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Tennessee Williams Controversial Playwright English Literature Essay

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”. 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”. 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”.

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.” 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.

Bibliographical history

Similar to other of Williams´ plays the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire evolved over several years. 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. 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. 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'.”

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.

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.

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”. 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” 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”. 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”. 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.

The Characterization of Blanche DuBois

After this short summary, chapter four concentrates on the character of Blanche DuBois. In order to analyze her character thoroughly, one must not only have a look at explicit strategies of characterization, such as direct statements and thoughts by another character or Blanche herself, which specifically describe the personality of the faded Southern belle. Furthermore, one has to take devices of indirect characterization into account, because Tennessee Williams, for instance, reveals information about Blanche´s character also through her thoughts, speech, behaviour and actions along with how the other characters respond to her.

Blanche is definitely a round character since she has “a number of personality traits” and “can sustain our interest long after we have finished reading”. In the following four subchapters Blanche´s superficiality and her search for recognition, her loneliness, her inner conflict and finally her world of illusions are discussed in order to comprehend Blanche´s character and its development in the course of the play,

Her superficiality and her search for recognition

When characterizing Blanche DuBois one has to describe her outside appearance first, since she primarily defines herself by the way she looks. When she arrives at Elysian Fields in New Orleans, her first appearance is described as follows:

Her appearance is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, neck-lace 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.

With her white and elegant clothes Blanche clearly stands out from the working class people in Stella´s quarter. In contrast to Blanche, who prefers garments made of soft and flowing fabrics, the people from the working class environment were clothes made out of cheaper fabrics, such as denim. Consequently, her garments apparently show that she is not a member of this community.

Further, the symbolism of the colour white is an interesting aspect. It is a well-known fact that the colour white symbolizes purity, innocence and virginity. Besides her white dress, her name 'Blanche' is another reference to this colour. Although she tries everything to appear pure, innocent and virgin her wish is nevertheless incompatible with her lies and her sexual adventures.

As I already pointed out at the beginning, Blanche defines herself by the way she looks. Hence, one can say that she is a superficial and self-regarding person. She is totally dependent on the recognition of others and therefore constantly fishing for compliments as the following extract from scene two shows:

BLANCHE: Oh, in my youth I exited some admiration. But look at me now! [She smiles at him radiantly.] Would you think it is possible that I was once considered to be – attractive?

STANLEY: Your looks are okay.

BLANCHE: I was fishing for a compliment, Stanley.

Although it is primarily essential for her to catch the attention of men, she further seeks her sister´s admiration in order to satisfy her immense desire for recognition. This fact becomes, for instance, obvious in scene three when Stella and Blanche return from an evening out together and Blanche tidies up her make-up before entering the flat:

BLANCHE: How do I look?

STELLA: Lovely, Blanche.

BLANCHE: I feel so hot and frazzled. Wait till I powder before you open the door. Do I look done in?

STELLA: Why no. You are as fresh as a daisy.

Even though Stella pays Blanche compliments, she apparently considers her sister´s search for recognition as ridiculous. This becomes particularly obvious in the conversation between Stella and her husband in scene two, in which she calls this character trait Blanche´s “little weakness”:

STELLA: And admire her dress and tell her she´s looking wonderful. That´s important with Blanche. Her little weakness!

Nonetheless, Blanche has not only uncompromisingly high demands on her own outward appearance, but also on the people surrounding her. When she arrives at Elysian Fields and sees the flat of the Kowalski’s for the first time “her expression is one of shocked disbelief”. It is a mystery for Blanche why her sister does not has “a desire to get out of this” dreadful situation. In comparison to Stella, Blanche can neither endure living in this dilapidated flat nor spend her life with an “ape-like” man, such as Stanley. Another example, in which her critical attitude towards the outward appearance of others becomes apparently, can be identified in scene nine:

BLANCHE [to MITCH]: […] A face like a thundercloud! And such uncouth apparel! Why, you haven´t even shaved! The unforgiveable insult to a lady!

At the end of this subchapter one can definitely say that Blanche is very dependent on the reassurance of others in order to boost her own ego and to feel loveably. In addition, she can be characterized as a superficial and vain person, since she judges people mainly by their outward appearance. However, her superficiality and vanity could also be means of concealing Blanche´s loneliness, which is another central aspect of her character.

Her loneliness

Already in scene one Blanche expresses her need for companionship and simultaneously reveals her loneliness by uttering the following statement:

BLANCHE: […] I guess you´re hoping I´ll say I´ll put up at a hotel, but I´m not going to put up at a hotel. I want to be near you, got to be with somebody, I can´t be alone!

This chapter pursues two goals: firstly, to identify reasons for Blanche´s loneliness and secondly, to denote efforts to fight her loneliness.

Reasons for her loneliness

Besides her financial security, her job, her former good reputation and her youth, Blanche also lost her husband and all her relatives except for Stella. Especially the death of her beloved husband Allan contributed to the loneliness of Williams´ main character. She reproaches herself for driving her husband into suicide, because she articulated her disgust after she had caught her husband red handed with another man:

BLANCHE: […] It was because – on the dance-floor – unable to stop myself – I´d suddenly said - 'I know! I know! You disgust me …' […]

In the same scene Blanche uses the following metaphor to describe the aftermath of Allan´s suicide:

BLANCHE: […] And the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that´s stronger than this – kitchen – candle …

The Varsouviana polka, to which Blanche and her husband were dancing the last night she saw him alive, always starts playing when Blanche is recalling the incident of Allan´s suicide. The fact that she hears the polka tune with increasing frequency shows that her mental state is weakening.

Another aspect, which serves as evidence for the claim that Blanche still has not overcome her husband´s death, is the fact that she is keeping the love letters she received from him. They apparently have a high emotional value for her as the following excerpt shows:

BLANCHE: These are love-letters, yellowing with antiquity, all from one boy. [He snatches them up. She speaks fiercely.] Give those back to me! […] The touch of your hands insults them. […] Now that you´ve touched them I´ll burn them!

Despite the numerous tragic loses of beloved relatives, Blanche herself is to a certain extent responsible for her solitariness. Due to her superficiality she judges people too prematurely by their outside appearance without being interested in the person´s personality. Consequently, she can never develop true feelings for another individual. Besides the fact that she kisses a young man collecting for the Evening Star shortly before her date with Mitch, also one of her statements about her relationship to the confirmed bachelor provides evidence for this assertion. Although Blanche pretends to be in love with Stanley´s pal the following excerpt shows that she pursues another goal by hooking up with Mitch:

BLANCHE [to STELLA]: […] Yes – I want Mitch … very badly. Just think! If it happens! I can leave here and not be anyone´s problem …

Hence, Blanche´s “affection” for Mitch is closely connected to her wishes to escape the Kowalski’s household.

In my opinion, the end of Blanche´s brief marriage has destroyed her believes in true love. Ever since it has been inconceivable for her to strike up a relationship with a man she is truly in love with (maybe she is not able to fall in love anymore after her disappointing experience with Allan). Therefore, she “uses” her relationships to men to serve different needs.

Efforts to fight her loneliness

In scene nine, after Blanche has just confided the mystery of her husband´s death to Mitch, she justifies her promiscuous lifestyle with her loneliness:

BLANCHE: […] Yes, I had many intimacies with strangers. After the death of Allan – intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with.

The trauma of Allan´s death and the passing by of her relatives “compelled her to glut herself sexually, as she says, in order to forget the hovering spectre of the tragedy” . According to Gulshan Rai Kataria this pleasure helped her to escape her loneliness and concurrently alleviated her fears of being worthless. Further, her ability to please the sexual needs of other men gives her a sense of satisfaction, since she was not able to satisfy Allan´s sexual desires. In contrast to this approach of interpretation, Philip Weissman claims that her tragic marriage with Allan is one of numerous variations of Blanche´s “unresolved oedipal situation”, which culminates in “the enactment of a single impulsive relationship with her brother-in-law Stanley”. COMMENT!

However, Blanche has not only discovered sexuality as a method to fight her loneliness. Her alcohol abuse represents a further mechanism to escape this desperate situation. Right at the outset of the play in scene one, it becomes clear that she has an alcohol problem, since she quickly helps herself to a whisky first of all:

She pours a half tumbler of whisky and tosses it down. She carefully replaces he bottle and washes out the tumbler at the sink.

The fact that she rinses the glass immediately afterwards is an attempt to conceal her addiction, a behaviour which is characteristic for alcohol addicts. Moreover, the following excerpt shows that Blanche needs alcohol to be able to feel positive emotions:

BLANCHE: I want you to have a drink! You have been so anxious and solemn all evening, and so have I; we have both been anxious and solemn and now for these few last remaining moments of our lives together – I want to create – joie de vivre! […]

Consequently, this speech act supports the thesis that Blanche regards alcohol as a way to escape the problems and sorrows of her everyday life.

Her inner conflict

Her world of illusions

Characterization of Stella Kowalski à 6 pages

Her bid for happiness

Her “anaesthetization” by sex

Her inner conflict

Her world of illusions

Comparison of the two female protagonists à 1.5 pages

Conclusion à 0.5 page

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