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Free Barron's Booknotes-A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
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THE STORY - SUMMARY AND NOTES

SCENE ONE

At the start of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams paints a loving portrait of New Orleans.

NOTE:

Williams spent several months in the city before writing the play. He lived in a flat overlooking the streetcar tracks where one car named Desire and another called Cemetery ran back and forth every day. Somehow the names of the streetcars and their ceaseless comings and goings struck his poetic mind with "having some symbolic bearing of a broad nature on the life in the [French Quarter]- and everywhere else, for that matter...."

Like April in Paris, May in New Orleans is one of those legendary times of year. The air is warm but not yet thick with summer heat. Brilliant flowers sprout on sills and terraces. Open doors and windows blur the distinctions between sidewalk and living room. You walk down the street in the French Quarter and hear the sounds of a jazz piano and the voices of the people. The smells are sweet from cargoes of coffee and bananas in freighters along the river.

Williams' affection for the place extends even to the run-down section of town between the railroad tracks and the waterfront. There, you find a street named Elysian Fields.

NOTE:

The name comes from Greek myth. Elysium was a happy land, a paradise free from rain, snow, cold or misfortune of any kind. When you get further into the play you'll doubtlessly recognize the irony in Williams' choices of names.


Stanley Kowalski comes on stage first, walking with his friend Mitch. He is a hulk of a man carrying a package of bloody meat, which he heaves to his wife Stella, standing on the first floor landing. Williams probably wants you to imagine Stanley as a modern caveman, returning to his mate with the kill for the day. Instead of wearing a leopard skin, however, he's carrying a bowling jacket. Stanley tells Stella that he's on his way to bowl and she, his faithful mate, follows him to the alley.

Shortly after Stella leaves, Blanche DuBois, carrying a suitcase, hesitantly walks down Elysian Fields. From her gestures and her clothing you can tell instantly that she is a stranger. She Looks as though she ought to be headed for a summer tea party in the garden district instead of searching for the rickety, two-story building occupied by the Kowalskis.

As soon as she speaks-to ask directions from Eunice Hubbell, the Kowalskis' upstairs neighbor-you can be sure that Blanche is used to more refined surroundings. Despite Blanche's doubts that Stella really lives in such a place, Eunice assures her that she's found the right address. When Blanche discloses she is Stella's sister, Eunice escorts Blanche into the apartment. Eunice wants to chat, but Blanche asks to be left alone, claiming to be tired from her trip. As she leaves, Eunice offers to tell Stella of Blanche's arrival.

Until now you have no reason to doubt that Blanche is anything other than what you've observed and heard: a worn-out traveler from Mississippi where she teaches school and owns her family's ancestral home, Belle Reve, a large plantation with a white-columned mansion.

As soon as Eunice goes out, however, you watch Blanche, apparently upset and nervous about something, find whiskey in a closet and quickly swallow half a glassful. Then she mutters to herself, "I've got to keep hold of myself!"

Whatever has caused Blanche's agitation begins to unfold soon after Stella returns. Blanche chatters at a feverish pace. As she speaks, she reveals her unsettled emotional state. In just a brief dialogue with her sister, Blanche expresses affection, shock, modesty, concern for Stella, vanity, resentment, and uncertainty about herself. While almost every sentence reveals another dimension of Blanche's inner turbulence, the dialogue also illustrates the relationship between the sisters.

Blanche explains that she has suffered a nervous breakdown and has therefore taken a leave from her teaching job in the middle of the term. Blanche then disparages Stella's messy apartment and reproaches Stella for gaining so much weight. (Blanche does not know that Stella is pregnant.)

Stella almost apologizes for the size of her apartment. She also starts to prepare Blanche for meeting Stanley and his friends. They're not exactly the type of men Blanche is accustomed to. Perhaps Stella already realizes that Stanley and Blanche are not going to get along. They come from two different worlds. Since Stella came originally from the same landed gentry as Blanche, she somehow must have leapt across a social chasm, for now Stella worships Stanley despite his rough cut. She admits that much of his appeal is sexual.

Blanche finally turns the conversation to news of home. She fears telling it, just as anyone might shrink, say, from bearing the grievous news of a loved one's death. Blanche announces that Belle Reve has been lost. Before Stella can ask why, Blanche launches into a passionate and morbid apology which assigns blame for the loss on a parade of sickness and death that marched through the family. Every death had to be paid for with a little piece of Belle Reve, and gradually the place just slipped away through Blanche's fingers.

More shocked than angry, Stella says nothing. Blanche thinks that Stella doubts the story and cruelly lashes out at her sister: "Yes, accuse me! Sit there and stare at me, thinking I let the place go! I let the place go? Where were you! In bed with your-Polack!"

Blanche's attack on Stella suggests the intensity of her feelings about the loss. On the other hand, she could be covering up the facts, possibly to protect herself, possibly because she can't face the truth. Unable to accept responsibility, she may be casting blame on the dead people in her family and ultimately on her little sister, all characters, take note, without the capacity to defend themselves.

NOTE:

It takes a particularly skillful actress to play Blanche. She possesses many villainous qualities. In this scene you have observed her being cruel, bossy, hypocritical and dishonest. Yet, the actress who portrays her must preserve the goodwill of the audience. If you didn't like Blanche at least a little, her struggle with Stanley, which is about to begin, would be far less compelling than it is.

When Stella runs to the bathroom in tears, Stanley and friends, Steve and Mitch, return from bowling and plan a poker game for the following evening. You see that Stanley easily lives up to Stella's description. He is crude and animal like, but he knows his sexual attractiveness and uses it unsparingly.

Notice how Stanley treats Blanche during their first encounter. Is there any apparent reason for him to be nasty to her? Does he simply lack grace? Or has he just taken an instant dislike to Blanche? Perhaps her airs annoy him. Perhaps he can't tolerate Blanche's prattling about looking fresh and powdering her face. Because Stella has told him about her sister, Stanley may long ago have made up his mind to dislike her. It's also possible that Stanley, like an animal smelling danger, senses that Blanche may come between him and his mate in their small living quarters.

Finally, when Stanley asks about her marriage, Blanche cannot talk about it with him. Is the subject too painful? Or does she have something to hide? You'll find out later, but for the moment, she feels too sick to continue.

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