With the overwhelming success of his first play “The Glass Menagerie”, Tennessee Williams stormed into recognition as an American playwright in the Twentieth century. His second play, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, first produced and published in 1947 caused the same uproar. A Psychological drama, the second play by the playwright was written in the period that was steeped under the vogue of Dramatic Naturalism. Regarded as one of the most established and celebrated playwrights of the Twentieth Century American Drama along with the contemporaries Eugene O’ Neill and Arthur Miller, this play by Williams bagged him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948.
The playwright extensively wrote about the American New-Realism that emerged after the era of Great Depression and World War II. With an assumption that he was going to die within a few months, Tennessee Williams set out to narrate a tale that would convey his own sense of unfulfilled desires of life and the approaching death as the ultimate reality of life.
When Blanche steps off her streetcar named Desire at “Elysian Fields”, in search of her sister Stella Kowalski, Tennessee Williams picks up the threads of themes already begun in “The Glass Menagerie” and begins to develop them further. The plight of the genteel Southern woman thrown into conflict with current society, the hopeless situation of the single woman who has neither male protection nor a career, the threat of extinction in a callous society- all these themes already showcased in the first play by Williams and are given wider scope in Streetcar. Unlike Menagerie, the triangle of Blanche, Stanley, and Stella extends beyond the characters’ personalities and encompasses the whole of their society. Just like “The Glass Menagerie”, Tennessee Williams’s other most successful play, “A Streetcar Named Desire” also revolves around complicated familial ties, the role of obsessive desire and its effect on a person’s psychological
Set in the French quarter of New Orleans, the Three-Act drama, “A Streetcar Named Desire” concerns with the mental and moral degradation and ultimate ruin of the fragile and neurotic female protagonist Blanche Dubois, an ex-high school English teacher with an aristocratic background from Mississippi. She is depicted as a former Southern Belle who suffers from histrionic personality disorder. After losing her chosen identity which was rooted in the tradition of Southern gentility- materially represented in Belle Reve (“beautiful dream”), the family plantation that has slipped from her grasp- Blanche gets hysterical. This loss of security in the form of ancestral home and identity which were conferred upon her by the tradition causes Blanche to go on a desperate search for something to replace it:
“I’ve run for protection, Stella…it was…all storm, and I was-caught in the center”.
Thus, dismissed from her teaching position for indulging in a sexual encounter with a teenage student and being financially and emotionally destitute, she seeks for protection at the apartment of her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski who is a recent immigrant from a working-class background, completely divorced from the aristocratic Southern tradition.
Blanche continues to live in her own imaginary world of pretence and maintains a façade about her financial status and moral dignity. In spite her inability to accommodate herself in a hotel; Blanche expresses her disappointment upon seeing Stella’s two-room apartment. She is shocked to find that they live in a dilapidated ground floor apartment, which she subsequently proceeds to beautify by putting shades over the open light bulbs to soften the lighting. Thus, she is portrayed as a patient right from the start, here, in the way she avoids the reality. Blanche’s position is defined as she steps off the bus
‘looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district.’
Blanche’s flirtatious Southern-belle presence causes problems for Stella and Stanley, who already share a volatile relationship, leading to even greater conflict in the Kowalski household. Blanche’s claim of being a firm believer of
“beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart”
are undermined by her awareness that she is equally driven by sexual desire. Blanche’s involvement in illicit sexual relationships in the past is the result of her desire of receiving sexual admiration from her male suitors. She seems desperate to be identified as an elegant and refined upper class woman.
She deems Stanley in low-light and considers him as not being the gentleman that she is used to in men. As such, Blanche and Stanley have an antagonistic relationship from the start. He tells Blanche he doesn’t like to be swindled and demands to see the bill of sale. Boorish Stanley not only regards Blanche’s aristocratic affectations as a royal pain but also thinks she’s holding out on inheritance money that rightfully belongs to Stella. Suspicious, Stanley points out that under Louisiana’s “Napoleonic code” what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband. This encounter defines Stanley and Blanche’s relationship. They are total opposites in manners as well as outlook and Stella is caught in no-man’s-land. But Stanley and Stella are deeply in love.
Blanche’s efforts to impose herself between them only enrage the animal inside Stanley. When Mitch, Stanley’s friend arrives on the scene, Blanche begins to see a way out of her predicament in him. Mitch, who is himself alone in the world, reveres Blanche as a beautiful and refined woman. Seeing this, Stanley starts to get impatient, irritated and angry over Blanche’s growing closeness with his friends, especially Mitch. Further, the incident which accelerates his anger is when he sees the two sisters engaged in a conversation where Blanche tries to convince Stella that Stanley’s working class status and his low profile lifestyle do not match with Stella’s class and aristocratic background.
Though Stella laughs and dismisses her sister’s proposal to leave Stanley’s house along with her with the help of a millionaire named Shep Huntleigh. The dingy apartment and her sister’s married life with brutal Stanley- all are unacceptable to Blanche. Even though she is desperate, she is unable to forsake her past traditions. To accept her present situation would be to completely abandon the self-concept she is fighting so hard to re-establish and preserve. Her reaction to Stella’s living conditions is one of refined shock:
‘Never, never, never in my worst dreams could I picture—Only Poe! Only Mr Edgar Allan Poe!—could do it justice!”
On his part, the episode which accelerates Stanley’s contempt over Blanche is the conversation that he overhears between the two sisters where Blanche makes fun of his low class life style.
“He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits! There’s even something…ape-like about him…”
Stanley feels enraged and senses in her a threat to his marriage. He finds in her the only challenge to his place of dominance. In Blanche’s refusal to obey him in his own home, he senses that she is turning his wife against him. He confronts Blanche later and obliquely hints her that he knows about the rumour related to her disgraceful past.
One evening, on date with Mitch, Blanche reveals to him that her husband Allan had committed suicide after she had confronted him about his homosexuality. Mitch also informs Blanche about his loss of a former love. Thus, through this confession, Blanche develops faith in Mitch and falls in genuine love with him. She feels that her desperate prowl for someplace in the world to call her own would finally take shape in having a serious relationship with Mitch. Attracted to him, she glosses over the less savoury incidents in her past. Thus, on the fringes of sanity, Blanche tries to forget her unfavourable past and hopes to start life anew.
As time passes, Blanche continues to become even more unstable as her sufferings increase and as rumours of her unfavourable past begins to unfurl abruptly. Stanley succeeds in finding Blanche’s scandalous past and reveals it to Stella and his friend Mitch. After knowing about her nasty past, Mitch confronts her. On her part, Blanche does not deny the allegation as being false and instead says that a dire need of human affection made her do so. She had become the local prostitute, seeking to find some relief from her loneliness in a succession of sexual encounters.
This depicts that Blanche is as bankrupt emotionally as she is morally and financially. Mitch refuses to marry considering her not “clean enough” to pass as a marriage material and step inside his house but at the same time also wants to have sex with her. When Mitch applies force, Blanche shouts and somehow forces him to leave the flat. This incident causes a severe blow to her already sorrowful existence and she shatters down.
For Blanche, anything is useful if it helps soften the harsh aspects of reality. This can be seen in the episodes where she puts colored lantern over the light fixture in the apartment and when she refuses to let Mitch see her either in the daytime or in a well-lighted room. Further, Blanche gets so desperate for a release from loneliness that she even makes advances to the young boy collecting for the newspaper and kisses him passionately. If she cannot affect a solution to her problem through marriage, she can at least find a momentary release from pain. Her last attempt at survival is a fantasy involving a proposed cruise with a former boyfriend, Shep Huntleigh. This last fantasy is not strictly based on a sexual, but rather on a spiritual relationship.
In describing this, Blanche underscores the basic personality difference between herself and Stanley. He sees himself as the ‘seed bearer’ who both gives and takes pleasure in love. This is the extent of his idea of love. Blanche, on the other hand sees herself as a cultivated woman who is capable of offering a man companionship because she is both ‘a woman of intelligence and breeding,’ who has more to offer than the ‘transitory possession’ of physical beauty. She considers beauty as something that grow rather than diminish with age and Blanche finds it:
‘strange that I should be called a destitute woman! When I have all of these treasures locked in my heart. I think of myself as a very, very rich woman!’
This presents one of the most tragic aspects of the play, for we are allowed to see Blanche not only for what she is, but also as what she believes herself to be.
In the final conflict between them, Stanley rapes Blanche while Stella is in the hospital bearing his child. This final brutal confrontation with her brother-in-law leaves her devastated and pushes her permanently into the world of fantasy. Thus, Stanley proves a threat to her survival.
And when she reveals the attack to her sister upon her return from the hospital after delivering a baby, Stella refuses to believe Blanche’s allegation and regards it as an insane. After being denied support from her sister, Blanche suffers from a nervous breakdown and is taken to a mental asylum in the ultimate scene of the play. After the rape, though everyone recognizes Blanche’s illness, but nobody ponders over the fact that she was already in need of psychiatric care when she first entered the Kowalski apartment. Because she had long ago elected to take the ‘very human escape into self-deception, from little white lies to imaginative exaggerations to the delusion of the mad’
Thus, her ultimate tragedy is the fact that Blanche witnesses defeat in the same place where she had come thinking of it as a last hope. Both the male characters prove as failures in providing Blanche with a sense of security and a proper home. While Stanley turns his home into a hell for Blanche, Mitch on the other hand, miserably fails to provide her love and affection.
Thus, the playwright, through the female protagonist Blanche Dubois reveals that a person can never be sufficient enough to escape from reality and that it could be resisted only for some time. Desire of living in a fanciful world full of imaginations, ultimately gets overpowered and reality surfaces in. This is perfectly reflected through the character of Blanche.
Though she continuously attempts to avoid the reality of her wretched present condition and wears a sense of class superiority and moral correctness, but she ultimately ends up in a mental asylum which in fact matches her reality. It narrates how crude reality ultimately overpowers Blanche’s imaginary world. Populated with strangers, men and women Williams’ characters are alienated both from society and from themselves, who seek for salvation and self-acceptance and a re-entry into the brotherhood of man.
Although Williams’ primary interest is in the unique individuality which sets each of his characters apart from the world of his fellows. It is the “overpowering sense of Desire” in the form of need for Romance, Sex, Power and Self-Protection, that leads to her destruction.