Note: This article has been updated and expanded in my essay collection The Cheese Toast Project, available in print from online bookstores, and in print and Kindle at Amazon.
A Streetcar Named Desire is heralded as one of the greatest theatrical works of the twentieth century and is one of the best known and most performed works by Tennessee Williams. It sets up a classic confrontation, the flamboyant yet fragile Blanche DuBois versus the menacing and unpredictable Stanley Kowalski. The tension begins the moment Blanche enters the household and builds to it’s shattering climax with Blanche and Stanley’s final confrontation. The moment Blanche meets her brother-in-law, his fuse is lit, and the question becomes how long it will be before Stanley explodes. Caught between them is the hapless Stella, who tries her best to mediate between two very demanding antagonists without much success. The play also features a decisive shift in power as the first half largely belongs to Blanche, while the second part is clearly dominated by Stanley. While I have seen this play performed recently, this article is not intended as a review of a specific performance, rather an analysis of the play as a whole.
At its heart, Streetcar is a thinly veiled metaphor for the Civil War and Reconstruction. The generation of Southern writers who included Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mitchell and William Faulkner were the children and grandchildren of Confederate veterans, and no doubt grew up hearing horror stories of Northern aggression and the noble Southern gentry who made a valiant but ultimately doomed stand in the face of it. Stanley is the perfect stand-in for the unrefined, egalitarian North with its melting pot willing to assimilate just about anyone, while Blanche represents the genteel and pure-bred South, which existed more in myth than actuality. Everything about Blanche is phony, as was the myth of noble Southern gentry whose fortunes were built on the backs of the slaves and poor whites they exploited. It speaks to Williams’ skill as a playwright that neither character emerges as the hero of the piece. Blanche is portrayed as delusional and elitist, while Stanley is brutish and violent. Stella comes across as the tortured heroine, caught between the empty myth of the “old South” and the harsh reality of the modern industrial North now in control of the South’s destiny. That the play takes place in New Orleans, perhaps the most eclectic of old Southern cities, merely enhances the dichotomy of the two extremes.
In many respects, Stella and Blanche are two sides of the same coin, the only difference being that Stella has made compromises Blanche is unwilling or incapable of making. Stella seems the more realistic of the two sisters, seeing the future as grim but manageable with the right attitude, whereas Blanche is unwilling to accept anything but her version of reality. Ironically, it’s Blanche who has been treated to the harshest dose of reality, early on losing her husband to suicide, then having to care for the aging members of her family while watching the family’s fortunes evaporate due to mismanagement. Blanche’s delusions are rooted in the naive hope that a protector will arise to return her to the gentility she remembers from her youth, whereas Stella’s delusions are rooted in her acceptance of the notion that her fortunes are bound to those of her husband. Everything will be fine as long as she does what Stanley tells her. Until Blanche shows up calling into question the relationship Stella has with Stanley, it never occurs to Stella that anything’s wrong with her marriage. Blanche is the one to see how controlling Stanley can be and perhaps Blanche’s greatest frustration comes from being unable to convince Stella how oppressive this relationship may become.
The challenge of Streetcar is that there’s no one within the context of the story that the audience can champion. Blanche is self-centered and delusional, while Stanley is a narcissist, already showing signs of becoming an abusive spouse. Stella simply floats between the two, not knowing for certain which of the powerful presences she should placate. With the exception of Mitch, none of Stanley’s friends rise above the level of caricature, and the women surrounding Stella do little more than encourage her to stick by her violent and aggressive spouse. For her part, Stella transforms Stanley into her rugged protector, just as Blanche attempts to transform Mitch into the type of gallant Southern gentleman she thinks will save her. Neither is successful, but at least Stella is able to convince herself that Stanley’s failings are more a result of his situation rather than genuine character flaws. The reality is, Stanley needs Stella, and Stella needs Stanley, regardless of how unhealthy their symbiotic relationship may be in the long-run. Stella realizes, though, that as long as she remains within the boundaries set for her by her husband, things will work out for her, while Blanche is determined to push those boundaries, much to her detriment.
In all the productions I’ve seen, Stanley rarely comes across as likable. While he does have humorous moments, there’s a strong sense that the audience is laughing at his oafish ways rather than with him. The turning point comes when he strikes Stella. This is both the point at which Blanche is shown the dark side of Stella’s relationship with Stanley, and when the audience realizes how out of control Stanley can become when his authority is challenged. Obviously, we’re not seeing Stanley at his best, and Blanche certainly brings out the worst in him, but the violence is there to be mined. He didn’t suddenly turn into an arrogant jerk just because his sister-in-law paid a visit. Stella mentions that Stanley does not give her a regular allowance and generally handles all the bills, both classic traits of a spouse who contrives to make his partner totally dependent upon him. It’s clear from his first appearance in the play that he’s firmly in charge in his household. Somehow, though, Stella does not seem to mind, instead relinquishing all her autonomy. Like Blanche, she wants someone strong on whom she can depend to support her and make all the decisions, and Stanley is all too willing to fulfill this role. It’s entirely likely that their life together has been reasonably pleasant before Blanche shows up with the first real challenge to Stanley, and he doesn’t handle it well. Whether or not Blanche’s reemergence in Stella’s life will have any long-term impact is unknown, but given how she reacts to having Blanche around, it’s likely that Stella is ultimately glad her sister leaves at the end, regardless of how that comes about.
Much discussion has centered around Stanley and Blanche’s final showdown near the end of the play, and in many of the productions I’ve seen, it’s strongly implied, if not outright depicted that he rapes her. This seems largely dependent upon how the director and cast choose to interpret the scene, though whether or not Stanley actually forces himself on Blanche, it’s fairly clear that she does not submit to him out of a sense of mutual desire. By this point in the play, most of Blanche’s delusions have been shattered, and one could argue that Mitch’s rejection of her has as much, if not more impact on her mental state than anything Stanley does. The balance of power has shifted, and the last safe harbor Blanche was counting on, being with her sister, has not provided her with the solace she needed. Surrendering to Stanley is the final indignity, and a case could be made that Blanche has already gone off the deep end by this point, so nothing Stanley does can have much more of a detrimental effect on her. Stanley has stripped Blanche of all her pretensions, and thus destroyed the illusion which was the basis of her self image. She submits because she has nothing left to lose.
It is important to note, however, that even though Blanche seems defeated at the end, she does not appear to have completely abandoned the delusions she’s used to bolster her self-esteem throughout. Her final line, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers” sounds suspiciously like she believes the person to whom it’s said is genuinely doing her a favor. One can imagine Blanche convincing herself that the convalescent home where she’s being taken is some elegant chalet arranged for her by a mysterious benefactor, and once she’s had time to rest and recuperate, she may well be able to fool the staff into thinking she’s safe to release, allowing her to once again return to the belief that she’s in control. I strongly suspect the Kowalskis haven’t heard the last of Blanche DuBois.