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The Poetic Realism of Tennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire"

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Realistic Versus Poetic Elements

Most of Tennessee Williams' plays are written in the style of what is often called “poetic realism.” Yet, it is not clear at all what exactly “poetic realism” in drama is or should be as a literary style. To begin, there is a lot of objective, non-poetic realism in Streetcar Named Desire which is set in postwar New Orleans—a city Williams knew so well that he used in his play names that were part of the cityscape: for example, the “Desire” line for the local tram and the “Elysian Fields.” A strong dose of social realism pervades the central character of Stanley Kowalski—a blue-collar laborer, the son of Polish immigrants, “about twenty-eight or thirty years old,” according to the stage directions (Williams, p. 1199). Streetcar presents Stanley as an arrogant, aggressive, greedy, domineering, ruthless, cruel, and over-sexed brute and drunk who will stop at nothing to have his way and get what he wants from those around him. According to the introduction to the play, “...Stanley represents the vitality, dynamism, and swagger of a country emerging from World War II” (Garner, p. 1197). The key to understanding Stanley's crude and boorish mentality is his recent military service and especially his war record. At his age, having the rank of a “Master Sergeant in the Engineers Corps” with several army “decorations” (Williams 1.192) can only mean that he was a GI in World War II. It is obvious that Stanley did participate in that war also from his telling the other poker players that “Luck is believing you're lucky. Take at Salerno. I believed I was lucky. I figured that 4 out of 5 would not come through but I would...and I did” (Williams 11.6-7). What he is most likely referring to is the vicious fighting for the Italian city of Salerno in September 1943.

A whole generation of young men drafted in the U.S. military during the “Good War” came home brutalized and dehumanized by their monstrous war experiences and often devastating war traumas. Many of the returning veterans were fearless, assertive, gruff, forceful, and sometimes physically brutal disciplinarians and control-freaks. As Blanche tells Stanley, “You must have had lots of banging around in the army and now that you're out, you make up for it by treating inanimate objects with such a fury” (Williams 5.43-45). To many war veterans, human life—let alone culture, good manners, civility, sympathy, or respect for other people's feelings, dignity, and privacy—meant very little, if anything at all. In that light, even Stanley's rape of Blanche means very little to him, given the fact that hundreds of thousands of local girls and young women were raped during the wartime U.S. military occupation of Germany, Italy and Japan (forcible rape was especially rampant in Okinawa)—a fact that American academic historians prefer not to mention.

The poetic element in the play is provided by Stanley's well-bred, educated, gentle, and dreamy sister-in-law—the fading southern belle Blanche DuBois, who says that she cannot stand “a rude remark or a vulgar action” (Williams 3.187-188). Blanche describes the kind of world she really wants: “I don't want realism. I want—magic!” But isn't Blanche's “world of magic” an illusion which is constantly contrasted to the harsher world of Stanley's and Stella's. According to the commentary to the play, “...Blanche represents more traditional ideals of culture, civilization, and manners” (Garner, p. 1197). She is a lyrical character whose refined speech is often marked by poetic imagery and diction, as in “Don't you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour—but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands—and who knows what to do with it?” (Williams 5.158-160). But unlike Williams' other equally famous play of “poetic realism,” The Night of the Iguana, which exudes poetry and magic from every pore (there is even a dying 97-year-old Nantucket poet reading his “swan song” philosophical poem from his deathbed), Streetcar is a very sordid story taking place in a cramped little apartment in an impoverished working-class neighborhood of a seedy, crime-infested city during the rough post-Depression and postwar era. Even the “lyrical” Blanche is more of a pitiful and pathetic figure, rather than a poetic heroine in the manner of Henrik Ibsen's unforgettable Hedda Gabler.

As is to be expected from a play written in the style of “poetic realism,” there are also elements which are both poetic and realistic at the same time. The most remarkable of them is Blanche's memorable poetic-realistic description of Stanley's brutish proletarian life and mindset (at a time when many other progressive artists and leftist intellectuals tended to idealize America's working-class man): “He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There's even something—subhuman—something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something—apelike about him, like one of those pictures I've seen in—anthropological studies! Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the Stone Age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you—you here—waiting for him! Maybe he'll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in the front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking! His poker night!—you call it—this party of apes! Somebody growls—some creature snatches at something—the fight is on!” (Williams 4.190-201). Perhaps eternally grateful for Blanche's “anthropological” psychoanalysis of Stanley, Charles Darwin must be smiling contentedly in his Westminster Abbey grave. For when the Stanley Kowalskis of this world walk in the streets, their hairy knuckles are scratching the pavement.

I find it surprising and incomprehensible that while Williams clearly empathizes with poor Blanche, who “...was broken on the rock of the world; I find her a sympathetic character,” he also empathizes with her barely human victimizer, Stanley Kowalski: “but I also find Stanley sympathetic” (Garner, p. 1197). He finds Stanley “sympathetic,” even though the “Polack,” as Blanche and others contemptuously call him, is as sympathetic and likable as John Wright, the brutal (and strangled) husband in Susan Glaspell's remarkable play Trifles! This cunning and brutish “Hairy Ape” (to use here the equivocal title of Eugene O'Neill's expressionist play for lack of a more appropriate term to describe Stanley), who can think only about his own physical wants and sensual pleasures, hardly deserves anyone's empathy, least of all Tennessee Williams'! Compare Stanley to his much more refined and gentle workplace buddy Mitch, who wants to smash Stanley's face at the end of the play.

Blanche's words “You ought to save them (the candles) for baby's birthdays. Oh, I hope candles are going to glow in his life and I hope that his eyes are going to be like candles, like two blue candles lighted in a white cake” (Williams 9.66-68) are among her many poetic utterances throughout the play. But Stanley's contemptuously sarcastic riposte is only “What poetry!” (Williams 9.69). As Blanche concedes later, it was foolish of her “casting my pearls before swine” like him (Williams 10.78). Having lost her husband, her home, and finally her teaching job, Blanche descends into “a delusional state of mind.” She is clearly suffering from what psychiatrists call a “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD)—a neurotic mental condition that is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a tragic event such as losing a loved one, one's home, or self-supporting job. Her symptoms include denial of reality, severe anxiety (symbolized by the obsessive playing of the so-called Varsouviana or “Warsaw polka” in her head), flashbacks, self-doubts, and uncontrollable thoughts about the terrifying event. After Stanley rapes her, Blanche begins to display also classic post-rape symptoms—hysteria, delusions, obsessional fears and phobias, nightmares, and mental confusion. But Blanche is still not half as delusional as her sister Stella, who believes that she can have a normal loving relationship, a successful marriage, and even kids with a “subhuman” brute like Stanley just because, in her own words, “there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant” (Williams 4.164-165). Stella (“for Star”) even forces herself to believe Stanley that he did not rape her sister, thus helping him put the sane Blanche in a mental asylum.

Similarly to Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler, there is an unspoken but ferocious class and gender conflict underway in Streetcar. An impoverished Southern belle fallen upon hard times, Blanche, who had lost even her family's hereditary plantation, symbolically named Belle Reve (“Beautiful Dream” in French), represents the “dying out” of the old rural and agricultural South with its aristocratic values of gentility, good manners, educated refinement, snobbish high culture, and nearly worshipful respect for women (especially for white women of the local nobility). By contrast, Stanley is a hard-drinking, hard-driving, violence-prone working-class stiff who believes that he is the “king” of his household, including his wife (thus twisting the meaning of Louisiana's former Democratic governor and senator Huey Long's famous egalitarian motto “Every man a king”). Stanley represents the new, fast-industrializing, and post-aristocratic South, a parvenu society dominated by pushy men, North-like industrialization, situational ethics, sickening racial and misogynist violence, as well as a more pragmatic and much less respectful attitude towards women. Little surprise that both of them cannot stand each other from the very start. In the opening scene, Stanley most unceremoniously rummages through all her belongings and even scatters them on the floor, obviously believing that as the man of the house (or the traditional “King of the castle”) he is entitled to doing so, while Blanche tries to defend her turf in her naive and old-fashioned belief that as a guest, a woman, and Stella's older sister she is entitled to a more deferential and respectful treatment. It looks like social opposites don't necessarily attract each other, after all.

Austrian biologist Konrad Lorenz's 1963 book On Aggression argues that human aggressive impulses are largely innate, as he draws a parallel between human aggressiveness and animals' territorial behavior, especially among apes. Dr. Desmond Morris' 1969 book The Naked Ape agrees with Dr. Lorenz's theory that below a very thin layer of home upbringing, formal education, and the influence of civilizational culture in their brains, modern humans (Homo sapiens) are “naked apes” with numerous atavistic traits and instincts inherited from their prehistoric life as predatory hunter-gatherers, who were far more aggressive (and far more murderous) than any other primates (a direct echo from the old nature versus nurture debate). Blanche's sarcastic portrait of Stanley fits this “naked ape” profile. Although she is of superior social class and breeding, Stella—and even Mitch—partly share with Stanley some of these atavistic traits and instincts.

When compared, Streetcar is not that different from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. The daughter of an aristocratic Norwegian general, Hedda Gabler loses her privileged upper-class status in society following her father's death and marries a relatively poor petty-bourgeois academic, who is unable to satisfy her high-life hopes, upper-crust-society ambitions, and snobbish high-culture (haute couture) expectations. Socially, intellectually, and morally frustrated, at the end she kills herself with her father's dueling pistol. She represents the historical exit of Norway's old nobility as a result of the inexorable advance of modern capitalism in the late Industrial-Revolution epoch.

Blanche and Stella Du Bois, both impoverished southern belles fallen upon hard times after losing even their aristocratic family's hereditary plantation, represent the historical decline of the rural and agricultural Old South with its aristocratic values and pretensions. After losing her young husband, her mansion, and high-school English teacher's job, Blanche is forced to become a hooker as the only possible way to put bread on the table, while still staying in her home town. Stella fares only a little better, relocating to New Orleans and marrying a violent and drunk working-class brute, Stanley Kowalski. In the “bliss” of their conjugal life, Stella completely abandons her earlier aristocratic manners and illusions, to which Blanche still desperately clings. When a homeless Blanche seeks refuge in the volatile Kowalski household, she is not welcome by Stanley, who eventually denies her shelter but also rapes her while Stella is giving birth to their baby in the hospital. Faced with a choice between her emotionally unstable and distraught sister and her headstrong, animalistic husband (who, like a pimp, beats her “because he loves her”), Stella abandons Blanche to “the kindness of strangers”—in this case, a kindly psychiatrist and Stanley Kowalski-like nurse from the local nut-house. Instead of killing herself like Hedda Gabler, Blanche is destroyed by the new unsentimental, impersonal, and social-Darwinian “culture” of the greedy Yankee capitalism creeping deep in the post-WWII Old South.

 

Autobiographical Motifs

One cannot but notice the strong autobiographical elements in Streetcar. It looks like the primitive drunkard and rapist Stanley Kowalski is largely based on Williams' own autocratic working-class father Cornelius and his drunken violence and cruelty at home. The playwright's badly mistreated and over-anxious mother Edwina was herself a southern belle by birth—exactly the same as the two DuBois sisters, Blanche and Stella. Williams seems to have modeled the tormented character of Blanche partly on his emotionally fragile sister Rose, who was institutionalized when she was a very young woman (ostensibly to treat her for depression and schizophrenia), partly on his own emotional instability and mental breakdown as a young man. A beleaguered Blanche speaks of “deliberate cruelty” and that's what was obviously done to Rose at the mental asylum, where she was “treated” with electric shocks (shock therapy) and finally a lobotomy, which only damaged severely her mental capacity. Blanche's suicidal young husband was a homosexual poet, as was Tennessee Williams who appears to have ended his life in a New York City suicide brought on by chronic alcoholism, drug abuse and tragic loneliness. The play is a strongly autobiographical Greek tragedy but without any catharsis at its ending.

In Dostoevskian terms, Streetcar is a story of unpunished crime. It represents an iron-clad criminal case of forcible rape, in which the innocent victim, rather than the violent and unrepentant rapist is sent to a mental institution. All this prevaricating talk about Blanche's “lies,” “deceptions,” “illusions,” “delusions,” and “fantasies” is just a clever defense lawyer's obfuscation and an excuse for why the hapless victim, rather than the raping villain, should be punished. I am sure that Blanche is not Stanley' first victim and she is not likely to be the last, as he fits the police profile of a serial rapist.

Tennessee Williams claimed that for him writing Streetcar Named Desire and his other plays was therapy. He was always frank about his troubled family background: his father’s drunken violence, the unhappy marriage of his parents, his own mental breakdown, and the long institutionalization of his beloved sister, who as a young woman was lobotomized and mentally crippled for the rest of her life. Nor did Williams hide the fact that he was gay and an abuser of alcohol and drugs. Although he denied that his writing was autobiographical, many elements from his life do appear throughout Streetcar. For example, Williams was obsessed with the distance between socially accepted rules of behavior, social status, emotional expression, the illusions of life, and the realities underneath our social life. His most famous play, The Glass Menagerie, encapsulates this very theme in the glass collection of figures. In Streetcar, the illusion is the “marriage” of Stanley and Stella, on the surface a real connection but in reality a master-slave relationship—in that the tensions of Stella's situation manifest themselves in Stanley’s belligerent gruffness and non-empathy. Blanche’s arrival upsets the very delicate balance the married couple have established, as Blanche's conduct is all “illusion” of a particularly Southern kind. Her flirtatious behavior, which woos the poker players and even Stanley, is not real promiscuity or sensuality, but an illusion she has constructed all her life. Her confrontation with Stanley gives this tension a stage presence, a dramatic conflict between the real world and her constructed illusions. The key points, hidden in the play's ironic title, are the evident troubles of the strained marriage of Stella and Stanley, the “performance” that Blanche acts out her whole life, and the New Orleans culture they all live in—itself an illusion of conviviality, joie de vivre and fun, but in fact poverty-stricken, coarse and uneducated.

Throughout the entire play, illusion and reality battle it out in the characters of Blanche and Stanley. Repeated mention is made of light, and this is a motif that epitomizes Blanche's inability to face the truth rather than the shaded, covered and dim perception of reality represented by her favorite red lantern, which Stanley symbolically destroys when he forces Blanche to face the truth of who she really is. Yet, by the end of the play, the forces of reality have triumphed in the form of Stanley getting his way and Blanche's inability to separate her sister from him. It is clear that Blanche has retreated behind the walls of illusion to prevent her from having to face the truth of what she has become. Her last line in the play is when she greets the doctor sent to take her away to an insane asylum as if he were a gentleman caller: “Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This famous line is ironic, because clearly the doctor is very different from the gentlemanly rescuer Blanche imagines him to be, but also because Blanche has always depended upon “the kindness of strangers,” which has made life so complicated for her. This final comment from Blanche is so tragic because of it represents her complete retreat from reality and her total acceptance of her misperceptions about the world which allows her to see everything the way that she wants to see it. But she retreats into illusion only at the cost of her own sanity.

 

Illusions, Fantasies and Self-deceptions

Blanche engages frequently in illusions, fantasies and obvious untruths but she does so only to escape the horrors of her ruined life. Despite all her daydreaming, white lies and obfuscations, she knows perfectly well in what dreadful situation she is. She can hardly depend “on the kindness of strangers” and not even on the kindness of her closest relatives. Her inner world is not one of illusion, but of dark fears, foreboding, panic, and escapism. Her illusions and delusions are a defense mechanism helping her cope with her mounting problems and panic attacks. She is trying to hide from Stella the distressing truth about her tragic past and her hopeless present, because she is ashamed of being in such a fix and having to depend upon her sister for survival. She wants “magic,” because what can reality and “realism” offer her but a painful reminder of having lost her young husband, teaching job, family plantation, and any hope for a decent or even normal and bearable life? Why does Blanche need to be told often that she looks great? Because she is scared of the ravages of time. Why is Blanche not telling Stella that she has come to her to escape the destitute life of a homeless “bag lady” in the streets? Because she is scared stiff that her headstrong and violent brother-in-law will refuse to shelter her and will find a way to kick her out of his cramped apartment. Blanche is afraid even of letting the Kowalskis know when exactly she was arriving in New Orleans. The probably imaginary millionaire Shep Huntleigh, whom Blanche claims to have dated in college and wants to contact now, is just another white lie and fantasy designed to protect her credibility, dignity, self-respect, and sanity. Blanche is like a cornered animal, trying desperately to escape from or perhaps charm her way out of all imminent dangers (such as the increasingly vicious Stanley and her own sister siding with him).

One illusion (or delusion) that Blanche still desperately clings to is that there is some glimmer of hope for herself, since she does not believe that she lives entirely in a jungle of uneducated and uncultured human animals: “Maybe we are a long way from being made in God's image, but Stella—my sister—there has been some progress since then! Such things as art—as poetry and music—such kinds of new light have come into the world since then! In some kinds of people some tenderer feelings have had some little beginning! That we have to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our flag! In this dark march toward whatever it is we are approaching.... Don't—don't hang back with the brutes! (Williams 4.201-208). She fears that the human jungle of Stanley, Stella, Mitch, and their friends and neighbors is what defines reality, rather her own poetic illusions, daydreams, self-deceptions, and aristocratic pretensions. At the end of the play, when she is grateful to the kindly psychiatrist for not using force to take her to the insane asylum, her worst fears seem to have come true. Incarcerating her in a nut-house is hardly the best solution given her dire circumstances. The playwright is not honest about what exactly awaits Blanche inside a state mental institution of those days. From the tragic plight of his own sister, he must have known that what lies ahead for Blanche are many sessions of shock therapy (the barbaric use of electric shocks), possibly ending in a lobotomy (which only turned Tennessee Williams' own depressed and schizophrenic sister into a mindless living zombie).

Stella and her husband live in a world of their own cruel illusions, myths, and self-deceptions. Stella has retreated into the delusion of having a normal loving relationship and a successful marriage with a working-class brute like Stanley. Trying to preserve the facade of a happy married life, Stella pretends that she doesn't mind Stanley's drunk violence against her or around their home because “I was—sort of—thrilled by it” (Williams 4.35), adding apologetically that “People have got to tolerate each other's habits” (Williams 4.60-61). Ignoring Stanley's domestic violence and false promises to quit drinking and “poker night” parties at home, Stella even forces herself to believe that he did not rape her visiting sister: “I couldn't believe her story and go on living with Stanley” (Williams 11.36), thus helping him put Blanche in a mental hospital. When Stella cries out: “What have I done to my sister? Oh, God, what have I done to my sister?” (Williams 11.151-152), her neighbor Eunice dispels the last remaining sentimental illusions about her slavery-like marriage to Stanley by explaining to her that silencing the raped Blanche inside an asylum is the best possible solution given Stella's circumstances (a newborn baby and an unrepentantly hostile husband-slave master): “You done the right thing, the only thing you could do. She couldn't stay here; there was no other place to go” (Williams 11.153-154).

In contrast to Blanche's verbal and behavioral defensiveness, Stanley is involved in some very aggressive and vicious deceptions, lies and manipulations of his own like denying his rape of his sister-in-law, whose accusations against him result in her involuntary incarceration. He acts like a lawless and unaccountable “I can do anything I want” cop, always rummaging through her luggage and few private belongings. Stanley believes that as the man of the house he is entitled to do whatever he wants at home. Not only does Stanley beat his pregnant wife, but he is a brutal control-freak, refusing to listen to any of Stella's wishes: “Since when do you give me orders?” (Williams 2.106). If you examine the increasingly hostile verbal exchanges between him and Mitch, Stanley is obviously lying even when he claims that “Mitch is a buddy of mine. We were in the same outfit together—Two-forty-first Engineers. We work in the same plant and now on the same bowling team. You think I could face him if—“ (Williams 7.133-134). By preventing Blanche from marrying Mitch, Stanley is not protecting his “buddy” but is, in fact, punishing her for voicing her contemptuous opinion of him. And we can only guess why he doesn't want to “bowl at Riley's. I had a little trouble with Riley last week” (Williams 9.86-87). He is so violent and self-assured about his masculine attractiveness to women that he believes that raping Blanche is nothing more than rough sex: “So you want some roughhouse! Al right, let's have some roughhouse.... We've had this date with each other from the beginning!” (Williams 11.145-147).

 

Conclusion

Blanche is obviously Tennessee Williams' alter ego with whom he fully identifies throughout this play. (Remember Gustave Flaubert summarizing the psychological meaning of his masterpiece realist novel with the words “Madame Bovary, c'est moi”). For a “poetic realist” like Blanche, reality is defined by her own words, experiences, thoughts, ideas, perceptions, feelings, desires, illusions and delusions. The outside world is largely what her mind makes it out to be. In other words, reality is just another illusion born in her head. That's why Blanche lives in a dream-like, romantic, and poetic fantasy-world, which is as real to her, as his brutal world of late-night card games, angry drunkenness, domestic violence and spousal abuse is to Stanley. But unfortunately for Blanche, reality is also defined by those around her, especially by people with power and authority to impose their decisions on her (“Hell is other people,” as French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once complained). Why was Blanche placed in a nut-house, when she never really posed any danger to herself or to others (the legal requirement for institutionalizing people nowadays)? Why was Stanley not arrested and jailed after beating up his pregnant wife or forcibly raping his sister-in-law? Was he—as a tax-paying citizen of New Orleans, decorated WWII veteran, home owner, hard-working industrial worker, “loving” husband, and father to a newborn baby—above being a suspect or a threat to those around him (such as Blanche and Stella)?

So, where does “reality” end and “illusion” begin in this nasty story of illusory reality and realistic illusion? There is a very fine line between reality and illusion here, beyond which both begin to overlap and tend to become indistinguishable from each other. For example, Blanche's Old South with its aristocratic values and mores is as much an illusion as Stanley's predominantly working-class, multiracial and violence-prone New Orleans is—despite the city's popular image as a bohemian metropolis of cosmopolitan high-culture and multicultural entertainment. But is Blanche's world really one of illusion and fantasy? Or are there perhaps darker family secrets lurking deep under the screenplay's surface—such as ugly old rumors that—like Blanche—Tennessee Williams' older sister Rose was institutionalized (and mentally incapacitated in a lobotomy) after she had complained of being sexually abused by her drunken father Cornelius? (Something similarly sinister is rumored to have happened to no less than JFK's younger sister, Rosemary Kennedy, in 1941). If true, this vile drama may turn out to be far more autobiographical than previously believed. Sometimes in "poetic realism," it's hard to separate even the most fantastic illusions from a very gruesome, degrading and brutal reality.

Works Cited

Garner Jr., Stanton. “Tennessee Williams,” in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014, pp. 1193-1198. Print.

Williams, Tennessee. Streetcar Named Desire, in J. Ellen Gainor et al. Eds. The Norton Anthology of Drama, 2nd shorter edition. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company. 2014, pp. 1198-1262. Print.


 


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