Theme of Tennessee Williams’ plays Essay
Theme of Tennessee Williams’ plays
A Streetcar Named Desire conforms to the expectation that a major theme of Williams’ plays is that of human sexuality. Various aspects of human sexuality are explored through the diversity and complexity of the characters. Whilst Stanley Kowalski epitomises masculinity through his primal strength and power, and the increasingly fragile Blanche DuBois attempts to cling to the feminine role of the Southern Belle, these are only aspects of their characters. The fact that their relationship is one of conflict, is representative of their worldviews. However, to reduce A Streetcar Named Desire to the level of mere ‘battle of the sexes’ would be too simplistic and does the play an injustice by choosing to ignore its complexities.
Superficially, at least, Blanche DuBois conforms to prevailing concepts of gender wherein she adopts characteristics that are seen to epitomise femininity. Such traits are conceived as constituting feminine behaviour, and include characteristics such as passivity, acquiescence and emotionality. Whilst these traits are certainly evident in Blanche DuBois, she is, of course, a far more complex character than such simplification would first suggest and, therefore, cannot be so easily labeled. It would be perhaps more accurate to consider Blanche in light of Judith Butler’s suggestion that “gender is something that we ‘do’ “(Selden, 116).
This concept more accurately encapsulates the sense that Blanche chooses to adopt a role of femininity, effectively playing a part by conforming to a stereotypical role, in this case, that of the Southern Belle. The adoption of this role provides Blanche with a relatively stable sense of identity, or at least an aspect of identity, necessary for her own self-preservation. As with Amanda Wingfield, in The Glass Menagerie, Blanche DuBois seems to struggle in a changing world and by adopting an aspect of identity that is associated with the past, she is able to find at least temporary comfort.
From our earliest encounter with Blanche, we are made quickly aware of her preoccupation with ‘appearance’. Initially this focuses on the appearance of Stella’s home, “this horrible place” (120), which compares so negatively when contrasted with the ancestral home of Belle Reve. However, Blanche’s real preoccupation soon becomes evident as she chides Stella for failing to say a word about her appearance (122):
You see I still have that awful vanity about my looks even now that my looks are slipping! (123).
The fact that she ‘laughs nervously’ whilst looking to Stella for ‘reassurance’ indicates Blanche’s insecurity. All that has been familiar in Blanche’s world has changed, and now that age is changing her personal appearance, her insecurities are heightened. However, the dialogue between the sisters evokes a sense of ritual wherein Blanche seeks approval and Stella responds “dutifully” (123) suggesting that Blanche’s insecurities are deep rooted and precede the advent of age. As Stella instructs Stanley:
…admire her dress and tell her she’s looking wonderful. That’s important with Blanche. Her little weakness! (132).
This is a constant motif throughout the play and Blanche’s ‘little weakness’ reflects the fact that her sense of self-identity needs constant bolstering, especially now that her youth has passed by. It also reinforces the notion of Blanche as adopting a role and the necessity, as with any act, for an audience, preferably a sympathetic one. For Blanche an audience is necessary to enable her to perpetuate her constructed self-image. Compliments and constant reassurance are required to maintain the role she has adopted; it is therefore necessary for her ‘audience’ to constantly appreciate her ‘performance’.
When considering Blanche’s behaviour with others, we find that she is most desperate to impress her male audience, and it is at such times that she feels the need to rely heavily on her female sexuality. Indeed, the persona that she has adopted is aimed at attracting male attention rather than female sympathy. This becomes apparent through a conversation with Stella wherein Blanche describes her discussion with Stanley regarding the fate of Belle Reve:
I feel a bit shaky, but I think I handled it nicely. I laughed and treated it all as a joke, called him a little boy and laughed – and flirted! Yes – I was flirting with your husband Stella! (141).
Blanche seems unable, or at least unwilling, to disregard this persona when dealing with men. Such behaviour has become habitual, a fact that becomes increasingly obvious in her relationship with Mitch. After a date together, and despite the fact that Blanche did not enjoy the evening, she still behaves in a manner in which she believes she is obliged to do. As she explains:
I was just obeying the law of nature…
The one that says the lady must entertain the gentleman – or no dice! (175).
Blanche certainly understands how to use her sexuality, but she is not driven by her sexuality in the sense of passion and desire. Blanche wants her relationship with Mitch to work, not because she wants him per se, but because of what such an outcome would represent. The prospect of such a relationship is viewed as an escape from her present circumstances where she considers herself to be a burden. A successful relationship will give Blanche the opportunity to “rest” and “to breathe quietly again!”(171). Such choice of language clearly indicates the strain involved in continuing her charade, and goes some way to explain her reliance on alcohol for a temporary sense of escape.
Of course, in order to adopt the role of Southern Belle convincingly, illusion becomes a necessary factor. Blanche is content in the illusory world that she creates where she can attempt to regain her passing youth, becoming someone that she feels she should be. Illusion is also necessary in that it offers an escape from her sexually promiscuous past, whilst masking the truth of the past from her family and Mitch. However, Blanche seems to accept her past behaviour as inevitable considering the expectations of men:
People don’t see you – men don’t – don’t even admit your existence unless they are making love to you. And you’ve got to have your existence admitted
by someone, if you’re going to have someone’s protection (169).
The fact that Blanche equates ‘people’ with ‘men’ highlights the fact that she feels very much a part of a patriarchal society, where men obviously hold the power and make the judgments. Ironically, but not unexpectedly, such a society is hypocritical in its view of Blanche as it privately condones, indeed enables, Blanche’s sexually promiscuous behaviour whilst publicly condemning it. Blanche’s decisions appear to have been primarily driven by her desire for ‘protection’, whilst her upbringing and her position as a woman in a patriarchal society, nurtures a reliance on men.
In this case, the expectation is that a man will ‘rescue’ her. Of course, she experiences only varying degrees of failure in attempting to escape from the situations she finds herself in. Yet, despite this, it is still male approval that Blanche seeks. Blanche retains the hope that by becoming part of the illusion, by emulating old-fashioned values, that she will attract Mitch and therefore the ‘protected’ life of gentility and kindness that she so longs for.
I have suggested that an illusory world is a space for Blanche to relive her passing youth, and we find that in order to do so she uses darkness to reinvent herself as young and innocent. Blanche lies to Mitch about her age, telling him that Stella “is somewhat older” (150) than herself, when Blanche is in fact at least five years older than Stella. Blanche adorns the naked lightbulbs in the apartment with Chinese lanterns (150) to deflect the harsh light of truth, as it were, from the possibility of being discovered as older than she has suggested. We learn from Mitch that Blanche refuses to meet him until “after six and then it’s always some place that’s not lighted much”(203).
Blanche finds the dark ‘comforting’ (203), as she prefers to reject realism in search of ‘magic’ (204). The persona she feels is necessary to attract Mitch is also necessary for her own sake as she allows herself to feel young and unscarred again. Her habit of taking baths is symbolic in this regard. The long baths are attempts to wash away the past, whilst they also represent an attempt at some kind of spiritual cleansing wherein Blanche always announces after a bath that she feels like “a brand-new human being!”(135). Yet, the fact that she keeps returning to the bath leads to the conclusion that this illusion does not last very long.
Whereas Blanche adopts a sexual persona, Stanley, and to some extent Stella, are driven by their sexuality. Their relationship is frequently portrayed as primal and animalistic, their baby is proof of Stanley’s virility and Stella’s fertility; an affirmation of an intensely passionate relationship. This is at odds with the genteel expectations of the Old South, the world that Blanche represents. Of course, Blanche has also strayed from the values expected, however, her sexual relationships are a means to an end, she is not sexually driven and does not experience the sense of passion and desire apparent in Stella who finds it unbearable to be apart from Stanley:
I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night…
When he’s away for a week I nearly go wild! (125).
Stella has chosen a life built on a powerful sexual relationship which makes “everything else seem – unimportant”(162). With this belief she deems ‘unimportant’ the fact that Stanley beats her, she forgives him and to restate the physical bond between the two, they seem to have no need for words, instead they “come together with low animal moans”(154). Their relationship seems to epitomise life through the regenerative powers of desire and procreation, in contrast to Blanche’s sexual relationships with men as disempowering and ultimately destructive.
Stanley plays the role of the ‘Alpha’ male, evident in his need to dominate. This is apparent from the first poker game where Stanley seeks to dominate the ‘group’ of both men and women. When he is disobeyed, he reacts violently, the violence escalating as events progress. During the poker game, Blanche defies Stanley by turning on the radio; his reaction evokes images of animalistic behaviour as he is described as stalking:
…fiercely through the portieres into the bedroom. He crosses to the small white radio and snatches it off the table. With a shouted oath, he tosses the instrument out of the window (151).
When Stella admonishes him for his behaviour he physically attacks her, a forewarning of the treatment that Blanche will ultimately receive from Stanley. There is certainly a sense of inevitability in the final violence that Blanche experiences at the hands of Stanley, as he tells her, “we’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!”(215). Blanche has been a consistent threat to Stanley’s authority, especially in regard to Stella.
Stanley is the self-appointed King, (195) evidence of his sense of male dominance, a secure position that has been undermined by Blanche who is seen as adversely influencing Stella’s opinion about her husband. Stella appears to have become influenced by Blanche’s perception of Stanley as uncouth and animalistic, and this becomes apparent in the language she uses to admonish Stanley. He responds:
Don’t ever talk that way to me! ‘Pig – Polack – disgusting – vulgar – greasy!’ – Them kind of words have been on your tongue and on your sister’s tongue too much around here!”(194).
But Stella is ultimately complicit in Blanche’s destruction as she chooses Stanley over her sister, despite the fact that she is aware of the violence that Stanley is capable of. Stella chooses to believe Stanley, using illusion just as Blanche has done, because she “couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley”(217).
Another aspect of sexuality that plays a significant role, is the sexuality of Blanche’s young, dead husband. It is clear that Blanche is haunted by the discovery of his homosexuality and the resulting guilt that she feels regarding his suicide. Beyond this however, it is clear that the discovery of her husband’s sexuality caused irreparable to Blanche’s sense of identity. Stella describes Blanche’s attitude toward Allan:
I think Blanche didn’t just love him but worshipped the ground he walked on! Adored him and thought him almost too fine to be human! (190).
It is clear that Blanche was left lost and isolated by Allan’s death, and she admits that she searched for comfort by sleeping with men:
…intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with…I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another, hunting for some protection…”(205).
However, the purely sexual relationship does not offer the kindness, comfort and protection that Blanche is so anxious to find. Her pattern of behaviour becomes a vicious cycle; as Blanche becomes more and more desperate to exorcise memories of Allan, she adopts increasingly inappropriate ways of behaving thus adding to the memories that she is attempting to exorcise. Although Blanche’s ‘intimacies with strangers’ do not provide emotional fulfillment, they do provide the male attention that she craves in order bolster her sense of identity as an attractive woman. It is ironic that Blanche views the old love letters and poems that Allan wrote for her as her most precious possessions:
Everyone has something her won’t let others touch because of their – intimate nature (139).
The poems and the emotional relationship that they represent are far more intimate than the physical relationships Blanche has had with other men. The fact that Blanche has a preference for young men, conforms to her use of illusion where she seeks to recreate, to re-experience, the idealised relationship which she has so desperately longed for. Her inappropriate relationship with a seventeen year old student, the relationships with young soldiers at Belle Reve, and even in New Orleans we gain a fleeting glance of this behaviour with the ‘young man’ from the Evening Star (172), whom she kisses and reluctantly dismisses:
Run along now! It would be nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good and keep my hands off children (174).
Guilt haunts Blanche as does the “rapid, feverish polka tune, the ‘Varsouviana’ “(200), which only fades after the final gunshot has been heard. Just as Blanche’s “expression of disgust” destroyed Allan, it is Stanley’s disgust at the charade that Blanche has been playing, that ultimately destroys her. The events of scene ten, where Stanley rapes Blanche, are accompanied by the sound of “inhuman jungle noises” which rise up (215) “like cries in a jungle”(213). This parallels the primal, animalistic image that has been built of Stanley, and the expectation that he will react violently to anyone that he feels is a threat.
It has been said of Williams that his plays seek to capture “the truth of human experience”(Bigsby, 36). Indeed, A Streetcar Named Desire conforms to this view in as much as the characters are far more than stereotypes but rather complex characters that are influenced by, driven by and destroyed by aspects of human sexuality.
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire, in A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays, ed. E.Martin Browne, St. Ives, 1987.
Bigsby, C W E. Modern American Drama 1945-1990, Cambridge, 1992.
Selden, R. Contemporary Literary Theory, Prentice Hall, 1997.