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Learn about the controversial play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ why it was so controversial, and why it is still considered a classic piece of American literature.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams presented controversial topics in his plays.
Tennessee Williams Portrait

In this lesson, we will examine A Streetcar Named Desire. We’ll look at when it came out, identify the main characters and basic elements of the plot, and examine how it is an example of both social and psychological realism.At the end of its premiere on Broadway, the audience of A Streetcar Named Desire sat quiet – apparently they were a little shocked. But after the shock wore off, they went wild, applauding for thirty minutes straight. What could be so controversial, so shocking, and worth applauding for thirty minutes straight? In order to understand the phenomena of A Streetcar Named Desire, we need to take a look at the cultural scene at the time.

In 1947, when Streetcar came on the scene, people were entertained by lighthearted productions, and musical comedies were hugely popular. It was a time after World War II, and people were in a state of happy complacency, enjoying a carefree life free from the burdens of being at war. But Tennessee Williams had something new in store: some deep and slightly dark portrayals of human existence. He had just produced his first big success, The Glass Menagerie, a play about the inner turmoil experienced by a brother and sister who struggle to fill the expectations of their overbearing mother.While The Glass Menagerie was definitely a little controversial at the time for its portrayal of a dysfunctional family life, A Streetcar Named Desire completely broke down the door of convention with its portrayal of sexuality, violence, and a slow, rather tragic demise into insanity. Elements like these weren’t talked about in public, and they certainly weren’t shown on public stages, so people were taken aback at first. In the end, Williams’ portrayals were so real that audiences fell in love with this play.

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It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for best drama and to later become an American film classic.

Characters and Setting

Looking at a breakdown of the play, A Streetcar Named Desire takes place in a run-down section of New Orleans, where jazz and booze flow constantly, where different cultures intermingle, and where street fights are common. It starts off on a streetcar named – you guessed it – ‘Desire,’ where Blanche DuBois, the main character, steps off into this steamy and volatile setting.

The trouble begins when Blanche moves in with her sister and brother-in-law.
Blanche Stays with Sister

For the record, Blanche is a highly emotional, flamboyant sort of Southern belle fleeing from the loss of her ancestral plantation Belle Reve. I say ‘sort of a Southern belle’ because this is the image she tries to portray, wearing super-frilly dresses and constantly flirting when, in fact, her beauty is fading and she is really an out-of-work schoolteacher with a shady past.

She does try to uphold the fantasy, though, and she is always reminiscing about better times in a very poetic and dreamy kind of way. Blanche uses her poetic speech to create this fantasy image of herself in order to cover up a rather shady past, which is understandable. She’s dealing with guilt from her husband committing suicide, which took place after she discovered him in bed with another man. And then, having trouble coping with the loss of her husband and loss of her estate, she ended up sleeping with one of her students, which causes her to lose her job.When Blanche arrives with this haunted sort of past, she comes to stay with her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Stella is pregnant and they are both living in a run-down, tiny apartment, but they seem pretty happy. The drama starts in right away as Blanche flirts about the apartment like an old-school Southern belle while Stanley interrogates her about losing his wife’s estate.

Stanley Kowalski is a crude, straight-to-the-point, brawling factory parts salesman who doesn’t buy any of Blanche’s romantic fantasies. Stanley is often called ‘primitive,’ compared to an animal in the play, and dominates this scene physically, acting according to his wants and desires – not exactly the well-behaved citizen who follows the rules and expectations of society.

The Plot

Blanche and Stanley have some pretty serious sexual tension, but mostly they just bicker, with Blanche calling him ‘a drunk, animal thing’ and Stanley stomping around the apartment trying to reclaim his territory and maintain his position as man of the house. From Stanley’s perspective, Blanche is maybe the worst roommate ever, constantly complaining about the apartment and bad-mouthing him and then drinking all of the booze and making it hard for him to sleep with his wife. At one point, the argument goes so far that violence ensues. Stanley becomes enraged by Blanche’s and Stella’s lack of respect for him, and he ends up beating his pregnant wife, Stella. Afterward, when he realizes that she has left him, he becomes remorseful, and in a famous scene, he stumbles out into the street calling ‘STELLA!’ He reminds me of a whiny toddler at this point.

To Blanche’s horror, however, Stella is touched by his desperation and walks back down to embrace Stanley.After this traumatic event, in an effort to keep Stella, Stanley tries to tolerate her sister Blanche – not that Blanche wants to be there. She would love for a handsome and wealthy gentleman to come and sweep her off her feet, but since there are no handsome or wealthy gentlemen around, she ends up settling for Mitch, one of Stanley’s fellow factory workers. But just when she’s charmed Mitch into marrying her, Stanley tells him all about the scandals of her past, which breaks up the couple for good.This causes Blanche to sink even deeper into insanity.

She actually dresses up in even more gaudy costumes, puts on a tiara and starts talking full-time to Shep Huntleigh, who she keeps saying is going to send for her to come and stay with him on his yacht in the Caribbean. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Blanche at this point; if she hasn’t completely lost her marbles, she is definitely on the path to do so. Certainly she is not stable enough to handle being sexually assaulted, but that’s what happens.

Blanche slowly drifts into insanity until she is finally institutionalized.
Blanche Sent to Institution

Stanley comes home and starts a fight with Blanche; she resists but ends up losing the battle and becoming a victim of rape via Stanley. The irony is that for a character who is known for living in a fantasy world, when she does actually tell the truth and reveal that Stanley raped her, no one believes her. She is too psychologically fragile to handle this, and she ends up completely losing her sanity. While Blanche is sent off to a mental institution, Stella and Stanley go on as a couple taking care of their baby – all in all, a pretty tragic story.

Social Realism

Now that we know the basic plot, we can view the play for its portrayal of social realism, which means that it realistically shows relationships going on in society at the time.

Specifically, A Streetcar Named Desire is a commentary on the social changes taking place during the first half of the 20th century due to industrialization and immigration. When Streetcar came out, there was a definite clash between different classes and cultures. Immigrants were often viewed as second-class citizens, and there was a ton of prejudice and judgment about whether immigrants were really ‘American.’Blanche represents the old-school traditions that separated races and classes, whereas Stanley and Stella represent the new mixing of class and culture. When Blanche shows up in New Orleans, she is full of prejudice about class, which is out-of-place in New Orleans and in direct contrast to her sister and Stanley’s relationship.

And when Blanche touches on a sensitive issue and tries to belittle Stanley by referring to his Polish heritage, he gets super defensive, shouting ‘I’m American!’ So you can see how Stanley and Blanche are not only super-volatile characters but how they also represent this larger confrontation going on in the culture at the time about what it really means to ‘be American.’

Psychological Realism

Williams’ work is also known for its psychological realism, meaning that in his plays, we get to see reality not necessarily as it exists in the physical world but as it exists in the mind. The trip down the lane of mental instability is common in Williams’ work, and it can be a little disturbing because it seems kind of plausible. For example, we have all been in that situation where something we really wanted to happen just didn’t, and we just have to deal with it. Williams gives us characters who are often unable to just deal with it, and we get a close look into the frailty of the human mind.

The play was a reflection on the social view of immigrants as second-class citizens.
Play Reflection on Americans

In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche literally blocks out the ‘harsh light of reality,’ using a paper lantern to cover up the bright bulb in the Kowalski apartment. Her comment on the light is informative when she says ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be truth.

And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on!’ In this line, she confesses her inability to confront reality, and it is painful to watch her become more and more mentally unstable as she struggles to escape from the reality of her current situation by living in a fantasy. We all have desire, which for Blanche is taken to an extreme. Desire is ultimately her demise, and in Blanche, Tennessee Williams gives us a sad, yet realistic portrayal of the frailty of the human psyche.

Lesson Summary

To sum up: for its disturbing yet realistic portrayals, A Streetcar Named Desire is known as one of the best dramas in American contemporary literature.

Openly exploring the controversial themes of sexuality, violence, and mental instability, it broke traditional conventions of the time and opened the door for writers to explore the darker side of humanity.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Summarize the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Explain why the play was controversial
  • Understand how the play employs social and psychological realism

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