Thursday, 1 April 2010

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I’m plundering my A-Levels again; this time Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, in my mind one of the finest dramatic works written in the twentieth century. One story goes that Williams was convinced that he was dying when he wrote Streetcar and thinking that it was his last chance to get everything onto the page, he created his most powerful and personal work. It’s certainly got a lot going on: madness, claustrophobia, sexuality, class prejudice, and drink of course.

My well thumbed copy of the play is filled with notes in the margins, following the slow war of attrition between blue collar tough Stanley Kowalski and his sister-in-law, the fading Southern belle Blanche Dubois. By the time the play is reaching its dénouement, the sordid details of the loss of Belle Reve, the former home of Blanche and her sister Stella, have come creeping out of the woodwork, and Stan has made it clear that Blanche has outstayed her welcome at their poky apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter. He’s also killed any last chance that Blanche might have had of happiness and stability by telling his friend Mitch, who has been dating Blanche, that she was drummed out of her former home town for licentious behaviour with drunken soldiers, and finally, a seventeen-year-old high school student.

Left alone at the flat as Stanley goes to the hospital with heavily pregnant Stella, Blanche sits in an armchair in her scarlet satin robe:

On the table beside the chair is a bottle of liquor and a glass. The rapid, feverish polka tune, the ‘Varsouviana’ is heard. The music is in her mind; she is drinking to escape it and the sense of disaster closing in on her, and she seems to whisper the words of the song.

Mitch turns up, drunk, unshaven and still in his work clothes, determined to remonstrate with Blanche about her deception after she has given him a considerably edited version of events regarding her recent past. Blanche tries to be chatty and fishes around for a bottle:

BLANCHE:’s something. Southern Comfort! What is that, I wonder?
MITCH: If you don’t know, it must belong to Stan.

Not content with ruining her reputation, Stanley has put the boot in, telling Mitch that Blanche has been drinking his grog all summer as well:

MITCH: I told you already I don’t want none of his liquor and I mean it. You ought to lay off his liquor. He says you been lapping it up all summer like a wild-cat!

Mitch clumsily tries to rape Blanche but she frightens him off. Stanley’s return brings no respite though, Stella is to remain in the hospital. They are at the flat alone together. Stan, tipsy already, picks up a bottle of beer:

STANLEY: ...seen a bottle-opener?
[She moves slowly towards the dresser, where she stands with her hands knotted together.]
STANLEY: I used to have a cousin who could open a beer-bottle with his teeth. [Pounding the bottle cap on the corner of the table.] That was his only accomplishment, all he could do – he was just a human bottle-opener. And then one time, at a wedding party, he broke his front teeth off! After that he was so ashamed of himself he used t’sneak out of the house when company came...
[The bottle cap pops off and a geyser of foam shoots up. STANLEY laughs happily, holding up the bottle over his head.]
STANLEY: Ha-ha! Rain from heaven! [He extends the bottle towards her.] Shall we bury the hatchet and make it a loving-cup? Huh?

Stanley’s final act is to rape Blanche, destroying her sanity forever. Despite knowing what he’s done, Stella stays with her husband and their baby, but she hardly has a choice in the matter. Blanche is finally committed to an institution, and as she is led away from the flat by a doctor, another of Stanley’s drunken poker nights with the boys starts up again.

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