A Streetcar named Desire is a play both grimly naturalistic and poetically symbolic, written by playwright Tennessee Williams. It is set in New Orleans post the depression and World War II. The characters in A Streetcar Named Desire are trying to rebuild their lives in post-war America. Much of the characters and themes found in Williams’s dramas were derived from the playwright’s own life. Alcoholism, depression, desire, loneliness, and insanity were all included. Typical of Williams’ style, Streetcar portrays the main character as Blanche DuBois, a, faded Southern belle who represents the culture and beauty of the past and her evident distaste for her younger sister, Stella’s, husband, Stanley Kowalski, a lower class Polish man who is the personification of modern practicality, crudeness, cynicism, and brutality. Through this play we follow Blanche and her descent into madness and lunacy.
This play is written in the style of theatre is known as expressionism/naturalism.
Expressionism in drama and art was a movement that rejected traditional methods of representing objective reality. Instead, expressionists exaggerated and distorted aspects of the outside world in order to ‘express’ certain moods and feelings. Expressionism continues to be an important influence on experimental theatre and art. Williams has used this style to portray his themes, ideas and characters in the play A Streetcar Named Desire. The character of Blanche, was actually a ‘repertoire of the womanly characteristics’ displayed by Tennessee Williams. Naturalism can refer to the technique of portraying life in a scientifically detached manner; however, it is generally used to refer specifically to a nineteenth century movement in art and literature where the artists or authors claimed to be objective observers.
Naturalist writers were strongly influenced by evolutionary theory, and saw human beings as creatures constrained by heredity and environment, rather than as beings with free will. In regards to Streetcar Williams’ sought to depict working-class characters as psychologically evolved beings to some extent, he attempts to portray these ‘blue-collar’ characters on their own terms, without romanticizing them. Although these two styles of theatre seem to contrast and clash the playwright has used them to complement each other. He has used elements of naturalism but somewhat challenged the conventions of this particular style and effectively entwined it with forms of expressionism.
The context of a play is very important as it gives an insight of the playwright’s purpose of the play. One of the intentions of the play is to depict an Americans attempt of rebuilding their life post depression and World War II. His experience as a known homosexual in an era and culture unfriendly to homosexuality also informed his work. William’s most memorable characters, many of them female, contain recognizable elements of their author. His vulgar, irresponsible male characters, such as Stanley Kowalski, were likely modelled on Williams’s own father and on other males who tormented him during his childhood. In Streetcar, Williams challenged the values and attitudes of society in the portrayal of a multicultural society where everyone is equal, in regards to their race and culture.
“…you’ve got to realize that Blanche and I grew up in very different circumstances than you did”
Although the playwright has shown that racial class doesn’t matter, it is obvious that social stature still does. The rich and the poor are still separated. Since Blanche and Stella were raised in Belle Reve they subconsciously believe they are superior to ‘commoners’ like Stanley.
The central themes of this play are fantasy and illusion, cruelty, the primitive and the primal, loneliness and as the title of the book suggests, desire. Scene seven, the scene which we chose to perform, discusses the theme of cruelty, on Stanley’s behalf, loneliness from Stella and fantasy and illusion from Blanche. The only unforgivable crime, according to Blanche, is deliberate cruelty. In this scene Stanley attempts to ‘reveal’ Blanche as the low life prostitute she has become to Stella, hopefully convincing her to ‘side’ with him. He does this by being self-righteous, arrogant and demanding. Blanche however, oblivious of Stanley’s knowledge of her past, is in the bath once again ‘cooling’ herself off, singing ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ the popular 1940s ballad summarizes Blanche’s situation with regard to Mitch. She is in a state of pure oblivion that adds to her fantasy world.
Williams juxtaposes Blanche’s merry rendition of this song with Stanley’s malicious revelations about her character, creating a situation of tense dramatic irony as Blanche sings about a future that will never come true. The song describes the fanciful way one perceives the world while in love, but it also foreshadows the fact that Mitch falls out of love with Blanche after his illusions about her have been destroyed. In turn Stella feels lonely because she is isolated. She is torn between the man she loves and her sister.
A Streetcar Named Desire written by playwright Tennessee Williams is a play both naturalistic but poetically symbolic as it is written in the theatre styles of expressionism and naturalism. In performing a scripted piece it is imperative to learn of the text’s historical and authors context to fully realise and understand the development of characters, themes and ideas.