A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire contains more withinit’s characters, situations, and story than appears on its surface. As inmany of Williams’s plays, there is much use of symbolism and interestingcharacters in order to draw in and involve the audience. The plot of AStreetcar Named Desire alone does not captivate the audience. It isWilliams’s brilliant and intriguing characters that make the reader trulyunderstand the play’s meaning. He also presents a continuous flow of raw,realistic moods and events in the play which keeps the reader fascinatedin the realistic fantasy Williams has created in A Streetcar Named Desire.The symbolism, characters, mood, and events of this play collectivelyform a captivating, thought-provoking piece of literature. A Streetcar Named Desire produces a very strong reaction. Even at thebeginning of the play, the reader is confronted with extremely obvioussymbolism in order to express the idea of the play. Blanche states thatshe was told “to take a streetcar named Desire, and then to transfer toone called Cemeteries”. One can not simply read over this statementwithout assuming Williams is trying to say more than is written. Later inthe play, the reader realizes that statement most likely refers toBlanche’s arriving at the place and situation she is now in because of herservitude to her own desires and urges. What really makes A StreetcarNamed Desire such an exceptional literary work is the development ofinteresting, involving characters. As the play develops, the audiencesees that Blanche is less proper and refined than she might appear orclaim to be. Her sexual desire and tendency to drink away her problemsmake Blanche ashamed of her life and identity. Desire was the”rattle-trap streetcar” that brought her to her pitiful state in life. Blanche is the most fascinating character in A Streetcar Named Desire. One reason for this is that she has an absolutely brilliant way of makingreality seem like fantasy, and making fantasy seem like reality. Thiselement of Blanche’s personality is what makes her character interest theaudience and contribute to the excellence of the work. Returning to thebeginning of the play, Blanche, shocked with the dirtiness and gloominessof Stella and Stanley’s home in New Orleans, looks out the window and says”Out there I suppose is the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir!”, to whichStella replies “No honey, those are the L and N tracks.” Blanche wouldassume that something so common and simple as noisy, dark railroad tracksmight as well be “ghoul-haunted woodlands.” Further evidence of Blanche’swarped view of reality and fantasy is shown throughout the entire play. She seems to hint to Stella and Stanley, and therefore the audience, thatshe is actually much more than she seems. In scene seven, Blanche soaksin a tub, singing: “Say, it’s only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea -But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me! It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be -But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!”As she sings this song, telling the story of her tendency to believe amore pleasant, warped view of reality over the actual reality, Stanley istelling Stella the horrifying truth about Blanche’s scandalous past. Thereader is as drawn into Blanche’s illusion as much as Stella is, and justas Stella refuses to believe Stanley’s harsh words, the audience also doesnot want to accept that the view they have had of Blanche for a good dealof the play is nothing more than a story made up to hide her unpleasanthistory. The clearest example of this is also one of the most intense andinvolving scenes of the entire play. In scene nine, Blanche is confrontedby Mitch, who has learned the truth about her past. Mitch tells Blanchethat he has never seen her in the light. He tears Blanche’s paper lanternoff of the plain, bright light bulb, and tries to see her as she reallyis, and not in a view warped by Blanche’s efforts to make herself seemmore innocent, young, and beautiful than she is. Blanche responds to thisby saying “I don’t want realism. I want magic!…I try to give that topeople. I misinterpret things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell whatought to be truth…Don’t turn the light on!” This intense, frighteningscene reveals to the audience the way Blanche views the world. TennesseeWilliams’s use of this kind of dual view of the world to develop Blanche’scharacter is a perfect example of the way A Streetcar Named Desire makesthe audience react to the characters in the play. It is this reactionbetween the audience and the brilliant characters in the play that makesthe play such a valuable literary work. The literary value of A Streetcar Named Desire is in Williams’s abilityto create a fantasy world which draws the reader into it as if it wastheir own reality. In some ways, the setting and conflict of the play isfamiliar to the reader, but in many ways the conflicting worlds of StanleyKowalski and Blanche DuBois are too different to share the same reality. Tennessee Williams’s world in A Streetcar Named Desire, and the characterswithin it, become so familiar and fascinating to the reader that everyevent that occurs in the play affects the reader’s reaction to the overalloutcome of the play and his opinions of the characters. The theme of the play does not occur to the reader until after the play’soverall experience is concluded, and he is left to reflect on just whatTennessee Williams was trying to say in the play. While the play is beingread, the audience is not interested in the overall meaning of the work,but simply in the intriguing action occurring at that moment in the play. However, A Streetcar Named Desire certainly contains many potentialthemes. One theme of the play could be that time is precious, and towaste it is to lose it. This theme of carpe diem, or “seize the day” isstrong in the play. As time goes on in Blanche’s life and her socialbehavior changes, she wastes away her youth. The loss of her younghusband Allan has caused her loneliness, sexual desire, and even certainsigns of psychological instability. All of these problems were increasedby her attempt to lose them through drinking. What Blanche does notrealize is that she can not change the past through the present. Blanche’s youth is gone, and she tries to give the appearance of being asyouthful and innocent as she once was, but her illusion can not last. Asan epigraph to the play, Williams quotes from the poem “The Broken Tower”,by Hart Crane: “And so it was that I entered the broken world To trace the visionary company of love, its voice An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) But not for long to hold each desperate choice.”The use of this poem helps to express Williams’s choice of theme in AStreetcar Named Desire. Blanche has entered a “Broken world” of fear,longing, and sorrow because of her simple desire to hear “the visionarycompany of love, it’s voice”, or tender, gentle words of love andappreciation from Stella and Mitch. However, these words are only”visionary”. Blanche hopes that these words will bring to her what sheneeds to rebuild her life, but they do not last. Stanley feels he needsto prove that Blanche is not what she seems. To this end, he destroys herdreams of becoming what she wants to be, and not what she was. By tellingStella and Mitch about her activities in the past, Stanley ruins Blanche’sillusion. Blanche won their love by covering the past, and she could nolonger build a new person from herself. The breakdown of Blanche’scharacter climaxes when Stanley rapes her, trying to prove to her that healways knew she was less than she appeared. After this event, Blanche isforced to deal with the reality that she can never change who she is, andshe is doomed to live with her reputation. This final outcome for Blancheis a brutally realistic way of proving the idea that youth is precious andshould not be wasted on trivial desires. Thomas Lanier Williams, known as Tennessee Williams, was born on March26, 1911 to Cornelius Coffin and Edwina Dakin Williams in Columbus,Mississippi. During extended periods of Tennessee Williams’s early life,his father was on the road as a shoe company salesman. Williams and hisfamily lived with his maternal grandparents in the parsonage of St. Paul’sEpiscopal Church. Between the ages of two to seven years old, Williamslived in various locations in Tennessee and Mississippi. After a longbout with diphtheria and a kidney infection, Williams became withdrawn. In July of 1918, Williams’s father became a branch manager of the shoecompany, and the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. His father tauntedhim for his reclusion and effeminacy, nicknaming him “Miss Nancy.” AsWilliams grew up, he took refuge from his intense shyness in hiscreativity. He wrote for his school newspaper, and became a publishedwriter in 1927 at age sixteen with the essay “Can a Good Wife Be a GoodSport?” in Smart Set, for which he received third prize. In September of1928, Williams entered the University of Missouri. In 1931, his fatherwithdrew him from the university for failing ROTC. He began work as aclerk in the warehouse for the International Shoe Company, and pursuedwriting at home during the night. In 1935, Williams suffered a breakdownand went to recuperate for a year at his grandparent’s home in Memphis. In July of that year was the first production of his play Cairo! Shanghai!Bombay! by the Memphis Garden Players. In 1936 and 1937, Williams Enrolledin Washington University, where he wrote poetry and produced severalplays, then transferred to the University of Iowa. In 1938, he received adegree in English from Iowa. From 1939 to 1943 Williams lived briefly in anumber of locations in the Midwest, South, and West, including NewOrleans, which became his favorite city and where he had his firsthomosexual experience. During this time, he first used the name”Tennessee” as the author of “The Field of Blue Children.” In 1944 and1945, The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago on December 26Th., andopened on Broadway on March 31St. In 1947, A Streetcar Named Desireopened on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and made the longestBroadway run of any of Williams’s plays, 885 performances. The next yearhis parents separated. In the next 13 years, over twenty of Williams’sworks were published, opened on stage, or made into films, including TheNight of the Iguana, his last Broadway success. In 1963, after the deathof his intimate friend by cancer, Williams entered what he refers to ashis “Stoned Age.” In 1969, he was baptized as a Roman Catholic, wasawarded an honorary doctor of human letters from the University ofMissouri, and entered Barnes Hospital for psychiatric care from Septemberto December of that year. During the next ten years, Williams receivedmore awards, and dealt openly with his homosexuality in Memoirs and Moiseand the World of Reason. In the last three years before his death, hismother died, he received the Medal of Freedom from President Carter, andreceived an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. On February 24Th.or 25Th. of 1983, Williams died at the Hotel Elysee in New York,apparently from choking on a cap from a medicine bottle, and was buried inSt. Louis, against his expressed wish to be buried at sea, like one of hisfavorite poets, Hart Crane. (Adler, xi-xvii) Due to Tennessee Williams’s unique style of writing and use of symbolism,there is much room for individual interpretation in it’s theme andmeaning. Because of this, many writers have presented their views of thework in critical essays and books. One of these such authors is LeonardQuirino in his essay, “The Cards Indicate a Voyage on A Streetcar NamedDesire.” Quirino remarks that the recurring theme of the poker game is astrong symbol in the play. Quirino states: “…Much of the verbal and theatrical imagery that constitutes the dramais drawn from games, chance and luck. …Two of the most crucial scenesare presented within the framework of poker games played onstage. Indeed,the tactics and ceremonial of games in general, and poker in particular,may be seen as constituting the informing structural principle of the playas a whole. Pitting Stanley Kowalski…against Blanche DuBois…,Williams makes the former the inevitable winner of the game whose stakesare survival in the kind of world the play posits. For the first of fourof the eleven scenes of Streetcar, Blanche, by reason of her affectationof gentility and respectability, manages to bluff a good hand in her gamewith Stanley; thus, in the third scene Stanley is continually losing,principally to Mitch the potential ally of Blanche, in the poker gameplayed onstage. However, generally suspicious of Blanche’s behavior andher past, and made aware at the end of the fourth scene that she considershim an ape and a brute, Stanley pursues an investigation of the realidentity of her cards. …He continually discredits her gambits until, inthe penultimate scene, he caps his winnings by raping her. In the lastscene of the play, Stanley is not only winning every card game beingplayed onstage, but he has also won the game he played with Blanche. Depending as it does on the skillful manipulation of the hands that chancedeals out, the card game is used by Williams throughout Streetcar as asymbol of fate and of the skillful player’s ability to make its decreesperform in his own favor at the expense of his opponent’s misfortune,incompetence, and horror of the game itself.” (Quirino, 62) Quirino’s view of the symbolism in A Streetcar Named Desire is insightfuland interesting. The idea of the poker game being a microcosm of theconflict of the entire play is not one that all critics and readers wouldagree with. One other critical view on A Streetcar Named Desire, that of Alvin B.Kernan, deals with Williams’s interpretation of reality within the play. The theme of reality vs. fantasy is one that the play centers around. In”Truth and Dramatic Mode in A Streetcar Named Desire,” Kernan says: “In each of his plays, Williams poises the human need for belief in humanvalue and dignity against a brutal, naturalistic reality; similarly,symbolism is poised against realism. But where the earlier playwrightswere able to concentrate on human values, Williams has been unable to doso because of his conviction that there is a ‘real’ world outside andinside each of us which is actively hostile to any belief in the goodnessof man and the validity of moral values. His realism gives expression tothis aspect of the world, and A Streetcar Named Desire is his clearesttreatment of the human dilemma which entails the dramatic dilemma. We arepresented in Streetcar with two polar ways of looking at experience: therealistic view of Stanley Kowalski and the ‘non-realistic’ view of hissister-in-law, Blanche DuBois. Williams brings the two views intoconflict immediately.” (Kernan, 9) Kernan’s idea of the conflict between Stanley and Blanche acting as amessenger of the conflict between reality and fantasy is one that thereader sees quite clearly in the play. Critical interpretations of bookslike A Streetcar Named Desire not only help the reader to betterunderstand what the author is trying to say in the work, but also providethe reader with many other stimulating points of view on the work. In conclusion, the reader of A Streetcar Named Desire is not onlyentertained by an interesting story when he reads the play. He is alsothrust into a reality which is not his own, yet somehow seems familiar. This realistic fantasy Williams creates with his brilliant use ofsymbolism, intriguing characters, and involving action in the play causesthe reader to connect fully with the setting, characters, conflicts, andemotions within it.