Queen Elizabeth Medical Centre, Birmingham, and University of Birmingham, United Kingdom (Spring 2016)
Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski
The American dramatist Tennessee Williams wrote several plays, among these The Glass Menagerie,1 The Rose Tattoo,2 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.3 Recurrent themes in his plays are alcoholism, the death of loved ones, repressed sexuality, and isolation. The Glass Menagerie is an exploration of isolation in conjunction with illness. The crippled and fragile Laura Wingfield is central to the play; she connects the notions of illness and isolation—her pathological shyness isolates her from any connection to the people around her and from the world at large.
Amongst Tennessee Williams’ extensive literary productions, A Streetcar Named Desire4 is perhaps the best known. The play explores issues of sexuality and psychology. It revolves around the conflict between the vulnerable female protagonist, Blanche Dubois, and the animalistic and macho Stanley Kowalski. An interesting facet of Tennessee Williams’ work is his tendency to entwine biographical details into his fictional productions. His family members pose as characters: his mother as the scaffolding for the Southern Belle, his father the swaggering male bully who morphs into Stanley Kowalski.
Williams’ writing is a mixture of his own nature and nurture translated into dramatic theatre. Certain themes recur in his work: pretense and loss, sexual turmoil and escapism, mental disintegration and illness. Indeed, it has been said of Williams’ work that
‘Failures of personality are a special theme . . .’ and ‘[his] plays deal with hypersensitive characters, who from weakness or disability, either cannot face the real world at all or have to opt out of it.’5
As a youth Williams struggled with his own sexuality, and his father seemed to perpetuate this, calling him ‘Miss Nancy’ and encouraging him to join a fraternity, thinking it would masculinize him. Williams’ mother ‘had the beauty and social inclination of a Southern belle and, if not the wealth, the status . . .’6 Her traits inspired Blanche Dubois of A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams’ relationship with his sister Rose played a strong role in the development of his writing. ‘Without Rose Williams,’ one has suggested, ‘there might never have been a Tennessee.’7 Her institutionalization and lobotomy played on his own fear of madness.8 Like some of his leading characters, Williams suffered the loss of a meaningful individual. Blanche Dubois loses Alan, Serafina delle Rose has lost Rosario in the Rose Tattoo, and Tom loses Laura in The Glass Menagerie.9
Williams’ biography is inextricably linked to his writing. Notions of sexual shame and fugitive feelings seem to have grown from paternal rejection. His writing inherited a maternal reverence for both Southern and religious values. Williams’ intimate relationship with his sister left him with a deep feeling of loss and particular sensitivity to mental instability, as apparent in his works.
A Streetcar Named Desire opens with Blanche, the gentile Southern Belle, arriving onto the ironically named Elysian Fields—she seeks refuge in New Orleans with her younger sister Stella following a series of distressing events. From the outset the contrast between the two principle characters is established; the delicate moth-like fragility of Blanche stands in stark contrast with the overt masculinity of Stanley Kowalski, Stella’s husband. We are exposed to Blanche’s mental fragility and fear of madness from the very first scene—‘I can’t be alone! . . . as you must have noticed—I’m not very well . . .’ As the play progresses the audience is made aware of Blanche’s alcoholism and promiscuous past—each factor exposing her to greater victimization by Stanley. Blanche’s mental instability seems to be founded in her childhood and evolves with circumstances including her husband Alan’s death as well as a further string of mortalities. These memories plague her and she uses promiscuity, alcohol and a make-believe world to provide escapism. Stanley’s failure to recognize her emotional fragility and her dependence on a fantasy world ultimately destroy the feeble construction of Blanche’s mental state.
Blanche Dubois is presented as a character of conflicts. She displays herself as a cultured woman, offended by vulgarity. Her purity, however, is constantly in question—she drinks heavily, yet claims ‘. . . one’s my limit,’ she kisses a young stranger, and seduced a seventeen-year-old boy. At the root of this conflict we find the premature death of her young homosexual husband, and this death is seeped in Blanche’s guilt.
‘. . . He came to me for help. I don’t know that . . . all I knew was that I’d failed him in some mysterious way and wasn’t able to give the help he needed. But couldn’t speak of . . . I found out in the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty, but had two people in it. Afterwards we pretended nothing had been discovered. . . Suddenly in the middle of the dance the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out . . . A few moments later—a shot! . . . It was because—on the dance floor—unable to stop myself—I’d suddenly said—‘I know! I know! You disgust me!’’
In Blanche’s fragile world, Alan’s death was immensely significant, the emotional repercussions are her post-traumatic stress disorder, encompassing both neurotic and psychotic qualities.
Blanche’s neurotic qualities seem to find root in her initial revulsion of Alan’s actions—her preoccupation with cleanliness and bathing: ‘soaking in a hot tub.’ The act of washing appears to rinse away guilt: ‘I take hot baths for my nerves.’ Her aversion to ‘dirt’ is so strong that she ironically fears that it will lead to her annihilation—‘I shall die of eating an unwashed grape. . .’ This need for purity and cleanliness is at odds with Blanche’s sexuality: her relationship with a young boy, her ‘gentle-men callers’ and the sexual undercurrent with Stanley.
Stanley Kowalski exudes a vigorous sexuality:
‘Animal joy in his being . . . Since the earliest manhood the centre of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among the hens. He sizes women up with a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them. . .’
Blanche’s sexual fear of Stanley paves the path for her final descent into mental destruction as Stanley rapes her—
‘You think I’ll interfere with you? . . . Come to think of it—maybe you wouldn’t be bad to—interfere with . . . [He picks up her inert figure and carries it to the bed]’
Sexual assault plays a part in the final degradation of Blanche’s mental state. Stanley’s cruel disregard of her fragile mental state and his rape of Blanche pulls her to face reality—her promiscuity, the loss of her husband, and the loss of her family home—such that she regresses to a psychotic state.
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire depicts a tragic character torn between leading a life of purity and social acceptance versus repressed sexuality. Predominant themes in the play are death and desire.10 Loss and death are pivotal in the making of Blanche’s character—these circumstances include the loss of her husband, the ancestral home, and loss of her sister Stella to her husband. This loss and death is in conflict with her own sexual impulses and Stanley’s raw primal sexuality. When Blanche and Stanley collide in sex, the result is loss: the loss of Blanche’s mental integrity.
Blanche Dubois’ mental state progresses from neurosis through to psychosis. Stage directions indicate perceptual distortions. The French Quarter is ‘filled with inhuman voices like cries in a jungle’ and ‘shadows and lurid reflections,’ providing an insight into her tortured mind misinterpreting external stimuli. Blanche initially attempts to cover her neurotic qualities and claims to be mentally resilient and adaptable: ‘I’m very adaptable—to circumstances,’ she says. These assertions form part of her façade. As the play progresses we witness a progressive unraveling as Blanche begins to intermittently relive her past. Towards the climax of the play, we find Blanche dressed up in a tiara at an imagined party. Although she never explicitly considers suicide, her drunken considerations hold morbid thoughts:
‘How about taking a swim . . . Only you’ve got to be careful to dive where the deep pool is—if you hit a rock you don’t come up till tomorrow.’
This is the pinnacle of her mental instability, and with the inability to challenge the sexuality of the man who violates her, Blanche loses her mental solidity.
A Streetcar Named Desire provides insight into the mental world of a character dependent on alcohol and plagued by past horrors. Violence, alcohol and promiscuity are displayed as factors contributing to the disintegration of an individual and a society. As the play progresses we witness and experience the slow descent into psychosis.
- Williams, T. The Glass Menagerie. London: Penguin Books, 2009.
- Williams, T. The Rose Tattoo and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
- Williams, T. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
- Williams, T. A Streetcar Named Desire. London: Penguin Books, 2009.
- Stanton, Stephen S. Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1977.
- Tischler, N. M. Student Companion to Tennessee Williams. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.
- Adler, T. American Drama 1940 – 1960. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
- Hale, A. “Early Williams: the making of a playwright”. In: The Cambridge companion to Tennessee Williams, edited by Mathew C. Roudane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
- Tosio, P. An object relational psychoanalysis of selected Tennessee Williams play texts. Masters thesis, Rhodes University, 2003.
- Fritscher, J. F. Love and Death in Tennessee Williams. PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1968.
FIZZAH ALI is a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) funded Academic Clinical Fellow in neurology based at the Queen Elizabeth Medical Centre, Birmingham, UK. She has completed a Bachelor of Medical Science degree in Psychological Medicine. She currently combines clinical training in medicine with academic training. Her academic interests include seizures as well as Tourette syndrome and more recently headaches. She enjoys exploring the overlap between the arts and medicine.