A Streetcar Named Desire is a play I am teaching this year. Its influence in post-war literature made this a key choice in my curriculum. The power of this play stems from the collisions between the fantasy and reality of desire, centred on a failed Southern Belle Blanche DuBois. With desire operating as the search for personal fulfillment, and not always spiritual, Williams presents wider and desperate realities for a post-war audience through a very specific room in 1940s New-Orleans.
The play opens innocuously with Blanche riding a streetcar called ‘Desire‘ on what will ultimately be a journey of death and destruction. Yet her fine attire stands out against the rough poverty of 1940s New Orleans. I am reminded of the final lines of Gone with the Wind that stand as a nostalgic look towards the moneyed-South before the Civil War smashed their slave trade:
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…”
This ideology of a cultured South lost and destroyed by a cosmopolitan North is challenged by Williams. That is, if it ever existed. Our first experience of Blanche is of a busy and self-righteous woman keen to defend herself against the premptive slight that she lost their ancestral home:
BLANCHE: Well, Stella – you’re going to reproach me, I know that you’re bound to reproach me – but before you do – take into consideration – you left! I stayed and struggled! You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself! I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together! I’m not meaning this in any reproachful way, but all the burden descended on my shoulders.
Blanche wilfully adopts a role as older sister with its privileges of order and power. Yet she fails to live up to it. The myth of the civilised, responsible Southern gentry is laid out clear here – Blanche does not seem capable of looking out even for herself, let alone her family. Her attempt to challenge Stanley for possession of her sister’s mind and heart – the metaphorical future of Southern culture – is undermined by modern America’s increasing freedom from expectation. Blanche is never going to win. After attacking Stanley with racist and derogatory language, throughout the play, Stanley’s defence would resound with Americans of all ages:
STANLEY: I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is a one hundred per cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth
Williams here presents an American national identity that subsumes all others. Relying upon past glories and social positions will not work in this new world. The American Dream might be unrealistic, but it also allows those with will, albeit monstrously brutal wills, to define themselves as best they can. Of course, Blanche’s desire to be willful is met with naked aggression and her ultimate destruction. When it is clear that the myth of Southern Chivalry – again a term than perhaps never existed beyond isolated individuals and a generalised myth – is gone, Blanche allows herself to drift into destruction:
BLANCHE: I can smell the sea air. The rest of my time I’m going to spend on the sea. And when I die, I’m going to die on the sea
These lines in the penultimate scene are the language of tragedy, of someone allowing themselves to drift into destruction. Such metaphorical intensity from Blanche contrasts intensely with the rude vitality and physical capability of Stanley. It is this tension that challenges our sympathies as audience.
For our sympathies to be sufficiently challenged, we need to understand Williams’ artistic tensions and intentions. He was writing in a time where realism rocked against artifice, with both schools seeking both the critical and popular heart of theatre-going audiences. It is the language of Blanche against Stanley that directly taps into this artistic fight. This struggle leaves us wondering which perception is better: that of a wife-beating realist or a mentally-ill visionary? The plotting is exceptionally done with a distinctive tempo of scenes throughout: scene three perfectly balances Blanche’s appears to her sister to her flirtation with Stanley. Creating a compelling plot within an artistically challenging linguistic structure is Williams’ success, at least according to Miller:
That this kind of identification could happen was, for me at least, an explosive contradiction of the prevailing wisdom that a Broadway play with literary quality could not survive the banal tastes of the New York audience which allegedly insisted on plain sidewalk speech and instant linguistic familiarity.
By positioning the play as a powerful insight into the tension between two mindsets: that of the rarefied artist and that of the common man in post-war America. There is a kind of wildness in the American spirit (just see the fervent clinging to gun-laws as a proxy for freedom, even as the NRA bans guns from their conference whilst declaring teachers should be armed…). This wildness, borne of hardship and frontierism, incites a potential for violence in all Americans. It is a desire for freedom, a trait that often challenges another American virtue: the desire for social justice. Both cannot exist entirely with the other.To really understand this tension in the American character, we need to consider Williams’ presentation of gender.
Femininity, in both its social expectation and its physical desires, raises difficult social questions in Streetcar. Feminity in 1940s America is presented as inherently precarious, especially for lower-class women. As much as we may dislike Blanche for her pretentions, she is ultimately subsumed into brutal, capitalist masculinity. Her main sin is to embrace her desires, her ‘epic fornications’. Yet her family apparently have generations of history of embracing destructive and ‘epic’ desire with Blanche claiming that such passion lost ‘Belle Vue’. The bastardisation of this French spelling perhaps indicates not only the corruption of the ‘beautiful dream’ of Southern chivalry and privilege but also the inaccuracy of Blanche’s perception. It was a dream that never really existed. It seems here that she defines truth within the limits of her perception. She wants to manipulate things to be the way she sees them, yet as an outsider in Stanley’s house she has no power to do so.
This desire to manipulate the perception of others is not innocent or entirely guileless, though. From her first reconciliation with Stella she reminds her of the kind of life that she cannot have with Stanley. Stella (‘for star!’) has already embraced a realistic life of social protection, yet at a dubiously physical price. In contrast to Blanche, she knows that clinging to Southern privilege is a fantasy. Williams’ stage directions therefore portray Blanche’s entire manner as insubstantial and fantastical:
Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.
A moth is not a butterfly. It is weak and lonely and decrepit. Her moth-like nature belies the intensity, albeit self-destructive, of her desire. And like a moth she will be attracted to the light of desire to the point of incarceration in an asylum. While her desires are seen as base and physical by the men who are challenged by her, the beauty and elegance of her discourse is a different kind of intellectual light in world of brutal reality. No-one speaks as beautifully as Blanch in the play and Stanley is embarrassed by his coarseness as much as he defends it.
Blanch’s fate make me wonder of the extent to which the Southern Belle the only acceptable role for a higher-class woman in the South? Class implies power, and it certainly offers material status and comfort. Yet what is the price of such status? And how might a belle respond when a society becomes more fluid? My studies in cultural capital reveal that it is incredibly rare for one person, let alone a family, to fall or rise within a class-based society. Any movement is equilibrated back to the original status after a generation or so. A belle has only her beauty and material goods: she seemingly has no trade beyond her cultured mind that she feels could attract a suitor. Unlike Scarlett O’Hara, the Southern Belle in Gone with the Wind who embraces the pragmatism of running a failing estate during the American Civil War, Blanche fails at teaching due to the intensity of her desires. She cannot help seducing the students.
This leads me to think whether Blanche’s fall is heroic. If we are to consider this modern play through expectations of Aristotelian tragedy, then we must ask what is her hamartia? Is it the intensity of her desires? It is her apparent materialism? I think, rather, it is her inability to ‘’forgive deliberate cruelty’’. This defensive sentiment is cast at Stanley but reeks of pathological self-blame for her husband’s suicide. Mirroring Williams’ own suffering over family tragedy and his delicate sister, Blanche reflects a world where women can only internalise responsibility for others. Stanley takes responsibly for himself, cancelling his bowling club with dominant ease, yet resorts to physical aggression to cowe his wife into submission. Ultimately, though, Blanche’s is destroyed by her inability to absorb the values of an increasingly neoliberalist and brutal world. Masculine values of pragmatism are perhaps there for the taking, but she never embraces them. Perhaps, as we see in her sabotaged relationship with Mitch, she never could.
Matched against, Blanche’s failed femininity, Stanley’s Masculinity, operating within a wild and competitive public sphere, is problematic too. It stands unresolved in the script, although the 1950s movie by Kazan actually changing the ending so that Stella leaves Stanley. Hollywood expectations fear public opinion. The stark truth is that exists for some women an attraction of violence and of masculine aggression. Certainly, Stella tells us she revels in the ‘thrill’ of experiencing Stanley’s destruction of light bulbs on her wedding night. Some thought might see this as retrospective justification masked as sexual excitement: what women are meant to want in this world is love or at the very least security. If we are to raise the question of the extent to which domestic abuse acceptable, then we should consider popular representations of Stanley and Stella’s response after their poker night fight (with The Poker Night being a working title for the play). After Stanley becomes aware that Stella has left him, he hunts her in the street:
STANLEY [with heaven-splitting violence]: STELLL-AHHHHH!
Parodied in Simpsons and Family Guy, this animalistic desire of young people in physical love and trying to survive in lower-level America works on stage. It is a moment of supreme dramatic conflict marked only in ‘animal‘ noises. The audience knows that this is a damaging relationship, but it is also one that works. Unlike Blanche’s desires for a non-existent chivalry and kindness, Stella accepts abuse and passion. This leads us to the problematic ending with its notion that the baby might lead to increased intimacy and connection. It is notable that Stanley needs Stella for intimacy. His discourse with his fellow men is frequently competitive and hardly intimate. If Stella was able to secure a position for herself, men like Stanley would not be able to attract women like her. It is notable that once she has her child, her focus has changed, and she vows the leave Stanley in the Kazan adaptation. Williams leaves the play more open for us. The catharsis is complicated.
So looking on the whole play, while Stanley deserves no judicious sympathy, Blanche rises to little more than an ineffectual imposition. She does not offer authentic love to herself, let alone her sister. The tone and tension of the sisters highlights how Stella serves Blanche (fetching her ‘lemondade’ and being called ‘honey’ and ‘sweet’). Williams, an artist himself, leaves us to decide our judgements for these characters. All he asks for in the brutal realities of a modern world is that we, as ‘strangers’ to ourselves as well as to others, offer a little ‘kindness’. Women like Blanch and Stella ‘rely’ on it. To an extent, if we lose our status and position, we all do.