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Blanche And Stella Analysis In Streetcar Named Desire English Literature Essay

Tennessee Williams was America´s most controversial playwright. He was marked by his troubled private life and was constantly struggling with his own self-doubts. Nevertheless he was the dramatist, who produced some of the most compelling works for the American theatre. In 1947 Tennessee Williams set new standards for American drama with his masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. The play opened on December 3, 1947, and was received with great acclaim. Neither the theatre audience at the premiere evening, nor the audiences at the other 844 performances, which the play gave on Broadway, were disappointed and made A Streetcar Named Desire Williams´ second success on Broadway after his triumph with The Glass Menagerie. [1] 

Down to the present day A Streetcar Named Desire has not lost its enormous fame and fascination. A reason for the perpetual popularity of the play is probably the fact that Williams is the only American playwright, who is able to analyze “women with such subtlety and compassion” [2] . Hence, critics such as Felicia Hardison Londré denote Tennessee Williams´ A Streetcar Named Desire also as “a lyrical drama about the decline and fall of Blanche DuBois” [3] . With this statement Londré emphasizes that both, the character as well as the inner development of Blanche Dubois, are the focus of attention in Williams´ play. However, in my way of thinking, it is not only crucial to examine the Blanche´s character in detail, but also to study the character of the play´s second female protagonist Stella, Blanche´s sister, more closely.

Hence, the aim of this seminar paper is to compare and contrast the characters of the two sisters. At the beginning of the paper the author´s biographical context and the bibliographical history of A Streetcar Named Desire are discussed. In order to lay the foundations for a detailed characterization of the two female protagonists, chapter two contains a brief summary of the play´s plot, focussing on the internal developments of Blanche and Stella. Afterwards, a detailed analysis of Blanche´s and Stella´s character follows. Finally, the most important findings are briefly summed up in the conclusion.

2. Tennessee Williams and his masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire

In order to be able to fully grasp the meaning of Tennessee Williams celebrated play A Streetcar Named Desire, it is absolutely necessary to take the author´s biographical context as well as the work´s bibliographical history into account.

Biographical context

Like in several of his other plays, also the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire was strongly influenced by Williams´ own biographical background. Tennessee Williams himself stated once that A Streetcar Named Desire was his favourite play since it “said everything I had to say” [4] .

Williams never concealed that his works reflect his own history and even welcomed comparisons between his own life and the characters in A Streetcar Named Desire. In a controversial interview with Robert Jennings he explicitly compared himself with his character Blanche DuBois: “I can completely identify with Blanche […] we are both hysterics.” Many critics, such as Nancy Tischler, Roger Asselineau, or Kenneth Holditch, asserted that there are several other links between Blanche and Williams. In a letter to his agent Audrey Wood he wrote the following sentence, which again stresses his strong identification with the dramatis personae of his play: “I was and still am Blanche […] [but] I have a Stanley in me, too.” [5] Nevertheless, the connections between Blanche and Tennessee Williams are not always uncomplicated.

In contrast to Tischler, Asselineau and Holditsch, other critics regard the relationship between Blanche and Stanley as a reflection of the contours of William´s life. They claim that Blanche and Stanley represent divisions of Williams´ own complex life and personality. Yet studies conducted by John Clum, Mark Lilly and David Savran arrive at another conclusion. All three see Blanche and Stanley as a projection of Tennessee Williams´ homoerotic desires. Clum, for instance, says that the actions of his heterosexual female character Blanche hide a homosexual subtext. [6] 

Bibliographical history

Similar to other of Williams´ plays the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire evolved over several years. [7] Tennessee Williams drew, for instance, much of his inspiration from his life in the French Quarter of New Orleans. During his time in New Orleans he lived on Royal Street. Two streetcars where running down the street. One of the two streetcars was named Desire. [8] Accordingly the title of Williams´ play is among other things an illusion to this particular streetcar.

In the early 1940s he outlined the story line as well as his idea for a film version in a letter to his agent Audrey Wood. In this first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire, the play was a one-act drama. [9] The story line was mainly based upon a scene which he had written earlier.

“The plot was murky, but I seem to see a woman sitting in a chair, waiting in vain for something. Maybe love. Moon rays were streaming through the window and that suggested lunacy. I wrote the scene and titled it 'Blache´s Chair in the Moon'.” [10] 

In the end, Tennessee Williams had written twelve different drafts for A Streetcar Named Desire. Each of his drafts had a different title, such as The Poker Night or The Moth, and was first set in Chicago, then in Atlanta and finally in New Orleans.

Due to the influence of Elia Kazan, an influential Greek-American director, who staged the play and directed the film version of A Streetcar named Desire, Williams revised his work several times through and after its production, which had a considerable effect on the script of A Streetcar Named Desire. By changing the characters´ nationality as well as their “conception and motivation” he transformed the play from “a romance to a tragedy”. While writing, Williams had to grapple two major problems: firstly, the relationship between Blanche and Stanley, and secondly, the varying degrees and onset of Blache´s madness. [11] 

Furthermore, four early one-act plays, which were written around 1945, had an impact on A Streetcar named Desire. The first one of these plays is “This Property is Condemned”, a play focusing on a young girl´s desires to be like her dead sister, who was a prostitute. The second play, entitled “Portrait of a Madonna”, chronicles the story of an old maid sent to an asylum after hallucinating. In contrast to the first two plays, “The Lady of Larkspur Lotion” focuses on a faded southern belle, who had become a prostitute. Moreover, parallels can also be found in “Hello from Bertha”, a play dealing with a dying prostitute begging her ex-lover to rescue her.

In addition to the numerous different drafts of A Streetcar Named Desire, several different editions of the play have been printed up to the present day. For instance, there are substantial differences between the reading and the acting editions. Some differences can also be identified between the American and the English version. In the American version, for instance, the homosexuality of Blanche´s husband was censored. Another difference is the structure of the play. In the British edition the play is divided into three acts, whereas the play consists of eleven successive scenes in other editions. [12] 

The roles of Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski in the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire

In order to lay the foundations for the characterization of Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski, I would like to give a brief summary of the contents of Tennessee Williams´ play. Since the aim of this paper is to compare and contrast the characters of the two female protagonists, special attention has hereby been paid to the internal development of Blanche and Stella.

In scene one Blanche, a faded southern belle, arrives at the home of her younger sister Stella in a fairly run-down district of New Orleans. She is shocked about the circumstances in which Stella and her husband live and makes no secret of her disapproval. After a warm reunion of the two sisters, Blanche explains that she has taken time out from school, where she is teaching English, because of her upset mental state. Later she further admits that she has lost 'Belle Reve', their family estate in Mississippi. Although Belle Reve slipped through Blanche´s fingers, she reproaches Stella for not returning to her home to help her with the troubles. When Stanley returns with his friends from the bowling alley, he accepts Blanche´s presence; however, the atmosphere between Blanche and Stanley is tense from the beginning.

While Blanche is bathing the next day, Stella tells Stanley about the loss of Belle Reve. He immediately suspects Blanche of having swindled them about the reasons for the loss of the family estate. As a result of Stanley´s mistrust the relationship between Stanley and Blanche becomes more problematic. The situation even becomes worse when Stanley starts inquiring Blanche about the circumstances for the loss of Belle Reve and by it he discovers a bundle of old love letters, which reveal Blanche´s marriage to a young man, who finally died. Also Stanley discloses a secret and tells Blanche about Stella´s pregnancy.

In the next scene Stanley and his friends are playing poker, when Blanche and Stella return from an evening out together. One of them, Mitch, is very politely to Blanche and pays her compliments. Also Blanche notices that he is “superior to the others” [13] . In contrast to Mitch, Stanley, who has had already one too many, is not delighted about the appearance of the two women. The situation gets out of hand and Stanley beats pregnant wife. Blanche protectively rushes Stella upstairs, but Stanley begs his wife to return to him. In the end Stella, who is somehow attracted by his animal behaviour, forgives her husband and spends the night with him.

As scene four opens, it is the following morning and Stella and Blanche are having a private discussion about Stanley. Blanche can obviously not understand why Stella was “insane enough to come back in here after what [had] happened” [14] and tries to persuade her sister to leave him. She tells her of a millionaire, a former admirer of hers, who surely would give them money to start a new life. Yet Stella makes clear that she is not willing to leave her husband and embraces Stanley passionately in front of Blanche, when he sees him come in, to demonstrate her loyalty to him. However, both women do not know that Stanley overheard a good deal of what they said before.

Over the course of the summer (scene five and six) it becomes clear that Blanche and Mitch have a deep affection for each other. Blanche event entrusts him with details about her brief marriage, which was overshadowed by her husband´s homosexuality and his suicide after she had discovered him in bed with another man. Meanwhile, Stanley makes inquiries about Blanche´s past and unmasks her distinguished behaviour as hypocrisy. He learns about her numerous one night stands and her affair with a seventeen-year-old boy, which led to her dismissal.

Scene seven takes place at Blanche´s Birthday. Stanley, who is craving to get rid of his sister-in-law, passes the gathered information on to Mitch, who does not longer wish to marry her since she is not “clean enough to bring in the house with [his] mother” [15] . Unlike Mitch, Stella is not impressed by her husband´s story. At the beginning she is denying his reproaches but, as the list lengthens, she defends her sister by referring to her tragic marriage. The mood at Blanche´s birthday dinner (scene eight) is tense and miserable, because Mitch does not show up. The situation reaches its climax when Stanley presents Blanche with a bus ticket back to Laurel. Blanche is insulted and rushes out. At this moment Stella feels her first labour pains and requests to be taken to hospital.

Later the same evening (scene nine), Mitch drops by to confront Blanche with the rumours of her past. Finally, she admits her failures but immediately justifies her behaviour by explaining that her loneliness after her husband´s death forced her to seek physical affection. After her confession Mitch, who is drunk, tries to rape her, but Blanche manages to kick him out of the apartment.

In the subsequent scene Stanley returns fairly cheerful, but drunk, from hospital where Stella is still in labour. At home, he meets Blanche, who is drunk too. Her claim, that she has received a telegram from an oil magnate inviting her on a cruise, is her last attempt to escape into her world of illusions. First Stanley takes the situation with humour until she lies to him about what has happened between her and Mitch. Stanley becomes aggressive and rapes her. This act of violence results in Blanche´s absolute nervous breakdown. Although Blanche informs Stella that her husband has committed a crime, she decides not to leave him since she “couldn´t believe her story and go on living with Stanley” [16] . At Stanley´s request Blanche is admitted to a mental hospital some weeks later (scene eleven). The fact that she believes until the end that she is going on holiday with an admirer (who is actually the doctor) again emphasizes her bad mental condition. Even though Stella is not completely convinced that it was the right decision to admit her sister to a mental home, she makes no attempt to prevent it.

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