A streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams’ Background to

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A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams’ Background to

A Streetcar Named Desire

  • From an early age, Williams used writing as “an escape from a world of reality in which [he] felt acutely uncomfortable”.

  • He wrote about the human condition as he saw it; unafraid to tackle topics such as incest, rape and madness.

  • He believed that “we are all savages at heart”. Which of the characters in Streetcar prove or disprove this?

  • He lived in New Orleans from 1938, a bohemian place where all manner of behaviour was tolerated, if not encouraged. It was here that he was inspired to create Streetcar. It is said that he saw, on the Vieux Carré, two streetcars. One was named “Desire” and the other “Cemetery” – which he thought was somehow symbolic of life itself.

  • We find, in this play, an implicit condemnation of homosexual behaviour. Was this his attempt to pacify those who disagreed with homosexuality or influenced by the fact that he was a homosexual but extremely uncomfortable with his sexuality?

  • He also has a preoccupation with physical ugliness and the inevitability of death. He suffered a crisis in 1946 when he believed, incorrectly, that he was suffering from incurable cancer. Is this why Blanche is so afraid of the light?

  • His sister Rose suffered a breakdown in 1937 and was admitted to a mental hospital and, not long afterwards, she was lobotomised. Williams suffered from depression throughout his life and lived in fear that he too would go insane.

  • In the mid-twentieth century, Americans were fascinated and charmed by the idea of the South, a place they associated with a landed elite in elegant houses, flaunting their inherited wealth and studied gentility. For Williams, the South stood for strong cultural values whilst the North was greedy and sordid. Thus we can see that Blanche and Stanley are opposites.

  • Williams was influenced not only by American drama, including that of the South, but also by European culture. Like Ibsen and Miller, he increases dramatic tension through revealing to the audience the degree to which the characters’ self image is pretence. The climax comes when the character is forced to confront both the past and the present simultaneously, either acknowledging their actions and dealing with the consequences or retreating further into pretence, even madness.

  • Williams’ greatest dramatic influence was the brilliant Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, with his elegant juxtaposition of the humorous and the tragic, his lonely characters, and his dark sensibilities, was a powerful inspiration for Tennessee Williams' work.

  • Another European writer who influenced Williams was D. H. Lawrence, who offered Williams a depiction of sexuality as a potent force of life in novels such as The Rainbow, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover


Context is an important part in understanding this play so here is some more information to help you to make sure that you are able to incorporate this element into your essays.
You are NOT expected to learn it all, merely to use it to add to your understanding of the play. Likewise, huge swathes of contextual information are not necessary in your essays – you just need to show that you have thought about it, understood it and are able to apply the knowledge to the text.
This is not exhaustive – feel free to add your own information as you wish.

Context of the author:

  • Williams is thought to have been able to identify with a fragility and vulnerability in women and once said:

I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.

  • He found examples of universal experience in the fringes of acceptable behaviour – maybe this relates to his personal experiences.

Dramatic / Theatrical context:

  • Find out about plastic theatre (aka ‘sculptural drama’). You should also be able to discuss at least one film version of the play, preferably the one directed by Elia Kazan starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Kazan had previously directed the stage version of the play with Williams’ close involvement.

  • As the Twentieth Century dawned, so too did a distinct Southern Literature. Writers’ fascination with the past began to turn towards the economic decay symbolised by the decaying beauty of the plantations (see Belle Reve).

  • In the 1920s, playwrights were looking at the behaviour of the world and addressing the question “why did this happen?” through their works. Williams asked “what did it feel like to have this happen?” His focus was on the workings of the human psyche.

  • You could look at particular images in the play, for example the meat at the start of the play, or Blanche’s clothes, or bathing or …

Historical context:

  • Tennessee Williams was working on Streetcar at the end of WW2 but there is very little mention made of the war. Despite the fact that the events of the war had been cataclysmic, they receive only a brief mention in the play. This is characteristic of all of Tennessee Williams’ plays.

  • That said, many writers at the time were concerned with the idea that, whilst great leaps forward were being made in a variety of spheres, man’s capacity for evil and destruction also continued to grow. In one sense, the journey from desire to death can be linked to this theme.

  • As a Southerner, he was more affected by the events of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) than WW2. Following their defeat by the Northern states, the South suffered economically during and after the Civil War. However, this air of decaying grandeur added to the romantic appeal for many writers, including Williams.

  • As time moved on, industrialisation continued in the cities. Whilst the plantations continued to decay, urban growth and capitalism flourished in the cities. (Consider Stanley and Blanche as symbols of the urban and the decaying traditional plantations respectively).

  • Williams was interested in the progress of American history – not only where it had been, but also where it was going and how it would get there.

  • Stanley represents the American Dream that all men are born equal and can succeed equally, whilst Blanche represents the old world, where class and race are still important issues.

  • Williams was homosexual and whilst this is clearly an aspect of his work, it is important to remember that for most his life, homosexuality remained illegal. It was, however, tolerated in some places, such as New Orleans.

Cultural and political context:

  • Tennessee Williams saw the South as a broken and damaged place in which the decay was somehow charming. He said:

I write out of love for the South … once a way of life that I am just able to remember – not a society based on money … I write about the South because I think the war between romanticism and the hostility to it is very sharp there.

  • Williams is an almost completely non-political writer. More than any other American dramatist, he began to move away from writing about the large political issues to writing about the emotional burdens of everyday life.

  • The tensions in this play come partly from cultural conflict – the worlds of Stanley and Blanche are so opposed that neither can understand the other.

  • Explore the cultural context in the section at the end of scene 4. Look at the stage directions and at how Blanche characterises the sisters’ upbringing.

Social context:

  • Women in the Old South had a social and symbolic role, were expected to be passive and chaste. This world could not give Blanche what she needed (see scene 5) and so she tried to marry into the ‘light and culture’, but on doing so, she discovers that there is corruption and deceit behind the façade.

  • All of the Southern writers seemed to have vivid imaginations which were often bizarre and grotesque (Southern Gothic). The roots of this literature lay perhaps in the fact that the writers knew that they were part of a dying culture – where the dashing and romantic were founded on an economy based on injustice and cruelty.

  • Blanche and Stanley are from different worlds where money has different values.

  • Something to think about – if Blanche and Stanley represent different classes and values, where do Williams’ sympathies lie? Are either of the characters fully endorsed? If not, why not?

Find quotations from the play (both direct speech and stage directions) that link with the following themes.

Scene 1

Scene 2

Scene 3

Scene 4

Fantasy / illusion


Primitive / primal



Find quotations from the play (both direct speech and stage directions) that link with the following themes.

Scene 5

Scene 6

Scene 7

Scene 8

Fantasy / illusion


Primitive / primal



Find quotations from the play (both direct speech and stage directions) that link with the following themes.

Scene 9

Scene 10

Scene 11

Fantasy / illusion


Primitive / primal



How do the elements of “Plastic Theatre” add to your understanding of the play?
Think about those aspects of theatre which Williams himself used in what he called “plastic theatre”. Make sure that you have seen at least one film version of the play, so you have a greater understanding of the significance of these things.





Scene 3

This scene can be divided into 5 stages. Read it through, identify where the stages fall and briefly summarise what happens in each stage.

Now look closely at the conversation that Blanche has with Mitch. How does it compare with her conversation with Stanley in Scene 2?

You should be able to see that she is using similar tactics to the ones she tried with Stanley earlier on. Why do you think that they are more effective here?

Now look closely at the end of the scene when Stanley reacts violently. What are the effects of his actions on:

  1. the audience

  1. what impressions about the characters are confirmed or introduced by the end of the scene

Scene 4 – the morning after the night before…

Blanche and Stella react very differently to the events of the previous night. What does this add to your understanding of the two women?



  • is relaxed, serene, tranquil

  • had a sleepless night

Blanche is determined to make Stella ‘face the facts’ about Stanley. Trace the development of their conversation, looking at how Blanche feels and how Stella responds.



p.48 - says S is married to a madman; has given in

p.48 – insists that she doesn’t want to get out of anything

p.49 – sticks to idea of escape. Need for money reminds her of Shep Huntleigh. Impulsive and futile attempt to contact him.

p.51 – laughs the idea off. Tries to share her money with B.

As the locomotive approaches, Stanley arrives and overhears part of the conversation between the sisters. What does her speech about Stanley add to your understanding of her character? Why do you think that she dislikes him so intensely? Do you sympathise with her?

At the end of the scene, as Stanley and Stella embraces, Stanley grins at Blanche. Bearing in mind what he has just overheard, why do you think that he is grinning?

What is the significance of the “blue piano” at the end of this scene?

A Streetcar Named Desire - Scenes 10 and 11
Look at the stage directions at the start of Scene 10. Blanche’s appearance at the start of the play was ‘incongruous’. What does she look like now?

What impression do you get of Stanley’s mood and the reasons for it at the start of this scene?

Look carefully at pages 107 – 108, to where Blanche says ‘Let there be no hard feelings…’ How does she bring about his change in mood?

How does Williams develop the dramatic tension from page 108 to the end of the scene? Think about:

Blanche’s actions:

Stanley’s actions:

The stage directions:

The play has been described as “eleven one-act plays” in which each scene could stand alone (exposition → crisis → resolution). Although the scenes could be seen as separate, there is always a sense of the play moving inevitably towards a conclusion. The play builds towards this scene in particular. What is your explanation for Stanley’s final words in the scene – ‘We’ve had this date from the beginning.’?

Scene 11

How much of Blanche’s behaviour at the beginning of the scene is characteristic and how much does it reveal the extent of her breakdown?

What part do the following characters play in this scene?





Below is a list of the essay titles to consider. Each member of the class is to prepare a thorough essay plan for their given topic – this should take you at least an hour to do properly. These will be discussed and you will all receive a copy of each plan to help you in your revision.

inks with
Earnest and Oedipus..and Paper 2 essay questions

Essay questions to test knowledge/understanding of Streetcar only

  • ‘In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams traces several styles of life, each to its poetic termination: that of Blanche, that of Stanley, and that of the indifferent Stella.’ In the light of this statement, discuss Williams’ characterisation of these three figures in the play, showing what “style of life” you think each of them embodies and what kind of “poetic termination” Williams provides for each of them.

  • How effective a title do you think A Streetcar Named Desire is for this play?

  • Do you agree that the relationship of Blanche and Stanley, as it develops through the play, is simply one of villain and victim?

  • ‘The play is less a lament to the world to which Blanche was born than it is a lament for the dream of it.’ To what extent do you agree with this view of the play?

  • Blanche believes that the opposite of death is desire. How is this theme developed throughout the play?

  • Discuss the role of music and other sound effects in A Streetcar Named Desire.

  • ‘His plays deal consistently with a serious theme – self-pity, the persistence of memory that holds people in its grip and will not let them get on with their lives.’ Do you think that this statement can be applied to A Streetcar Named Desire?

  • How are the past and present intertwined in A Streetcar Named Desire?

  • Discuss the view that A Streetcar Named Desire is a play concerned with the conflict between the values of the old world and the new, and that this conflict is expressed through the battle between Stanley and Blanche.

Essay questions to link two out of the three plays: Streetcar, Earnest and Oedipus

  • To what extent can Blanche DuBois and any one character from Oedipus be described as victims (of fate, time, chance, other characters, hamartia etc etc) in A Streetcar Named Desire and Oedipus?

  • Discuss the importance of the past in A Streetcar Named Desire, Earnest and/or Oedipus.

  • How far are Blanche and Oedipus responsible for their own downfalls?

  • How relevant is the historical context of two of the plays you have studied?

More generalised, Paper 2 style essay questions
The first part of Paper 2 contains questions that are related to genre. You will be looking for the Drama questions, of course…

Please note the instructions below that are always given in the exam…This means that you can also discuss Othello in your answer, but it should not be the main focus of your answer, and you must also discuss 2 other plays out of Oedipus/Earnest/Streetcar.
Answer one essay question only. You must base your answer on at least two of the Part 3 works you have studied. You may include in your answer a discussion of a Part 2 work of the same genre if relevant. Answers which are not based on a discussion of at least two Part 3 works will not score high marks.

  • Discuss how the protagonist is created in any two plays you have studied.

  • What do you find of universal interest in any two plays you have studied?

  • Explore two scenes of interest in two drama texts you have studied, taking care to explain how the dramatist creates interest in each case.

  • Compare and contrast the ways in which two dramatists have created an effective closing scene.

  • Some plays appeal more to the head than the heart, while others seem to want to evoke an

emotional response. Referring to at least two works you have studied, discuss with specific

evidence the ways in which playwrights have appealed either to the “heads” or the “hearts” of

their audiences, or to both.

  • Drama sometimes invites us to become acquainted with times and cultures not our own.

What particular situations perhaps different to your own circumstances have at least two

playwrights included in their plays and by what dramatic means have they delivered them

to their audiences?

  • With reference to two or three plays you have studied, examine the dramatic significance of

failures in communication.

  • Consider the ways in which scene changes may highlight the development of the characters and their relationships in two or three plays you have studied.

  • How and to what effect have dramatists made use of time in two or three plays you have studied?

The second part of Paper 2 contains general questions which could apply to Drama texts, Poetry or Prose. Here are some examples of these…
General questions on Literature

  • In what ways do writers use “non-conformist” views or people as material for their writing? You must base you answer on two or three works you have studied.

  • “Chronological order is the most convincing way to convey a story or an idea.” Comparing two or three of the works you have studied, agree or disagree with this statement.

  • Much literature has been written about death and dying. How and to what effect has this subject been explored in two or three of the works you have studied?

  • “Although humans claim to desire freedom above all else, many prefer security.” In the light of this statement discuss two or three works you have studied, showing the ways in which they have presented attitudes to freedom and/or security.

© FC adapted from 2004 www.teachit.co.uk Page of

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