Critical Essay – ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
Choose from a play a scene which you find amusing or moving or disturbing.
Explain how the scene provokes this response and discuss how this aspect of the scene contributes to your understanding of the play as a whole.
Summarise the scene that is disturbing
Explain why they find it disturbing
How does it develop understanding of the whole play
The penultimate scene of Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, in which the protagonist, Blanche DuBois, is raped by her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, is deeply disturbing to the audience. Williams uses this scene as the climax of both the play’s plot and a number of key themes, such as fate, desire and insanity. This is a key scene and it features effective characterisation, significant aspects of setting through Williams’ use of stage directions, and music to convey the disturbing nature of the central character’s ultimate downfall.
At the start of the scene, we can see that Blanche’s already eccentric character has retreated deeply into the world of fantasy, after being rejected by her previous suitor, Mitch, in the previous scene. She is described as having ‘decked herself out in a somewhat soiled evening gown’, and as the scene opens she is placing a tiara on her head. This very powerfully demonstrates how fragile and unstable she has become, as she appears to be dressing up for some fantastical event. Blanche’s fantasies are developed further as the scene continues; when Stanley arrives home, she begins to tell him a variety of tall tales, for example, that she has been invited on a cruise with an oil millionaire acquaintance of hers. At first it seems she is merely lying to Stanley, as she is described as ‘improvising feverishly’, but as the scene develops she seems to become caught up in her own fantasy, leading to a desperate attempt to contact her millionaire. All of this shows very clearly the rapidly declining stability of Blanche’s state of mind, which is disturbing enough to the audience, but when Stanley eventually takes advantage of Blanche’s vulnerable state and rapes her, we are completely unsettled and disturbed as we see Blanche’s mind irreversibly damaged, leading to her committal to a mental institution in the following scene. This disturbing decline in Blanche is symbolic of fantasy and illusion, key themes of the play; Williams demonstrates that when we are hurt unimaginably, we retract further into the world of fantasy. This is highly unsettling as the suggestion is that this could happen to anyone of us as it did to Blanche.
Williams also uses Stanley’s actions throughout the scene to disturb and unsettle the reader. When he first enters, he is presented as very friendly, even described as ‘smiling amiably’ at Blanche. This is extremely unsettling to the audience as this behaviour is utterly incongruous to everything that we know about Stanley, and therefore we suspect there is something being hidden from us, some hidden agenda of Stanley’s. This agenda is partially revealed when Stanley drops his façade and mercilessly tells Blanche, ‘there ain’t one goddamn thing but imagination!’ while this behaviour is more familiar to us, it is still very disturbing as it shows Stanley at his most brutal, almost sarcastic – he attacks Blanche at her most vulnerable with no mercy. This causes us to question exactly what Stanley’s ‘limits’ are. This is revealed to us as the scene progresses to its deeply disturbing conclusion as Stanley brutally rapes Blanche. Just before he does so, he says, ‘You and I have had this date since the beginning!’ suggesting that Blanche’s defeat was inevitable. This showcases very well another of the play’s more unsettling themes, of sex as a destructive force just as Blanche’s promiscuity lead to unhappiness, so too is her ultimate defeat brought about by Stanley’s act of aggressive sexual desire.
In addition to the actions of Blanche and Stanley, Williams also uses music and sound to great effect in building up a very disturbing atmosphere. When Stanley enters, the ‘blue piano’ of the neighbourhood, which symbolises Stanley’s masculine power, is described as ‘continuing softly’. This subdued backdrop mirrors Stanley’s unsettling amiability, and again suggests something deeply disturbing lurking out of sight, waiting to be unleashed. This is added to further when, as Stanley drops his façade, the music is described as ‘drumming up’, reflecting the disturbing aggression of Stanley rising up. Williams also uses music to demonstrate Blanche’s mental state; as her panic grows and mind grows more fragile, we hear ‘inhuman jungle voices’ in the background. This horrifically disturbing image demonstrates very well the trauma and fear Blanche is experiencing. As the scene progresses toward its brutal climax, both sounds become more invasive and powerful, demonstrating how Blanche is being attached by both Stanley and her own mind. This very disturbing image is made utterly explicit as Stanley makes his final advance on Blanche – first we hear how the inhuman voices ‘rise up’, showing Blanche’s rapidly escalating fear, then as Stanley commits the rape, we hear the sound of the ‘hot trumpet and drums’, showing that he has ultimately defeated Blanche. In this victory, Williams is also symbolically referring the victory of the modern, industrialist America over the classical romantic culture of old, as Stanley and Blanche respectively epitomise the two ideals. This is particularly disturbing to us as we see the brutality of our own modern culture and its merciless destruction of past ideals.
The penultimate scene of A Streetcar Named Desire is powerfully disturbing for a number of reasons. Tennessee Williams shows how the fragile, vulnerable Blanche, surrounded in fantasy and illusion, is brutally taken advantage of by Stanley’s unforgiving sexual power. And most unsettling of all is how clearly we see the true aggression and brutality of our own modern culture as it utterly tramples the old.