“I don’t want realism. I want magic”; yet in his classic American drama, Williams shows us it just isn’t possible.
Set in post-war 1940s America in the vibrant city of New Orleans, Williams highlights the tragic decline of the fading agrarian South and its battle with the unforgiving emerging modernity. The play follows Blanche DuBois, a “delicate beauty” of a Southern Belle, who comes to stay with her sister Stella in New Orleans. Blanche is entirely “incongruous” – in other words, a black sheep – to her new surroundings, seemingly used to a more refined life around the “white columns” of her ancestral home, Belle Reve: an old slave plantation, deep in rural Mississippi. Yet Belle Reve is no longer her home, lost amidst death and scandal; Blanche must live with Stella, and her brutish husband Stanley.
Stanley Kowalski is nothing but sheer masculine power; a true force of nature. Compared to the gentlemen “admirers” of Blanche and Stella’s youth, he is “common”, “subhuman” even, and the absolute opposite of everything Blanche stands for. His violence and sexual presence – represented by the ‘Desire’ and ‘Cemeteries’ streetcars Blanche must travel in to arrive in his presence – clash fiercely with Blanche’s fragile facade, breeding an intense battle between their ideals that culminates in a final, desperate confrontation.
Stella however, is like neither of them. Born into Blanche’s privilege, yet married into Stanley’s animalism, she is a mix of them both, largely passive to their demanding natures yet driven by her passionate lust for Stanley; an indecisive figure in a rapidly changing world. There is also Mitch, Stanley’s decidedly more effeminate friend, who connects with Blanche’s softer nature and offers her comfort in the unrelenting world of 1940s modern America. Yet Blanche DuBois, the apparent epitome of cultured and refined society, hides a web of dark secrets; secrets that threaten to unravel the “magic” she weaves and expose her to Stanley’s harsh “realism”.
Considered ‘one of the greatest American plays’, A Streetcar Named Desire is a beautifully bleak account of Williams’ fears for modern America. Himself a highly sensitive man, he sympathised with and was fascinated by the decay of the ‘old’ South, whilst seemingly acknowledging the inevitable rise of the insensitive modern world. His use of music throughout the play – including the distinctive “blue piano” and trumpets of New Orleans jazz – exquisitely encapsulates the sensual world of the Kowalskis and the crumbling universe of Blanche, culminating in a dramatic masterpiece that is best experienced live on stage.
Indeed I have recently seen an adaptation of it, with Maxine Peake doing perfect justice to the complex starring role of Blanche, though the interpretations of Stanley and Stella leave much to be desired! Or if you’re more of a cinema fan, it’s well worth checking out Elia Kazan’s classic blockbuster, immortalised by the legendary Marlon Brando (how Stanley should be done!).
Ultimately, I would definitely recommend reading AND watching this play. Despite its gloomy tone and raft of essentially unlikeable characters, it conveys a poignant message still relevant today, amidst all of the turmoil our world is in:
Embrace reality with sensitivity: don’t forget to weave a little “magic”.