Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 play about a hundred different things: reality versus the imaginary, the old U.S. versus the new, social class, insanity, abuse, violence, appearances, purity, etc.
Most people are familiar with the 1951 movie directed by Elia Kazan and starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter, 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, it may be considered Williams' best known work, and the character of Blanche has been considered 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. Blanche meets Stella's husband Stanley and the two develop an almost instant disliking. Blanche finds Stanley vulgar and common, while Stanley hates Blanche's continual snobbery, despite the fact she is now just as poor as them. 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. Really worse.
Note: The title of the movie refers to old buses for public transit, streetcars, what we now call "light rail" or "trams." They were usually named for the street they ran on. And one of the streetcars ran along a street in New Orleans named "Desire." It probably sounds more exciting than "A Streetcar Named Broadway," "A Streetcar Named 42nd Street," or, definitely, "A Tram in New Orleans."
- 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.
- Author Appeal: An entire paragraph devoted to Stanley's handsome looks, great physique and animalistic drive? Tick. 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? Tick. Young woman with mental illness issues who finally had to go to a mental institution? Tick. So we've got wish fulfillment, personal projection, and taking inspiration direct from your family. Yep, it's a Tennessee Williams play, all right.
- 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 Word Shout: STELLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, its 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.
- 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.
- Deconstruction: Williams' play scrutinized gender and class roles in the emerging postwar America.
- 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.
- Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: Blanche is reprimanded and punished for her fling with her underage student(s), but doesn't serve a proper legal punishment.
- 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.
- 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.
- Have a Gay Old Time: Some current viewers might have raised an eyebrow at Mitch's line; "I thought you were straight!"
- 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 whole investigation into Blanche's past (and general dislike of her) is provoked because, due to New Orleans being run under the "Napoleonic Code", he might have indirectly lost a little bit of money if Blanche made a bad deal when selling her childhood home.
- 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 the truth which makes tearing her up more painful to watch.
- 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.
- Kick the Dog: Stanley enjoys revealing Blanche's Dark Secret (and in the process ruining her relationship 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. Like 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.
- 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!
- A Noun Referred to as X: A Streetcar Named Desire.
- 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: Blanche is the only character sufficiently horrified and disgusted by how Stanley beats Stella.
- 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
- "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.
- Revised 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...
- 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 vs. 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.
- 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:"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 dont 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.
- 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.