This three part essay will elaborate on the ambience in the tight and enclosed environment that Tennesee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire is set in. The cultural differences between the characters and how they change from protagonists to antagonists will also be explored. Furthermore, there will also be an explanation as to how the background music sets the scene and mood for the unfolding collapse into both the emotional and physical wellbeing of the main characters in the play.
Characters, Action and Dialogue. How the language spoken by Blanche and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire reveal the kind of people they are
Blanche and Stanley are, on the surface, completely different people with contrasting aspirations, ambitions and expectations of what is to be achieved and acquired in life. Blanche’s self-esteem and image is based upon a debonair aura, a background of culture and upper social mobility. Blanche believes this veneer masks the reality of what has really happened to her in regards to the suicide of her homosexual husband and the loss of her family’s wealth, influence and affluence. Stanley is an archetypal male in the patriarchal society. Whilst being an intense and taciturn man, he enjoys the company of other men and the pursuits that working class men traditionally and stereotypically enjoy such as drinking, playing cards and raucous interaction.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, the very marked differences between Stanley and Blanche are stressed. Stanley’s use of language contravenes grammatical convention which betrays a lack of formal education. In a heated exchange with his wife in Scene Seven, Stanley uses a double negative to express his suspicion of Blanche. ‘In fact, I’m willing to bet you that she never had no idea of returning to Laurel’ (Williams, 1947: 72). Not only does Stanley use a double negative in that sentence, he also uses a misappropriation where he states the word ‘idea’ instead of intention. Stanley is by habit and nature carelessly slurred in pronunciation and diction. When Stanley is playing and hosting a card school with his cohorts, Stella arrives back with Blanche and Stanley in exasperation asks, ‘Where you been?’ (Williams, 1947: 29) Here, not only does Stanley not use the word have, he does not use the abbreviated contracted apostrophe that would in this context, naturally come at the end of the word where, in lieu of have. The most significant undertone of this exchange however is not Stanley’s command of the nuances of grammar but the control he exercises over his wife and her sister whilst they are in his dwelling. Stanley only wanted to know where they had been because he did not know and felt that he should. His question was not directed in the manner of longing or care, more in the assertion that he should know where they are at all times and the fact that he did not was an affront to his authority. This is proved by the fact that once Stella and Blanche are back home, they are left in no doubt whatsoever that their presence is not wanted in the room where Stanley is playing Stud Poker with his friends.
Whilst Stanley talks in a more direct and coarse manner than Blanche, his exchange with Blanche in Scene two reveals his emotional intelligence.
‘Blanche: Oh, in my youth I excited some admiration. But look at me now! (she smiles at him radiantly), would you think it possible that I was considered to be – attractive?
Stanley: Your looks are okay’ (Williams, 1947: 21)
Stanley is a contrary and terse man who is economical with his words. If he thinks he is being sounded out for a compliment or praise, he will deliberately not comply.
Blanche is well spoken, educated and subconsciously poetic. Perhaps Blanche speaks in this lyrical manner due to a fear of facing the harsh reality which is rapidly engulfing her. Her expected inherited wealth has vanished and the only material assets that Blanche possesses or has any right to ownership is what she carried off the Streetcar named Desire when she arrived in Elysian Fields (Williams, 1947: 3). ‘Her way of life is gone. Belle Reve, the home of their early days, the myth of another world she clings to is lost’ (Hughes, 1976: 18). The loss of this privileged lifestyle is dramatically professed by Blanche in her early monologue to her erstwhile sister Stella in Scene One:
‘Death is expensive Miss Stella! Why, the Grim Reaper had put up his tent on our doorstep!… Stella. Belle Reve was his headquarters! Honey – that’s how it slipped through my fingers!…’ (Williams, 1947: 12)
How Blanche addresses her younger sister in this exchange is also pertinent. Calling her ‘Miss Stella’ is indicative of the antebellum manner that was unique to the Deep South of the United States and not an indication of rank or seniority as it would be virtually everywhere else in the English speaking world. The other noticeable trait of Blanche’s speech is the use of understated metaphor. In the exchange with Stella, Blanche alludes to the loss of the family estate as having ‘slipped through my fingers’ (Williams, 1947: 12). A loss of this magnitude would not merely slip through the fingers of anybody who had possessed the assets. The loss has occurred due to the inadequate life and funeral insurance for Blanche and Stella’s familial predecessors which has haemorrhaged from their estate and denied them of any inheritance. Blanche’s euphemistic speech appears to be a desperate attempt to escape or hide only the beginnings of the devastating realities to come.
Themes and Literary Techniques. An analysis of scene nine (including Blanche’s confession to Mitch) in terms of themes and literary techniques
‘The music is in her mind; she is drinking to escape it and the sense of disaster closing in on her‘ (Williams, 1947: 83). There is a refrain of Varsouviana which hauntingly reverberates erratically in Blanche’s subconscious to such a degree as to resemble a migraine.
Blanche whilst in conversation with Mitch, compares herself to a tarantula and ‘even at last, in a seventeen year old boy’ (Williams, 1947: 87), she admits to an illicit sexual encounter. This revelation compounds ‘the searing adult drama of A Streetcar Named Desire, with its references to unspeakable aspects of sexuality’ (Hardison Londre, 1947: 45). Whilst Blanche’s deceased husbands practicing homosexuality was illegal in the era the play was written, her revelation of a sexual liaison with a seventeen year old was effectively an admission of paedophilia. The age of legal sexual consent at that time in Louisiana was eighteen (it is now seventeen). The spider is symbolic of predator and play, in this particular context, the sexual exploitation of a legal minor. There is also the ironic contrast of Blanche’s name and a spider.
Blanche meets Mitch and sensing that he is lonely like herself and superior to the others, she begins to think of marriage to him as a refuge from her past (Hart, 1965: 815). In complete disregard for etiquette of the Patriarchal society, Blanche says ‘Then marry me Mitch’ (Williams, 1947: 89). Mitch had on first sight, viewed Blanche as a social superior but there has however, been a reversal in social rank between them since they became acquainted at Stanley’s poker party. The chivalrous respect that Mitch had for Blanche has evaporated. He now he responds to Blanche’s marriage proposal with the damning ‘You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother’ (Williams, 1947: 89).
‘A vendor comes around the corner. She is a blind MEXICAN WOMAN in a dark shawl carrying bunches of those gaudy tin flowers that lower-class Mexicans display at funerals and other festive occasions‘ (Williams, 1947: 88).
Mexican Woman – Flores
Blanche – Death, I used to sit here and she used to sit over there and death was as close as you are… We didn’t even admit we had ever heard of it!
Mexican Woman – Flores para los muertos, flores – flores (Williams, 1947: 88)
The Mexican flower seller is a portent of death. Her sales pitch of ‘Flores para los muertos’ (Williams, 1947: 88) translated into English is ‘Flowers for the dead’ (Herrera-Sobek, 2012: 1295). There is ambiguity as to whether the Mexican flower seller is actually real and not a figment of Blanche’s imagination. The Mexican woman is never engaged in conversation with Blanche or anybody else, merely alluded to. The textual representation of the Mexican Woman is entirely italicised. Whether in dialogue or monologue, all other spoken words in the play are in conventional print. The only other text to be italicised is the narrative commentary that Tennessee Williams inserts into the play. The Mexican woman is possibly some Freudian throwback for Blanche to a guilty secret. This could be feelings of guilt regarding the passing of her husband, her reckless sexual relationship with a boy or of her alcoholism and her prolific sexual appetite combined with her liberal use of partners. At no other time of Blanche’s social interaction does the Mexican flower seller appear, the inference is of another indication of Blanche’s encroaching loss of rational mind.
Blanche: I can’t stand a naked lightbulb… (Williams, 1947: 34)
Mitch (getting up): It’s dark in here
Blanche: I like it dark. The dark is comforting to me
Mitch: I don’t think I ever seen you in the light (Williams, 1947: 86)
Blanche had already informed Mitch in scene three as to her aversion to light. Either Mitch had forgotten this or he was now, with his new found contempt for Blanche becoming more obvious, wilfully ignoring Blanche’s wishes. Blanche is obviously physically mature and intelligent even if now irrational, but she is fundamentally an immature person. As Blanche approaches her late thirties and her perceived assumption of the decline of her physical attraction, she believes that the dark or dim light disguises the change in her physical appearance from the beauty of her youth to the tainted self-image she now has. Mitch, much to Blanche’s chagrin, wants to see her ‘good and plain’ (Williams, 1947: 86). Tearing the paper off the bulb is a metaphorical stripping of Blanche by Mitch. Blanche feels naked in the full light and there is also no more a vulnerable feeling than feeling naked. Her belief in what she looks like and the charade she is trying to maintain by staying in a shaded perspective is compromised.
Technical and theatrical aspects. An analysis of scene ten (the plays climatic scene) in relation to the significance of William’s stagecraft and how it adds to the dramatic impact of A Streetcar Named Desire, paying particular attention to aspects of staging (e.g. lighting, music, sounds, colour, lighting, set, props, costume and setting), stage directions and the plays structure.
‘It is a few hours later that night. Blanche has been drinking fairly steadily since Mitch left’ (Williams, 1947: 90). Blanche becomes even more dependent on drink and her sanity completely breaks down. A further sign of Blanche’s decline is emphasised in the opening paragraph and scene-setting sentence where ‘she has decked herself out in somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown’ (Williams, 1947: 90). Blanche has reached a state of slovenly disregard for both her appearance and visible sobriety, something that would have been unthinkable when she first arrived at Elysian Fields.
‘A scene may set up a tension between two or more foci, so that our attention moves between, say, a plinth in the middle of the stage, a window high up and an onstage commentator’ (Wallis, Shepherd, 2002: 143). Early in scene ten, ‘As Stanley rounds the corner, the honky-tonk music is heard’ (Williams, 1947: 90). This could be representative of Stanley’s pleasure of his forthcoming parenthood. When Stanley comes back to his apartment, he is by his standards, in a benign mood. Stanley originally politely and amiably humours Blanche. When her tone changes from coquettish, to antagonistic towards him with the line, ‘yes swine! swine! And I’m thinking not only of you but of your friend, Mr Mitchell’ (Williams, 1947: 93), Stanley is affronted by this porcine analogy from a person that he has lost all respect for. The simmering resentment from Stanley towards Blanche now surfaces in its true colours. Stanley commences the process of psychologically attacking Blanche. First, Stanley informs Blanche that he does not believe there to be ‘no millionaire’ (Williams, 1947: 94). Even though Stanley again shows his lack of a formal education by the use of a double negative in this exchange, there is absolutely no doubt as to what he means. In this instance, Stanley finds himself in an almost cathartic position of being able to unleash the pent up negative feelings that he has slowly developed towards Blanche. ‘I’ve been on to you from the start, not once did you pull the wool over this boys eyes’ (Williams, 1947: 94). After this outburst, the stage directions dictate in Williams narrative that ‘Lurid reflections appear on the walls around Blanche, the shadows are of a grotesque and menacing form’ (Williams, 1947: 90). These are grotesque menacing shapes, jungle noises and distorted music employed to reflect Blanche’s terror. This is a further indication of Blanche’s deteriorating psychological wellbeing. The images abundant to Blanche are in her mind’s eye. She now feels trapped both physically and mentally. There is an overriding fear and dread of not only her forthcoming evening alone with Stanley, but the fact that he now knows everything about her that she did not want him to know and worse still, always did. Blanche is about to be forcibly stripped of not only her garments but also of any illusion and shred of dignity that she had remaining.
The music in the background throughout A Streetcar Named Desire is the staple melodic sounds that popularly define New Orleans like blues, jazz and polka. ‘The Blue Piano heard at the opening of the play and throughout typifies New Orleans’. (Griffin, 1995: 72). At the end of scene 10, with’ the blue piano going softly’ (Williams, 1947: 96), the gentle sound contrasts sharply with what is about to occur. Stanley is about to exploit a vulnerable woman for a gratification that is not only sexual but also of power, itself a strong aphrodisiac. Stanley knows that Blanche’s reputation and honour are compromised beyond repair with both Stella and Eunice. Stanley now has carte-blanche to behave as he pleases, serene in the knowledge that any accusations that could be levelled against him by Blanche, would be easily dismissed as the hyperbole of an emotionally imbalanced alcoholic who is now known to have left a trail of deceit in her wake.
A Streetcar Named Desire is symbolic of the patriarchal society and the virtually unquestioned authority that men exercised in the Anglo Saxon world in that era. The play is also starkly evocative of how hard a fall can occur to somebody from a senior and affluent sector of society when their privileges and wealth disappear from any circumstances. Stella voluntarily gave up her comfortable background in the name of love and has acclimatised with a docile complicity to her new life. Blanche most certainly has not and when the two main male protagonists in the play, Mitch and Stanley realise this has happened, they ruthlessly tease, torment and ultimately physically and mentally abuse Blanche with glee.
Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire (London, Penguin group, 1947)
Griffin, Alice, Understanding Tennessee Williams, (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1995)
Hardison Londre, Felicia, edited by Roudane, Matthew, Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, The (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1997)
Hart, James D, Oxford Companion to American Literature, The (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965)
Herrera-Sobek, Maria, Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012)
Hughes, Catherine, American Playwrights 1945-75 (London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Son, 1976)
Wallis, Mick & Shepherd, Simon, Studying Plays (London: Arnold Publishers, 2002)