Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh as Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”
The play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is an American classic. This post will suggest the topics of emotional insight Tennessee Williams may be looking into in “Streetcar.” (Note: Justly famous as the film version is, it is important to be aware that the movie changes things drastically from Williams’ script.)
Blanche DuBois is an iconic character of the American stage. Here’s her first line:
Let’s examine this very interesting line. We begin with what’s immediately on the surface. Blanche has just travelled a road via two streetcars named Desire and Cemeteries, arriving at Elysian Fields. Per about.com:
The Elysian Fields or Elysium refer to a beautiful meadow in Homer where the favored of Zeus enjoy perfect happiness. By the time of Vergil (Virgil), the Elysian Fields had been located in the Underworld as the home of the dead who were judged worthy. In the Aeneid, those blessed dead compose poetry, sing, dance, and tend to their chariots. Aeneas talks to Anchises in the Elysian Fields in Book VI of the Aeneid.
Blanche has travelled a path of life (desire), past death (cemeteries), to heaven (Elysian Fields).
So far so good. But what does this tell us about the subjects of emotional insight into which Williams is looking?
There are many classical myths in which characters visit the underworld. And in Dante’s Divine Comedy, considered one of the world’s greatest works of art, the protagonist visits Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.
“Streetcar” is in this tradition. She is visiting Heaven – travelling through it, in the tradition of the classic myths. Indeed, she leaves it at the play’s end. She’s thrown out.
Here’s my observation: it appears to me that the characters living in Elysian Fields – Stella, Stanley, and their friends – are happy – actually happy, as one presumably is in heaven. Blanche is still in the condition of pre-happiness (or, in her case, unhappiness) that is the condition of almost all of us living on earth.
So in this play Williams presents enormous emotional insights into the nature of happiness and unhappiness.
Take a look at how this is can be seen in Scene One:
[Two men come round the comer, Stanley Kowalski and Mitch. They are about twenty-eight or thirty years old, roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes. Stanley carries his bowling jacket and a red-stained package from a butcher’s.]
Stanley [to Mitch]: Well, what did he say?
Mitch: He said he’d give us even money.
Stanley: Naw! We gotta have oddsl[They stop at the foot of the steps.]
Stanley [bellowing]: Hey, there! Stella, Baby![Stella comes out on the first-floor landing, a gentle young woman, about twenty-five, and of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s.]
Stella [mildly]: Don’t holler at me like that. Hi, Mitch.
Stanley: Meat![He heaves the package at her. She cries out in protest but manages to catch it: then she laughs breathlessly. Her husband and his companion have already started back around the corner.]
Stella [calling after him]: Stanley! Where are you going?
Stella: Can I come watch?
Stanley: Come on. [He goes out.]
Stella: Be over soon.
The happiness of Stanley and Stella in their marriage is palpable. By contrast:
[…Blanche comes around the corner, carrying a valise. She looks at a slip of paper, then at the building, then again at the slip and again at the building. Her expression is one of shocked disbelief. Her appearance is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and ear-rings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district. She is about five years older than Stella. Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.]
Eunice [finally]: What’s the matter, honey? Are you lost?
Blanche [with faintly hysterical humour]: They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at -Elysian Fields!
Eunice: That’s where you are now.
Blanche: At Elysian Fields?
Eunice: This here is Elysian Fields.
Blanche: They mustn’ t have – understood – what number I wanted …
Eunice: What number you lookin’ for?[Blanche wearily refers to the slip of paper.]
Blanche: Six thirty-two.
Eunice: You don’t have to look no further.
Blanche [uncomprehendingly]: I’m looking for my sister Stella DuBois. I mean – Mrs Stanley Kowalski.
Eunice: That’s the party. – You just did miss her, though.
Blanche: This – can this be – her home?
Eunice: She’s got the downstairs here and I got the up.[…..]
[Blanche sits in a chair very stiffly with her shoulders slightly hunched and her legs pressed close together and her hands tightly clutching her purse as if she were quite cold. After a while the blind look goes out of her eyes and she begins to look slowly around. A cat screeches. She catches her breath with a startled gesture. Suddenly she notices something in a half-opened closet. She springs up and crosses to it, and removes a whisky bottle. She pours a half tumbler of whisky and tosses it down. She carefully replaces the bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink. Then she resumes her seat in front of the table.]
Blanche [faintly to herself]: I’ve got to keep hold of myself![Stella comes quickly around the corner of the building and and runs to the door of the downstairs flat.]
Stella [calling out joyfully]: Blanche![For a moment they stare at each other. Then Blanche springs up and runs to her with a wild cry.]
Blanche: Stella, oh, Stella, Stella! Stella for Star![She begins to speak with feverish vivacity as if she feared for . either of them to stop and think. They catch each other in a spasmodic embrace.]
Blanche: Now, then, let me look at you. But don’t you look at me, Stella, no, no, no, not till later, not till I’ve bathed and rested! And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare! [Stella laughs and complies.] Come back here now! Oh, my baby ! Stella! Stella for Star! [She embraces her again.] I thought you would never come back to this horrible place! What am I saying! I didn’t mean to say that. I meant to be nice about it and say – Oh, what a convenient location and such – Ha-a-ha! Precious lamb! You haven’t said a word to me.
Blanche doesn’t recognize her sister’s happiness when she sees it. She is in Elysian Fields, but not of it. She doesn’t share in her sister’s happiness – instead, she tries to talk her sister into leaving it behind. She asks Stella:
Blanche: No, now seriously, putting joking aside. Why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you write me, honey, why didn’t you let me know?
Stella [carefully, pouring herself a drink]: Tell you what, Blanche?
Blanche: Why, that you had to live in these conditions!
Blanche doesn’t know happiness when it’s in front of her. Isn’t this the case for many of us?
The appreciation of Williams’ work goes far beyond these merely intellectual observations, and requires a use of the reader’s emotional ability. Do you feel what Blanche is feeling?