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Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation
by Nancy Schoenberger
Book Review by Wendy Caster

Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation, by Nancy Schoenberger, is an odd little book. Saying that it runs some 193 pages of actual content is generous, as that includes a number of white pages, a faux obituary of Blanche DuBois, and four pages of sonnets, created by Schoenberger, that purport to be what Blanche's long-dead young husband might have written (!!!). Trimmed of its repetitions, the book could have made a fairly interesting long essay in The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. (I am assuming that any reader of this review is familiar with A Streetcar Named Desire and its main character, Blanche DuBois. If not, an excellent place to start is the movie version, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Vivien Leigh, who won her second Oscar for her performance.)

Schoenberg starts by asking "Does Blanche DuBois Still Matter?" One can guess her answer since the entire book is devoted to Blanche. This introductory chapter starts by establishing Schoenberger's attachment to and knowledge of New Orleans, featuring both dark and coffee-colored cockroaches. Sections of this intro include "Blanche as Tragedy, Blanche as Comedy," "Blanche's Trunk," "Southern Womanhood, or the Eternal Feminine," "Blanche as White, Blanche as Black," and "The Madness of Blanche DuBois." In these short sections, she sets the parameters of her analysis and test drives some of her arguments, the main one being that the seven Blanches she focuses on "embody different aspects of this rich, multifaceted character."

Schoenberger devotes Chapter 1 to Tennessee Williams's much-loved sister Rose. In addition to providing a brief biography, she discusses the mental health treatments of the early 1940s, including lobotomy, and how they destroyed Rose's life. Most important to Schoenberger is Rose's influence on Williams' work, particularly in The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, and, yes, A Streetcar Named Desire. She does an excellent job of presenting the horrors of Rose's life, which left Tennessee Williams guilt-ridden, grief-stricken, and vividly aware of the mistreatment of women. As Schoenberger quotes him, "We have accepted as normal the persistent oppression of women. This is chronic abuse in the guise of culture." This chapter is heart-breaking and infuriating, as any discussion of Rose's life must be.

The next seven chapters each discuss one of the Blanches Schoenberger is examining. She focuses on The Unbearable Whiteness of Blanche DuBois (Jessica Tandy); Vivien Leigh's own mental health problems versus Blanche's; the confident sexuality of Ann-Margret; Jessica Lange as "touched by the moon's lunacy"; Patricia Clarkson's educated and savvy Blanche; the multifaceted Blanche of Cate Blanchett; and Jemier Jenkins's snobby Blanche in a production of Streetcar mounted by the African American Shakespeare Company (though Schoenberger actually seems more interested in L. Peter Callender's direction than in Jenkins's performance per se).

These differences in interpretation are overemphasized as ways to understand Blanche, and they also fail in organizing the book. Many topics are either repeated or awkwardly split from chapter to chapter. Other topics are marooned in one or two chapters although they are relevant to the play as a whole and not just that particular Blanche (e.g., "Is Blanche a Whore," "The Young, Young, Young Man," and "The Scent of Blanche DuBois," a topic covered in curious detail).

I should probably mention here that I am deeply interested in the character of Blanche DuBois and have seen her played by Rosemary Harris, Lois Nettleton, Natasha Richardson, Jessica Hecht, Marin Mazzie, Cate Blanchett, and Nicole Ari Parker on stage, and by Vivien Leigh in the movie. I found myself debating Schoenberger's ideas throughout the book, which was fun. Occasionally, Schoenberger changed or expanded facets of my understanding of Blanche. For example, she convinced me that Blanche was at least partially based on Williams's sister Rose, though I cannot agree that "Rose's transformation into Blanche DuBois represents the fullest embodiment of his sister." She gives as evidence that Blanche and Rose shared a love of "pretty dresses, flowers, jewelry, perfume," but so did, and do, millions of other women, and men.

Schoenberger argues that Blanche suffers from PTSD, which is a useful interpretation. She says that Blanche's baths are a way to "restore" her virginity. Williams certainly believed in the renewal of virginity, as in the wonderful Camino Real, where one character's virginity "is magically restored at a fiesta held every month" (per Wilborn Hampton in the New York Times). Based on L. Peter Callender's ideas, Schoenberger discusses the possibility that Blanche and Stanley met before Streetcar even starts. It's an unconvincing theory, but not uninteresting.

A major concept of this book is that playing Blanche is exhausting to all the actors who play her. Vivien Leigh said that it "tipped her into madness." Ann-Margret said, "I felt dazed and psychologically beaten." Jessica Lange said, "Your body doesn't understand it's make-believe." Patricia Clarkson said, "You never really recover from it." To fulfill this theory, Schoenberger writes, "[Jessica Tandy] was arguably deepened by playing so shattered, complex, and heartbreaking a character." However, Schoenberger neither makes that argument nor provides a citation.

Lack of citation is a problem elsewhere as well. Schoenberger writes repeatedly that people sided with Stanley in the 1940s and '50s but in no way backs this up. Worse, she writes that Gore Vidal, while trying to get the movie of Suddenly Last Summer past censors, argued that "because the gay man in the in the feature ... is killed, the film could be seen as a moralizing, cautionary tale." If Vidal said that, I'm disappointed in him, but did he? There's no citation.

Some of Schoenberger's writing is tone deaf or just plain wrong. She writes that Vivien Leigh beat Paulette Goddard for the role of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind, but the more salient point is that she beat half of the actresses in Hollywood, including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Lana Turner. In another example, Schoenberger writes, "Hard to realize that one's sanity may be dependent upon such simple things as good clothes, cash at hand, and some way–or someone–to relieve loneliness." Is that really hard to realize? Really? In yet another example, Schoenberger writes that, after Leigh won the Oscar for Streetcar, "for the first time [Olivier] saw Vivien Leigh's fame eclipse his own." No, that had happened years earlier, with Gone With the Wind.

I have to admit that my main thought while reading Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation was, "How the heck did she ever get this thing published?" (And not cheaply either: it features an index and a section of glossy color photos.)

It really should have been a long essay. Or maybe a not-that-long essay.

Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams's Greatest Creation
By Nancy Schoenberger
203 pages
Publication Date: April 4, 2023
ISBN: 978-0062947178
Hardcover / Kindle Edition / Audible Audiobook / Audiobook on CD