Themes in the play Essay
Themes in the play
How do you respond to the view that Williams’ uses both music and stage directions to create an appropriate atmosphere and to reinforce his major themes in the play? Scene Ten of Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ can be seen as the climax of the play, as many of the recurring motifs that are apparent throughout the performance lead to the rape in this scene. The ‘blue piano’1 is music which according to the playwright ‘expresses the spirit of what goes on’2 in the area of New Orleans in which the play is set.
However, it is clear that ‘what goes on’3 in the street is not necessarily an atmosphere that many musicians would wish to portray – there are frequent scenes of violence and criminal offence in the area, which Blanche and many members of the audience will not be used to. The tune is also heard when Blanche remembers her late husband, who suffered a premature death which she feels responsible for. The ‘blue piano’4 music can therefore be associated with chaos and misery for Blanche, and so when it ‘begins to drum up louder’5 in the scene, it can be seen to foreshadow the nightmarish situation that the character is about to be forced into.
Although the ‘blue piano’6 music is frequently heard throughout the play, Scene Ten also includes another piece of music that adds drama and tension: ‘hot trumpet and drums’7 are played just prior to when Stanley rapes Blanche, and as this ‘act’ is not seen by and audience, the passion and sexuality of the music informs them of the terrible incident about to take place. This music is exclusive to the scene, along with a few other motifs, to set it apart from the rest of the play. After Blanche has been deserted by everyone, including the phone operator (‘No wait!…
Hold on, please! ‘8), Williams’ incorporates a squalid event which forms a parallel to the main incident between Stanley and Blanche. In the street behind the Kowalski apartment, ‘a prostitute has rolled a drunkard’9: this corresponds to Blanche – with her promiscuous past (‘Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers’10) – attempting to charm Stanley – a character who is often drunk in the play (‘he has had a few drinks on the way’11). However, the scene soon turns ugly when the ‘drunkard’12 takes control over the woman, and ‘there is a struggle’13.
This foreshadows the struggle between Blanche and Stanley, but as Blanche has been isolated in her own microcosm, and has become frail and weak in the time that she has spent with her sister, it is evident that she will be unable to win the battle. The inclusion of these vulnerable and degenerate people also emphasizes Blanche’s physical, as well as emotional, vulnerability. Another technique that is not used previous to this scene is the bold visualisation of Blanche’s terror and descent into madness.
Williams requests that ‘lurid reflections’14 and ‘menacing’15 ‘shadows’16 appear on the walls around the character to show her confusion and fragility, as she is living in fear of everything that surrounds her. A critic has claimed that Blanche ‘clings with desperate tenacity’17 as she has nothing else in her life, so when the shadows around her begin to ‘move sinuously as flames’18 the audience feel compassion for her, as she has desperately tried to hold onto her past, but her attempts to resurrect Southern customs have been destroyed.
The fire imagery in this quotation can also reinforce the idea that Stanley is a threat to Blanche – his destructivity, determination and passion, all qualities that can be represented by ‘flames’19, will lead to Blanche’s defeat. Williams’ also includes the sounds of ‘inhuman voices like cries in a jungle’20 in his stage directions to accentuate the raw primitiveness of the scene – Stanley’s primal instincts become so strong that he commits an act that could only be acceptable in an animal world, and the jungle calls create the right atmosphere to forewarn the audience of Blanche’s rape.
In addition to the previous approaches that Williams took to the scene, the playwright also included definitive evidence that this scene is unlike any other in the play: the complete role reversal of Stanley and Blanche. In Scene Two of the ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Blanche emerges from the bathroom in a ‘red satin robe’21, and is acting flirtatiously and evocatively around Stanley, but he refuses to comply, informing her that he doesn’t ‘go in for that stuff’22.
In Scene Ten, however, it is Stanley who is dressed in ‘brilliant silk pyjamas’23 and is teasing Blanche, who is now wearing what Stanley described as a ‘worn-out Mardi Gras outfit’24. Earlier in the play, the relationship that the brother- and sister-in-law shared could have been described as equal: they both had the ability to see through each other (Blanche with her knowledge that Stanley would continue to domestically abuse Stella, and Stanley who had ‘been on to’25 Blanche’s lies since he first met her).
However, Stanley’s boldly aggressive stage directions, such as ‘slamming the door’26, show that he is the alpha-male, and is in control. This affiliation could be compared to the relationship between the Northern and Southern states of America: before the American Civil War, they were seemingly equal, but after the defeat of the South, it became evident that the North was to stay in control. Ultimately, the South could not survive and prosper without the help of the more successful Northern states.
As is shown in the previous point, the battle between Stanley and Blanche can be compared to the North-South divide in the United States of America at the time, one of Williams’ major themes in the play. This is illustrated not only in their general characters, but also in more specific stage directions. Subsequent to Blanche’s desperate attempt to telephone her ‘friend’ Shep Huntleigh, she leaves the phone off the hook, so Stanley ‘crosses to it deliberately’27.
This purposeful and determined nature is mirrored in the North of America’s forward-thinking ways; in contrast, Blanche simply ‘waits anxiously’28, similar to how the Southern states were refusing to adapt to a more modern lifestyle, choosing instead to keep their traditional customs and wait for modern life to regress. Another of the playwright’s key themes in the production is violence. Critic Joanne Woolway stated that ‘violence in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is fraught with sexual passion’29, and therefore it is to be expected that the rape scene be the epitome of this theme.
Williams’ stage directions show Stanley’s aggressiveness throughout the play, but in this scene the more specific instruction of ‘biting his tongue’30 infers a snake-like slyness. This detail can also be seen to link Stanley to Satan, who transformed into a serpent and encouraged Eve to commit the original sin in the Bible’s book of Genesis. It can therefore be seen to foreshadow the sin that Stanley commits and forces Blanche to be a part of. This aggressive nature is mirrored in each of his actions, such as when ‘he rips the sack off a quart-beer bottle’31.
Similar to the previous quotation, this stage direction has an underlying reference to his destruction of Blanche: he is tearing away the beer’s packaging just like her tore away Blanche’s fai?? ade of lies. It is clear to the audience that her secrets have been revealed from the fact that her suitcase ‘hangs open’32 at the beginning of Scene Ten, as in previous scenes Blanche refused to let Stanley search through her possessions, presumably because she wanted her past mistakes to stay hidden.
The fact that Stanley has so brutally dug into Blanche’s past is an indication that nothing is ‘off-limits’ for him, and so to ‘interfere’33 with his sister-in-law would not seem, to him, an immoral act. Others ways in which Williams foreshadows the rape that takes place are by linking this scene to previous ones in the play. The ‘poker scene’ can be regarded as one of the most climactic scenes early on in the play, as it is one of the most eventful: Stanley is ‘drunk – drunk – animal thing, you! ’34 and lashes out at his wife.
Blanche ‘shrilly’35 overreacts to this abuse, which is seemingly not uncommon in the area, and the evening ends in chaos. By including this earlier evidence of Stanley’s aggressive behaviour when drunk, Williams has subtly informed the audience that the scene will turn violent when Stanley enters the house, having ‘had a few drinks on the way’36. This evidence, as well as the fact that Stanley closes the door to keep what happens between the two of them private, sets up the atmosphere on the stage for the rape scene.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 9 July 2017
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