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A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
“Streetcar named desire” By Tennessee Williams is a play filled with heated sexual tension and the desire for what has been and is gone forever. My aim is to explore the way in which Tennessee Williams presents the conflict between Blanche and Stanley. To do this I am going to examine characterisation, setting, tone, staging, and denouement.
Fundamentally this play deals with America's cultural progression after World War II. The setting of New Orleans is particularly relevant due to the diversity of its people and sound is used to promote this throughout. Equally though, on a human level the theme is of sexuality and the problems faced by trying to integrate old America (Blanche Du Bois) with new (Stanley Kowalski).
From the very first meeting we can see that there is going to be a lot of tension and problems between Stanley and Blanche. The main issue at the start is of class. Blanche is a southern belle and considers herself to be a lady. Even though those days are now over she is still trying to live in the past. We can see this because of the description of her dress being suited to a “summer tea or cocktail party”. This interlinks with her shock at discovering where Stella is living, “this horrible place”. She thinks that Stanley is common. From her surprise at their home we can tell that she is not used to places as basic as this and thinks that because of their family name and history that they could do better. This will not go down well with Stanley because he does not understand Blanche or her past. Stanley in his turn is the complete opposite. To start with he is Polish due to his name “Kowalski” and is offended by the term “Polack” which Blanche describes him as (not to his face). He is working class and has very different values. The dainty politeness which Blanche considers to be important means nothing to him. The description of him is very different to hers; “gaudy seed bearer”. We are given to understand that he is cave man like in his thoughts and instincts “sexual classifications, crude images flashing”. His roughness in manner and appearance and her ladylike delicateness set them at opposite poles from the beginning. Williams so clearly describes their physical differences so that we can more clearly understand the differences in their lifestyles and beliefs up until this point.
To make the difference in these characters more complete Williams compares each to an animal; Blanche as “a moth” and Stanley as “a richly feathered male bird among hens”. This is very useful because a moth is associated with a fluttery flighty creature that is attracted by light but keeps hitting against it. Like Blanche they like the dim light better, “turn that over light off”. It is her vanity that makes her worried about people seeing how old she is. She has a complex about growing older so she pretends to be younger than she is by creating illusions like having dim lighting. Stanley is seen as a womaniser. This comparison also shows us that he likes to be in charge and that men and women have their own place and should stick to it. He is testosterone fuelled and selfish while Blanche is “incongruous” and too dainty and delicate for this rough setting.
They come from two very different worlds. Blanches' life at Belle Reve was full of wealth and comfort and was centred on enjoyment of a refined sort. While Stanley has had to work hard to get on and has been living in relative poverty. There has not been much money around and people have to have a budget (or at least the women do!). They live for sex, bowling, gambling, and constantly have quarrels. This difference of lifestyle and attitude is a catalyse in their issues with each other.
The setting is very important in this play. New Orleans was very forward moving at that time as far as the integration of different cultures was concerned. The use of sound goes further to show us that. In the background the staging often tells us that Blues music can be heard. This is generally known to be black people's music “blue piano“. This is used as the theme tune for bohemian New Orleans and signifies young, forward-looking America. While in Blanches own head we hear polka music which was old fashioned and what they danced to at Belle Reve. The sound of the cats and dogs and constant music gives us the impression of a very bohemian atmosphere. It creates an image of a poor working class area with a laid back colourful feeling. This is good because it show the way that things are changing as far as class goes. Blanche when she arrives stands out while we can tell that Stanley fits right in. This is because Blanche represents old America with the southern belles and old colonial families while Stanley is the new America where the working classes are now in prominence. Blanches world has ended while Stanley's' is just beginning. This set up all helps to create tension and strife between them because they cannot understand each other and Stanley thinks that Blanche is looking down at him because of her background.
Stanley is rather a brutish and ignorant man and we see this early on in his attitude to the lose of Belle Reve ‘disposed of‘. He instantly jumps to the conclusion that Blanche has taken the money for herself, “I don't like to be swindled”. His treatment of Blanche puts him a very poor light. His mention of “acquaintances” who could value Blanche's jewels and furs was an example of him trying to big himself up and add to his own self importance. It only makes him look even more ignorant because her things are either old or “Next door to glass.” His looking through her things in the first place is a terrible thing to do and it just goes further in making him look like a brute. His behaviour here made me think that he felt that he had to make himself appear more intelligent and aware of her world. The words he chooses “appraise” and “acquaintances” backs this up because from the way that he uses them you can't imagine that he uses them very often. Blanche ends up winning because she didn't lie, and he grabbed her love letters from her which just makes him look cruel. Stanley is angry at this lose and it just goes further in his dislike of her and he thinks that she is acting superior to him. He also doesn't like being told what to do by anyone especially a female. This is why he tells her about the baby even though Stella told him not to.
There are many scenes that stand out but for me the one that fits in here is scene four. Blanche is trying to get Stella to leave Stanley. Unfortunately due to her fanciful nature she cannot persuade her. Stella and Stanley's relationship is mainly physical “brutal desire“, she finds the violence exciting and attractive. It is her way of rebelling against their repressed upbringing. Stanley hears a lot of it because he is lurking behind the door. This is so that he can use it against her. It shows him in a manipulative light and that he always thinks of his own ends first. The action of hugging Stella protectively is to show Blanche that he has won and signifies the cycle of how their relationship works in the end. Whatever happens she will always end up back with him and that includes even siding with her sister. The action of smiling at Blanche, “grins through the curtains at Blanche” is to silently let her know where she stands in his household and for her not to forget it. In a way it is a threat because he is telling her that he can get his own way if and when he wants it. The performance from the previous night goes to show this. He had hit Stella but she still came back to him. This behaviour signifies what their relationship is like.
A lot of the problems between the two stem back to Stella. She loves them both but Stanley cannot bear that and Blanche is constantly wanting her to do something for her and has made it clear that she wants her to leave Stanley “your fix is worse than mine“. Stella understands her because she knows how hard Blanche has had it for the past ten years and she wants to make it up to her. Stanley does not want to share her however and is jealous of the attention that she gets in much the same way that a child would be with a parent. He is primarily jealous of her. He wants things back to how they were before Blanche came when Stella doted on him “wasn't it all okay till she showed here?”
While the play itself it set in New Orleans the action itself all takes place in Stanley and Stella's flat. A scene that in my mind that particularly resonates his true being is the poker scene. Williams sets it at night with dim lighting so that the tense and smoky atmosphere and concentration is vividly seen. The way that it is described makes me think instantly of the picture of the dogs' playing cards which I think is a good comparison with this picture as Williams seems to compare Stanley to an animal already. The men take their game seriously; especially Stanley because he is not winning. He considers this as losing control and he doesn't like it. Due to this he takes control in the only other way that he can; by setting the rules because it is his house. When the women return he is less than welcoming “nobody is going to get up”. This is in reference in Blanche asking them not to stand up. It is etiquette that she is used to expecting but his rebuff shows her that he will not humour her. This briskness is worse because it is in front of complete strangers. It shows that he doesn't care what people think of him and that he has no thoughts but of his own pleasure. Even though Blanche is vain and self absorbed she is caring in her own way. For example Stella didn't want her to know about the baby but when she found out she was truly happy for her. This shows that she has compassion for her sister's feelings. This scene really shows how contemptible Stanley is that his evident conflict of dislike for Blanche overtakes any feeling of compassion for his wife in not showing her up. It shows that he expects to be first in line with her but that he in turn can do whatever he likes. It seems like rather crude behaviour rather like that of a Stone Age cave man.
The further through the play that we get the more intense and determined Stanley gets in his dislike of Blanche. Eventually he decides to ruin her completely. Throughout we have seen Blanche growing increasingly more fragile and falling into a kind of insanity. He discovered her real past and scared Mitch off which was unnecessary because he would have married her and Stanley would no longer have to deal with her being in his house. When he realised this though he suddenly became Mitch's best friend. At the poker scene he was very scathing about his devotion to his ill mother “we'll fix you a sugar- tit”. Yet now with his new found knowledge of Blanche “Mitch is a buddy of mine”.
The turning point is of course the rape scene. This is where all the conflict and angst between them really comes to a head at last. It feels as though this is what all the action has been leading up to from the start, or as Stanley so eloquently puts it, “We've had this date with each other from the beginning!” In his mind this is a sort of sick joke. The word “date” tells me this and also it implies that she has been provoking and flirting with him and that this was supposedly the inevitable conclusion. Though truth he is just trying to justify his terrible actions. As we have seen Blanche flirts with all men and it doesn't really mean anything; she is just trying to be friendly. The scene starts off as a twisted game of cat and mouse. We know that Blanche does not stand a chance. He gradually weakens her defences of all her illusions of Shep Huntleigh and the cruise. He can see that she desperately wants her illusions to be true. This is justified by what she told Mitch in response to her lies, “I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth”. Stanley is really enjoying himself because he can finally get revenge for all the things that she said to Stella about him. The rape itself is ambiguous. It could be that he is sexually attracted to her or purely that he wants to hurt her in the only way that he knows how to without beating her up. It is so that there are no physical signs for Stella to see and believe what happened.
To really show the darkness and tense nature of the rape scene good staging techniques have been used. As with the rest of the play emphases has been placed on detailed narrative, lighting, and background sound. The narrative really sets up the extremity of this scene by describing the outfits of both. Blanche is wearing all her best and most flamboyant clothes but in her mind it looks different to the actual state it and herself are in, “crumpled white satin evening gown and a pair of scuffed silver slippers”. She is really now teetering on the very edge of her sanity. Stanley changes into his special pyjamas to celebrate the coming birth of his first child. “I'll tear this off and wear it like a flag” (this is what he will do with his pyjamas when his child is born). The word “flag” is an important choice of word because it signifies new America. As does the birth of the baby. It is the new replacing the old and moving on. The “flag” represents his allegiance to the moving times (the future and new America, not the old one that Blanche is trying to cling to.) Her clothes and the state that they are in show the disintegrating of one way of life while the shiny newness of his shows the beginning of another. This further goes to enhance the differences in the two of them and why they clash.
The whole play has seen Stanley determined to get rid of Blanche and for his life with Stella to return to the way it had been before she arrived. He had no sympathy for a woman whose way of life and means had disappeared. If anything it should have been pity that he felt on coming across segments of her past history with men. They took advantage of a poor, lonely, and confused lady who just wanted to be looked after, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This leaving remark of hers resonates through me and really makes me feel sad. Particularly due to her main experience with men; yet she is not bitter or even sorry for herself. So maybe what is really making me sad is her constant belief in not being capable of looking after herself.
The conflict between these characters has developed and intensified right in front of us. Everyone has changed except Stanley. The movement of going to open Stella's blouse tells us that his thoughts and feelings are unchanged and unchangeable. Stella can now see his faults and is no longer excited by his brutish behaviour so maybe his longing for Blanche to leave was misguided after all.