Should we read A Streetcar Named Desire autobiographically?   Do you believe that knowledge of Tennessee Williams's sexuality and the institutionalization of his sister Rose should have much of...

Should we read A Streetcar Named Desire autobiographically?   Do you believe that knowledge of Tennessee Williams's sexuality and the institutionalization of his sister Rose should have much of an impact on our reading of the play?  

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

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I think that it is very difficult to divorce the autobiographical elements from Williams's work.  This becomes especially valid in A Streetcar Named Desire.  There are two specific quotes from Williams's life that I think makes this the case.  One is from Williams's mother, who spoke about the intensity with which her son would approach the writing process in his formative years:

Tom would go to his room with black coffee and cigarettes and I would hear the typewriter clicking away at night in the silent house. Some mornings when I walked in to wake him for work, I would find him sprawled fully dressed across the bed, too tired to remove his clothes.

At the time of his mother's observations, Williams faced a level of dissatisfaction with his private and professional life.  It is in this light where I think that it is clear that Williams was able to use his writing as a way to exorcise out the demons that he felt plagued him.  Williams approached his work with a fervor and intensity where his life had to be injected into his work. It is hard to see that he would pour so much effort into his work and not have his life enter it.  Another quote that reflects the autobiographical element in his work comes from Williams, himself.  In his Memoirs, Williams writes a line that he attributes to Blanche:  “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it's curved like a road through mountains.”   This line can be seen with regards to being "different," something that Blanche experienced and Williams himself experienced both in level of sexual identity and psychological condition of self. In this light, one can see that it makes sense to see how Williams's own autobiographical element is a part of the reading of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Williams's autobiographical elements filter into the characterizations of the drama.  His mother, Edwina, was perceived to be a "Southern Belle" who featured an overbearing and anxious disposition.  This could be seen as a force that helped to shape Blanche's character.  Williams's father was brutish in terms of his use of violence and physical displays of his emotions, reflective of Stanley's development.  Certainly, the treatment of Blanche in terms of institutionalization and her being different and thus targeted by others can be reflective of how Williams felt about the treatment that Rose received. Williams, through Blanche, speaks of "deliberate cruelty," it becomes a form of criticizing how his family treated Rose.  This is enhanced with Blanche saying that she has "always depended on the kindness of strangers," which can be seen as Williams giving voice to a sister whose voice is noticeably absent.

The manner in which characters interact one another in A Streetcar Named Desire can be seen as indicative of the autobiographical quality in Williams's work.  I don't think that anything is taken away from looking at the drama in an autobiographical light.  It helps to bring a level of gravity to the characters, individuals that Williams sought to create as sadly human.  Adding this dimension to the reading does not significantly detract from the work.  I think that the reader comes away with a deeper affinity and understanding for both artist and drama when seeing the potential for autobiographical elements within A Streetcar Named Desire.

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