The Glands Menagerie Essay
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A Streetcar Named Desire’ was written by Tennessee Williams in 1947, eliciting the most critical commentary of any of his works, as well as being highly divisive: upon its release, one reviewer defined it as the product of an “almost desperately morbid turn of mind”1; George Jean Nathan criticised the “unpleasant”2 nature of the play, calling it “‘The Glands Menagerie'”3.
Williams’ focus on realism, and the subsequent omission of clear-cut protagonists and antagonists in ‘Streetcar’, also drew glowing reviews, from the pre-eminent theatre critic Brook Atkinson, for example, who called Williams “a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough”4.
This difference in opinion does not stop at subjective criticism of the play, but even the specific genre which ‘Streetcar’ falls into.
Many assume it to be a tragedy of some type, and there is indeed much to commend this view. However, the ambiguous nature of many aspects of the play and Williams’ inclusion of alternate dramatic devices has led many to believe that ‘Streetcar’ should not be classified as a tragedy, but as a melodrama.
In any tragedy, the tragic protagonist is of vital importance: everything is centred on the protagonist, their flaw and subsequent downfall.
However, in ‘Streetcar’, there is large uncertainty as to who this tragic protagonist actually is. This equivocacy may be observed in the difference in artistic opinion between the play’s original director, Elia Kazan, and the play’s second director, Harold Clurman. Elia Kazan was a close friend of Tennessee Williams, who told him to ensure that “Blanche (had) the understanding and compassion of the audience… without creating a black-dyed villain in Stanley”5.
Indeed, from his director’s private notebook, published in 1976, it is clear that Kazan’s sympathies lie with Stanley, who he sees as defending his household against the corrupting influence of Blanche: for instance, Stanley’s seemingly crude violation of Blanche’s belongings in an attempt to find legal papers and his later physical violation of her person would have been justified in Kazan’s eyes, as the social incorrectness of Blanche’s intrusion into his domestic kingdom and subsequent undermining of his authority and values (“Well – if you’ll forgive me – he’s common!
“He acts like an animal… Stanley Kowalski – survivor of the Stone Age! “, “Don’t hang back with the brutes! “) outweighs the respective incorrectness of his retaliatory actions (“Come to think of it – maybe you wouldn’t be bad to – interfere with… “). As such, Kazan’s direction dictated that Stanley be the victim of Blanche’s actions. It was even reported that some members of the audience cheered the rape of Blanche in Kazan’s production, with critic Signi Falk noting the “waves of titillated laughter (which) swept over the audience” 6.
In direct opposition to Kazan, Clurman reallocated the role of victim to Blanche, positing that ‘Streetcar’ portrays the crushing of sensitivity (Blanche) by brute force (Stanley), therefore portraying the rape as such instead. These contradictory interpretations illustrate the crucial problem in labelling ‘Streetcar’ as a tragedy, at least in a strictly Aristotelian sense: there is no singular, defined hero or heroine, both can be interchangeably depicted as victim or antagonist.
There is even discussion as to whether Stanley and Blanche represent either. Williams himself seems to support this: “I don’t want to focus guilt or blame on any one character but to have it a tragedy of misunderstanding and insensitivity to others” 7. This has only confirmed the ambiguous nature of the play, fuelling and perpetuating the uncertainty surrounding it and taking it even further away from the Aristotelian tragic ideal.
Additionally, Aristotle dictated that tragedy should chart the demise of a great person, as he argued that their cataclysmic downfall due to hamartia would evoke higher pathos in the audience; Williams focuses instead upon the demise of people in the dregs of society, ensuring that there is no way that ‘Streetcar’ could possibly be considered to be a strictly classical tragedy. However, it is still possible to identify aspects of classical tragedy in ‘Streetcar’, which further heightens the vagueness surrounding the genre which ‘Streetcar’ finds itself in.
There is, for example, evidence of anagnorisis leading to peripateia, a tragic device which Aristotle considered to be the mark of a superior tragedy: In Scene Three, after Stanley beats Stella and realises the error of his ways, he “breaks into sobs” and telephones Eunice, who has taken Stella in, in an attempt to “talk to (his) baby”, to no avail. This is arguably Stanley’s lowest point, as Stanley has alienated Stella, leading to one of the iconic moments in American drama: Stanley’s “heaven-splitting” cry of “STELLL-AHHHHH! ” – an outburst of animal desperation.
This moment, then (if ‘Streetcar’ is considered to be a battle between Blanche and Stanley for Stella’s affections), is a victory for Blanche. However, in Scene Ten, the roles are reversed: Blanche’s telephone call for help is unsuccessful, and she is arguably at her lowest point of the play here, as Stanley shatters all her illusions and pretensions (“Not once did you pull any wool over this boy’s eyes! “), uncovering her multitude of lies, which makes Blanche face the reality of the threat Stanley poses to her (i. e. anagnorisis).
So, while it is plain that ‘Streetcar’ is by no means a classical tragedy, it does include facets of tragedy as defined by Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’. There is perhaps a more credible case for ‘Streetcar’ being a tragedy in a slightly broader sense: that is to say, encompassing the characteristics of modern domestic tragedy. Arthur Miller summed up the essence of domestic tragedy in his work “Tragedy and the Common Man”: “It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history (tragedy) and followed it to the only place it can possibly lead in our time – the heart and spirit of the average man” 8.
The conclusion of Brook Atkinson’s review of the opening night reflected this sentiment: “Out of poetic imagination and ordinary compassion (Williams) has spun a poignant and luminous story”9. Miller argued against the Aristotelian ideals concerning tragedy: where Aristotle believed tragic heroes had to be of high social standing (for reasons above stated), Miller proposed that tragic heroes could be formed out of the working classes.
Domestic tragedies of this nature became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries as a result of writers such as Miller, portraying the breakdown of a social construct, emphasising the distortion and destruction of domestic order. ‘Streetcar’ could, then, be construed as a domestic tragedy, as it portrays the demise of the social system from the old agrarian South (as represented by Blanche) and the rise of the post-war urban industrial society (as represented by Stanley).
Furthermore, ‘Streetcar’ concerns the fates of Blanche and Stanley in the main, Stanley being irrefutably lower class; although Blanche is not as straightforward to categorise according to class, at the beginning of the play, Blanche’s demise has already occurred: she has already fallen from her previously high status, having lost her estate and fortune. Therefore, although ‘Streetcar’ charts her descent into insanity, it does not show her fall from a high position in society, again rejecting the Aristotelian norm.
It therefore seems as though ‘Streetcar’ could easily be defined as a domestic tragedy, a judgement Dan Isaac agrees with: “‘Streetcar’ is a modern tragedy, and Blanche DuBois’ tragic flaw is hubris – pride of intellect and pride of sexual prowess10” If one tragic hero can be singled out, then it is possible to find their personal hamartia, and ‘Streetcar’ becomes a domestic tragedy with aspects of classical tragedy. However, one prominent feature of ‘Streetcar’ has yet to be introduced into the debate, and that is the huge emphasis on melodrama and expressionism.