The Quality of Attentiveness

Part of the pleasure of doing Streetcar was reading scholarship on it. I realize this is not everyone's cup of tea, but it helped me grasp possible ways to play the role and is also just part of my pleasure in reading literature. One early article I discovered online, by George Toles, dealt with studying drama and also doing drama. This isn't an area of scholarship I've investigated much, oddly. I often keep my acting separate from my studies. But reading this Toles article impacted my studies and my portrayal of Blanche and my understanding of A Streetcar Named Desire as a play. One quotation in particular has stuck with me beyond its ramifications for being Blanche, and I've put it in my signature line in my email and thought about it a lot. Here it is:

"Sometimes another person can arrest my sense of absence from life by remembering that I exist, and making that memory tangible through their quality of attentiveness. I come to believe once more (through another's belief) that I am situated, openly, within my life, that I belong to a world that actually contains me. I am sustained by finding myself at home in another's gaze. And once revealed in this other being's sight, where there is room for me to remember myself, I can turn back to my separateness and not be annihilated by it."

Specifically, Toles is discussing the final scene of the play, in which Blanche rises from having been pinned to the bed by a nurse when a doctor holds out his hand, calls her name, and brings her back, arguably, to a sense of herself. There are many ways to play this moment: is the doctor manipulating her to keep her calm and out of the need for a straightjacket or does he truly care? Is Blanche regaining a bit of sanity and personal power or slipping back into her Southern belle role, attempting to flirt with the doctor to earn the privilege of leaving the room in a relatively dignified manner? Toles describes what may be happening to Blanche at this moment of eye contact with the doctor in the quotation above. But I think he's also describing an important interpersonal moment for all of us who seek approval in the gaze of another.

In film theory, the concept of the gaze, particularly as the "male gaze" discusses the way looking can be political, especially when it is the camera or male protagonist looking at a more passive female subject. The hero rescuing the damsel in distress, the teen boy looking through a peephole at the showering co-ed, the femme fatale caught in the sights of the detective's gun, or a million other similar scenarios with male as active and female as passive. The oversimplicity of this model has, of course, been considered. From issues of race and class and how they modify gender to historical specificity in impacting meaning and from the lesbian gaze to parodic use of the gaze, we understand that this formula may not always apply or apply the same way.

This quotation at first troubled me because of its talk about being sustained in the "other's" gaze. The language of woman-as-other, and how many women may seek validation for their existence through male attention, was problematic for me. And so it is for Blanche, who walks off stage -- whether she is proudly walking on the arm of the rescuing doctor or falling prey to a foolish self-delusion (again) that some man is going to rescue her from herself and from death -- still the same woman obsessed with men.

And the actor is also desperate for the gaze, the insecure "look at me" aspect of theater for the performer. And I am definitely an exhibitionist, not a voyeur. I'd rather act than direct, rather sing than be sung to, though I do not consider myself pathological or abnormal here. I also enjoy seeing good theater, listening to good music, watching films, etc. But that's not really the depth of what this quotation does for and to me.

I also seek validation for my insecurities based on other aspects of my life choices and personality. I feel alien and "other" sometimes, based on my political views and worldview (Left, vegetarian, feminist, pacifist, Jewish American, athiest, outspoken, bisexual, etc.). And so yes, sometimes someone just meets my gaze, literally and, more importantly, symbolically, and I feel at ease, at home, and safe -- for at least a moment. It can come in very differing forms, such as a comment to me that lets me know I've truly been heard or reading a perspective I share and need to hear in Mark Morford's SF Gate column or a negative film review of some hideously popular film that I hated but almost everyone else on the planet seems to have loved. It gives me a moment of feeling safe in the "gaze" of the person or the writer or whomever, and, as Toles says, I can safely "remember" myself, be myself wholly and know I'm not alone. And then, fortified by this reflection, I can continue to be my pessimistic idealistic self, my nervous dominant with the heart of gold self, my wild thing meets doting mom self, and many other selves that aren't always met with praise or understanding in this "my way or the highway" culture.

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