"A Streetcar Named Desire" is a landmark American drama of the twentieth century. Some of the major themes of the play are explored, with reference to selected contemporary critical reflections on Tennessee Williams' play.
Delusions of Grandeur and Happiness
Tennessee Williams’ famous play of 1947 revolves around the iconic, tragicomic character of Blanche DuBois, a washed-up Southern Belle and disgraced high school teacher, who finds herself staying with her sister Stella and her uncouth husband Stanley Kowalski, in a seedy tenement in New Orleans. The tragedy and the bitter comedy of Blanche’s character lie in her disconnection from reality. The grandiosity and glamour with which Blanche surrounds herself, with her costume jewelry, her fine clothes and improbable stories are at odds with the fact that, despite her distaste, she has to put up with her sister’s squalid apartment and brutish husband, because she has no other option; having lost her estate, her job, her reputation and her youthful beauty. Since the suicide of her beloved husband, who killed himself after she discovered he was gay, Blanche has been in terrified, alcoholic flight from reality.
There is a contrasting tragedy in Blanche’s clear-eyed perception of Stella’s abusive marriage. On one level, her dislike of Stella’s husband Stanley is rooted in snobbery and prejudice; Stanley is a working class man of Polish origin and of little education (though by no means stupid). Blanche expresses her contempt for him for these reasons. It is also the case that Stanley tyrannizes over his wife, treats her disrespectfully in front of his friends and beats her when he is drunk. It is Blanche who seems sane and Stella who appears deluded, when, the morning after his violent assault on Stella, Blanche implores her to escape him, only to meet with Stella’s insistence that all is well. At the dark climax of the play, Stella quashes a lingering doubt, by insisting to her neighbor Eunice that she simply can’t afford to believe Blanche’s allegation of rape against Stanley, as that would be the end of their marriage; instead she must accept that her sister is mad.
Madness and Silence
The trope of madness as used by Williams in "Streetcar," as well as other works, is explored by Jacqueline O’Connor in her article "Babbling Lunatics: Language and Madness." O’Connor represents Blanche as one of a number of protagonists whose voices are silenced by the accusation of madness when they insist on speaking truths that the world is not prepared to hear. In the painful final scene, when the doctor and nurse come to take Blanche away, the previously grandiloquently vocal Blanche falls progressively silent.
Blanche can be compared to Catherine, the heroine of "Suddenly Last Summer," who is institutionalized and threatened with lobotomy for insisting on repeating the unsavory truth about her Cousin Sebastian’s death. It is however the web of fantasy and concealment which Blanche had previously spun about herself and which Stanley had ruthlessly exposed which made it easier for Stella to believe that Blanche's account of being raped by her husband was a final lie too far.
The unacceptable nature of the truth spoken by Blanche is confirmed by the reception of the work, as well as within the play itself. In "“Tiger-Tiger!" Blanche’s Rape on Screen," Nancy M. Tischler describes the contemporary controversy that surrounded the rape of Blanche and the resulting doubts that the Hollywood film would get past the censor. Playwright Lillian Hellman was drafted in to suggest amendments to the script that would make the play more acceptable. Her proposed solutions included making the rape, in fact, a product of Blanche’s diseased imagination. Like Stella, the American audience was presumed to find it easier to dismiss Blanche as a lying madwoman, a malign disrupter of a poor but respectable home, than to confront the scenario that a man might rape his sister-in-law and get away with it.
Williams himself adamantly refused to have the rape written out, insisting that it was central to the meaning of the play, which was about “the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society."
Blanche DuBois and the Role of the Southern Belle
The "Southern belle" is a part that Blanche famously plays with stubborn gentility; oblivious to the incongruity of the role, both in terms of her immediate environment — a working class tenement in 1940s New Orleans — and to her personal reality as a middle aged, penniless alcoholic, who has been dismissed from school teaching for an inappropriate relationship with a minor. In her role as a "belle," Blanche requires the protection and chivalry of those around her, an expectation that she will be waited on and maintained, without being expected to contribute, other than by the grace of her presence. The role also carries with it an expectation of sexual purity, on the part of the belle, a quality that the compulsively promiscuous Blanche mimics for the benefit of her guileless suitor Mitch, though, despite her habitual self-delusion, she cannot help wryly sending herself up in the role, lewdly propositioning him in French, knowing he will not understand.
In the literary criticism "“Fifty Percent Illusion" The Mask of the Southern Belle in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Portrait of a Madonna," George Hovis describes the role of Southern Belle as both a mask and a prison, within which upper class Southern white women negotiated their unequal position, simultaneously demanding respect, while exuding a reassuring passivity and purity. He also points out that, while Blanche’s sister Stella has given up the role of a belle, she has not exchanged it for one of equality, but instead accepts being treated without courtesy or basic respect by her husband. Masks and fantasy are Blanche’s undoing, but they are also testament to her refusal to accept a life lived without grace, such as that to which she leaves Stella and Stanley.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York, 1947
Tishler, Nancy. M. ""Tiger-Tiger!": Blanche's Rape on Screen," in Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams. Ed. Ralph F. Voss, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2002
O'Connor, Jacqueline. "Babbling Lunatics: Language and Madness," in Bloom's Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom, New York, 2007
Hovis, George. “Fifty Percent Illusion" The Mask of the Southern Belle in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Portrait of a Madonna," in Bloom's Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom, New York, 2007