Stage Prompts: A Streetcar Named Desire

6 months ago
Declan Green

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”.

These words are spoken by Blanche DuBois in the closing scene of A Streetcar Named Desire,
directed at a doctor guiding her to a mental hospital. For the entire play she has been detached from
reality, though usually more in a frustratingly quirky manner than psychotically deluded. Her ethos
dictates that when faced with good and evil, people will always choose the former. Yet the more this
belief is disproven, the more she digs her heels in, unwilling to accept the alternative. And in these
final moments after she is raped by her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, it solidifies into an all-
encompassing fantasy shielding her from a harsh truth.

The Original Broadway Production – Marlon Brando (right)

Tennessee Williams’ meditation on the destruction of the wholesome, naïve Old America by the
amoral New America continues to find new life in contemporary productions over 70 years after it
was written. Most notably, the 2014 National Theatre production updated it to a modern setting,
underscoring it with rock music and turning Stanley into a grease-stained animal of a man, a far cry
from Marlon Brando’s prowling, seductive interpretation in the 1951 film. Though played in two very
different manners, Stanley has always stood for the cruel depravity of modernity and its erasure of
old-fashioned civilised ideals, here manifested in the form of Blanche.

It is important to acknowledge that in writing Streetcar Williams isn’t advocating for either the Old
or New America, as both Blanche and Stanley are clearly flawed characters. Rather he is suggesting
that some merging of the two value systems is needed, and that healthy levels of both kindness and
cynicism are needed to maintain stability. Stella is the key here. Though she emerges from a similar
background as Blanche, having grown up in a beautiful mansion in America’s South and raised with
similar ideals, she has married a working-class man and assimilated into a more modern, practical
society. Even as she lets go of her roots she still holds a nostalgia for her sister’s more refined
manner, yet in the end her two loved ones shift so far apart that she feels the pressure to choose
one over the other. This is the tragedy of Stella – that even as she tries to reconcile tradition and
progress, she would always inevitably be swayed to one side by an increasingly divided culture.
In some versions, including Elia Kazan’s film adaptation, Stella decides to take her baby and leave
Stanley after realising his true nature. This was the only way it could meet the strict Production Code
guidelines of the era, which required evildoers to get their comeuppance by a movie’s end. It is a
falsely optimistic note that doesn’t quite fit in with Williams’ original text, which pessimistically
leaves all three leads continuing to live their respective delusions. Blanche believing the world is an
inherently good place; Stella trying to believe that her husband was not responsible for Blanche’s
nervous breakdown; and Stanley continuing to believe that his heartless apathy makes him superior
to those with more civilised values. These are the falsehoods that must be upheld for each to retain
some semblance of normality in their lives.

The Young Vic theatre production. Starring Gillian Anderson & Ben Foster (Stanley Kowalski). Photograph © Jane Hobson.

A Streetcar Named Desire has taken on fable-like significance, depicting a battle over the soul of
America in which one side uses snobbish principles and the other uses brute force. There is an
arrogance to both, built on a mutual hatred that pushes them further away from each other. It is a
cultural war that still rages on across the political spectrum, not just between the left and right but
even among their own factions. And in Williams’ view, the battle between tradition and modernity
will see the latter achieve a sad, bitter victory.

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