A Streetcar Named Desire, initially published in 1947, is thought to be a landmark play for 20th century American drama. Tennessee Williams was born March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. Author Tennessee Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for his play and is also considered one of the top three playwrights of the 20th century along with Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill. An important theme that is shown countless times throughout the play deals with the contrast between reality and illusion. An illusion is a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses, whereas reality is the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them. The concept of illusion vs. reality is an imperative part of the play because in various instances the viewpoint of the characters and how they are viewing the events passed before them is greatly contrasted to the way these same events are actually transpiring. As Ruby Cohn calls it in his essay “The Garrulous Grotesque of Tennessee Williams”, A Streetcar Named Desire is “a poignant portrait of a Southern gentlewoman who is extinct in the modern world” (46). The protagonist of the play is Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle, who comes to New Orleans to live with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski. She lives in the world of fantasy in order to protect herself against outside threats created by her own fears.
The themes illusion and fantasy are involved from the start of the play. We learn from when Stanley throws the package of meat down to Stella that he is a dominant character and that his relationship with Stella isn’t as happy as it may seem to be. Even in scene 2, Stanley’s aggressiveness is shown towards Stella, ‘since when do you give me orders?’. This shows that he views himself as the dominant in the relationship and the one who calls the shots. However, the most significant example of his brutality is during the Poker Game in scene 3. This is where Even when Blanche pleads for help from Stella after revealing that Stanley raped her, she refuses to believe her, ‘I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.’
Stella betrays her sister just for the sake of making her marriage happier and that is why, when Blanche is sent off to the asylum, the situation remains the same between Stella and Stanley. Not only does Stella live in a fantasy world but Blanche herself does too, till Stanley crushes it. Blanches history of bad relationships are the cause of her fantasy. When she discovered that her past love Allan, was actually homosexual, her dreams became shattered, and she was never again the same person. She became vulnerable and self-conscious but also someone who could not forget about the past, because it was the time when she was young, and she clearly wishes she remained looking and feeling young, that is why she is very self-conscious of her image, ‘And turn that over-light off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!’ Blanche still fantasizes about her youth, that is why in scene 5 she flirts with the young newspaper because she wants to have the forces of attraction that her youthful beauty once provided her. However, at the same time, she is a hypocrite, because her throwing herself at younger men reveals that she is still lustful underneath her well mannered, courteous disguise.
Blanche’s identity is divided between who she really is and who she pretends to be in front of others. Her real personality is determined by the environment she grew up in. In her essay “Tennessee Williams and the Predicament of Women”, Louise Blackwell includes Blanche in the category of women “who have learned to be maladjusted through adjustment to abnormal family relationships and who strive to break through their bondage in order to find a mate” (101). While her sister Stella left her home to establish her own place in the world, Blanche remained with her aged parents long beyond the marrying age for most women. A dutiful child, she stayed behind striving to save the family estate, Belle Reve, although the plantation was lost by “grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers, who exchanged the land for their epic fornications. Since she had adjusted to an abnormal family life, she was unable to adapt to the so-called normal world of her sister when circumstances forced her.
Her sister on the other hand belongs to the group of women who “have subordinated themselves to a domineering and often inferior person in an effort to attain reality and meaning through communication with another person” (102). Although Stella is superior to Stanley in terms of background and personal endowments, she subordinates herself to his way of life because they have a wild and tumultuous relationship that she was never allowed to engage in back home. She lets herself become mistreated and meek to a man who shows dominance through aggressive language and violence
The fantasy of Blanche and the other characters is revealed in the play when they try to hide from their reality. The characters act as if what they were undergoing did not actually happen or was not of any significant importance. The play is well written by Williams as a work of social realism. The concept of illusion or fantasy vs. the reality projects the idea of characters who want to run from their real world. The play by Tennessee Williams contrasts Blanche’s illusion ideas with that of Stanley’s realism which at the end wins the situation on the worldview. Blanche is characterized by her fears to throughout the play to salvage her life from the world of brutality because her anxiety is in clash with the outside threats. Blanche is not actually lost in illusions but rather she uses them to camouflage. She tries to cope by using different mechanism like being delusional, alcoholism and illusions. Blanche uses these mechanisms to protect her mind from going crazy because of the changing environment and the living conditions.
- Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New Directions Publishing, 1951.