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The ways in which ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams can be seen as a modern tragedy, or indeed as any tragedy is a subject of much contention. The answer lies in one’s interpretation of the characters in the context of the genre; the tragedy is made or discarded depending on whether the audience’s sympathy lies with Blanche or Stanley.
In order to explore these interpretations one must define the features of modern tragedy as opposed to the ancient Aristotelian definition.
The two share some features, such as the violation of the ‘natural order’ of social or personal relationships (i.e. Oedipus’ incestuous relationship with his mother), and the focus on a tragic hero’s fall from status, respect, and in classical tragedies from power and wealth.
However, there are also stark differences in modern tragedy where (especially in Williams’ plays) the hero is more likely to be feminine. Although this is not exclusive to modern tragedies – in Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’ the protagonist is female – it is certainly a feature.
Social issues are also treated more personally as the epic scale of civil unrest present in most Aristotelian tragedies is discarded in favor of a focus on a single family unit as a microcosm of social behaviour. As a result, the characters themselves become far more complex – a far cry from Aristotle’s theory that characters should merely serve to advance the tragic plot.
Broadly speaking then, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ certainly fits the prescriptions of a modern tragedy, not least as it contains several complex themes such as alienation, entrapment and the struggle between fantasy and reality.
Written in 1947 soon after the Great Depression and a period of prohibition when the borders between social classes were becoming more blurred, these play on the very real threats of alcoholism and social decline. Blanche’s constant drinking becomes a symptom of her alienation from society, which was in turn caused by her estrangement from her late husband, Allen Grey.
Stella asserts that Blanche “didn’t just love him but worshipped the ground he walked on” – a religious phrase that contrasts deeply with her later disgust of Grey’s homosexuality. For Williams, living as he did in the often deeply religious, homophobic south, Allen Grey’s suicide would have constituted a tragedy even when separated from the rest of the play. It certainly illustrates the close links that Williams draws between love, alienation and death; Grey’s separation from Blanche causes his death, which in turn leads to her own isolation.
This isolation is further illustrated by the metaphor of light; Blanche constantly insists that the lights be dimmed “turn that over-light off!”, and even directly likens her love for Allen Grey to a “blinding light” – it is clear that the darkness is Blanche’s alienation, her punishment for driving him to suicide. Yet light also reveals Blanche’s struggle between fantasy and reality. She cannot bear to see herself in the harsh light of day – even “screams” during the final scene when Stanley rips the covering off the lamp, completely destroying Blanche’s already splintering fantasy world. This hysterical reaction demonstrates her dependence on the delusions of grandeur and romance that she only half-believes. Blanche is trapped by her own volition; a state echoed in many other of Williams’ tragedies including ‘The Glass Menagerie’, where the character of Amanda is similarly ensnared in a more glamorous past.
The play also ascribes to another feature of modern tragedy; the focus on a very small, ordinary family unit as opposed to the monarchs in plays such as ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Hamlet’. It is clear that the clash of Stanley and Blanche is representative of a much bigger division between the old and the new America, and yet their placement in a tiny family setting emphasises their effect on the ‘ordinary American’ – Stella – who is caught in the crossfire of social differences. However merely dealing with these issues, as compelling as they are, only comprises a single aspect of the ways in which ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ can be seen as a modern tragedy. Indeed, for the play to be called a tragedy at all a defining feature must be covered, and that is the existence of a ‘tragic hero’ whose presence drives the action forward.
Therefore, our understanding of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ as a modern tragedy must to a large extent rely on whether we can interpret Blanche as Williams’ tragic heroine. She certainly bears a striking surface resemblance to the ancient tragic heroes in her evident fall from high to low, from Belle Reve to the Elysian Fields. This is made evident in her first entrance; her appearance is described as ‘incongruous’ and techniques such as the repetition of “Stella, oh Stella, Stella!” stress her hysterical inability to cope with her new surroundings.
However even this is punctuated in the stage directions with “feverish vivacity” – suggesting a desperate or false behaviour at odds with the ancient definition of the tragic hero as an essentially noble character. This is emphasised later in the scene by the first suggestion of Blanche’s alcoholism as she “rushes” to the liquor closet “panting for breath”, and corroborated as evidence of her sordid affairs at the Hotel Flamingo is revealed. Indeed Blanche herself talks about the “rattle-trap streetcar” called Desire that “brought me here”, indicating that her downfall was caused by her own “brutal desire”.
Yet if we do accept that Blanche has already completely fallen into poverty and alcoholism, then the play itself becomes the mere aftermath of a tragedy; the effect of a destroyed character upon her surroundings. Some critics would agree completely with this standpoint – indeed the director of the stage debut, Elia Kazan, portrayed Blanche as a “phony, corrupt, sick, destructive woman”ï¿½ wrecking Stanley’s home who deserved – indeed needed – to be driven out.
However, this view utterly destroys any tragic perception of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by necessitating a total support of Stanley’s actions (“This makes Stanley right!”)1 – leading to a ‘happy ending’ wherein the Kowalski’s can proceed happily with their lives. While this may have been a suitable presentation for the still largely patriarchal 1940’s, in modern productions a new outlook must be considered. It cannot be ignored that Stanley (however justifiably) incapacitates Blanche both mentally and emotionally as he destroys her refined persona – “There isn’t a goddam thing but imagination!” – until she is reduced to “inhuman cries”, constituting Blanche’s fall from sanity as the basis for a tragic fall from high to low, as opposed to any material loss.
Although it is true that Blanche is less of a hero possessing a tragic flaw than an anti-hero with a single redeeming feature – in this case her doomed relationship with Allen Grey that has fuelled her desires ever since – practically all of Blanche’s flaws can be explained (if not excused) by her tragic experiences. Her deception of Mitch is the desperation of a woman alone in a patriarchal society whose only chance of security is to attract a husband. Her alcoholism is merely a further coping mechanism, and her constant bathing an attempt to cleanse herself of her sordid affairs.
This is consolidated by her wish to be buried “into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes”, the reference to water again suggesting her desire to be purified and return to the happier days of her youth. Blanche’s tragedy is therefore not merely her fall from status, but her inability to move on from her past. As Dale Carnegie said: “One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon, instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.”2
Yet despite all this evidence providing sympathy with Blanche, Williams seems determined to keep the balance of right and wrong utterly ambiguous. For example in Scene Eight, soon after Blanche’s extremely poignant line “candles burn out in little boys’ and girls’ eyes” – a clear reference to her past with Grey – she calls Stanley a “healthy Polack”. This ignorant, racist comment distances Blanche again, and Stanley’s reply “what I am is a one hundred percent American”, would have immediately re-endeared him to the audience, especially at a time of such social integration.
It is this uncertainty as to who we should support – Blanche or Stanley – that really questions the existence of a tragic hero in ‘A Streetcar named Desire’. Even the alternative, as stated by C.W.E. Bigsby, that “the real hero of the play, therefore, is Stella, for she alone is prepared to offer the necessary comfort”3 is a flawed argument. Although Stella is the most sympathetic character, this is not synonymous with heroic as she is ultimately subdued by Stanley into forcing Blanche away; a far cry from offering her ‘the necessary comfort’. Unlike in Shakespearian tragedies such as ‘Othello’ where the enemy is clearly portrayed, Williams blurs the distinctions between right and wrong until the play more resembles the tragedies of Sophocles, which are essentially concerned with the crisis of right versus right leading to an outcome in which no-one wins.
So, although critics such as Joseph Wood Krutch state that “Tragedy must have a hero if it is not to be merely an accusation against, instead of a justification of the world in which it occurs”4 this is not necessarily true. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, along with many other Tennessee Williams’ plays such as ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is tragic not because it details the fall of a hero, but precisely because it contains no hero at all.
Modern tragedy is itself an accusation against a grey, mundane world of ordinary people, for whom the only escape is through self-delusion, alcohol, sex or madness. In this respect ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ becomes the ultimate example of modern tragedy as, after Blanche’s entire existence is shattered, the others merely resume their poker game. The entire play is built around this tragic indifference, both with the detached ending “This game is seven-card stud” and the very preface, where Williams foreshadows Blanche’s inevitable destruction with the words of Hart Crane, “And so it was that I entered the broken world.”
Williams, Tennessee. ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Pearson Education Limited 1995 (copyright Estate of the late Tennessee Williams 1947)
Bigsby, Christopher W. E. ‘Tennessee Williams: Streetcar to Glory’, Harold Bloom
Krutch, Joseph Wood. ‘The Tragic Fallacy’ 1929, in Tragedy: Vision and Form, Ed. Robert W. Corrigan, New York: Harper, 1981
Kazan, Elia. ‘Kazan on Directing’, Knopf Publishing Group, 2009 (copyright Frances Kazan)
Carnegie, Dale. ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’, Pocket Books; Revised edition, 1990
Aristotle. ‘Poetics’, Penguin Books Ltd, 1996
1 Kazan, Elia. ‘Kazan on Directing’, Knopf Publishing Group, 2009 (copyright Frances Kazan)
2 Carnegie, Dale. ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’, Pocket Books; Revised edition, 1990
3 Bigsby, Christopher W. E. ‘Tennessee Williams: Streetcar to Glory’, Harold Bloom
4 Krutch, Joseph Wood. ‘The Tragic Fallacy’ 1929 in Tragedy: Vision and Form, Ed. Robert W. Corrigan, New York: Harper, 1981
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