A Streetcar Named Desire       [ Oral: A  Written: A      –JMS]

Theologia Karagiorgis, Joanna Mavromatis, Sara Wong, Jun Jake Zhang,


A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams, is about the conflict between two opposing forces, the traditions of the Old South and the urban, and working class. It is a play that embodies the social events and changes that occurred at the time.  (The Movie Trailer, as shown in the presentation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5mYaun87CQ)

Blanche DuBois, a supposedly upscale, high-nosed aristocrat, appears on her sister Stella Kowalski’s doorsteps one day for a visit. Stella is surprised but concerned because she is married to Stanley Kowalski, who prides himself on seducing Stella away from her aristocratic backgrounds. (Williams)


Prior to Blanche’s arrival, Stella and Stanley have had a relationship strongly based in animalistic, emotional, and sexual chemistry. As Blanche settles in, however, Stella appears to be more concerned with the well being of Blanche than with satisfying Stanley. This leads to a conflict between Stella and Stanley, and eventually leads to Stanley beating her up out of rage. He later begs for her forgiveness at her doorstep, and Stella passionately takes him back. (Williams)  (For the famous movie seen, see this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5mYaun87CQ)


Blanche is later introduced to one of Stanley’s friends, Mitch, who is well mannered. He and Blanche appear to be connecting as friends and possibly lovers, when Stanley discovers that Blanche has been lying. Due to recent deaths in the family and having lost the estate, she is staying with the Kowalski’s because she has nowhere else to go. He exposes her unrespectable past as a prostitute and her dignity seems to fade as her attempts at disillusionment increases. (Williams)

Later in the book, Stanley and Stella argue again, but Stella goes into labor. Later that night, Stanley and Blanche are alone in the house while Stella is in the hospital delivering his baby. Both are under the influence of alcohol and Stanley becomes angry with Blanche. He proceeds to rape her.  Weeks later, Stanley then sends Blanche to a mental institution, insinuating that by losing her last bit of dignity, Blanche DuBois was pushed over the edge. (Williams)

Historically, the play discusses the South as it evolved after the Great Depression and World War Two.  It was an area where social classes were divided and often struggled to gain power.  The plantation-based aristocracy lost control as industrialism began to grow. The play has nostalgia for “Southern Charm”, which was replaced by the growth of industry after the Great Depression.  The “Old South” was where aristocracy ruled, women possessed a certain charm, and men followed a code of behavior.  The play centers on a power struggle between Blanche and Stanley, which symbolizes the conflict between the Old South and the new urban areas.  (“Streetcar…”)


The war also brought changes in labor forces because people began to turn to urban areas for jobs, instead of establishing plantations.  Women’s suffrage also ended the aristocracy ruled by men.  (“Notes…”)  The play specifically represents working and lower class people because they were believed to be the new brand of American heroes, people who accomplished things with their own hands and cared about the country.  World War Two resulted in a new definition of an American hero, who was a hardworking man with family values and traditional American ideals.  After the war, people were ready to return to the traditional American constructs of family values and home.  The post war victory also resulted in a masculine bravado that is seen in the men’s abrupt and aggressive actions.  (“Streetcar…”)


At the time, women needed men to be socially accepted.  They had to conform to certain behaviors and were expected to uphold certain values.  Blanche needed to conform in order to maintain a reasonable life.  Mitch’s rejection of Blanche reveals what was socially acceptable at the time.  Since Blanche had been a prostitute, Mitch could not marry her without losing respect for himself.  (“Notes…”)

The play is set in a part of New Orleans called Elysian Fields, which is a reference to the place that ancient Greeks believed was a home for the dead.  After victorious soldiers died in battle, they went to Elysian Fields for eternity.  By having Stanley and his war buddies return to Elysian Fields sets a hopeful tone in which they can establish fruitful lives for themselves.  (“Streetcar…”) Kenneth Holditch, who gives literary tours in New Orleans, says the location proved inspirational. “[Williams] said from that apartment he could hear that rattletrap streetcar named Desire running along Royal, and one named Cemeteries running along Canal. And it seemed to him the ideal metaphor for the human condition.”

The characters in the book are also significant in understanding the times. Blanche Dubois is a relic from the past. From the moment she appears on stage, or on film, the audience senses her arrival in the French Quarter will not be homecoming. It is painfully obvious that she doesn’t have the survival skills needed to live there. The people who live in the French Quarter of New Orleans do not share her love of Shakespeare, nor do they accept the hard knocks her life has been given. Life at Elysian Fields is about satisfying basic physical and economic needs. While this is a reality for Blanche as well, she is repelled by the way in which these people live and love.

Stanley Kowalski, Blanche’s brother in law, symbolizes the values that horrify Blanche. He is King of the Elysian Fields; He controls his wife Stella, their finances, his friends, and their card games. Even though Stella tries to defend Blanche, she is too much a part of the present to reject her husband or change her life. In scene three of the play, Stanley punches Stella who runs to a neighbor for safety. A few minutes later Stanley is contrite, bellowing for Stella to return. Driven by lust, she goes back to him, caresses him, and is carried off into their bedroom.


The morning after Stanley’s attack, Stella tells Blanche that there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the middle of the night that make everything else seem unimportant. Blanche pleads with her to not “hang back with the brutes” and accuses her of giving in to brutal desire, but admits that she has ridden that same streetcar. Although Blanche’s presence makes Stella more assertive and aware, a married woman with a baby in post WWII America has no place to go if she can’t accept the life a man like Stanley Kowalski has to offer. (During the presentation, this section of the play, the end of Scene Four, was dramatically read to help illustrate the language Blanche used and the overall mood of this part of the play.)

For Stanley and Stella, animal magnetism is more than a cliché; because Stanley satisfies Stella’s physical needs, he can beat her, bed her, and pay her $10 to smooth things over and she’s a happy woman. The relationship between Steve and Eunice, the Kowalski’s neighbors, is the same. The man is the breadwinner, the seed bearer, and the king.

In scene nine, Blanche tells Mitch that desire is the opposite of death. To live, one must submit to the primal drive that makes Blanche flirtatious and seductive. Blanche, however, cannot overcome the self-image she feels compelled to maintain – that of an innocent schoolteacher. This is what Mitch wants, and to attract him Blanche puts herself out of his reach. Trapped by her own primal feelings she resists his advances to give the impression of innocents, and all the while hides her stained past.


The tender feelings of first love that Blanche desires are missing not only from the Quarter, but also from the world William’s dramatizes. Blanche’s husband Alan was gay. Blanche’s male ancestors are guilty of “epic fornications.” Blanche’s potential suitor is not on the other end of the line because he does not exist. A gentleman is simply a figment of her imagination.


Blanche pushes away Mitch because she is afraid of letting desire control her life. It does anyway. It got her fired, it made her a prostitute, and it brought her to Stanley’s house and it precipitated her downfall. Before Stanley rapes Blanche he says that they’ve “had this date from the beginning.” This brutal triumph is a symbolic victory for Stanley on two levels: first, he proves to Blanche that she can’t control desire; second, the blue-collar worker has overcome the aristocrat. While simple Stanley certainly doesn’t realize the symbolic nature of his conquest, Tennessee Williams does. Blanche Dubois’ image of aristocratic gentlemen, refined society, wealth, and culture, crumble when confronted with violent sexual aggression, ignorance, and a blue-collar struggle to secure a future. Blanche’s ideas belong in the past. The consequence of clinging to them brings only ruin.


The same characters and themes were present in both the movie and play versions of the story. Tennessee Williams published A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947. This was William’s second award winning play, following The Glass Menagerie (1944), which received the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The eleven-scene play, A Streetcar Named Desire received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was adapted into a Broadway production the same year of its publication. The play opened on December 3rd 1947 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and closed on December 17th 1949, having an impressive two-year run. The production was directed by Elia Kazan, and featured Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. Jessica Tandy took on the role of Southern Belle, Blanche DuBois and Kim Hunter played Stella Kowalski. Brando’s role as the “passionate, ape-like” Stanley Kowalski earned him instant stardom. Tandy won a Tony Award for her excellent embodiment of Blanche’s passionate, at times peculiar nature. [i]

The performances in A Streetcar Named Desire can be classified as method acting. In this type of acting, the actor completely submerges their identity and adopts the persona of their character. Unlike many actors at time, the performers in the production did not just convey emotion through movement and language. They studied their roles until they were able to fully embrace the spirit of their character, making their performance overwhelmingly and undoubtedly believable.[ii] In fact, when the curtains fell on opening night, there was a stunned silence followed by a reported 30-minute applause. The audience was appalled at the explicit content they had bared witness to, and at the same time drawn to the unsheltered portrayal of intense human emotion.

In 1951, the play was adapted into a black and white film that premiered in West Germany. Elia Kazan, the director of the Broadway production, directed the movie. The actors playing Stanley and Stella remained the same. Vivian Leigh, who had previously starred in “Gone With the Wind”, took on the role of Blanche. The film earned twelve Oscar nominations. Vivian Leigh took home the award for Best Actress and Kim Hunter won an Oscar for her supporting role. Today, the movie has been released in nineteen countries including Portugal, Norway and Sweden. It has also been released to a wider audience in the United States and is now available for viewing on television.


Although the film received excellent reviews, it was clear that the story line did not stay true to William’s original text. The Broadway production and the film had one significant, recognizable difference. In the movie, Stella leaves Stanley as a form of punishment after she discovers that Stanley raped her sister. This however is not true to the written text. The Catholic Legion of Decency, who at the time wielded great influence on the American film industry “threatened to condemn the film unless the explicitly sexual scenes –including the climatic rape- were removed.” Tennessee Williams refused to take out the rape scene. As a result, the legion insisted that Stanley be punished on screen. Due to their request, the movie, but not the play ends with Stella leaving Stanley. [iii]


Even with an alternate ending, the movie achieved great success and provided a stepping-stone for Marlon Brando. Brando is easily recognized today for his roles in movies such as the Godfather and the 1978 Superman movie. The scene during which Brando yells out Stella’s name, while simultaneously ripping his shirt off, resonates in our hearts till this day. Even those, to whom Tennessee William’s work is foreign, can easily identify this emotional moment in the movie.

Time Magazine awarded the 1951 film with a spot on their list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. They said: “Though the movie has its flaws, it can claim a merit rare in Hollywood films: it is a grown up, gloves-off drama of real human beings”.[iv] Recent reviews have been similar. A review written in 1993 by Roger Ebert from the Chicago Times states: “Before this role, there was usually a certain restraint in American movie performances. Actors would portray violent emotions, but you could always sense to some degree a certain modesty that prevented them from displaying their feelings in raw nakedness. Brando held nothing back…”.[v] Recent reviews from the general public highlighted words such as “sexy”, “brutal” and “endlessly fascinating.” Reviews at the time the film was released and recent reviews are similar in that they agree the movie had an engaging level of drama and raw emotion. It depicted every day life and it’s intensity. There was nothing sugarcoated about the text, nor the acting. It was the first time in an American film that the emotion was overwhelmingly believable.

A Streetcar Named Desire was adapted into other forms of expression aside from film. Its universal themes allowed for various adaptations in a variety of mediums. In 1952, the play was transformed into a ballet premiering at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal. Blanche’s movements were supposedly extremely dramatic and the rape scene was characterized by strong, passionate dance. In 1973, the play had its first revival and the Beaumont Theatre and Lincoln Center. In 1995, the play was adapted into an opera and was presented by the San Francisco Opera. In 1992, A Streetcar Named Desire was revived at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where it was filmed for television. The play is still on Broadway today and the ballet version of the play has been shown and recreated all over the United States. The play is still on Broadway today and the ballet version of the play has been shown and recreated all over the United States. A Streetcar Named Desire has definitely made its mark in the entertainment business.


What is interesting about Tennessee William’s plays is his focus on creating memorable female characters and vulgar male characters. This can be attributed to his rough upbringing. William’s father was a traveling salesman with a serious alcohol problem. William’s spent much of his young life traveling and always felt out of place. Not having a strong father figure resulted to William gravitating towards the comfort of the women in his life. Williams’ plays have much to do with his life of hardship and depression. Tennessee Williams was a homosexual in a time where homosexuality was far from becoming a norm. [vi]He struggled most of his life and his struggle is evident through his characters.

A Streetcar Named Desire deals with many issues that, even to this day, are extremely prominent. The equality of women, homosexuality, insanity, the roles of men and women—thus make the piece a timeless classic. These concepts are what made the play so unique, for the ideas presented and problems raised are timeless. In addition, the play also examines the lifestyle of a certain time period, thus making it an educational adventure.

[i] The Broadway League. "A Streetcar Named Desire." Internet Broadway Database. N.p., 2009. Web. Nov.
     2009. <http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=1804>.
[ii] "Method Acting." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
[iii] "This Day in History." History. N.p., 2009. Web. Nov. 2009. <http://www.history.com/
[iv] Time Magazine. 100 Movies All Time. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/2005/
[v] Ebert, Roger. "A Streetcar Named Desire ." Roger Ebert. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2009.

[vi] SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on A Streetcar Named Desire.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. Dec. 2009.

Works Cited

Ebert, Roger. "A Streetcar Named Desire." Roger Ebert. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2009.    <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19931112/REVIEWS/311120304/1023>.

“A Streetcar Named Desire: Historical Context.”  Jiffynotes.com.  25 November 2009.


“Notes on Drama: A Streetcar Named Desire (Historical Context).” Answers.com.  25 November 2009.


The Broadway League. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Internet Broadway Database. N.p., 2009. Web. Nov.
2009. <http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=1804>.

“Method Acting.” Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. Dec. 2009. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on A Streetcar Named Desire.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2003. Web. Dec. 2009.

"This Day in History." History. N.p., 2009. Web. Nov. 2009. <http://www.history.com/
Time Magazine. 100 Movies All Time. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/2005/
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: Penguin Books, Ltd.  1975. Print.

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