Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1717
Tennessee Williams 1911–1983
(Pseudonym of Thomas Lanier Williams) American dramatist, novelist, short story writer, poet, and scriptwriter. See also Tennessee Williams Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 7, 8, 19, 111.
Along with Arthur Miller, Williams is universally acknowledged as one of the two greatest American dramatists of the post-World War II era. His stature is based almost entirely upon works he completed during the first half of his career. He earned Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for The Glass Menagerie (1945), Streetcar, Cat, and The Night of the Iguana (1961). His later plays are considered by critics to be derivative of and less successful than his earlier works. Williams's lyrical style and his thematic concerns are distinctive in American theater; his material came almost exclusively from his inner life and was little influenced by other dramatists or by contemporary events. One critic noted, "Williams has remained aloof from trends in American drama, continuing to create plays out of the same basic neurotic conflicts in his own personality."
Recurrent in Williams's work is the conflict between reality and illusion, which Williams sometimes equates with a conflict between truth and beauty. A whole range of thematic concerns center around human sexuality: sex as life-affirming, contrasted with death and decay; sex as redemptive, contrasted with sex as sin; sex as an escape from the world, and sex as a way of being at one with the world. Williams followed D. H. Lawrence in attaching a cosmic significance to sex, and audiences and critics initially saw his "preoccupation" with sex and violence as perversion. Williams's protagonists are usually lonely, vulnerable dreamers and misfits who confront stronger, more worldly characters. Williams shows the attractive and unattractive qualities of both types of people, but critics agree that he identifies more with the "lost souls," exemplified by Blanche DuBois of Streetcar. While the vision of human nature and the world usually presented in Williams's plays ranges from bleak to sordid, in some he offers comfort in the form of a transitory moment of human communication—the type which Blanche ironically refers to in Streetcar as "the kindness of strangers."
Williams once told an interviewer, "My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life." Critics and biographers have made much use of Williams's family background as a means of analyzing his plays. Williams's father, Cornelius, was a coarse businessman from a prominent Tennessee family who traveled constantly and moved his family several times during the first decade of Williams's life. Biographers say that Cornelius called his son "Miss Nancy" because the child preferred books to sports. His mother, Edwina, was a southern belle and the daughter of a clergyman; Williams portrays her in his plays as domineering and possessive. Williams was very close to his older sister, Rose, who was institutionalized for schizophrenia for much of her life. His insight into lonely, outcast characters, as well as the warring inclinations towards Puritanism and liberality demonstrated in his plays, is often traced to his family life.
Williams's most explicit dramatic portrayal of his family occurs in The Glass Menagerie. The play is set in St. Louis, where the Williams family lived after 1918. Tom, the narrator of the play, dreams of being a writer and represents Williams. Tom's sister, Laura, is crippled both physically and socially. His mother, Amanda, is a fading southern belle who lives in the past. The action of the play concerns Amanda persuading Tom to bring to the house a "gentleman caller," whom they hope will marry Laura and provide for her future. Tom brings a man who is already engaged, upsetting his mother and causing Laura to retreat more deeply into her fantasy world of records and her glass animal collection. Tom then leaves his family, following in his father's footsteps. The simplicity of Menagerie's plot is counterbalanced by lyrical language and profuse symbolism, which some critics consider overwhelming. However, this emotionally compelling play was extremely popular, and Williams followed its formula in his later work. Laura is a typical Williams heroine in that she is too fragile to live in the real world. Laura's and Amanda's escapes from the world through fantasy and living in the past, respectively, foreshadow later plays where the characters escape through alcohol and sex.
Williams established an international reputation with his next play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which many critics consider his best work. The play begins with the arrival of Blanche at the home of her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley, a lusty, crude, working-class man. Blanche has presided over the decay and loss of her family's estate and has witnessed the suicide of her young husband. She comes to Stella and Stanley seeking comfort and security, but clashes with Stanley. While Stella is in the hospital giving birth, Stanley rapes Blanche, causing her to lose what little is left of her sanity. At the end, Blanche is committed to a sanitarium. In Streetcar, Williams uses Blanche and Stanley to illustrate dichotomies and conflicts, several of which recur in his plays: illusion vs. truth, weakness vs. strength, and the power of sexuality to both destroy and redeem. But he does not allow either character to become one-dimensional or to dominate the audience's sympathies. Stanley's brutishness is balanced by his love for Stella, his dislike of hypocrisy, and his justifiable anger at Blanche's mockery of him and her intrusion on his home. Blanche's hypocrisy—her pretentious refinement despite her promiscuity—is balanced by the audience's knowledge of the ordeals she has endured and by her gentleness and capacity for love. Williams's skillful balancing of Stanley and Blanche and the qualities each represents, both in Streetcar's dialogue and plot and on a symbolic level, has provided subject matter for many scholarly essays and has earned the admiration of critics. Some find that Williams's portrayal of strengths and weaknesses in both characters is ambiguous and detracts from the play, but most contend that his thorough character development heightens dramatic interest in the conflicts they represent.
Although none of Williams's later plays attained the universal critical and popular acclaim of the first two, several works from the 1940s and 1950s are considered significant achievements in American drama. In Summer and Smoke (1948), Williams continues his exploration of the tension between the spirit and the flesh begun in Streetcar, and in The Rose Tattoo (1951), one of his most lighthearted plays, he celebrates the life-affirming power of sexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is mainly concerned with questions of truth, lies, and self-deception, and contains some of Williams's most memorable characters: Brick, a weak man who drinks to forget guilt; Maggie, his strong wife who is determined to save them both; and Big Daddy, whom critics see as a dramatization of Williams's own father. The Night of the Iguana, which Williams said is about "how to get beyond despair and still live," was his last play to win a major prize and heralded the end of Williams's period of critical and popular favor.
Later in his career the "emotional currents" of Williams's life were at a low ebb. Such plays as Suddenly Last Summer (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), which are filled with violence, grotesquerie, and black comedy, reflected Williams's traumatic emotional state. In his Memoirs (1975), Williams referred to the 1960s as his "Stoned Age," and he explained in an interview that "after 1955, specifically after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof … I needed [drugs, caffeine, and alcohol] to give me the physical energy to work…. But I am a compulsive writer. I have tried to stop working and I am bored to death." Williams continued to produce plays until his death, but critical reception became increasingly negative. Much of Williams's later work consisted of rewriting his earlier plays and stories, and his new material showed little artistic development, according to critics. Gore Vidal said in 1976, "Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time he was an adolescent he had his themes…. I am not aware that any new information (or feeling?) has got through to him in the [past] twenty-eight years." It was not only a lack of new themes which caused critics to denounce Williams's late work, but the absence of freshness and dramatic soundness in his treatment of these themes. Gerald Weales, a noted Williams scholar, voiced the critical consensus when he said, "Audiences have withdrawn from Williams—I suspect, not because his style has changed or his concerns altered, but because in his desperate need to cry out he has turned away from the sturdy dramatic containers which once gave the cry resonance and has settled for pale imitations of familiar stage images … and has substituted lyric argument for dramatic language."
Williams was subject to much negative and even hostile criticism for a writer of his stature. Many of the qualities for which he is faulted in his less successful works are directly related to those for which he is praised in his earlier successes. His lyricism and use of symbols are hallmarks of such plays as Streetcar, but in other plays critics accuse him of being overly sentimental or heavy-handed when he allows symbols to take the place of characterization through dialogue. Williams is lauded for his compassionate understanding of the spiritually downtrodden, but he has sometimes been accused of crossing the line between sympathetic interest and perverse sensationalism in his portrayal of these characters. Although critics are nearly unanimous in expressing their disappointment and sadness that the mastery of Williams's early work was not continued in his later plays, they were quick to point out upon Williams's death that his contributions to American theater had been remarkable. This opinion was expressed in an editorial in The Nation: "The plays for which Williams will be remembered … are not the 'first act of some mysteriously unfinished life in art—they are that life. They transformed the American stage, they purified our language, they changed the way we see ourselves. None of his later plays, however erratic they may have been, diminish that accomplishment by so much as a hair."
In this volume commentary on Tennessee Williams is focused on his play A Streetcar Named Desire.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302
Tennessee Williams has written a savagely arresting tragedy in "A Streetcar Named Desire." His dramatization of a woman's crack-up … is a work of rare discernment and craftsmanship. Although it is almost explosively theatrical at times, it is crowded with the understanding, tenderness and humor of an artist achieving maturity….
Instead of leaning heavily on symbolism, as the title might have led one to expect, Williams has to do with very human beings in completely recognizable circumstances. The fact that there actually is, or was, a streetcar called Desire clanging through New Orleans, has merely set a fine imagination to work. The result is a somber and sometimes shocking account of gradual degradation, cruelty, kindness and sheer animal living. Blanche Du Bois might very well have existed in another city and another time. The documentation of her tragic destiny is so unerring that "A Streetcar Named Desire" becomes one of the finest plays of many seasons.
On two counts, it is somewhat disappointing. The talented author might well have foreshortened some of his scenes in a chiarascuro of death and desire, humiliation and insanity. And he might have crowded the final stanzas of the work with a bit more sympathy. They are curiously touching, but they lack some of the nobility that defines high tragedy. These are minor defects. As a whole "A Streetcar Named Desire" has tremendous dramatic excitement, honesty and impetus, leaving a spectator properly limp at the ending. The pathetic attempts of Blanche to deceive her nice sister and brutal brother-in-law; her failure to find surcease in marriage to a nice friend of the family and her ultimate madness are superb chapters in a notable play.
Howard Barnes, "A Long-Run Trolley," in New York Herald Tribune, December 4, 1947. Reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. VIII, No. 21, December 8-12, 1947, p. 252.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken originally appeared in The New York Post, December 4, 1947.]
[A Streetcar Named Desire] is a feverish, squalid, tumultuous, painful, steadily arresting and oddly touching study of feminine decay along the lower Mississippi…. Mr. Williams is an oncoming playwright of power, imagination and almost desperately morbid turn of mind and emotion. In his latest work to reach Broadway, the dramatist is telling the story of a doomed Southern girl who seems startlingly like what the foolish old mother of his previous drama, "The Glass Menagerie," might well have been at a similar age. Hers, to put it mildly, is not a pleasant life story. Essentially a romantic and dreamy young woman, it is her fate to represent in her frail spirit the decline and fall of a long line of decadent Southern aristocrats, and, for all her sentimental imagination, she ends as a simpering, witless prostitute.
Two characteristic traits of Mr. Williams' morbid imagination are distinguishable in his new play. I should say that one was admirable and the other less praiseworthy. Despite the blackness of fate which he depicts, there is a frequent quality of lyric originality in his pessimism that gives it an inescapable vitality. Things may look depressing to him, but there is always the rich tumult of life to make up for it. On the other hand, his doomed heroines are so helplessly enmeshed in their fate they cannot put up a properly dramatic battle against it.
There is something a little embarrassing about watching the torment of as helpless a victim of a playwright's brooding imagination as the heroine of "A Streetcar Named Desire," particularly when her downfall is studied with almost loving detail. The result is that the play has a painful, rather pitiful quality about it. Yet its characters are so knowingly and understandably presented, the vividness of its life is so compelling, and the theatrical skill of its portrait of spiritual and moral decay so impressive that it never ceases to be effective and powerful. (pp. 30-1)
Richard Watts, Jr., "'Streetcar Named Desire' Is Striking Drama," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "A Streetcar Named Desire": A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jordan Y. Miller. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 30-1.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370
A Streetcar Named Desire is by all odds the most creative new play of the season—the one that reveals the most talent, the one that attempts the most truth. It carries us into the only part of the theater that really counts—not the most obviously successful part, but the part where, though people frequently blunder they seldom compromise; where imagination is seated higher than photography; and where the playwright seems to have a certain genuine interest in pleasing himself….
That is the most important thing about A Streetcar Named Desire; a more important thing, it seems to me, than that A Streetcar is by no means always a good play. It falls down in places; it goes wrong in places. But what is right about it is also, in today's theater, rare. There is something really investigative, something often impassioned, about Mr. Williams' feeling for his material. There is something—in the play's best scenes—that reveals deeper intimations, as well as sharper talent, than most of Mr. Williams' fellow-playwrights can boast. And there is a willingness to be adventurous in the pursuit of truth….
In Blanche, Mr. Williams hasn't quite contrived a real, progressive study in disintegration; except toward the end, his method is too static, with Blanche often a kind of fascinating exhibit—but an exhibit none the less. What both she and the play need is less repetition and more variety; there were times, toward the middle of the play, when I found myself fairly bored. In the last and best third, however, there is a genuine release of emotional excitement; and the conflict between Blanche and her brother-in-law—which may not be Mr. Williams' theme, but is certainly his story—is always good theater, and quite often good drama. And just because it doesn't much induce us to take sides, it comes to move us, in the end, as part of the malignity and messiness of life itself. It brings a certain dry pity, along with a certain new power, into Mr. Williams' work; A Streetcar is an enormous advance over that minor-key and too wet-eyed work, The Glass Menagerie.
Louis Kronenberger, "A Sharp Southern Drama by Tennessee Williams," in PM Daily, December 5, 1947, p. 18.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478
Mr. Williams has written a strong, wholly believable play that, starting in a low key, mounts slowly and inexorably to its shocking climax. I think [A Streetcar Named Desire] is an imperfect play,… but it is certainly the most impressive one that has turned up this season, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was a sounder and more mature work than "The Glass Menagerie," the author's previous compliment to Southern womanhood. (p. 50)
The reservations I have may easily be captious. Principally, it seems to me that in the emotional surge of writing his play Mr. Williams has been guilty of establishing a too facile and romantic connection between Belle Rêve [the mansion where Stella and Blanche were brought up] and the Vieux Carré [the part of New Orleans where the play is set]. Not knowing much about the South, old or new, it was hard for me to visualize the girls' ancestral home, except as something vaguely resembling the House of Usher, but Stella is written and played as a pretty, reasonably cultivated girl, in no sense unbalanced, and her abrupt and cheerful descent into the lower depths of New Orleans seems rather incredible. Mr. Williams attempts, though the evidence on the stage is against him, to portray [Stanley] as a man of enormous sexual attraction, so that the very sight of him causes her to see colored pinwheels, but even that is scarcely enough. It is the same, to some extent, with Blanche; whatever the forces working against her may have been, her degradation is much too rapid and complete, her fall from whatever position she may have occupied in a top level of society to the bottom of the last level a good deal more picturesque than probable. As I say, it is conceivable that these transitions do occur in the South, but it is my suspicion that Mr. Williams has adjusted life fairly drastically to fit his special theme. The only other thing I might complain about (Blanche's arrival from Laurel, where apparently she had just been tossed out of a cheap hotel, with a trunkful of pretty expensive-looking jewelry and clothes perplexed me some, but I'm willing to let it go) is the somewhat strained and literary analogy that keeps turning up between the streetcars named for passion and death and the tragic conflict in the heroine's mind. Mr. Williams seems to me much too good a playwright now to bother his head with these ladies'-club mystifications. "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a brilliant, implacable play about the disintegration of a woman, or, if you like, of a society; it has no possible need for the kind of pseudo-poetic decoration that more vacant authors so often employ to disguise their fundamental lack of thought. (pp. 52, 54-5)
Wolcott Gibbs, "Lower Depths, Southern Style," in The New Yorker, Vol. XXIII, No. 43, December 13, 1947, pp. 50, 52, 54-5.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354
As was surely obvious in his earlier "Glass Menagerie," [Williams] again proves his dramatic imagination [in "A Streetcar Named Desire"]. I think it is safe to say that every telling gesture and effect was securely wrought into the script before ever rehearsals started. You must envision a scene whose transparent wall allows both the heat-laden street as well as this burning room to come into focus. And the sounds are important: from upstairs, outside, all over. As the protagonist topplingly progresses among horrors, one hears her private mockeries: bells, a gunshot, voices. It is extraordinarily interesting to watch the stage being so precisely controlled. And further, the language is as sure. A kind of interior syntax is set up with complex, often lovely, period sentences (speeches) dealt to the heroine and opposed to the current, inarticulate slipshod of the others. Gertrude Stein was not wrong in tracking emotion as well as history through grammar.
In view of all this excellence, it will seem graceless to admit to some puzzles. The first of these has to do with theme. At first glance, it seems that Mr. Williams has conjured nothing more (nor less) than a melodrama, an especial Freudian case-history with all on stage only more or less diseased, the conflict being one of degree. And yet somehow the remembered lines do seem to indicate a further dimension as though the lying nobility projected by the heroine were not only dying, but rather mistaken, though nevertheless a strength. (p. 254)
On the esthetic level, the two most important streams in modern theater will spring, I think, from the work of [Federico García] Lorca and [Bertolt] Brecht. Mr. Williams is a Lorca man. That he has some of the poetry of his original is apparent, and that he has all of what I can only call the sad Freudian absorption has been twice proved. But whether he has the human charity I can only suspect. In a sense, here must be his next play yes or no. (p. 255)
Kappo Phelan, in a review of "A Streetcar Named Desire," in Commonweal, Vol. XLVII, No. 10, December 19, 1947, pp. 254-55.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689
[The article from which this excerpt was drawn was originally published in The Nation, December 20, 1947.]
Two years ago when Tennessee Williams was being hailed as the best new playwright to appear in a decade I was among those who were inclined to wait and see, but "A Streetcar Named Desire" … is amply sufficient to confound us doubters. In mood and manner it is, to be sure, strikingly like "The Glass Menagerie." Indeed, the theme and even the story might be said to be the same, since both dramas are concerned with the desperate, unsuccessful effort of a female character to hang on to some kind of shabby gentility. But the new work is sure and sustained where the former was uncertain and intermittent. Gone are all the distracting bits of ineffectual preciosity, all the pseudo-poetic phrases, and all those occasions when the author seemed about to lose his grip upon the very story itself. From the moment the curtain goes up until it descends after the last act everything is perfectly in key and completely effective. The extent of Mr. Williams's range is still to be demonstrated. He may or he may not have much to say, and it is quite possible that sickness and failure are the only themes he can treat. But there is no longer any doubt of his originality, or of his power within the limits of what he has undertaken. Since 1930 only three new talents which seemed to promise much have appread in our theater, and of Mr. Williams one must say what one said of [Clifford] Odets and [William] Saroyan. Only time can tell just how far a young man who begins like this may possibly go. (pp. 38-9)
That the play is not merely the ugly, distressing, and possibly unnecessary thing which any outline must suggest is due. I suppose, in part to its sincerity, even more to the fact that the whole seems to be contemplated with genuine compassion and not, as is the case with so much modern writing about the lower depths, merely with relish. It remains, as there is no point in trying to deny, morbid enough. The mood and the atmosphere are what really count, and both are almost unrelievedly morbid, even, or perhaps especially, in those moments when a kind of grotesque comedy emerges. Yet despite the sensational quality of the story neither the atmosphere nor the mood is ever merely sensational. The author's perceptions remain subtle and delicate, and he is amazingly aware of nuances even in situations where nuance might seem to be inevitably obliterated by violence. The final impression left is, surprisingly enough, not of sensationalism but of subtlety.
Comparing, as one inevitably does, this play with its predecessor, the difference in merit between the two seems to be almost entirely the result of the author's vastly increased mastery of a method which is neither that of simple realism nor of frank fantasy. Obviously Mr. Williams is a highly subjective playwright. His stories are not told primarily either for their own sakes or in order to propound a merely rational thesis, but chiefly because they enable him to communicate emotions which have a special, personal significance: Already one begins to take it for granted that his plays will be immediately recognizable by their familiar themes and a sensibility as unique as that of a lyric poet. Yet he never quite abandons dramatic objectivity as a method. To go one step farther in the direction of subjectivity would inevitably be to reach "expressionism" or some other form of nonrepresentational art. But though there is in the plays as written a certain haunting dream-like or rather nightmarish quality, the break with reality is never quite made, and nothing happens which might not be an actual event. Even the almost dadaist suggestion of the title is given—and more meaningfully than in the case of "The Glass Menagerie"—a rational explanation. (pp. 39-40)
Joseph Wood Krutch, in a review of "Streetcar Named Desire," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "A Streetcar Named Desire": A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jordan Y. Miller, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 38-40.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1132
[The article from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in The Saturday Review of Literature, December 27, 1947.]
A Streetcar Named Desire is bound to raise [a mirage of familiarity] in the minds of those who saw The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams' new play is new. No one can question that. In story, setting, incident, and some of the details of its characterizations, it is a work quite different from its predecessor. It is better, deeper, richer than was that earlier drama…. Yet new as it is, it is scarcely novel. Even the surprises, many and startling, which it holds resemble more closely misfortunes engulfing old friends than misadventures overtaking new people.
The reasons for this are obvious. The mood of Streetcar is the same as that of The Glass Menagerie—only more so. Once again Mr. Williams is writing of the decay of Southern gentility. Once again he is a dramatist of despair, though this time frustration has been replaced by disintegration. Once again the world into which he leads us is full of shadows. It is a place of gauzes and transparencies in which the reality is suggested rather than reproduced. Although now set in New Orleans' French Quarter instead of in one of St. Louis's poor districts, the scene continues to be a slum. Its physical grubbiness remains a match for the emotional dilapidation of some of the characters it houses.
Mr. Williams' recurrent concern is with the misfits and the broken; with poor, self-deluded mortals who, in Emerson's phrase, are pendants to events, "only half attached, and that awkwardly," to the world they live in. They are victims of the same negation as the characters in The Glass Menagerie, and sustain themselves by identical illusions. If they lie to others, their major lie is to themselves. In this way only can they hope to make their intolerable lives tolerable. Such beauty as they know exists in their dreams. The surroundings in which they find themselves are once again as sordid as is their own living.
Blanche Du Bois, the central figure in Mr. Williams' new play, is a schoolteacher turned whore, whose mind ultimately collapses. Though younger and far more relentlessly explored as a character, she is a kissing-cousin of the dowdy Amanda who, in The Glass Menagerie, sustained herself by her unreliable prattle of a white-columned past. The man who falls in love with Blanche is the same Gentleman Caller with whom, in Mr. Williams' earlier script, Amanda's crippled daughter fell in love. His ingenuousness is unchanged; the childlike quality in a hulking male is no less constant. He is as surely a victim of his mother as Amanda's sailor son, in Mr. Williams' previous work, was the victim of Amanda.
Yet, in spite of these seeming duplications, A Streetcar Named Desire is no replica of The Glass Menagerie. If it repeats certain patterns, it does so only to extend them. It is a maturer play; in fact, in some respects the most probing script to have been written by an American since Clifford Odets wrote Awake and Sing! (pp. 89-91)
In general, Mr. Williams has more in common with William Saroyan, another good Chekhovian, than with Mr. Odets. He has something of the same enchantment, of the same lyricism, of the same reliance upon music, and of the same ability to evoke mood and transcend realism. But Mr. Saroyan's innocence; his glistening, youthful belief in man's goodness; his flagrant, unashamed sentimentality; the bluebird's song he keeps singing in the presence of pain or in the midst of misery; and his eruptive, though dangerous, talent for what amounts to written improvisation are characteristics conspicuous by their absence in Mr. Williams.
Mr. Williams is a more meticulous craftsman. His is a manifestly slower, less impromptu manner of writing. His attitude toward his people is as merciless as Mr. Saryoan's is naïve. He is without illusions. His men and women are not large-spirited and noble, nor basically good. They are small and mean; above all, frustrated. He sees them as he believes they are, not as they would like to be or as he would like to have them. They have no secrets from him or from us when he is through with them. They may have little sweetness, but they are all lighted.
Mr. Williams' approach to them is as tough-minded as James M. Cain's would be. This is the more surprising, considering how Chekhovian or Saroyanesque are his moods. Indeed, there are scenes in A Streetcar Named Desire which suggest the most unlikely of collaborations. They sound as if Mr. Cain and Mr. Saroyan had written them jointly. For the magic that one associates with Mr. Saroyan at his best is there. It is there in spite of the brutality of the action, the spiritual squalor of the heroine, the utter negation of the mood, and the sordidness of the episodes. Mr. Williams' new-old play is at once absorbing and appalling; poignant and amoral; drab and magical. Although a smear in a biological laboratory rather than "a slice of life," it has its haunting, moonlit aspects.
I doubt if any woman in any American play has been drawn more unsparingly than is Blanche Du Bois, the schoolteacher whose gradual descent into madness is followed in A Streetcar Named Desire. [August] Strindberg could not have been more ruthless in dealing with her selfishness. He, however, would have hated her, where Mr. Williams, without pleading for her, understands—and would have us understand—what has brought about her decline. He passes no moral judgment. He does not condemn her. He allows her to destroy herself and invites us to watch her in the process.
Mr. Williams names an outside cause for the first unhinging of her mind—the fact that Blanche's husband, whom she loved dearly, had turned out to be a homosexual. Upon her discovery of his secret he had blown out his brains. Although this outward tragedy may have damaged her reason, Mr. Williams presents it as being by no means the only tragedy of Blanche Du Bois's life. Her abiding tragedy comes neither from her family's dwindling fortunes nor from her widow's grief. It is sprung from her own nature. From her uncontrollable duplicity. From her pathetic pretensions to gentility, even when she is known as a prostitute in the little town in which she was brought up. From her love of the refined when her life is devoted to coarseness. From the fastidiousness of her tastes and the wantonness of her desires. From her incapacity to live up to her dreams. Most particularly, from her selfishness and her vanity, which are insatiable. (pp. 91-2)
John Mason Brown, "Southern Discomfort: Tennessee Williams' 'Streetcar'," in his Dramatis Personae: A Retrospective Show, The Viking Press, 1963, pp. 89-94.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 672
Surely playwriting is the most difficult of the arts and its successful achievement is among the world's miracles. It does not matter how hard the tidy mind of man applies itself to the formulation of rules for the making of a 'good play', the kernel of truth eludes definition. What makes both Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire good theatre? Is it because they both convey a heightened sense of reality—a poet's projection of the core of experience in terms of the spoken word, the human presence? Tennessee Williams' lost souls in a sordid basement flat in New Orleans are as palpitatingly alive as Shakespeare's royal lovers whose downfall shook the world. In both cases—so widely divergent, so utterly unlike—the artists' profound understanding illuminates as by lightning flashes the dark regions of the human heart.
A Streetcar Named Desire, as its title suggests, is concerned, like Shakespeare's epic tragedy, with love—with its devastations, with its triumphs. In it we see once again, as in The Glass Menagerie, the break-up of a social order and its effect on the women, bearers of life, who survive. Stella and Blanche du Bois are the last of a lost civilization. Stella has found salvation in the arms of a man who is at the beginning, not the end, of a cycle. Her husband Stan is passionate, violent, primitive, a second-generation Pole who is battling his way up from the bottom. Her older sister Blanche is the victim of the collapse of the old order. It is she who stayed at home on the family estate, nursed the old people, lived with death and decay, suffered the anguish of seeing her world of refinement and elegance fall to pieces around her…. At the last her nerves give way, her mind cracks and she—like the world her forbears once lived in—is brutally cast aside by the upsurging, ruthless new life personified by Stan. (p. 10)
The first part of the play is particularly effective. In this section gigantic, tragic forces are implied, not stated: the furies hover in the wings and have not yet gained admittance. The audience is caught up into the dark, menacing mood with its flashes of raucous humor and exuberant high spirits without knowing or caring about the conduct of a plot. In this play, as in The Glass Menagerie, Mr. Williams makes use of stage magic as well as word magic: lighting, music, unusual stage effects—such as the backdrop which becomes transparent and shows the street beyond the house wall—street cries, church bells, the thousand sounds of activity which heighten the sense of palpitating urban life, of brutal intimacies and close-packed, crowded living. An interminable poker game forms an important part of this atmosphere and explodes in a free-for-all fight at the climax of the first act.
It is followed immediately by a sort of coda—a scene of masterly theatric imagination—when Stella's husband, standing at the foot of the circular iron stairway that leads to the neighbor's flat, calls his wife back to him after their violent quarrel. She comes slowly down the steps, bathed in an intense white light, her head bent, her nightrobe trailing behind her—drained of will, drawn by a primordial force beyond her understanding into the arms of the man who waits for her at the foot of the stairs.
In the second part of the play the tension slackens though the action becomes more melodramatic. By presenting insanity as the solution of his problem Mr. Williams brings up an arguable point. But whatever exception one may take to the confusion of motives that this theme introduces there is no doubt at all that Mr. Williams has written a play which redeems the current scene from banality and by the very arguments and questions it arouses broadens the scope of the theatre and gives it renewed stature. (pp. 10-11)
Rosamond Gilder, "The Playwright Takes Over," in Theatre Arts, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, January, 1948, pp. 10-13.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737
[Taylor's article, from which the following excerpt was taken, originally appeared in Masses and Mainstream, April, 1948.]
[If], as in Williams' case, there was never more than a small patch of happy boyhood in a youth-time dominated by a developing family tragedy, by poverty and hard work and many menial jobs, his static stare will always give him back the same gloomy landscape in which even the small Eden seems a lying mirage and the relationship of forces remains fixed in an endless and cannibalistic assault of the insensitively powerful upon the pathetic and defenseless. The more he stares at the incidents of his life, the more they are the same. He grows older, he knocks about on his own, he writes plays, he is welcomed and acclaimed; yet, curiously, he is still the traumatized youngster inexorably re-creating the pattern of his trauma, unable to break through to adult reality. That is why the characters he hates or fears or despises always win; while those to whom his sympathy is drawn invariably go down. In such a context there can be no conflict, no human dignity which is at the same time strong and healthy, and no future except for evil. And, indeed, for all their beauty of dialogue, atmosphere and characterization, this is a just description of Williams' plays. (pp. 97-8)
Some will say: Why bother Williams with the outer world or the enlargement of his view and of reality? Surely a man who can write A Streetcar Named Desire may be forgiven pessimism and the repetition, itself an effect of pessimism, that comes from always seeing the same things the same way. But that is precisely the reason for this appraisal. For it is my contention that Williams has been robbing himself as well as his audience of the full possibilities of his dramatic intelligence and, as we shall see, even of perfection of craft. (p. 98)
Unquestionably, [Streetcar is the play] toward which … all Williams' work has been heading. On the way he has picked up speed and power and definition, and the story now stands at what is probably dead end. And still, for all its enhanced movement and characterization and the rest of the eloquent testimony to his deepened mastery of theatre, Williams, as a direct consequence of his socio-philosophical position, has been unable to achieve conflict. Confrontations, yes, and savage, almost animal…. But there can be no conflict in a man's methodically beating a child to death. The prisoner of a view in which the dominant reality is monstrously destructive and implacable, Williams has once more opposed it with a poor, hazy-minded being already broken in the toils and armed only with obstinate illusions rather than with reasonable will.
Streetcar is an absorbing and beautifully written play …, but it is not a great play as most of our critics would have us believe. Great drama cannot emerge out of flight and hysteria, but arises from genuine conflict, an element that can only be generated by the writer's conviction that the battle is vital and that the means to wage it exist. Williams will write greatly only if he can re-examine reality and emotionally recognize what his intellect may already have grasped: that the forces of good in this world are adult and possess both the will and the power to change our environment….
This is no special plea for social plays. But surely the absence of the socio-historic periphery in the author's mind weakens his attack even on personal drama, depriving it of the aura of larger reality and of moral conviction.
Williams once wrote: "The one dominant theme in most of my writings, the most magnificent thing in all nature, is valor—and endurance." However he may believe this to be so, it is not true of his work. Only the passionate conviction of the value of human valor, endurance and dignity, and an understanding of the historic forces that embody these qualities can springboard his next greatest leap forward of craft and artistic stature. But first of all, of simple craft: the knowledge that great drama cannot be evoked from the opposition of will with non-will but only by the firmly engaged conflict of powerful wills. (p. 99)
Harry Taylor, "The Dilemma of Tennessee Williams," in Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman / A Streetcar Named Desire, edited by John D. Hurrell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961, pp. 97-9.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075
[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in 1948.]
Some of the reviewers [of A Streetcar Named Desire] thought Blanche Du Bois a "boozy prostitute," and others believed her a nymphomaniac. Such designations are not only inaccurate but reveal a total failure to understand the author's intention and the theme of the play. Tennessee Williams is a poet of frustration, and what his play says is that aspiration, sensitivity, departure from the norm are battered, bruised, and disgraced in our world today.
It would be far truer to think of Blanche Du Bois as the potential artist in all of us than as a deteriorated Southern belle. Her amatory adventures, which her brother-in-law (like some of the critics) regards as the mark of her inferiority, are the unwholesome means she uses to maintain her connection with life, to fight the sense of death which her whole background has created in her. The play's story shows us Blanche's seeking haven in a simple, healthy man and that in this, too, she is defeated because everything in her environment conspires to degrade the meaning of her tragic situation…. Her lies are part of her will-to-beauty; her wretched romanticism is a futile reaching toward a fullness of life. She is not a drunkard, and she is not insane when she is committed to the asylum. She is an almost willing victim of a world that has trapped her and in which she can find "peace" only by accepting the verdict of her unfitness for "normal" life.
The play is not specifically written as a symbolic drama or as a tract. What I have said is implicit in all of the play's details. The reason for the play's success even with audiences who fail to understand it is that the characters and the scenes are written with a firm grasp on their naturalistic truth. Yet we shall waste the play and the author's talent if we praise the play's effects and disregard its core. Like most works of art the play's significance cannot be isolated in a single passage. It is clear to the attentive and will elude the hasty. (p. 74)
One of the greatest parts ever written for a woman in the American theatre, [Blanche] demands the fullness and variety of an orchestra…. The part represents the essence of womanly feeling and wounded human sensibility. Blanche lies and pretends, but through it all the actress must make us perceive her truth. She is an aristocrat (regardless of the threadbare myth of Southern gentility); she is an aristocrat in the subtlety and depth of her feeling. She is a poet, even if we are dubious about her understanding of the writers she names; she is superior by the sheer intensity and realization of her experience, even if much of what she does is abject.
If she is not these things, she is too much of a fraud to be worthy of the author's concern for her. If the latter is true, then the play would be saying something rather surprising—namely, that frank brutaility and naked power are more admirable than the yearning for tenderness and the desire to reach beyond one's personal appetites…. It is essential to the play that we believe and are touched by what she says, that her emotion convinces us of the soundness of her values. All through the play, indeed, we must be captured by the music of the girl's martyred soul. Without this there is either a play whose viewpoint we reject or no play at all—only a series of "good scenes," a highly seasoned theatrical dish. (p. 77)
[What] is Stanley Kowalski? He is the embodiment of animal force, of brute life unconcerned and even consciously scornful of every value that does not come within the scope of such life. He resents being called a Polack, and he quotes Huey Long, who assured him that "every man is a king." He screams that he is a hundred per cent American, and breaks dishes and mistreats his women to prove it. He is all muscle, lumpish sensuality, and crude energy, given support by a society that hardly demands more of him. He is the unwitting antichrist of our time, the little man who will break the back of every effort to create a more comprehensive world in which thought and conscience, a broader humanity are expected to evolve from the old Adam. His mentality provides the soil for fascism, viewed not as a political movement but as a state of being.
Because the author does not preach about him but draws him without hate or ideological animus, the audience takes him at his face value…. For almost more than two-thirds of the play,… the audience identifies itself with Stanley Kowalski. His low jeering is seconded by the audience's laughter, which seems to mock the feeble and hysterical decorativeness of [Blanche's] behavior. The play becomes the triumph of Stanley Kowalski with the collusion of the audience, which is no longer on the side of the angels. (p. 78)
As creative spectators, we cannot satisfy ourselves at a play like A Streetcar Named Desire with the knowledge that it is a wonderful show, a smash hit, a prize winner (it is and will be all of these). It is a play that ought to arouse in us as much feeling, thought, and even controversy as plays on semipolitical themes; for it is a play that speaks of a poet's reaction to life in our country (not just the South), and what he has to say about it is much more far-reaching than what might be enunciated through any slogan.
I have heard it said, for example, that Tennessee Williams portrays "ordinary" people without much sense of their promise, and reserves most of his affection for more special people—that minority which Thomas Mann once described as life's delicate children. I find this view false and misleading, but I would rather hear it expressed than to let the play go by as the best play of the season, something you must see, "great theatre."
If the play is great theatre—as I believe—it is precisely because it is instinct with life, a life we share in not alone on the stage, but in our very homes by night and day. (p. 80)
Harold Clurman, "The American Playwrights: Tennessee Williams," in his Lies Like Truth: Theatre Reviews and Essays, The Macmillan Company, 1958, pp. 72-80.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
[A Streetcar Named Desire], which might well have been titled The Glans Menagerie, has been criticized in some quarters as an unpleasant [play]. The criticism is pointed. But the fact that a play is unpleasant, needless to say, is not necessarily a reflection on its quality…. There is a considerable difference between the unpleasant and the disgusting, which is the designation Mr. Williams' critics probably have in mind, and his play is not disgusting…. Williams has managed to keep his play wholly in hand. But there is, too, a much more positive borderline between the unpleasant and the enlightening, and he has tripped over it, badly, While he has succeeded in making realistically dramatic such elements as sexual abnormality, harlotry, perversion, venality, rape, and lunacy, he has scarcely contrived to distil from them any elevation and purge. His play as a consequence remains largely a theatrical shocker which, while it may shock the emotions of its audience, does not in the slightest shock them into any spiritual education. (pp. 163-64)
[Williams has an] apparent conviction that theatrical sensationalism and dramatic substantiality are much the same thing and that, as in the present case, one can handily pass the former off for the latter, and for something pretty artistic into the bargain, by gilding it with occasional literary flourishes accompanied by off-stage vibra-harps, flutes, and music boxes…. To fashion any such festering materials into important drama it is essential that they be lifted out of life into a pattern larger than life, as, among others, [August] Strindberg and his contemporary disciple, [Eugene] O'Neill, have appreciated. Williams in considerable part leaves them where he found them and deludes himself into a belief that he has made of the gutter a broad sea by now and then sailing in it little papier-mâché poesy boats, propelled by doughty exhalations.
Impressionistically, the play suggests a wayward bus occupied by John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and James Cain, all tipsy and all telling stories simultaneously, and with Williams, cocking his ear to assimilate the goings-on, as the conductor. Critically, it suggests that he is a little deaf and has not been able to disentangle what may be valid from the bedlam and assimilate it to possibly meritorious ends. Theatrically and popularly, however, the result will surely impress a lot of people…. (pp. 164-65)
Like a number of his contemporaries, Williams seems to labor under the misapprehension that strong emotions are best to be expressed strongly only through what may delicately be termed strong language…. [Justified] or not in certain cases, it seems to me that in this specific instance he has at times used it not because it is vitally necessary but for purposes of startle and because his dramatic gifts do not yet include the ability to achieve the desired effect without easy recourse to such terminology. His writing—to fall back on a description I have used before—sometimes sounds altogether too much like a little boy proudly making a muscle. (p. 165)
That [Blanche's story] holds one's interest is not to be denied. But it holds it much as it is perversely held by a recognizably fixed prize-fight or a circus performer projected out of what appears to be a booming cannon by a mechanical spring device. It is, in other words, highly successful theatre and highly successful showmanship, but considerably less than that as critically secure drama.
In this general view of the play, I hope that no one will suspect that I am subscribing to such definitions as [Saint] Jerome's "Ugliness is but skin-deep; the business of Art is to reveal the beauty underlying all things." Such sweet sentiments, though generally accepted as true, are much too broad and sometimes faulty. The revelation of fundamental ugliness and depravity has been known to be not only the business of art but even occasionally its triumph. The form and style and manner of the revelation may be beautiful, but the revelation itself is not. A better definition might be that the business of art is to reveal whatever is basically true, whether beautiful or ugly, in terms of the highest aesthetic competence. The ugliness in Williams' play may in the definition of the Jeromes be only skin-deep, but the ability to prick deeper into it and draw from it the blood drops of common humanity, and in them a true count of dramatic art, is absent. (pp. 165-66)
George Jean Nathan, "The Year's Productions: 'A Streetcar Named Desire'," in his The Theatre Book of the Year, 1947–1948: A Record and an Interpretation, Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, pp. 163-66.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 707
[Originally a dissertation presented at the University of Southern California in 1951, the essay from which the following excerpt is taken was first published in 1955 in Sievers's book Freud on Broadway: A History of Psychoanalysis and the American Drama.]
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams has depicted profoundly the origins and growth of schizophrenia. He has shown Blanche struggling to master her conflicting drives of sex and superego, to live up to an inner image of a belle of the old South while living in circumstances in which it is an anachronism. At first she is in rebellion against her own nature but in touch with reality. As the various doors of escape are closed to her and she finds Stanley across her one remaining path, her mind is unable to cope with this impossible conflict. She closes the door to reality and escapes to a psychotic world where gallant gentlmen will give her shelter.
There were some critics who considered Blance as fit only for a hospital but not the tragic stage. Edward Chodorov, for example, questioned in his letter to the present author whether Streetcar met the requirements of tragedy. The director of the Broadway production, Elia Kazan, takes issue with Chodorov's position and in an astute analysis calls the play a poetic tragedy:
We are shown the final dissolution of a person of worth, who once had great potential, and who, even as she goes down, has worth exceeding that of the 'healthy', coarse-grained figures who kill her.
It is not merely an academic issue to test a play such as Streetcar by the classic, Aristotelian standards, for with it much of the modern drama may stand or fall. As Kazan points out, Blanche is a character of some dignity who strives to rise above her circumstances. In the love scene with Mitch she lifts the play to universality, and Williams achieved the tragic irony of Sophocles in the discrepancy between reality and Blanche's distorted impression of it. Aristotelians balk, however, at the fact that Blanche achieves no insight, and to the contrary regresses until her final exit is made with no sublime tragic awareness of the forces that determined her destiny. But there is an escape from the dilemma—modern psychoanalytic psychology suggests a reinterpretation of Aristotle that restores Streetcar to the rank of tragic drama and at the same time confirms the universal insight of the observant Stagirite. It is simply that although Blanche closes her mind to any awareness as she escapes to psychosis, the insight happens to the audience. Williams is able to depict with his raw power the growth of psychosis out of simple defense mechanism, to show the conflict in a sensitive spirit between ugly reality and the quest for beauty. Blanche's tragedy is that of the individual unable to integrate the sex drive, to reconcile the physical hunger with tender and spiritual yearnings. Because of her sheltered background she cannot find security by other means than sexual ones. Thus she has as little free will to choose her destiny as had Oedipus. By illuminating Blanche's sickness, by dramatizing the dark unconscious forces with which Blanche grapples and by which she is defeated, the dramatist, like the psychoanalyst, makes it possible for others to be purged of guilt and fear, to say "There, but for the grace of whatever mental health I have been able to achieve, go I." To understand and participate in Blanche's fate is to escape it. Williams must be credited with a psychological masterpiece; Streetcar is powerful naturalism but also infinitely more—it affords a clear perception into the pressures that degrade, both the social forces which make for an environment of brutality and the individual's unconscious forces which make him a psychic cripple helpless to deal with his environment. Blanche is no less a tragic figure than Antigone or Medea—whether she is literally destroyed or whether it is only her mind seems but a technicality. It is a tragic experience in the theatre to participate in the disintegration of a personality. (pp. 92-3)
W. David Sievers, "Most Famous of Streetcars," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "A Streetcar Named Desire": A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jordan Y. Miller, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 90-3.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363
[The essay "Boredom in New York" was originally published in 1948; "Better than Europe" was originally published in 1949.]
[In the dialogue of A Streetcar Named Desire there is] a liveliness that the American theater has heard from only two or three native playwrights. It is a dialogue caught from actual life and then submitted to only the gentlest treatment at the playwright's hands. In such a dialogue—as Odets showed us ten years ago—some approach to American life is possible. Life is no longer encased in wisecracks. Its subtle and changing contours are suggested by the melody and rhythm and passion of active speech.
A Streetcar Named Desire seems to me on the borderline of really good drama. If it is never safely across the border, it is because here too the sentimental patterns are at work which cramp most honest effort in the theater today. Perhaps we are not sure how limited, how small, Williams's play is until the last scene. But in realistic and psychological work the last scene is a test case. We look there to find the answer to the question: how deep does the play go? The episode of the black-coated couple from the madhouse compels the answer: not very.
Streetcar is a greater occasion in the theater than you would think from reading the script. Williams writes plays that our actors can perform and that our directors can direct. That's the advantage of being conventional. (pp. 33-4)
But there is a deeper incoherence in Streetcar, one that recalls Arthur Miller as well as Glass Menagerie. Williams can write very well when he writes realistically, when, for example, he writes dialogue based on observation of character; in fact, all his dramatic talent lies in that direction. But he seems to imagine that his talent is lyrical; read his poems (in Five Young American Poets 1944) and you will see that it is not. The love of lyricism seems to affect Williams's work in the same way that vagueness of purpose affects Miller's. The outlines are blurred. (p. 89)
Eric Bentley, "Boredom in New York" and "Better than Europe," in his In Search of Theater, Alfred A. Knopf, 1953, pp. 23-37, 80-90.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
Tennessee Williams grew up in the South. Like so many other Southern writers, the existence of a decayed aristocracy was one of the inescapable facts of the society with which he was most familiar. That representatives of such a decayed aristocracy should appear in his plays may mean no more than that they were part of his experience. Nevertheless it seems to be obvious that his persistent concern with them does have a greater significance. These helpless survivors from the past, feeble and pathetic clingers to a dead tradition, take on the importance of symbols. They are not accidental facts; they mean something.
Upon the answer to the question "What do they mean? Of what are they symbols?" depends the whole meaning of the plays so far as our own special theme is concerned. Let us consider it in connection with A Streetcar Named Desire. (pp. 126-27)
Blanche, the nymphomaniac, is horrified by what some would call her sister's "normality." She makes a feeble and ridiculous attempt to instruct both the sister and the husband in the genteel tradition, and she is violently repelled by their contented animality. But because she can neither lead their life nor the genteel life of which she dreams, her last defenses crumble and she is led away to an asylum, certifiably insane.
Everything depends upon, as the phrase goes, which side the author is on. It appears that to many members of the audience this question presents no difficulty. They are, and they assume that the author is, on the side of the sister. She is "healthy," "adjusted," "normal." She lives in the present; she accepts things as they are; and she will never be confined to a mad-house. Her husband is crude, even somewhat brutal, but he is also virile; he is the natural man and one of literature's many kinsmen of Lady Chatterley's lover. Virility, even orgiastic virility, is the proper answer to decadence. Stella, the representative of a decayed aristocracy, is rejuvenated by a union with a representative of "the people." (pp. 127-28)
[While] one section of the audience takes the side of Stella almost as a matter of course another section understands and shares Blanche's revulsion. Her instincts are right. She is on the side of civilization and refinement. But the age has placed her in a tragic dilemma. She looks about for a tradition according to which she may live and a civilization to which she can be loyal. She finds none. Ours is a society which has lost its shape.
Behind her lies a past which, at least in retrospect, seems to have been civilized. The culture of the Old South is dead, and she has good reason to know that it is. It is, however, the only culture about which she knows anything. The world of Stella and of her husband is a barbarism,—perhaps, as its admirers would say, a vigorous barbarism—but a barbarism nonetheless. Blanche chooses the dead past and becomes the victim of that impossible choice. But she does choose it rather than the "adjustment" of her sister. At least she has not succumbed to barbarism. (pp. 128-29)
[One's] choice of sides will depend largely upon one's attitude toward Stella's "virile" husband. The real question is whether he is villain or hero. If we knew which he is to his creator, we should know whether Williams should be classified among that group of "moderns" who see in a return to the primitive the possible rejuvenation of mankind or whether he belongs rather with traditionalists, such as the esoteric T. S. Eliot on the one hand or the popular Maxwell Anderson on the other, who maintain that from the past itself we shall still have to learn if we are ever to learn at all what civilization means.
I cannot tell you what Williams thinks or says. I can, after due warning, report a very significant thing which he is said to have said. At third hand I have it that when queried in conversation about the meaning of A Streetcar Named Desire, or rather about the significance of its chief male character, he replied: "It means that if you do not watch out the apes will take over."
If this report is accurate, and I repeat that I have it only at third hand, the question is answered. Williams, despite all the violence of his plays, despite what sometimes looks very much like nihilism, is really on the side of what modernists would call the Past rather than the Future—which means, of course, on the side of those who believe that the future, if there is to be any civilized future, will be less new than most modern dramatists from [Henrik] Ibsen on have professed to believe. (p. 129)
Joseph Wood Krutch, "How Modern Is the Modern American Drama?" in his "Modernism" in Modern Drama: A Definition and an Estimate, Cornell University Press, 1953, pp. 104-34.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302
[The article from which this excerpt was taken was originally published as "American Blues: The Plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams," in Encounter, May, 1954.]
If Willy Loman [of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman] is the desperate average man, Blanche DuBois is the desperate exceptional woman. Willy's collapse began when his son walked into a hotel apartment and found him with a whore; Blanche's when she entered "a room that I thought was empty," and found her young husband embracing an older man. In each instance the play builds up to a climax involving guilt and concomitant disgust. Blanche, nervously boastful, lives in the leisured past; her defence against actuality is a sort of aristocratic Bovarysme, at which her brutish brother-in-law Stanley repeatedly sneers. Characteristically, Williams keeps his detachment, and does not take sides: he never denies that Stanley's wife, in spite of her sexual enslavement, is happy and well-adjusted, nor does he exaggerate the cruelty with which Stanley reveals to Blanche's new suitor the secrets of her nymphomaniac past. The play's weakness lies in the fact that the leading role lends itself to grandiose over-playing by unintelligent actresses, who forget that when Blanche complains to her sister about Stanley's animalism, she is expressing, however faintly, an ideal…. (p. 128)
When, finally, she is removed to the mental home, we should feel that a part of civilisation is going with her. Where ancient drama teaches us to reach nobility by contemplation of what is noble, modern American drama conjures us to contemplate what might have been noble, but is now humiliated, ignoble in the sight of all but the compassionate. (p. 129)
Kenneth Tynan, "American Blues …," in Two Modern American Tragedies: Reviews and Criticism of Death of a Salesman / A Streetcar Named Desire, edited by John D. Hurrell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1961, pp. 124-30.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1396
Among the new plays of the 1947–48 season A Streetcar Named Desire was not only the best but the most indicative of the flexibility of realism. Strongly rooted in the reality of character and environment, and replete with stinging naturalistic detail, this tragedy of a fallen member of the Southern landed aristocracy, nevertheless, abounds in poetic overtones. These are justified, in part, by Blanche's refinement of language. She is well bred and she has had sufficient education to have taught school for a while. Her consuming need, moreover, is to make herself and others constantly aware of her refinement. She is concealing her tawdry past of alcoholism, incontinence, and common prostitution. She is compensating for her fallen estate. Her memories being as unbearable as her present circumstances, she must transform both by building a dream-world for herself. Obviously, this world contains a large measure of self-delusion, as well as a good deal of pretentious public behavior. She makes "poetry," which her cultural background enables her to "activize" in the form of "manners" and to articulate in dialogue. Her drama becomes "poetic drama." Not realistic drama with poetic varnish, but realistic drama naturally and necessitously poetic. How necessitously, we can realize from the fact that her very refinement betrays her by becoming excessive—hysterically fastidious rather than natural. Her manners become mannerisms, and her speech verges on preciosity. As if in atonement, she crucifies herself on a cross of culture. In Streetcar, poetic drama becomes psychological reality. (p. 355)
[There] is an ambiguity in Blanche's situation—or, rather, we have here a series of ambiguities. Placed in opposition to Stanley Kowalski at the beginning of the play, she is the aristocrat who condescends to the plebeian when she is not actually scorning him. This is compulsive conduct on her part, because she must feel superior to her sister's husband if she is not to feel inferior in view of her helplessness. But her behavior does not commend her to us. She is also an element of disease threatening the healthiness of her sister's relations with Stan. We can be grateful at first when Stan, disconcerted by Blanche, tries to take Blanche down a peg. Yet there is a certain splendor in Blanche's personality—a tragic splendor until the clinical aspects of her character dim it. Her sister avoided shipwreck by compromise—by marrying Stan and by satiating herself at the trough of commonplace gratifications in marriage. Stella is fortunate in this respect, as ordinary people, who have an aptitude for "the blisses of the commonplace," are fortunate. Blanche, on the contrary, cannot renounce her view of herself as a rare individual. Like other tragic characters, she longs for "the blisses of the commonplace" but is as incapable of accepting them as she is incapable of courting them efficiently. Tragic characters are "efficient" only in courting, suffering and encompassing their own destruction. Antigone, Oedipus, Hamlet, and Lear are tremendously efficient in this respect. Therein lies their arête, their specialness and stature, even when it is wrapped in folly, as in the case of Lear's dotage. Therein lies also their ultimate hamartia, or tragic flaw, which is, above all, their inability to recognize, in the words of Keats, that life has its impossibilities.
Thus far the ambiguities are dramatically, indeed tragically, fruitful. Reality is encountered meaningfully when it becomes plain that Blanche comes to a haven to which she will be unable to decline and therefore "adjust." She must turn safety into hell, given the necessities of her character. Also, those who can provide the haven must either eject her from it or turn it into hell for her. Overabundant in animal health and devoid of tender-mindedness, Stan must try to eject her; and, failing to eject her, to quarantine her psychologically (by proving her to have been a harlot), because she has brought unease, if not indeed disease, into his home. And her sister Stella must eject her as an insane accuser of Stan, after the latter has violated Blanche. Otherwise Stella could not remain with Stan, to whom she is bound by sexuality, love, and economic convenience, especially now that she has borne a child. Stan must also turn the haven into hell for Blanche as a necessity of his brutish inclinations, which have been inflamed by the sex-duel that has arisen between them—not without necessitous, if perhaps only half-conscious, initiative on her part. And these ambiguities, too, produce "poetry"—as dialogue, character insight, and atmosphere.
Williams, however, not only enriched but muddled his play with his ambiguities; they are at times only melodramatically fruitful. He reduced potential tragedy to psychopathology. Blanche's psychological situation, indeed, is already so untenable when she enters the home of Stan and Stella that she should be receiving psychiatric care. Williams, moreover, muddled the social basis for Blanche's drama, which he himself underscored with references to her Southern plantation. The aristocratic family's fortunes declined, it is true, and left her economically insecure; but she could have supported herself honorably as a teacher had she not become a victim of neurosis. Her plight is attributed to the bizarre—and to me specious—circumstance that her husband killed himself after realizing that he was a hopeless homosexual. As the daughter of a Southern "Cherry Orchard" family, she might have become quite credibly ill adjusted to reality by over-refinement and pride. But Williams, unsatisfied with normal motivations, adds the causative factor of marriage to a homosexual which has not been established as inevitable. Nor is it convincing that the young husband's death should have led her to seduce school-children and take up with soldiers in a neighboring camp. [Anton Chekhov's play] The Cherry Orchard is pyramided upon normal motivation. Therefore the characters, their failure, and their social reality, or their symbolic value as representatives of a dying aristocracy, are equally believable. In Streetcar, in so far as Blanche's role is concerned, only her illness is believable—and even that is suspect, in so far as its inevitability is questionable.
It is also curious how Stan's role changes from that of an opponent who has reason to guard his marriage against Blanche to the role of a brute who in violating Blanche also violates his marriage. And if it is argued that the point of the play is precisely that Blanche, who needs every consideration, is thrust into a brute world that gives her no consideration, then, I say, Williams has destroyed the tragic possibilities of Streetcar in another way: He has settled for pathos whereas the ambience of his characterization of Blanche suggests a play possessed of a sharper, more equitable, and harder insight—namely, that of tragedy. I would argue, indeed, that having missed that insight—which is surely a defect or insufficiency in the author's thinking—Williams had to turn Stan into a brute. Stan was not a mere brute at the beginning of the play; and, later, he could claim the right to warn his wartime-buddy Mitch against marriage with Blanche because she had been a harlot. But Stan became a brute unmistakably in the rape scene toward the end of the play.
Williams, indeed, seems to have succumbed to a generally jaundiced view of normality by giving the impression that the common world is brutish, as if life in a poor neighborhood and Stan and Stella's sexually gratifying marriage were brutish. That is hardly the case, of course, and Williams himself contradicts this view, here and there, in his picture of the New Orleans Latin Quarter and of some aspects of the sister's life with Stan. But Streetcar exhibits a good deal of ambivalence on the author's part. The realist and the esthete are at odds with each other in this play. Enough variation in emphasis is possible, given the individual actor and the individual director, to make different stage productions yield different impressions, if not indeed somewhat different themes. But Streetcar, for all its dramatic momentum and surge, is a divided work. Ambiguities split the emphasis between realistic and decadent drama, between normal causation and accident, between tragedy and melodrama. Although Streetcar crackles with dramatic fire, it lacks a steady flame. Its illumination flickers. (pp. 356-58)
John Gassner, "'A Streetcar Named Desire': A Study in Ambiguity," in his The Theatre in Our Times: A Survey of the Men, Materials and Movements in the Modern Theatre, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954, pp. 355-63.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 695
Are [Gustave Flaubert's novel] Madame Bovary (1857) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) pleas against "man's inhumanity to man," or dry admonitions against the folly of
"Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn"?
Critiques of Flaubert's novel … and Williams's drama … cautiously eschew a positive answer to this question. They seem inclined to support the interpretation that Flaubert and Williams are on the side of cynicism and realism. Despite the ambiguity in this respect, which they concede inheres in the French novel and the American play alike, they favor the view that both works castigate "romanticism" and "escapism." Such an interpretation, however, not only unaccountably ignores the avowed intentions of both artists, but gratuitously obfuscates the import of two works whose pretensions to greatness reside in simplicity and economy rather than in complexity and exhaustiveness. (p. 10)
In contrasting the affluent daydreams and subsequent dysphoria of their heroines, Flaubert and Williams leave room for pity and tears as well as ironic amusement and solecistic laughter. There is never any question, however, that, of all the characters in both works, only Emma and Blanche are endowed with a sensibility comparable to that of their creators.
Emma and Blanche reflect their authors' double perspective—the disturbing recognition that man's illusions incapacitate him for reality which is unbearable to him without these illusions. Both women refuse to accept a normal life among people who appear to them insensitive, unperceptive, and unrefined. Each cherishes an ideal of gentility, a code of gallantry according to which she imagines her ancestors lived and loved but which, alas, is neither acknowledged nor understood by any of her contemporaries. Little wonder they find existence vapid if not sordid, and habitually revert in fancy to the proverbial past. Disillusioned in marriage … they rush impetuously into a series of unsatisfying liaisons. Invariably, their fitful snatches of amatory bliss are succeeded by periods of despondency. Repeated disappointments, however, serve only to impel them to more reckless escapades and, ultimately, to virtual nymphomania. For Eros—the negation of Thanatos, the final and absolute reality, from which they recoil in horror—becomes, as it always is in the characteristic [Ernest] Hemingway protagonist, an indispensable drug to them. Symbolism is employed in both works to underscore this: Flaubert personifies Death as a loathsome, disfigured, blind beggar; Williams personifies Death as an old, blind, Mexican woman vending funeral flowers. In both works, the imminence of the heroine's tragedy is betokened by the introduction of the character who personifies Death.
Unable to come to terms with the present, and neither able nor willing to abandon the substitute world of their inner lives, Emma and Blanche are rebuffed and mauled by the Antiromantic. At its hands, their yearnings for love meet with ruthless exploitation, and their frivolous enthusiasms with malicious ridicule. The Anti-romantic in Madame Bovary is represented principally by Rodolphe, the cynical squire and coarse adulterer. His counterpart in A Streetcar Named Desire is the gaudy seed-bearer, Kowalski. Rodolphe and Kowalski share many traits in common: a crassness born of insensitivity to human decencies; a hypocritical sense of propriety; an animal greed where women and money are concerned. (pp. 11-12)
Emma and Blanche are consigned to defeat, but in their very defeat there is implicit an indictment, an indictment of the cruelty, greed, and boorishness in human beings. In Williams, this becomes patently clear by a reading (or viewing) of his other plays….
The endings of Madame Bovary and A Streetcar Named Desire are depressing but neither defeatist nor pessimistic. Escapism receives a qualified rebuke. Nevertheless, Flaubert and Williams recognize, and sympathize with, the need of those whom the implacable fires of human desperation drive to suicide and insanity. The defeats of Emma and Blanche are not dictated by the jaundice or nihilism of their creators; Lear-like, both are wracked on the wheel of fire to demonstrate the thesis that the tragic gap between inner dream and external actuality can never be bridged so long as the human race is mired in paranoiac acquisitiveness and besotted with pharisaical morality. (p. 13)
C. N. Stavrou, "Blanche Du Bois & Emma Bovary," in Four Quarters, Vol. VII, No. 3, March, 1958, pp. 10-13.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
In Blanche DuBois, the leading character of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams is accused of having created a sexual pervert, who is insane by the end of the play, and whose portrayal is so particular as to have little relevance to life, or meaning to the American theatre. Williams, however, makes the point that it is the isolation resulting from social and hereditary factors which makes Blanche abnormal. Doubtless the accusation that Williams is strongly influenced by D. H. Lawrence is also true, but the playwright has made purposeful use of the sexual instinct by dramatizing its contrasting effect in two sisters and cannot be charged with mere sensationalism. The theme of the play, like that of Paul Green's The House of Connelly, indicates that members of the Southern plantation-owning class cannot exist in isolation. Stella is able to adapt herself to a new mode of living through her intense physical love for the Polish Stanley Kowalski, whereas Blanche cannot relate herself to any mode of life open to her in the modern age, and so perishes. Since, as Erich Fromm points out, "Complete isolation is unbearable and incompatible with sanity," it is obvious that her end is the only possible logical conclusion to the drama. (pp. 140-41)
[As in] The Glass Menagerie, the fact of the unbearable physical closeness of human beings to each other and their psychic separateness is dramatized with clarity in A Streetcar Named Desire. The isolating effect of crowded conditions is perhaps made even more explicit than in the other [play],… and the irony of the fact that the bathroom, associated with Stanley's vulgarity, is also Blanche's only place of retreat and relaxation is symbolic of the theme of the two sisters—one of whom belongs through the most physical of means, the other of whom cuts herself off from the life of the household…. The blows which [Blanche] suffers … are enough to vanquish the spirit of a woman better equipped than Blanche to meet the loneliness of poverty and the alienation from all loved ones…. It is no wonder that she, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, speaks of her life in the apartment as "a trap." She has run like a mouse to a far corner and cannot escape. Reality is unbearable. Tom gets away by joining the Merchant Marine; but with every possible tie to life broken, Blanche can escape only into insanity. (pp. 141-42)
The character can be justified on the literal level as the dramatization of the progress of a woman into complete isolation. In the beginning Blanche admits to Stella:
I'm not going to put up at a hotel. I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can't be alone! Because—as you must have noticed—I'm—not very well. (Scene I)
The fact that she has come to the Quarter in the finery she is wearing indicates at first glance that Blanche is very much out of place, and her frightened words indicate that she is appealing to Stella as a last hope. The next time she explains her loneliness is to Mitch. To his sympathetic ear she tells how she loved when she was young, how she accused her husband of homosexuality, how he shot himself, and how ever since, the searchlight which had been on the world has been turned off with only candles to take its place. "I understand what it is to be lonely," she tells him. It is almost impossible not to compare Williams' two plays in their treatment of the near-belonging of Laura and of Blanche. In each case the kiss of a man who seems to be sincere brings the girl to a sudden joyful sense of being one with a lover. After Mitch indicates his sympathy and kisses her, saying, "You need somebody. And I need somebody too. Could it be—you and me, Blanche?" She breathes with long, grateful sobs, "Sometimes—there's God—so quickly!" She is saved for the moment. But as in the case of Laura, this scene only makes her final isolation more devastating. Step by step she reaches the point of immutable loneliness until memory of the past and dreams of the future flood over her, mercifully to blot out the present. (pp. 142-43)
Winifred L. Dusenbury, "Socioeconomic Forces," in her The Theme of Loneliness in Modern American Drama, University of Florida Press, 1960, pp. 113-54.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569
[Magid's essay, from which the following excerpt was taken, was originally published in Commentary, January, 1963.]
The total effect of Williams' work has been to plunge ordinary conceptions of the male-female relation into such disorder that the services of a Harry Stack Sullivan seem needed to straighten them out again. The first of these grand subversions was the figure of Stanley Kowalski, which appeared before the American public and before the world in the person of Marlon Brando. Though numerous actors have since played the part, Brando remains forever etched in memory as the embodiment of American malehood, and Kowalski is probably the most famous male figure in modern drama. Doubtless at this moment Brando's Korean counterpart is playing the role in whatever passes at the Seoul Repertory Company for a torn t-shirt. (p. 77)
Leaving Brando's performance out of it and taking Kowalski at face value, as written by Williams—what are we to make of him? Even forgetting temporarily certain cultural data—that members of the lower middle class are rather more inclined toward the sham genteel in their sexual mores than toward the nobly savage and that it is primarily college graduates who are as conscientious about their sex life as though it were some humanist obligation—one still wonders how Stella and Stanley ever got together. How did Stella ever get over those initial hurdles—Stanley's table manners, Stanley's preferences in dress, Stanley's recreational interests, Stanley's friends, Stanley's stupidity? If we accept Stanley as ape, the character of Stella ceases to be interesting except clinically. Williams claims allegiance with Lawrence in his philosophy of sex, yet in the creation of Kowalski he forgets utterly Lawrence's basic lesson—that profound sexual experience civilizes, humanizes, lends grace and delicacy. Lady Chatterley is attracted specifically by the natural aristocracy of the gamekeeper which his skill and power as a lover only confirm. Despite his presence on the stage in satin pajamas and his continued invocation of the "colored lights" we do not really believe in the instinctive animal beautiy (purity?) of Stanley in bed because out of it he behaves with such benighted crudity. Did Stanley rape Stella, too, just by way of a how-do-you-do? Do all women burn to be raped? Is this the locker-room fantasy that is Williams' version of animal purity?
"They come together with low, animal moans," the stage directions say. Earlier Stella launches into the first of those hushed sexual confidences which run through all of Williams' plays and ring such an astonishingly false note. "I can hardly stand it when he's away for a night," says Stella. "When he's away for a week I nearly go wild…. And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby…." It is hard to know what is more unpleasant in this image, the overt sentimentality it expresses, or the latent brutality it masks: a fascination with the image of the helpless creature under the physical domination of another, accepting his favors with tears of gratitude. That the emotion of gratitude is not the predominant one that women feel for their lovers seems to have escaped Williams, fixated as he seems to be upon the delights his heroes must be capable of affording. (pp. 77-8)
Marion Magid, "The Innocence of Tennessee Williams," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of "A Streetcar Named Desire" A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Jordan Y. Miller, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971, pp. 73-9.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
Since Tennessee Williams has had a persistent interest in the idea of tragedy, there is good reason for looking at his serious plays in the light of a theory of tragedy. In this essay the term tragedy is used for a drama that is centrally concerned with a split personality, not a pathological split, such as Williams sometimes dramatizes, but a representative division between the different imperatives and impulses that human beings feel. A tragic character is strong enough so that an impulse that drives him can be destructive rather than simply annoying, and so that some kind of reordering is imaginable for him. Since reordering implies consciousness of what one is and has done, a tragic character needs the kind of intelligence that will make him more than a blind automaton in action and feeling. (p. 770)
In his earlier plays Williams tends to focus his attention on characters who don't come through, who because of some weakness or disability stay out of the world or opt out of it. Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (1944) cannot face the ordinary problems of life; Blanche Dubois in Streetcar Named Desire (1947) lacks stamina to bear up under the stresses that experience brings. Laura stays at home for good; Blanche ends up in a sanatorium. Williams' early predilection for the structure of melodrama appears in another way in his male protagonists, who face the world vigorously and in their own ways seem headed for triumph; Tom Wingfield escapes from financial constraint and family burdens to travel and write, and Stanley Kowalski, endowed with sexual virility and a keen sense of how the world goes, is ready to charge over all obstacles. So we have the familiar dualism of victors and victims. But Streetcar has other convolutions that come out of a richer imagination. There is the paradoxical attraction, for a moment at least, of opposites: Stanley, carrying the no-longer-resistant Blanche into the bedroom, tells her, "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!"… The sexual common ground points up a world of imperfect choices: in Blanche, sexuality is allied with indiscriminateness, sentimentality, a decayed but yet not wholly unattractive gentility, in a word, the end of a line, the collapse of a tradition; in Stanley, with a coarse new order, vigorous but rude and boorish. Stella, Stanley's wife and Blanche's sister, has to make a choice: she cries in bitter grief for the sister, but chooses Stanley, whose "maleness," as Williams' master Lawrence might call it, is evidently meant to compensate for conspicuous narrowness, gaucherie, and arrogance (though the arrogance is modified in turn by his dependence on Stella). What is notable here is Williams' improvement on the basic Lawrence melodrama, which, as in Lady Chatterley and St. Mawr, puts sexuality and all the other virtues on one side, and nonsexuality and the vices on the other.
With Blanche, Williams goes a step further away from the univocal record of disaster. In her view, as well as in Stella's, a crucial trauma in her life was the discovery that her young husband … was homosexual, and the shock of his consequent suicide. This might be, of course, simply something that happened to her. But Williams is feeling his way into personality rather than stopping at bad luck. He makes Blanche say, of her husband's suicide, "It was because, on the dance floor—unable to stop myself—I'd suddenly said—'I know! I saw! you disgust me!"… Here is a flash of something new: Williams transcends the story of the victim and finds complicity, or tragic guilt, in the heroine. It is quite evident that Williams wants to give this episode major importance, for he has the "Varsouviana"—the music for the dance from which Blanche's husband broke away to shoot himself—played at key moments throughout the drama. And here several problems arise. If we grant that the music attaches to her sense of guilt rather than simply to the whole shocking experience, still the effect is lyric rather than dramatic: it creates an indefinite feeling rather than establishes a definite development of consciousness. Blanche speaks virtually no additional words on this central experience; it remains a wound, the center of a morally static situation, in which it is not clear whether a sense of guilt persists as strongly as a sense of shock and privation. At any rate, infinite regret, plus an infusion of self-pity, provides Blanche with no way of coming to terms with the disaster that borders on tragedy; when there is no reordering, shock becomes illness, and illness eventually triumphs. By the end Streetcar has drifted back to the history of the victim, with its seductive appeal to the strange human capacity for sinking luxuriously into illness as an aesthetic experience. Yet, as we have seen, it makes a sufficiently diverse claim on the feelings to avoid a purely monopathic structure. (pp. 771-73)
Robert B. Heilman, "Tennessee Williams: Approaches to Tragedy," in The Southern Review, Vol. I, No. 4, October, 1965, pp. 770-90.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1991
The emotional quality of all Mr. Williams' serious work is essentially the same, and in theme, subject matter, and philosophy A Streetcar Named Desire is the classic Williams play. (p. 112)
Early in the proceedings Mr. Williams provides a clue to his intentions in his choice of names. He has a wonderful feeling for words and, like any poet, puts them to symbolic use. Belle Reve (beautiful dream), Elysian Fields (paradise), desire, cemetery, Blanche DuBois (white wood)—all combine to produce a double image of, on the one hand, a sublime purity too perfect to be real and, on the other, a reality (earthly passion, death) too harsh to tolerate that purity. The devastating impact of the latter upon the former is indeed the central theme that runs through most of Mr. Williams' work.
Stella is a standard sort of girl, healthy in both the animal passion she feels for her husband and pride in the baby she carries within her. Blanche, however, is a strangely delicate and defenseless creature. "You didn't know Blanche as a girl," Stella tells Stanley during one of their arguments on the subject. "Nobody, nobody, was tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her and forced her to change." As Blanche herself puts it. "I never was hard or self-sufficient enough. When people are soft—soft people have to shimmer and glow—they've got to put on soft colors, the colors of butterfly wings…." And it is true that, though Blanche does not radiate the glow of physical health her sister does, she glows in a way that Stella doesn't. Behind all her transparent pretensions exists a genuine appreciation of beauty that Stella, being a normal, healthy girl, has never experienced.
Here we encounter another one of Mr. Williams' pet themes—the superiority of difference. "You know—you're—well—very different!" exclaims the gentleman caller to the crippled sister in The Glass Menagerie. "Surprisingly different from anyone else I know…. The different people are not like other people, but being different is nothing to be ashamed of. Because other people are not such wonderful people." There also appears to be something special about sick people…. [Maggie remarks] in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof about the charm of the sick and the defeated. Blanche, too, we now discover, thinks highly of the infirm. They have, she tells Mitch (the man she hopes to marry), "such deep, sincere attachments."
Mr. Williams' preoccupation with illness, disease, and death assumes at times the proportions of an obsession…. There is not a major Williams play in which the illness theme is not introduced in one way or another. No passage, however, can quite match Blanche's account of her last days at Belle Reve, before foreclosure set into motion the train of disastrous events culminating in her arrival in New Orleans.
I, I, I took the blows in my face and my body! All of those deaths! The long parade to the graveyard!… You just came home in time for the funerals, Stella. And funerals are pretty compared to deaths…. You didn't dream, but I saw! Saw! Saw! And now you sit there telling me with your eyes that I let the place go! How in hell do you think all that sickness and dying was paid for? Death is expensive, Miss Stella! And old cousin Jessie's right after Margaret's, hers! Why the Grim Reaper had put up his tent on our doorstep!… Stella, Belle Reve was his headquarters!
We must bear in mind that Blanche herself is sick, afflicted with a psychic illness growing out of her inability—soft, glowing, beauty-haunted creature that she is—to face the harshness of human existence. The same is true, to a greater or less degree, of Brick in Cat, Alma in Summer and Smoke, Valentine in Orpheus Descending, Chance in Sweet Bird of Youth, and the Reverend Shannon in The Night of the Iguana. Their sickness is a symbol, a badge, a veritable proof of their vulnerability, their sensitivity, and, by extension of the same reasoning, their goodness. Good people cannot, in Williams' world, help but be sick, since goodness provides no defense against the brutal forces that cause sickness.
What, then, do we have in Streetcar? A central character whose gentleness and innate fineness of spirit do not equip her for a life in which brutality and death hold sway. Unable to bear the pressure, she has retreated to a world of fantasy and nightmare. But that is not all we have. There is another element, without which no Tennessee Williams play would be worthy of the name: sexual depravity. As a diversion from the grim life at Belle Reve, Blanche has taken up promiscuity on a grand scale…. She has chosen this road of sensuality, she explains, because of her feeling that the opposite of death (as suggested by the symbolism of the two streetcars) is desire.
Stella's husband, Stanley, loathes Blanche, not only because her pretensions to Old Southern refinement and strait-laced morality offend his earthy, Polish soul, but also because he recognizes in her genuine revulsion to his natural bestiality a threat to his relationship—founded upon that bestiality—with his wife. But there is another reason, too. Blanche, the embodiment of spiritual aspiration, is the exact antithesis of Stanley, the pure animal. Sensing this, he sets about deliberately to destroy her. The means by which he accomplishes his purpose are as systematic as they are heartless. First, he smashes the illusion of youthful innocence she has tried to create about herself. He does this by investigating her past and reporting it in flamboyant detail to Stella and Mitch, the latter of whom represents her last chance to escape into some semblance of domestic stability. Then, having deprived her of both mental (her illusions) and physical (Mitch) sanctuary, Stanley corners Blanche one night while his wife is in the hospital and rapes her. From this final horror, there is for her but one sanctuary—madness.
The play owes its distinctive power to the methodical, calculated manner in which Stanley goes about his task. Arousing revulsion in the spectator through the deliberate destruction of a helpless, suffering, or essentially innocent creature by a vicious force is Mr. Williams' specialty. In one way or another, he does it in most of his plays. (pp. 113-15)
And what is the fate of those unfortunate enough to have been born gentle and pure, with a hunger for beauty and an aching need for love? They naturally are the ones whose destiny it is to be eaten, to provide sport and sustenance for the vicious and greedy. But, before being devoured, they must first undergo a weakening ordeal, so that when the time comes they will be too helpless to put up a fight. This weakening process occurs through corruption—which, in the way it serves to debase the person in his own eyes, is somewhat Chekhovian. The difference is that, whereas Chekhov saw waste as the corrupting agent, for Williams it is sex.
It is indeed difficult to avoid the conclusion that Williams regards sex (because of its suggestion of use of one person by another) as a corrosive element of evil. It destroys, among other things, the purity of human relationships. (p. 118)
This unavoidably corrupting influence is the thing that seems to bother Mr. Williams the most—for, once corrupted, the pure do not simply join the ranks of the impure. They become, like the principals in Sweet Bird of Youth, something monstrous. Longing for their lost purity and loathing themselves for having lost it, they achieve satisfaction only by twisting the knife in the wound, weakening themselves through greater and greater excesses, seeking even more revolting forms of debauchery with which to punish themselves—until, drained of all goodness and flopping helplessly upon the exposed sands of the ultimate degradation, they are pounced upon by the brutal forces of nature and devoured.
It is this portrayal of purity in terms of its opposite—moral putrescence—that gives Williams' work its unique flavor. Depravity alone would be intolerable; but, by contrasting depravity with the purity out of which it has sprung, he manages to give his characters the illusion of tragic stature—a trick comparable to, but not identical with, Shakespeare's projection of Antony's past strength into the play to contrast his present weakness. Williams' unerring ability to find a dramatic excuse for depicting degeneracy may, in view of the public's curiosity concerning such matters, be one of the reasons for his success at the boxoffice. (pp. 118-19)
[Shakespearean tragedy] arises from a contest in which two powerful adversaries fight to a climactic conclusion. Significance surrounds the struggle because of the hero's greatness and the fact that he has transgressed the natural, "good" order of the universe. His destruction at the end thus creates in us a sense of "rightness" at the same time that it saddens us with its example of waste. In any event, so great has the hero seemed—so huge in stature, so strong in character—that, when finally he is overcome, it is as if some immense edifice were toppling, shaking the earth with the force of its fall.
Williams' plays produce exactly the opposite impression. For, having equated goodness with weakness, strength with viciousness and universl order with evil, they convey no sense of "rightness" at the end. The destruction of the hero represents less a fall than an extermination. For one thing, there is no place for him to fall to. He has already sunk to the very bottom of the human barrel, where he lies, arms outflung, soft underbelly exposed, waiting for the heel of violence to squash him like a bug.
Rather than elevating, this experience is simply morbid—comparable in some respects to what the Romans must have felt while watching a decrepit Christian being eaten by a lion. The impact lies not in the power of the conflict but in the death shrieks of the victim. Much of Williams' dialogue, excellent thought it may be, is but a prolonged cry of agony.
The morbid impact of this experience is deepened as a result of Williams' willingness on occasion to exchange his role as a serious playwright creating a work of art for that of a small boy scribbling words on an outhouse wall…. Williams' smuttiness seems deliberate and, since it degrades the use of a fine talent, constitutes his most objectionable trait as a dramatist. A more crucial fault, of course, is his inability, despite his insistence upon their erstwhile goodness, to excite mature sympathy for his characters.
The closest we come to sympathy in a typical Williams play is the sickening kind of pity we might feel for a dumb animal caught in a trap and slowly tortured to death by forces beyond its comprehension; but this is overshadowed by our feeling of horror at the sheer brutality of the act. Thus, while eroticism, hate and low-grade pity are all involved, horror is the dominant emotion evoked by Streetcar and most Williams plays. And, since he offers no universal justification for the circumstances responsible for the horror, we perceive in them no larger meaning, no significant form, and, consequently, we experience no release at the end. Our spirits, instead of soaring, sag—oppressed by an insupportable weight of … horror.
We are thus forced to the conclusion that, though Tennessee Williams has a big talent, he does not write big drama. He is, in fact, the dramatic counterpart of Edgar Allan Poe—a dealer in horror. As such, he is, of course, magnificent…. Still, one cannot help regretting that his morbid outlook and fascination for the gutter prevent his putting his fertile imagination, poetic vision and superb sense of theater to better use. (pp. 120-21)
R. H. Gardner, "Streetcar to the Cemetery," in his The Splintered Stage: The Decline of the American Theater, The Macmillan Company, 1965, pp. 111-21.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1688
Though the extent to which A Streetcar Named Desire exemplifies traditional tragedy may command increasing attention as this paper progresses, a demonstration of that idea is not the central aim at hand. It is, rather, one fragment of the question of tragic stature that most concerns us here: the terms according to which "victory" may be considered within the heroine's grasp, the course of her struggle toward victory, and the pivotal moment in which the struggle turns to defeat. (p. 249)
[If] an argument is to be put forth that Blanche does not begin and proceed and end at the same low point, that argument must hinge on a value that … remains to Williams and to his tragedy. Decidedly there is such a value, one that American dramatists of the late 1940s and '50s cling to desperately (Miller, the most important exception.) This is the belief in intimate relationships (the establishing of the complex network of human love at least on a one-to-one basis) as paramount among life's pursuits. Not only is Blanche's struggle to achieve intimacy central to the tensions of the play, but the very difficult, clasically noble means which she must exert to achieve it—the admitting of humiliating truths, the giving of compassion in the face of shock, the learning to moderate her life so that her continued individuality is compatible with the individuality of others—stand in testament to a by no means peculiarly mid-twentieth century view of heroism. Conventionally phrased, can he who strives for order in his society succeed if he cannot bring order to his own house? (pp. 251-52)
How, in accordance with this focus upon intimacy, do we chart the course of Blanche's life on stage? First, in attending to the state of her struggle for intimacy at the outset of Streetcar's action, it is necessary to note the extent of her experience with intimacy up to the time of her arrival in New Orleans. Of Blanche's relationship with her family while her parents were alive, Williams has Blanche and Stella make scarcely a comment…. Implicit in Blanche's on-stage relationship with her younger sister, however, is a family mutually giving of intermittent and sudden affection to one another while being mutually reluctant, apart from Blanche's quickness to express hostile emotion, to be truthful to one another. (p. 252)
Blanche's youthful marriage to Allan Grey matches in a crucial respect the limits to intimacy that held sway in Blanche's family: Whatever the goodness of Blanche and Allan's exchanges of affection and shared poetic sensibilities, a solidification of their intimacy through the telling of certain truths never succeeded in coming about. It is not the existence of Allan's homosexuality that signals the failure of Blanche's marriage; it is, rather, that Blanche must uncover this information by accident, that Blanche is incapable of responding compassionately to this information, that in short there never existed a marriage between them in which Allan could come to her in full trust and explicit need. Though Blanche does turn wholly to that kind of fleeting "intimate" affair with strangers in which no deeply personal demands can be placed upon her, the point Streetcar makes is not that Blanche's fall has as its source the collapse of her marriage, but instead that, immersed in dishonesty even before that collapse and nearly having yielded to it utterly, Blanche is beginning (as shown in the action of the play) to force the truth to break through. Blanche's most fundamental regret, as we see her in New Orleans, is not that she happened to marry a homosexual…. Blanche's concern is more directly that, when made aware of her husband's homosexuality, she brought on the boy's suicide by her unqualified expression of disgust. In Blanche's refusal to shirk a responsibility that the conventional society of her time and place would have eagerly excused, she is doing more when she talks of her past to Mitch than simply telling him her life's story. Hoping for intimacy with Mitch, she is rising to the height that intimacy demands.
From Blanche's entrance on stage to the moment of her confession of guilt to Mitch all of the difficulties of her achieving any sort of intimate relationship come into play. To an extent Stan and Stella have what Blanche wants. Their intimacy involves a degree of humility, spirited affection, and overt need, certainly, as well as the working out of a pattern of living generally suitable to them both. However unsuitable such a pattern might be for Blanche, she is confronted constantly with evidence of the intimacy she desires and, simultaneously, with demonstrations of how exclusive even of her partial participation such intimacy is. Blanche's behavior vis-à-vis her own sister underscores their incompatibility for intimacy; Stella, despite her genuine feeling for Blanche, must condescend to Blanche and must flatter her or lie to her in order to be able to get along with her, just as Blanche herself feels she must "put on airs" in order to bring herself to tolerate the situation in which she now finds herself. Although Blanche's desire to be truthful and spontaneous toward Stan and Stella provokes sporadic moments of risk, as when she admits flirting with Stan and when she impulsively kisses Stella's hand, intimacy remains beyond her reach. It is with Mitch that prospects soar. (pp. 252-54)
Tellingly, Mitch's kisses are by no means fended off by Blanche when they come, in rapid succession, in response to Blanche's story of her marriage. It is specifically the intermingling of sex with compassion that Blanche longs for; sex without compassion, that she cannot accept. Crucially, Mitch's embrace is what provokes Blanche's exclamation about God. Sex (or what passed for sex in Blanche's hotel room) has not been God, or even sufficient opiate, for her; it is, in contrast, only the kind of intimacy Mitch is, temporarily at least, capable of sharing with Blanche that can restore Blanche to grace.
Blanche maintains with Mitch the height she has reached, for in her next important scene with him she tells him of the promiscuous affairs she has had…. Blanche has a positive impetus for revealing her past to Mitch completely, since her difficult admissions can bind the two of them all the more deeply together.
With the second confession, however, elements of tragic irony come into ascendance. There is an assertion of T. S. Eliot's to which Williams firmly and sorrowfully assents: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." The painful implication in this statement for Williams is that reality—in this context, intimacy—is nevertheless what human kind finds most glorious and must always pursue. There is tragic irony, in short, in that Mitch's response to Blanche's initial tackling of truth encourages Blanche to make further truthful admissions that will only, in Mitch's eyes, condemn her. Mitch, after Blanche's second confession, of course does not embrace her tenderly again; he calls her dirty and demands his sexual due. (pp. 254-55)
That is the point of Blanche's downfall: the finding herself turned by her impulses toward truth in intimacy back into the whore-image from which, through truth, she struggles to escape. Stan's capability for the rape Mitch only verbally indicates is the physical incarnation of Blanche's defeat. For again, as in her time of hotels, she is no longer being excluded from "intimacy" in the ordinary usage of the word; but, just as she feared, it is the act of sex itself which denies intimacy to her thereafter. (p. 255)
Blanche cannot at all be accurately seen as the weak hypocrite John Mason Brown portrays her as being [see excerpt above]; the morality she persists in avowing is not her lie. The conscious drive toward propriety and refinement that her upbringing and environment have confirmed within her are not less profoundly respected by her than the sexual and emotional longing which she had to forego propriety to satisfy. Ultimately it is neither drive that Blanche would want to yield.
In this light, is it the pathetic helplessness of insanity that Blanche demonstrates as she allows herself to be led into exile "as if she were blind" (and with no attempt at violence once the doctor has become personalized)? It is likelier that although her hopes for her own future have been crushed, and although she is moving through a siege of terror, she remains free, up through her last moment on stage, to affirm that ideal toward which she has always striven. Confronted by the presence of the doctor, she can drop the pretense that Shep Huntleigh has at last come for her; but she is affirmative in maintaining the image of herself that mocks the cardplayers for the courtesy they would never think of showing to her, and she is affirmative in fighting the medical imprisonment being forced upon her until she has gained from the doctor the perceptive gallantry and kindness she has always settled for when a mutually intimate relationship was precluded. Blanche could well have persisted in accusing Stan of raping her, and she could as well have retracted her accusation so as to try to avoid being taken away. It is a tribute to her recognition of the wider meaning of her situation that she did neither.
Blanche's approval of the doctor, her equating him with the men she has fleetingly known and to the ship doctor of her death fantasy, her asking of him no more than the "kindness of strangers," is her way of proclaiming what she now knows: Doomed by the life she has led, her struggle for intimacy has come to its end. The future she sees has only strangers, at best kind strangers, in it. Blanche's tragic power lies in her ultimate acceptance of that very future she has fought so painfully, and almost successfully with Mitch, to resist. Blanche attains this acceptance with tragic dignity, forsaking her anguish but not forsaking, as the reverberations of her final statement tell us, her vision of the intimacy, her God, in whose arms she could not remain. (pp. 256-57)
Leonard Berkman, "The Tragic Downfall of Blanche duBois," in Modern Drama, Vol. 10, No. 2, December, 1967, pp. 249-57.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1047
[A Streetcar Named Desired followed The Glass Menagerie] in its concern with the quality of human love, but I do not mean to suggest that it had a literary content as such. There are intellectual points represented in the play, and a conscious interplay of ideas—the pitting of Kowalski's animal life force against Blanche's fragile poetry is the central one. But the play, in true left-wing style, represents the introduction of a new kind of meaning and a new way of stating it into the American theater. Streetcar is about abstract ideas—ways of living. The closest it ever gets to actually stating a point is in saying that "desire is the opposite of death."
That is its guiding point. The breakdown of Blanche DuBois is the breakdown, or death, of a way of life. Beauty and sensitivity are qualities too fragile for their new, hard, healthy but pitiless replacements. The Old South that Blanche and her lost plantation represent had to collapse and Williams does not flinch from that necessity. But he weeps for the betrayal of the lovely and the refusal of the new world to allow Blanche "a cleft in the rock of the world that I could hide in."
The dramatic intensity, the beauty of language and the expertise in construction of this play came as no accident. In writing Streetcar, Williams called upon his deepest resources as a master playwright in the dazzle of inspiration. A battery of accessory awarenesses contribute to the play's substance. For example, he uses a sense of painting and color to establish contextual as well as theatrical points. In setting the "Poker Night" scene he writes, "There is a picture of Van Gogh's of a billiard parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood's spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs an electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players … wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors. There are vivid slices of watermelon on the table, whiskey bottles and glasses."
Playwrights seldom have fully developed senses of painting, but they will on occasion set a scene with some knowledge of visual values. I have never come across any stage direction that approached this description of Williams's for depth of understanding in matters of composition, color, symbolism, shape, effect and dramatic value (even its writing is poetic).
Williams also used an unusual knowledge of and sensitivity to music in constructing Streetcar. A blues piano motif is repeatedly employed to represent the easygoing sensuality of New Orleans's French Quarter. It counterplays against the polka that Blanche heard the night her young husband shot himself. Williams also requests the changing of keys from major to minor and suggests specific dramatic usage of music (for example, "Blanche is singing in the bathroom a saccharine popular ballad which is used contrapuntally with Stanley's speech").
But for all such knowledgeable construction, it is the play's central concept—its story, its mood and its lavish characters—that makes it so magnificent a work.
Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois are two of the finest character creations in all the American dramatic literature, perhaps matched only by O'Neill's Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. It is almost incredible that a single man could have created two people so entirely opposite and managed a full appreciation of both. Kowalski is extraordinary. He is brutal and stupid, operating almost entirely on animal reflex, but his vitality is the energy of life and his love for Stella is absolute and real. He is also enormously funny and serves as a channel for a free outpouring of the Williams sense of humor. Blanche is usually listed prominently in the Williams Collection of Great Female Characters. There is no denying it—the playwright has an enormous feeling for fragile women, strung with webs from more romantic times. His sympathy is always with the lost, the obsolete, the faded, and when they are women it blossoms with a beating sadness. Of all these women, from Amanda of The Glass Menagerie through Serafina delle Rose of The Rose Tattoo and all the way to the Gnädiges Fräulein in Slapstick Tragedy, none is more pitied, none more loved, than Blanche DuBois.
Blanche is the absolute romantic, still believing in purity, honor and gallantry even while her own life has become sordid and soiled. But she does believe, and the lies she tells, whether about her past or about her surroundings, are dreams of beauty…. She is quick and clever, neurotic and melodramatic, too crystalline, too brittle, too delicate for the new, shoulder-to-shoulder brawling of modern life.
But it would be a mistake to take her for just a symbol of the doomed Old South. While Blanche represents the grand gentility of that way of life (whether it ever existed or not), she is terribly personal and must not be robbed of that personality. Williams writes plays about people and they are his first love.
By mixing such opposites as Blanche and Kowalski, Williams creates an electric situation through character, as opposed to plotting. Given these two characters, and the ways of life they represent, one must be eliminated for the other to exist; pure romance and pure sensuality cannot survive side by side, although they do contain elements of each other (Stanley and Stella, the blood-mated married couple, have a real romance in their animal relationship, while Blanche is almost a nymphomaniac, although only because of her early, traumatic marriage to a homosexual). Blanche devoutly believes that "deliberate cruelty is not forgivable" and Kowalski is congenitally cruel. Blanche lives by the paper moon in the cardboard sky and Kowalski by basics—beer, bowling and bed. Blanche would be religious and Kowalski atheistic, she is the dream and he the earth. In their collision she must be destroyed, but all beauty, all poetry, all piety are with her. She—as the play—is written with breathtaking delicacy. (pp. 250-53)
Martin Gottfried, "A Word on Plays—I," in his A Theater Divided: The Postwar American Stage, Little, Brown and Company, 1967, pp. 237-79.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573
A Streetcar Named Desire is still a beautiful play, the most fully achieved of Tennessee Williams' writings…. Its beauties are of several kinds. It is admirably constructed, its language is fluent, euphonious, delicate and sinewy. It possesses oblique humor and a romantic glow which occasionally verges on a sentimentality I do not find in the least objectionable. It is imbued with a theatrical atmosphere, a kind of magic spell which makes certain plays endure beyond our interest in their ideas, novelty or topical relevance.
It is just these qualities, plus the opportunity the play offers for fine acting and vivid staging, which may obscure its essential meaning. Its value in this regard was generally overlooked when it was first produced in 1948 and, judging by comments I have heard and read, it is still missed. The play is appreciated as a sort of superior sob story, but it is more significantly an American parable.
It is not, as one reviewer has hastily summarized it, a conflict between the realist and the romantic but a dramatization of sensibility crushed by a brutishness so common among us that many people take Stanley Kowalski to be the play's "hero." For them, Kowalski is the ordinary down-to-earth guy, virile, hard-working, a devoted husband, only occasionally guilty of bouts of drinking and sudden aggressiveness without special malice, whose pastimes of poker or bowling are certainly harmlessly convival. If he is coarse in speech and uncouth in manner, well, aren't we all today a little like that? Kowalski at least is without pretensions.
His sister-in-law, a high school English teacher, prates about [Edgar Allan] Poe, [Nathaniel] Hawthorne and other of our literary masters; she affects highflown speech and lofty ideals, while in fact she is part of a Southern psuedo-aristocracy gone to seed. She lies, she drinks, she has been sexually incontinent. Seeing the situation in this light, a good part of the audience laughs at Blanche and "sides" with Kowalski, whose idol is Huey Long and who is "100 per cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it." When Blanche speaks of trying to progress beyond our animal condition many are inclined to laugh at her, and indeed she is slightly absurd….
Blanche's intellectual background, like so much of our own, is shallow; the roots of her cultivation and idealism are weak and they are easily eroded, but she has true instincts and feelings; she does aspire to a fullness of life, a recognition of something more than our gross needs for simple survival. Kowalski resents the accusation implied by Blanche's very presence; he is therefore bent on destroying her. He stands for the norm, the "compact majority," the mass scornful of that dimension of affectivity and thought outside the area of vulgar use and creature comfort. Such as he are always suspicious and finally virulently embattled against the "highbrow," the "eggheads," the poets, the spiritually hungry. The latter in our society are rarely strong or immovably self-assured. They are not prepared or armed to withstand the weight of the adversary's oppression. For the Kowalskis, people like Blanche are "troublemakers" disturbing the pace of their slothful habit. They must be gotten rid of as Stanley Kowalski, after raping her, gets rid of Blanche, who has "always depended on the kindness of strangers." (p. 635)
Harold Clurman, in a review of "A Streetcar Named Desire," in The Nation, Vol. 216, No. 20, May 14, 1973, pp. 635-36.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3122
So much has been written about A Streetcar Named Desire in terms of its theatrical presentation as interpreted by a specific director and set of actors and so much concern has been lavished on the social attitudes and psychological constitution of its characters that the author's primary intention as revealed in his use of mythic symbolism and archetypal imagery to create a dialectic between soul and body to depict universally significant problems such as the conflict and mutual attraction between desire and death has been generally obscured or denigrated as pretentious. My own intention in this essay is to consider the play neither as interpreted in any specific production nor as it may embody a study of satyriasis, nymphomania, or reconstruction in the South, but, rather, as it constitutes what an examination of its symbolism reveals to be Tennessee Williams' intention: a tragic parable dramatizing existence, the fact of incarnation, itself. Far from wishing to dissolve Williams' carefully constructed characters and theatrical effects into illustrations of archetypal figures or myths devoid of the author's particular "signature," I shall try to suggest how Williams' special use of two very ordinary symbols—the cards of destiny and the voyage of experience—aesthetically patterns the mosaic of his literary and theatrical imagery in Streetcar, investing the play with an artistry and meaning that transcend the mere theatricality and sensationalism with which it has so often been credited and discredited.
"Catch!"… says Stanley Kowalski throwing a bloodstained package of meat to his wife, Stella, at the opening of the first scene of A Streetcar Named Desire. Laughing breathlessly, she manages to catch it. "This game is seven-card stud," reads the last line of the play. In between, much of the verbal and theatrical imagery that constitutes the drama is drawn from games, chance and luck. Williams had called the short play from which Streetcar evolved The Poker Night, and in the final version two of the most crucial scenes are presented within the framework of poker games played onstage. Indeed, the tactics and ceremonial of games in general, and poker in particular, may be seen as constituting the informing structural principle of the play as a whole. Pitting Stanley Kowalski, the powerful master of Elysian Fields against Blanche DuBois, the ineffectual ex-mistress of Belle Reve, Williams makes the former the inevitable winner of the game whose stakes are survival in the kind of world the play posits. For the first four of the eleven scenes of Streetcar, Blanche, by reason of her affectation of gentility and respectability, manages to bluff a good hand in her game with Stanley; thus, in the third scene Stanley is continually losing, principally to Mitch the potential ally of Blanche, in the poker game played onstage. However, generally suspicious of Blanche's behavior and her past, and made aware at the end of the fourth scene that she considers him an ape and a brute, Stanley pursues an investigation of the real identity of her cards. As, little by little, he finds proof of what he considers her own apishness and brutality, he continually discredits her gambits until, in the penultimate scene, he caps his winnings by raping her. In the last scene of the play, Stanley is not only winning every card game being played onstage, but he has also won the game he played with Blanche. Depending as it does on the skillful manipulation of the hands that chance deals out, the card game is used by Williams throughout Streetcar as a symbol of fate and of the skillful player's ability to make its decrees perform in his own favor at the expense of his opponent's misfortune, incompetence, and horror of the game itself.
Equally as important as the symbol of the card game in Streetcar is the imagery connected with the mythic archetype of the voyage which Williams portrays both as quest for an imagined ideal and as flight from disillusioning actuality. "They told me," says Blanche in her first speech, "to take a streetcar named Desire, and then to transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields." Putting together the allegorical names of these streetcars and their destination at Elysian Fields with Williams' portrayal of Blanche as resembling a moth, traditionally a symbol of the soul, we find in her journey a not too deeply submerged metaphor for the soul's disastrous voyage through life…. [We] can understand the implications of Blanche's statement late in the play, "The opposite [of death] is desire," to be more than merely sexual. Shuttling between yearning and frustration defines the basic rhythm of life itself for Blanche. Opening with her arrival in the land of life in death, the play chronicles the human soul's past and present excursions in the only vehicle that fate provides her, the rattle-trap streetcar of the body; the play closes with the soul's departure for incarceration in another asylum, another kind of living death. (pp. 77-9)
Blanche's first speech provides the introduction to Williams' treatment of her journey in the universal terms of life (desire) and death (cemeteries). In depicting her destination, Elysian Fields, which proves unwelcome and unwelcoming to Blanche, Williams continues to fuse and juxtapose images of life and death. (p. 80)
He depicts Stella … as one of the happy dead: after a night in bed with Stanley, "Her eyes and lips have that almost narcotized tranquility that is in the faces of Eastern idols."… While Stella can bridge the two worlds of Belle Reve and Elysian Fields, Blanche is unwelcome in both.
This distinction is important to note because too many critics have made oversimplified, sociologically oriented interpretations of the conflict in Streetcar as a representation of Williams' nostalgia for vanished, decadent southern aristocracy and his horror of vital industrial proletarianism. Other critics, noticing that Williams compares as well as contrasts Belle Reve with Elysian Fields, claim that his presentation of social conditions is ambivalent and confusing. But Williams, usually little interested in sociology beyond its reflection of the human predicament of survival, does not use Blanche's pretentious cultural standards—which he exposes as pitiful—to measure Belle Reve against Elysian Fields; rather, he emphasizes the uninhabitability of both for his supremely romantic heroine to the extent that she symbolizes the soul. The vitality and "raffish charm" of Elysian Fields is outweighed by its brutality; the fabled graciousness of Belle Reve by its debauchery. The former world with its brawling, bowling cocks-of-the-walk is male-dominated; the latter as its grammatically incorrect name (feminine adjective modifying masculine noun) suggests is a female-oriented, effeminate world whose scions, as symbolized by Blanche's young husband, are apt to be disinclined to propagate. Blanche's remark to Stella about Stanley early in the play, "But maybe he's what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Reve …" proves, in the light of his (and even Mitch's) rought treatment of her, ironic. There can be no copulation or reconciliation between the world of the "beautiful dream" and the world of death in life actuality that will be mutually and ideally satisfactory. Stella's erotic will to life at any cost, her ability to shut one eye to the claims of the ideal and the other to the horrors of the actual, Williams portrays not as an easy truce between the two worlds but as a "narcotized," quasifatalistic commitment to survival that resolves none of the existential problems it poses.
Elysian Fields, the world that has replaced Belle Reve, will do, Williams seems to be saying, for the insensitive Stanley and the pragmatic Stella …; but it can only further the process of destroying Blanche which Belle Reve had begun. Its amusement-park thrills, its desperately gay and feverish music provide sufficient fulfilment only for the undemanding. The spirit of the whole place is characterized by the name of one of its nightspots, the "Four Deuces"—the poorest of the best hands in poker. (pp. 81-2)
When Blanche says of Desire "It brought me here" we may take her to mean not only the streetcar that bore her to Elysian Fields, the land of the living dead, but human desire which brought her into existence. Incarnation is what she is ashamed of, and the flesh is what she has abused in her self-punishment for submitting to its importunate demands…. Blanche has been conditioned to believe that the anarchy of the flesh must, whenever possible, be transcended in the interests of family and culture; Williams, however, dramatizes the futility of attempts to transcend the limitations of the human animal.
At the end of [the] fourth scene, imploring Stella to leave Stanley, Blanche delivers a harangue which in its cadence and hysterical rhetoric betrays her desperation and vulnerability…. Williams frames this speech, just before it begins and immediately after it ends, with the sound of two trains running like the old rattle-trap of Desire: at the same time, he has Stanley enter, unheard because of the noise of the trains, and remain to listen unobserved to Blanche's speech. Her two destroyers, desire and Stanley Kowalski, are thus made to hover like fateful accomplices over Blanche as she implores Stella to join with her in battle against them. That Stanley is placed in the strategically superior position of the unobserved viewer of the scene forecasts his eventual triumph over Blanche. To emphasize the inefficacy of Blanche's appeal and struggle against her fate, Williams ends the scene with Stella's embracing Stanley "fiercely"—joining the "brutes"—as Stanley grins at Blanche in victory. From that point on, Stanley beings to gain the upper hand in the struggle with Blanche. (pp. 84-5)
The predominating conflict of flesh and spirit modifies and includes all the other conflicts—sociological, psychological, moral, cultural—which A Streetcar Named Desire presents. It would be an oversimplification, as I have stated above, to see Belle Reve and Elysian Fields merely as opposites when Williams has subtly pointed out their similarity and the shortcomings they share in fulfilling the claims of the ideal. And it would be simpleminded to call Williams' presentation of both the attractiveness and failure of these two ways of life as ambivalence and to claim that it mars the play. By pitting the sterility of Belle Reve against the fertility of Elysian Fields, the weakness of Blanche against the insensitive stolidity of Stanley, her cultural pretensions against his penis-status, her sorority-girl vision of courtship and good times against his "colored-lights" orgasms, the simulated pearls of her lies against the swinish truth of his facts, her uncontrollable epic fornications against Stanley's own, less hysterical mastery in this area of experience, Williams attempts to dramatize the inevitable succumbing of the former to the greater power of the latter. If he seems to favor Blanche, it is because she is the weaker and because, at one time, as Stella attests, she showed great potential for tenderness and trust, the qualities of a typical victim. Only her stifled potential and her futile aspirations to transcend or mitigate the harshness of actuality—to cover the naked light bulb with a paper lantern—seem to qualify her, in Williams' eyes, as a symbol of the trapped soul. Not even her moral code, "Deliberate cruelty … is the one unforgivable thing … the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty," admirable as far as it goes, qualifies her as a symbol of transcendence so much as her pitiful attempts to combat actuality do. And, ironically and tragically enough, it is her very preference for soulful illusion and for magic over actuality which paves the way for her voyage to the madhouse. (pp. 86-7)
While Williams dramatizes the plight of the incarnated, incarcerated soul primarily in terms of her futile voyage in quest of fulfilment—or, failing that, of peace and rest—he portrays the roles that fate and luck play in existence primarily in images of gaming. And the master of games in Streetcar is Stanley Kowalski. By reason of his amoral fitness for survival in a world which, in Williams' Darwinian view, is geared to the physically strongest at the expense of the meekly vulnerable. Stanley has an "in" with the fates. Though the intrusion of Blanche into his world rattles Stanley and threatens to undermine the self-confidence that sustains his power, he systematically allays his own fears at the expense of aggravating Blanche's. Though he loses at the poker games played in scene three, he wins at those played in the last scene of the play.
Introducing fate into his play by way of luck at games, Williams pits Stanley's chances of survival against Blanche's. When Williams summed up the moral of the play as, "If we don't watch out, the apes will take over" … he expressed the same view of existence that he delegated to Blanche in her speech denouncing the poker players as "a party of apes." That the tone and strategy of the play reveal it not merely as a cautionary drama but as a tragedy of the futility of attempting to flee the apes, I have stressed above. What the play really demonstrates is that, willy-nilly, the apes must take over since apishness is presented throughout as the natural, unavoidable condition not only of survival but of existence itself. (p. 88)
Throughout the play, images drawn from gaming, chance and luck compete in number with those suggesting water and voyage. The sixth scene, for example, renders Mitch's marriage proposal to Blanche within the framework of imagery suggesting the game of chance which Blanche is desperately playing with him and with survival…. The presence of the Pleiades in the sky seems to comfort Blanche; her reference to them as bridge ladies not only aligns them with the imagery of existence as a game of chance, but the familiarity with which Blanche treats the seven nymphs who, even as stars, must constantly flee the mighty, devastating hunter, Orion, suggests mythically and cosmically, a parallel to her own danger, pursued as she is by Stanley's vital lust for domination and destruction. The scene ends with Blanche's pathetic belief that Mitch's proposal is a sign that the gods have furnished her with an eartly protector. "Sometimes—," she says, "there's God—so quickly!" (p. 90)
Generally, the two major image patterns concerned with voyage (particularly as escape from fate by means of water) and with games (as the framework of human chance and destiny) are only very casually suggested; occasionally they are even joined in a single speech as when Blanche, for example, explains to Mitch why she has come to Elysian Fields: "There was nowhere else I could go. I was played out. You know what played out is? My youth was suddently gone up the water-spout, and—I met you …" (my italics …). In the last scene of the play, Williams more forcefully calls attention to his two most important image patterns in a superbly executed finale that boldly juxtaposes them. (p. 91)
After introducing the theme of the fatal card game as an analogue of earthly existence, the last scene of Streetcar shifts to focus on Eunice and Stella as they prepare Blanche for another journey. Speaking from the bathroom which has been her refuge throughout the play, Blanche asks, "Is the coast clear?"… In having Blanche ask for a bunch of artificial violets to be pinned with a seahorse on the lapel of her jacket. Williams portrays her insignia: the violet which traditionally symbolizes innocence in flower language together with the creature whose natural habitat would be water—not land. (p. 92)
Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams used every device of theatrical rhetoric to portray and orchestrate existence as a study game. From the desperate gaiety of the tinny "Blue Piano" which Williams says in his first stage direction "expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here" to the brawling of the Kowalskis and their neighbors, from the cries of the street vendors ("Red hot!" and "Flores para los muertos") to what Elia Kazan called the "ballet" of the passerby in quest of money or sex, Williams created in Streetcar a frenetic dramatization of spiritual frustration and physical satiation alike, of life fraught with death (Blanche) and of death burning with life (Elysian Fields). Though not without its quieter moments and lyrical interludes, the play might best be characterized as a syncopated rendition of what Williams views as the basic rhythm of physical existence: tumescence and detumescence, desire and death. (p. 94)
To point out the symbolic, mythic and tragic implications of the literary and theatrical imagery in Streetcar is not to deny that the play is often as jazzy and comic as the vision of existence it depicts (though close inspection reveals that the jazz is usually desperate and the comedy often very cruel). Elements of melodrama, frequently present in tragedy, are also evident in its structure—to such an extent that they have sometimes blinded viewers to its other qualities. Even the usually perspicacious Susan Sontag wrote in her controversial essay of 1964, "Against Interpretation," that Streetcar should be enjoyed merely as "a forceful psychological melodrama … about a handsome brute named Stanley Kowalski and a faded mangy belle named Blanche DuBois …" and that any other interpretation of the play would be unwarranted.
What I have tried to do in this essay, however, is to avoid rehashing the most blatantly realistic aspects of the play and to view it, instead, in terms of Williams' persistent concern with creating universal and "timeless" worlds in his plays. In play after play, Williams has consistently (albeit with varying degrees of success) employed symbolism and the mythic mode to universalize the significance of the realistic action he posits, not only, apparently, because he thinks of symbolism and universality as essentials of art, but also because these qualities seem to be characteristic of his personal reactions to life in general. (p. 95)
Read in the light of Williams' personal and aesthetic predilections, all the images, symbols and allusions, even what appear to be only the most casual or realistic of details in Streetcar, combine to reveal a tragic parable of the pitiable and terrible fate of the human soul. Incarnated in treacherous, decaying matter, the soul, it appears, has been destined to voyage continually from one broken world to another, the only kinds of environment open to it in a flawed universe…. As Tennessee Williams dramatizes his vision of existence in A Streetcar Named Desire, we see that "from the beginning" the cards of destiny have indicated a seemingly endless voyage for the human soul through progressively disastrous worlds, and the name of the game is tragedy. (pp. 95-6)
Leonard Quirino, "The Cards Indicate a Voyage on 'A Streetcar Named Desire'," in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 77-96.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1261
Each new production of A Streetcar Named Desire seems to offer the excitement of witnessing a new interpretation. A great play has within it the potentiality for differing interpretations; indeed, this may be the test of greatness. The different interpretations of Streetcar by directors invariably stem from different attitudes toward the two main characters, Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Some directors tip the audience toward Blanche, others toward Stanley—and this tipping controls the nature of the tragedy and its effect. The director chooses sides, and the audience, of necessity, must play the director's game.
My aim in this essay is to explore the possibility that Tennessee Williams wishes to keep the sides balanced, that, in fact, complementarity informs the play's art and meaning. (p. 97)
At the outset we must recognize that different interpretations can be caused by fuzziness of writing, blurring of effects, lack of coherence…. One of our finest critics, Eric Bentley, believes that in Streetcar "Williams does not write with complete coherence."… Bentley's view is an echo of and has been echoed by others. But another view is possible: that Tennessee Williams, after O'Neill America's finest playwright, knows exactly what he is doing in Streetcar, offering a play with balanced sides built in, dramatizing an attitude toward life based on duality and complementarity. This balancing is achieved in every aspect of the drama—in the treatment of theme and character, in the symbolism, in the movement, in the specific stage actions. Balances are always precarious, in art as in life. Williams maintains his, I wish to demonstrate, and the critics and directors have lost theirs at times. (pp. 97-8)
The genteel Blanche and the raw Stanley ride the same streetcar, but for different reasons. Blanche goes to her sexual affairs to relieve the broken quality of her life, looking for closeness, perhaps kindness, in that physical way. She cannot see herself as a whore because sexual activity was for her a temporary means for needed affection, the only refuge for her lonely soul. Stanley rides the streetcar because that is the necessary physical function of his life, natural, never compensating for emotional agony because his soul is never lost, what Blanche calls "brutal desire—just—Desire!" Desire is the common ground on which Stan and Blanche meet, a streetcar on which both are passengers, the scales on which both are measured. On one side of the scale a fading, fragile woman for whom sexual activity is a temporary release from loneliness; on the other side a crude, physical man for whom sexual activity is a normal function of life. The needs of both are clearly presented by Williams and should be clearly understood by the audience, which must neither wholly condemn Blanche for her whorishness nor Stanley for his brutishness. The scales are balanced so finely that when Stanley condemns Blanche for her sexual looseness and Blanche condemns Stanley for his apishness, each seems both right and wrong, right in the light of truth, wrong in the light of understanding.
Desire or sexual impulse, therefore, is common to both Blanche and Stanley and provides one measure of their similarity and difference. (pp. 98-9)
Complementarity provides the pressure of the play's movement, beginning with the audience's first encounter with Stanley and Blanche. When the curtain rises the audience witnesses Stanley's sure command of the stage—vigorous, shouting, deftly throwing a package of meat at Stella. Blanche's entrance reveals a delicate creature, frazzled, uncertain, burdened with a suitcase, lost. Within the play's first minute the audience is forced to absorb the dialectic that will give the play its dynamic tension. Within each scene the dialectic continues, becoming more persistent as the play progresses. A brief look at scene three will reveal Williams' method.
Scene three presents the poker night…. In each segment of the scene Williams plays with the audience's sympathies, forcing us to side with Stanley when Blanche is teasing and artificially genteel, forcing us to condemn Stanley when he breaks the radio and hits Stella, and forcing us to pity the repentant Stanley who wishes to have his baby back. Balances in our attitude toward character; changes in our emotional responses. And important changes in movement. Stella goes up the stairs to escape a raging Stanley, only to come down to the baying Stanley. Stanley falls down on his knees to show his repentance, only to rise and lift Stella to show his victory. Stanley's victory is Blanche's defeat. A confused Blanche ends the scene by talking about the confusion in the world and reasserting her need for kindness. She will give powerful voice to her confusion in the next scene, wondering how her sister could return to the brutal Stanley, calling him "common," "bestial," a "survivor of the Stone Age," and imploring her sister not to "hang back with the brutes!" Blanche's "superior attitude," as Stella calls it, will alienate the audience because of the speech's tone, but the content of her speech offers ideas about civilization and progress that the audience must consider true. And again we have complementarity and balance.
Williams does not even allow the rape, which could be considered the supreme brutalization of Blanche by Stanley, to upset the balance he presents throughout. For Williams betrays a respect for Stanley's "animal joy," for men at the peak of their manhood, for the natural desires of the Stanley Kowalskis, who were born to have women, and Williams invests the play with a sense of the inevitability of that violent encounter between executioner and victim, who had that date from the beginning.
What I am suggesting … is that the ambiguity and confusion often felt in specific productions and readings of Streetcar are prodded by Williams' delicate art but are not his intent. He aims for complementarity, duality, balance, a difficult challenge for a dramatist, but a necessary one for Williams in this play because it holds the key to the play's meaning and tragic effect. The tensions are present throughout and are basic to the tragedy. We end with pity and terror, themselves balance emotions, the natural result of all that came before. As Blanche DuBois leaves the stage, we, like Stella, are allowing her to go because we have sided at times with Stanley, we have been annoyed by her falsity and superiority, we have wondered at her cruelty to her now dead homosexual husband, we have considered her a disturbing interruption in her sister's seemingly idyllic life in Elysium. But we feel compassion for this fragile creature who has been living with death, who is trying to hold on to vanishing values, and who needs what we all need, kindness. We feel the terror of her departure to death within the walls of an asylum not only because we pity Blanche, but because we are forced to ask the frightening question: Is the world so possessed by the apes that there is no place for a Blanche DuBois? Both better and worse than those around her—the balance again—Blanche commands our attention as we witness her disintegration. She passes through, and the curtain comes down to block out the light over that poker game as we return to this one,… but all, I suspect, affected by Williams' superb dramatization of a basic human dialectic reflecting what our deepest experience tells us is the reality of things, presenting a complementary vision more complex than a one-sided interpretation allows. (pp. 100-03)
Normand Berlin, "Complementarity in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'," in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 97-103.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support