What we’ve learned from … Todd Haynes

When theatre-maker Vicky Olusanya led the latest session of our online drama club for older LGBTQ+ people, she brought this short scene from Todd Haynes’s 2015 drama Carol to get everyone thinking about how characters express themselves through status. This is what we learned from watching it together and thinking about what we’d seen.

1 In any dramatic scene, the players can be distinguished by their status. In the meet-cute near the beginning of the film, Carol (Cate Blanchett) herself wears her high status in myriad ways. She wears an expensive mink coat in the winter; speaks in a patrician drawl; and tries to light a cigarette inside a store where that’s forbidden. She moves through the space like an animal in its prime on the prowl: even when her coat accidentally stops the train set she’s looking at when Therese first sees her, Carol walks away utterly unflustered, enacting her belief that fixing problems is what other people exist to do.

2 Status is a dialectic. One character’s high-status behaviours only make sense in contrast with another’s low status. While Carol wraps herself in a coat that looks authentic, very expensive and an expression of her identity, Therese (Rooney Mara) has to put up with a store-issued Santa hat with a fur trim that looks cheap and fake. Carol has recently had her nails painted in a colour that perfectly matches her beret and scarf but Therese does not wear nail polish – that much is clear when the women’s fingers nearly touch looking at the photograph of Carol’s daughter. And while Carol can move freely through the store, Therese is confined behind the counter.

3 Status is always in motion. Carol has the trappings of wealth celebrated by post-war American capitalism while Therese is dressed in sober greens and black that seem designed not to attract attention. But while the younger woman lacks the signifiers of social success, she is a formidable hustler. Carol may come into the store looking for a popular but presumably not especially expensive doll for her daughter. But she leaves after buying an elaborate, hand-built, limited edition train set (with hand-painted cars!) and paying for shipping and setup in situ. Which means Therese can expect a much more significant commission from the sale than she would have racked up by selling a mass-produced doll.

4 Status and the battle for status in drama is only partly related to social power. As the improv pioneer Keith Johnstone argues, the most gripping performances can often be generated by the conflict between actors trying to move their status just a little above or below that of their partner in a scene. That’s what makes real human behaviour on a stage, he says. “We’re always secretly manoeuvring – the voice in the head is all about other people’s opinion of you, how can you get more credit for something, how do you make people like you – this ghastly voice that you think is you, endlessly scheming … I call it ‘status’ … but it’s really dominance and submission.”

5 A train set is a very queer Christmas present for a little girl who had already been indoctrinated by early 1950s American culture to expect a hetero-normative doll (a present Therese is so brilliantly dismissive of – just look at her expression when she says Bright Betsy wets herself). Not one to be defeated by the doll being out of stock (an obvious signifier of its zombie consumerist appeal), Carol is bold enough to ask a shop assistant she has just met, “What did you want when you were this age?” (And that she can even ask is another function of her high status – were someone like Therese to ask the same question of a new customer would be deemed a massive impertinence in almost all cases.) Therese’s gender non-conforming reply (“a train set”) is a subtextual hint about sexuality, which Carol picks up on and replies with an invitation to expand (“Do you know much about train sets?”) – which allows Therese to make a pitch about the limited edition train set that Carol can’t resist (“Wow! That’s that.”) The whole exchange functions as an object lesson in ‘Yes and’ (the improv principle that encourages performers to accept whatever their partner proposes and add something of their own for them to work with in return).

6 We all tell each other stories to make things happen – to elicit sympathy, to win an argument and definitely to seduce. Therese may well have longed for a train set when she was growing up. But the point of telling that story at that moment to this person is to personalise the pitch for a present that she could see Carol was admiring when she first caught sight of her – although, to gain a little more power at this moment in the exchange, she does not reveal that the shopper had caught her eye (“you might have seen it on the way in over by the elevators”).

7 Making a train set the subject of the meet-cute is a complicated symbol of what’s to come. On one level, the model train represents the possibility of escape. On the other, its circular journeys around a fixed loop represent the opposite: the restricted options set down by the conventions of early 1950s American society, when the American Psychiatry Association first classified same-sex relationships as ‘sociopathic personality disturbances’ and more than 5,000 LGBTQ+ people were fired from their federal jobs in the so-called ‘Lavender Menace’ – the witch-hunt that probably damaged and destroyed more lives than its close Cold War cousin, the ‘Red Scare’.

8 There are no accidents. When Carol reaches the counter while Therese is out of view, it is the sound of her very expensive gloves hitting the glass that announces her arrival. When she leaves at the end of the scene, after playfully commenting on Therese’s only visible accessory – her store-issued Santa hat – she walks away without the gloves – having just given Therese her address for shipping the train set. The invitation could not be more clear. And, of course, when Therese does later send the gloves back to Carol in the post, Carol calls the store and invites her to lunch. The women have set out on their journey. Whether it turns out to be confined in a loop or a genuine escape will be the material of the rest of the film.

• In our weekly digital drama club for older LGBTQ+ people, we play improv games, identify lessons from work by queer dramatists, write short monologues about our experiences of lockdown and then rehearse them to hone our performance skills. If you would like to know more, please email our participation producer, Daniel. No writing or performing experience is necessary!