Plastic Theatre in A Streetcar Named Desire
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Published: Mon, 03 Jul 2017
“I don’t want realism. […] I want […] magic!” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 130)
It is Blanche DuBois who states this quotation in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. In this drama from 1947, two worlds, embodied by the two characters of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, clash. That conflict between realism and a romantic view of things is visible through the whole play, increasing from scene to scene, and reaches its peak in Stanley’s rape of Blanche in Scene Ten. After that suppression of the romanticism and with Blanche going to an asylum, one might think that the realistic point of view triumphs, but in my opinion her leaving and her acting, still relying on the “kindness of strangers” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 159), leads to the impression of a survival of her fantasy world. She just “escapes from the demonic night world and completes the cycle of romance” (Thompson 28). But I don’t think that her illusions win over Stanley’s realism, as she is “a Romantic protagonist committed to the ideal but living in the modern age, a broken world” (Holditch 147).
In Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, things are not always called by their names, but he creates a sense of indirectness. With the aid of telling names and special attitudes of the characters, he caricatures a truth behind things. However, this is not restricted to the protagonists and their quotations, but also concerns the play itself, including the stage directions. The feeling of hidden truths is supported by effects and motifs, for example the adoption of light and music or the gestures of the actors. This realization of a play on a stage is called the “Plastic Theatre”, as the audience gets more involved through the use of different senses. This leads to a vivid impression of the feelings and thoughts of the protagonists. Williams himself created the term of the “Plastic Theatre” in his production notes to The Glass Menagerie. There he writes about a “conception of a new, plastic theatre which must take the place of the exhausted theatre of realistic conventions if the theatre is to resume vitality as a part of our culture” (Williams, Glass Menagerie 4).
To provide a solid basis for the following thoughts concerning the different characters of A Streetcar Named Desire and their points of view, I want to introduce and explain the two terms of “realism” and “romanticism” briefly. Both of them can also been seen as epochs in American Literature, but I just want to focus on the general statement. In addition, I want to expose further information about the idea of the “Plastic Theatre”.
In the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, realism is described as “accepting and dealing with life and its problems in a practical way, without being influenced by feelings or false ideas”. This means that one takes things as they are, evaluating situations only with the aid of the visible facts, not relying on false hopes or following non-realistic ideals. The human reason has, from a realistic viewpoint, a higher value and is more important than emotions or spontaneous impressions.
The romantic perspective is in contrast to the realistic one. Romanticism is related to “highly imaginative or impractical” (Longman Dictionary, “Romantic.”) attitudes, admiring ideals which are not realistic or even unachievable. In romanticism, feelings and emotions are stated higher than rational thinking and human reason, not only in the context of love issues, but also in the way of dealing with situations and problems. Impressions are not based on visible facts, but on ideal conceptions, and these conceptions might be sometimes quite fictional or utopian.
2.3. The Plastic Theatre
“To express his universal truths Williams created what he termed plastic theater, a distinctive new style of drama. He insisted that setting, properties, music, sound, and visual effects – all the elements of staging – must combine to reflect and enhance the action, theme, characters, and language” (Griffin 22).
Like Griffin, many authors, including Tennessee Williams himself, tried to explain the Plastic Theatre, but it was barely discussed in public. After he established the idea of the Plastic Theatre in the production notes to The Glass Menagerie, Williams never publicly discussed it again. But from that moment on, his plays were very theatrical, with lyrical and poetic language, his scenic descriptions “draw on metaphors from the world of art and painting” and with quite symbolic use of sound and light (Kramer).
3. A Streetcar Named Desire: The Truth Behind Things
In Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, the audience gets the impression that facts are not just stated within the text, but between the lines. The characters are often described better through their behavior and gestures than through their actual quotations. From scene to scene it gets clearer that Blanche and Stanley are embodiments of two very contrasting viewpoints of life: extreme romanticism and down-to-earth realism. This is also visible through different symbolic motifs, which emerge various times in the play. Connected with a very evocative use of music and light and many telling names from the beginning on, the whole play seems conspicuously allusive.
3.1. Romanticism and Realism in A Streetcar Named Desire
We are presented in A Streetcar Named Desire with “two polar ways of looking at experience: the realistic view of Stanley Kowalski and the ‘non-realistic’ view of his sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois” (Kernan 17). Williams brings the two views into conflict immediately.
3.1.1. Blanche DuBois as the Romantic Protagonist
When the audience meets Blanche, her appearance is described as “incongruous to this setting” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 8). In Scene One she arrives at the Elysian Fields, where her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski live. Her clothes are white and fluffy, looking very delicate and “as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 9). She is very shocked about the habitation of her sister and calls it a “horrible place” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 13). The reader is confronted instantly with her deranged self-awareness, as she asks Stella to turn the “merciless” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 13) light off, because she does not want to be looked at in the bright light. This behavior is visible through the whole play. Blanche always tries to avoid over-light and glare. Her vanity about her looks is also remarkable in the way Blanche presents her figure to her sister, fishing for compliments and stating that she has the same figure as she had ten years ago. (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 18). She often states very romantic quotations through the whole play, e.g. concerning the pretty sky where she “ought to go [â€¦] on a rocket that never comes down” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 44).
When the relationship between Blanche and Mitch, a friend of Stanley, becomes more intimate, the audience gets an impression of Blanche’s romantic conception. She calls him her “Rosenkavalier” and wants him to bow, just like the gentlemen in the Old South would do (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 90). Although she was married once, she tries to behave like she would be untouched and a virgin, which she is obviously not. When Mitch says that he cannot understand French, she asks “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir?” (Would you like to have sex with me tonight?) (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 95). The information about her past, that she had many men in a hotel called the “Flamingo”, and the way she speaks about her relationship with Mitch, that she does not love him, but just want a man with whom she can rest, brings certainty for the audience.
So Blanche’s character can be described as a very romantic one. For her, outwardness is very important, and to appear very delicate and pure she is not afraid of telling lies. She is a fake, a person who likes to be better than she actually is, living in a fantasy world which has nothing to do with the real life. “Already damaged by [â€¦] the harsh realities of disease and death, Blanche’s Romanticism is reduced in some moments to nothing more than sentimentality” (Holditch 155).
3.1.2. Stanley Kowalski as the Realistic Protagonist
Stanley Kowalski seems as the embodiment of a “real man”, opposed to or ignorant of the transcendent, very sexual and physical. When the audience gets in contact with him for the first time, he carries a package of meat and throws it to his wife Stella. He is described as “strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 24). His relationship to his wife is a very sexual one, as Stanley treats his wife in a very physical way and Stella states that she is very attracted to him. When Blanche leaves to the asylum and Stella cries, he consoles her by touching in a sexual way (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 160), which is characteristic of their relationship.
His view of things is a very realistic one. When Blanche informs Stanley and Stella that she had lost the plantation of their parents, Belle Reve, Stanley thinks that in fact she did not lose it, but perhaps sold it and did not give them their part of the money. For him, this would be an affront against himself, as the property of his wife Stella is his own, too. He thinks Blanche bought jewelry, clothes like a “solid-gold dress” and “Fox-pieces” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 32) from the returns of the plantation. In reality, the furs are “inexpensive summer furs” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 33) and the jewelry is glass. This mistake is “the mistake of the realist who trusts to literal appearance, to his senses alone” (Kernan 18).
Stanley’s view of things, the realistic one, is the one which works in the modern, broken world. He embodies this harsh world with all its physical, material and sexual aspects. His strong appearance and his human reason is all he needs to get along in the real world.
3.1.3. Conflict between Romanticism and Realism
The two points of view clash from the beginning of the play on until the end. Blanche embodies the romantic one, whereas Stanley stands for the realism.
“In the course of the play Williams manages to identify this realism with the harsh light of the naked electric bulb which Blanche covers with a Japanese lantern. It reveals pitilessly every line in Blanche’s face, every tawdry aspect of the set. And in just this way Stanley’s pitiless and probing realism manages to reveal every line in Blanche’s soul by cutting through all the soft illusions with which she has covered herself” (Kernan 18).
Kernan explains very descriptive the relationship between the two protagonists. Stanley does not treat Blanche with much respect, which is visible through the way he talks about her bathing and her way of dressing. But also Blanche has an aversion to him, calling him “sub-human – something not quite to the stage of humanity yet” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 74). For her, Stanley is a threat, because he is able to destroy her fantasy world and to uncover her past and her real face. The conflict increases from scene to scene and reaches its peak in the rape of Blanche. Stanley has to prove his dominance and therefore rapes her to force his reality on her. But she is not broken after the rape, she is just even deeper in her fantasy world, which is shown by the way she trusts the doctor, holding tight to his arm, still depending on “the kindness of strangers” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 159).
Finally the audience gets the impression that the “realistic point of view has the advantage of being workable. Blanche’s romantic way of looking at things, sensitive as it may be, has a fatal weakness: it exists only by ignoring certain positions of reality” (Kernan 18).
3.2. The Plastic Theatre in A Streetcar Named Desire
Williams tried to communicate circumstances not only by the acting of the protagonists, but also through symbols and various effects. “The setting, lighting, props, costumes, sound effects, and music, along with the play’s dominant symbols, the bath and the light bulb, provide direct access to the private lives of the characters” (Corrigan 50). The many telling names in the play give additional information and enforce the impression of a truth behind things. In the following subchapters I want to discuss exemplary Blanche’s bathing, the adoption of music and sounds and the use of telling names.
3.2.1. Blanche’s Bathing
Blanche bathes very often in this play. She obviously wants to clean herself from her past. After the bathing, she feels “all freshly [â€¦] and [â€¦] like a brand new human being” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 35). Every time she is confronted with the real, brutal world, she wants to escape in her dream world, which is strongly connected with bathing. In Scene Three when the men have a Poker Night and Stanley “gives a loud whack of his hand” on Stella’s thigh, she instantly says “I think I will bathe” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 49). In Scene Seven, she bathes again, “little breathless cries and peals of laughter are heard as if a child were frolicking in the tub” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 110), while Stanley tells Stella about Blanche’s past and her affairs with a seventeen-year-old boy and many other men. The title of the song Blanche sings while bathing is It’ Only a Paper Moon and it is described as a “saccharine popular ballad which is used contrapunctually with Stanley’s speech” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 106). Especially the verse “- But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 107) is very ironic, because Blanche does not seem very trustworthy at all, and so the song even accentuates her disreputable past. After the rape, she bathes again in Scene Eleven and is very worried about her hair, as if the soap would not be completely washed out.
The many baths in the play show that Blanche will never be done with bathing, because she is always confronted with the real world and could not clean herself from her past. It gives her “a brand new outlook on life” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 115), but cannot change her life really.
3.2.2. Music and Sounds
The use of music and sounds is also very theatrical in the play. The Blue Piano “expresses the spirit of the life which goes on” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 6) and is always heard when the conflict between real world and Blanche’s fantasy world seems to increase. It is heard, for example, when Blanche arrives at Elysian Fields and grows louder when she informs Stella about the loss of Belle Reve as well as when Stanley tells her that Stella is going to have a baby. It also suggests the fall of Blanche as it is swelling when Stanley rapes Blanche and afterwards when he consoles Stella, who cries because of Blanche’s leaving.
Another music, which is strongly connected with Blanche’s past, is the polka music. It is always heard when Blanche talks about her dead husband. It emerges for the first time when Stanley mentions that Blanche was married once (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 28). She tells Mitch the story about her husband’s death, he shot himself after dancing with Blanche in a casino. He was homosexual and she discovered him with another man and said while dancing he disgusted her (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 103) and therefore he shot himself. It also appears when Stanley gives Blanche a ticket back to Laurel where she lived and when he takes Stella to the hospital and Blanche remains in the flat. So the song predicts Blanche’s downfall, as it is always heard when she is haunted by her past.
3.2.3. Telling Names
There are various telling names in Williams play. Blanche’s name itself is quite telling, as “blanche” is French and means “white”, which is very fitting when looking at her character. The name of her plantation, “Belle Reve” is also French, meaning “beautiful dream”. Blanche behaves like she would still live in this dream, refusing to face the truth and the real world.
There are many more telling names, but I want to concentrate now on the perhaps most important one, the “Streetcar Named Desire” as it is the title of the play. Blanche takes the “streetcar named Desire” (Williams, Streetcar Named Desire 9) to get to the apartment of the Kowalskis. This is very telling itself, as the audience finds out more and more about her past and that she leaved Laurel as a broken woman somehow, but her desire to live her life as an elegant, trustworthy and honest woman is still present. So she tries to live a, for her, desirable life, and she hopes to find that in New Orleans.
By the aid of the telling names, which are visible from the beginning of the play on, the use of music and the different symbols which appear often, it seems very theatrical and plastic. The audience gets an impression of the characters and the circumstances in various ways.
In Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the conflict between Romanticism and Realism, embodied by the two protagonists Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, is the major theme of the play. With the aid of the characterization of these protagonists and the explanation of the conflict between them I was able to verify this thesis. These two persons are very polarized, visible through their points of view, their behavior and gestures. But in the end, only one point of view is workable, namely the realistic one of Stanley. Blanche lives in her dream world, even in the end after her rape. Stanley is not able to crush her, but she can only survive in her romantic fantasy world, which leads to the impression that she cannot exist in the modern age.
The Truth behind things in this play is also visible through the “Plastic Theatre”. Williams caricatured this hidden truth by the use of music and sounds, symbols and motifs, and telling names. My notions about Blanche’s bathing, the Blue Piano and the Polka in the play, and the telling names were exemplary for this plastic and sculptural theatre, and therefore I showed the existence of a truth behind things and that the term of the “Plastic Theatre” fits for A Streetcar Named Desire.
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