A Streetcar Named Desire

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a play written in 1947 by the great American playwright Tennessee Williams. The play was an immediate success, garnering a Pulitzer Prize for drama in the following year and is often considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It’s original run was from December 3rd 1947 to December 17th 1949 and it’s original cast included well known stars like Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando and Karl Malden.

The play is the story of a woman named Blanche Dubois, who after losing her family home, Belle Reve moves in with her younger sister, Stella in the New Orleans French Quarter. Blanche and Stella’s husband, Stanley take an immediate dislike to one another. Having come from an upper class family, Blanche finds Stanley rough and low class while he is suspicious of her loss of her family money and finds her stuffy and uptight.

Blanche soon finds that her sister’s marriage is an unhappy one and that Stanley regularly beats Stella. Blanche attempts to convince her sister to leave her husband but is dismissed off hand. Meanwhile, Blanche begins to flirt with a friend of Stanley’s named Mitch whom she seems to be developing a very genuine relationship with. However, this new love is tested when Stanley beings to revel the secrets of Blanche’s past sexual promiscuity to Mitch.

Blanche becomes angry and confronts Mitch while drunk. There is a heated argument during which he physically overpowers and rapes her. The combination of the assault and Blanche’s already delicate mental state begin to drive her insane and Stella, disbelieving her sister’s story about the rape, decides to move her to a mental asylum in order to obtain proper care. Blanche goes to the asylum without much to-do and without looking back.

Summary

The play begins outside a building on a rough corner in the part of New Orleans referred to as the French Quarter. A man named Stanley Kowalski and a friend of his named Mitch stand outside the building and holler up at the windows for Stanley’s wife, Stella. She appears and the two banter back and forth before Stanley tosses a package of meat up to her and informs her that he is going to the bowling alley. They leave and soon after Stella follows so that she can keep an eye on them.

Shortly after this another woman arrives. Her name is Blanche and she is Stella’s sister. Looking out of place and too finely dressed for the neighborhood, she moves quickly into the building and informs one of Stella’s neighbors that she is looking for her. The neighbor lets Blanche into the Kowalski’s small, two-room apartment and through their chatting we learn that Blanche is a teacher from Mississippi who normally lives in the family estate called Belle Reve. Blanche seems to avoid the neighbor, Eunice’s questions and asks to be left alone. Eunice leaves and decides to fetch Stella.

Alone, Blanche looks over her new surroundings with an air of disappointment. That is, until she finds a bottle of whiskey and seems to perk up while pouring herself a generous drink. Stella soon returns and embraces Blanche. The two are excited to see each other until Blanche accidentally lets it slip that she feels that Stella has gone down in the world. The reunion becomes tense after this. Realizing that she made a mistake, Blanche attempts to change the subject by asking for a drink. Stella obliges.

Blanche begins to talk about her situation and explains that she was forced to take leave from her job as a teacher because of problems with her nerves. She begins to make disparaging comments about Stanley, worrying that he will not like her and referencing his Polish background and lower class. Stella attempts to defend Stanley and in doing so revels to Blanche that she is obviously very deeply in love with him. Blanche begins to get hysterical and finally reveals that she has lost the family home, Belle Reve to creditors. She blames Stella for this situation because of the younger sister’s marriage and flight to New Orleans.

While they are arguing, Stanley arrives home. Stanley and Blanche are nervous but polite to each other at first. He notices that his bottle of whiskey is a little low and asks Blanche if she would like a drink. She declines, insisting that she hardly drinks. Stanley begins to take off his t-shirt in front of Blanche, which offends her sense of propriety. He asks her what happened to her marriage and, taken back, she only states that the “boy” died and then announces that she feels ill.

Later that day, while Blanche takes a bath, Stella instructs Stanley to be kind to her sister and not to mention to her that Stella is pregnant. Stanley asks his wife where the money from the sale of Bella Reve went. He seems to assume that Blanche’s delicate emotional state is merely an act put on to hide the fact that she took all of the money from the sale for herself. The idea angers, Stanley, since he feels that the money wouldn’t have rightfully been Stella’s but, in fact, his own. He begins to rifle through Blanche’s things in order to find the bill of sale for the house. Seeing Blanche’s clothes, he assumed that they are expensive and claims that a friend of his will be over to appraise the value of the clothes. Angered by his actions, Stella storms out of the room.

Done with her bath, Blanche closes the curtains that lead to the Kowalski’s bedroom so that she may dress. Stanley begins to question her about her fancy things and refuses to rise to her attempts to change the conversation with flirtations. Blanche hands Stanley a box filled with papers from her trunk. However, he notices a second set of papers and begins to read them too. This horrifies Blanche, as the other papers are love letter from her late husband that she has saved. She insists that Stanley only read the papers that she handed him. When he does, he realizes that Belle Reve was foreclosed on and not sold, like he had suspected. He sees that Blanche was telling him the truth. Blanche tells him that the estate was so poorly managed that by the time she and her sister were born it was already in a decline. Placated by her admission, Stanley feels comfortable that she is being honest and accidentally tells her that Stella is pregnant.

Soon after, Stella returns to the apartment and asks Blanche if she would like to go out to avoid the friends that Stanley has coming over for a poker game. Blanche agrees and as the two leave she admits that Stella’s marriage to Stanley may be the only way to ensure that the sister’s upper class lineage continues.

In the next scene, Stanley, Mitch and two other male friends are playing poker late into the night. The men talk tough about the game while Mitch, taking a different tack, worried about whether or not he should go on home to help his sick mother. Blanche and Stella return from their outing and most of the men seem uninterested in their presence. However, Mitch becomes shy and awkward and seems delighted to meet her and generally attracted to her. Blanche admits to liking him too and that she finds him different from the other men. Stella’s request that the men end the game is met with jeers and a disrespectful slap on her buttocks from her husband. Ashamed, Stella joins Blanche in the other room.

In the bedroom, Stella and Blanche begin to talk. Stanley shouts at them to be quiet and when Blanche turns on a radio Stanley jumps up and shuts it off. Blanche is angered by this but becomes flirtatious with Mitch when he comes back into the room a few minutes later. The two talk about his sick mother and the meaning of the inscription on his cigarette case. Blanche lies to him, saying that she is Stella’s younger sister and only came to New Orleans because Stella is sick and needs her help.

Soon, Blanche turns the radio back on and attempts to dance with shy Mitch. Enraged, Stanley marches back into the room and hurls the radio out of the window. Stella stands up for her sister and yells at Stanley only to have him begin to violently beat her. The other men in the room pull him off of her and Blanche hurries to gather some personal items and bring Stella upstairs to Eunice’s apartment.

Mitch castigates Stanley for his behavior toward Stella and Blanche. The men attempt to sober up Stanley but when he refuses their help they simply take their poker winnings and depart. Terribly drunk, Stanley attempts to call upstairs to Eunice’s apartment only to be told that Stella doesn’t wish to speak to him. Half dressed, he goes out into the street and shouts for Stella over and over until Eunice appears in her window and asks him to stop. Stella appears in the doorway and rushes to Stanley. The two embrace and he carries her back into their apartment. Confused, Blanche attempts to follow Stella but is stopped at the door to the Kowalski’s apartment by Mitch who insists that she has nothing to worry about and that Stanley and Stella are very much in love.

The next morning, Stella lays in her bed, humming happily when her sister returns. Blanche is happy to find that Stella is alright, but questions her about how she could go back to Stanley after he beat her. Stella brushes her off, saying that she is making an issue out of nothing and that she loves Stanley. She says that she knows Stanley’s violence is more of a bad habit that she has had to learn to put up with over the years. Blanche is aghast at her sister’s indifference and cheerfulness. She suggest that Stella leave her husband and tells her that she recently reconnected with an old suitor of hers named Shep Huntleigh who struck oil and became very rich. She wonders if he might be able to loan them money to escape, inadvertently revealing to her sister that she is broke. Stella says that Blanche is being silly and laughs at her overreaction. She insists that she doesn’t wish to leave and that her physical relationship with Stanley makes up for his violent outbursts and bad attitude. Blanche argues that no marriage should be based off of desire alone.

Out in the hall, Stanley overhears Blanche telling Stella that she feels that he is a brute and a common ape. He enters the apartment a moment later and Stella rushes to embrace him. Over her shoulder Stanley smiles menacingly at Blanche.

A little while later, Blanche writes a letter to Shep Huntleigh and asks if she and her sister can visit him in his home in Dallas. As she does so she and Stella overhear a fight between Eunice and her husband, Steve, upstairs. Eunice accuses Steve of infidelity and he begins to beat her. Running out of her apartment, Eunice announces that she is going to call the police. Stanley arrives home during the commotion and asks Stella what is happening. She tells him and soon Steve comes downstairs with a bruise on his cheek. He asks where Eunice is and, once advised heads off after her.

Inside the Kowalski’s apartment, Blanche and Stanley trade barbs for a while before he informs her that he has been looking into her background and asks if she knows a man named Shaw. Faltering, Blanche denies knowing anyone by that name. Stanley says that the Shaw he is referring to often travels to a certain disreputable hotel in Laurel, Mississippi where Blanche comes from and that he insists that she used to be a return client there. Blanche denies the accusations. Outside, Steve and Eunice, now having made up, stroll back to their apartment happily.

Once Stanley leaves again, Blanche demands to know what people in town have been saying about her. Stella tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and offers her a coke. Blanche requests something alcoholic and Stella agrees. Becoming hysterical, Blanche announces that she will leave soon since she fears that Stanley will throw her out anyway. Calming down, Blanche attempts to laugh off her outburst, saying that she is only nervous because of her date with Mitch that night. Stella assures her that it will go well and then leaves to meet her husband at the bar.

Blanche waits for Mitch in the apartment alone. A teenage boy comes to the door to collect money for the newspaper deliveries and Blanche flirts with him before kissing him on the lips. The young man is obviously nervous and uncomfortable. Blanche chides herself and says that she has to be good and remember to keep her hands off of children, implying that she was fired from her teaching job for something much more sinister than she has previously revealed.

Soon, Mitch arrives and takes Blanche out on their date. At around 2 a.m they arrive back at the Kowalski’s apartment, exhausted. Blanche apologizes for not being able to enjoy herself fully and admits that she will be moving out of her sister’s apartment soon. Mitch asks if he may kiss her goodnight and she tells him that he doesn’t have to ask. The two tease each other playfully and Blanche invites Mitch in for a nightcap.

Soon the conversation becomes more meaningful, however and Blanche reveals what happened to her former husband. She tells Mitch that she was sixteen when she met the man and that she loved him very much but that she always felt he was deeply bothered by something. One day she arrived home to find him in bed with another man. Blanche and her husband tried to ignore the incident and pretend that it had never happened but soon Blanche drunkenly revealed that she found her young husband disgusting and shortly after that he shot himself. Mitch comforts Blanche and admits that they both need each other. They kiss.

The play skips forward a few weeks. Stella is decorating the apartment for Blanche’s birthday while her sister takes a bath. Stanley enters and mocks Blanche’s habit of taking long baths. Stella attempts to defend her sister but Stanley says that he won’t take her excuses any longer and that he has learned something about Blanche.

Stanley informs his wife that he works with a man who regularly travels to the sister’s hometown of Laurel, Mississippi. The man, named Shaw, told Stanley that Blanche has earned a seedy reputation after patronizing a cheap, notorious motel. She lived there for a while before the motel asked her to leave as apparently her behavior was considered immoral even by their standards. She became infamous in the town for being somewhat crazy and was fired from her teaching job after it was revealed that she was involved in a sexual relationship with a seventeen year-old boy. Stanley tells Stella that Blanche is only staying with them because she has nowhere else to go and that she has no intention of returning to their hometown.

Stella doesn’t believe her husband’s stories, saying that Blanche does have her problems but they’re the result of her failed marriage. Stanley reveals that he has told Mitch the truth about Blanche and that the other man probably won’t be coming to the party. Stella is shocked and appalled. Her husband then says that he has bought Blanche a birthday present in the from of a bus ticket back to Laurel.

After Blanche’s birthday dinner, the mood is dismal. Mitch didn’t show up and his place at the table remains empty. Stanley and Blanche get into another fight and he breaks several dishes and then storms outside to the porch. The mood deteriorates further as the Kowalski’s give Blanche the gift of the bus ticket back home. Blanche is heart broken, and rushes to the bathroom to cry. Stanley, pleased with himself, says that he is going to go bowling. Stella snaps at her husband, asking why he would treat Blanche like this. Stanley begins to argue with her until he notices a change come over Stella. She suddenly seems ill and asks to be taken to the hospital. Stanley leads her out the door, kindly.

Later that evening, Blanche sits alone in the bedroom, drinking. The doorbell rings and when she answers it it is Mitch who is also drunk. Mitch’s grim attitude makes Blanche nervous and she begins to ramble a bit about her dead husband and her birthday dinner. Mitch finally admits that he knows that Blanche lied to him all summer long, pretending to be moral and old fashioned. He tells her that he has heard stories from three different men about her past and Blanche denies them. But after a minute she breaks down and admits that the stories are true but that she feels differently about Mitch and thinks that he gives her hope for the future.

Blanche begins to get hysterical, rambling on about her past and her mother and seeming to hallucinate that she is back home again. Mitch, feeling badly for her, tries to hold her he says that he still wants to be with her but he can’t marry her because he can’t have her living in the same house as his mother. Blanche yells at him to leave and begins to cry. When he doesn’t move she begins to scream “Fire!” out of the window. Mitch hurriedly runs out and Blanche is left devastated.

Stanley arrives home later, also drunk. He tells Blanche that Stella is still in labor but that the baby probably won’t be born until the next day. Blanche informs Stanley that Shep Huntleigh has sent her a telegram asking her to come with him on his yacht to the Caribbean. Stanley is in a good mood until Blanche mistakenly beings to babble about Shep and how her talents and breeding have been wasted living in the apartment with the Kowalskis. Stanley beings to get angry again and asks her to admit that the telegram from Shep is fake. After this he goes into the bathroom and Blanche becomes more and more agitated as she waits for him to come out.

She attempts to call the operator to get help, fearing that Stanley is going to hurt her but he comes out of the bathroom before she can be connected with anyone. Stanley approaches Blanche, menacingly and corners her. Blanche tells him to stay away but he continues to advance on her. She grabs a bottle and smashes it on the table to use as a weapon. He grabs her arms and forces her to drop the bottle. Easily, he overpowers her and carries her to bed where he rapes her.

A few weeks later, Stella is crying as she packs up Blanche’s belongings. Blanche is taking a bath and Stanley and his friends are playing poker again. Eunice enters the apartment and begins to help Stella with the packing. She informs Stella that the baby, which she has been watching, is asleep. Stella then tells Eunice that they are sending Blanche for a bit of a rest in the country but that Blanche irrationally thinks that she is going to go sailing with Shep Huntleigh. She tells Eunice that she is unsure if she did the right thing by her sister but that she cannot believe Blanche’s story about Stanley raping her. Blanche emerges from the bathroom and the women soothe her as she moves around the room with an obviously unhinged energy.

Mitch hears her voice in the next room and begins to get quiet. Stanley snaps at him to focus on the game and the sound of Stanley’s voice drives Blanche into hysterics. The women attempt to calm her. The doorbell rings and Blanche assumes that it is Shep. It is, however, actually a doctor and nurse. Blanche walks out into the other room and all of the poker players stand, respectfully as she passes. Except Mitch who can only stare at the table. When Blanche sees that the person coming for her is a doctor and not Shep, she gets frightened and goes back into the apartment. The doctor advises the nurse to go in and get Blanche. There is a struggle between them.

Upset, Stella goes out onto the porch with Eunice who tries to comfort her. Stanley blocks Mitch from entering the bedroom to help Blanche. Mitch tries to hit Stanley but the other man pushes him back. The doctor begins to speak softly to Blanche and tells the nurse to release her. “Whoever you are,” Blanche says to him, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

The doctor leads Blanche out of the apartment and Blanche does not look back at her sister as she leaves. Eunice brings Stella her baby and then goes to join the men in the apartment. Stanley joins Stella who is crying while holding her baby. He comforts her while speaking softly.

Character Analysis 

Blanche DuBois – when the play starts, Blanche is already a fallen women in the public eyes. Her family fortune and estate are gone, she lost her young spouse to suicide years prior, and she is a social outsider because of her indiscreet sexual conduct. She also has an awful drinking problem, which she conceals poorly. Behind her polish of social grandiosity and sexual morality, Blanche is a shaky, separated person. She is a maturing former beauty queen who lives in a state of never-ending alarm about her disappearing excellence. She acts dainty and slight, and she brandishes a closet of flashy but cheap garments. Stanley sees through Blanche’s act and searches out information about her past.

In the Kowalski family, Blanche professes to be a lady who has never known indignity. Her false respectability is not just gaudiness, it constitutes a computed endeavor to make herself seem appealing to new male suitors. By marrying, Blanche would escape destitution and the awful notoriety that haunts her. But since the Southern gentleman she trusts will save her is no longer in existence, Blanche is left with no reasonable hope for future bliss. As Blanche sees it, Mitch is her chance for happiness, despite the fact that he is a long way from her first choice.

Stanley’s tenacious abuse of Blanche foils her quest for Mitch and in addition to her endeavors to shield herself from the unforgiving truth of her circumstances. The play is an account of the disintegration of Blanche’s mental health. Stanley himself takes the last shot at Blanche, devastating the rest of her sexual and mental health by assaulting her and after that conferring her to an asylum. At last, Blanche permits herself to be pulled away by a kind doctor, not noticing her sister’s cries. This last scene is the tragic zenith of Blanche’s vanity and reliance upon men for joy.

Stanley Kowalski – Stanley is a interesting character because of his many facets of personality. He loves Stella but is incredibly abusive toward her. He hates Blanche but sometimes shows politeness toward her. In the beginning of the play, before the first poker night incident, Stanley could almost be seen as somewhat of a hero.

Stanley’s family comes from Poland and he expresses anger at being referred to as a “Pollack” by Blanche several times in the play. This ties into Stanley’s sense of self-worth and his disapproval at being seen as low class or uneducated. Most of Stanley’s dislike of Blanche comes from her dismissal of him as being common and lacking in breeding. Stanley sees himself as representing a new, homogenous view of American culture and Blanche’s class being defunct and old guard. He considers himself the new phase of evolution and even casually brings up that he feels that he saved Stella by getting her away from her family and bringing her down to his level.

Stanley’s character is at times harmlessly uncouth and at times a complete monster. He doesn’t seem to have any remorse for beating his wife or raping Blanche. And he seems to consider these actions necessary to keep the women in line. The final image of Stanley in the play is one of a generous family man, comforting his wife and newborn child. This is, of course, at complete odds with the personality that we have seen thus far and can, therefore be considered a mask.

Stella Kowalski – Stella is Blanche’s younger sister and former society woman who now lives in the worst part of town with her slovenly husband. Even though Stella has fallen so far in life, it could be argued that she is still better off than Blanche in the beginning of the play as she still has a home.

Stella is a quiet woman, probably made meek by her abusive husband’s moods. She loves her husband passionately, though he beats her and she seems to love her sister very much as well, although the two don’t always get along and have little in common. Stella considers the passionate physical relationship she shares with her husband as fair trade for the way he treats her. She is a classic example of an abused spouse and is brainwashed to the point that she no longer believes that her husband can do any wrong even though he she frequently observes him doing so.

At the end of the play, she admits to Eunice not so much that she doesn’t believe that Stanley raped Blanche, but that she wouldn’t be able to go on living with him if she admitted to herself that she believed it. In this way we are shown a bit about the toll his abuse has taken on her life and how, as a woman in the early 20th century with a new baby, she has few other options even if she chose to leave him.

Harold “Mitch” Mitchell – Mitch is perhaps the most sensitive and caring of Stanley’s friends. Throughout most of the play he provides a good opposite to Stanley’s hot-headed abusiveness. The other men in the poker game pick on him but even in his brief introduction in scene one, we are shown that he is a gentleman. Mitch lives with and cares for his dying mother and wishes to find a woman to marry before his mother passes on.

Blanche’s interest him is more a result of her need for male attention than actual attraction. Mitch is clumsy, sweaty and shy and hardly fits the ideal of Blanche’s refined southern gentleman. Mitch and Blanche are drawn to each other because of their rough pasts and mutual need of companionship. When Mitch learns of Blanche’s former promiscuity, he admits that he still cares for her but that he cannot let her live in a house with his proper mother.

At the end of the play, Mitch is obviously disturbed by Blanche’s mental breakdown and relocation to an asylum. However, he attempts to help her only when he hears her struggling with the nurse and allows himself to be bullied into standing down by Stanley.

Tennessee Williams Biography

Tennessee Williams was an American playwright regarded as one of the foremost dramatists of the 20th century. Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911 and named John Lanier Williams. He spent most of his youth in Saint Louis. After attending the University of Missouri and Washington University, he received a B.A degree in 1938. He worked odd jobs until 1945 when he made his debut on Broadway as the author of “The Glass Menagerie”. This evocative “memory play” won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as the best play of the season.

His emotional play “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) has been touted as the best American play of all time and won Williams his first Pulitzer Prize for drama. He was soon awarded another Pulitzer for “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” (1954).

All three of these plays contain the poetic dialogue, the symbolism and the original characters for which Williams is famous. All are also set in the American south, a regional identity which the author used to create a never before seen blend of sensuality, nostalgia and decadence.

In the 1930’s, William’s came out as openly homosexual and joined New York’s small circle of openly gay intelligentsia.

Despite Williams success and acclaim he often felt restless and suffered from addiction to drugs and alcohol. This only worsened when he began to see a decline in his success in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1963 his partner of many years, Frank Merlo died and Williams spiraled into a depression which left him visiting many rehabs and treatment facilities.

Most of his plays in during this time were critical failures. His last play, “A House Not Meant to Stand” was produced in 1982 and only went for 40 performances.

In 1983, Williams was found dead in his New York hotel at the age of 71. The initial coroners report stated that he choked on the cap of a bottle of eye drops that he’d been using, but was later amended to include that his copious drug and alcohol abuse most likely contributed to his death by suppressing his gag reflex.

Williams was buried in St. Louis by his surviving family members.