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Theatre / A Streetcar Named Desire

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Blanche disapproves of Stanley's manly shirt sweat.

"In the age of Calvin Klein's steaming hunks, it must be hard for [younger audiences] to realize that there was ever a time when a man was nothing but a suit of clothes, a shirt and tie, shined leather shoes, and a gray, felt hat. [...] In 1947, when Marlon Brando appeared on stage in a torn sweaty T-shirt, there was an earthquake; and the male as sex object is still at our culture's center stage."

Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 play about a hundred different things: fantasy versus reality, the old U.S. versus the new, men and women, social class, insanity, abuse, violence, appearances, purity, sex, death, etc.

Most people are familiar with the 1951 film version directed by Elia Kazan and starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden, which was of course Oscar-tacular.note  But there have been many other adaptations, including a 1995 Made-for-TV Movie starring Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange, an opera, and even a ballet. Stuffed full of imagery and complex characters, Streetcar is often considered Williams' greatest work, and the character of Blanche is regarded by many as the most difficult female role in all of English literature.

The plot revolves around Blanche DuBois — a beauty in her youth who has now begun to fade — coming to stay with her pregnant sister Stella in New Orleans. Blanche has lost the women's ancestral home, Belle Reve, due to the financial strain of caring for their dying relatives, and has quit her job as a school teacher due to her nerves. When Blanche meets Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, the two develop an almost instant mutual dislike; Blanche finds Stanley vulgar and common, while Stanley hates Blanche's continual snobbery, despite the fact she is now just as poor as they are. He is also suspicious of his sister-in-law, thinking that Blanche may have cheated Stella out of her share of the inheritance.

Throughout the play we start getting glimpses that Blanche is hiding something, and when her secrets are revealed, things get worse. Much worse.

Note: The streetcar, as it is still known in New Orleans, is more commonly called the trolley or tram. The Desire Streetcar Line once ran through the French Quarter, downriver to the Bywater neighborhood, and along Desire Street. Its cars were emblazoned with "DESIRE" across the front.

Tropes used:

  • Adaptational Karma: In the play, Stanley wins Stella over Blanche, despite being an abusive husband and raping Blanche and getting her sent to a mental institution. In the film, it cuts to the credits after he keeps crying "Stella," heavily implying that she was finally going to leave him. This was, of course, only done so as the Hay's Code active at the time required an evil character receive karma.
  • Actor Allusion: Vivien Leigh's playing a Deconstruction of the Southern Belle archetype again, but this time taking the "mentally broken" route rather than the "just plain nasty" route. In a way, Blanche and Scarlett could be seen as Foils to one another, complete with Meaningful Names.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The 1951 film implies that Stella has finally had it with Stanley, and that she and the baby are leaving him. Whether it'll stick or she'll end up going back eventually is another question...
  • Age Insecurity: Blanche DuBois, a washed-up Southern Belle, refuses to admit her true age as part of her compulsion to deny anything which disrupts her fantasy of being no less young and desirable than she was years ago. She explains to her Love Interest Mitch that she's actually younger than her little sister Stella and later, on her birthday, claims she stopped counting at twenty-five. Her actual age is never revealed.
  • The Alcoholic: Blanche, though she'll deny it. She's drinking, drunk, or hungover in nearly every scene.
  • Allegorical Character: Blanche is the classical antebellum south that's dying away, and Stanley is the new, more industrial south that's emerged since the then-recent end of World War II. Neither of them are exactly sympathetic.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Stella, who stays with her husband despite his bad behavior, to the point where she denies that his rape of Blanche ever happened. It is even implied that Blanche is attracted to Stanley, no matter how much she hates herself for it.
  • Appliance Defenestration: Stanley does this when he drunkenly throws a radio playing Blanche's music out the window. Apparently, it was still salvagable.
  • Ate His Gun: This is how Allen, Blanche's late husband, killed himself, and it haunts Blanche endlessly.
  • Author Appeal: An entire paragraph devoted to Stanley's handsome looks, great physique and animalistic drive? Young gay man struggling with his sexual identity in a repressive society that maligned any sign of cultural or sexual diversity to the point where it was taboo? Young woman with mental illness issues who finally had to go to a mental institution? So we've got wish fulfillment, personal projection, and taking inspiration directly from your family. Yep, it's a Tennessee Williams play, all right.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Viciously subverted - Stella's first and only stand against her animalistic husband is interrupted by her going into labor, reinforcing her dependence on Stanley. The baby makes nothing better - he's more likely to be another victim of Stanley's idea of domestic bliss. In the movie, after Stanley sends Stella's sister, Blanche, to an insane asylum (after he raped her), Stella eventually snaps and calls him out. The baby still didn't make anything better. In the play, however, she never believes Blanche, and it ends with Stanley caressing her breasts.
  • Bad "Bad Acting": As a part of Blanche's Southern Belle persona, she speaks in a high-pitched voice and is overly cheerful and talkative. Stanley can see right through her facade.
  • Bait the Dog: Stanley is not only charismatic, but the way Blanche looks down on him makes him easy to sympathize with (at least at first), especially given how nasty Blanche can be.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Blanche has to move in with her sister Stella after the family home gets repossessed by the bank, her husband was Driven to Suicide by his shame of his homosexuality, and she gets fired from her teaching position after getting caught having relations with an underage student. Stella's husband Stanley abuses his wife and is an alcoholic who ends up raping Blanche and leading to her ultimate mental breakdown.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film teeters between this and Downer Ending. Blanche is still dragged away to the asylum and Mitch is helpless, but Stella realizes how much of a horrible human being Stanley is, and appears to leave him, taking the baby with her. It ends in such a way that Stella going back to Stanley is still very much a possibility.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: Both Stanley and Blanche have legitimate reasons to dislike one another.
  • Break the Haughty: Blanche. After the penultimate scene, you can't help but see her as The Woobie. In fact, the whole point of the play is that Breaking The Haughty is not justice.
  • Casting Gag: For the 1951 West End production of , Tennessee Williams personally cast Vivien Leigh—who was still best known for playing Scarlett O'Hara at the time—as the mentally damaged Southern Belle Blanch Dubois, whose inability to cope with the loss of her family's ancestral plantation tragically costs her her sanity. The casting choice carried over to the well-known film adaptation released the same year
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Characters tend to only pull out the cigarettes when they feel anxious.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Blanche. She prefers the world of her own creation, where she still is a chaste lady of refinement and she still can win the favors of men like Shep Huntleigh (whom we never meet and might not exist). This is highlighted when Stanley is revealing her falsehoods to Stella and Blanche is singing in the bath: "Say, it's only a paper moon/Sailing over a cardboard sea/But it wouldn't be make-believe/If you believed in me." Unfortunately, by the end of the play this make-believe world is the only world she can stand to live in.
  • Color Motif:
    • The first time you see Blanche she's all in white. Hell, even her name means "white."
    • Also of note is the men's poker game, which Williams emphasizes should be lit in raw, primary colors. And there are big ripe watermelon slices on the table.
    • Another example is Williams' direction for Stella's kimono in the Act 4, Scene 1 — it should be bright blue, a departure from her usual color scheme. This is just after that scene, which implies that Stanley and Stella have just had sex.
  • Compliment Fishing: Blanche outright states she is doing this to Stanley as she refers to herself as old and undesirable. He doesn't go in for it. Stella knows this about her sister, and repeatedly encourages everyone to comment on how well Blanche is looking.
  • Control Freak: Stanley dominates those around him with his forceful personality and uses violence if they get too far out of line for his liking. He surrounds himself with milder-mannered male friends who acquiesce to his whims, doesn't give his wife a set allowance so she always has to come to him whenever she wants to go out (and he can decide whether or not she can), and even controls whether or not people can talk too loudly or listen to the radio around him. (When Stella defies him on that one too many times, he snaps and beats her.) It's implied that Stanley breaks and rapes Blanche partly to dominate her like everyone else.
  • Creepy Circus Music: Features a Varsouviana Polka that plays whenever Blanche reminisces about her late husband, Allen Grey; it's a sign that her mind is gradually slipping. We eventually find out why: The two were dancing to the Varsouviana when Blanche, in a fit of rage, told Allen that she'd seen him in bed with a man earlier that day. Allen was so ashamed and terrified of his true sexuality being revealed that he ran out and shot himself. Blanche blames herself for his death, which was the catalyst to her own mental breakdown, and so the Varsouviana Polka has run endlessly through her head ever since.
  • Deconstruction: Williams' play scrutinized gender and class roles in the emerging postwar America.
  • Desperately Craves Affection: Blanche struggles with becoming a relic of a bygone era, and is Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, hoping to prove she is still as desirable as she was in her youth, but she also fears this will make her Defiled Forever.
  • Dissonant Laughter: Blanche does this a lot, as representation of her Sanity Slippage.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Blanche heads to the asylum as if for a coronation. Reportedly, this was a last-minute change during rehearsal. In the film, Blanche goes psycho when she realizes where she's going, but with the orderly indulging her fantasy, she's convinced she's off to the cruise again.
  • Dream Melody: The Varsouviana, which plays whenever Blanche is lost in her trauma world.
  • Domestic Abuse: Stanley beats Stella frequently enough that none of their friends are surprised by it, and Stella insists it's no big deal, much to Blanche's utter bafflement.
  • Downer Ending: For the play: Blanche is dragged off to an insane institution after her rape, completely destroyed, while Mitch can only simmer in anger at what he's done. Stella stays with Stanley, despite it being clear from Stanley fondling her at the end that he now only sees her as a sex object. There's also something not obvious to modern audiences: back then, the number-one treatment of insane people was lobotomy.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: Blanche when she first meets Stanley. She even stops talking mid-sentence when she sees him taking off his T-shirt, although you can tell she really, really, does not want to be looking at him.
  • Environmental Symbolism: Done through color lighting to reflect the moods of the characters.
  • Everybody Has Standards: While Pablo and Steve have no problems being friends with Jerkass Stanley, they do express disgust with some of his more heinous actions, such as hitting Stella or having Blanche sent away to the insane asylum without any warning or notice. However, it's never enough for them to break off their friendship with Stan.
  • Foreshadowing: Blanche kissing the paperboy and drinking is foreshadowing revelations about her past.
  • Freak Out: Blanche, after months of delusions and mental trauma, finally breaks down after Stanley rapes her and tears down her paper lantern by the end of the play, becoming a mere shadow of already-broken herself.
  • Gayngst-Induced Suicide: Blanche's husband killed himself after Blanche called him out for his affair with an older man, saying that he disgusted her. Note that Blanche didn't even confront Allen when she caught him in the act, she had to do it in front of everyone at a dance party.
  • The Ghost: Shep, a former suitor of Blanche. She talks about him a lot, but we never meet him and he may not even exist.
  • Gift-Giving Gaffe: Played for Drama. Stanley's "present" to Blanche on her birthday is a bus ticket to Laurel, Mississippi, where she cannot go back to.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: Before the rape scene, Blanche smashes a whiskey bottle so she can "twist the broken end in [Stanley's] face." Stanley calls her bluff.
  • Happily Married: Subverted. Stella insists she and Stanley are this, even though Stanley is violent towards her and she's rather unhappy. Blanche (and the audience) beg to differ.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Some current viewers might have raised an eyebrow at Mitch's line; "I thought you was straight!"
  • Hot for Student: Blanche, in the backstory, had a fling with an underage student in her class because he reminded her of Allen. This got her run out of town.
  • The Ingenue: Blanche tries to present herself as perfect and innocent. She likes to delude herself into being pure and naive to trick people into taking care of her, but it get slowly revealed to be the opposite as her Dark and Troubled Past is revealed.
  • In Love with Your Carnage: The reason Stella doesn't leave Stanley, as she quite clearly enjoys the thrill Stanley presents in their relationship, though violence toward other people crosses the line for her. Not enough to side with her sister after Stanley rapes her in the play, unfortunately. In the movie, however...
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Stella and Stanley's relationship. He throws things and breaks things, she's turned on by it. He beats her, she runs away... he screams for her to come back, and she does, and they immediately have sex. Next morning, he promises it'll never happen again. But it will, they both know it will, and they both seem to like it that way.
  • Insistent Terminology: Stanley, in general, doesn't mind it when Blanche insults him because of his ethnicity; he does get irritated when she calls him a Polack, and he insists that she should call him a Pole instead.
  • It's All About Me: Stanley's initial decision to question Blanche about the sale of Belle Reve, her family home, is because, due to New Orleans being run under the "Napoleonic Code", he might have indirectly lost a lot of money since he believes that Blanche wasted money on expensive jewelry and that was why she sold her home (he’s wrong).
  • Jerkass: Stanley fits the bill by being unpleasant, misogynistic, and downright violent Control Freak who makes it very clear when he hates people.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Stanley is The Chessmaster of this trope. While he is an overall aggressor both drunk and sober, much of what he says about Blanche is true, which makes tearing her up more painful to watch.
    • Say what you want about Blanche, she is absolutely correct that Stanley is a terrible husband. When she flat-out calls Stella crazy for going back, it's hard to disagree.
  • Karma Houdini: Stanley effectively gets away with rape. Slightly less so in the film.
  • Leitmotif: Blanche is represented by a blue piano coming from the bar around the corner, while Stanley is usually associated with a more boisterous jazz. Memories of Allan are accompanied by the Varsouviana polka. Interestingly, the Varsouviana actually plays in Blanche's head during those scenes.
  • Old Maid: Blanche is terrified of being this, to the point of calling herself younger than her little sister.
  • Kick the Dog: Stanley enjoys revealing Blanche's Dark Secret (and in the process ruining her relationships with her sister and his friend) way too much, and adds insult to injury every chance he gets. Then he rapes her.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Stanley (probably correctly) guesses that Blanche plays up her delicate nerves around Stella so she'll wait on her hand-and-foot; all she has to do is act upset and her sister will let her do whatever she wants (stay indefinitely, take long baths, redecorate the house, etc.) and get her whatever she wants (like lemon cokes and alcohol). Blanche almost certainly manipulates men she fancies, and not for noble reasons.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Blanche DuBois means "white of the woods" in French — a dreamlike and old-world scene.
    • Belle Reve is French, too — for "beautiful dream." Also, Belle is feminine whereas Rêve is masculine (it should be "Beau Rêve").
    • Blanche's closeted husband was named Allen Grey. Similar to a certain Oscar Wilde protagonist.
  • Momma's Boy: Mitch.
    Stanley (drunk): And when he gets home he'll deposit [the five dollar bills] one by one in a piggy bank his mother gave him for Christmas.
  • Mood Lighting:
    • All of Blanche's borderline crazy moments have blue lighting.
    • This is used extensively in the 'Poker Night' scene, which is lit in 'raw, primary colours' to represent the men's coarse, powerful nature.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Marlon Brando. How much so? Brando caused tee shirt sales to spike astronomically.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Some productions have Stella as this. Vanessa Kirby in the 2014 National Theatre production spends much of her stagetime in skimpy clothes, and has about as close to an explicit sex/masturbation scene as the production probably could've gotten away with.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • More so in the film, when Stanley sobers up, he's saddened with guilt after realizing that he hit the mother of his unborn child.
    • Blanche suffers from this through most of her life for indirectly killing her childhood love.
    • At the end, Mitch is the only one who looks angry about and refuses to look at Blanche as the asylum doctors come to take her away, implying that he feels at least partially responsible for the chain of events that led to this.
  • Not Distracted by the Sexy: While Stanley certainly notices sexiness, it does not distract him, much to Blanche's chagrin when she tries her usual tricks on him.
    Blanche: Yes, I flirted with your husband, Stella![...] He's just- not the sort that goes for jasmine perfume!
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Stanley is smarter than he lets on. He knows the laws of New Orleans like the back of his hand. Rather than simply accept Blanche into his home he does a background check, uncovering her sexual history in the process. He even manages to have Stella wrapped around his little finger and fools Blanche into thinking he is a common ape. He later reveals everything he knows about her before the rape scene. To add insult to injury, he violently corrects Blanche verbally when she called him a "Pollack" one too many times.
    Stanley: I! AM NOT!! A POLLACK!!! People from Poland are Poles, not Pollacks!! But what I am is 100% American, born and raised in the greatest country on Earth and proud as hell of it, so don't ever call me a Pollack.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Mitch's real name, Harold, only comes up once in the entire play.
  • Only Sane Woman: Despite not being sane in most respects, Blanche is the only character sufficiently horrified and disgusted by how Stanley beats Stella.
  • Prefers the Illusion: Blanche (at first) is fully aware of her lies and that her fantasies are only 'make-believe'. Blanche has constructed an elaborate fantasy world for herself, in which she's a young, pretty, wealthy Southern belle. It's all to deny the harsh realities of her life—her first husband killed himself after Blanche saw him having an affair with another man and unthinkingly revealed she knew the secret in the middle of a crowded dance hall, terrifying him when they were both extremely young, and as a result, she spends all of her days at home having sex with every young man who comes her way in a desperate bid to replace him. She flees to her sister Stella's home after losing the family estate and being driven out of town as a social pariah...only to encounter Stanley Kowalski, Stella's husband and a crude, simple man. Much of the show's conflict centers on Blanche's increasingly-panicked attempts to maintain her fantasy and Stanley, who represents the "real world," attacking her illusions. After Stanley rapes her, Blanche completely loses her mind and permanently retreats into her fantasy world, and Stella is forced to institutionalize her.
  • Rape as Drama: The climax of the story revolves around Blanche going insane after being raped and Stella's decision to exile Blanche to a mental institution rather than believe her husband raped her sister (while she was giving birth to their first-born son no less)! There is a strong implication that Stella knows that Blanche is telling the truth and that she is constantly trying to make herself believe the lie that Blanche had imagined the entire thing. She can't do much else, because she has nowhere else to go, especially with a newborn baby, and she couldn't stay with Stan if she admitted the truth. The entire affair of Blanche being taken to a mental hospital may have been more traumatic for Stella than Blanche by this point (as Blanche had already made the dive into her delusions and she was calm leaving with the doctor).
  • Rape Discretion Shot: The last scene we see of Blanche before her complete nervous breakdown and regression is Stanley hitting her and dragging her into the bedroom. In the film, it's Stanley striking her, causing a mirror to shatter and broken pieces reflecting Blanche's unconscious form.
  • Rape Leads to Insanity: Blanche finally gives in to her delusions by the end of the play after Stanley rapes her, becoming massively disconnected from her reality as she gets dragged away to an insane asylum.
  • Really Gets Around: Blanche, that's why she lost her job. She got a lot of prostitutes coming to her room at The Flamingo.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Near the end Stanley delivers an epic one to Blanche that would have made the audience cheer for him if he wasn't so freaking cruel about it... and if he didn't rape her afterwards.
  • Selective Obliviousness: Stella chooses to believe Blanche's claim that Stanley raped her was just another one of her delusions.
  • Skyward Scream: "Oh, what the hell! SSTTTEEELLLAAA!!!!"
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: The delicate, cultured, and slightly arrogant residents of Belle Reve versus the gritty, rude, and down-to-earth residents of New Orleans. (In itself probably something of a symbolic look at the Old South-New South conflict that was affecting the South at the time.) Most obviously, Stanley vs. Blanche.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The Varsouviana is a happy, upbeat polka tune. It is Blanche's "crazy music" and plays whenever she is losing it and/or her husband's suicide comes up.
  • Southern Belle: Blanche is a Southern Belle in the 20th century, a fading relic of a bygone age. She is living in a world that doesn't really exist anymore and her ideals are hopelessly out of date; she has to deal with the loss of their mansion house Belle Reve in the South, has no money or prospects, lives off her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley but expects to be waited on and treated like a queen.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Not for nothing does everybody remember Brando's Stanley — not Blanche, the alleged star. The film version didn't help; while Vivien Leigh did an admirable job as Blanche, Brando dominates every scene.
  • Stellar Name: Stella for star.
  • Stepford Smiler: Blanche and Stella. Blanche is defined by this trope, though. The thing with her husband when she was a teenager broke her permanently, and she has been empty ever since, circling the drain around neurosis and finally psychotic delusions.
  • Suddenly Shouting: When Stanley eventually gets frustrated with Blanche's flowery language:
    Stanley: JUST CUT THE REBOP!
  • Teasing from Behind the Language Barrier: After Mitch tells Blanche that he doesn't speak French, she says: "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir? Vous ne comprenez pas? Ah, quel dommage!" ("Would you like to sleep with me this evening? You don’t understand? What a tragedy!")
  • Token Minority: Pablo Gonzalez is the only non-white member of Stanley's poker group. He also gets by far the least development of the four, only appearing in group scenes to pad out the cast.
  • Trauma Button: Mentioning Blanche's dead husband is enough to make her vomit and get the polka tune playing in her head.
  • Trivial Title: It has very little to do with streetcars named Desire other than the fact that one of the main characters arrives on a streetcar named Desire.
  • Western Zodiac: Blanche tries to fill an awkward space by talking about everyone's signs. Stanley scoffs at the idea that Blanche is a virginal Virgo, which leads her to inquire what sign he is. She assumes he's an Aries, due to his blunt and aggressive behavior, but he's actually a Capricorn, known for being cold and ambitious.
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: Mitch is Blanche's last chance for a normal life. Just when their relationship is going steady, Stanley intervenes and reveals Blanche's promiscuous past, leading to Mitch denouncing Blanche.