Places: A Streetcar Named Desire

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1947

First produced: 1947

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Late 1940’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New Orleans

*New Streetcar Named Desire, AOrleans. Louisiana city in which the Kowalskis live adds to the tensions inside the apartment. New Orleans just after World War II but before air-conditioning was a hot and humid place to live. Windows had to be kept open, which adds to the noise and sense of overcrowding in the Kowalski apartment. The apartment is in the French Quarter, known for incessant activity day and night. Noises of all sorts, from trains to cats to prostitutes to street vendors, constantly intrude upon the tiny space. Rowdy neighbors, also with their windows open, increase the sense of invaded privacy. Furthermore, music and vulgar merrymaking emanate from neighborhood bars. Indeed, the life outside is so much a part of the life inside that Tennessee Williams calls for a transparent wall so that outside images and activities may be seen through the apartment wall at crucial moments. Stanley, whom Williams describes as a “richly feathered male bird . . . a gaudy seed bearer,” loves the turbulence, and he contributes to it at every opportunity. Blanche, the essence of cultured southern womanhood, is flabbergasted by the endless clamor of New Orleans. Stella, the bridge between the two, is caught between her attraction to the crude and exciting vigor of Stanley and his New Orleans and her loyalty to Blanche and her background of old South gentility.

Kowalski apartment

Kowalski apartment. The entire action of the play takes place in and around the apartment of Stella and Stanley Kowalski, recent newlyweds. The two are from opposite backgrounds. Stanley is a working-class former army sergeant, who now works for a tool supply company. Stella is from Laurel, Mississippi, where her family for generations owned a large plantation outside town. The days of family wealth have gone, hence Stella’s journey to New Orleans to seek her fortune, where she meets and falls in love with Stanley, a man with little income.

Located ironically on a street called Elysium Fields (heaven), the apartment consists of a small kitchen area, a small bedroom area, and a bath. It is located near the railroad tracks in a poor section of the French Quarter. Blanche Dubois, Stella’s older sister, comes for a visit and is given a daybed in the kitchen. A curtain is hung between the kitchen and the bedroom area. All three must use the same bath. When it becomes obvious that Blanche’s visit will be a long one, tensions erupt, especially over the space occupied by Blanche’s luggage, which symbolizes to Stanley Blanche’s superior attitude to people with a less privileged background. To worsen matters, Blanche is addicted to taking long baths, especially as an escape when Stanley is at home, much to Stanley’s emotional displeasure and genuine physical discomfort.

Desire Street

Desire Street. New Orleans in all its earthiness and quirkiness is so much a motivator in the play that the work’s very title comes from a streetcar that ran along Desire Street. Williams also uses two other actual place names when he has Blanche say she was told to “take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and get off on Elysian Fields.” This reciting of place names ironically contains the whole story of the play. It is the city of New Orleans, however, with its French Quarter’s permissive attitude, that drives Blanche and Stanley to the cultural war that ends in sexual brutality and tragedy.

Belle Reve

Belle Reve (bel rev). Blanche and Stella grew up at Belle Reve, a lovely, graceful antebellum plantation, fronted with white columns, whose name means “beautiful dream.” Located outside Laurel, Mississippi, it is the antithesis of the brawling, urban French Quarter. The two places serve as emblems of the irreconcilable and tragic conflict between Stanley and Blanche. Blanche comes to tragedy because she cannot give up “Belle Reve,” and Stella contributes to Blanche’s agony because she chooses Stanley’s New Orleans over Belle Reve.

BibliographyFalk, Signi. Tennessee Williams. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1978. An introduction to both the fiction and drama. Places Williams in the Southern tradition and examines his early exploratory work. Provides a good general overview with a focus on recurring character types. Includes a chronology of publication and production of works and a useful critical bibliography.Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993. Biographical study that examines how Williams used events from his life and characters he knew, including himself, as source material for his drama.Miller, Jordan Y., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. Excellent collection of twenty essays and reviews divided into two sections that treat the play as commercial theater and as dramatic literature. Provides views from a variety of critics and includes a notebook of the director of the original production.Thompson, Judith J. Tennessee Williams’ Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: Peter Lang, 1987. Examines eight plays in considerable detail, including A Streetcar Named Desire, in terms of recurring archetypal characters and patterns of action. Interesting analysis of tragic, romantic, and comic images.Weales, Gerald. American Drama Since World War II. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962. Places Williams’ work in the context of his time and questions the world and the values that Williams depicts as those of his characters, which often represent marginalized “fugitive types.”
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