Smoke and mirrors in the South: Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire.
For sixty-nine years, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire has caused critics to argue. While some see the play as a psychological battle between characters, others see it as class warfare. Where one essay exalts Blanche DuBois as romantic heroine, another heaps praise on Stanley Kowalski as working-class hero. There's no agreement over genre--is the work a tragedy or a melodrama or an example of conventional realism? Is it ultimately ambiguous and, if so, is its lack of clarity a mark of success or failure? As John S Bak wrote in 2004, 'For all of its attention, Streetcar remains a riddle no closer to being solved today than it was nearly a half-century ago.' (1)
But perhaps critics looking for a one-size-fits-all analysis are barking up the wrong tree. Like the greatest of Shakespeare's plays, A Streetcar Named Desire presents its many conflicts as multi-sided. Their causes and outcomes result from a combination of personality and society, rather than a particular character or single socioeconomic stratum. In fact, in a 1947 letter to theatrical agent Audrey Wood, written just after the casting of Marlon Brando in the play's debut on Broadway, Williams wrote, T don't want to focus guilt or blame on any one character but to have it a tragedy of misunderstanding and insensitivity to others.' (2) When Blanche says to Harold 'Mitch' Mitchell, 'Straight? What's straight? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?', she could be referring to the play's complexities.
This essay argues that Elia Kazan's 1951 screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire reflects Williams' intentions. The him demonstrates the role of power--and powerlessness--in the characters' miscommunications and Blanche's (Vivien Leigh) tragic descent into madness. For every character, power is enabled or denied through personality, relationships, language, gender, economics and class. Blanche, despite her empowering wealthy origins, has lost her husband, family home, money and youth. Unable to accept her past, she tries to exercise power with the only tools she has left--her sexual attractiveness and ability to create romantic delusions, fooling both herself and others. Meanwhile, Blanche's brother-in-law, Stanley (Brando), a working-class Pole who's never been schooled in poetry, prides himself on his realism, enforcing his will through direct language and physical force. Stella (Kim Hunter), Stanley's wife, is caught between the two--compassionate towards Blanche and in love with her husband.
The viewer first glimpses Blanche as she steps off a train at New Orleans Station, on her way to visit Stanley and Stella, who live in a run-down tenement named Elysian Fields in the city's French Quarter. A cloud of steam shrouds her, symbolising her desire to conceal her age and her past, as well as her pursuit of 'magic' over reality. She emerges in the foreground, bearing a confused, lost expression; this is in stark contrast to the passengers in the background, who wear work clothes and stride purposefully in single file. When a young sailor offers help, she regains composure, widening her eyes like a doe and speaking sensually. This introduction foregrounds Blanche's plight--alone, poor and placeless, she seeks sexual attention compulsively.
Her obsession with her appearance and apparent need to attract every man she meets--young or old, available or attached --at first inspires the viewer's scorn and distrust. On reuniting with Stella in the local bowling alley, Blanche's third sentence is, 'No, no, no. I won't be looked at in this merciless glare.' A more intense aversion is inspired by her continually flirtatious interactions with Stanley, despite his warning that he is not taken in by 'this Hollywood glamour stuff'. However, as the film discloses the motivations for Blanche's behaviour, piece by piece, the viewer begins to question their harsh judgements--and, theatrically, this layered approach builds suspense.
In her first meeting with Stanley, Blanche divulges she was married when she was 'quite young', but 'the boy died'. Kazan places Blanche on a thonet chair by a window, and employs a high-angle shot that zooms into a close-up, emphasising her vulnerability and loss of power. Stanley's straight questions echo, dream-like, while an external light flashes on and off, before a gunshot sounds--heard by Blanche only--and darkness overwhelms the scene. Suddenly, the well-dressed, articulate, beautiful Southern belle is on the verge of a breakdown. Her previous desire to hide from light for vanity's sake takes on a deeper meaning; the flashing represents her being forced, by Stanley, into the past.
Later, the tragedy takes on a more disturbing dimension when, in a powerful monologue addressed to Mitch (Karl Malden), Blanche explains her husband shot himself outside a dance because, on the floor, she had told him she despised him. Although not stated explicitly, her confrontation of her husband's homosexuality is implied. This is in contrast to the play, in which it is more clearly communicated. Kazan stages this scene on a pier outside a dance casino, dramatically referencing- the setting in which the suicide occurred. Blanche recounts the story against a backdrop of still water and thick fog, reminding the viewer of the steam through which she was introduced, but taking on a deeper, more tortured sense of uncertainty. Steffen Blaschke writes that the setting 'serves completely the purpose of giving the monologue a dreadful touch of Blanche's depression'. (3)
Blanche here reinforces her abhorrence of light, revealing that for her, it symbolises first love and innocence lost. 'When I was sixteen I made the discovery of love, all at once and much, much too completely,' she says. 'It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow. That's how it struck the world for me.' Her husband's death meant this 'searchlight, which had turned on the world, was turned off again. Never, for one moment since, has there been any light stronger than this yellow lamp.' At this point, the viewer's former anger with Blanche becomes mixed with compassion.
Furthermore, her loss of power is not only the result of personal tragedy, but also of the metaphysical and socio-economic circumstances in which it places her. As she recounts to Mitch,
I lived in a house where dying old women remembered their dead men. Crumble and fade. Regrets. Recriminations. If you'd done this, it wouldn't have caused me that. Legacies and other things, such as bloodstained pillowslips. I used to sit here and she used to sit there and death was as close as you are. Death. The opposite is desire. So, how could you wonder? How could you possibly wonder?
She justifies her many 'meetings with strangers' thus:
I have had many meetings with strangers. After the death of Allan, meetings with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with. I think it was panic, just panic, that drove me from one to another, searching for some protection--here, there, then in the most unlikely places. Even, at last, in a seventeen-year-old boy ...
Her dalliances and flirtations are driven, not only by egotism and vanity, but also by the metaphysical desire to fend off death. This is hinted at from the outset, as the two streetcars she catches to reach Elysian Fields are called Desire and Cemeteries. It is further emphasised by the appearance at the apartment door of a woman, dressed in black, and selling 'flowers for the dead'. Kazan's film demonstrates CWE Bigsby's argument that, in the play, 'desire was the antithesis of death and [Blanche's] relationship with young men a defence against the destructive processes of time'. (4)
Furthermore, in conservative 1940s Mississippi, where homosexuality was illegal and single women without property were cast out, Blanche's history renders her powerless socio-economically. This is most potently demonstrated through Mitch's reactions to revelations of her 'impurity'. Before this, he is portrayed as a kind, gentle, well-mannered man--'a cleft in the rock of the world that [Blanche] could hide in'. In contrast to Stanley, who wears ripped shirts and singlets, Mitch is always dressed in a suit and tie. His nervousness and sensitivity are demonstrated through minor gestures --carrying a towel out of the bathroom or popping mints in his mouth before speaking to Blanche. When he, Stanley and their friends are playing poker and Stanley yells at Blanche for playing the radio, Mitch asks to be 'dealt out' and sneaks behind the curtain to speak to her. In fact, in the early stages of their courting, Mitch appears as the powerless one. When Blanche speaks French, he is unable to reply, and, although Blanche accepts his invitations to dates, she refuses to kiss him, leaving the viewer unsure of whether or not she is genuinely interested or merely leading him on to feel wanted.
When Blanche's sexual history comes to the surface, power changes hands. Mitch's manner changes utterly. Barging his way into Elysian Fields, he yells at Blanche, grabs her by the arms, rips down her lampshade, forces her face into the light and pushes her into an armchair. Some of his anger is personal and emotional, incited by his realisation of her deceptions. 'That pitch about you being so old-fashioned and that malarky you've been dishing out all summer,' he yells. 'I knew you weren't sixteen anymore, but I was fool enough to believe you were straight.' A high angle captures Blanche cowering in the armchair, emphasising her vulnerability, while a low angle on Mitch highlights his dominance. In the imaginary world of 'magic' created by Blanche, her attractiveness made her powerful, but in the 'realistic' world on which Mitch now insists, he calls the shots.
There's a social, gendered motivation for his anger, too. Despite his apparent disgust, he grabs Blanche and kisses her, and in response, she sighs, 'Marry me, Mitch!' He responds, 'No, I don't think I want to marry you anymore [...] You're not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother.' The fact that he is still willing to kiss her--and perhaps, it is implied, sleep with her--draws attention to the double standards of the antebellum South, which punished promiscuity in women yet permitted it in men. As James Calvert writes, the period might be remembered nostalgically as 'a land of prosperous plantations and happy Negroes' with 'cultured people who could read and write, music and literature', but 'it was actually one of the most unpleasant and hellish societies ever invented by man'. (5) Blanche, with her 'pretty dresses' and ability to reference Edgar Allan Poe, might represent a 'cultured' person, but, by failing to fulfil the chastity expected of her gender, she loses power.
That is not to say Blanche is entirely blameless. She pursues her obsessions without any concern for consequences--for herself or others. But her predicament is the result of complex factors, arising from her character and her circumstances. In his director's notebook, Kazan explains some of the contradictions thus:
Blanche is dangerous. She is destructive. She would soon have [Stanley] and Stella lighting. He's got things the way he wants them around there and he does not want them upset by aphony, corrupt, sick, destructive woman. This makes Stanley right! Are we going into the era of Stanley? He may be practical and right. [...] but what the hell does it leave us? (6)
And, as Jacob H Adler writes about the play,
What is primary is story and people as they are, as they inevitably are; what is secondary is Blanche and the others as representative of the culture-power dichotomy and the southern dilemma; what is tertiary [...] is Blanche as representative of the sensitive individual lost in the complex, impersonal modern world. (7)
This is also true of the film. It is not only Blanche who is 'lost'. Like her, Stanley inspires the viewer's ambivalence. On one hand, his refusal to be taken in by Blanche is admirable. 'If you weren't my wife's sister, I'd get ideas about you,' he says, staring Blanche in the eye. His initial loss of temper is inspired by her flirtations and fishing for compliments. After checking that Stella is outside and distracted, she asks him to close the buttons on her dress, makes eyes at him repeatedly and, holding an expensive fur to her neck, says, 'In my youth, I excited some admiration, but look at me now. Would you think it's possible I was once considered to be attractive?' She persists, in the face of Stanley's insistence that she looks 'okay' and that he doesn't 'go for that stuff', before beginning to taunt him, albeit in a calm, controlled, passive-aggressive manner. 'You're simple, straightforward and honest--a little bit on the primitive side, I should think,' she says.
However, Stanley's abuse of his power, culminating in him hitting Stella while she is pregnant, and raping Blanche, undermines the viewer's sympathies. Like Blanche, he comes to feel powerless --unable to prevent her interference in his marriage--and, consequently, forces the exercise of power through violence. Although Kazan recognises Blanche's phoniness and corruption, he also sees the rape as Stanley's 'final act in destroying her', as explained in a private letter to Charles K Feldman. Kazan writes:
The story of the latter half of this play is that Stanley doggedly hunts her down, down, down into the ground and finally makes her dirt by taking her against her will She acts to bring it on, but he does it. (8)
Ultimately, in a diversion from the original script, Kazan returns power to Stella. Having spent so much of the film mediating between Blanche and Stanley, and withdrawing from conflict, she is the star of the final scene. In the play, she goes back to Stanley, but, in the film, with her baby in her arms, she announces, 'I'm never going back, never,' before running upstairs to the neighbour's apartment, while Stanley's futile calls--the infamous screams of 'Stella! Stella!'--ring out.
Elia Kazan's film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire is best understood through the playing out of power and powerlessness, shaped by a combination of character, circumstance and class, as opposed to a reductionist study that focuses on just one way of reading. The work steers away from dichotomies --man versus woman, wealth versus poverty, romance versus sex or past versus future--instead using these oppositions as springboards to reflect Williams' summation of the play: a complex 'tragedy of misunderstanding and insensitivity to others'.
Jasmine Crittenden is a Sydney-based freelance writer whose interests include film, music, travel, sustainability and human rights. She's a senior writer at Concrete Playground, a senior writer at Music Australia, a regular contributor to Metro and Screen Education, and a member of the Australian Film Critics Association.
(1) John S Bak, 'Criticism on A Streetcar Named Desire: A Bibliographic Survey, 1947-2003', Cercles, issue 10, 2004, p. 21.
(2) Deborah G Burks, "'Treatment Is Everything": The Creation and Casting of Blanche and Stanley in Tennessee Williams' Streetcar', Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin, issue 41, 1987, p. 37
(3) Steffen Blaschke, 'A Streetcar Named Desire Play in Comparison with Movie', university essay, Philipps-Universitat Marburg, 16 September 1999, available at My Class Notes, <http://john watsonsite.com/MyClassNotes/Texts/Streetcar/SNDplay_ film.pdf>, accessed 23 June 2016.
(4) CWE Bigsby, A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-century American Drama, vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984, p. 60.
(5) James B Calvert, 'The Myth of the Antebellum South', Dr James B Calvert website, 6 April 2001, <http://mysite.du.edu/~jcalvert/ hist/south.htm>, accessed 9 June 2016.
(6) Elia Kazan, in Toby Cole & Helen Krich Chinoy (eds), Directors on Directing: A Source Book of the Modern Theatre, Macmillan, New York, 1985, p. 375.
(7) Jacob H Adler, 'Tennessee Williams' South: The Culture and the Power', in Jac Tharpe (ed.), Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 1977, p. 40.
(8) Elia Kazan, quoted in Andy Lewis, 'Elia Kazan's Private Letters: Rape, Promiscuity in A Streetcar Named Desire Defended', The Hollywood Reporter, 10 April 2014, <http://www.hollywood reporter.com/news/elia-kazans-private-letters-rape-694954>, accessed 10 June 2016.
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|Title Annotation:||FILM AS TEXT|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2016|
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