With her family’s Laurel, Mississippi, estate lost to creditors, Blanche DuBois arrives at the New Orleans tenement home of her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley Kowalski, where she is shocked by the disreputable looks of the place and frankly criticizes both Stella and Stanley. Blanche’s faded gentility violently clashes with Stanley’s animal vitality, setting up a contest of wills between the two, with Blanche vying with Stanley for Stella’s allegiance. However, through the course of the play, she finds herself no match for Stanley’s sexual hold over her sister.
The following evening, Blanche and Stella go out to dinner and a movie while Stanley and his friends play poker; but when the women return the men are still in the kitchen playing, and Blanche notices that one of the players, Mitch, seems to be more sensitive than the others. Thus, she begins to charm him with the idea of eventually marrying him. However, the momentary peace is broken when Stanley becomes angry over a series of minor incidents, throws the radio out the window, hits Stella when she tries to intervene, and has to be held back by the other men to be kept from doing more damage. To protect her, Stella takes Blanche upstairs to a friend’s apartment. Yet, when Stanley recovers, he calls for Stella, and she returns to spend the night with him.
The next morning, Blanche is angry that Stella would return to a “madman.” However, Stella assures her that everything is fine and that “there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark--that sort of make everything else seem--unimportant.”
Through the next couple of months Blanche and Mitch’s romance blossoms. Blanche confides some of her past to Mitch, including the fact that she had once been married to a young man who, when she learned he was homosexual, committed suicide. Mitch confesses that he fears that once his ailing mother dies he, too, will be lonely--and he proposes marriage.
Stanley, however, has other plans. He has learned all of Blanche’s past, which he shares with Stella and Mitch: It seems that she lived such a wild life of drunkenness and promiscuity back in Mississippi that she was asked to leave town. Even the army had referred to Blanche as being out-of-bounds. Later that evening Blanche cannot understand why Mitch does not come over to her small birthday party. However, she begins to see the light when Stanley presents her with her birthday present: a one-way bus ticket back to Laurel. Everyone’s anger comes to a head just as Stella announces that she is having labor pains and that their first child is about to be born.
With Stella and Stanley gone to the hospital, Blanche begins to drink heavily; and Mitch arrives to confront her with her past. At first she tries to deny it, but then confesses that after the death of her young husband, nothing but intimacies with strangers seemed to have any meaning for her. Mitch then tries to get her to sleep with him, they argue, and he leaves, telling her she is not good enough for him.
The hospital soon sends Stanley home, telling him the baby won’t be born until morning. At home he finds Blanche dressed in bits of outlandish finery and fantasizing about an invitation to join a cruise. He confronts her with all the lies she has told; then his animosity and anger quickly explode into sexual violence, and he rapes her.
Three weeks later, Stella is home and packing Blanche’s clothes and getting her ready for a doctor and a nurse to come and take her to the state mental institution. Blanche, her mind completely unhinged now, thinks that an old boyfriend is coming to take her on a cruise. When the nurse arrives, Blanche recoils in fear, but Stanley helps trap her. The doctor, however, is able to alleviate her fears, and, eventually Blanche is quite willing to go with him, saying “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
The play ends with Stella sobbing, with Stanley trying to soothe her through words and sexuality, and the poker players starting another game, the last line of the play being spoken by one of the players: “This game is seven-card stud.”