Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings...©
and Enlarged in 2010
of Work and First Performance
Streetcar Named Desire is a stage play with elements of tragedy and
pathos. After tryout productions performed in Boston, Philadelphia, and
New Haven, Conn., the play opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New
York City on December 3, 1947, and closed on December 17, 1949, after 855
action takes place between May and September in a shabby apartment building
in the working-class district of New Orleans in the 1940s, shortly after
the Second World War. The protagonist, Blanche Dubois, comes to New Orleans
from Laurel, Miss., the site of the family homestead. Although no scenes
are set in Laurel, the effect of the town and its Old South culture on
DuBois is important.
is a real town in southeastern Mississippi. It has a a present population
of about 18,000 and is the seat of Jones County. Laurel, which was named
after the laurel shrubs growing abundantly in nearby forests, prospered
early in the 20th Century as a lumbering center. Tennessee Williams, the
author of A Streetcar Named Desire, was born in eastern Mississippi
in the town of Columbus and was well aware of Mississippi customs and traditions.
Neurotic central character from Laurel, Mississippi, who travels to New
Orleans to visit her sister and her husband. She lives in a fantasy world
of Old South chivalry but cannot control her carnal desires.
Blanche’s down-to-earth sister who seems satisfied with her life as the
wife of a New Orleans factory worker.
Stella’s churlish and outspoken husband and the bane of Blanche’s existence.
Mitch: Harold Mitchell,
Stanley's poker partner and best friend. He woos Blanche until he finds
out about her seamy past.
Stanley and Blanche’s upstairs neighbor and landlady.
Poker partner of Stanley and husband of Eunice.
Hispanic Poker partner of Stanley.
Allen Grey: Deceased
husband of Blanche. His homosexual affair and suicide deeply scarred Blanche.
Collector for The Evening Star newspaper.
Shep Huntleigh: Imaginary
beau of Blanche.
Physician and nurse from a mental hospital.
Streetcar Named Desire centers on a desolated woman named Blanche DuBois.
Reared in Old South aristocratic traditions, she lived elegantly in the
family homestead, married a man she adored, and pursued a career as an
English teacher. But her life fell apart when she discovered that her husband,
Allen Grey, was having a homosexual affair. Disgraced, he killed himself.
Blanche sought comfort in the arms of other men, many men. After she had
relations with one of her students, a 17-year-old, authorities learned
of the encounter and fired her. Meanwhile, relatives died and she could
not keep up the family home. Eventually, creditors seized it. The play
begins when Blanche arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister, Stella,
and her crude, outspoken husband, Stanley Kowalski. Though scarred by her
past, Blanche still tries to lead the life of an elegant lady and does
her best, even lying when necessary, to keep up appearances.
Michael J. Cummings...©
is just after dusk in New Orleans on an evening early in May after World
War II. In front of a shabby apartment building on a street named Elysian
Fields, a white and a black woman are sitting on the steps while piano
music plays in a nearby tavern. The white woman, Eunice, lives in the building’s
upstairs apartment. The black woman lives nearby. Two white men in work
clothes—Stanley Kowalski and his friend Mitch, both no more than 30—round
and his wife, Stella, about 25, occupy the first-floor apartment. After
Stanley shouts for her, she steps out on the landing and he throws her
a package of meat. He and Mitch then reverse direction to go bowling at
an alley around the corner. Stella decides to follow and watch them.
moment later, Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois, rounds the corner with a
valise after arriving from Laurel, Mississippi. She checks an address on
a slip of paper, then looks in disbelief at the apartment building. Could
Stella really live in such a run-down dwelling? Blanche, about 30, is elegantly
attractive but somewhat fragile and vulnerable.
In her white suit, complemented by pearl earrings and white gloves, she
is out of place in this working-class neighborhood. When Eunice
asks whether she is lost, Blanche says, “They told me to take a street-car
named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks
and get off at—Elysian Fields." Eunice confirms that Blanche has come to
the right street and right address, 632. The black woman goes to the bowling
alley to fetch Stella.
the sisters reunite and exchange pleasantries, Blanche looks for liquor
and finds it, and Stella does the pouring because Blanche is shaking. Blanche
assures her sister that she is not a drunkard but “just all shaken up and
hot and tired and dirty."
says she is on leave from her job teaching English at a high school in
Laurel. In fact, she was fired for promiscuous behavior with a teenager.
Pretentiously aristocratic, Blanche bemoans her sister’s plebeian surroundings.
The apartment is run-down and spare, with only a kitchen and a bedroom—separated
by a curtain—and a small bathroom. Blanche fishes for compliments about
her appearance, asks for another drink, and wonders whether it will be
proper for her to stay in such close quarters with Stella’s husband roaming
about. Stella tells her that everything will be fine, although she cautions
Blanche that Stanley’s friends are common and unrefined.
then informs Stella that creditors back in Laurel have seized their family
homestead, Belle Reve, even though Blanche “fought for it, bled for it,
almost died for it." She scolds Stella for not staying behind in Mississippi
to help manage the property.
just came home in time for funerals, Stella," she says.
upshot is that Stella will never inherit a single cent from her share in
the property, because there is no property. After Stanley arrives home
and hears the news, he demands evidence of the property loss. He is crude
and mouthy, not at all afraid to speak his mind, and suspicious. Blanche
allows him to see the appropriate legal documents, which she has brought
with her, that confirm the loss. Stanley says he will have a lawyer examine
the papers, adding, “You see . . . a man has to take an interest in his
wife’s affairs—especially now that she’s going to have a baby." It
is the first time Stella has heard of her sister’s pregnancy, and she congratulates
friends—Mitch, Steve, and Pablo—arrive for a poker game on the kitchen
table. Hours later, at 2:30 in the morning, while the boys are still playing
cards, Stella introduces Blanche to Mitch—Harold Mitchell—who works in
the spare-parts department at the plant employing Stanley. Blanche seems
interested in Mitch. Unmarried, he lives with and watches over his ailing
mother. After he asks Stanley to deal him out, he talks with Blanche. She
tells him that she’s younger than Stella (although she’s five years older)
and that she is in New Orleans to look after Stella—“She hasn’t been well,
lately"—even though she is there because she has nowhere else to go. She
also says she is an old maid schoolteacher (although she was married once
to a homosexual who committed suicide), and that she teaches high school
English (although she was forced out of her job for having an affair with
Blanche plays a radio and dances suggestively, Mitch imitates her movements.
Irritated by the noise, Stanley—now full of drink—throws the radio
out the window. Stella scolds him and Stanley moves menacingly toward her.
She runs. He follows and strikes her. After the other men restrain Stanley,
Mitch says, “Poker should not be played in a house with women." Stella
goes upstairs with Blanche to Eunice’s.
the card game, Stanley enters the hallway and calls upstairs repeatedly
for “my baby." Eventually, Stella comes down and they embrace tenderly
on the steps, and Stanley carries her to bed. When Blanche later comes
downstairs, she glances in at Stanley and Stella in carnal passion and
runs outside. Mitch materializes from around the corner, and he and Blanche
have a cigarette, sit down, and talk. Romance blossoms.
next day, while Stanley is out getting the car greased, Blanche tells Stella
that she’s married to a “madman" and urges her to abandon Stanley. Stella,
however, shrugs off Stanley’s violent behavior of the night before and
assures Blanche that he is really gentle and loving. Blanche says
she “trembles" for Stella. A train rumbles by while the sisters continue
their conversation in the bedroom. Stanley returns, unheard and unseen
by the sisters, and overhears Blanche criticizing him: “He acts like an
animal, has an animal’s habits. Eats like one, moves like one, talks like
the next several months, Stanley and Blanche become mortal enemies, and
Stanley dedicates himself to her destruction while she keeps company with
Mitch. Opening up to Mitch, she tells him about her deceased husband, Allen
Grey, who killed himself after she found out he was a homosexual and told
him he disgusted her while they were out dancing a polka called the Varsouviana.
Meanwhile, Stanley probes Blanche’s past and gets “the dope" on her from
a supply man at his plant who regularly travels through Laurel and stays
at the Flamingo Hotel there. He has told Stanley that Blanche carried on
affairs with many men while living at the Flamingo, a second-rate hotel,
and was evicted because of her promiscuous behavior.
you know," he says to Stella, “that there was an army camp near Laurel
and your sister’s was one of the places called ‘Out-of-Bounds’?"
Stanley is laying out the dirty details, Blanche is bathing in the bathroom,
singing the lyrics of "Paper Moon": "It's only a paper moon, Just as phony
as it can be— / But it wouldn't be make-believe If you believe in me."
also tells Stella that Blanche is not on a “leave of absence" from
her teaching job but was “kicked out" of the high school before the end
of the spring semester as the result of an affair with a 17-year-old. Stella
says she doesn’t believe the stories but admits that Blanche did “cause
sorrow" at home and was always “flighty." While defending her sister, Stella
says Blanche suffered a devastating blow when she was young and married
to a young man (Allen Grey) who wrote poetry. She worshipped him but found
out he was a “degenerate."
While talking, Stella pokes candles into a cake, saying it is Blanche's
birthday and Mitch has been invited. However, Stanley says Mitch won’t
be attending. It seems Stanley has tattled on Blanche to Mitch and, Stanley
says, Mitch has “wised up."
not going to jump in a tank with a school of sharks," Stanley says.
Stanley gives Blanche a birthday gift: a bus ticket back to Laurel. His
behavior upsets Blanche. Suddenly ill, she retreats to the bathroom. While
Stella rebukes Stanley for his cruelty, she goes into labor pains, and
Stanley takes her to a hospital.
pass. Blanche drinks and packs her clothes. In the giddiness of her drunken
state, she dresses in a white evening gown, a pair of silver slippers,
and a rhinestone tiara. While she is in the bedroom admiring herself, Stanley
returns after stopping at a bar for a few drinks and two quarts of beer.
He tells Blanche that Stella is still in labor and that the baby will not
come until morning. Stanley removes his shirt and opens a quart of beer,
then enters the bedroom to remove pajamas from a bureau drawer. He asks
Blanche why she is wearing “those fine feathers." She fabricates a story,
saying she has received a telegram from an old beau, Shep Huntleigh, inviting
her on a Caribbean cruise. She says Huntleigh is a millionaire who lives
in Dallas, “where gold spouts from the ground."
it’s a red-letter night for us both," Stanley says. “You having an oil-millionaire
and me having a baby."
Stanley returns to the kitchen, Blanche tells him that Huntleigh respects
her and that she, as an intelligent and cultivated woman, has much to offer
him. Then she insults Stanley, saying, “I have been foolish—casting my
pearls before swine. . . . I’m thinking not only of you but of your friend,
Mr. Mitchell [who] came back [and] implored my forgiveness." But, she says,
she bid farewell to him.
asks, “Was this before or after the telegram came from the Texas oil millionaire?"
response gives her away. Stanley says was she lying not only about the
Caribbean cruise but also about Mitch’s return visit because “I know where
he is." Then he says, “Take a look at yourself in that worn-out Mardi Gras
outfit, rented for fifty cents from some rag-picker. And with that crazy
crown on! What queen do you think you are?" He answers his own question,
saying, “The queen of the Nile! Sitting on your throne and swilling down
reenters the bedroom and goes into the bathroom. Frightened, Blanche picks
up the phone receiver and requests the number of “Shep Huntleigh of Dallas,"
who she says is so well known that she need not provide the operator an
address. Moments later, she cancels the call and asks for Western Union
to send a message that she is in “desperate circumstances." Stanley emerges
from the bathroom in his pajamas. He leers at her. She smashes the top
of a bottle and threatens him with the jagged edge. He subdues and rapes
later, Stella packs Blanche’s belongings while Stanley plays poker with
Mitch, Steve, and Pablo. Eunice comes down and asks about Blanche, who
is bathing. Blanche is now deeply disturbed—in fact, insane. Stella answers
that she told Blanche arrangements were made for her to rest in the country.
Stella also says, “I couldn’t believe her story [about the rape] and go
on living with Stanley."
a doctor and a matron (nurse) arrive for Blanche, Blanche struggles against
them. Stella says, “Oh, God, what have I done to my sister?" Stanley soothes
Stella as the doctor and matron take custody of Blanche for treatment in
an institution. The poker game continues as Steve says, “This game is seven-card
conversations are pruned of irrelevancy. Blanche’s educated speech and
literary allusions contrast with Stanley’s down-to-earth language and crude—but
often effective and amusing—imagery. The dialogue is rich in tropes, including
the commonplace cliches of Stanley and the literary allusions and quotations
Theme 1 The reluctance
or inability of people to accept the truth. Blanche lives in a cocoon
of unreality to protect herself against her weaknesses and shortcomings,
including her inability to repress sexual desire. To preserve her ego,
she lies about her promiscuous behavior in Laurel; she shuns bright light,
lest it reveal her physical imperfections; and she refuses to acknowledge
her problem with alcohol. Stanley effectively penetrates her cocoon verbally
with his crude insults and physically with his sexual coup de main
near the end of the play. Stanley has his own problem: He lacks the insight
to see what he really is—a coarse, domineering macho man ruled by primal
instincts. Unlike Blanche, though, he is happy in his ignorance. For her
part, Stella accepts the truth—partly. She acknowledges that Stanley is
crude and that her apartment is cramped and shabby. But, in the end, she
refuses to accept the truth about her sister’s past and about Stanley’s
violation of Blanche. “I couldn’t believe [Blanche’s] story [about the
rape] and go on living with Stanley," Stella says.
Theme 2 The final
destruction of the Old South, symbolized by Blanche and Belle Reve (the
family property seized by creditors). This theme—not unlike that in
Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind—begins to unfold in the opening
scene of the play. Two women, one white and one black, sit as equals on
the steps of an apartment building while Blanche arrives on scene accoutered
in the attitude and finery of a southern belle of yesteryear. She is an
alien, a strange creature from another time, another place.
Theme 3 The despoliation
of the sensitive and feminine by the feral and masculine. Blanche and
her first husband, a homosexual, cannot survive in the world of Stanley
and his kind. Stanley is a robust weed who grows in Blanche’s carefully
cultivated garden of lilies.
Theme 4 Unbridled
sexual desire leads to isolating darkness and eventually death. Williams
establishes this theme at the beginning of the play, when Blanche takes
a streetcar named Desire (sex), transfers to one named Cemeteries (Death),
and gets off at a street named named Elysian Fields (the Afterlife). He
maintains the theme during the play with references to Blanche’s first
husband, a homosexual who committed suicide after she caught him with another
man, and with Blanche’s literal and figurative retreat into the shadows
after having many sordid affairs. She shuns bright lights; she dates Mitch
only in the evening.
Theme 5 All that
glitters is not gold. This Shakespearean motif manifests itself in
Blanche’s inability to grasp how Stanley and Stella can succeed at marriage
without the finer things of life.
climax of a play or another literary work, such as a short story or a novel,
can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to
resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting
event in a series of events. The climax of A Streetcar Named Desire
occurs, according to both definitions, when Stanley rapes Blanche. This
brutal act marks the completion of her mental deterioration, pushing her
over the edge from sanity to madness.
Streetcar named Desire:
Blanche's desire. Although Blanche arrives in New Orleans as a somewhat
broken woman, she keeps alive her desire to be with a man and to lead a
life as an elegant, respectable woman.
Streetcar named Cemeteries:
Old, disgraced Blanche, the one that Blanche left behind—dead, so to speak—in
her hometown of Laurel, Miss., to begin anew in New Orleans. This streetcar
can also suggest that life is over for the new Blanche as well, for she
is damaged property edging toward madness.
Street named Elysian
Fields: The new life Blanche is seeking. In Greek mythology, the Elysian
Fields (also called Elysium and the Elysian Plain) made up
a paradise reserved for worthy mortals after they died. Because Blanche's
old self "died" in Laurel, Miss., she traveled to New Orleans to seek her
Belle Reve: Name
of Blanche's family home in Mississippi. It represents the "beautiful dream"
(the meaning of Belle Rêve in French) that Blanche seeks but
Blanche's white suit:
False purity and innocence with which Blanche masks her carnal desire and
cloaks her past.
Blanche's frequent bathing:
Her attempt to wash away her past life.
way Blanche washes away bad memories.
Bright light: Penetrating
gaze of truth that sees the real Blanche with all her imperfections. When
she greets Stella the first time in the apartment, she says, "And turn
that over-light off! Turn that off! I won't be looked at in this merciless
glare!" Blanche avoids bright lights throughout the play.
means white in French, and—in keeping with her name—she wears a
white dress and gloves in the opening scene of the play to hide her real
self in the purity that white suggests.
means star or like a star in Latin, although she lives in
a shabby apartment building in a lower-class section of New Orleans. It
could be argued that she is the star of her husband’s life and the star
that led Blanche to New Orleans.
English name meaning stone field. Thus, it is possible he represents
a cemetery for Blanche. Stanislaus was the name of a king of Poland.
Clearly, Stanley is the king of his household.
The small Kowalski apartment:
The size and plainness of the life to which Blanche, who formerly lived
in a splendid mansion, must adjust.
Allen Grey: Gray
area of Blanche's life, between the bright light that she avoids and the
darkness she seeks. She loved Allen Grey, but he betrayed her. In New Orleans,
she remembers the good and the bad of her relationship with him.
Paper: Imagery centering
on paper represents impermanence, unreality, or artificiality. For example,
the paper legal documents Blanche brings with
her to New Orleans attest to the loss of the family homestead, Belle Reve.
The youth collecting for the local paper,
Evening Star, represents the ephemerality of sexual gratification.
Apparently, he reminds Blanche of Allen Grey. On a whim, she suddenly kisses
the youth but then dismisses him, mindful of the disgrace she brought upon
herself with her liaison with a student. The song Blanche sings while bathing,
"Paper Moon," symbolizes the fantasy world of love.
of Weir: Line from Edgar Allan Poe's 1847 poem "Ulalume," in which
the speaker of the poem is attempting to cope with the loss of his love.
While looking out a window, Blanche speaks this line, indicating that she
is still coping with the loss of Allen Grey.
Laws established by Napoleon on which Louisiana based its civil law. Stanley
cites this law, telling Blanche it means that what belongs to a wife belongs
to a husband. Therefore, Stella as part-owner of Belle Reve was entitled
to part of the property. If Blanche mismanaged it or used proceeds from
it improperly, then she mismanaged or misused property Stanley owned, under
the Napoleonic code.
The blind are leading
the blind: Paraphrase of a verse in Matthew's Gospel in the New Testament
of the Bible. Verse 14 of Chapter 15 says that if one person leads another
blind person, both will fall into a pit. Blanche speaks this line when
Stella leads her away from the poker game. This is a
And if God choose, /
I shall but love thee better after death!"
Line is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Sonnet 43. This line is an inscription
on Mitch's lighter, read by Blanche. The significance is that Blanche still
thinks about her deceased husband, Allen.
Nights: Collection of stories from Arabia, India, Persia, and Egypt
entitled The One Thousand and One Nights (familiarly knows as the
Nights). A legendary queen, Scheherezade, tells these entertaining
stories, including tales about Aladdin's Lamp, Sindbad the Sailor, and
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Blanche tells the young collector for The
Evening Star newspaper that he looks like a young prince "out of the
Arabian Nights." She kisses him, then tells him he must go because "I've
got to be good—and keep my hands off children." This scene tells the audience
that wanton desire still haunts Blanche.
Blanche addresses Mitch this way when he brings her a bouquet of roses.
Rosenkavelier (The Knight of the Roses) is the title of a 1911
opera by German romantic composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949).
Pleiades: While surveying
the night sky, Blanche says she is "looking for the Pleiades, the Seven
Sisters." The Pleiades were seven daughters of the Titan Atlas and the
ocean nymph Pleione. Their names were Alcyone, Celaeno, Electra, Maia,
Merope, Sterope, and Taygete. They became a group of stars (constellation).
Unlike the Pleiades, Blanche is alone. She has a sister, yes, but it becomes
increasingly clear that Stella sides with Stanley against her.
Je suis la Dame aux Camellias!
Vous êtes Armand! Line from La Dame aux camélias,
a play by Alexandre Dumas the Younger (1824-1895), which he adapted from
his 1848 novel of the same name. The speaker is a courtesan (prostitute
catering to the nobility) who forsakes a character named Armand. Blanche
speaks this line to Mitch, perhaps seeing the outcome of her relationship
with Mitch. Notice that author Williams uses the English spelling,
rather than the French camélias.
Huey Long: Politician
elected governor of Louisiana in 1928 and U.S. senator in 1932. Although
Long (1893-1935) enjoyed popularity among the people, he was dictatorial
and manipulative. He was assassinated in 1935. Stanley, asserting himself
against encroachment on his authority by Stella and Blanche, cites Huey
Long (1893-1935) as saying, "Every man is king!"
Queen of the Nile:
Cleopatra, seductive and cunning Queen of Egypt in
the Macedonian dynasty. She was the seventh Cleopatra, having the full
title of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (Goddess Who Loves Her Father).
sarcastically refers to Blanche as "the queen of the Nile" in response
to her pretensions to elegance.
Elysian Fields: The
street Elysian Fields is not what its name suggests, a paradise, but a
shabby thoroughfare in a working-class district of New Orleans. By contrast,
a street in Paris with the same name (but in French, Champs-élysées)
is a magnificent boulevard. Blanche's attempt to see the world through
the eyes of a Parisian is part of the reason for her descent into unreality
White and Black:
Blanche is wearing white clothing and gloves, as well as pearl earrings,
when she arrives in New Orleans to suggest that she has a pristine character.
However, she prefers darkness and shadows to mask her physical perfections
and, symbolically, her sinful behavior.
Old and New, Fantasy
and Reality: Blanche comes from an old fairyland world to live in the
real world of a modern metropolis.
Big and Small: In
her old world, Blanche lived in a large house; in her new world, she lives
in a tiny apartment. The size of the apartment suggests the diminution
of Blanche's fortunes and her sanity.
Speech: Blanche quotes
poetry and speaks the elegant patois of aristocrats. Stanley speaks the
sandpaper language of reality and brutality: coarse, crude, unvarnished.
Study Questions and Essay
what extent is Blanche a victim of her own self-delusions and Old South
attitudes? To what extent is she the victim of males who take advantage
of her, deceive her, or abuse her?
quotes literature and occasionally speaks French; her language is elegant,
educated. Stanley, on the other hand, uses coarse, sometimes brutal, language.
Does their speech reflect their perceptions of reality? Explain your answer.
an essay focusing on how the roles of males and females in American society
changed between 1947, the year A Streetcar Named Desire was published
and performed, and the present.
is the most admirable character in the play?
on the significance of the following quotations from the play:
got to keep hold of myself." (Blanche, after arriving in the Kowalski apartment)
should not be played in a house with women." (Mitch, at the card game)
is the meaning of the scene at the beginning of the play in which Stanley
throws a package of meat up to Stella? Is it simply intended to show that
Stanley is a macho male who delivers what women want, sexually, or is there
more to the scene?