Of all his plays, Tennessee Williams believed the only fully deserved success was A Streetcar Named Desire. Although most critics agree that this is his best piece of work, they are not aware of Williams’s private reasons for cherishing it: when he wrote it in 1947, he was certain it was going to be his last play; he expected to die immediately. And so he felt it was his “swan song.”
In New Orleans, Williams lived near a main thoroughfare called Royal. Up and down the avenue, running on the same track, were two streetcars, one named Desire, the other Cemetery. As he watched the cars go back and forth, Williams was impressed by the symbolic significance of these names and their bearing upon life everywhere. They gave him the title for the story of Blanche DuBois, a sensitive woman driven beyond the brink of sanity by her brutish brother-in-law. The playwright has stated the theme of this play as “the apes shall inherit the earth.” It is thus quite obvious that Williams regarded most men as savages. His sympathies lay with the fine-grained individual who is lacerated by the coarseness of life. Therefore, A Streetcar Named Desire may be read as an allegorical representation of the author’s view of the world he lived in--and thought he was about to depart.
The plot of the play is rich in suggestions and overtones; it moves forward through eleven scenes at a furious pace. At the beginning there is the suggestion of tragedy hovering over the action, but as the work develops it slowly veers toward melodrama and culminates in the insanity of the protagonist, which may be a questionable solution. Interweaving special humor and pathos as it does, the story has the richness and variety of a good novel.
The characterization is strong and interesting. Blanche and Stanley are full-length portraits; one a study in abnormal, the other in normal, psychology. Despite his social consciousness, Williams was more concerned with the psychological than the sociological situations of his characters. Without passing moral judgments on them, Williams was ruthless in his exposure of the people in the play. His use of symbolism helps immeasurably to make them vivid; Blanche’s horror of unshaded light bulbs expresses her inability to face reality--she is a creature of delicate lace and fragile sensibilities. Stanley’s devotion to poker games and undershirts announces his virility. Stella is commonplace and finds complete gratification in marriage. Mitch is a ray of promise to Blanche, but, ultimately, weak and ineffectual. The other characters are a mix of small, mean, frustrated, and violent people. It is an exciting and colorful gallery.
Williams’s dialogue not only characterizes carefully but always carries action forward; his language has an aura of poetry and a certainty based on a kind of interior syntax. Blanche speaks in complex and periodic sentences which are full of imagery; Stanley’s explosive and staccato speeches also contain imagery but on a coarser level. The speech of the other characters is colloquial, slipshod, and typical. Humor and poetry raise Williams’s dialogue to levels much more unique than the journalese written by the average realistic and naturalistic playwrights of his time. Probably only Arthur Miller rivaled Williams in the 1940s and ’50s.
Discounting the author’s own statement, the theme of the play may better be described as the break-up of a social order and its effect on the women, bearers of life, who survive. Stella is able to renew the cycle of life because she joins forces with a man who represents fresh and virile stock; Blanche is the symbol and the victim of the old order which faces decay and death.
The play is an example of “poetic naturalism”; the speeches have the rhythms and images of ordinary life, subtly combined and contrasted with a verse-like elegance of phrase. It has the surprising effect of seeming more real, more life-like than the clipped banalities of the more prosaic realists. The title of the play itself may seem like fantasy or symbolism, but it has that rational explanation, as noted above.
The original production of this play was an excellent example of the element of “spectacle”--lighting, music, unusual stage effects, street cries, church bells, the thousand sounds of activity which heighten the sense of palpitating urban life, of brutal intimacies, and close-packed, crowded living; all these were called for by the playwright and realized through the efforts of the great American director, Elia Kazan, his actors, designers, and technicians.
On April 7, 1957, Williams was interviewed by the Observer in London; he spoke of his life, work, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Again, when Williams and I were both members of Circle Repertory in New York in 1975-76, he spoke to the playwrights there about this great play. My notes from these occasions include his following comments:
“It is not true that I write for money and that my primary appeal is to brutal and ugly instincts. . . . I have followed a developing tension as a writer and person. . . . I guess my work has always been a kind of psychotherapy for me. . . . As the gypsy said in Camino Real, the world is a funny paper read backwards. And that way it isn’t so funny. . .
“I’m not going to change my ways. It’s hard enough for me to write what I want to write without me trying to write what people want me to write which I don’t want to write. . .
“Indeed I do think I have a positive message—the crying, almost screaming, need of a great worldwide human effort to know ourselves and each other a great deal better, well enough to concede that no man has a monopoly on right or virtue any more than any man has a corner on duplicity and evil and so forth. If people, and races and nations, would start with that self-manifest truth, then I think that the world could sidestep the sort of corruption which I have involuntarily chosen as the basic, allegorical theme of my plays as a whole. . .
“I have never written about any kind of vice which I can’t observe in myself. . . . I’m inclined to think that most writers, and most other artists, too, are primarily motivated in their desperate vocation by a desire to find and to separate truth from the complex of lies and evasions they live in, and I think that this impulse is what makes their work not so much a profession as a vocation, a true ‘calling’. . . .
“I don’t believe in ‘original sin.’ I don’t believe in ‘guilt.’ I don’t believe in villains or heroes—Blanche and Stanley are neither--I only believe in right or wrong ways that individuals have taken, not by choice but by necessity or by certain still-uncomprehended influences in themselves, their circumstances, and their antecedents. This is so simple I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m sure it’s true. In fact, I would bet my life on it! And that’s why I don’t understand why our propaganda machines are always trying to teach us, to persuade us, to hate and fear other people on the same little world that we live in. Why don’t we meet these people and get to know them as I try to meet and know people in my plays? This sounds terribly vain and egotistical.
“I don’t want to end on such a note. Then what shall I say? That I know that I am a minor artist who has happened to write one or two major works? I can’t even say which they are. It doesn’t matter. I have said my say. I may still say it again, or I may shut up now. It doesn’t depend on anyone else; it depends entirely on me, and the operation of chance or providence in my life.”
Thomas Lanier Williams closed his comments, but went on living, writing, and trying to connect with us all until chance or providence caused him to swallow the cap from a small bottle of eyewash as he stood in a New York hotel room. He partially swallowed the cap, choked, and like so many of the women and men in his plays, suffocated, but resisted and struggled to the final moment. The great director Jose Quintero once told me that it was the only, if ironical, way for Tennessee Williams to leave this world. What remains is his art and it is ours to cherish with wonderment and respect. He believed that A Streetcar Named Desire was fully realized; that seems as apparent in 1994 as it did in 1947.