Sex and Violence in A Streetcar Named Desire

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1280

Woolway is an author, editor, and educator affiliated with Oriel College, Oxford, England. Her essay examines Williams's themes of sex and violence, as well as the way in which the two are linked.

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Violence in A Streetcar Named Desire is fraught with sexual passion. Trying to convince Blanche of her love for Stanley despite his occasional brutality, Stella explains, "But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant." Eunice and Steve Hubbell's relationship also has this element of violence, and there is an unnerving suggestion that violence is more common and more willingly accepted by the female partner in a marriage than one would like to believe.

Blanche translates Stella's comment into the context of sexual passion, claiming that, ''What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire!— the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another." Stella asks, "Haven't you ever ridden on that street-car?" and Blanche responds, "It brought me here.—Where I'm not wanted and where I'm ashamed to be." It appears that the connection in Blanche's past between violence and desire in some way contributes to the events within the time scale of the play. This is not to excuse Stanley's later act of violence or to suggest that Blanche brings it on herself—rather, Williams is demonstrating how a cycle of violence, combined with passion and desire, is hard to break.

The attraction between Blanche and Stanley gains an interesting perspective when compared to a work of classical literature by the Latin poet Ovid. In Metamorphoses, Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus while visiting her sister Procne. He cuts out her tongue so that she cannot tell what he has done. Philomela, however, embroiders a story picture to convey to her sister the recent events and Procne, in revenge, kills their son and serves him up in a pie which she encourages Tereus to eat.

Similarly, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley assaults his sister-in-law while his wife is away (in this case giving birth to their baby). But there are two substantial differences in the events which build up to the story's climax.

First, in Ovid's story there is no suggestion that Philomela associates sex with violence. There is no history of her previous lovers or any attraction between her and Tereus. In Williams's play, however, the issue of rape is confused because of Blanche's previous attraction for Stanley as well as her promiscuous past.

In a rape trial today, evidence of a woman's past sexual behavior would be discounted. If force was used by a man during sex, he has committed rape regardless of how the woman behaved in previous encounters. Williams was aware that many Americans did not always sympathize with the victim—it was all too easy to condemn women for their "loose" behavior and claim that female victims of rape brought sexual violence upon themselves. An indication of the chauvinism that still thrived during the 1940s can be found in the reviews by certain critics who covered the premiere of Streetcar; they interpreted Blanche's fate as the punishment for a fallen woman.

The issue is further complicated by Blanche's complex psyche. When talking about the combination of passion and violence in love, she appears strangely fascinated and not entirely repulsed by the thought. Speaking elliptically of the sexual arousal which violence can bring, Blanche comments, "Of course there is such a thing as the hostility of—perhaps in some perverse kind of way he—No! To think of it makes me...." Violence is a phenomenon Blanche knows to be bound up with sex, even if she chooses to appear to Mitch as sexually naive.

A second important difference from Ovid's story is that Blanche's sister does not believe her story and, consequently, gives her no support. Whereas Procne concocts revenge on her unfaithful and violent husband, Stella is actually part of Blanche's downfall, supporting Stanley's cruel act of placing her in a mental institution. Not only is Stanley powerful, he is not checked in any way by the family structure that should provide some protection and support for Blanche. In this case, blood is most definitely not thicker than water.

Given that these two changes in focus appear to be deliberate, Streetcar paints a grim picture for women. Females in the play accept and perhaps even welcome sexual violence as part of life, and their family structures offer little protection from the predators.

Of course, there is more to it than that. It could be argued that Streetcar is only superficially about the roles and positions of women in society. Elia Kazan, Streetcar's first director, commented on the issues which hover beneath the play's surface: "I keep linking Blanche and Tennessee ... Blanche is attracted by the man who is going to destroy her. I understand the play by this formula of ambivalence. Only then, it seemed to me, would I think of it as Tennessee meant it to be understood: with fidelity to life as he—not us groundlings, that he—had experienced it. The reference to the kind of life Tennessee was leading at the time was clear. Williams was aware of the dangers he was inviting when he cruised; he knew that sooner or later he'd be beaten up. And he was. Still, I felt even this promise of violence exhilarated him."

While Blanche is often compared to Williams himself, Stanley--according to Williams's biographers--is based heavily on the playwright's brutal father, who taunted Williams about his effeminacy when he was a boy. In this light, the central issue in Streetcar is not necessarily violence towards women, but Williams's personal experience of brutality and the self-destructive enjoyment of fear which came out in the homosexual promiscuity he practiced as an adult.

Streetcar can be seen as an attempt to work through the purgatory of this fear and self-destruction. In addition to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Streetcar has referenced other classical models of literature. It is from Virgil's Aeneid that Williams took the name of the slum in New Orleans, "Elysian Fields": in Virgil's poem this is the place where the dead were made to drink water from the river Lethe to forget all traces of their mortal past. Both Blanche's drinking and her endless hot baths suggest that she is attempting to wash away her past and emerge through a sort of watery purgatory. She is not successful and the playgoer is left with little hope for Blanche's future. Through Blanche's bleakness and hopelessness, Williams expressed his own struggles with depression, moments of mental illness, and the alcohol and drugs that finally cost him his life.

Williams also offered a clue to the desolation and loneliness he felt in his often anonymous homosexual life in the play's epigram: "And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love, its voice / An instant in the wind [I know not whither hurled] / But not for long to hold each desperate choice." The lines are from "The Broken Tower," by the poet Hart Crane who lived from 1899 to 1932. Like Williams he was homosexual and much of his poetry conveys a sense of isolation and failure. This is one of the last poems Crane wrote before committing suicide by jumping off the ship he was traveling on. He, presumably, was buried at sea, just as Blanche wished to be. The epigram is appropriate for a tragic play that tells the story of a woman's destruction at the hands of a cruel society.

Source: Joanne Woolway, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale 1997

The Structure of A Streetcar Named Desire

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905

A contributor to numerous journals, Mood served as an English professor at Ball State University. In this excerpt, he examines the symbolic nature of Blanche DuBois's entrance dialogue in A Streetcar Named Desire.

One of the most provocative entrance speeches in drama is the well-known enigmatic statement by Blanche DuBois, the second of Williams' numerous compelling women, in A Streetcar Named Desire:

BLANCHE [with faintly hysterical humor]: They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and then get off at—Elysian Fields!

These words have often been noted and discussed for both their realistic and symbolic significance. They have never been examined, however, as a clue to the structural development and design of the play itself and of the course of the life and fate of Blanche as portrayed in the drama.

The statement can be seen as having two parts, the first of which ("take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries") deals with the events of Blanche's life before the play opens, and the second of which ("ride six blocks and then get off at—Elysian Fields") deals with the play itself.

During the course of the play, the audience learns the story of Blanche's life prior to the time of the drama. What is vividly unfolded to us is that Blanche had taken the streetcar named Desire, and had transferred to the one called Cemeteries. We learn of Blanche's youthful loving desire for Allan Grey, her young husband. It was indeed a loving desire, and Blanche was one who could love greatly:

When I was sixteen, I made the discovery—love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that's how it struck the world for me (A Streetcar Named Desire, New American Library, 1963).

This was loving desire, the same loving desire that Stella has for Stanley—not that "brutal desire" of which Blanche speaks. This is the loving sensual desire which leads not to death but to life and wisdom. It is that loving desire, that Eros, which, as Blanche sees, lights up the world.

But her discovery of her young husband's homosexuality and her shocked brutal words to him ["I saw! I know! You disgust me ..."] which result in his suicide—this traumatic event twists Blanche's loving desire into hate and self-loathing. And disgust and self-hate result in her life of destructive lust for young men. Thus her loving desire becomes brutal desire, unloving desire. It becomes that sheer lust which is a kind of real death. Blanche, in short, has transferred to the streetcar named Cemeteries. She is psychically dead, and cannot stand the light ["The dark is comforting to me."].

At that point in Blanche's life, the play begins. And "Cemeteries" takes on a subtly different meaning. Death can bring heaven or hell. Blanche can "ride six blocks and then get off at—Elysian Fields!" She can continue her course on the streetcar called Cemeteries toward the final death—or obtain heavenly bliss. And the latter will take six blocks. Another play by Williams, Camino Real, has no act divisions, only sixteen scenes (just as Streetcar has no acts, only eleven scenes. Blanche and Mitch have a moment of tenderness at the end of their first date. In response to this kindness, Blanche confesses to Mitch (and to the audience) the ugly story of how she destroyed her young husband. It is a remarkable moment of striking honesty. This moment of honesty elicits further kindness and even the beginning of love from Mitch: "You need somebody. And I need somebody, too. Could it be—you and me, Blanche?" And Blanche, "in long, grateful sobs" replies: "Sometimes—there's God—so quickly!"

Thus, at the end of the sixth scene, the sixth block on her ride of death, Blanche indeed is on the threshold of finding "God," "Elysian Fields," loving desire. At that point, she has life within her grasp. It is the turning point of the play. But the opportunity passes. The very next scene quickly demonstrates that Blanche has resumed her illusions and games with Mitch, and thus her chance for life is lost. The final scenes portray this with an appalling inexorability. Had the incipient honesty and loving desire between Blanche and Mitch been nurtured with further openness and vulnerability, Stanley would never have raped her.

Near the end of the play, this fate is made explicit, The Mexican Woman appears, chanting her wares: "Flores? Flores para los muertes?" (Flowers? Flowers for the dead?) Blanche dimly realizes that she is dead, that she is still on the streetcar called Cemeteries, that she has missed the stop at Elysian Fields, that she is doomed to sterile dead lust, when, in a kind of real recognition, she observes in response to the old woman: "Death—.... The opposite is desire.'' She has dimly realized that desire is the opposite of death, that the desire which is the opposite of death is open, honest, forgiving, loving desire, the kind Stanley and Stella have for each other.

The most that Blanche can expect now is ''Kindness." All that remains for her is her final tragic collapse.

Source: John J. Mood, ''The Structure of A Streetcar Named Desire" in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 14, no. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 9-10.

Theater Review of A Streetcar Named Desire

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

First published on December 4, 1947, this laudatory review by Atkinson appraises the play's debut and labels Williams's work as a "superb drama."

Tennessee Williams has brought us a superb drama, A Streetcar Named Desire, which was acted at the Ethel Barrymore last evening. And Jessica Tandy gives a superb performance as rueful heroine whose misery Mr. Williams is tenderly recording. This must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and play writing. For the acting and play writing are perfectly blended in a limpid performance, and it is impossible to tell where Miss Tandy begins to give form and warmth to the mood Mr. Williams has created.

Like The Glass Menagerie, the new play is a quietly woven study of intangibles. But to this observer it shows deeper insight and represents a great step forward toward clarity. And it reveals Mr. Williams as a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human.

A Streetcar Named Desire is the history of a gently reared Mississippi young woman who invents an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit. She comes to live with her sister, who is married to a rough-and-ready mechanic and inhabits two dreary rooms in a squalid neighborhood. Blanche—for that is her name—has delusions of grandeur, talks like an intellectual snob, buoys herself up with gaudy dreams, spends most of her time primping, covers things that are dingy with things that are bright and flees reality.

To her brother-in-law she is an unforgivable liar. But it is soon apparent to the theatregoer that in Mr. Williams' eyes she is one of the dispossessed whose experience has unfitted her for reality; and although his attitude toward her is merciful, he does not spare her or the playgoer. For the events of Streetcar lead to a painful conclusion which he does not try to avoid. Although Blanche cannot face the truth, Mr. Williams does in the most imaginative and perceptive play be has written.

Since he is no literal dramatist and writes in none of the conventional forms, he presents the theatre with many problems. Under Elia Kazan's sensitive but concrete direction, the theatre has solved them admirably. Jo Mielziner has provided a beautifully lighted single setting that lightly sketches the house and the neighborhood. In this shadowy environment the performance is a work of great beauty.

Miss Tandy has a remarkably long part to play. She is hardly ever off the stage, and when she is on stage she is almost constantly talking—chattering, dreaming aloud, wondering, building enchantments out of words. Miss Tandy is a trim, agile actress with a lovely voice and quick intelligence. Her performance is almost incredibly true. For it does seem almost incredible that she could understand such an elusive part so thoroughly and that she can convey it with so many shades and impulses that are accurate, revealing and true.

The rest of the acting is also of very high quality indeed. Marlon Brando as the quick-tempered, scornful, violent mechanic; Karl Maiden as a stupid but wondering suitor; Kim Hunter as the patient though troubled sister—all act not only with color and style but with insight.

By the usual Broadway standards, A Streetcar Named Desire is too long; not all those Words are essential. But Mr. Williams is entitled to his own independence. For he has not forgotten that human beings are the basic subject of art. Out of poetic imagination and ordinary compassion he has spun a poignant and luminous story.

Source: Brooks Atkinson, in a review of A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 286-87.

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