A Streetcar Named Desire

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Blanche disapproves of Stanley's manly shirt sweat.
"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. In the age of Calvin Klein steaming hunks, it must be hard for [kids today] 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."

Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire is a 1947 play about a hundred different things. Reality vs. the imaginary, the old America vs. the new, insanity, abuse, violence, appearances and purity. Most people are familiar with the 1951 movie staring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter, which was of course Oscar-tacular.[1] But there have been many adaptations including a 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.


Tropes used in A Streetcar Named Desire include:
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Stella, to the point where she denies Stan's rape ever happening.
  • 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 own sister's mental problems. Yep, it's a Tennessee Williams play alright.
  • 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.
  • Better Than It Sounds/Film and Better Than It Sounds/Theater: The notion of a film/play about a crazy woman who goes to live with her sister and brother-in-law doesn't sound well on paper but works in execution.
  • Big Word Shout: Guess which one.
  • Break the Cutie: Despite her many flaws, Blanche has had a rough time.
  • 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.
  • Christmas Cake: Blanche is terrified of being this.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: 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.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: 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.
  • 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.
  • Domestic Abuse: Stella explains away everything.
  • Downer Ending
  • Dream Melody: The Varsouviana.
  • 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.
  • Elves Versus Dwarves: The delicate, cultured, and slightly arrogant residents of Belle Reve versus the gritty, rude, and down-to-earth residents of New Orleans.
  • Environmental Symbolism
  • Ephebophile: Blanche. This is why she was fired.
  • Faux Symbolism: It's Tennessee Williams -- what do you expect? Just be glad there aren't any blue roses.
  • Foreshadowing: In a way. Blanche kissing the paperboy and drinking is foreshadowing revelations about her past.
  • Freak-Out: The permanent kind.
  • The Ghost: Shep. He may or may not exist.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: During the rape scene, Blanche smashes a whiskey bottle so she can "twist the broken end in [Stanley's] face."
  • Heroic BSOD: Literally! The lighting changes, the music swells, and Stanley carries Blanche off to the bedroom.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Blanche, though the play and movie subvert it by having Blanche compare her time as a hooker to being a tarantula, preying on the flesh of men.
    • She was being sarcastic, because she was angry at Mitch.
  • Hot for Student: Blanche, in the backstory. He reminded her of Allen.
  • In Love with Your Carnage: The reason Stella doesn't leave Stanley, though violence toward other people crosses the line for her.
  • 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.
  • Interplay of Sex and Violence: Stella and Stanley's relationship.
  • Jerkass: Stanley fits the bill.
    • He's definitely worse than a Jerkass by the end of the play, but at the same time he's not quite a Complete Monster either...
  • Jerkass Woobie: YMMV, but Blanche. She's very harsh towards Stanley (who she sees as a "Polack" and an "ape"), and she isn't particularly nice in general, but once you find out about her past, it's very hard not to feel sorry for her...
  • Karma Houdini: Stanley effectively gets away with rape. Less so in the film.
  • Leitmotif: Blanche is represented by a blues 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Blanche DuBois means "white woods" in French -- a dreamlike and old-world scene. Belle Reve is French, too -- for "beautiful dream." Also, Blanche's closeted husband was named Allen Grey. Remind you of anyone?
    • Or rather "white of the woods". Also, "belle" is feminine whereas "rêve" is masculine (it should be "Beau Rêve").
  • Momma's Boy: Mitch.
  • 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 colors" to represent the men's coarse, powerful nature.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Marlon Brando.
    • How much so? Brando caused t-shirt sales to spike astronomically.
  • Rape as Drama: The climax of the film/play 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 was arguably 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.
  • Rape Leads to Insanity: Blanche after Stanley rapes her.
  • Really Gets Around: Blanche, that's why she lost her job.
  • The Reveal: Oh, so many. Interestingly, few -- if any -- of them serve as a climax: rather, they are used to both forward the plot and build up to the actual climax.
  • 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...
  • Say My Name: If you got two guesses, you'll only have one.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Mitch and Stanley.
  • Skyward Scream: Oh, what the hell! SSTTTEEELLLAAA!!!!
  • Southern Belle: Blanche is a Southern Belle in the 20th century, a fading relic of a bygone age.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Not for nothing does everybody remember Brando's Stanley -- not Blanche, the alleged star. The film version didn't help; Vivien Leigh is all nervous tics, while 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.

Notes

  1. Although the best remembered performance - Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski - was passed over on Oscar night in favor of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.