A Streetcar Named Desire
There are very few moments in modern theatrical history that are truly worth recalling. In 1947, however, Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was instrumental in revolutionising the very mindset of the theatrical world. To Williams, the polite drawing room comedy, which was still the staple diet available for the theatregoer, was unrealistic. In response, he left a trail of the shattered pieces of the ‘American Dream’ in his wake, focusing on the vitality – or lack thereof – of those, who, because of their lack of money and privileges, have to struggle actively to cope with all the problems that arise from their deprivation.
Or, as Williams himself put it, “[I like to write about people]… that have problems, people that have to fight… that come close to cracking. ” Blanche DuBois is one such character. Her story began with her teenage marriage to Allan, whose silent suffering caused by his sexuality was mistaken for sensitivity by Blanche, a feature she found very attractive. She loved Allan unendurably: “All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something had always been half in shadow… ”
Yet this light is ‘switched off’ when Allan – overcome with grief about his homosexuality – commits suicide, leaving Blanche feeling incredibly vulnerable and rejected. Thus begins her escape from the light and the painful memories of Allan – she finds the darkness comforting, and it is in the darkness within her mind that she creates a retreat, a shelter from the harsh truth of reality.
In retreating within her mind, however, she has begun her descent into insanity, and her reactions to the light are such that exposure threatens the very sanctity of her refuge: “Don’t turn on the light! Williams therefore uses light and darkness throughout the play to symbolise reality and illusion respectively. Indeed, there are very few instances when Blanche is actually seen in bright light. So pronounced is her fear light – or indeed reality – that closing her eyes, shutting out the light, even for a few moments, can seem like a quick and easy escape. In withdrawing from the light and reality, Blanche assumes a new persona, a sexual predator on the hunt for Allan’s replacement.
This can be seen in Scene Three especially, when she attempts to “ensnare” Mitch – She takes off the blouse and stands in her pink silk brassiere and white skirt in the light through the portieres. Her sexual prowess here is at a peak, and in the dim shafts of light through the portieres she is no longer Blanche the widow. At least for a while. Though in truth this is another form of escape for Blanche – this time she is escaping loneliness, and the fear of being unloved. The only way her character can rekindle any semblance of the love she once felt without getting burnt is to run.
This would explain her forays into the dubious world of promiscuity. She has flitted from man to man, looking only for the consummation of affection. Then she flees, only to come back for more, so it appears she is addicted to “sexual healing”. Here, Williams is able to encapsulate within the character of Blanche the very frailty of the human mind, and how far one can go in trying to protect it. But this systematic method of “loving and leaving” has taken its toll, which Blanche can no longer deny: “Day light never exposed so total a ruin. ”
It is clear, then, why Blanche hates the light, for it duly exposes the wreck that she has become. Blanche is a very intelligent person, highly sensitive, and therefore wholly aware of the level to which she has sunk, against e grain of her reserved background. Yet, she refuses to acknowledge this, and with a rejuvenation of faith in her traditional norms and values, she convinces herself that that part of her does not exist, and tries desperately to achieve the innocence she once had. She effectively becomes a fugitive from herself. Indeed, it is with a sort of hysteria that she tries to maintain the illusion of chastity.
Even when attempting to attract Mitch in Scene Three by moving into the [dim] light wearing only a pink brassiere and white skirt, there is still an edge of fear. The pink brassiere here is a reference to flesh, and therefore lust – a weakness of the flesh. But this is carefully contradicted by the white skirt, in that the colour white is traditionally associated with purity and chastity, hence Blanche’s virginal status is re-enforced, at least to some degree. This is extended to Blanche’s frequent bathing. In what seems to be sheer desperation, she attempts to purge herself of a deceptiveness that would have been alien to the former Blanche.
Interestingly enough, however, Blanche often bathes in preparation for the evening, which implies some pre-emptive attempt to protect her mind from the sexual aggression that descends upon her as the day is brought to a close: “Here I am, all freshly bathed and scented, and feeling like a brand new human being! ” She extends this systematic denial by asserting her intellect, reasoning that art and literature are far more worthwhile pursuits than the experience of physical love.
In Scene Three, for example, she conveys this to Mitch: Blanche: Their literary heritage is not what most of them treasure, above all else!… And n the spring it’s touching to notice them making their first discovery of love! As if nobody had known it before! Though, of course, Blanche only makes these assertions in the presence of Mitch, so this may be just flirting, as the slightly bitter references to youth and spring – symbolically the season for youth, vitality and fertility – suggest a more deceptive awareness of this particular line of conversation. Thus, we see how Blanche creates a whole new complex within herself – there are conflicting aspects to her personality that daily question her survival, so that Blanche is constantly on the run from herself, as well as her fears.
As seen throughout the play, the light is not the only reminder of Allan’s death. Blanche is of the belief that she had instigated the suicide of her husband: ” He came to me for help. I didn’t know that”. This guilt manifests itself in the play in the form of the Varsouvian polka tune, which was playing at the time of Allan’s death. The tune dogs her constantly, so that she feels trapped within her mind.
Which, in a sense, is somewhat ironical, since Allan had shot himself through the roof of his mouth, “so that the back of his head had been – blown away! Now it would seem that Blanche, too, might meet a similar, though perhaps not quite so violent, end. Even the name of the place where Allan shot himself – ‘Moon Lake Casino’ -suggests insanity, which does not bode well for Blanche. Superstition has held that lunacy is caused by the motion of the moon. Indeed, the very term ‘lunacy’ originates from the root word ‘lunar’ – Latin for ‘moon’. Even worse, the onset of pre-menstrual tension for women was also confused with lunacy, so that women were then linked to this superstition.
Her fear of insanity, therefore, is the driving force behind her need to run, but it is clear that Blanche is unable to keep this up, and in Scene Two we see just how precarious Blanche’s state of mind really is: Blanche: Now that you’ve touched them I’ll burn them!… Stanley: What do you mean by saying you’ll have to burn them? Blanche: I’m sorry, I must have lost my head for a moment Her head therefore becomes a representation of her ability to remain sane, and the frequent stage directions that depict Blanche making some motion to or with her head imply some desperation on her part.
Again in Scene Two we see a reference to the head: Blanche touches her handkerchief to her head. It would seem as though Blanche is reassuring herself that her sanity is still present. But as long as the polka remains within her mind, there is always the threat of impending insanity. Its presence taunts her when she has failed, but suddenly stops when Blanche’s life shows signs of improving.
In Scene Nine, for example, Blanche is devastated by Mitch’s non-appearance at her birthday party, as the stage directions clearly show: The rapid, feverish polka tune, the Varsouviana, is heard. The music is in her mind; she is rinking to escape it and the sense of disaster is closing in on her. Clearly, the tune that is trapped in her mind wastes no time in getting to work – Blanche has experienced rejection again. After all the years spent building an intricate web of defence, Mitch has been the only person to penetrate it, which would explain the scale of Blanche’s grieving, and how the tune taunts her so. But when Mitch arrives finally, she suddenly perks up, and the tune couldn’t be further from her mind. But Mitch’s attempt to rape her is the final straw for Blanche, and this pushes her clear into insanity.
All those years of searching for happiness have failed, and it is ironical that her final attempt – which laid faith in “mind over matter” in that personality rather than outward appearance became a selling point for Mitch – is the biggest failure. After this, there is no escape for Blanche – the painful reminder that is Stella’s successful relationship with Stanley and the tune now haunt her incessantly. In the final scene, Stella is present with her baby – the product of her relationship – and the polka tune is immediately heard as Blanche enters, and it remains with her.
The very fact that it now appears omnipresent is a clear indication that Blanche has finally submitted to insanity. Williams successfully used Blanche to point out the corruption and loneliness that reality had to offer; the same reality that Blanche tried so incessantly to escape. These attempts were useless, and this is precisely why Blanche is successful in reflecting the actualities of 1940s America. Not everyone is capable of surviving, and it would be very easy to conclude that Williams is effectively saying that it is easier to just give up.