamy dreams has indulged himself trying to explain the voodoo hoodoo of the Big Easy.

New Orleans, more than any other place in America, conjures poetry, music, desire and degeneracy, romance accompanied by a dirge of death, a mix of ethnics and ethics side-by-side with tolerance and hostility. All grew from the same root, producing an exotic harvest of flower and fruit. (Who could not be seduced by a city that names streets for the nine muses — Calliope, Clio, Erato, Terpsichore and their sisters?)

Everyone tries to capture the essence of New Orleans, and no one has ever done it quite as well as Tennessee Williams, whose most famous play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” captures the frightening aura of a resilience and change in the city capable of both cruelty and creativity. Elysian Fields, an avenue, led to a special part of the city where you’re “practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers.” Above the “blue piano” rise the sound of human voices, of a syncopated cadence of French and Spanish punctuating the rugged animal sounds of a new American English.

A dainty woman of delicate beauty named Blanche Du Bois arrives in decaying Elysian Fields, embodying a nostalgic, elegant and eloquent Southern past that, like herself, has become increasingly tarnished. She’s in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, pearl earrings and white gloves, looking as though she’s a refugee from a luncheon on St. Charles Avenue. She stumbles upon her sister, Stella, and brother in-law, Stanley Kowalski, like an anthropologist discovering a new species of man. In scene one Stanley throws a blood-stained package of meat at his pregnant wife.

A blind Mexican woman in a dark shawl sells gaudy colored tin flowers in the street, crying “Flores. Flores. Flores para los muertos.” Flowers for the dead. The viciously vibrant love life of Stella and Stanley is juxtaposed against the memory of Blanche’s impotent poet husband, a homosexual who killed himself because he couldn’t face the brutality of his world. Anyone of a certain age can recall the memorable movie performances of Vivian Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley. Blanche calls Stanley a “Pollack,” and he retorts angrily that he’s “one hundred percent American.”

As the arguments grow over what and who went wrong in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it’s useful to revisit “Streetcar” for a little poetic understanding. Tennessee Williams’ insights into New Orleans are nothing short of prophetic. There’s the poverty, the growing acceptance of thuggish behavior and the wishful thinking that accompanies confusion.

Blanche can never find enough tinted paper to soften the naked light of the electric bulb that exposes the ravages of time to her aging beauty. Neither could she salvage Belle Reve, her antebellum home in Mississippi, no more than New Orleans could rely on the levees to save its endearing decadence. Blanche retreats into madness. The refugees from the storm retreat into outrage. Those, like Blanche, who couldn’t or wouldn’t abandon New Orleans were left to be “dependent on the kindness of strangers.” There were lots of them.

Stanley Kowalski’s rape of Blanche Du Bois exposes brutality in sharp juxtaposition to a fading aristocracy of manners. A contemporary brutal thuggery survives in the vicious looters of the flood, out only for themselves to take whatever they can find. Stanley Kowalski expressed a will to live and thrive, symbolized by his sexuality and fatherhood. Raw and brutal, it’s part of the stubborn will that will rebuild New Orleans.

Blanche brought magic to the city, but it was magic dependent on illusion. If Blanche had found herself in a hurricane, she would have continued to sing the romantic lyrics that express a yearning for art and idealism over the raw power of man and nature: “Say, it’s only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea.” She would go off on the arm of an attendant in a white coat, repeating her pitiful plea for the kindness of those strangers. Stella would sob for the loss of her sister, but take consolation in the reality that she and Stanley had survived to hear once more the tinny notes of the “blue piano” just around the corner. It’s New Orleans.

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