'A Streetcar Named Desire' Overview

Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Masterpiece on Desire and Madness

A Streetcar Named Desire
A poster for Elia Kazan's 1951 drama 'A Streetcar Named Desire' starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images

A Streetcar Named Desire is a drama in twelve scenes set in a poor but charming section of New Orleans. As she moves in with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley, Blanche DuBois, a woman symbolizing the manners of the old, patrician South, pits against the multi-cultural and working-class people of the neighborhood.

  • Title: A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Author: Tennessee Williams
  • Publisher: Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York
  • Year Published: 1947
  • Genre: Drama
  • Type of Work: Play
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Homosexuality, desire, purity
  • Main Characters: Blanche DuBois, Stella Kowalski, Stanley Kowalski, Eunice Hubbell, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell
  • Notable Adaptations: Elia Kazan’s movie adaptation in 1951, featuring most of the original Broadway cast; Woody Allen’s loose adaptation Blue Jasmin in 2013; a 1995 opera by André Previn featuring Renée Fleming as Blanche.
  • Fun Fact: A few days before the 1947 premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams published the essay “A Streetcar Named Success” in The New York Times, which dealt with art and the artist’s role in society.

Plot Summary

After losing her family plantation Belle Reve to creditors, former English teacher Blanche DuBois moves in with her sister Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski in a poor but charming neighborhood of New Orleans. Blanche and Stanley immediately start butting heads, as she is disgusted by his uncouth manners, while he thinks she is a fraud. During her stay at the Kowalski's, Blanche starts a platonic relationship with Mitch, one of Stanley’s friends, whom she deceives by pretending to be a virginal woman. Eventually, Stanley digs up dirt about Blanche, exposes her lies to Mitch, and rapes her. At the end of the play, she is to be committed to an asylum

Major Characters

Blanche Dubois. The protagonist of the play, Blanche is a fading beauty in her thirties. She still abides by the ideal of a Southern Belle

Stanley Kowalski. Stella’s husband, Stanley is a working-class man with a distinct sexual magnetism. He is brutish but has a strong marriage to his wife thanks to their sexual chemistry.

Stella Kowalski. Stella is Blanche’s younger sister, a woman of 25. Even though she was brought up in an upper-class environment, she has no problem getting along with Stanley’s circle

Eunice Hubbell. The Kowalski’s upstairs neighbor and landlady, she has a tumultuous but strong marriage to her husband.

Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. One of Stanley’s good friends, he is better-mannered than the rest of his friends and develops fondness for Blanche. 

The Mexican Woman. A blind prophet who sells flowers for the dead.

The Doctor. A kind medical professional who assists Blanche as she is taken to a mental institution

Major Themes

Homosexuality. Tennessee Williams was gay, and homosexuality is always present in his plays. Blanche’s unraveling starts when her closeted husband commits suicide, and, in her characterization, she is portrayed, according to critics, like a gay man.

Light, Purity, The Old South. The morally corrupt Blanche idolizes the old-world manners she grew up with and has an obsession with purity and virginal attributes. 

Desire. Both sisters have an unhealthy relationship with desire. After Blanche’s husband died, she took to bedding young men in a hotel, which corrupted her reputation and made her a pariah, whereas Stella is so enthralled by Stanley’s sexual prowess that she condones his physically abusive behavior.

Literary Style

With his distinctively Southern prose, author Tennessee Williams manages to differentiate his characters based on their speech. Blanche, a former English teacher, speaks in long-winded sentences full of metaphors and literary allusions, while Stanley and his fellow working class friends speak in shorter bursts.

About the Author

American playwright Tennessee Williams rose to fame at age 33 with The Glass Menagerie in 1946, one of his most notable successes alongside A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).