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Dan Barton sits in the living room of a two-bedroom apartment in Boston, which is sparsely furnished with a second-hand couch, mismatched chairs, plywood and cinder block shelves, and cluttered with tennis shoes, articles of clothing, open and empty boxes of varying sizes, including a black and white cow print Gateway computer box. He’s been a guest of the residents, Dottie and Leah, sleeping on the couch for several months, since his last roommate moved back to Toronto suddenly, leaving him with a place he couldn’t afford on his own and unable to float the cost while he found someone new. In return for letting him crash there, he picks up the utilities. The trio met a little over a year ago at an improv club in Boston, near Wellesley’s campus, and sometimes, varying configurations of Leah, Dottie, and Dan perform together, though mainly Leah and Dan. He’s seated at the computer, near the center of the room, typing.
“Wow, it’s a speed demon,” he says in an elevated voice, as though speaking to someone in another room. “Whatever you did, Leah, it definitely helped.” Receiving no response, he goes on. “I am so stoked for the show tonight. There’s supposed to be a group from Second City performing.”
“Do you have the graduation guide in there?” Leah calls out.
“Why would I have it?” Dan says. “You forget, my application to Wellesley got lost in the mail.”
“Think it’s in Dottie’s room?” she says.
“That would be a safe bet. What do you need?” he says.
“Which way does the tassel go?” she says.
Dan thinks about it. “I think it goes to the left before the ceremony. That’s how we did it in high school.”
Leah enters wearing a cap and gown in Wellesley’s colors. She models it for Dan.
“What do you think?” she says.
“Look at you, Miss Wellesley graduate,” he says. “Did you hear from MIT?”
“I did,” she says. “You are looking at the latest candidate for an accelerated Ph.D.”
“At least you’re staying in the area, so we won’t have to break up the act,” Dan says.
“Oh yeah, the act,” Leah says. “Wouldn’t want to deprive the world of Dander and Leander.”
Dan shakes his head. “You’re a better improviser than you think.”
Leah puts her hands on her hips and tilts her head to the side. “Which explains why I’m always known as ‘that chick who does improv with Dan’. You’re the one who gets all the invitations to play with other groups.”
“I take you along,” he says.
“At least I get to see a lot of free improv by people who really know what they’re doing,” Leah says.
“Are your folks coming up for graduation?” Dan asks.
“The whole family,” Leah replies. “Mom’s supposed to call me tonight to finalize details.”
“As opposed to every other night when she just calls to chat,” he says with a chuckle.
“So, I’m close to my mother, big deal,” she says.
“No, I think it’s great. I wish I got along with my parents that well,” he says.
“It was really just me and Mom before Alyssa was born,” Leah says. “Well, Dad was there on weekends between tee times.”
“He’s some sort of high roller in Atlanta isn’t he?”
“Real estate,” she says. She looks up as though reading a billboard. “Paxton Walker, the man who gave Atlanta its urban sprawl.”
“Doesn’t that make you a Southern heiress?” Dan says.
Leah rolls her eyes. “Yeah, right.”
The phone rings and Leah answers.
“This is Leah. That you, Mom?” She seems surprised. “Dad? Why are you calling? Where’s Mom?” She puts her hand to her head. “Wait. What did you just say?”
Leah exits into her room. Dan looks after her. “Leah?”
Dottie enters and dumps her bag onto a chair. “Hey, Dan. What’s up?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Leah just got a call from her father and went in her room.”
“From her father?” Dottie says, concerned. “Leah doesn’t get calls from her father.”
Just then, Leah returns, holding the phone, her face wet with tears. Dan rises and Dottie goes to Leah and puts her arm around her.
Dan touches Leah’s shoulder and says, “Leah? Is everything okay?”
Leah shakes her head. “No. Nothing’s okay. Nothing will ever be okay again.” She stares at Dottie. “Dottie?” Leah wraps her arms around Dottie and starts sobbing. Dottie comforts her. After a moment, Leah lifts her head. “That was my father. He said my mother—“ She breaks off. “My mom’s dead.”
“Oh my god,” Dan says.
“What happened?” Dottie says. “When Dan said you were talking to him, something didn’t feel right.”
Leah puts her hand to her head. “He didn’t go into a lot of details. He came home and—“ She wanders aimlessly away from them. “I’ve got to get to Atlanta. Tonight.”
Dan looks at Dottie, who nods. He says, “What can we do to help?”
“I need to—“ Leah starts, then says, “What about graduation?”
Dottie takes her hands. “Don’t worry about that now. You need to get home to be with your family.”
Leah stares at her a moment and nods. “I’ll need a flight out.” She looks in the direction of her room. “I need to pack.”
Dan takes the phone from Leah and says to Dottie, “Okay, listen. You help get her stuff together.” He starts to dial. “My cousin works for American Airlines at Logan. I’ll call her and make the arrangements. If there’s a direct flight out tonight, she’ll get you on it.”
Dottie puts her arm around Leah and guides her into her room. “Let’s get you home.”
“The world is coming to Atlanta!”
—Ad for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
For seventeen days in the summer of 1996, Atlanta entered the Bizarro World, where the downtown connector was clear, MARTA was packed, and the world stopped by for a visit. Less than a year before, Atlanta had been thrilled when the Braves brought home their first and only World Series pennant since coming to town, so spirits were high as ’96 dawned. Atlanta had worked hard to get the Olympics, under the watchful eye of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, or ACOG as it was more commonly known. They were responsible for everything from seeing that the city was ready for the influx of international athletes and spectators, to giving the Atlanta Games the worst mascot in the entire history of sports in the form of Whatizit, or Izzy, the blue blob in sneakers which had absolutely nothing to do with the city’s past, present or future. The Paralympics, held a month or so afterward in the same venues, got it right with their mascot, Blaze, which was based on Atlanta’s symbol, the Phoenix.
At the time of the Olympics, I was serving as Membership Vice President for the Atlanta Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees, to which I had been elected a few months earlier. Like everyone else, our activities were somewhat hampered by events around town so most of us contented ourselves with accomplishing what we could while taking in as much of the Olympics as possible. Apparently, I tried to get a job working concessions at one of the venues, as I have an ID badge from Aramark. I remember going somewhere to get the ID but don’t recall why I didn’t follow through on the job. It’s possible it was a volunteer fundraising opportunity for the Jaycees — where we worked and the organization got paid — that didn’t work out.
Authorities had been warning residents of potential traffic problems for months so the terrifying specter of twenty-four hour gridlock haunted the waking hours of most commuters, sending them to seek out suburban park and ride lots to hook up with public transport while the Games were in progress. This brought about a completely different reality than the one foretold, as suburbanites, frightened into not driving, crowded onto MARTA, leaving the highways far less crammed. I lived in East Point at the time and had to commute through town to North Druid Hills for work. To say I was pleasantly surprised to encounter rush hour traffic in downtown Atlanta that was moving fifty-five to sixty miles an hour is putting it mildly. Driving through town I passed the Olympic Stadium every morning and evening, making it one of the few times I’ve driven in town as an adult where I actually enjoyed the trip.
To finance the building of Centennial Park, ACOG sold bricks where one could have his or her name imprinted. I purchased one in memory of my father, who died in April, 1995. The brick is located in Section 63, making it easier for me to remember where it is, as that’s the year I was born. Right next to my father’s brick is one commemorating Jim Morrison.
The relationship between city government, ACOG, and the International Olympic Committee was often tense. A number of construction projects were being finished just as Olympic officials started arriving and news reports were full of stories about haughty officials or their families demanding special treatment or otherwise being rude. Other countries’ delegations complained about the rampant patriotism on display at venues, particularly the indoor gymnastics events, where deafening chants of “USA, USA!” made it difficult for athletes to concentrate. Despite all the hiccups, the mood around Atlanta was festive and lighthearted as everyone looked forward to the best Games ever.
All that changed on the evening of 27 July when a bomb went off in Centennial Park, killing or contributing to the deaths of two people and injuring a hundred and eleven. The death toll would have been much higher, had it not been for the actions of a sharp-eyed security guard named Richard Jewell. While 911 operators argued over the address of Centennial Park after receiving an anonymous bomb threat, Jewell spotted a suspicious backpack, notified his superiors and began evacuating the area. His reward for what may have been the most remarkable achievement of his career was to be crucified in the press after an overzealous FBI leaked his name as a suspect. While he won a court case against the news network and was eventually vindicated with the arrest and conviction of Eric Rudolph some years later, it’s doubtful his reputation ever fully recovered. He died on 29 August 2007 at age forty-four.
The morning after the attack, I had a ticket to see Olympic tennis at Stone Mountain. I woke up, dressed, and hopped on MARTA without turning on the television, and did not learn of the details of the bombing until I arrived at Kensington station and saw the front page of the Journal/Constitution. I had been hearing rumblings along the way of beefed up security, due to an incident, but didn’t know the full extent of it until I saw the paper. In addition to that one morning of tennis which stretched into the late afternoon due to several lengthy rain delays, and which featured Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, other events I attended included one night of track and field at Olympic Stadium, and one afternoon when I drove to Athens to see the finals of rhythmic gymnastics. I had been invited by a colleague to see the first match-up of the US versus Cuba in baseball, but we failed to hook up at the venue and since he had the tickets, I couldn’t get in.
Before the Games began, I managed to see the torch relay at three separate locations around town but only specifically recall two of them, once on Roswell Road one evening with some friends, and once on Clifton Road in the afternoon, in front of the CDC, where I was working. Someone who worked on my floor was one of the torch bearers and I was able to have a picture taken with the torch. I believe the third was on Peachtree Street close to the intersection of West Peachtree, near where the Jaycees had their offices. This one was by chance, as I’d gone to the location for another purpose and just happened to find myself in close proximity to the relay.
One of the enduring landmarks from the Games is the statue in Midtown entitled The World Athletes Monument but which I’ve always called The Statue of Five Naked Guys Holding Up the Globe that Prince Charles Gave Us During the Olympics. A few years later, when Princess Diana was killed in a car accident, the statue became the focal point in town for remembrances of her, which is ironic considering she and Charles had been divorced for a number of years by that point. There were numerous other arts projects, part of the Cultural Olympiad which coincided with the Games. Plays were written and performed, statues erected, giant murals were painted, many of which were painted over in the intervening years or demolished when the buildings on which they were painted were torn down to make room for something else. There are, still, a few remnants of the Games around, Centennial Park and Turner Field the most visible, but many of the venues were broken down, packed up and shipped elsewhere once the Paralympics were over.
The Atlanta Jaycees had a membership meet and greet scheduled for Lulu’s Bait Shack in Buckhead for the Tuesday after the Olympics closed and it evolved into our “Farewell to the World” party. I recall that Tuesday evening in Buckhead as being packed like a Friday or Saturday, as residents who’d had to stay home to avoid the traffic and hassles of having the Games in town turned out to let off steam once they were gone. A festive atmosphere was evident as we reveled in the fact that we’d survived it all. It must have been reminiscent of how folks reacted when Sherman packed up and headed off to Savannah in 1864, notwithstanding the fact that for us, most of the city was still intact which was one thing for which we were all grateful.
Shakespeare’s best known tragedy is the story of two star-crossed lovers, who, in death, end their families’ conflict. Despite being hailed as a great romance, Romeo and Juliet is, in no way, a love story, but very much about individual responsibility and the consequences of making decisions in the heat of passion. Romeo is very impulsive in his actions, never thinking about the harm he may be causing and bringing about much needless strife for himself and those around him. Juliet emerges as a tragic figure, unwittingly caught up in the increasingly violent tensions between the families which leads to her demise.
I have taken to referring to the play as the comedy of Romeo and the tragedy of Juliet. Most who’ve studied the play will note the humorous tone of the first half of the play, with the forlorn Romeo first pining away for Rosaline, then quickly forgetting her when he spies Juliet at the Capulets’ party. The play initially has the wistful feel of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, all of which is cast aside with the death of Mercutio at Tybalt’s hands, which leads Romeo to avenge Mercutio’s death by taking Tybalt’s life. From that point on, the play becomes darkly tragic as the focus shifts from Romeo to Juliet.
The play is laced with violence, both actual and implied. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt which leads to first Mercutio’s then Tybalt’s death is an example of the overt violence in the play, but there’s also a lot of subtle violence, in how the characters interact with one another. In the scene where Juliet balks at marrying Paris, Lord Capulet’s reaction shows exactly how daughters were regarded in Shakespeare’s time. Capulet implies that she’s his property, and he may dispose of her as he chooses, a sentiment echoed in other works by Shakespeare, including the beginning of the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
We’ve already seen a demonstration of Capulet’s temper early in the play, when ordering Tybalt not to take action after finding Romeo has crashed the Capulets’ party. At first, Capulet seems reasonable, lauding the favorable reports he’s heard of Romeo’s behavior, but as Tybalt presses the issue, he provokes the anger of Lord Capulet, who quickly abandons his festive appearance to let his kinsman know who’s in charge. The hot-headed Tybalt can’t let the issue drop, though, leading to his confrontation with Romeo, which Mercutio takes up on Romeo’s behalf when Romeo tries to walk away.
Pretty much every bad thing that happens in the play happens as a consequence of something Romeo does and at each turn, he has alternatives he never takes the time to consider. He pines over Rosaline, so his friends take him to the Capulets’ feast, where he meets Juliet, then immediately forgets Rosaline. He woos Juliet, and hastily marries her, without considering the consequences of secretly marrying into the family of his family’s sworn enemy. When confronted by Tybalt, he chooses to say nothing of his union to Juliet, first allowing the situation to escalate between Tybalt and Mercutio, then coming between them, which allows Tybalt to deliver the fatal wound. Up to this point in the play, Romeo hasn’t done anything, other than hastily marry Juliet, to cause him any lasting problems. He soon changes all that, setting in motion the series of events which leads the play to its devastating finale.
After killing Tybalt, Romeo runs away, declaring, “I am fortune’s fool” but in reality, fortune had nothing to do with it, as Romeo had many options which did not include fighting Tybalt. When Romeo is first provoked and chooses to walk away, and Mercutio takes up the fight on Romeo’s behalf, Romeo’s best option was to do nothing, and just let Mercutio handle it, since, as a kinsman of the Duke, Mercutio is in a better position to deal with the fall out. Once Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo again needs to do nothing. Following the Duke’s decree, anyone guilty of dueling in the streets is automatically sentenced to death, and Tybalt has not only violated this decree, but he’s killed a relative of the Duke in the process. From the moment Mercutio falls, Tybalt has signed his own death warrant. Romeo would best be served to walk away and let Tybalt face his punishment. Even if his family connections are enough to save him from death, Tybalt would, at the very least, be banished, which would also solve Romeo’s problems without getting his hands dirty. Once again Romeo acts impulsively, this time costing Tybalt his life, and Romeo his freedom of movement within Verona and his actions have devastating consequences for the woman Romeo claims to love.
Romeo’s irresponsible actions leave Juliet in a terrible position, first having to reconcile her love for Romeo against her devotion to her cousin Tybalt, then, finding herself offered as a bride to Paris, which puts her at odds with her short tempered father. Her nurse counsels Juliet to simply yield to the will of her father and marry Paris, but Juliet knows that it’s not that simple. While it’s not explicitly spelled out in the context of the play, the reality is that once Juliet has spent the night with Romeo, she’s no longer a virgin. Capulet has been promising Paris the hand of his virginal daughter and once Paris has sex with her, he’ll know she’s not and will undoubtedly raise the issue with Capulet. Judging by his response to her reluctance to marry Paris, there is little doubt how Capulet would respond to the embarrassment such a revelation would cause him, and Juliet is well aware of this. Her only real hope is for Romeo to return and claim her hand, and given his situation, that’s not likely to happen. Under these circumstances, suicide or cloister are her only viable options and she has Romeo to thank for that.
Technically, under Shakespeare’s definition of the term, Romeo has committed rape. In Elizabethan England, rape was not defined as a sexual offense against a woman, but as a legal offense against her father or family. While Juliet may have consented to having sex with Romeo, who she viewed as her husband, in Shakespeare’s time, young, unmarried women did not have the legal capacity to consent to marriage, which was the only pretense under which sexual activity was considered acceptable, particularly for a woman. In order for the union to be legal in the eyes of their society, Juliet’s father or family would have had to consent to the marriage, and that was never going to happen. From the way the word is used in other plays by Shakespeare, one of the definitions of rape was that of a man who marries a woman simply to have sex with her, which, one could argue, Romeo has done. While he does claim to love Juliet, he also claimed to love Rosaline before meeting Juliet, and hardly a day has passed in between. When he speaks to the friar about performing the marriage, Friar Laurence is skeptical about how much Romeo truly cares for Juliet, but foolishly agrees to perform the union, hoping to end the conflict between the families.
There is a definite pattern to Romeo’s behavior which calls into question how much he truly cares for Juliet. This is evident from the beginning of the play, when it’s revealed that the Rosaline Romeo claims to love is Capulet’s niece. This suggests that Romeo’s trouble with Rosaline isn’t that she’s rejected him but that she is off-limits to him because of her family connections. He’s pining for her because the situation between their families makes it impossible for him to pursue her. In this context, his motives must come under scrutiny, since all accounts are that he’s as much an active participant in his family’s feud with the Capulets as the rest of his kinsmen. Lady Montague expresses relief that Romeo was not party to the fight which starts off the play. Why then would Romeo choose a relative of the Capulets as the object of his affection, knowing full well that it would only lead to more conflict? Meeting Juliet at the party and learning of her parentage presents Romeo with a new opportunity to needle his family’s sworn enemy, and he immediately puts his life at risk to pursue it by sneaking back onto the grounds of the Capulets’ home that night to see Juliet. Romeo shows his true colors when he allows Tybalt to goad him into a fight once Mercutio is dead. Not even his professed love for Juliet, Tybalt’s cousin, is enough to prevent him from striking out at his sworn enemy when provoked.
Every production I’ve seen has cast actresses playing Juliet who are in their late-teens to mid-twenties. However, the text makes it fairly clear that Juliet is thirteen. Lord Capulet, questions whether Juliet is old enough to marry when the subject of her betrothal to Paris comes up. We’re not specifically told Romeo’s age, but given his companions, it’s safe to assume that he, Benvolio, Mercutio, and Tybalt are close in age, probably early- to mid-twenties at the oldest. Paris is a count, that is, landed gentry, meaning he was “of age” or no younger than twenty-one to twenty-five. The life expectancy of people in this era was early- to mid-forties, and under English common law, boys of fourteen and girls as young as twelve could act as witnesses to wills and executors of estates. While men tended to forestall marriage until they had some means of subsistence, usually a plot of land on their families’ property or the guarantee of a substantial inheritance, women could be betrothed as soon as they reached sexual maturity so long as their families were in agreement, and given the hazards of childbirth, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for men to marry several times, leading to very young women being wedded to much older men, particularly if there were young children who needed care. While we may find it scandalous that a man in his twenties is pressing for a marriage to a thirteen year old girl, as Paris does in the play, in that day and age, it was fairly commonplace. For one thing, it got the woman out of her father’s house and made her the responsibility of someone else. Daughters in this era weren’t held in very high esteem, and were generally prized more for the powerful men they could attract than for their own personal attributes.
Juliet is the only character in the play who does not have an overt agenda. The Capulets and Montagues are consumed with their feud, which may or may not influence Romeo’s decision to pursue women related to his family’s sworn enemy. Paris wants Juliet as his wife and Capulet wants the prestige that comes with joining his daughter to a kinsman of the Duke. Friar Laurence is largely motivated by his desire to end the bloodshed caused by the feud, agreeing to sanction a union which he should know neither side will accept. Juliet’s nurse at first helps Juliet in her pursuit of Romeo, but shows her reliance on the established order when she counsels Juliet to marry Paris when Romeo is sent away. Juliet finds herself caught between her obedience to her father and her love for her father’s enemy, yet remains focused on what she believes to be the right course of action, remaining faithful to the vow she made to Romeo. In doing so, she becomes the only character who consistently grows throughout the play.
Romeo’s behavior does not change significantly, and in fact he becomes more reckless and impulsive as the action progresses, whereas Juliet becomes more mature and assured of her actions. Romeo’s decision to kill himself after hearing erroneous reports of Juliet’s death is yet another rash and foolish act which could have been avoided if only he had checked in with Friar Laurence when he arrived back in Verona. Juliet, on the other hand, looks for any opportunity to rectify the situation without further bloodshed. When she realizes her family views her as little more than a token to be offered to the influential Paris, she resolves to chart her own course, even if it means ending her life, and while she is fully prepared to die rather than violate her vow to Romeo, she allows Friar Laurence to counsel her and gratefully accepts his remedy for her situation. Once again, she falls victim to Romeo’s impulsiveness, and seeing her last chance at happiness on her own terms taken from her, she exercises the only option she feels she has left and ends her life.
Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.
A Streetcar Named Desire is heralded as one of the greatest theatrical works of the twentieth century and is one of the best known and most performed works by Tennessee Williams. It sets up a classic confrontation, the flamboyant yet fragile Blanche DuBois versus the menacing and unpredictable Stanley Kowalski. The tension begins the moment Blanche enters the household and builds to it’s shattering climax with Blanche and Stanley’s final confrontation. The moment Blanche meets her brother-in-law, his fuse is lit, and the question becomes how long it will be before Stanley explodes. Caught between them is the hapless Stella, who tries her best to mediate between two very demanding antagonists without much success. The play also features a decisive shift in power as the first half largely belongs to Blanche, while the second part is clearly dominated by Stanley. While I have seen this play performed recently, this article is not intended as a review of a specific performance, rather an analysis of the play as a whole.
At its heart, Streetcar is a thinly veiled metaphor for the Civil War and Reconstruction. The generation of Southern writers who included Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner were the children and grandchildren of Confederate veterans, and no doubt grew up hearing horror stories of Northern aggression and the noble Southern gentry who made a valiant but ultimately doomed stand in the face of it. Stanley is the perfect stand-in for the unrefined, egalitarian North with its melting pot willing to assimilate just about anyone, while Blanche represents the genteel and pure-bred South, which existed more in myth than actuality. Everything about Blanche is phony, as was the myth of noble Southern gentry whose fortunes were built on the backs of the slaves and poor whites they exploited. It speaks to Williams’ skill as a playwright that neither character emerges as the hero of the piece. Blanche is portrayed as delusional and elitist, while Stanley is brutish and violent. Stella comes across as the tortured heroine, caught between the empty myth of the “old South” and the harsh reality of the modern industrial North now in control of the South’s destiny. That the play takes place in New Orleans, perhaps the most eclectic of old Southern cities, merely enhances the dichotomy of the two extremes.
In many respects, Stella and Blanche are two sides of the same coin, the only difference being that Stella has made compromises Blanche is unwilling or incapable of making. Stella seems the more realistic of the two sisters, seeing the future as grim but manageable with the right attitude, whereas Blanche is unwilling to accept anything but her version of reality. Ironically, it’s Blanche who has been treated to the harshest dose of reality, early on losing her husband to suicide, then having to care for the aging members of her family while watching the family’s fortunes evaporate due to mismanagement. Blanche’s delusions are rooted in the naive hope that a protector will arise to return her to the gentility she remembers from her youth, whereas Stella’s delusions are rooted in her acceptance of the notion that her fortunes are bound to those of her husband. Everything will be fine as long as she does what Stanley tells her. Until Blanche shows up calling into question the relationship Stella has with Stanley, it never occurs to Stella that anything’s wrong with her marriage. Blanche is the one to see how controlling Stanley can be and perhaps Blanche’s greatest frustration comes from being unable to convince Stella how oppressive this relationship may become.
The challenge of Streetcar is that there’s no one within the context of the story that the audience can champion. Blanche is self-centered and delusional, while Stanley is a narcissist, already showing signs of becoming an abusive spouse. Stella simply floats between the two, not knowing for certain which of the powerful presences she should placate. With the exception of Mitch, none of Stanley’s friends rise above the level of caricature, and the women surrounding Stella do little more than encourage her to stick by her violent and aggressive spouse. For her part, Stella transforms Stanley into her rugged protector, just as Blanche attempts to transform Mitch into the type of gallant Southern gentleman she thinks will save her. Neither is successful, but at least Stella is able to convince herself that Stanley’s failings are more a result of his situation rather than genuine character flaws. The reality is, Stanley needs Stella, and Stella needs Stanley, regardless of how unhealthy their symbiotic relationship may be in the long-run. Stella realizes, though, that as long as she remains within the boundaries set for her by her husband, things will work out for her, while Blanche is determined to push those boundaries, much to her detriment.
In all the productions I’ve seen, Stanley rarely comes across as likable. While he does have humorous moments, there’s a strong sense that the audience is laughing at his oafish ways rather than with him. The turning point comes when he strikes Stella. This is both the point at which Blanche is shown the dark side of Stella’s relationship with Stanley, and when the audience realizes how out of control Stanley can become when his authority is challenged. Obviously, we’re not seeing Stanley at his best, and Blanche certainly brings out the worst in him, but the violence is there to be mined. He didn’t suddenly turn into an arrogant jerk just because his sister-in-law paid a visit. Stella mentions that Stanley does not give her a regular allowance and generally handles all the bills, both classic traits of a spouse who contrives to make his partner totally dependent upon him. It’s clear from his first appearance in the play that he’s firmly in charge in his household. Somehow, though, Stella does not seem to mind, instead relinquishing all her autonomy. Like Blanche, she wants someone strong on whom she can depend to support her and make all the decisions, and Stanley is all too willing to fulfill this role. It’s entirely likely that their life together has been reasonably pleasant before Blanche shows up with the first real challenge to Stanley, and he doesn’t handle it well. Whether or not Blanche’s reemergence in Stella’s life will have any long-term impact is unknown, but given how she reacts to having Blanche around, it’s likely that Stella is ultimately glad her sister leaves at the end, regardless of how that comes about.
Much discussion has centered around Stanley and Blanche’s final showdown near the end of the play, and in many of the productions I’ve seen, it’s strongly implied, if not outright depicted that he rapes her. This seems largely dependent upon how the director and cast choose to interpret the scene, though whether or not Stanley actually forces himself on Blanche, it’s fairly clear that she does not submit to him out of a sense of mutual desire. By this point in the play, most of Blanche’s delusions have been shattered, and one could argue that Mitch’s rejection of her has as much, if not more impact on her mental state than anything Stanley does. The balance of power has shifted, and the last safe harbor Blanche was counting on, being with her sister, has not provided her with the solace she needed. Surrendering to Stanley is the final indignity, and a case could be made that Blanche has already gone off the deep end by this point, so nothing Stanley does can have much more of a detrimental effect on her. Stanley has stripped Blanche of all her pretensions, and thus destroyed the illusion which was the basis of her self image. She submits because she has nothing left to lose.
It is important to note, however, that even though Blanche seems defeated at the end, she does not appear to have completely abandoned the delusions she’s used to bolster her self-esteem throughout. Her final line, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers” sounds suspiciously like she believes the person to whom it’s said is genuinely doing her a favor. One can imagine Blanche convincing herself that the convalescent home where she’s being taken is some elegant chalet arranged for her by a mysterious benefactor, and once she’s had time to rest and recuperate, she may well be able to fool the staff into thinking she’s safe to release, allowing her to once again return to the belief that she’s in control. I strongly suspect the Kowalskis haven’t heard the last of Blanche DuBois.
The book of Judges concludes with a rather gruesome story about a Levite and his concubine, which appears to have contributed elements to or borrowed elements from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. Initially, it starts out as another meandering tale highlighting the overwhelming customs of hospitality exhibited by denizens of the Middle East at that time, but quickly takes a dark turn as the Levite and his entourage take refuge in the city of Gibeah controlled by the Benjamites. It’s here that the story is almost a verbatim retelling of that of Sodom and Gomorrah. It seems appropriate to have parallels to Sodom and Gomorrah, because the incident leads to the near destruction of the tribe of Benjamin.
This tale begins with the disclaimer common to Judges that it takes place before Israel had a king. An unnamed Levite living in Ephraim takes a concubine from among the tribe of Judah. The term “concubine” appears to be synonymous with “wife” in this instance, though, in the NIV, she’s always called his concubine and never his wife or bride. Different translations of the Bible refer to her as a “slave woman” or his “mistress” or “second wife” but never his wife. Judges tells us that she was unfaithful to him, though exactly what she did is undisclosed, other than relating that the woman left him and returned to her family. Apparently, he had no hard feelings about it, because after a few months, he went to Judah to persuade her to return. It’s possible that her unfaithfulness was manifested solely in the act of leaving her husband and returning to her parents, which betrothed women weren’t supposed to do.
When the Levite goes to retrieve the concubine, the almost comical traditions of hospitality come into play, as the woman takes the Levite to her father’s house, and the father is so gracious, he pretty much won’t let the man leave. After three days, the father, who is frequently referred to as the Levite’s father-in-law in the NIV, persuades the Levite, referred to as the man’s son-in-law, to stay for breakfast rather than leaving at the first light of dawn, and once the Levite has indulged the father, he then insists the Levite not leave late in the day, but stay for another night. This goes on for a day or so, before the Levite finally insists and heads out with his donkeys, his servant and his concubine in the afternoon.
Since they got a late start due to the graciousness of their host, nightfall approaches just as they’re nearing the town of Jebus, which was the home of the Jebusites. Earlier in Judges, we’re told that the Benjamites were unable to drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem, and were still living alongside them. The Levite’s servant suggests they stay there for the evening, but the Levite makes the fateful decision not to visit any town not inhabited by one of the tribes of Israel, so they head on until they come to Gibeah which is part of Benjamin. Judges 19:15 concludes with the Levite and his entourage camped out in the city square for the evening, after no one offered the Levite hospitality.
As evening comes on, an old man who also comes from the hill country of Ephraim finds the Levite and his group camped out and asks them why they’re staying in the square. The Levite explains his situation and the old man invites him and his group back to the old man’s house, and cautions them against staying outdoors. The Levite accepts. While they’re eating, what’s described as the “wicked men of the city” show up and demand that the stranger be brought out, as the wicked men state they want to have sex with him. Here, other translations give slightly differing details as the Living Bible refers to them as “sex perverts,” and the KJV calls them, “certain sons of Belial,” and the International Standard Version lists them as “certain ungodly men”. In all translations, it’s made clear that it isn’t all of Gibeah, just a few bad apples, though one could argue the situation was set up by none of the people of town offering hospitality to the stranger, other than the one person from Ephraim.
Judges 19:22-24 is almost verbatim to what’s in Genesis 19:4-8, including the offer by the homeowner to bring out his virgin daughter and the Levite’s concubine, as opposed to Lot offering his daughters to the wicked men of Sodom. Other parallels include the fact that the old man is not of the tribe inhabiting Gibeah, similar to Lot being a newcomer in Sodom, and his words to the wicked men are also very similar to what Lot says to the men of Sodom in discouraging them from harming his guests. In this instance, however, the Levite sends out his concubine when the wicked men won’t go away, and the translation of Judges in the NIV states she was raped and abused all night. At daybreak, the poor woman crawls back to the door of the house, where she presumably dies, though the only translation of Judges 19 I found which explicitly says that she died was the Living Bible. The NIV doesn’t specifically spell it out, though it’s made more explicit in the next chapter.
The next morning, the Levite awakens, apparently refreshed from all the hospitality he has received, and goes out to find his concubine laying at the doorstep. Without inquiring how she’s doing, or checking to see if she’s even breathing, he tells her to get up because they need to hit the road, but, as one might imagine, she doesn’t respond, having been raped and abused all night by a group of strangers. The Levite puts her on one of his donkeys, and heads back to Ephraim, and for those who don’t believe things can get worse, trust me, they do. Judges tells us that when he arrived home, the Levite took out a knife, cut the woman into twelve parts and sent these parts to all the areas of Israel, where the recipients were justifiably horrified at receiving them. Let that sink in a moment. The man cut the woman, who may or may not have been dead, into twelve pieces, then distributed the pieces throughout Israel.
This is only the first part of the story.
We need to stop right here and examine all that’s happened up to this point in the tale. A man takes a concubine who runs away from him back to her family. He goes to retrieve her, and after enjoying her family’s hospitality for several days, sets out for home with her. That night, he refuses to go to the nearest town, simply because the residents aren’t Israelite, and ends up in a town controlled by the Benjamites. He’s taken in by an old man who comes from his home region, and they’re set upon by the wicked men of town. The old man offers the wicked men his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine, and when the wicked men don’t accept the offer, the Levite sends his concubine out to unspeakable horrors at the hands of an unruly crowd of strangers. The next day, the man shows no concern for the woman, who’s lying unresponsive at the door to the house where he’s staying, then loads her onto a donkey, and once he gets home, he carves her up and sends the parts out to people he doesn’t even know. We can only assume she was dead when he started cutting her up, but the translation of Judges 19 in the NIV — not to mention most other translations I’ve read — doesn’t explicitly say she was.
In the next chapter, it’s made clear that the concubine had, in fact, died from the treatment she received in Gibeah. The remaining tribes of Israel are assembled, and the Levite tells the assembled tribes how this came to be. Judges tells us that after receiving parts of the concubine, four hundred thousand armed men gathered in Mizpah, with the exception of the Benjamites, who, the text says, had nonetheless heard of the assembly. Once the tribes have heard the Levite’s story, they resolve to go against Gibeah for the crime, and send word to the Benjamites to surrender the men responsible, so they can be put to death. The Benjamites, however, don’t listen, and instead arm themselves, and head to Gibeah to fight. It’s not stated why the Benjamites would rather go to war than surrender a few lawless citizens, but this is the choice they make. After consulting the Lord, the Israelites decide Judah will lead the attack.
Things don’t go very well for the assembled tribes, because apparently the Benjamites were fierce warriors. In Genesis 49, Benjamin is compared to a ravening wolf, and apparently this translates into being very impressive on the battlefield as well. The first day, Judges says, twenty-two thousand warriors are slain at the hands of the Benjamites. Following this, the Israelite tribes ask the Lord if they should be fighting against their fellow tribe. God tells them to go back and fight some more. Things don’t go much better and the tribes lose another eighteen thousand men in the battle. Once again, they return to the Lord to question whether they should just let bygones be bygones. God tells them to go back and fight some more, promising to deliver the Benjamites to them. This time the Israelite tribes set up an ambush, and using other clever tactics, manage to lure the Benjamites away from Gibeah, where their ambush forces are able to take the town and put it to the sword, before burning everything. A cloud of smoke sent up from Gibeah signals that the Israelites have won the day, and seeing it, the Benjamites flee the battlefield. This time it’s Benjamin who takes the brunt of the battle, losing first eighteen thousand individuals on the battlefield, then another five thousand as they flee toward the wilderness, and finally an additional two thousand. Judges tells us only six hundred men from Benjamin manage to take refuge in the wilderness. The Israelite tribes retaliate by putting all of Benjamin save the six hundred hiding in the woods to the sword, including women and children. They then take an oath to add insult to injury by swearing that they won’t give their daughters in marriage to anyone from Benjamin, not that there are that many left by this point.
As is common in Biblical tales, in Judges 21, once the tribes of Israel have pretty much decimated Benjamin, they begin to feel really bad about wiping out one of their fellow tribes, but given the oath they’ve taken, there’s not much they can do to change things. They assemble at Mizpah and build an altar, and once again take an oath that anyone who fails to show up, other than the remaining Benjamites, who are still in hiding, will be put to death. While grieving for Benjamin, they realize no one from Jabesh Gilead showed up at the assembly, so they immediately dispatch twelve thousand troops to put the entire tribe to death, save for all the unmarried virgin women, which, once the carnage is done, comes to about four hundred. The remaining tribes take these women to Benjamin as a peace offering, but since there are six hundred remaining Benjamites and only four hundred women, the remaining tribes are at a loss as to how to provide women to help replenish Benjamin. They seem to forget that the reason the Benjamites have no women for their wives is because the other tribes put them all to the sword, along with the children, all for the actions of a few wicked individuals in a single town against a single individual. This is not meant to imply the crime wasn’t horrifying, but the punishment was totally out of proportion to the infraction even taking into account Benjamin’s reaction to it. At last, the tribes instruct the Benjamites to go to the festival of the Lord in Shiloh, and when the young women come out to dance, the Benjamites should rush out and kidnap the women for their wives. In doing so, the fathers are let off the hook, because they didn’t break their oaths by giving their daughters to the Benjamites.
Honestly, how any woman can read the Old Testament and feel good about what goes on in much of it is beyond me. For every Deborah and Ruth, there are countless nameless concubines, wives and daughters who are treated like absolute garbage. In most cases, the writers don’t even bother to give them names, such as the case with the Levite’s concubine, or Lot’s wife and daughters in Genesis. It’s rare in the genealogies for the wives names to even be included, except in certain cases like Leah, Rachel, and Tamar. Even Ruth, who’s held up as a paragon of virtue, does little more than make herself available to Boaz, since she has no authority or power of her own, being a Moabite and a woman and a recent follower of the God of Israel. Deborah is one of the few women in the whole of the Old Testament who holds her own among the men, and even she derives part of her authority from her deceased husband, and the fact she’s a prophet.
In this story from Judges, the men have little consideration for any of the women, the Levite sending his concubine out to the wicked men of Gibeah to satisfy them with no concern for the health and well-being of the woman, and the men of Benjamin are instructed to simply go out and grab whichever woman they want from among the maidens of Shiloh, without obtaining consent from the women or their families. When warriors are sent to punish a town or tribe, the women and children are shown no mercy at all, unless they’re virgins, in which case they’re simply stolen away and forced to become wives to complete strangers, to make up for actions committed by the men. More than anything, it highlights the tribal customs common among the people who came to be known as the children of Israel, and many of these customs are still in evidence in the modern world throughout the Middle East, Pakistan, and wherever else the tribal lifestyle is still in practice.
Judges ends pretty much as it began, by informing the readers that Israel was without a king and that the tribes pretty much did as they chose, which is aptly illustrated by the stories in Judges. While Benjamin is left devastated by the attack, the tribe proves to be very resilient, becoming one of the tribes represented as part of Jerusalem in later history, and being the tribe of Saul, the first anointed king of Israel. Aside from Judah, the majority tribe in Jerusalem, and the Levites, who comprised the priestly class, Benjamin was one of the more important tribes in the later history of Israel. One source I read speculated that Benjamin’s identification with wolves may have come from their bearing a tribal standard depicting a wolf. My own ancestors, who adopted the name “Lupo” meaning “wolf” in Italian, were Jews who appear to have identified with Benjamin.
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