A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams Setting New Orleans in the 1940s The French Quarter (also known as the Vieux Carre) is the downtown area of New Orleans. It is known for its rowdy nightlife: bars, hotels, restaurants, jazz music, brothels, Mardi Gras, etc. Basic Premise Blanche DuBois, an old maid on the verge of a nervous breakdown, pays an extended visit to her sister, Stella, in New Orleans. At the end of her rope and in need of some comfort and kindness, Blanche instead finds herself in conflict with Stanley Kowalski, her attractive but brutish brother-in-law. Blanche DuBois An old maid high school English teacher from Mississippi Her not-so-ex-gay husband killed himself On the verge of a nervous breakdown Lives in a world of “illusion” Round character: Very proper and prudish, yet lascivious. Blanche DuBois translates in French to white woods White symbolizes purity, and woods symbolizes sin. Stella Kowalski Blanche’s younger sister “Stella for star!”; the star that leads Blanche to New Orleans Torn between her aristocratic past and her new working-class life with Stanley. Pregnant during the course of the play. Round character: pragmatic, yet easily blinded by lust Stanley Kowalski Stella’s husband After WW2, sells auto parts Working class “Capable” Of Polish descent Continually referred to as a caveman, a barbarian, a, brute etc. Round character: macho, yet emotionally infantile (“Stella!”) Harold “Mitch” Mitchell One of Stanley’s coworkers and poker buddies Lives with and takes care of his sick mother Dates Blanche throughout the summer—until he finds out the truth about her Falls short as the Knight in Shining Armor who will rescue Blanche Round character: clumsy and unrefined, yet gentle and patient. Plastic Theatre Though the play is largely in the style of realism, Tennessee Williams incorporates some subtle uses of expressionism: The audience hears the Varsouviana Polka and the gunshot that Blanche hears only in her head as a recollection of her husband’s suicide. She hears this more and more frequently as she slowly loses her grip on reality. The set of the apartment gets incrementally smaller and smaller as the play progresses, mimicking the growing sense of claustrophobia felt by all three main characters The Kindness of Strangers Famous last line of the play: “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” TW described the play as “a plea for the gentle kind”—those of us who are fragile or broken. Blanche’s dramatic need throughout the play is for kindness and comfort—something that the world of reality, masculinity, and blinding light does not provide. “The only thing that is unforgivable is deliberate cruelty.”—Blanche DuBois Throughout the play, note how Stella “waits on” her sister. This is the nurturing she needs. Illusion vs. Reality The play thematically embraces the notion that reality is cruel and that we must forgive people’s dependence on lies or illusions. Stanley is the chief representative of Reality; he shines the light on Blanche’s secret past. The Kowalski home isn’t exactly a haven from reality; from it, we can see and hear the life of the real world outside: fights, vendors, flashing lights. Blanche tells many lies over the course of the play to protect her own fragile ego. “A woman’s charm is 50% illusion.” Illusions: her age, her appearance, her purity, rhinestones, fake furs, perfume, Chinese lantern, the telegram from Shep Huntleigh “It’s Only A Paper Moon” Blanche sings this song about illusion and reality. The lyrics suggest that perception and belief—no matter how phony—are the true creators of reality. Blanche believes the illusions and lies that she desperately clings to are harmless in that they create a gentler, superior world than that of the cruel reality of her actual surroundings. Light and the Chinese Lantern A motif supporting the theme of illusion vs. reality. Light exposes truth; light is harsh and critical. Blanche, like a spider (resident of the Tarantula Arms), prefers the darkness. She places a Chinese lantern over the harsh bright bulb in the apartment. Her dates with Mitch are in dark locations. The darkness hides her age, her guilt for the sexual misconduct of her recent past, her guilt in Allen’s death, her embarrassment at her diminishing sanity, and, chiefly, her broken heart. Death and Desire Throughout the play death and desire are linked, suggesting that unbridled sexual desire leads to isolating darkness and eventually death. The whole play in one line: “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!” “Death is the opposite of desire.” “Flores para los muertos!” She is obsessed with youth, and she uses sex (sometimes with youths) to escape the death that has surrounded her, but conversely, it leads her to death. After having many sordid affairs, she retreats into the shadows—literally and figuratively. Ablutions One of the play’s motifs is Blanche’s perpetual bathing. It symbolically serves as an attempt to purify herself from her lascivious past. She also claims it soothes her nerves. Stanley is likewise cleansed after the famed scene of his drunken violence. (Is there something in Stanley that is like Blanche?) The Fall of the South The loss of Belle Reve and the demise of the aristocratic DuBois family is representative of the entropy of the South after the Civil War. The name of the estate “Belle Reve” means “beautiful dream.” This likewise links to the illusion vs. reality theme. Stanley Kowalski represents the New South—harsh, feral, and violent. Changes From Stage to Screen The film begins in medias res with the arrival of Blanche; whereas, the play starts with a glimpse at the home life of Stella and Stanley before Blanche’s intrusion. “Meat!” Location shifts: the bowling alley, the tavern The biggest change is the backstory of Blanche: in the play, Blanche had caught her husband Allen Grey in bed with another man. Shortly after, while they were attending a dance, Blanche called him weak—not being able to control his homosexual “inclinations.” He ran outside the hall and shot himself. The version of this story in the film is “cleaned up” for Hollywood.
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