A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
by Tennessee Williams
The play begins with Blanche Dubois, a schoolteacher arriving at the New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella Kowalski. Although Blanche is broke and has no place else to go she is socially condescending which angers Stanley, Stella’s husband. It is also clear that Stella was happy to leave behind her superior social standing for the sexual gratification she gets from Stanley, an auto-parts salesman of Polish descent.
Blanche reveals that she has lost the ancestral home, Belle Reve, through a foreclosed mortgage. Blanche attempts to conceal her heavy drinking from Stanley and Stella and we begin to feel there are other “secrets” as well. Blanche begins a relationship with one of Stanley’s poker playing buddies, Mitch. Blanche reveals to Mitch the tragedy of her young husband’s suicide after she discovered and shamed him for his homosexuality.
A month later Stanley tells Stella that his investigation of Blanche’s past has revealed that after losing the DuBois mansion, she moved into a motel and was eventually evicted because of her sexual behavior. She was also fired from her teaching job because she was having an affair with a teenage student. Stanley has also told Mitch about Blanche’s past. Mitch confronts Blanche with her past and tells her that he cannot now marry her as they had planned.
After Mitch has left, Stanley returns from the hospital where Stella is about to deliver their baby. Blanche tells Stanley who is drunk that she plans to leave New Orleans with her former suitor who is now a millionaire. Stanley knows that this is a lie. He rapes Blanche despite her strong resistance.
Weeks later, we find Stella and a neighbor packing Blanche’s bags. Blanche believes that she is leaving to join her millionaire suitor but a doctor will soon arrive to take her to an insane asylum. Stella has not believed Blanche’s assertion that Stanley raped her. When Blanche emerges from the bathroom she has clearly lost her grip on reality. The doctor and a nurse arrive and although Blanche initially panics, she is convinced by the doctor to leave quietly. Stella does not say goodbye or look at Blanche as she leaves but sobs with the baby in her arms as Stanley comforts her.
We all board the streetcar named Desire which leads to the neighborhood called “suffering.” Few of us realize that we are in a toxic neighborhood and need to get out of there as soon as possible. Those seeking Self-realization transfer to the streetcar named “Now.” However, Blanche Dubois didn’t have sufficient awareness to escape her fate and she is a prototype for most of humanity. “She avoids reality, preferring to live in her own imagination.” Since humanity has insisted on living in an imaginary, illusionary world we have collectively ended up in an insane asylum which was also Blanche’s fate.
Distinguishing illusion from reality is no easy task. Since we rarely live in the present moment we find our “realities” in the past and the future. Blanche lives in the romantic “Old South” and Stanley lives in the future of “financial success.” “The genteel South in which Blanche grew up is a thing of the past, and immigrants like Stanley, whom Blanche sees as crude, are rising in social status.” In truth, the South of Blanche’s imagination never did exist nor will Stanley’s future. They are projections of the consciousness of each character. We create our own reality and it will be a reflection of our ability or lack of ability to embody the NOW.
Blanche is a victim of her false self. First, is her sensation-seeking and “she is a social pariah due to her indiscrete sexual behavior.” Blanche’s need for power over others is achieved in a self-destructive way. “Blanche depends on male sexual admiration for her sense of self-esteem. She also has a drinking problem” Next, she deals poorly with the fear associated with her insecurity, by seeking safety and security. “Blanche is an insecure, dislocated individual. She is an aging Southern belle who lives in a state of perpetual panic about her fading beauty.” As we all do, starting in childhood, Blanche has built a survival strategy constructed around the three energy centers of the false self, namely security, sensation and power. All people do this because they must to survive—but all such strategies fail to one degree or another because they fail to provide true security, habituate us to substance and process addictions, and leave us powerless in the face of reality.
“The fact that Blanche’s lack of survival skills ultimately causes her downfall underscores the new importance such skills hold.” Our critic fails to realize that all people have a survival strategy in place that has worked or they would not “survive.” But for Self-realization that very survival strategy must be transcended. Realizing the futility of pursuing plenty, pleasure and power many of us become conscious of the fact that our survival strategy is the cause of our suffering—a disturbing irony. Stanley is not the “survivor” of the future or the vanguard of the emerging “New American,” rather he is caught up in the same basic illusion that has led Blanche to self-destruction. Only the details of his own failure to wake up to reality will differ from those of Blanche’s life. He has also boarded the streetcar named Desire and it will take him to the same “neighborhood” that Blanche ended up in but by a different route.
Blanche and Stella are trapped in the illusion of romantic love each in their own way. “Both Blanche and Stella see male companions as their only way to achieve happiness.” This is one of the most insidious aspects of being unconscious for both sexes. “The faculty of in-love-ness, romantic love, is relatively recent in our history. With it, Western humanity has loosed the most sublime feeling we are capable of and set ourselves up for the greatest suffering we will ever know.” So Stella and Blanche become unwitting victims of the myth of romantic love. “While I generally find that great myths are great precisely because they represent and embody great universal truths, the myth of romantic love is a dreadful lie. But as a psychiatrist I weep in my heart almost daily for the ghastly confusion and suffering that this myth fosters. Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth.” Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s insight reveals romantic love to be one aspect of the vast and complex illusion that the characters in Williams’ play are caught up in.
There are many ways that our postmodern society has analyzed and described significant-other relationships and they all fall short of a profound understanding of how they relate to Self-realization. Blanche reveals her attitude using her own vernacular speech patterns. “There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly.” Next, we have the language of Freud: “Like Blanche, the DuBois ancestors put on airs of gentility and refinement while secretly pursuing libidinous pleasure.” And finally, the language of science—the sociologist: “Blanche’s explanation situates her as the last in a long line of ancestors who cannot express their sexual desire in a healthy fashion.” Those who write plays, those characters portrayed in those plays and those critics who analyze and evaluate the plays are all caught up in a dynamic in which virtually no one truly understands what is going on and why. Somnambulists all!
We all have the capacity to create multiple personas that strengthen the ego’s ability to avoid reality. Blanche engages in a double self-deception, one psychological and one physical. She attempts to deceive herself and others with romantic self-delusion by avoiding the “light” that would reveal the reality of who she really is. “Mitch’s act of turning on Blanche’s light explicitly symbolizes his extermination of the fake persona she has concocted. Blanche’s sexual duplicity and romantic delusions have been the source of her fall.” The truth is that we cannot deceive ourselves or others for more than a brief while and the light of reality will always find a way to reveal our most intricately constructed delusional personalities.
Stanley seems to represent the future and Blanche the past which are both states of mind that take each character out of the present moment—the only “place” where a healthy interface with reality can occur. “Blanche represents the Old South’s intellectual romanticism and dedication to appearances. Stanley represents the New South’s ruthless pursuit of success and economic pragmatism.” We can feel compassion for Blanche as she pursues the “sensations” that seem to give her life meaning and for Stanley as he blindly grasps for security and power. They can only end up with lives bereft of meaning like discarded fruit with all the juice squeezed out.
Because of the clever lighting effects the shadows of each of the characters move about the stage as if another cast of characters inhabit the scenery all but invisible except to the discerning eye. Stanley projects his shadow onto everyone in his environment but especially women in general and Blanche in particular. “Stanley’s greed reveals his misogyny, or woman-hating tendencies. As a man, Stanley feels that what Stella has belongs to him. He also hates Blanche as a woman and as a person with a more prestigious family name, and therefore suspects that Blanche’s business dealings have been dishonest.”
Psychological shadow projection is rampant in this play even though it is unlikely that Williams had that in mind consciously. Each character seems to see in the others the worst of themselves reflected back to them. Then, of course, they react to what they see in that human mirror and magnify and distort their own afflictive emotions as if they were seeing themselves in a “funhouse mirror.” From the perspective of P-A the play contains a double irony. First, the bright light in the play which Blanche zealously avoids symbolizes reality. Her only hope of salvation is to acknowledge and enter into the light. Secondly, Blanche continues to cling to her failing survival strategy when acknowledging her suffering would bring her the awareness and wisdom to be able to accept her life as it is. Avoiding reality leads her deeper into the darkness and ultimately to insanity. “[The] bright light threatens to undo Blanche’s many deceptions [and] the glare of sharp light reveals a woman who has seen more, suffered more, and aged more.”
“In addition, probing questions function as a metaphorical light that threatens to reveal Blanche’s past and her true nature [actually her false nature]. Blanche is in no mental condition to withstand such scrutiny, so she has fashioned a tenuous make-believe world.” Embracing and taking responsibility for her life would have enabled Blanche to leave the address on the street called Elysian Fields (the land of the dead in Greek Mythology) but sadly she is not aware of this. “Blanche cries that she doesn’t like realism and “want[s] magic.”
Even though she is woefully unconscious some of the beauty of her Essence shines through—a light too powerful to be completely obscured by the darkness of the land of the dead—the zombieland of the old paradigm. “Blanche claims that though she is poor financially, she is rich in spirit and beautiful in mind.” Indeed she is “beautiful in spirit and mind” as is all of humanity but the tragedy is that she doesn’t really “feel” the reality of her essential beauty.
Realism in the old paradigm is not the same as realism in the new paradigm. Cynicism sometimes passes for sophistication and an ability to assess reality beyond the ability of idealists. In reality the cynic is most out of touch with reality and Blanche epitomizes this attitude. “Blanche does not truly believe in love. Throughout the play, Blanche claims to possess romantic notions of timeless relations, but her comments to Stella in this scene reveal her as a cold cynic.” Her cynicism related to romantic love is justified as we have argued above and in her assessment of reality in general she suffers the fate of all unconscious people in being lost in a dark and hostile world. The reality of life from the perspective of P-A is that there is nothing to fear. Life could be a joy-filled journey for all of us but not until we create a shift in consciousness and leave the old neighborhood for good.
Until that shift we are all tempted to use our survival strategy to avoid the very suffering that might lead us to consider the possibility of a different quality of life. We must embrace both the darkness and the light to achieve the balance that will lead to transformation. Something that Blanche, of course, is unable to do. “We see in earlier scenes that a lack of light has enabled Blanche to live a lie, but now we see also that, without light, Blanche has lived without a clear view of herself and reality … escaping from the present reality into her fantasy world.” Blanche ultimately enters into a double illusion. She is caught up in the illusion of P-B and further escapes into the second and much deeper pathological illusion of clinical insanity.
The play has a pointed ending that reminds us of some of the defining characteristics of P-B including lies, denial and secrets. “An offstage announcement that another poker game (‘seven-card stud’) is about to commence ends the play with a symbol of the deception and bluffing that has taken place in the Kowalski house.” All of the characters in the play engaged in lies, denial and secrets either to deceive others or themselves. The tragedy is that they did it with very little realization that they were doing so or what the consequences would be. All because they had boarded the streetcar named Desire and forgot to ask for a transfer.
References and notes are available for this essay.
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