W. Eugene Smith
The LIFE Picture Collection
A Streetcar Named Desire – Footnotes
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We talked in the podcast about some of the autobiographic sources in Tennessee Williams’s own life for the characters and themes in the play. Primary among these is the tragic story of Williams’s beloved sister Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and spent much of her life in psychiatric institutions. Rose’s trauma is reflected in the physical disability and chronic shyness of Laura in Wiiliams’s earlier play The Glass Menagerie, and in Blanche’s nervousness and ultimate fate in A Streetcar Named Desire. While Rose was not an exact prototype for Laura and Blanche, Williams was haunted by her tragic affliction, and his characters’ fragilities may also have been an expression of his fears for his own mental stability.
Features of Williams’s mother and father are also identifiable in the characters in Streetcar. Williams’s mother, Edwina, was the daughter of a southern preacher, and although she wasn’t actually born in the south, she adopted the airs of a southern lady. Williams’s father, Cornelius, was a volatile character, who enjoyed drinking and playing poker, not unlike Stanley. The Williams family lived in fear of his temper. Cornelius also had no time for his wife’s southern pretensions, an aversion which Stanley replicates in his impatience with Blanche.
The origins of Blanche’s snobbishness about where Stella and Stanley live can be traced to Edwina’s despair with her reduced circumstances when the Williams family moved from Mississippi to St Louis. It felt like a tremendous step down for Edwina, and the description of their apartment in St Louis sounded very like the tenement building we see in Streetcar and The Glass Menagerie.
There is perhaps a less obvious influence from Williams’s life evident in Streetcar. We talked in the podcast about the multiple references to death in the play, centred of course on the awful suicide of Blanche’s young husband. But Blanche refers more than once to deaths in the family back at Belle Reve, the grim sordidness of which she was unable to escape. And in a lyrical speech near the end of the play she slips into a dream-like reverie imagining her own death at sea, with her “hand in the hand of a nice-looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond moustache and a big silver watch…and I’ll be buried at sea sewn up in clean white sack and dropped overboard – at noon – in the blaze of summer – and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes.” The detail in her vision is transporting. The play’s absorption with death may have been an expression of Williams’s own anxiety at the time, because when he was writing Streetcar he believed that he was dying of pancreatic cancer.
Although not literal translations, it is clear that the characters and themes in Williams’s play were effusions of his own psychological landscape.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Los Angeles 2017
Marlon Brando in the 1951 film
“There was something different about the boy”
Williams’s own life must also account for the character of Blanche’s young husband, Alan, and his implied homosexuality. I say implied because the way that Alan is described in the text it is not explicit, the language being carefully composed. Blanche tells Mitch that “there was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s, although he wasn’t the least bit effeminate looking”. Blanche “didn’t find out anything till after our marriage when we’d run away and come back and all I knew was I’d failed him in some mysterious way and wasn’t able to give the help he needed and couldn’t speak of!”. The inference being that Blanche was unable to comprehend or consummate their sexual relationship, the latter perhaps affirmed by Blanche’s referring always to Alan as a “boy” rather than a man, and herself as a maid rather than a widow. Stella describes Alan as a “boy who wrote poetry”, and then says that Blanche found out that “this beautiful and talented young man was a degenerate.” All together it is a sensitively drawn portrait of a young man struggling with his own identity, that conveys both love for him and the moral stigma of the time.
The moral stigma is to the fore in Blanche’s memory of “coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty, but had two people in it”, and in her subsequent reaction when she says to Alan on the dance floor, “I know! I know! You disgust me!”. The text does not specify that the second person in the room was male, nor is it explicit when she says “the three of us drove out to Moon Lake Casino, vey drunk and laughing all the way.” But there is enough in the language which Blanche uses to this point that we are left with a clear understanding of Alan and what has happened. In fact the 1951 film greatly diluted the homosexual inferences, Blanche declaring at the end that she had “lost respect” for the boy because he was “weak”: “this boy who wrote poetry, didn’t seem to be able to do anything else, lost every job”. A far more pedestrian interpretation.
The play’s representation of sexual identity is complex. Alan and Blanche share a fate in being victims of male heterosexual cultural and physical dominance. The portrait of Stanley’s charged sexual power both revels in its erotic intensity and acknowledges its dangerous brutality. Gore Vidal contended that Stanley Kowalski “changed the concept of sex in America – before him no male was considered erotic.” A perspective forcefully underlined in Marlon Brando’s incarnation of sexual virility. Paradoxically perhaps we sense in our appreciation of Stanley’s sexual magnetism, Williams’s attraction for his own character.
The social context
A Streetcar Named Desire seems primarily to be a personal drama, focussing on the psychological and emotional stories of these individual people, but these characters also reflect features of American society at the time that the play was written. It is possible, for example, to see Blanche and Stanley representing the vanishing past and the modern present respectively. Blanche who comes from the rural, southern plantations, the family estate aptly named Belle Reve, to signal the long-gone dream of wealth and privilege; and Stanley, who is very much a figure of the urban industrial world that burgeoned in America during and after the second world war. Of course, Stanley literally wants to take some of the spoils leftover from the decline of the south in claiming a share of the proceeds of Belle Reve.
Blanche and Stanley also display clichés of differing social behaviour – Blanche with her old-fashioned gentility, and Stanley, blunt and coarse. His and his poker peers’ behaviour may be informed by their shared experience in the war, where unconstrained violence and male camaraderie prevailed. With Blanche’s social propriety also comes her prejudice, where she disparages Stanley as a “Polack” and a “swine”. Stanley is the son of immigrants, proud to be Polish as well as 100% American. As it happens New Orleans was exceptional in the south for being a tolerant, multi-cultural melting pot, with an increasing working-class population supporting its growing industrial economy. In this context Stanley is part of the American Dream, where his individual energy will overcome established social hierarchies, as represented by Blanche’s inherited privilege. Stanley’s victory over Blanche in their personal struggle signals the changing world they inhabit.
Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.
I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.
Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson
Harold Pinter’s disturbing exploration of toxic masculinity and sexual maneuvering, The Homecoming premiered in 1965. The play’s portrait of misogyny, and even more disturbing, the apparent female complicity, was shocking at the time it was written. Nearly 60 years on the sexual politics is if anything even more difficult to watch. So what was Pinter’s purpose in presenting such a provocative piece, and how do we process it in the post Me-Too age?
I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.
Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.
Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts provoked outrage when it was published in 1881, its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia too much for the critics. More than 140 years later its portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy remains as powerful as ever.
Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.
Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.