The Theatrical Genius of Tennessee Williams
‘To express his universal truths Williams created what he termed plastic theater, a distinctive new style of drama. He insisted that setting, properties, music, sound, and visual effects—all the elements of staging—must combine to reflect and enhance the action, theme, characters, and language.’
Williams criticised those who show ‘a lack of respect for the extra-verbal or non-literary elements of the theatre, the various plastic elements, the purely visual things such as light and movement and color and design, which play, for example, such a tremendously important part in theatre… and which are as much a native part of drama as words and ideas are.’
Music in A Streetcar Named Desire
The Varsouviana Polka
This polka music is played throughout the play with varying degrees of intensity – it is used as a device in order to emphasise and highlight Blanche’s thoughts and add to her memories of her dead lover. When Blanche had danced with Allan (just before he committed suicide) they danced to this music.
Whenever Blanche is asked about her relations, she remembers Allan and thus Williams has implemented this device in order to highlight to the audience that she is reminded of the time she danced with him before he died – it is even explicitly shown that her memory of the song being stuck in her head is only stopped after she hears a gunshot (which is played to the audience too).
The polka tune is in the background for a lot of the scenes to do with Blanche too, as if to subtly state to the audience that the memory of Allan is with her everywhere, always in the back of her mind. When she is specifically recalling him or something about that time, the music becomes slowly louder and then either fades away or ends with a gunshot sound – this is all played to the audience to give them the effect of being inside Blanche’s mind, as if they can hear what she is feeling.
An example of this music implementation is in Scene 9 (P84), when Blanche mentions the Varsouviana, saying that it was “the polka tune that they were playing” before shortly being interrupted by the stage direction of [A distant revolver shot is heard, Blanche seems relieved] and then [The polka music dies out again] – this indicates how the gunshot is the end to the music, as it was when Allan ran away from the dancing and polka music to kill himself.
Blue Piano is generally used as the ‘upbeat’ music for the play – it is first used by Williams as the introductory music when painting the scene for Elysian Fields, allowing the audience to get a feel for the “spirit of the life”. This music is also present in the reunion of Stella and Stanley in Scene 3, indicating that overall it is happy and should be played in the upbeat scenes of the play. The blue piano, blue hue of the stage lighting and overall feeling that the audience is subjected to on these initial introductory senses is all in harmony together – Williams has created the image of a ‘paradise’ in the audience’s imagination.
This contrasts drastically with Scene 9, where Mitch and Blanche are having a dramatic and potentially violent scene – the “distant piano” is “slow and blue” as stated by stage directions and is thus used as a contrast between the normally happy implementation and one of the more violent and action-based scenes.
Music is sung by Blanche a lot in order to emphasise her bitter-sweet situation; She is often shown to sing while in the bath, being completely oblivious of all that is outside. The usage of happy and upbeat songs, such as “Paper Moon” being sung by Blanche are particularly important as they are used to highlight the contrast between Blanche’s bitter-sweet (although mostly fake) upbeat attitude and Stanley’s vehement anger (such as him waiting to get into the bathroom while she sings – “get OUT of the BATHROOM!”).
Other Sound Effects
Sound effects are used to supply realism in theatre but also to allow the audience to understand the setting of a play.
- “a locomotive is heard approaching outside. She (Blanche) claps her hands to her ears and crouches over.”
- Covering her ears with her hands can be linked to when Blache covers her ears when she talks about Allen, bringing back unpleasant memories which leads her to the deterioration of her fragile state of mind.
- It approaches ‘outside’ which shows Stanley and Stella’s apartment is built next to a railway in the poorer area of New Orleans, contrasting greatly to the Dubois aristocratic family home – Belle Reve. Also, the reader can infer the setting of New Orleans is industrialized and busy.
- In scene 10, the locomotive is repeated. “the sound of it turns into a roar of an approaching locomotive.” This builds up tension and foreshadows that something malicious is about to happen between Stanley and Blanche. Furthermore, the sound effect hides the noise of Stanley moving progressively closer to Blanche.
- The sound of a locomotive is present when there’s a discovery of Blanche’s surprising and shameful past, the discovery being made by Stanley. It demonstrates Stanley’s desire to bring Blanche to her fall.
- The locomotive is significant when Blanche tragically narrates her marriage with Allen as the thunder-like noise is loud and symbolizes an unstoppable metallic monster chasing Blanche and restricting her. This painful memory of her past devastates her.
- ‘outside a train approaches’ ‘another train passes outside’ p.46,47
- ‘sound of a blow’ Stanley trying to assert dominance, and this foreshadows his sexual abuse of Blanche later when he rapes her.
- ‘he enters the kitchen, slamming the door’ p.90 scene 10. Brutality and force of Stanley, as well as his masculinity. The slamming of the door may foreshadow shuttling Blanche out of the Kowalski home and family.
- ‘a disturbance is heard upstairs’ (from Eunice’s place.) This explores their economic status as demonstrates that the properties are in proximity and are extremely small as sounds are heard amongst their apartments.
- ‘she smashes a bottle on the table and faces him’ p.96
- ‘a clatter of aluminum string a wall is heard, followed by a man’s angry roar, shout, and overturned furniture. There is a crash, then a relative hush.’ p.50
- ‘something is overturned with a crash’ p.36
- Women had few rights in 1950s Southern America meaning the audience would be more accepting of the mistreatment and misogyny towards women. A modern feminist audience member would challenge this behavior towards women in the play.
- US Suffragette movement – women could own property themselves only in the 1940s.
Motif of the cat screeching
- ‘A cat screeches’ p.5 scene one
- This happens when Blanche arrives at Stanley and Stella’s, but her reaction is what makes this motif significant.
- She ‘springs up’ in shock which emphasizes she feels worried, anxious and scared about seeing Stella and meeting Stanley. She is unfamiliar with the surroundings and the way she reacts shows she is constantly on edge. Furthermore, Blanche is in a weak, fragile and vulnerable state.
- The audience may evoke a sense of pathos for Blanche as she’s so far away from her normal surroundings.
Red hots in Scene Two
- ‘a tamale vendor calls out as he rounds the corner’ Suggests people living in New Orleans are full of energy as he ‘calls out.’
- ‘red hots! Red hots!’
- The colour red symbolizes the passion and desire which is demonstrated by Blanche as she desires to be loved and has a passion for men.
- The red may also be a warning as the ‘red hots’ is in anticipation of the poker night scene in which men violence dominates.
- ‘red hots’ is a typical southern food served in a city which adds realism to the play.
‘outside is the sound of men’s voices’
‘more laughter and shouts of partying come from the men’
‘the voices of people on the street can be heard overlapping’
- Creates a sense of realism by using everyday colloquial sounds such as outside voices. It reminds the audience that the play is about ordinary people living an everyday life.
‘low animal moans’ p.38
‘low-tone clarinet moans’ p.38
- Lust is the strongest bond between Stanley and Stella’s relationship
- Insane side of animalistic love as Stella goes back to Stanley after the horrific violent act of hitting a pregnant wife.
‘Steve bounds after her with goat-like screeches’ p.55
‘Blanche utters a sharp, frightened cry and shrinks away’
‘the music is in her mind’ p.83
‘an electric fan is turning back and forth across her’
‘flores para los muertos’ ‘she is calling barely audibly’ p.88
‘policeman’s whistle breaks it up’ p.95
‘the night is filled with inhuman voices like cries in a jungle.’ p.95 plastic theatre. Violence and bestial nature of Blanche’s aggressor – Stanley and the matron of the institution which suggests cruelty and inhumanity of the whole society leads Blanche to her downfall. Alongside her chaotic state of mind and physical offence.
‘sound of water can be heard running in the bathroom’ p.98
‘her voice is bold and toneless as a fire-bell‘ p.104
‘the greeting is echoed and reechoed by other mysterious voices behind the walls.’ scene 11
‘the echoes sound in threatening whispers’ scene 11
‘she cries out as if the lantern was herself’ scene 11
‘she sobs with inhuman abandon’ scene 11
In the first scene, the ‘peculiarly tender blue’ sky adds ‘lyricism’ and accentuates the ‘atmosphere of decay’. From the beginning, tragedy is foreshadowed. The decaying of Blanche’s mind, and the fact the colour is slightly unplaceable shows the theme of deceit that will become evident.
Scene 3: Blanche keeps ‘accidentally’ stepping into ‘the streak of light’. She knows she is in viewpoint of the men and uses this to assert her femininity and be provocative. Blanche likes male attention and even though she is fading she still, although obviously, lies about her age and wants to be young and beautiful. Furthermore, the men are gathered under ‘an electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade’. This bright and intense colouring of the light shows the masculinity and the assertive strength of the men. They are under a powerful light with a bold colour, alike their bold outgoing personalities.
Scene 4: Stella is ‘serene’ in ‘early morning sunshine’. Her life is unlike Blanche’s and this could symbolize the new beginning she is expecting from Stanley and her optimistic mood because of it. This contrasts heavily with the previous, dramatic poker night scene. At the end of the scene Blanche is described as stopping ‘before the dark entrance’ of Stella’s flat. This is reflective of Blanche’s mood on the situation. How she believes a grave thing has occurred that is uncommon. It also symbolizes how Stella keeps blanche in the dark, and this happens to her a lot and she always reconciles with Stanley in the end. Furthermore, if we use the lighting in the sky for a metaphor in a sense or pathetic fallacy of blanches mental state and mood, at the end of scene 3 she ‘looks up at the sky’ and then thanks Mitch for ‘being so kind’. This could be symbolic of the hope Mitch initially brought, and the fact the next lighting stage in the day will be dawn (as it is night) so symbolic of new beginnings.
Scene 6: it is around ‘2am.’ This scene reveals Blanche’s past, and Allan’s suicide. This time of day would be very dark which is symbolic of how dark her past has been. The lack of light in the scene could also show the foreshadowing of the lack of light Mitch ends up bringing to Blanche as they do not work out in the end.
Scene 7: it is ‘late afternoon’. This scene is when Stanley reveals to Stella all he knows about Blanche. It is symbolic of the darkening of the day with the darkening of the plot and of Blanche’s mental state.
Scene 8: the lighting is ‘a still golden dusk’. The tragedy of the play is not fully realized at this point, but the fading mental state of Blanche is symbolic as being in its dusk stage, towards the end of the day/ her mental sanity. Furthermore ‘golden’ implies what once was and what has been lost.
Blanche attempts to hide in the shade. She brings the bulb cover with her to add to her illusions and desire to escape reality. Mitch literally ‘tears’ it off when saying he’s never seen her in daylight. It is symbolic of the unravelling of her lies. Ties up all the elements of light, symbolism with hiding/lies and deceit Williams has been setting up. This is different from in Scene 3 when he ‘adjusts the lantern’ and places the paper shade Blanche has purchased on it for her. He had understanding and was happy to fulfil her wishes. It shows Mitch’s changed attitude to Blanche since his beginning affection and kindness.
Use of the Stage
Elysian Fields – ‘Elysian’ means heaven, so the ironic imagery of heaven contrasts with the crumbling exterior of New Orleans.
Blanche: ‘Her appearance is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as though she was arriving at a summer tea in the garden district…There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.’
Here Williams uses staging to establish an obvious visual contrast between Blanche and the industrial browns of 1950s New Orleans to immediately illustrate how out-of-place and she is, whilst also allowing room for showing how this projected image of luxury is far from authentic and how she becomes reluctantly more submissive to her setting as the play proceeds.
In this scene the imagery of Stanley’s ‘fistful of costume jewellery’ and an ‘armful of dresses’ on the floor establishes a beautiful visual contrast between the fluffy, white delicacy of Blanche’s supposedly luxurious clothing against the yellow and brown of the dingy, impoverished flat – lending the audience the idea of her illustrated luxury being a façade.
‘There is a picture of Van Gogh’s a billiard-parlour at night’; the men are described as being as ‘powerful as their primary colours’ of the shirts they are wearing. ‘There are vivid slices of watermelon on the table, whiskey bottles and glasses.’ This illustrates how the men have assumed their dominance over the space and how they also assume it is within their right for the women to clear up their mess.
In scene four, Williams uses the plastic possibilities of theatre to establish a dramatic irony as he overhears Stella and Blanche’s conversation in which Blanche rants feverishly about what she truly thinks of him, meanwhile Stanley is standing in the kitchen next door. The flimsy divide of a curtain perhaps between the two rooms here creates an obvious visual effect in which the audience notices Stanley’s presence but the women fail to.
‘Blanche is seated in the bedroom fanning herself with a palm leaf.’ The palm leaf here is again an example of her idiosyncratic necessity to illustrate a façade of luxury. It contrasts itself to the electric fan in scene nine.
‘Blanche precedes him into the kitchen. The outer wall of the building disappears and the interiors of the two rooms can be dimly seen.’ The dim visibility of the two rooms and overall darkness compliments the sexual tension in the scene as both the audience and Blanche and Mitch are aware of the bedroom looming next door to them.
‘“We are going to pretend we are sitting in a little artists’ café in Paris!” She lights a candle stud and puts it in a bottle’ The contrast between the extravagant luxury of the language in her proclamation in comparison with her futile action is another example of how she ‘pretends’.
‘The portières are open and the table is set for a birthday supper with cake and flowers.’ In contrast with Stanley’s anger at Blanche in this scene, the cake and flowers seem futile and ineffectual. The audience sees this as another one of Stella’s hopeless attempts to try and cover-up paint the atmosphere as one with a happy, functioning dynamic, that Stanley soon stamps on.
‘A torch of sunlight blazes on the side of a big water-tank or oil-drum across the empty lot towards the business district which is now pierced with pin-points of lighted windows or windows reflecting the sunset.’ The warm glow of the sunset here contrasts almost ironically with the violence and anger of the scene to come. Meanwhile, the ‘pin-points of lighted windows or windows reflecting the sunset’, draws the audience out of the scene slightly the scene is contextualised as occurring in this city rather than only in this room; attenuating its intensity slightly.
‘The three people are sitting at a dismal birthday supper…There is a fourth place which is left vacant.’ The vacancy of the unused place at the dining table invests the scene with an underlying emptiness and creates a more tense atmosphere between Blanche, Stella and Stanley because of this dismal, awkward quality.
‘A while later Blanche is seated in a tense hunched position in a bedroom chair that she has recovered with diagonal green and white stripes. She has on her scarlet satin robe…An electric fan is turning back and forth across her.’ – The description of the chair with ‘diagonal green and white stripes’ that she now sits on confirms how she has now surrendered herself to the conditions of Stella and Stanley’s flat, especially that she has ‘recovered’ it. However, the not-so-aesthetic chair contrasts with her scarlet satin robe; a contrast in the staging in comparison to her costume, that is her flimsy façade of wealth, similar to that the audience have been observing. The ‘electric fan turning back and forth across her’ here is yet another example of her futile attempts at some form of luxury that now seem pathetic to the audience. It compares itself to her ‘fanning herself with a palm leaf’ in scene five, and how her character has developed in this way.
‘Lurid reflections appear on the walls around Blanche. The shadows are of a grotesque and menacing form.’ The shadows serve to symbolise Blanche’s fear and helpless inferiority at this moment and exaggerate the effect of it for the audience. The way the shadows surround her allows the impression of her being trapped by Stanley and inescapably submissive to his dominance and power over her, both physically and emotionally.
‘Lurid reflections appear on the walls in odd, sinuous shapes.’ Again, here in the bedroom, the audience sees a visual representation of Blanche’s hysteria and her persistent trauma that remains after Stanley’s rape.
With thanks to students Amelie, Georgia, Torin and Xanthe
An article about the enduring power of stage productions of A Streetcar Named Desire.