Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*New Orleans. Louisiana city in which the Kowalskis live adds to the tensions inside the apartment. New Orleans just after World War II but before air-conditioning was a hot and humid place to live. Windows had to be kept open, which adds to the noise and sense of overcrowding in the Kowalski apartment. The apartment is in the French Quarter, known for incessant activity day and night. Noises of all sorts, from trains to cats to prostitutes to street vendors, constantly intrude upon the tiny space. Rowdy neighbors, also with their windows open, increase the sense of invaded privacy. Furthermore, music and vulgar merrymaking emanate from neighborhood bars. Indeed, the life outside is so much a part of the life inside that Tennessee Williams calls for a transparent wall so that outside images and activities may be seen through the apartment wall at crucial moments. Stanley, whom Williams describes as a “richly feathered male bird . . . a gaudy seed bearer,” loves the turbulence, and he contributes to it at every opportunity. Blanche, the essence of cultured southern womanhood, is flabbergasted by the endless clamor of New Orleans. Stella, the bridge between the two, is caught between her attraction to the crude and exciting vigor of Stanley and his New Orleans and her loyalty to Blanche and her background of old South gentility.
Kowalski apartment. The entire action of the play takes...
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Many of the major themes of A Streetcar Named Desire are embodied in the history and culture of New Orleans. The lively setting of the French Quarter, with its streetcars, bars, entertainment, and jazz and blues music, provides a rich background for the emotional events of the play; the setting also draws symbolic attention to changes which were taking place in American society, especially in the South during the post-World war II years.
When Stanley feels he is being swindled by Blanche's loss of Belle Reve, he appeals to the Napoleonic Code, a set of laws devised by the French and implemented when they ruled the region known now as Louisiana. The state of Louisiana continued to operate under some of the precepts of the Napoleonic Code, such as the Code's emphasis on inheritance law: any property belonging to a spouse prior to marriage becomes the property of both spouses once they are married. Stanley, therefore, is legally correct to claim that, by depriving Stella of her share of the family inheritance, Blanche has also deprived him.
On a more general level, the play represents the decline of the aristocratic families traditionally associated with the South. These once-influential families had lost their historical importance when the South's agricultural base was unable to compete with the new industrialization. The region's agrarian economy, which had been in decline since the...
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The most striking feature of Streetcar's dramatic structure is its division into scenes rather than acts. Each of the eleven scenes that make up the play ends in a dramatic climax, and the tension of each individual scene builds up to the tension of the final climax. This structure allows the audience to focus on the emotions and actions of Blanche—the only character to appear in every scene. The audience is sympathetic to Blanche because they see more of her inner thoughts and motivations than the other characters on stage. Note, for example, how only the audience is aware of how much alcohol she is drinking. The scene organization adds to the audience's sense of tragedy—Blanche's destruction is inevitable, signaling the inexorable passage of the drama and of her movement towards a final breakdown.
That Williams chose to organize his play this way may reveal his interest in film and the possibilities inherent in that medium for combining several visually dramatic incidents into a coherent experience. He also wrote a number of one-act plays during his career.
In order to connect the separate incidents of Blanche's story, Williams provided dramatic motifs and details of setting which are repeated at significant moments during the play and which signal changes in mood and tone and highlight the reemergence of crucial themes.
As the title of the play suggests, the motif of...
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Compare and Contrast
1947: Hungary becomes a Soviet satellite after Hungarian Communists, backed by the Red Army, seize power while Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy is on holiday. Anti-Communist sentiment builds in the U.S. The Truman Doctrine announces plans to aid Greece and Turkey and proposes economic aid to countries threatened by Communist takeover. The CIA is authorized by Congress to counter Moscow's attempts to establish governments through local Communist parties in Western Europe.
Today: Communism has all but broken down since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and East Germany, as well as the break-up of the Soviet Union have eliminated many of the barriers between East and West. Eastern European countries are now undergoing a slow and difficult transformation to a market economy.
1947: New technology: the first commercial microwave oven is introduced by the Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Massachusetts. Tubeless automobile tires, which seal themselves when punctured, are introduced by B.F. Goodrich. Howard Hughes' new seaplane, the Spruce Goose, the largest plane ever built, takes off for a one-mile flight across Long Beach Harbor before it is retired for good.
Today: Most American homes have a microwave, as well as toasters, coffee makers, freezers, and numerous other examples of electrical gadgetry. Cars are commonplace but their emissions, along with those from airplanes and heavy...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the emergence of industrialization and the decline of the old Southern aristocracy in the USA and analyze what bearing this has on A Streetcar Named Desire.
With whom does the audience's sympathy lie in A Streetcar Named Desire? Blanche? Stanley? Both? Neither?
Discuss the importance of New Orleans—its geography, its transport system, its laws, its music and culture—as a setting for A Streetcar Named Desire.
Examine the scene structure of A Streetcar Named Desire, paying particular attention to the beginnings and endings of scenes and the dramatic climaxes that they create.
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In addition to its successful run on Broadway, A Streetcar Named Desire was made into a film by Warner Bros, and was released in 1951. Many of its original cast were retained, including Marlon Brando as Stanley, but Jessica Tandy, who played Blanche, was replaced with Vivien Leigh. The film, directed by Elia Kazan, received numerous Academy Award nominations and carried off four Awards, including Best Actress for Leigh and Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter (Stella).
A made-for-television version appeared in 1984 with Ann-Margret as Blanche. Although this production reinstated some of the material which the censors had objected to in the 1950s, critics found it lacking in the spark and chemistry of the earlier version.
An unrated television version of 1995 recreated the 1992 stage version which stared Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin. Again, it is truer to the dialogue and actions of the original stage production than the censored 1951 film.
Two sound recordings are available: HarperCollins's 1991 version stars Rosemary Harris and James Farentino in a 1973 recording of a production at the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. Caedmon's 1985 publication is from the same production.
The play was adapted by the Dance Theatre of Harlem featuring Virginia Johnson as Blanche.
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What Do I Read Next?
Stanley Clisby Arthur's Old New Orleans (Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1990) provides an insightful picture into the setting of Williams' play and a view of the American South in the first half of the twentieth century.
Williams' earlier play, The Glass Menagerie (1944), also portrays a Southern belle, Amanda Wingfield, who represents the playwright's ambiguous feelings about his mother's pretensions, possessiveness, and insensitivity. She also shares some similarities with Blanche Du Bois.
The memoir of Williams' mother, Remember Me to Tom (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1964), provides insight into the relationship between mother and son. This account was ghost-written by Lucy Freeman.
Margaret Mitchell's 1936 bestseller, Gone With the Wind, is set in the antebellum era in the American South on through the aftermath of the Civil War. Depicting the porticoed mansions of Southern planters, the suffering of black slaves, and the unspoiled glamour of Southern belles, this novel (and the more famous film, which, like Streetcar, starred Vivien Leigh) was one of the last popular works to idealize the South.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Arthur, Stanley Clisby, Old New Orleans Gretna, La.: Pelican, 1990.
A historical exploration of New Orleans that provides background to Streetcar's setting.
Bloom, Harold, ed., Tennessee Williams, New York, Chelsea House, 1987.
A collection of critical essays contextualizing Williams' work with that of other modern writers, drawing out psychological similarities between Williams, Hart Crane, and Arthur Rimbaud.
Falki, Signi, Tennessee Williams, New York: Twayne, 1961.
An intelligent discussion of Williams' life and works in which the plays are organized into thematic groups and attention is drawn to recurring character types.
Hayman, Ronald, Tennessee Williams' Everyone Else is an Audience, New York: Yale University Press, 1993.
A biography which includes many quotations from Williams and opinions from his friends.
McCann, John S., The Critical Reputation of Tennessee Williams, Boston: G.K Hall, 1983.
Charts Williams' reception among the important critics and writers of this century.
Spoto, Donald, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams, Boston: Little, Brown, 1985.
A literary biography beginning with Williams' parents and moving through the playwright's life, his theatrical encounters, life in the homosexual and drug culture of Florida, and his death. With bibliographical sources for further study.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Falk, Signi. Tennessee Williams. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1978. An introduction to both the fiction and drama. Places Williams in the Southern tradition and examines his early exploratory work. Provides a good general overview with a focus on recurring character types. Includes a chronology of publication and production of works and a useful critical bibliography.
Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Biographical study that examines how Williams used events from his life and characters he knew, including himself, as source material for his drama.
Miller, Jordan Y., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Excellent collection of twenty essays and reviews divided into two sections that treat the play as commercial theater and as dramatic literature. Provides views from a variety of critics and includes a notebook of the director of the original production.
Thompson, Judith J. Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. Examines eight plays in considerable detail, including A Streetcar Named Desire, in terms of recurring archetypal characters and patterns of action. Interesting analysis of tragic, romantic,...
(The entire section is 236 words.)