‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is a play written by the very famous playwright Tennessee Williams, which follows the peripeteia of a fragile and fading southern belle- Blanche Dubois to her eventual mental disintegration and metaphorical death. It explores and addresses a variety of themes and issues such as toxic masculinity, loss of empathy, the American dream, non-conformity, reality and illusion and the relationship between death and desire. It is set against the backdrop of a new post World War II America and has implicit references to the antebellum (pre American civil-war of 1861-65) southern society.
The 1947 play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is a modern domestic tragedy written by the esteemed southern gothic writer Tennessee Williams. It presents a myriad of distinctive characters which serve not only to allegorise the various issues and themes explored in the play but also to provide a unique perspective showing that one person’s hell is another’s heaven; how Elysian Fields (the small town or avenue where this play is set) at first glance may seem like a tolerant paradise but hides a sinister truth about families plagued by domestic violence and a lack of sensitivity. The playwright, Tennessee Williams effectively presents the themes of the gentle antebellum south, its contrasting counterpart the post world war II America, the masculine and the effeminate and nonconformity in his play and these themes are instrumental in affecting the characters of the play and how they shape their world. Williams dramatically presents these contrasting characters to show that all characters in the play, to an extent, live in their own illusion to conform to and shape the world around them yet hypocritically judge Blanche for being detached from reality and essentially attempting to do the same. Tennessee Williams presents this irony dramatically through the constructs of the more sensitive, non conformist individuals like Blanche Dubois and Allan Gray and those individuals who have now become a part of the new harsh community of post war America: Stella Kowalski and Stanley Kowalski.
Elysian Fields in Streetcar presents a unique community within New Orleans known for its “raffish charm” and “easy intermingling of races”. It is a reference to a resting place for Greek heroes after their deaths which is ironic since the protagonist of the play is an antihero. It therefore indicates that Elysian fields with its “tender blue” sky and “faint redolences of bananas and coffee” will also be Blanche’s destruction. The juxtaposition of the bright tones with the “weathered grey” houses further implies that Elysian fields may be a paradise for the ideal Greek hero (traditionally characterized as a brave and skilled warrior who died on the battlefield) a lot like the construct of Stanley (a war hero) who takes extreme pride in the role he played during the war, but it is not a paradise for the vulnerable, sensitive individuals like Blanche who refuse to conform to the harsh society of these ‘heroes”. Elysian fields is a community created by the new post war America; a world shaped from the blood and death which characterised the war and therefore is shaped into a paradise for the crude and harsh. It is representative of the beautiful facade of the “turquoise” sky which attenuates the “atmosphere of decay” indicating the decay and rot which festers within the seemingly perfect and inclusive society of Elysian Fields.
On the other hand, a contrasting argument could suggest that Elysian Fields does not represent the decay in society but rather the American dream and practicality embodied by the working class society of post war America. Williams presents Elysian Fields as an all inclusive society where immigrants feel at home implying that it is not the community of Elysian Fields which forces the Blanche (the Antebellum South) to conform but Blanche who tries to shape the lifestyle and “raffish charm” of Elysian fields to fit the aristocratic southern society of her past which justifies the destructive impact of Elysian Fields on Blanche as simply a case of survival. Blanche’s incongruity to Elysian Fields was made evident from the beginning of the play foreshadowing the outcome of her attempt to shape Elysian Fields to fit her moulds.
Blanche Dubois’s unique construct is dramatically presented by Williams through the theme of reality and illusion. Blanche at times is presented as a pathological liar which is simply a way for her to cope with her inability to fit in and escape the truth of her reality which makes her extremely vulnerable. This is perhaps an indication that Williams saw himself in Blanche as he himself had a tendency to lie especially when it concerned his age. Her lies are nothing but illusions she forces herself to believe in because she cannot stand the light of the truth and finds the dark of her lies “comforting”. This is further implied when Blanche is likened to white moth who cannot help but be attracted to flame (light) even though it knows that flame will eventually burn it. Blanche craves a reality where she can touch the light, find sensitivity in a post-WWII world where the truth of reality is too harsh for her to accept. This indicates that Blanche’s detachment from reality for which she was punished and ousted, is symptomatic of the society’s brutality.
Her illusions shape her fantastical world where she is still an aristocratic southern belle living in a courtly society southern society with sensitive sensibilities and being invited on ” a cruise of the Carribean”. Blanche shapes the world around her so that she can escape the truth of her peripeteia or loss of fortune, sordid past and create a new life and beginning for herself at Elysian Fields so that she can “breathe quietly again”. This is why her metaphorical death caused by Elysian Fields’s inability to accept her evokes feelings of pathos as her only fault was her inability to accept the insensitivity embodied by Elysian Fields. Williams himself claims that he had “only one major theme for [his] work, which is the destructive power of society on the sensitive non-conformist individual” which further solidifies the fact that Tennessee Williams created pathos (an atmosphere of profound melancholy) to highlight the bigotry of the society and Blanche’s tragic attempt at shaping a world for herself.
It is ironic and hypocritical that Blanche like all the other residents of Elysian Fields was essentially an immigrant who had left her past behind to start a new life yet she was the only one who was eventually ousted from the society for the fornications of her past. It also reflects the double standards of the male dominated society of Elysian Fields. Blanche was not the submissive and meek woman who condoned domestic violence like Stella was; she refused to accept the brutality embodied by Stanley and the post war America and so was punished for it because she interfered with the status quo of the society shaped by men like Stanley in the play. She fought against the aggression, loss of sensitivity, absence of intellectual affinity and profound brutality represented by Stanley. This allegorises the sensitive south’s fight against the north and its vulnerability after its defeat. The antebellum south was later taken advantage of in its weakened state just like how Blanche was raped by Stanley when she was unsuccessful in taking Stella away from Stanley’s world and into a world shaped from her illusions.
Blanche romanticises the antebellum south and the delicate sensitivities it represented. However in doing so she again deludes herself into believing that the old south was perfect and embodied all the beauty and softness which was missing in post-war America. The southern society at its core was racist and intolerant so much so that they even ousted Blanche despite her former status and fortune. Blanche however clung to the fantasy of the southern belle even when that society itself deserted her, this shows Blanche’s desperation to cling on to the gentility of the south as well as her vulnerability entering the harsh new America. While Blanche saw the old south as her heaven because of its morphed, romanticised image in her mind; The old south was hell for her former husband Allan Gray who committed suicide because of the cruel southern society (embodied by Blanche) and its failure to accept Gray as a homosexual. Blanche cruelly told Gray that “you disgust me” and triggered his suicide, it portrayed how Blanche (the image of the soft southern society) was Gray’s last hope at finding acceptance but she too callously turned her back on him when he needed her friendship and approval the most. This further elaborates how Blanche’s and Allan’s reality were one and the same yet extremely different because while Blanche believed the beautiful illusion of the sensitive south, Gray saw the cruel, oppressive rot and decay which filled and festered the whole society. The extremely negative counterpart to Blache’s excessively positive view of the affluent old south.
In conclusion, Tennessee Williams successfully presented his characters in an effective manner to portray the theme of society’s impact on incongruity and non conformity within a community and also to present the hypocritical male dominated society’s inability to accept individuals carving out a place for themselves in a harsh world to protect their vulnerability.
(The author is associated with Kuwait English School, Kuwait)