What makes A Streetcar Named Desire a Modernist play?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire" is certainly modernist in its themes of alienation and ambivalence, as well as its conflict between the Old South represented by Blanche and the uncivilized, Darwinian character, Stanley Polowski.

In a criticism entitled, "Tennessee v. John T. Scopes" by John S. Bak, the author sees the play as a reechoing of the famous trial.  In "A Streetcar Named Desire," the main conflict is identified as the modernist, secular conflict with traditional, fundamentalist thinking.  The Old South, Blanche, comes into conflict with Stanley, the New South that has intruded from the industrial North. (His Polish--the Polish traditionally were blue-collar workers in factories and steel mills.)  Furthermore, in his essay, Baks likens Stanley's "tearing down of the columns" of Belle Reve, an act that Stanley tells his wife, "you loved," to the conquering of Darwin's "apes" over the Fundamentalist, religious foundation of the culture of the Old South. 

In Williams's play, Blanche DuBois arrives and, after staying a while, she decorates the house to make it more "dainty."  But, Stanley rips down the paper lantern over the bare light bulb, as well as stripping Blanche of her facade of gentility, assaulting her in the end of their argument with raw sexuality. Thus, there is a rejection in "A Streetcar Named Desire" of the moral precepts of the past as well as the aesthetics.

Like other Modernists, Tennessee Williams also emphasizes the psychological state of character through interior monologue and stream of consciousness.  Blanche DuBois is a neurotic, psychologically deluded character who vacillates between reality and the one she creates in her mind.  With this vacillating character of Blanche, also, Tennessee Williams himself comments upon the conflict between Victorian thinking and that of the moderns,

When I think of her, Blanche seems like the youth of our hearts which has to be put away for worldly considerations: poetry, music, the early soft feelings that we can't afford to live with under the naked light bulb which is now.


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jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

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There are several "technical" aspects of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that show it be a modernist play.

Traditional plays are divided into three or four acts, with some kind of intermission or pause between them.  Tennessee Williams, by contrast, structured "Streetcar" as one long act divided into eleven scenes.  Presumably, there would be little or no pause between these scenes.

In Scene Ten, Blanche is fully "discovered"  by Stanley and she tries to make a desparate phonecall to her imaginary benefactor, Mr. Shep Huntleigh.  At this point, Williams gives the following stage direction:

[Through the back wall of the rooms, which have become transparent, can be seen the sidewalk...]

I'm not sure how directors actually carried out this direction to make the back wall disappear, but it certainly is a modern, tradition-breaking device.


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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the reasons as to why Williams' work could be considered modernist is that there is little in way of redemption offered.  The morality structure in which Blanche operates is one that is not validated by the modern social setting.  Infact, Blanche's demanding to how reality should be ordered is almost disparaged by the social setting where her sister's boorish husband's behavior is almost praised.  This would go very far in the Modernist rejection of totalizing structures of morality and ethics.  At the same time, another reason why the play can be seen as modernist in that there is an absence of a happy ending or cohesive ending where validation is present.  Stella continues to live a life of silence, Blanche is institutionalized, and the use of freedom is seen as something that does not guarantee a happy ending or redemptive one.

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