By Professor Jonathan Brockbank
The American Declaration of Independence (1776) proclaims America to be a newly founded country ‘where all men are created equal with the right to pursue ‘Happiness’.(1) Every Tennessee Williams play questions the Declaration, revealing the myth of America as a land of inequality. It is indeed prey to the same dark forces that dominated Europe, and A Streetcar Named Desire is no exception. Let’s explore this in more detail.
Realism and Myth
Williams’s plays show a creative tension between realistic detail, and reference to the aforementioned myth and the geography of New Orleans allows him to combine the two: the Elysian Fields were a part of the Greek underworld where the blessed dead lived as well as an actual district in New Orleans. In contrast to the optimism of the Greek myth and that of the area’s namer, Jean-Bernard de Marigny, in Williams’s Streetcar it is where the living damned reside. ‘Desire’ is another part of New Orleans, so when Stella asks Blanche, ‘Haven’t you ever ridden on that streetcar?’ (Scene, 6, p.162), the question has both realistic and mythical implications. Such mythical dimensions are reinforced by detail. Blanche looks for ‘the Pleiades’ (Scene 6, p176); the Greek myth is that the Seven Daughters of Atlas were saved from rape by being transformed into stars (Pleiades Greek Mythology Britannica).(2) Blanche will not be so lucky, for all that she has is a sister called ‘star’ (Stella).
Class and Race
Williams is aware of everything that makes America unequal. America claims to be ‘classless’ but is actually divided into groups united by their economic interests; that is ‘class’ in Marx’s sense of the word, where an individual’s position is determined by their role in the production process. There are also cultural divisions represented in the play. Some characters have more ‘class’ (in the slang sense) than others. Stanley is continually riled by Blanche’s affectations, ‘Hoity-toity describing me as an ape’ (Scene 8, p.199), and the way his wife speaks better English than he does. The sisters’ ‘class’, however, is based on French descent and lost wealth: wealth which had a sinister source.
Like many other characters in Williams’s plays, the De Bois girls have been brought up on an ex-plantation, whose wealth was originally based on slavery. Slavery may be gone but prejudice remains, which is exemplified when Steve uses the n-word (Scene 3, p.144) and no one complains, but Stanley objects to being called ‘P****k’, the equivalent discriminatory word for Poles (Scene 8, p.197). The play reflects but questions the accepted hierarchy of America with white men at the top, other races below them, and women occupying an ambiguous position in between. One of the first characters seen on stage is a woman of colour, who is on an equal footing with Eunice. Blues music weaves its way behind the play’s action, paying tribute to African American creativity, and forming an equivalent to the singing and dancing of a classical Greek chorus. Thus, Williams interrogates unequal structures without ever bringing them completely front and centre.
The play is feminist in so far as it shows the vulnerability of women. Stanley’s friends are not surprised when he hits his pregnant wife (Scene 3, p.152); they intervene only to stop him from going even further. The men in the play treat the violence between Eunice and Steve (Scene 5, pp.165-6) as farcical. It is deliberately hard to work out if Blanche’s sex life is driven by ‘hunting for protection’ (Scene 9, p.205) or simple desire, such as when she kisses the young delivery man (Scene 5, p.174). Either way, she is allowed neither shelter nor satisfaction in the society she lives in. The play shows no positive female role models, only survivors; for example, after a prostitute has tried to rob a drunk, 'the Negro Woman appears arounds the corner with a sequined bag ... rooting excitedly through it', this being the bag that the prostitute has dropped (Scene 10, p.213).
Desire in Williams is a dangerous, irrational force. In his plays, it frequently takes on a sadomasochistic form. The first description of Blanche presents her as a ‘moth’ (Scene 1, p.117) and, like a moth, she is drawn to flame. The rape of Blanche shows the vulnerability of women but is simultaneously part of a perverse sexual attraction between Blanche and Stanley, in which she threatens him with a broken bottle but ‘sinks to her knees’ (Scene 10, p.215) instead of continuing to struggle. Similarly, Stella is ‘thrilled’ (Scene 4, p.157) when Stanley crazily smashes all the light bulbs on their wedding night.
These women are not alone. All the major protagonists in Williams's plays, whether male or female, are possessed by dangerous drives that lead to madness, mutilation or painful death. This happens to Val in Orpheus Descending (1957) and Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth (1959); both are male despite their ambiguous names. Williams's plays are not optimistic about humanity, whether 'humanity' means 'humankind' or 'human kindness'. All of these moments are deliberately provocative and disturbing. In our modern era, and in light of #MeToo, audiences may understandably find them shocking.
Williams was gay at a time when male homosexuality was defined as ‘sodomy’ and was illegal. Consequently, he has to encode gay possibilities within his plays. Take, for example, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where the Hollywood film was adjusted for a mainstream audience by removing any allusions to Brick and Skipper’s possible relationship. Many plays show promiscuous characters; in Streetcar, this character is Blanche and she also experiences being part of a destructive love triangle. She finds ‘a room with two people in it’ (Scene 6, p.183), presumably a man with his boyfriend. This would explain his suicide and why Stella refers to the boyfriend, with the prejudice of the time, as a ‘degenerate’ (Scene 7, p.190).
Williams belongs to a post-Freudian world where myths are linked with subconscious destructive forces. Despite the optimism of the Declaration, Williams shows an America close to insanity, a world in which civilisation and repression are equally futile, haunted by drives towards a ‘Happiness’ that can only be achieved at the expense of others.
- ‘Declaration Of Independence: A Transcription.’ National Archives, 2022, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Pleiades”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Feb. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pleiades-Greek-mythology. Accessed 15 October 2022.
- “Declaration Of Independence: A Transcription”. National Archives, 2022, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.
- Sweet Bird of Youth and Other Plays, Ed E Martin Browne, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1974
Jonathan Brockbank, Department of English & Related Literature, University of York
Jonathan Brockbank MPhil, Camb, ex reggae-writer for Black Echoes, Scholarship and Teaching Fellow at The Department of English, University of York, specializing in Victorian and American writing and British Science Fiction and Fantasy.