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 there has indulged himself explaining the voodoo hoodoo of the Big Easy. New Orleans, more than any other place, 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 named streets after the nine muses -- Calliope, Clio, Erato, Terpsichore and their sisters?)
Everyone is trying 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 formal luncheon in the Garden District. She stumbles upon her sister Stella and her husband 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, 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 performances of Vivian Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley. Blanche calls Stanley a "Polack," and he retorts angrily that he's "one hundred percent American."
As the arguments continue 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's insights into New Orleans are little less than 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 to her aging beauty. Neither can 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 who couldn't, or wouldn't, abandon New Orleans, like Blanche, were left to be "dependent on the kindness of strangers," and there were lots of them, too.
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 fighting will that must 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 probably have continued to sing the romantic lyrics that expressed 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 . . . "
Finally she would go off on the arm of a doctor repeating her pitiful plea for those kind strangers. Stella would sob for the loss of her sister, but take consolation in the reality that she and Stanley survived to hear once more the tinny notes of the "blue piano" just around the corner.