Reviewing The American Play Writer Tennessee Williams English Literature Essay

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Tennessee Williams (1911- 1983) was one of those American play writes whose plays enjoyed great contemporary success and even to this day they are continued to be performed in different big theater companies. Because of Williams's interesting personal life, his being a homosexual and a Southerner, his plays are mostly read according to its biographical nature. It is true that the psychological state of his mind has played a great role in creating his life-like characters who are mostly outcasts like himself, unable to cope with their social environment, though it is not all. Williams was not only interested in issues such as gender anxiety, oppression, struggle for dominance and regional differences under the influence of his personal life, but he was also concerned with the social and political discourses of his time and dealt with the same issues within a larger historical context. Like many other post war writers, undoubtedly, Williams was influenced by the destructive effects of the Second World War.

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Opening in 1947, two years after the Second World War, A Streetcar Named Desire appears to be different from earlier plays written by Tennessee Williams. Without a doubt Williams like many other Americans during the 1940s and 50s was affected by the aftermath of the nuclear warfare. Critics consensually believe that August 6, 1945 marks one of the greatest turning points in human history. The atomic bomb not only destroyed the whole city of Hiroshima, but also it changed permanently the whole world and created a dreadful atmosphere which affected human perspectives on the meaning of life. Americans, who were living almost out of the battle field and its direct destructions, learned from the reports in media how atomic bombs could destroy an entire city in the blink of an eye. The memory of the bomb which killed soldiers and civilians alike including women and children, and the fear that such demolition could happen again even to the Americans themselves, pervaded the postwar years.

It was during these years when Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire and unquestionably in this play he was representing his reaction to the war and to the politics and culture of his time. He shows his anxieties and his negative feelings towards the world around him in the setting of the scene in which Blanch enters the New Orleans. He quotes from Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower": "And so it was I entered the broken world to trace the visionary company of love, its voice an instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) but not for long to hold each desperate choice" (Streetcar, 239). This paragraph is mostly read as a mirror to Blanche's mind and her stormy feeling upon coming to the Elysian Field. It has encouraged psychological and symbolic reading of the text like The Broken World of Tennessee Williams (1965) by Ester Merle Jackson. Fleeing from her "shattered universe" (Jackson, 1965) Blanch looks for redemption and a haven, though the world she comes to is shattered and broken as well. Jackson claims that form in Williams's drama is "the imitation of the individual search for a way of redeeming a shattered universe" (27). This broken and shattered universe is Williams's world too, it is his own time period after the end of Second World War when the world due to the technological advancements is shrunk and there is no safety or a sense of stability and certainty as a result of the atomic bomb.

To show that the world had laid lots of pressure on people in a way that every one is apprehensive about the political affairs and anticipates the Third World War, Williams uses the impressionistic plastic staging provided by the transparent walls which allows the intrusion of the sight and sounds of the city. This kind of staging conveys a sense of entrapment and inability to escape from the aftermath of the war and its destructive effects. While at home, the sounds enter the room and the spectator/ reader can feel the rhythm of the city through the "Blue Piano" of which Williams in his stage direction says: "you are practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played by brown fingers" (Streetcar, 243).

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Descending from a ride on "a street-car named Desire and then transfer [ring] to one called Cemeteries" (Streetcar, 246), she enters a setting which Williams describes as an "atmosphere of decay" (Streetcar, 243). Located between L&N railroad tracks and the "brown river" lined with warehouses which emit "faint redolences of bananas and coffee", the Kowalski home stands small and cheap in midst of Vieux Carre. Even when the doors are closed, the sound and smells of the close lower- class city join them in the air. The music of "Blue Piano" and the clamor of the trains down the railroad tracks penetrate each scene. Blanche's reaction to her sister's living conditions is as follows: "Never, never in my worst dreams could I picture - - only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allen Poe! - - could do it justice! Out there I suppose is the ghoul- haunted woodland of weir!" (Streetcar, 252). This depiction of the new world contrasts with the Belle Reve which now belongs to the history. Belle Reve meaning beautiful dream may not be exactly what Blanch has described but at least there, Blanche had the ability to create that illusion. In this new environment, Blanch can not perform the magic she has spent her whole life creating. She attempts to bring a little of that charm to the apartment by covering bare bulbs with paper lanterns and spraying her perfume throughout the house but all to no avail. In this world there is no possibility for an Edenic escape like Blanche's metaphoric Elysian Field meaning paradise, the incredible power of bomb increases the human capacity to destroy. Just as the sights, sounds and smells of the city permeate the Kowalski's home, the aftermath of the postwar is inescapable.

War had a great influence on the families in general and on the relationships between husband and wife in particular. As Elaine Tyler May (2003) in her article describes, World War II opened up great opportunities for women because so many men joined the armed services and went abroad, leaving open many jobs that had been previously closed to women. It had been long assumed women could not do those jobs -- engineering, other professions in the sciences, manufacturing jobs that had been considered men's work, things women were believed to be too weak to do. Women entered these jobs, excelled, and enjoyed them for the most part. Women made airplanes and warships, munitions and tanks, working in technical and scientific fields for the first time. They enjoyed the work, the good pay, the opportunities for advancement, and the excitement of working with other women and men on important jobs that needed to be done for the war. Most wanted to continue working after the war ended. But, of course, millions of men came back from serving in the military and there was a widespread fear that there would be another depression once the war ends. Women were asked to leave their jobs so the returning veterans could be re-employed. Though many left their jobs or became employed as secretaries, waitresses, or in other clerical jobs their perspective to their roles at home and society changed. They no longer could enjoy their traditional lives and play a role of a nurturing mother whose job is just at home without an important social responsibility. Therefore, men coming home in search of a safe haven became disappointed with the new situation.

War also changed the perspective to the ideal patriarchal system. After the war, legends of Patriarchy lost their potency. Those mighty countries, almost all male centered, who were proud of their high culture and considered themselves as cradle of civilization, started a war and proved their deficiencies; the world ruled by men fell apart. In Streetcar, Belle Reve is representative of the failed patriarchal system. Belle Reve has been "lost" to what Blanche euphemizes as her male relatives' "epic fornications" (Streetcar, 248). The patriarchs of Belle Reve have let the family down. Surprisingly the years after the World Wars were highly patriarchal. Returning veterans found post war America less hospitable than war time America, they faced a situation where women claimed more power and wanted to keep their positions which they held during the war. In response to the fears that women posed to men's manhood, men turned to roles designed to restore the strength of masculinity. Chauncey (cited in Long, 1996) wrote that the 'strenuous life of masculinity', rough sport, prizefighting, and hunting was reactionary activities to which men hold to protect their manliness and thus prizefighters, cowboys, soldiers and sailors became popular heroes. Thus images of men as powerful, conquering and victorious in the Second World War were popularized in war films of the 1940s.

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Martin Fradley (2006) in his article " Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity, Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir" reviews two books which examines the relationship between the historical anxiety of American masculinity and the USA's global film industry. He believes that the American masculinity has somehow been in turbulent states of 'crisis' since the end of World War II and has been a prevalent discourse in popular and critical circles. Citing Susan Faludi, Fradley writes: "in the post war narrative" the underlying problem of masculinity is "the crippling misrecognition of the male incumbents of the American century". The soldiers who return home to a civilian life after the war find no appropriate place to exercise their bodily power and wartime intensity; therefore, their physicality becomes problematic and very likely it would by displaced into inappropriate social or domestic violence.

Another critic concerned with the issues of masculinity after the World Wars, is E. Wennerberg (2003) who in "Masculinity in Film" explores masculinity in the movies directed by Hitchcock. He believes that the Post-war crisis in masculinity became a central theme in Hitchcock's films in the 1950s. In his movies Hitchcock effectively comments on the negative aspects of modern society and manhood while still maintaining the respect of the audience. With the help of actors like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart who were held in such high esteem by the American audience, and were considered as an icon for American manhood, he revealed the less desired aspects of man.  Wennerberg believes these aspects include the presence of a narcissistic masculinity in American society, as well as the crisis of masculinity that became apparent after World War II. Narcissistic masculinity is described by Wennerberg as the "callous, lonely and figuratively violent behavior that is sponsored by the Americans". Besides narcissistic masculinity, he believes the shame or guilt generated by World War II and the fear of women and of sex could be possible reasons for the crisis in masculinity.  According to Amy Lawrence (Cited in Wennerberg, 2003) it is a guilt that is produced by the "difficulty of distinguishing between 'moral' and 'immoral' acts of murder".

 

As a whole, considering different comments, the post war culture in America suffers from a severe crisis in masculinity. Williams is the critique of the same society and the families in his plays are mirrors reflecting the tensions and anxieties prevailing in the American society during the 1950s. In fact, he transfers the contemporary issues into the familial relationships and his families are the microcosm of the same patriarchal society. In Streetcar, male characters are true images of the postwar masculinity. His physicality, violence and his attempts to dominate the female characters of the play are part of the larger cultural postwar masculinity which derives from the hyper- masculinity of the society. Stanley, the displaced warrior, has no place in which to use or to vent his hyper-masculine physical power which was necessary and glorified in wartime.

Streetcar is not very straight forward in its criticism thus different readers/ spectators with different cultural background or knowledge about the social and political aspects of the post war society may find it difficult to decide which character in the play deserves their sympathy. John S. Bak (2004) after analyzing many different types of criticism on A Streetcar in his article "Criticism on A Streetcar Named Desire: A Bibliographic Survey, 1947-2003 " concludes that this play is ambiguous and it remains a riddle because there is no consensus among the critics as to whether this play is about Blanche's tragedy or it is Stanley's story. Some critics sympathize with Stanley like Elia Kazan, Streetcar's first, and arguably most influential, director. Although he identifies with Blanche's plight, his support is with Stanley. He concludes that Stanley's "spine" is to keep things his way that he must fight the destructive intrusions of Blanche who "would wreck his home"

Blanche is dangerous. She is destructive. She would soon have him and Stella fighting. He's got things the way he wants them around there and he does not want them upset by a phony, corrupt, sick, destructive woman. This makes Stanley right! Are we going into the era of Stanley? He may be practical and right. […] but what the hell does it leave us? (Cited in Bak, 2004, 6)

Kazan's direction heavily favored making Stanley the victim of Blanche's attacks on his name, his heritage, his masculinity, and finally his family. On the contrary, Harold Clurman the next director of the road version of the play made the sympathy shift to Blanche and she became the victim of Stanley's cruelty and violence. All in all, historical evidences and also the play itself seem to support the latter idea more potently. The way the Kowalski's home is depicted reveals that it is Stanley's world and Blanche is a stranger who threatens the authority of the house. The atmosphere of the flat provides only what Stanley needs: the kitchen, where Stella prepares his food and the bedroom where she satisfies his desire. Unable to fit in this world, Blanche spends much of her time in the bathroom, the only place which has a door. Here Blanche escapes from Stanley's world in an attempt to hide herself from harsh reality of her new surroundings.

When it is said this is Stanley's world, or men's world, it dose not mean that the reader/spectator must sympathize with him. Supporting this idea, Terese D. Henry (1998) concludes in his thesis that though Williams at the surface level seems to reinforce established social codes such as patriarchy and heterosexuality by representing a strong sexual male and a frail, pure woman as the ideal image of their sex, deep down Williams questions these systems and because he knew society was not ready for sharp opposition, he did it inconspicuously.

Though Williams never decided to write a feminist play according to Georges Claude Guilbert (2004), Streetcar can be read as one. In fact one of its central preoccupations is gender and the rigidity of the gender roles society enforces. Guilbert believes that in a patriarchal society, women's bodies are colonized by men and sexual minorities are crushed, sexual minorities and women are equally victimized, to various degrees. David Savran (Cited in Guilbert, 2004) writes: "Williams's destabilization of mid-century notions of masculinity and femininity is accomplished, in part, by his ability both to expose the often murderous violence that accompanies the exercise of male authority and to valorize female power and female sexual desire" (90). Guilbert also refers to Blanche's madness at the end of the play as something in which Blanche takes refuge in and as a reaction to the oppressive patriarchal society. Anca Vlasopolos (Cited in S. Bak, 2004) also argues that Blanche's victimization has "less to do with the history of the South as we now have it than with gender determined exclusion from the larger historical discourse" (11).

To criticize the patriarchal society, Williams characterized Stanley in a way which was relevant to the postwar images of men. In stage direction he goes:

He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying center are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humor, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. (Streetcar, 128, my italics)

Similarly, for the directors in different productions of the play, what has been very important was the one who played Stanley's role, his body was as important as his words and actions. They found out that any number of actresses can play Blanche but finding a convincing Stanley was extremely difficult. Ray Schultz (2005) in his review of the play directed by Garry Hynes in 2004 proposes that the character of Stanley should provide "sufficient danger to proceedings and exhibit an external threat to Blanch. His masculinity, his physical stature and sexual charisma are necessary to generate the "brutal desire" that both attracts and repels Streetcar's women" (123). Stanley's character reflects an environment based on expectations of postwar masculinity. This masculinity stems from changes which began at the turn of the century when as George Chauncey writes, "men's anxieties about their manliness intensified, a preoccupation with threats to manhood and with proving one's manhood became central to the rhetoric of national purpose" (Cited in Long, 1996, 107). Stanley rarely talks, he "shouts," "bellows," "booms," or "hollers." He rarely gives, puts, takes or draws, he "throws," "heaves," "jerks," "kicks," "slams," or "shoves." All those verbs in the stage directions are there to insist on male violence. Yet, it is very important to grasp a point which is Stanley's masculinity and brutality is attractive to Stella. Like many muscular, good looking returning soldiers, Stanley was very attractive to the young girls like Stella.

Streetcar is actually a battlefield in which Stanley, representative of the masculine society, at the end of the play wins over the women who are shown defeated and oppressed; however, the play also shows women's attempts to subvert the situation and also their struggles to dominate the male ones. Through their dialogues, physical and emotional actions, each tries to defeat his/her rivalry and have the upper hand. When the play opens, Blanche seems desperate and powerless. She is without a husband, a job, or money. She is after finding some sense of security by coming for help to Stella with the hope of regaining some stability in the future. Stanley senses Blanche as potentially destructive and feels her presence as a threat to his family and his satisfactory relationship with Stella. He fears that she will influence Stella to renounce her present pleasure with him and go back to her previous system of values. Being a shrewd animal as Blanche believes him to be, from the beginning he is alert and takes a defensive position which later in the play shifts it to an invading status. From the outset Stanley who believes that Blanche has cheated on Stella, takes the position of the more powerful and asks questions. He demands information about the disposition of Belle Reve. However, similar to his relationship with Stella, to secure his power and stabilize their relationship in a way that allows him a greater portion of power, whenever he can not keep up with the adversary by using language, he resorts to violence and his physical strength. When he sees that by language he can not get the needed information he turns to use force. "Where's the papers? In the trunk? . . . [Stanley crosses to the trunk, shoves it roughly open and begins to open compartments.]" (Streetcar, 41) Then with cruelty he "snatches" the love letters written by her dead husband.

To stand up against Stanley's brutality, Blanche avoids direct confrontation which makes her less powerful, instead she attempts to win Stanley by using her feminine wiles. She flirts with him by using flattery: " You're simple, straightforward and honest, . . . That is why, when you walked in here last night, I said to myself-'my sister has married a man!" But Stanley will not be fooled with flattery: "Now let's cut out the re- bop!" (Streetcar, 40) she later on acknowledges that a power struggle has been occurring between them: "I hurt him the way that you would like to hurt me, but you can't! I'm not young and vulnerable anymore" (Streetcar, 42). Though she knows she is less powerful and the only way she can use is her charm, she refuses to accept defeat.

She considers herself to be above him in breeding and in education. Her speeches are florid and full of polysyllabic words of Latin origin: "retreated", "endow". Her patterns are complex and formal which reflects her high education and her job as an English teacher. To the contrary, Stanley's speeches are simple, short and direct. To overpower Stanley, Blanche celebrates her own family origin and debases him by referring to him as other. She compares him with the men she and Stella went out with at home and finds him completely different from the gentlemen of the Belle Reve. To dominate him she ascribes to Stanley, a white character, the features which are primarily attributed to the blacks in a racialized society. Gorge W. Crandell (1997) points to these characteristics as being: "(a) great physical size or strength; (b) inability to communicate; (c) lack of intelligence; (d) uncontrollable desire; and (e) potent sexuality" (339). Stanley Kowalski is of Polish descent and in American culture of that time it was no much difference between ethnic and racial groups, both were considered inferior to the white Americans. Along with the mentioned characteristics is comparing blacks to animals. Blanche following the poker night calls Stanley an animal and goes: "He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There's even something - subhuman- not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something ape like about him" (Streetcar, 323). In an attempt to defy their insults Stanley positions himself as an American who is proud of his heritage, and he does not want to be categorized in a negative way in regard to his country of origin.

Despite all the efforts she makes to overpower Stanley she fails. Blanche and the things which symbolize her, are empty things: her name, her costumes, her paper lanterns and her perfume bottles. Towards the end of the play, Blanche has used up all her tricks of illusion and her emptiness is exposed. By finding out about her promiscuous life at Laurel, Stanley almost wins Blanche but the last blow which led her away to an insane asylum was the rape scene. Rape, like other sexual harassments is not about sex and enjoyment but it is actually about power. The rape scene is the culmination of the long hostility; it is the ultimate violence toward a woman. Paul Herbig in his article "The Impact of Culture on Women in the Workforce in the USA, Mexico, and Japan" believes many men, especially in more masculine cultures do not see sexual harassment as inappropriate behavior. Many women, however, do. "Almost all women understand the definition of sexual harassment as abuse of power. Many men use it as a tool to exercise power or to take away a woman's power, to put her in her place". Through rape, Stanley overpowers Blanche and seals his masculine, sexual marks on her which in its nature contains the power of the contemporary masculine and mechanical, atomic age. The music which is heard in this scene also provokes the same mood. The "Blue Piano" which was first associated with Southern Blacks, later developed into the music of New Orleans's bars and night clubs. It suggests unrestrained physical pleasure, animal strength and vitality and appears at significant emotional moments in the play.

The rape scene plays so important a role that Williams and Kazan did not agree with its elimination in the film version to satisfy the demands of the Breen Office. In an attempt to keep the rape scene, Williams wrote the following sentences: "The rape of Blanch by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society" (cited in Long, 1996, 154). As Williams believes this scene contains "very important truths about the world we live in". Lisa S. Long (1996) believes: "Important truths of modern society in Streetcar include the horrors of Hitler's rape of Poland and the cataclysmic violation of Japan as well as the silencing of those who were victimized by such horrors" (154).

Not only Stanley but also Mitch, the only remaining hope for Blanche's recovery, turned out to be cruel and representative of the victimizing patriarchal society. Mitch is tolerant at first of Blanche's strange behavior, he agrees to see her only in poor lighting; he "respects" her and is contented to have little affection before marriage but when Stanley tells him about her past, he rejects her. In Scene Nine he "tears the paper lantern off the light bulb," then he "turns the light on and stares at her" (Streetcar, 203-204). Having thus exposed Blanche, he accuses her: "Oh, I knew you weren't sixteen any more. But I was a fool enough to believe you was straight" (Streetcar, 204). At the end of the scene he "places his hands on her waist and tries to turn her about" [Streetcar, 206]:

Blanche: What do you want?

Mitch [fumbling to embrace her]: What I been missing all summer.

Blanche: Then marry me, Mitch!

Mitch: I don't think I want to marry you any more.

Blanche: No?

Mitch [dropping his hands from her waist]: You're not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother. (Streetcar 207)

The last shred of hope disappears, as Mitch becomes like Stanley and loses his grammar, and turns out to be a macho pig too, as well as a potential rapist.

Still, there is another point to be mentioned about the effects of war on the relationship between men with themselves and as a consequence on their relationship with women. Stanley's buddies, Harold Mitchell, Steve Hubbel, and Pablo Gonzales, like himself are part of a hyper- masculine order which develops from the legacy of World War II. Stanely and Mitch were "together in the Two-forty-first" (Streetcar, 349) as Mitch tells Blanche in scene six. Their camaraderie as Army buddies gives them certain responsibility to one another. Their friendship forces Stanely to protect his fellow from capture by the enemy. In fact, war has made men trust each other more and enabled them to connect with each other well and make strongly supported groups. This connection is not seen in the relationship between women. Women are not only alienated from men but also from each other. Even after the war, this strong bond between men was seen in their relationship which is evident in the poker night scene. Poker is a game which is typically played by men and affirms simultaneously male bonding and female exile. Scene three opens with a description of surroundings during a poker night. The description of the poker night immediately introduces it as an all guys night. Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo, all men are described as wearing shirts that have colors that are "powerful as the primary colors". These solid colors suggest they are strong, powerful men who are "coarse" and "direct". The hard, strong alcohol of whisky on the table also implies masculinity. If it was wine it would be too elegant for the occasion and wine is generally seen in romantic situations with women. Even after his fight with Stella and attacking her, his buddies took side with him, calmed him down and supported him emotionally.

To put it in a nutshell, Blanche as a delicate feminine creature representative of the old America is not able to live up to the cruelty and coarseness of the post world war masculine America. In this way, Williams criticizes his contemporary society for being so harsh and rigid regarding issues such as gender and homosexuality which victimizes the minorities.