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THE PLAY AS A TRAGEDY
Aristotle called tragedy, "an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of certain length....decorated with artistic embellishments like plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle and song." He further believed that the plot, the heart of the drama, must be the well-organized series of events that have unity of action, place and time. Although modern tragedy has changed in some ways, it still largely follows Aristotle's principles, and these principles are found in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Williams' play definitely has unity of place. The entire drama occurs in the French Quarter in New Orleans, largely set inside the apartment of the Kowalskis. There is also a unity of time with mostly straight forward narration. The play opens with the arrival of Blanche at her sister's flat in New Orleans and ends with her departure a few months later. Her past is revealed only through flashbacks, which come as her own admissions to Mitch and through Stanley's findings about her.
The play has no separate acts, but is based on a simple division into eleven scenes. There is also a single plot, with no sub-plots. In fact the second couple in the play, the Hubbell's, are only presented to reveal the similarity of life and marital relations among the coarse, ordinary people living in the French Quarter. Instead of being a foil or contrast to the Kowalskis, they serve as their double. The plot, however, cannot be termed simple, for the play explores the complexity of life and human nature.
In the play Blanche also suffers great pain, both mental and physical. During the course of the drama, she realizes that the Kowalskis find her an inconvenience and really do not want to help her. This is made painfully clear to her when Stanley, for her birthday, gives her a bus ticket back to Laurel (where she is no longer welcome). His rude and crude action caused her mental torture; but then he inflicted physical and mental pain. While Stella is at the hospital laboring over the birth of their first child, Stanley brutally rapes Blanche. He could not stand the fact that he could not possess her, the way he possessed Stella and everything else around him; since he could not have her by agreement, he took her violently and forcefully, an action that literally pushes Blanche over the edge. With no more use for her, he works through Stella to send Blanche to a mental institution, signaling her symbolic death.
In a tragedy, the protagonist meets with failure, usually through fate or an outside instrument. In this play, Blanche is the protagonist and Stanley is her antagonist, causing her downfall or tragic end. By exposing Blanche's past and raping her, he is also nullifying her aristocratic upbringing, of which she is very proud. The conflict, therefore, is bigger than Stanley vs. Blanche or even male vs. female; it is the genteel Old South vs. the new, uncaring industrial age, the aristocratic life vs. the common life, and the French suaveness vs. the Polish roughness.
In any good play, a character creates his or her own destiny; in other words, the protagonist's own character or nature dictates his/her fate. In a tragedy, the protagonist brings about his own downfall because of a tragic flaw or error in character. With Blanche, it is not her sinful ways that cause her misery; ironically, it is her aristocratic upbringing and clinging to the past that is her undoing. With no thought of her own future, she gives up the roof over her head to pay for the funeral expenses of her dead relatives. She is a teacher by profession, constantly giving to her students, with very little monetary reward. Even in her sexual encounters with strangers, she tries to give them some pleasure with no thought of her own happiness. Her entire life is spent living and doing for others; but no one gives back to her. Her husband, whom she dearly loved, found pleasure in an older man and committed suicide, leaving her lonely, poor, and guilty. At the time of the play, all she has to cling to is a make-belief world built out of her past. In the end, her lies about her past cause her to lose Mitch, her hope for the future. Her past lies also cause Stella to doubt her story about Stanley's raping her. Blanche seems to have nothing left, past or future, and slips into insanity; Stella has her committed to a mental institution. Truly, Williams has created a tragic figure in the character of Blanche.