Central to characterization and themes is the use of color by Tennessee Williams in his A Streetcar Named Desire. With intentional irony, Williams has named his main character Blanche DuBois, a name connotative of purity, innocence, and virtue that is far removed from the corruption of the urban (DuBois=of the woods in French).
In the stage directions of Scene One, the significance of color, along with the lack of color in white, is suggested:
Two women, one white and one colored, are taking the air on the steps of the building....Above the music of the "Blue Piano" the voices of people...can be heart overlapping.
Arriving in the cosmopolitan environment of New Orleans that streetcars traverse noisily with regularity, Blanche is dressed daintily in a white suit with pearl necklace and earrings, white gloves and hat, "looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail in the garden district" where the wealthy of New Orleans reside. In contrast, the friends of Stanley Kowalski and he are dressed in vivid colored shirts of red-and-white-checks, green, blue, purple. Significantly, Stanley carries a "red-stained package from a butcher's." All the men wear denim dungarees, their work attire. This contrast in color points to the masculinity and bold health of the men while Blanche appears fragile. The stage directions of Williams describe her as of a "delicate beauty" that must avoid light; her movements and her white clothes suggest, Williams states, a moth.
In addition, the strong colors of the men, especially blue, connote honesty and security, strength and authority that contrast with Blanche's lack of color, lack of honesty and strength. The men are full of life; Blanche is weak and fading in contrast. She covers the electric bulbs with colored lanterns to hide reality, creating illusions for herself--living in the dead world of the past--she deceives Mitch, for whom she wishes to appear innocent and young. But, when Stanley talks to his wife Stella, he speaks boldly and candidly of their physical relationship and the "colored lights." One of the two times that Stanley uses this imagery comes in Scene 8 when, after changing into a "brillant silk bowling shirt," Stanley recalls to Stella when they first met:
"I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going! And wasn't we happy together...?"
Interestingly, in Scene 9, when Blanche is alone with Stanley and Stella at the hospital, she wears a red satin robe and is drinking as she sits on a green and white striped couch. When Mitch unexpectedly arrives unshaved in blue denim work clothes, their red and blue colors symbolize their feminine/masculine confrontation as well as Blanche's "scarlet" past of forbidden passions with Mitch's honesty. This past of Blanche has also been in "shadow" and Mitch rips the lanterns off the lights, confronting her with the truth which he has learned from Stanley.
Finally, the "blue piano" plays throughout the drama, symbolizing the loneliness and longing for love that is Blanche's. In the final scene, the "swelling music" of the "blue piano" and the muted trumpet are in contrast to Stanley's card game, which symbolizes his victory over Blanche.
Lights, shadows, lack of color, bold colors--all contribute to the the themes of love, passion, and death in A Streetcar Named Desire.