Tennessee Williams was a prolific writer who published short stories, poems, essays, two novels, an autobiography, and dozens of plays. It is for his plays that he is most widely known. The most successful of these, in both commercial and critical terms, are The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), and The Night of the Iguana (1961). All four received New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards, and both A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won Pulitzer prizes. Although Williams received less critical acclaim in his later years, he is regarded as one of the foremost American playwrights of the twentieth century.
Williams claimed that for him writing was therapy. He was always open about his troubled family background: his father’s drunken violence, the unhappy marriage of his parents, his own mental breakdown, and the insanity of his beloved sister, who as a young woman was institutionalized for the rest of her life. Williams did not hide that he was gay or that he was an abuser of alcohol and drugs. Although he denied that his writing was autobiographical, elements from his life appear frequently in his work.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams shows the reality of people’s lives, an enduring concern of his throughout his writing career. He wrote this play believing he was about to die, so he wrote about what he felt needed to be said. When it was first presented, the play was considered shocking because of its frank presentation of sexual issues.
Williams did not rely on realism alone to portray reality. In A Streetcar Named Desire as in other plays, he effectively uses dramatic devices to convey and enrich meanings. Most of the action of the play takes place in the Kowalskis’ apartment, but there is also action in the street. This action—the Mexican woman with “flores para los muertos” and the struggle of the drunk and the prostitute—provides not only local color but also a commentary on the main action. When Blanche first arrives at the apartment, a screeching cat is heard, a minor bit of stage business that helps create a sense of Blanche’s tension. The background music, too, is carefully contrived. The “Blue Piano” and the “Varsouviana” fade in and out according to what is going on in the minds of the characters, particularly Blanche. Blanche’s rape is accompanied by “hot trumpet and drums.”
The use of literary devices also underlines the meanings of the play. There are a number of significant names. Blanche DuBois, white woods, as Blanche herself points out “like an orchard in spring,” is clearly ironic. The family plantation was Belle Reve, a “beautiful dream” now gone. The Elysian Fields address of Stella and Stanley is an ironic comment on the unheavenly reality of the place, and Blanche arrives there by means of two streetcars, Cemeteries and Desire, which foreshadow the recurring images of death and desire throughout the play.
Death and desire bring Blanche to this low point in her life. She never recovers from the devastating death of her young husband, indirectly caused by the nature of his sexual desires. The deaths of her relatives are instrumental in reducing her to poverty, as do the desires, the costly “epic fornications” of her forebears. Her own promiscuous sexual desire destroys her reputation and her professional career. The rape by Stanley, which he claims is the culmination of a perverse desire they felt for each other all along, is the act that finally pushes her into insanity.
Just as Belle Reve is a relic of the plantation system that was the cornerstone of the civilization of the Old South, so is Blanche an anachronistic leftover from that culture. She is a southern belle, born to privilege and meant to be beautiful and refined, to read poetry, to flirt, and ultimately to marry and reproduce. Blanche is born too late in the history of her family and in the history of the South to inherit this legacy: The money is gone; the values are disintegrating. She hangs on to what vestiges of gentility she can, but this serves only to alienate rather than to shield her. Tender and delicate, like the moth she resembles, Blanche is unable to survive in the harsh reality of modern society.
There is more to the character of Blanche than merely the role of pathetic victim. She, too, has been active in her destruction. As she confesses to Mitch, she was not blameless in her husband’s suicide, for her cruel remark seems to have pushed him to it. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” she says pathetically to the doctor who leads her away, and perhaps it is a search for “kindness,” some warmth of human response, that leads to her gross, self-destructive sexual promiscuity. Despite recognizing her own undeniable flaws, she makes very little attempt to disguise her contempt for those she feels are inferior to her in refinement, and she is willing to use Mitch and Stanley to provide for her. She is also cruel to Stella, the one remaining person who loves her, in criticizing Stella’s husband and her way of life.
If Blanche represents defunct southern values, Stanley represents the new, urban modernity, which pays little heed to the past. If Belle Reve is not going to mean a financial inheritance, Stanley is no longer interested in Belle Reve. Williams’s stage directions indicate that Stanley’s virile, aggressive brand of masculinity is to be admired. However, Stanley, like Blanche, is an ambiguous character. His cruel intolerance of Blanche can be seen as justifiable response to her lies, hypocrisy, and mockery, but his nasty streak of violence against his wife appalls even his friends. His rape of Blanche is a horrifying and destructive act as well as a cruel betrayal of Stella. Ultimately, however, Stanley prevails. He gets rid of Blanche, who loses everything, and in the closing lines of the play, he soothes Stella’s grief, and their life goes on.