A Streetcar Named Desire

One of the most renowned plays of the 20th century, Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire follows a penniless, troubled former schoolteacher called Blanche DuBois who leaves her small town and moves in with her sister Stella and Stella’s husband Stanley in New Orleans. The original 1947 Broadway production was vital in propelling the career of Marlon Brando and was one of New York’s longest running shows. And the play won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. It is a study of family loyalty, sibling rivalry and instability, all set in one of the US’s most evocative cities. The play has frequently been adapted for television and film, and a short prequel was made just two years ago.

Family

The sudden entrance of Blanche into Stella and Stanley’s life causes great tension among the trio. The marriage between Stella and Stanley operates on a turbulent combination of hero-worship, aggression and sexual attraction. Meanwhile the relationship between the two sisters becomes strained, as Blanche discovers how violent Stanley is, and is bewildered that Stella would go back with him.

Class

The relationship between Stella and Stanley is defined by class. Stanley and his friends are of a lower social class than the two “Southern belle” sisters, an archetype that was already fading by the time the play was written. Stanley’s friends come across as uncouth and discourteous to Blanche, with the exception of Mitch, with whom she chats and flirts.

Sexual abuse

Sex is essentially a destructive force in A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley is frequently violent towards Stella, and it could be said that lust is the only unifying factor between the married couple. At the end of the play it is strongly implied that he rapes Blanche, leading to the latter’s psychotic breakdown. Sexual abuse in the book is strongly linked to Stanley’s hyper-masculinity.

Mental health

A Streetcar Named Desire features Blanche’s gradual descent into madness, which culminates in a mental breakdown. At first this madness is just an attempt to escape from her pain. But as the play progresses, Blanche’s carefully crafted image of herself comes crashing down to the extent that, by the play’s end, she can no longer distinguish between her fantasies and the world around her.

The South

This play presents two different sides of the US’s most enigmatic region. Blanche is defined by her upbringing in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi, while Stanley is a product of the inner-city at a time when the region was still heavily dependent on agriculture. And of course, this was still the era of racial segregation.