A Streetcar Named Desire

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Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2010
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 27. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Character overview; Work overview; Plot summary
Pages: 22
Content Level: (Level 4)

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A Streetcar Named Desire

1951

INTRODUCTION

A Streetcar Named Desire is a film released in 1951, based on the play of the same title by Tennessee Williams, which was first produced in 1947. The film is closely based on the play. It is set in a poor section of New Orleans and features four main characters: Blanche DuBois; her sister, Stella; Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski; and Mitch, a friend of Stanley's. Blanche comes to stay with Stella and Stanley in their cramped apartment. Blanche, a refined but unhappy woman who has been unable to find lasting love, soon comes into conflict with the blunt-spoken and aggressive Stanley. She is briefly courted by Mitch, but the new love does not last, and Blanche ends up losing touch with reality and being sent to an asylum for the insane.

The film was the first ever to win three Academy Awards (also known as Oscars) for acting. British actress Vivien Leigh won the award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche. Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, and Elia Kazan won in the Best Director category. However, Marlon Brando, whose brilliant performance as Stanley has thrilled moviegoers for over half a century, was not rewarded with an Oscar.

With its ruthless presentation of love and loneliness and its stellar individual performances, A Streetcar Named Desire is regarded as one of the best American films ever made. Some of the content of the film was considered controversial at the time, and viewers should be Page 210  |  Top of Article aware that some scenes contain intense confrontations between the characters, although the actual violence shown is minimal.

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FILM TECHNIQUE

Black-and-White Film

The film was shot in black and white, and it uses lighting to bring out one of the motifs of the play: Blanche's desire to present herself only in dim light out of fear that daylight would reveal her true age. Symbolically, Blanche's desire for darkness over light suggests her need to maintain illusions at the expense of truth. She keeps her room dark, as in the scene in which she meets Mitch, which takes place half in shadow. It is as if there is a veil spread over Blanche. Mitch has to light a match so that she can read the inscription on the cigarette case he shows her. She then asks Mitch to place a colored paper lantern over the bare bulb in her room, to soften the light, before she will switch it on.

The artful use of lighting to convey this aspect of Blanche's personality occurs again in the scene in which Mitch comes late at night and accuses her of lying to him (chapter 20 in the DVD selections). Blanche's face is half in shadow when she hears the doorbell ringing. The film then cuts to the empty and dark living room, which is partially lit by a flashing neon sign out in the street, suggesting the insistent, harsh light that Blanche tries so hard to keep at bay. ("I like the dark. The dark is comforting to me," she says later in this scene.) The light from the flashing neon sign continues as she lets Mitch in and at intervals during the scene. When Mitch switches one light on, Blanche gives a little gasp and runs for cover like a frightened animal. Mitch rips the lantern off the bulb, and she begs him not to turn the bare bulb on. He cruelly forces her to stand with her face directly under the light so he can see what she is really like. It is a savage moment, symbolically as well as physically. The harsh light of reality is like poison to her, and as she confesses what she has been through in her life and why, the scene plays out in normal lighting. The illusion she tried to preserve is gone, and with it anything that gives her hope. When she returns from the street after following Mitch out, she rushes around, closing the shutters to keep out all the light from the street and turning off all the lights again, as if by doing so she could go back to her comforting world of illusion. Again, her face is seen more than half in shadow. The lighting tells Blanche's story, reinforcing the message conveyed by the words.

Duration of Shots

The length of a shot can also create various effects. In moments when the action moves fast, the shots will tend to be of shorter duration. This technique of quick cutting conveys a sense of dynamism and motion. The pace of the film suddenly picks up. An example is the chaotic scene after Stanley throws the radio out of the window, angrily chases after Blanche, and is pulled back by the other men. As in real life, the eye of the viewer must move quickly to take in such a scene and see who is doing what to whom. Confusion abounds. In contrast, some of the many close-ups in the film are of longer duration; the action slows, and the emotions of the characters are explored. The variation in pace creates the subtle rhythm of the film, in which scenes of reflection and emotional disclosure are followed by explosions of action and movement.

PLOT SUMMARY

PLOT SUMMARY

The film A Streetcar Named Desire begins at a railroad station in New Orleans. Blanche DuBois emerges from the crowd, not sure where to go. She asks directions from a young man who tells her that the streetcar she needs, named Desire, is approaching. She boards the streetcar and arrives at a lively area of the city, where people are out enjoying themselves. She asks a woman for directions to a street called Elysian Fields and is told that she is in it. The woman is Eunice, who lives upstairs in the same building as Blanche's sister, Stella. Stella and her husband, Stanley Kowalski, occupy the downstairs apartment.

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Director Elia Kazan works with actors

Director Elia Kazan works with actors Karl Malden (Mitch) and Vivien Leigh (Blanche) on the set of the film. (Warner Bros / The Kobal Collection / The Picture Desk, Inc.)

The film cuts to a bowling alley, where Stella is watching Stanley play. Blanche finds Stella and they embrace. Stella points out her husband, who is seen stirring up a quarrel involving several men. Blanche says she does not want to meet him just yet. They find a quiet corner, and Blanche, who is a schoolteacher, explains that she has been able to come during the school term because the superintendent suggested she take a leave of absence. She was suffering from nervous exhaustion.

The next sequence begins in the Kowalskis' apartment, where Stella is running a bath for Blanche. Stella makes a place for Blanche in the small apartment. Blanche is distressed and needs to have people around her. She asks whether Stanley will like her, and Stella replies that they will get along well; it is clear that Stella and Stanley are in love.

Blanche reproaches Stella for leaving their home in Mississippi and going to New Orleans, while Blanche stayed at Belle Reve, their home, trying to keep it going. This was a burden on her, especially when their parents died. Blanche had to manage on her small teacher's salary, and now the house has been lost. Distressed, Stella runs to another room.

The film cuts to the street, where Stanley returns with his friends Mitch and Steve. Steve quarrels with his wife, Eunice. Blanche introduces herself to the muscular Stanley, who is wearing a tight-fitting, sweat-soaked T-shirt. Stanley offers a drink, but she says (untruthfully) that she rarely drinks. After asking Blanche whether she minds, Stanley removes his shirt and puts on a clean one. As they chat, Stanley discovers that Blanche is going to be staying there. Blanche seems nervous, and Stanley says he guesses she will find him an unrefined character. He also says he was told she had been married once, a remark that upsets Blanche. She says her husband died, and she is troubled by the memory.

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In the next scene, Stanley arrives in the apartment with Blanche's trunk. While Blanche is in the bath, Stella tells Stanley her sister is upset over losing the family home. Stanley wants to see documents regarding the sale. Stella knows nothing about it, but Stanley gets angry. He says that under the Napoleonic law that operates in Louisiana, anything that belongs to a wife also belongs to the husband, and he feels that she may have been swindled, which means he has been swindled, too.

He pulls out some expensive-looking clothes from Blanche's trunk, saying that Blanche could never have bought such things on a teacher's salary. Over Stella's protests, he says he will get an expert to appraise the value of the clothes. Then he finds Blanche's jewelry, and says he will get that appraised as well. Exasperated, Stella goes outside to the porch.

Blanche emerges from the bathroom. Going behind the curtain that cordons off her sleeping area, she is disturbed when she sees the ransacked trunk. When she has put on another dress, she asks Stanley to fasten the buttons at the back. Stanley questions her about the stylish clothes, and she says they were gifts from long ago. She keeps trying to get Stanley to compliment her on her appearance, without success. He gets impatient with her attempted flattery and yells at her, which brings Stella in from the porch. Blanche sends her away.

Stanley explains to Blanche about the Napoleonic code, and Blanche insists she has never cheated anyone. She retrieves a box from her trunk, in which she keeps most of her papers. She also pulls out what she says are love letters, and Stanley grabs them. She snatches at them and they get scattered on the floor. She gathers them up, saying they are from her dead husband. Then she gives Stanley the legal papers relating to Belle Reve. She says that several generations of the family squandered their wealth until all that was left was the house and twenty acres of land. Stanley says he will have a lawyer examine them. He also reveals that Stella is pregnant. When Stella returns, Blanche congratulates her and says she smoothed things over with Stanley.

Stella and Blanche go out to dinner, while Stanley's friends Mitch, Steve, and Pablo arrive for a game of poker. The gathering goes on until late at night, and Eunice, Steve's wife, bangs on the ceiling (the floor of their apartment), trying to get him to come home. Steve takes no notice. The men move the table before Eunice can start pouring boiling water through the cracks in the ceiling.

When Stella and Blanche return, Stanley is irritated by their presence and suggests that they go up to see Eunice. He slaps her rear in front of the other men, which angers her. Blanche meets Mitch outside the bathroom, and after Mitch goes to join the other men, Blanche tells Stella that he seems a cut above the others. Blanche inquires further, and Stella tells her that Mitch is single and works in the spare parts company. It is the same company Stanley works for, but Stella says Stanley has a better job.

As Stella passes on gossip about Eunice, the two women laugh. Stanley complains about the noise and then complains again when Blanche switches on the radio. Angry, he comes into Blanche's room and switches it off himself.

Mitch quits the card game, and he and Blanche engage in conversation. Mitch is charmed by Blanche, and she, craving attention, is pleased to accept his interest. She asks him to put a colored paper lantern that she has just purchased over the light bulb. Then she turns the radio on again and waltzes to the music, while Mitch self-consciously imitates her and a bemused Stella looks on.

Furious at the noise, Stanley rushes in, grabs the radio, and hurls it through the window. An angry Stella tries to throw the other men out, and there is a commotion. Stanley chases after Stella and has to be restrained by the other men. Pablo hits him, knocking him unconscious. The men drag him to the shower and put his head under it; the cold water revives him. There is another scuffle as Stanley throws the men off.

Stanley calls out for Stella, who has fled upstairs with Blanche. When he cannot find her, he sobs. He stands outside the building and calls up to Stella to come back. Eunice yells abuse at Stanley, but Stella cannot stay away for long. She returns, and they share a passionate embrace. Contrite, he carries her back to their apartment.

Terrified by the altercation, Blanche descends to the now quiet street, where she encounters Mitch, who tells her not to be frightened because Stanley and Stella are very much in love. Blanche thanks him for being kind.

In the morning, Blanche returns to the apartment. Stella is in bed alone; Stanley has already left to get the car fixed. Blanche goes to comfort her sister, only to discover that Stella is not Page 213  |  Top of Article bothered by the events of the previous night. Stanley has always smashed things, she says. Blanche does not understand why her sister accepts this behavior, and she has a plan for both of them to escape. Stella tells Blanche she does not want to escape her marriage. Outside, the returning Stanley overhears all this. Blanche complains to Stella that Stanley is common, like an animal, with his crude desires. Stella is unmoved by Blanche's criticisms of her husband, but she embraces her sister tenderly. Stanley enters, having overheard every word. Stella rushes to him, and they embrace, while Stanley grins at Blanche.

Eunice is chased down the fire escape by Steve. She shouts that he hit her and she is going to call the police. As Stanley comes in, though, he says she went to the bar first for a drink.

Stanley says he has heard something about Blanche from a man named Shaw, who says he met her in the Hotel Flamingo in her hometown. Unsettled, Blanche replies that the Flamingo is not the sort of place where she would be seen.

After Stanley leaves, Blanche asks Stella what people have been saying about her. She reveals there was some unsavory gossip about her in Auriol, her hometown (called Laurel in the play). Stella gives Blanche a Coke with a shot of whiskey, and Blanche promises Stella she will not be staying long. Blanche is distressed, and some of the drink gets spilled on her dress.

Blanche has been dating Mitch, and he is coming for her at seven that night. Blanche wants to hold Mitch's interest and eventually marry him so she will not have to stay with Stella and Stanley any longer. Stella comforts her.

Blanche is on her own in the house when a young man arrives, collecting money for the evening newspaper. Blanche flirts with him, even kissing him. As the boy leaves, Mitch arrives, carrying roses for Blanche.

Mitch and Blanche dance at an amusement park on the lake. They go outside and talk on the pier, and Mitch asks permission to kiss her. He makes it plain that he likes her a lot. Blanche laughs out of embarrassment. She lights a candle and they sit down at a table. Mitch is proud of how he keeps himself physically fit. He says he weighs 207 pounds and asks her what she weighs. She lets him pick her up and he remarks on how light she is. When he puts her down he tries to kiss her, but she resists, saying she is old-fashioned in that respect. It is an awkward moment, and Mitch is disappointed. The talk gets around to Stanley, and Mitch says he thinks Stanley does not understand her. Blanche says she thinks he hates her.

As they walk together, Mitch asks her how old she is. He says his mother, who is dying, wants him to settle down, and she wanted to know Blanche's age. The talk turns to loneliness, and Blanche reveals that her husband, whom she married when she was very young, was a sensitive, troubled young man who committed suicide. When they were at a dance one night, he stepped outside and shot himself. Moved by her story, Mitch says they are both lonely. He hopes they can have a life together. Blanche is touched, and they kiss.

The next scene begins in the factory, where several men are restraining Mitch, who wants to attack Stanley. Mitch is forced to calm down.

Later, as Stella and Blanche prepare for Blanche's birthday party, Stanley tells Stella he has found out the details of Blanche's disreputable life in Auriol. She used to live at the sleazy Flamingo Hotel but even that hotel asked her to leave. Stella tries to defend her sister, but Stanley insists he is correct. He says everyone in Auriol regarded Blanche as crazy. He adds that she did not take a leave of absence from her school; she was fired because she became involved with a seventeen-year-old boy. Stanley also tells Stella that Mitch will not be coming to the birthday party, because Stanley has told him about Blanche.

Blanche emerges, fresh after her bath, and knows right away that something is wrong because of the look on Stella's face.

At the birthday supper, Blanche says this is the first time she has ever been stood up, and she starts to tells a joke. She is interrupted by a doorbell ringing upstairs. Then Stella criticizes Stanley for his table manners, which angers Stanley so much that he tells her never to talk like that to him again. He sweeps his cup and saucer to the floor while the two women look down at the table. After he goes outside, Blanche tells Stella she has guessed why Mitch did not come.

Outside, Stella reproaches Stanley for his behavior. Stanley says things will be better when Blanche is gone. Back in the kitchen, Stanley becomes angry again because Blanche calls him a Polack. Stanley then presents Blanche with what he says is a birthday gift. It is an envelope containing a bus ticket to Auriol for the following Tuesday. Blanche is upset and runs to the bathroom. Once again, Stella rebukes Stanley for his cruelty. Page 214  |  Top of Article Stanley explains that they were happy until Blanche arrived. Stella then feels her baby move and tells Stanley to take her to the hospital.

Blanche is alone when she hears knocking at the door. It is Mitch, who is agitated and speaks roughly to her. When she offers him a drink he refuses, adding that he has been told by Stanley that she has been drinking excessively all summer. Still aggressive, Mitch switches the light on, saying he has never seen her in daylight and has therefore never had a good look at her. Blanche prefers dim lighting, which helps her conceal her age. He sees she is older than he thought she was but says he does not mind that. What he does mind are the stories he has been told about her life. Blanche admits she has had encounters with men she barely knew. She says it was because she was lonely after her husband's suicide. She needed some protection. Mitch is angry and accuses her of lying to him while they were developing their relationship. Blanche protests that she was sincere.

A blind Mexican woman comes to the door selling flowers for the dead. Blanche is upset because the mention of death reminds her of all the deaths of relatives she endured at Belle Reve. Mitch embraces her, and they kiss. She ask him to marry her, but he says he no longer wants to. She tells him to get out, and she follows him, in a scene added to the film that does not appear in the play, screaming into the street. A few men show concern for her, but she rushes back into the house, closing the shutters and turning the lights off. A police officer is called. He hammers on the door, but Blanche refuses to open it. Later, she dresses up in her finest clothes and retreats into a fantasy world of her own.

Stanley returns from the hospital, saying the baby will not arrive until the morning. Blanche lies that she has received an invitation by telegram from an old flame inviting her to join him on a Caribbean cruise. Stanley knows she is lying but goes along with her for a while. Blanche pretends her wealthy friend is a gentleman who wants her not for an affair but for companionship. She also lies that Mitch asked her to forgive him.

Stanley confronts Blanche with her lies, saying he knew from the beginning what she was like. He pushes her down onto the bed and yells at her, and then he storms out of the room. In desperation, Blanche gathers up some clothes and goes outside, but when she sees the Mexican woman again she returns to the house. She tries to make a phone call to get some help, but Stanley emerges from the bathroom and she breaks off the call. Stanley becomes aggressive, and Blanche runs into her bedroom. Stanley follows. Blanche, believing herself to be in danger, grabs a bottle, breaks it on a table and holds it up to him, trying to keep him at bay. He wrests the bottle top from her, and the film cuts to a shattered mirror.

Some time passes. Eunice is looking after Stella's baby while Stanley and his friends are playing cards. Stella tells Eunice she has made arrangements for Blanche to rest in the country, but Blanche still talks about the cruise she is going on. Blanche emerges from the bathroom, and the two women speak gently to her. Blanche is lost in her fantasy world.

A doctor and nurse arrive from a mental institution. When Blanche hears she has a visitor, she thinks it must be the man who is taking her on the cruise. When she sees him, she says he is not the man she has been expecting. She becomes hysterical and collapses on the floor, while the nurse grips her. Mitch is angry and aims a punch at Stanley; the other men pull him away.

The nurse lets go of Blanche, and the doctor takes Blanche's arm and leads her away. Blanche still does not know who he is. Stella speaks sharply to Stanley, telling him never to touch her again. Blanche is driven away in a car. As Stella holds her baby, she says to herself that she is not going back to Stanley. Off-screen, Stanley calls out her name.

The film stays close to the play, although there are a few changes in location, especially at the beginning. This was done in order to open out the movie beyond the simple stage setting of the play, in which the action takes place almost entirely in the Kowalski apartment. The play opens with Stanley returning home, bringing his wife some meat, which he tosses to her. This scene is omitted from the film, which begins by showing Blanche's arrival at the railroad station in New Orleans. Blanche is then directed by Eunice to the bowling alley, where she meets up with Stella and sees Stanley for the first time. In the play, there is no scene set in the bowling alley. Another change occurs in scene 6 of the play, in which Blanche and Mitch are seen returning to the apartment from their evening together. In the film, they are shown during the evening, first dancing together and then going outside the hall to the pier at the lake, where they talk.

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CHARACTERS

Blanche DuBois

Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) is an old-fashioned Southern belle who comes from an aristocratic family in Mississippi that has fallen on hard times. She married when she was very young, and her husband, whom she refers to as a "boy," committed suicide. His death still haunts her many years later. After the death of her husband she was never to find love again. She stayed on, a tormented widow, at the family home of Belle Reve, while her family squandered what was left of their wealth and her sister escaped to New Orleans. Blanche survived by taking a job as a teacher of English at a high school, but by this time she was emotionally spent, a fragile, brittle, lonely woman with no one to love and no real purpose to her life. Desperate for love and attention, something to nourish her heart, she started to go downhill, living at a sleazy hotel and entertaining men, always seeking love but never finding it.

The nostalgic Blanche tries to live in a world of high ideals, romance, refinement, and beauty that never really existed, She has fallen in the eyes of the world, but she still thinks of herself as being a member of a higher social class. She lives in a world of nostalgia and illusion. She knows that her beauty is fading, and she desperately wants to reclaim some of the magic of life that she once knew. She needs someone to protect her. By the time she arrives at the home of her sister, she is almost beyond hope. She has been fired from her job as a schoolteacher for having an inappropriate relationship with a seventeen-year-old boy, and she has nowhere else to go. She drinks too much in an effort to blot out the reality of her life, and she still likes to dress in fine clothes and act like the lady she believes she still is. She tries to cover up her past. From the moment she first encounters Stanley, they are in conflict; the longer she stays in the Kowalski apartment, the worse the tension between them grows. After the failure of her brief courtship with Mitch and after Stanley's assault on her, the discrepancy between what she needs and what she is able to get becomes too great, and she slips into madness. The only place left for her is the mental asylum. One of the great tragic figures in American drama, Blanche is an example of a woman who is too emotionally delicate to survive in a world that is populated by men such as Stanley Kowalski.

Vivien Leigh won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche.

Doctor

The doctor (Richard Garrick), an elderly man in a dark suit, comes with the nurse to the Kowalski home to escort Blanche to the mental institution. He treats her gently and offers her his arm as they walk out. Blanche does not know who he is, but she is willing to go with him.

Eunice

Eunice (Peg Hillias) is Steve's wife. She and her husband live in the apartment above the Kowalskis'. Eunice is a forthright woman who knows how to stand up for herself. Steve appears not to treat her very well, but she is unbowed. When the card game downstairs goes on too late, she bangs on the ceiling to get Steve to come home. Then she heats up some boiling water in order to pour it down the cracks in the ceiling. The men know what is coming—she has obviously done this before. On one occasion Eunice rushes out of the house saying her husband has hit her and she is going to call the police, but she never does and is soon reconciled to her husband. However, Eunice has no illusions about the way men are. She appears to dislike Stanley and is not intimidated by him. She gets along well with Stella, looking after the baby, and also speaks kindly to Blanche when Blanche is confused and about to be sent away. Eunice adopts a stoic attitude to life. Whatever has to be endured must be endured. "Life has got to go on," she says near the end of the film. "No matter what happens, you've got to keep on going."

Stanley Kowalski

Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando) is Stella's husband. He is between twenty-eight and thirty years old. In World War II he was a master sergeant in the Engineers' Corp, according to Stella, who met him when he was still in uniform. His family is of Polish origin, but he resents it when Blanche brings that up. He prides himself on being an American. Tennessee Williams included the following description of Stanley in the first scene of the stage play:

Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women … not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens.

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Stanley is a coarse man; he takes his male superiority for granted and does not accept any challenges to his authority from his wife or Blanche. He drinks and eats with relish and enjoys robust male company. He genuinely loves Stella in his own way and is reduced to sobbing and pleading with her when she flees upstairs to escape him after one of his aggressive outbursts. In that sense he relies on Stella and the love she offers, even though he would probably never admit it or even realize it.

Stanley often takes his aggression out on things rather than people—such as the radio, which he smashes. However, he also can be cruel to others, both mentally and physically. Giving Blanche a bus ticket home as a birthday present is an example of this cruelty. It is like twisting a knife in her heart. Another example of his cruelty is when they are alone in the apartment and he steps over the line and attacks her.

From Stanley's point of view, Blanche represents an intrusion on his happy life with Stella. He can no more understand her than he could understand a cat. She cannot understand him, either, or what Stella would see in him. Stella, however, likes a man who is not afraid to be a man, and that is Stanley Kowalski. He lives his life without reflecting on it, quite unlike Blanche, who is always looking back and wanting life to be something it is not. That would never occur to Stanley. He enjoys the things that life brings him—women, cars, buddies to play poker with, a bottle of beer—and he makes no apology for who he is.

Marlon Brando had played Stanley in the original Broadway play production. This was one of his first film roles. Utterly convincing as Stanley, he made a huge impact on moviegoers. Although the main character in the play is meant to be Blanche, Brando's performance as Stanley was so powerful and riveting that it almost became his film rather than Vivien Leigh's as Blanche. Ever since the film was released, few people can imagine the part of Stanley without seeing Brando in his tight-fitting T-shirt, all muscles and raw masculine power. Countless stage actors since have played the role as, in effect, lesser imitations of Brando.

Stella Kowalski

Stella Kowalski (Kim Hunter) is Stanley Kowalski's wife and Blanche's sister. Blanche pretends that Stella is older, but in fact Stella is younger by about five years. Stella left the family home in Mississippi to move to New Orleans, where she married Stanley. Blanche resents the fact that Stella left their home, leaving her to cope, but Stella has no regrets. She is happily married to Stanley. She loves him, in spite of his bullying and violent temper and despite the fact that he comes from a lower social class than she does. Although sometimes she becomes angry with his crude behavior, in general she does not mind his aggressive nature; in fact, she even admires it because it shows his masculinity. To Stella, a quarrel with Stanley does not mean much; they soon make up, and she knows that in spite of all his boorishness, he loves her. Blanche does not understand how Stella could want to remain in such a marriage, but Stella does not aspire to Blanche's refined, romantic ideas. She is happy where she is, with what she has. It is true that at the end of the film, she swears she will never go back to Stanley because of the way he treated Blanche, but the audience has seen her return to Stanley before after a quarrel, so her protestations that the marriage is over are less than convincing. In the play, Stella and Stanley embrace at the end, leaving no doubt about the nature of their relationship, whatever shocks it has gone through following Blanche's arrival.

Kim Hunter won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella.

Mexican Woman

The Mexican woman (Edna Thomas) is a blind woman who sells flowers to be displayed at funerals and other occasions. Blanche is upset on both occasions when she sees the Mexican woman because she is reminded of death.

Harold "Mitch" Mitchell

Mitch (Karl Malden) is an old friend of Stanley's. They fought in World War II together. Like Stanley, Mitch is about twenty-eight to thirty years old, and he works in the spare parts department at the same factory that employs Stanley. A bachelor, Mitch looks after his dying mother. When he first meets Blanche, he is quite taken with her, and they go out together several times. Treating her with a gentlemanly courtesy, he accepts Blanche at face value as a refined, attractive woman. He says he has never met anyone like her before. Like Blanche, Mitch is lonely, and he thinks the two of them might be able to succeed together. However, all those hopes are dashed when Stanley tells him the stories about Blanche's past. Mitch does Page 217  |  Top of Article not believe the stories until he verifies them for himself. He fails to show up at Blanche's birthday party, but he comes by later and harangues her for not being honest with him. She still hopes that they can marry, but he says he is no longer interested. "You're not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother," are his final words to her.

Karl Malden won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.

Nurse

The nurse (Ann Dere) is a middle-aged, severe-looking woman who comes with the doctor to take Blanche to the mental institution. She takes charge of Blanche physically, pinning her arms, and asks the doctor whether they will need a straightjacket.

Pablo

Pablo (Nick Dennis) is a friend of Stanley's and a member of the poker-playing group. In the commotion that follows Stanley's tossing of the radio out of the window, Pablo punches Stanley, but Stanley seems to bear him no ill-will for his action. Near the end of the film, Pablo, along with Steve, stares reproachfully at Stanley because of his bad treatment of Blanche.

Steve

Steve (Rudy Bond) is Eunice's husband and Stanley's friend. Like Stanley, he is a rough-hewn character who often argues with his wife. On one occasion, he is seen chasing her down the fire escape, and she runs away, saying that he hit her and she is going to call the police. Later, however, Steve is shown walking Eunice home with his arm around her. He knows how far he can go and what he has to do to win her back.

Young Collector

The young collector (Wright King) is a young man who comes to the Kowalski apartment collecting newspaper money. He is a shy, respectful individual. He refuses Blanche's offer of a drink because he is not allowed to drink while he is working. Blanche flirts with him and kisses him on the mouth.

Since the film is a very close adaptation of the play, all the characters in the play appear in the film. Their personalities and their interactions with one another remain for the most part the same as they are in the play. The only significant change is Stella's less forgiving attitude toward Stanley at the end.

THEMES

Loneliness

Blanche arrives in New Orleans without a friend in the world other than her sister, Stella. This is particularly unfortunate for her since she is not the independent type. She needs people, and more especially, she needs love and intimacy in her life. Without it she is helpless and vulnerable. In New Orleans, though, she is an outsider. This is conveyed in the first sequence of the film, when she arrives on the train and wanders across the platform, looking around warily, unsure of herself. She is in an alien environment in which she does not belong, like a fish out of water. She still cherishes her ideals of what life should be like, but she is not likely to find those ideals fulfilled at the Kowalski home, and she is also very conscious of the different social class to which Stanley belongs. This is another thing that sets her apart from her environment. In contrast, Stanley and Stella seem not only to be happy together but to fit into their environment, a lively, poor area of New Orleans that seems to have a sense of community. All the people there belong where they are; it is Blanche who is the rootless one.

It is because Blanche is so lonely that she reaches out to Mitch, hopeful that perhaps he could be her protector. For a short while it even appears possible, since Mitch is the play's other lonely character. He does not quite fit in. In the film, he is slightly better dressed than the other men in the poker game—he wears a tie—and his manners are more refined. His life is restricted because he has to look after his sick mother. She will soon die, leaving him alone. He courts Blanche, hoping that she might end his loneliness. They are thus drawn to each other by strong mutual need.

Reality

The New Orleans that Blanche finds herself in is a gritty, realistic world. People get on with their lives, doing what they have to do to get by, and they find their enjoyments. Blanche cannot survive in the real world. Her life is the story of one loss after another. She lost her husband a long time ago, and then she lost the family home she had tried so hard to maintain. She managed to Page 218  |  Top of Article stay afloat for a while as a schoolteacher, but her loneliness led her into a foolish relationship with a seventeen-year-old boy. She now has no means of making a living. The real world has defeated her, so she falls back on the one thing that she has, or hopes she still has: her ability as a woman to attract a male protector who will shield her from the harshness of life. This depends on maintaining her appearance, but Blanche is aging, and she knows it. She is obsessed with her appearance, always seeking reassurance about it. The reality is that time is slowly robbing Blanche of her beauty, but this is not something she can accept. She wants to keep up the illusion. She tells Stanley, in a moment of honesty and self-revelation, that "a woman's charm is fifty percent illusion." The more hopeless her life becomes, the more she creates illusions to live by.

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READ. WATCH. WRITE.

  • Read the final scene of the play and then watch the same scene in the film version. How closely does the film keep to the play? Has the dialogue been cut or otherwise altered? Do the filmmakers follow Williams's detailed stage directions? Write an essay in which you discuss the differences.
  • Watch chapter 7 of the film in the DVD selections, and write an essay in which you analyze the contrast between how the women, especially Stella and Blanche, are presented and how the poker-playing men are seen. What does this scene tell you about relations between men and women in the film, and the different values they have?
  • Why are there so many close-ups in the film and not so many long shots or establishing shots? Why would a director choose a closeup over a longer shot? Select three to five close-ups from the film. For each close-up, write a brief paragraph in which you explain the context of the shot and then explain what the actor or actress is conveying in his or her facial expressions.
  • With another student, investigate what might be the main differences between a film and a play. What possibilities does film present that are not possible on the stage? From the opposite point of view, what advantages might the stage have over a film? Give a class presentation in which you discuss these issues, using A Streetcar Named Desire as an example, emphasizing the places where play and film differ.
  • Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando are both famous for their roles in this film. With another student, analyze the scene (chapter 4 in the DVD selections) in which Blanche meets Stanley for the first time. How does Leigh, through facial expression, gesture, and other means, convey what Blanche is feeling? What do these nonverbal elements suggest about Blanche's state of mind, beyond the words that she actually speaks? Analyze Brando's performance in the same way. What is his attitude toward Blanche in this scene, and how does he convey it through facial expression, gesture, and movement? Give a class presentation in which you first show the scene and then analyze it using a PowerPoint presentation.

When Mitch wants to switch the light on so he can see her properly, she tells him she does not want realism, she wants magic. She wants life transformed, not as it is. She knew love a very long time ago, and it briefly lit up the world for her. She wants to find this transformation again, but it cannot happen. Eventually, her wafer-thin grasp on reality vanishes completely. She retreats into an illusory world in which she is preparing to go on a cruise with a millionaire from Texas. This is her madness: the substitution of a false world for the real one and the inability to tell the difference between the two.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

Warner Bros / The Kobal Collection / The Picture Desk, Inc.

Love

Stanley and Stella have a down-to-earth yet passionate relationship that keeps them bound to each other in a way that Blanche does not understand. As husband and wife, they enjoy a physical intimacy. Blanche is not interested in a relationship based only on physical attraction. The streetcar she takes to reach the Kowalskis' home is appropriately called Desire, but for Blanche desire means the desire for a deeper kind of love, not merely physical. Tragically for Blanche, her desire for true love, for deep connection with another person, is continually being thwarted, and she is associated with what she tells Mitch is the opposite of desire—death. The central event in her life was the death of her husband, and she cannot escape the memory of it. Nor can she forget the many deaths of her relatives at Belle Reve. Reminders of death keep cropping up to pin Blanche back to these dark memories: the inscription on Mitch's cigarette case, for example, given to him by a dying girl, is a quotation from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning about love and death. Then the Mexican woman comes to the house selling flowers for funerals. While Stella and Stanley have found a way to keep the flame of life burning, the unhappy Blanche leads an empty, loveless life, which is a kind of death for her, the negation of everything she desires.

STYLE

Musical Symbolism

The musical score was composed by Alex North, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. North combined the rhythms and harmonies of jazz with classical orchestral music that has a symphonic dimension. North referred to the music as "simulated jazz," since as written music it lacks the spontaneous quality associated with jazz. (This comment is made by the record producer Robert Townson in the special feature "North and the Music of the South" in the DVD edition of the film.) Townson also comments that North's intention was to create music that reflects the psychological conditions of the characters. All the music is in some way related to the main musical theme that is heard at the beginning of the film. The only exception to this is the French polka music, which is heard every time Blanche is reminded of her dead husband, since this was the tune that the band was playing when her husband shot himself. In the scene in which the young man comes to the apartment for newspaper money, for example, the polka music is heard, which tells the audience, without the need for words, that the young man reminds Blanche of her deceased husband.

In composing the music for the film, North stayed close to the play. Williams, the playwright, describes the music of the "blue piano," coming from the Four Deuces bar, as expressing the spirit of life in that part of New Orleans. The piano music is also heard at times in conjunction with brass, drums, and clarinet, according to the changing mood and atmosphere of the play. The opposite of the piano music, which represents life, is the polka music, also called the Varsouviana music, which represents death.

Montage

After the opening credits, there is a sequence known as a montage, a succession of shots following quickly one after the other to create, in this case, an overall impression of the setting. These are long shots (shots in which the camera is at some distance from the objects) that show the larger environment. First, there is a long shot from the air looking down on the railroad tracks Page 220  |  Top of Article and the steam locomotive. This is followed by a shot from ground level as the camera follows the taxi cabs at night as they head for and arrive at the railroad station as the train pulls in. Then there is a busy shot of people emerging from the waiting room to greet arriving travelers. As the camera pans to the left, we see Blanche emerging surrounded by steam from the locomotive. The montage has moved from the general (the busy urban setting) to the particular (the main character) in just a few shots.

Visual Symbolism

Film has an advantage over the stage in that it presents possibilities for creating visual images that tell the story of what happens without words or even showing the action itself. An example of this visual symbolism occurs toward the end of the film. As Stanley approaches Blanche with aggressive intent, the film cuts to a shot of a smashed mirror. This shot suggests, without actually showing it, that Blanche has thrown the broken bottle at Stanley and missed, but more important, it conveys symbolically that Blanche herself is shattered by this last encounter with her brother-in-law. She is as fragile as glass and she eventually breaks. The symbol of the broken mirror tells this story in a few seconds, without words.

CULTURAL CONTEXT

Censorship

When the film was made in 1951, standards of what was considered acceptable for mass entertainment were different from what they are today. Although it was an extremely successful stage play, A Streetcar Named Desire also had a reputation for containing some sensational and morally questionable material. When the film was made, it had to be approved by the Motion Picture Production Code, popularly known as the Hays Code, after its founder, Will H. Hays. In order that the film might be deemed suitable for family viewing, several scenes had to be slightly rewritten in order to satisfy the censors. In the play, for example, Blanche's husband commits suicide because he is troubled by his homosexuality and Blanche's negative response to it. In those days, homosexuality was considered a shameful thing, and the filmmakers were not permitted to include any reference to it.

Another change demanded by the censors was that Stanley should be punished for his assault on Blanche at the end of the play. Therefore, in the film, Stella vows that she will never go back to Stanley; however, in the play, Stanley comforts Stella, who is upset over the fact that she has committed Blanche to a mental institution. There is no suggestion that Stanley and Stella will split up.

Other small cuts had to be made to satisfy the Legion of Decency, a Catholic organization that had a rating system for films. Originally, the Legion advised Warner Brothers that A Streetcar Named Desire would receive a C rating from them, which meant that it would be deemed a morally unsuitable film for Catholics to see. Not wanting to have people discouraged from seeing the film, Warner was ready to compromise, so twelve more cuts, amounting to four minutes of screen time, were made. These cuts included part of the scene in which Stella descends a staircase to Stanley, who waits below. The close-ups and medium shots of Stella were considered too suggestive of Stella's physical attraction to Stanley—the fact that Stanley and Stella are husband and wife seems not to have made any difference to the Legion-so a long shot was substituted in which the expression on Stella's face could not be seen. The changes mollified the Legion of Decency, which issued the film a B rating. This meant that it had some objectionable material, but the revised rating meant that theaters would not be put off from showing it. The director of the film, Elia Kazan, was not happy with the changes that were forced on him, believing that they compromised the artistic integrity of the film. Tennessee Williams also expressed the idea that the ending of the film was unsatisfactory.

In 1993, some of the material that was cut from the original film was restored. This restored version runs a few minutes longer than the 122 minutes of the 1951 film, and is the version that is commercially available on DVD.

Method Acting

As Stanley Kowalski, Marlon Brando brought a new method of acting to Hollywood. This was Method acting, which Brando had studied at the Dramatic Workshop of the New School in New York City, where he was coached by Stella Adler in the methods of the Russian theater director, Konstanin Stanislavski (1863-1938). Another

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A Streetcar Named Desire

AP Images

acting teacher associated with popularizing Method acting in the United States was Lee Strasberg (1901-1982). Method actors sought to gain a new depth, intensity, and authenticity to their work by recalling emotional experiences in their own lives, and using other techniques, to understand and represent the emotions of the characters they were portraying. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando's Method acting contrasted with that of Vivien Leigh, who was trained in the classical British acting style. Method acting became extremely popular in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, in part due to the success of Brando and James Dean, another Method actor.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

A Streetcar Named Desire was an immediate success at the box office, and it also garnered twelve Academy Award nominations. The reviewer for Look accurately assesses the quality of the film: "Streetcar now seizes a place among Hollywood's rare great movies" (quoted in Philip C. Kolin's Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire), although the film was also denounced in some quarters as immoral and shocking.

Now over fifty years old, the film has stood the test of time. A new wave of interest in it was created by the restoration in 1993 of several minutes that had been cut in the original 1951 version. Roger Ebert reviewed the restored version of the film for the Chicago Sun-Times. After commenting on how the restored parts are crucial to the play's meaning and that Brando's style of acting was soon to dominate Hollywood films, Ebert also notes how suitable the film is to black-and-white photography. "Color would have been fatal to the special tone. It would have made the characters seem too real, when we need them exactly like this, black and gray and silver, shadows projected on the screens of their own dreams and needs."

In 2008, when the film was presented as part of a Williams season at London's BFI Southbank, Peter Bradshaw wrote in the London Guardian that "Brando is lethally powerful," although he was less impressed with Vivien Leigh's "stagey, mad-eyed performance, often pitilessly inspected in close-up."

In 2007, the film was ranked forty-fifth in a list of the hundred greatest American films by the American Film Institute.

CRITICISM

Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on A Streetcar Named Desire, he discusses the major characters and their relationships and whether Blanche may be considered a tragic heroine.

Tennessee Williams had a Shakespearean gift for empathizing with his characters regardless of how admirable or otherwise they might seem. He shows them in their complexity, with all their contradictions, their vices and their virtues, their struggles, their little victories and defeats. He is reluctant to condemn, which is why Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire cannot be presented as the villain of the play or film, even though over the years many have sought to blame him for Blanche's tragic descent into madness. Stanley, so thrillingly captured by Marlon Brando in the film, embodies a kind of raw masculinity that although crude and violent at times also has a kind of authenticity that many a lesser man (Mitch, for example) might envy. Stanley simply takes pleasure in being alive without reflecting much on it. He lives in his body, not his mind, and if ever his mind troubles him and tells him something is not right, he responds with an animal ferocity to restore his equilibrium. Stanley is the king of his domain and has no intention of allowing anyone to challenge him, especially not Blanche. He is a true descendant of the working-class, uncultured, sensually alive man that English novelist D. H. Lawrence held up as an ideal of masculinity in his novel Lady Chatterley's Lover Page 222  |  Top of Article (1928), a book with which Williams was familiar, and in the novella The Virgin and the Gypsy (1930). Like these earthy heroes that Lawrence created, Stanley Kowalski has the masculine power to conquer a woman from a higher social class. When he first met Stella, who of course grew up in the same social circumstances as Blanche, as part of the decaying Southern aristocracy, Stella thought he was common. He won her heart, though, by initiating her into a mutually satisfying physical love that has enriched and sustained their marriage. In this sense, Stella has made a transition that Blanche has failed to make, allowing her to experience a joy in marriage that Blanche can only dream of.

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WHAT DO I SEE NEXT?

  • Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is a film adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play of the same title, first produced in 1955. It stars Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, the "cat" of the title, and Paul Newman as Brick, her troubled ex-football player husband. Set in Mississippi, the story centers on a struggle for the family inheritance. Brick's father, Big Daddy, a wealthy plantation owner, is dying of cancer, although the family refuses to inform him of this fact. Also wanting the inheritance are Big Daddy's other son, Gooper, and his wife. The drama is intense as family secrets gradually come out. Although Williams did not like the film adaptation of his play, it did receive six Academy Award nominations.
  • On the Waterfront (1954) is another famous film featuring Marlon Brando, as well as Karl Malden, who played Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire. It also was directed by Elia Kazan. Set in Hoboken, New Jersey, it is a story of political corruption, in which a longshoreman (Brando) tries to fight back against the taking over of his union by mobsters. The film won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Writing.
  • East of Eden (1955) is another film directed by Kazan. It is based on part of the novel by John Steinbeck and is set in California during World War I. The film stars James Dean in his first movie role. Like Brando, Dean made his name as a Method actor. The film focuses on the rivalry between two brothers, Caleb and Adam, as they compete for their father's approval.
  • Gone with the Wind (1939) is one of the most famous of all American films. Set in Georgia during and immediately after the Civil War, the film is adapted from the 1936 novel of the same title by Margaret Mitchell. It stars Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara, who falls in love with the charming but roguish Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). The film won ten Academy Awards.
  • The Heiress (1949) is a film adapted from a 1947 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The play was based on Washington Square (1880), a novel by Henry James. The main character, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), is jilted by her fiance, who later returns, wanting to marry her, when she has inherited her father's fortune. Catherine pretends to forgive him but has her own plans about how to get her revenge. The film won four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for de Havilland.
  • In Kitty Foyle (1940), Kitty (Ginger Rogers), a young businesswoman, has to decide whether to marry Mark (James Craig), an earnest young doctor, or take up with Wyn (Dennis Morgan), a wealthy old friend who has recently come back into her life and with whom she has always been in love. She chooses Wyn, but the marriage does not succeed and she eventually returns to Mark.

The brutish but authentic Stanley stands in contrast to his old World War II buddy, the more Page 223  |  Top of Article refined but much weaker Mitch. Mitch has rather unkindly been called a mama's boy, but the label is an accurate one. Mitch is morbidly attached to his sick mother and allows her to manipulate him. The poker group cannot play at his house because of his mother; he quits the card game at Stanley's early because his mother cannot go to sleep until he comes home; he cannot enjoy the card game fully because he keeps thinking of her. Stanley, who has a merciless instinct for a person's weak spot, jokes that when Mitch wins money (in quarters) at poker, he will go home and "deposit them one by one in a piggy bank his mother give him for Christmas."

The scene in which Blanche and Mitch go on a date is almost comic in what it reveals about Mitch's awkwardness and inexperience with women. He is the very opposite of Stanley. Although he claims to be proud of his physique, he is also ashamed of the fact that he perspires a lot, and he is reluctant to remove his jacket for that reason. In contrast, Stanley sweats and doesn't care, as the film famously shows. Whereas Brando's Stanley is muscular but unselfconscious about it, Mitch tries to impress Blanche with a ridiculous recitation of his height and weight and his claims to physical fitness. Blanche, seeing Mitch as a possible ticket out of loneliness, carefully feigns interest in the subject, which Mitch goes on about for some time, even though he admits it is not a very interesting subject. When he lifts Blanche up on the pretext of seeing how much she weighs, it is a comic counterpart to the end of the film, when Stanley lifts Blanche up with far more sinister intentions.

Mitch buys into the romantic scenario that Blanche seems to demand. He tries to be gentlemanly and gallant with her, although he does not seem to be at ease. He asks whether he may kiss her, as if he is requesting a personal favor, and he gets a predictably tart response, "Why do you always ask me if you may?" His reply, "I don't know whether you want me to or not," shows his timidity, his un-Stanley-like lack of confidence with women. It is perhaps not surprising that when Mitch learns from Stanley about Blanche's past, he turns on her. He is angry not only with Blanche but with himself for being fooled. Ironically, when he drops the genteel mask that he put on for her benefit, he becomes a more authentic figure—not an attractive one, but at least a man who is expressing what he truly feels. However, there is once more a contrast with Stanley. When Mitch, shorn of romantic illusions, tries to seduce Blanche, he is easily chased off by the enraged woman. Mitch is not a ruthless man, and he can be fended off. Not so Stanley, as Blanche finds out to her cost just a few hours later that night.

Blanche herself is probably the most famous female character in American drama, much written about and discussed, and her portrayal by Vivien Leigh has been justly celebrated. The film is clearly her story. In the play, Stanley appears before she does, but in the film that is reversed. In the opening sequence of the film, the white-clad Blanche appears out of a cloud of steam from the locomotive, as if she is some heavenly creature who has been deposited by a conjurer's magic into a strange new environment in which she is destined always to be out of place. It is as if Williams wanted to counter the fact that Marlon Brando's riveting performance as Stanley in the stage play had become such a talking point and reaffirm that Blanche is the central character.

As that central character, Blanche is a tortured soul. Neurotic and weak, she holds on to an ideal of love that once lit up the world for her but died with her young husband. Desperate for someone to save her from her loneliness and heartache, she loses all her moral bearings in her hometown of Auriol and ends up as a kind of penniless refugee, dependent on the hospitality of her sister and brother-in-law. Her obsession with bathing—it seems as if she is always in the bathroom—symbolically suggests her desire for purity, her attempt to free herself from the taint of an unwholesome past forced upon her not by some innate depravity but by simple human need. In the end, she finds neither love nor purity but only madness.

Is this the stuff of which tragic heroines are made, and can Blanche be seen as one? In the last Page 224  |  Top of Article scene of the film, as Blanche is led away by the doctor, Vivien Leigh does manage to convey in her character a kind of fragile dignity. As she walks accompanied out of the house Blanche is continuing the journey of the soul that began who knows when and was symbolically continued in the directions she was given to Stella's home: "Take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries, and … get off at—Elysian Fields." (In classical mythology, the Elysian Fields were the home of the blessed dead.) Death, as Blanche herself says, is the opposite of desire, and it seems that Blanche passes through many kinds of symbolic death—of hope, of love, even of reason. Might her journey be seen as a process of redemption through suffering, ending in some blessed state known only to her?

This might seem a far-fetched notion until one notices that Williams the playwright has given a great deal of attention to symbolically presenting Blanche as Mary the Virgin, the Queen of Heaven in some Christian traditions. At first this sounds like a kind of sarcastic joke that might have been made by Stanley Kowalski, but the playwright is not joking. The first reference that suggests such an interpretation is certainly light-hearted, but it is there for a reason. Blanche is trying to make conversation with Stanley and she mentions that in astrology, she was born under the sign of Virgo, the Virgin. She contrasts this with Stanley, born under the sign of Capricorn, the goat, thus underlining what she sees as her own purity set against Stanley's more carnal nature. Goats are often used as a symbol of animal lust. (In the movie, the dirty look Stanley flashes at Blanche at this point shows exactly what he thinks of being identified with a goat.) After Mitch's departure, Blanche dresses up in a white satin gown with "scuffed silver slippers with brilliants set in their heels" and a "rhinestone tiara" on her head. According to Henry I. Schvey, in "Madonna at the Poker Night: Pictorial Elements in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire," an essay on the color symbolism in the play, "the image of Blanche … may be seen as a variation on the familiar image of Mary as Queen of Heaven, portrayed with a crown bearing the twelve stars of the apocalyptic vision (Rev. 12:9)." Later, as she is about to be taken away, Blanche dons a blue jacket and defines the color quite specifically: "It's Della Robbia blue. The blue of the robe in the old Madonna pictures." As Schvey points out, this is a reference to the color associated with the Virgin in Renaissance art.

Other references that reinforce the symbolic association of Blanche and the Virgin include the cathedral bells, which Blanche comments on, and Williams's stage directions describing her as having "a look of sorrowful perplexity as though all human experience shows on her face." The latter may be a reference to the compassionate nature of the Virgin as the sorrowful mother.

With the piling up of these allusions, the playwright is clearly trying to lift Blanche above the pathetic situation in which she finds herself: a shattered, deranged woman about to be taken away, without any awareness on her part, to the state mental asylum. Williams suggests that despite a disreputable past that had resulted in her being chased out of her hometown, and despite her delusions and approaching insanity, she retains a kind of purity and innocence that link her to the Virgin. She has stepped through the minefield of the world with an essential part of her nature intact, perhaps even augmented by the suffering she has been through.

However, even if this should be so, does it make Blanche a tragic heroine? Some (including Schvey) might argue that it does, while others might claim that Blanche lacks an essential quality of the tragic hero or heroine: a new, heightened awareness of the situation she is in and what has brought her to this point. The hero, in Aristotle's classic formulation, goes from ignorance to recognition, or knowledge. Blanche, it would seem, flounders around in delusion and incomprehension. Questions race through her mind as she wonders who these people are who have come to take her away. Knowledge eludes her. And yet, in spite of all this, there is in her final, famous line, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," a kind of acceptance of her destiny, a coming to terms with her own helplessness and weakness, her need for a shield in a world too harsh for her delicate sensibilities.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Streetcar Named Desire, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.

Christine Geraghty

In the following excerpt, film theorist and critic Andre Bazin's views on the 1951 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire are discussed.

… André Bazin was a highly influential figure in the development of film theory and criticism in the 1940s and 1950s, at the same time that Williams's work in theater and cinema was making him famous. Bazin's work has Page 225  |  Top of Article continued to inform critical debate about adaptations since then. James Naremore chose one of his essays, "Adaptation, or the Cinema as Digest," to open his influential Film Adaptation collection, praising its open-minded flexibility and suggesting, as Robert Stam later put it, that he "foreshadowed some of the later structuralist and post-structuralist currents which would indirectly undermine a fidelity discourse in relation to adaptation." Here I will concentrate on Bazin's two essays on theater and cinema that offer an approach that appreciates the differences between the two media without, as Naremore and Stam appreciated, getting mired in questions of faithfulness.

Bazin offers a summary of how the difference between the two media is traditionally explained, an explanation that can still be found in much analysis today and that tends to create a hierarchy in which theater emerges as the more engaging and demanding medium. The differences are rooted in two defining concepts—physical presence and audience activity. In the theater, the audience is in the physical presence of the actors whose performances relate directly to the particular audience in front of them; in the cinema, the actors' performance is recorded and takes place is a different space from that of the audience. Both perform to an audience, but one involves a live performance by actors physically present, the other a mechanical recording of absent actors. This might seem to mean that the audience in the theater is the more readily absorbed by the medium, but it is argued that, unlike the film audience, the theater audience has to work to get engaged; it is not mechanically caught up as the film audience is in the close-ups and editing of mainstream cinema. The theater audience is envisaged as engaged in a social act that involves thought as well as feeling, while the cinema viewer is described as isolated, overemotional, and voyeuristic. In such a description, cinema's association with the mass media is clear, while theater's different relationship to its audience is deemed more likely to produce work of artistic value. And since this distinction is based on differences in media specificity, the processes of adaptation for the cinema once again seem set for failure.

Bazin does not dispute that there are differences that need to be acknowledged between theater and cinema but shifts the ground so that cinema is not inevitably that inferior form. This means changing a key element of difference, making it not the physical presence of the actor but the organization of space. The difference then is based not on something present in theater but absent from cinema but rather on the different approach to something they both share, the organization of space for an audience. Bazin suggests that theater marks out the stage as a "privileged spot," "an area materially enclosed, limited, circumscribed." It is removed from everyday life and is unsuitable for the "slice of life" realism that is possible in cinema. Cinema's space, by contrast, "denies any frontiers to action," encouraging us to imagine limitless off-screen space rather than the wings to which actors retreat in theater. For Bazin, therefore, the difficulty of filmed theater is centrally the difficulty of "transposing a text written for one dramaturgical system into another." The dramatic force of the text and its performance is lost if cinema techniques are used to make us forget the boundaries of the stage. This is, he argues, a problem of dé cor, so that cinema, rather than opening up the stage, has to rein itself in so as to present "a space orientated towards an inner dimension only." Neither cinema nor theater should be effaced in this process, but cinema must transform itself, "delve deeper into its own language," in order to effect a successful translation.

Bazin argues that the organization of this defined space is written into the theatrical text and that the play "is unassailably protected by its text." This is not just a matter of retaining the words but recognizing that "the mode and style of production" are "already embodied in the text." Because of this, a film that respects the play—and Bazin argues that adaptations of classics are Page 226  |  Top of Article bound to do so—has to follow "the directions it was supposed to go." This means respecting the primacy that theater gives to words and the exploration of internal dilemmas of "the human soul." Opening up a play (Bazin gives the example of a film of a Molière play set in a real forest) "in order to inject the power of ‘cinema’ into the theater" actually skews the production "so that the dramatic primacy of the word is thrown off center by the additional dramatization that the camera gives to the setting." This is the more painful because it is done in an attempt to compensate for cinema's "inferiority complex" as if "the ‘superiority’ of its technique" can lend "aesthetic superiority …."

Although the film does show some streets of the quarter, these too are heavily stylized. Compared with the streets of gangster films and thrillers on which cars race and gunfights break out, these streets are cramped and restricted. The arrival of the car in the front yard of the building confirms the artificiality of the set and the limitations it places on the vehicle's movements. The street scenes are used not so much for realism as to mark the passage of the scenes of the play. And although some scenes are taken out of the confines of the main set they too tend to retain the restrictions of the stage. Blanche's date with Mitch is seen rather than just reported on, but the couple quickly move out of the main restaurant, away from the dancing and the crowds, to sit on their own in the restricted space of an outside landing. As with the main set, there is no sense here of a real "outside." Darkness and mist confine our view to the space occupied by the actors, the water reflects light back on to them, and we have no knowledge of or indeed interest in the offscreen space beyond the landing. The presentation of the set and its restrictions could be compared to the way in which the film of Henry V put the play into quotation marks, marking the edges of theatrical space. It marks out the limits of the staging and works within them.

A Streetcar Named Desire also deploys editing strategies that emphasize its origins in theater. The film's editing strategies are not those of classical Hollywood, and in particular they construct a position for the spectator that is different from that created by the classic shot-reverse shot structure. Analysis of the opening sequence and of two early exchanges between Stanley and Stella and then Stanley and Blanche illustrates this. The film's opening shots are accompanied by music appropriate for a thriller as a blonde woman in a light dress is picked out by the camera. She is held in a medium shot until the exchange with the sailor that includes a close-up of him and her in a shot-reverse shot exchange. This is all conventional, but the next shot signals something different. The shot of the streetcar moving to its stop at first seems to be from Blanche's point of view since it is preceded by a close-up of her looking offscreen; however, as the shot is held, she herself enters the frame and boards the streetcar. In a thriller or horror film, this shot would be ascribed to the viewpoint of a hidden watcher to be revealed by the narrative; in this film, it is the viewpoint of the audience.

This subtle reworking of cinema's editing conventions can be seen throughout the film, although the pattern of editing is different for Stella and for Blanche. The first scene for analysis occurs between Stanley and Stella after he has brought in Blanche's trunk, which stands in the middle of the front room. Stella tries to persuade Stanley to be nice to Blanche; Stanley queries the sale of Belle Reve and their rights under the "Napoleonic Code" and pulls apparently expensive clothes out of the trunk, while Stella tries to tidy up around him. The two actors continually move, but there is no looking/reverse cutting between them; the dominant shot is a two-shot in which the two are either parallel with each other or in a diagonal line with one closer to the camera. In a scene of four and a half minutes, there are only five cuts, and reframing occurs not through cutting but as the camera follows an actor (normally the one who is speaking) into a different space, establishing a different relationship with the other actor and with objects in the apartment (the trunk, the sink, and the refrigerator). The effect of this is two-fold. First, the spectator is not cut into the space of the action by being invited by editing to share the viewpoint of either character. Instead, we observe the action from outside in a manner that preserves the distance of the theater audience while lending it the closeness of cinema. Through the use of the moving camera, we are inside the proscenium arch, as if on the stage, but we are not implicated with the viewpoint of either character. The second effect is to give a physical rhythm to our understanding of the relationship between these two characters. They are conducting an argument, but their movements and the framing indicate a complete Page 227  |  Top of Article harmony between them. As if in a dance, they move together and away, weaving an elaborate pattern around each other. Stella has spoken to Blanche about how she "can't stand it" when Stanley is away; here we see the relationship between them given physical form, through space and movement, but are not invited to share it.

After Stella leaves, Blanche enters fresh from bathing, and the subsequent scene between her and Stanley also revolves around the trunk and the sale of Belle Reve. In this scene, too, there is an emphasis on two-shots, on changing the framing through movement rather than cutting as, for example, when the camera follows Blanche as she attempts to retrieve the love letters. However, the scene is also marked by the use of a wider range of editing strategies, including the exchange of looks between the characters through reverse cutting so the audience takes on the viewpoint of first Stanley and then Blanche as they look at each other. The scene starts with a shot of Blanche at the curtain followed by shots of her view of Stanley, and there are a number of points when we get shot-reverse shot close-ups exchanged between the two, for instance, when Stanley stops Blanche's flirtatious use of perfume. This editing strategy, therefore, while still maintaining the distance associated with the spectator's viewpoint, at various points draws on cinema's more voyeuristic devices to implicate the spectator in the relationship between these two characters. However, most of these close-ups strongly emphasize also the back or profile of the character who is looking so that, to amend Bazin's comment on Cocteau's framing, "the purpose of the shot is to show not that [they are] looking, not even [their] gaze, it is to see [them] actually looking." In this way, while overall the spatial distance of theater is maintained, it is interwoven with the cutting characteristic of Hollywood cinema. Far from simply recording the play by recreating the proscenium arch, this editing, which indicates the different relationships between the characters and binds the audience into watching them watching, confirms that the film is "staging a play by means of cinema."

So far I have emphasized patterns of movement and looking in this analysis of the organization of space through editing in the 1951 Streetcar. But speech is also an issue in filmed theater. Sarah Kozloff's valuable book Overhearing Film Dialogue reminds us that the common assertion, which Kazan himself upheld, that film emphasizes image and theater dialogue is unhelpful. The point is more that, as Bazin argued, theater and film dialogue is written for different spaces and different audience positions. The editing patterns of cinema tend to suit the exchange of dialogue, and the long speeches that are a dramatic focal point in much theater can cause problems in the translation to cinema precisely because they are "inherited from theatrical practice." Emphasizing the theatricality of such speech would seem to follow Bazin's logic, but Kazan takes a rather different route of maintaining the wholeness of the speeches but refusing the full visual dramatization that cutting and lighting might give. So, the speech in which Blanche tells Mitch about the suicide of her husband is visually downplayed. It starts with a medium close-up with Mitch in profile watching Blanche, who looks ahead with soft light on her face. The shot is held for over a minute with one brief two-shot intercut for a change of angle. Blanche, then, rises on the phrase describing her husband as "crying like a baby" but turns her back to the camera as she continues so that the audience is refused access to her face. She finally faces the camera in a restrained medium shot to describe the dance and the suicide, and the speech concludes with a shot of them both in long shot on a diagonal that Mitch breaks as he moves to embrace her. The language and length of the speech indicates its theatrical origins, but there is little use of the dramatic powers of close-up and lighting to reinforce its rhetoric.…

Source: Christine Geraghty, "Tennessee Williams on Film: Space, Melodrama, and Stardom," in Now a Major Motion Picture: Film Adaptations of Literature and Drama, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, pp. 75-81.

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SOURCES

"AFI's 100 Years … The Complete Lists," in American Film Institute, http://connect.afi.com/site/PageServer?pagename=100YearsList (accessed June 22, 2009).

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Bradshaw, Peter, Review of A Streetcar Named Desire, in Guardian (London, England), November 14, 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/nov/14/streetcar-named-desire-film-review (accessed June 22, 2009).

Ebert, Roger, Review of A Streetcar Named Desire, in Chicago Sun-Times, November 12, 1993, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19931112/REVIEWS/311120304/1023 (accessed June 22, 2009).

Kolin, Philip C., Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 151.

Schvey, Henry I., "Madonna at the Poker Night: Pictorial Elements in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire," in Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, p. 108.

Williams, Tennessee, A Streetcar Named Desire, New American Library, 1947.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"A Streetcar Named Desire." Drama for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 27, Gale, 2010, pp. 209-230. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2279400022%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D0d2269e8. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2279400022

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  • Aggression (Psychology)
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 216
  • Allusions
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 224
  • Anger
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 212
      • 27: 214
  • Appearance vs. reality
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 218
  • Authenticity
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 221
      • 27: 222
  • Characterization
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 221-224
  • Conflict
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 215
  • Cruelty
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 213
      • 27: 216
  • Death
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 211
      • 27: 214-216
      • 27: 219
      • 27: 224
  • Dignity
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 224
  • Female-male relations
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 222
  • Helplessness
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 224
  • Heroines
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 223-224
  • Jazz
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 227-229
  • Kindness
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 215
  • Loneliness
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 213
      • 27: 216-218
      • 27: 223
  • Loss (Psychology)
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 217
  • Love
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 211
      • 27: 212
      • 27: 215
      • 27: 216
      • 27: 219
      • 27: 223
  • Madness
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 214
      • 27: 215
      • 27: 218
      • 27: 223
  • Manipulation
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 223
  • Marriage
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 222
  • Masculinity
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 215-216
      • 27: 221-222
      • 27: 228-229
  • Mother-child relationships
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 223
  • Music
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 219
      • 27: 227-229
  • Purity
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 223
      • 27: 224
  • Reality
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 217-218
  • Redemption
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 224
  • Setting (Literature)
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 226
  • Social class
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 216
      • 27: 217
      • 27: 221
      • 27: 222
  • Southern United States
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 217
  • Stoicism
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 215
  • Suffering
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 224
  • Superiority
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 216
  • Symbolism
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 219
      • 27: 223
  • Transformation
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 218
  • Weakness
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 223
      • 27: 224
  • Working class
    • A Streetcar Named Desire:
      • 27: 221