A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams

Brief Summary & Review

By Trailer screenshot (A Streetcar Named Desire trailer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) by Tennessee Williams is a classic of American drama, for many reasons. Williams was a semi-openly gay man at the time of publication (he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations. A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie (1945), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text.

 

The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the "New South." It is also about Stella's husband, Stanley. He is disturbingly sympathetic, an evil man with whom the reader cannot help but identify. The character Stanley is as uncomfortably enthralling and repulsive as, say, Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, from Lolita (1955).

Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet. It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career. Her secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable.

Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze. This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play. Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering. The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say, Stella.

What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about. The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (it is fair to say that this has only been done perfectly well in one instance, which is the first staging, including Marlon Brando). 

Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male, the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home. Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions, were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.

He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control.

 This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, we can argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace.

Notable Quotes:

“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery - love. All at once and much, much too completely.”

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it's curved like a road through mountains.”

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”