DAVE ALAN THOMAS, director of A Streetcar Named Desire
As a lover of the English language and dramatists that have mastered usage, Tennessee Williams has long been a favorite stalwart of the theatre for me. Along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, Williams has remained one of the most respected and important American playwrights. With A Streetcar Named Desire, first appearing in 1947, Tennessee Williams received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948; in 1951 the film adaption of the play, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, was awarded four Academy Awards.
Williams is notorious for evident themes, reoccurring motifs, and strong symbolism in his writing. Each audience member may have a different experience in viewing and listening to this play. Over the years, each time I come back to this play, I have discovered new things. Characters, that I once had difficulty in understanding, have with time and life experience, become easier to sympathize with or to understand. Even characters that seem unforgivable have endearing and admirable qualities.
Although, I would like for each audience member to form his or her own relationship with the play, I will offer the following as possible themes, motifs, and symbols that others have identified:
THEMES include fantasy’s inability to overcome reality, the reluctance or inability of people to accept the truth, the relationship between sex and death (sex and death are intricately and fatally linked in Blanche’s experience), and dependence on men.
Light (and Blanche’s decent into darkness), repetitive bathing (as an attempt to wash away sin), and drunkenness (as either a socializing or anti-social behavior) are MOTIFS that strengthen the themes.
The SYMBOLS are plentiful. The list included here may offer insight in the play, for the literary scholars:
Streetcar named Desire: Blanche’s desire. Although Blanche arrives in New Orleans as a somewhat broken woman, she keeps alive her desire to be with a man and to lead a life as an elegant, respectable woman.
Streetcar named Cemeteries: Old, disgraced Blanche, the one that Blanche left behind—dead, so to speak—in her hometown of Laurel, Miss., to begin anew in New Orleans. This streetcar can also suggest that life is over for the new Blanche as well, for she is damaged property edging toward madness.
Street named Elysian Fields: The new life Blanche is seeking. In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields (also called Elysium and the Elysian Plain) made up a paradise reserved for worthy mortals after they died. Because Blanche’s old self “died” in Laurel, Miss., she traveled to New Orleans to seek her Elysium.
Belle Reve: Name of Blanche’s family home in Mississippi. It represents the “beautiful dream” (the meaning of Belle Rêve in French) that Blanche seeks but never experiences.
Blanche’s white suit: False purity and innocence with which Blanche masks her carnal desire and cloaks her past.
Blanche’s frequent bathing: Her attempt to wash away her past life.
Alcohol: Another way Blanche washes away bad memories.
Bright light: Penetrating gaze of truth that sees the real Blanche with all her imperfections. When she greets Stella the first time in the apartment, she says, “And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare!” Blanche avoids bright lights throughout the play.
Blanche: Blanche means white in French, and—in keeping with her name—she wears a white dress and gloves in the opening scene of the play to hide her real self in the purity that white suggests.
Stella: Stella means star or like a star in Latin, although she lives in a shabby apartment building in a lower-class section of New Orleans. It could be argued that she is the star of her husband’s life and the star that led Blanche to New Orleans.
Stanley: Old English name meaning stone field. Thus, it is possible he represents a cemetery for Blanche. Stanislaus was the name of a king of Poland. Clearly, Stanley is the king of his household.
The small Kowalski apartment: The size and plainness of the life to which Blanche, who formerly lived in a splendid mansion, must adjust.
Allen Grey: Gray area of Blanche’s life, between the bright light that she avoids and the darkness she seeks. She loved Allen Grey, but he betrayed her. In New Orleans, she remembers the good and the bad of her relationship with him.
Paper: Imagery centering on paper represents impermanence, unreality, or artificiality. For example, the paper legal documents Blanche brings with her to New Orleans attest to the loss of the family homestead, Belle Reve. The youth* collecting for the local paper, The Evening Star, represents the ephemerality of sexual gratification. Apparently, he reminds Blanche of Allen Grey. On a whim, she suddenly kisses the youth but then dismisses him, mindful of the disgrace she brought upon herself with her liaison with a student. The song Blanche sings while bathing, “Paper Moon,” symbolizes the fantasy world of love.
*On a note about this particular production, I make no attempt to disguise the young actor playing the paper collector when he appears as other young men in the show. The idea being, from Blanche’s perspective, all young men remind her of Allen Grey.
Regardless of your encounters to this work, whether it is your first experience with this play, or one of many, I urge you to listen to the play as if for the first time and to absorb the story portrayed through our production, so that you can make your own original connections with the play.
Enjoy the show.
Dave Alan Thomas