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In Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire, the nature of theatricality, “magic,” and “realism,” all stem from the tragic character, Blanche DuBois. Blanche is both a theatricalizing and self-theatricalizing woman. She lies to herself as well as to others in order to recreate the world as it should be—in line with her high-minded sensibilities. To that extent, much of her creations arise from a longing for the past, nostalgia for her lost love, her dignity, and her purpose in life. She is haunted by the ghosts of what she has lost, and the genteel society of her Belle Reve, her own beautiful dream. Blanche arrives at Stella’s doorstep with, essentially, a trunk full of costumes from her past. She is intensely self-conscious and a performer in the utmost sense. We meet Blanche at a point in her life where few, if any, of her actions do not seem contrived or performed to some extent.
In Scene 3 of Act I, she produces a small performance for her suitor, Mitch, in her efforts to seduce him. She turns on the radio for soundtrack, directs Mitch to “…turn on the light above now!” and exclaims, “Oh, look! We’ve made enchantment (39)!” as she dances away as the self-cast star of the impromptu performance. Stella applauds from the sidelines as her audience, and Mitch sings and sways to the music. This caricature of a production is repeated in Scene 1 of Act II, where Blanche assigns roles to others as well. With her slightly unwilling newspaper collector, she attempts to set the mood as narrator of sorts. While he answers her request for the time promptly, Blanche chooses to meander into a dreamy digression—“So late? Don’t you just love these long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour—but a little bit of eternity dropped in your hands—and who knows what to do with it (59)?” After she drapes herself in a gossamer scarf from her costume-like trunk, she directs the boy across the stage of her room to receive a kiss before his exit. Mitch’s immediately following entrance with an “absurd little bunch of flowers” further emphasizes the surreal, parody quality of this exaggerated production. “Bow to me first!” she orders adamantly, “And now present them!” Blanche’s deep curtsy and melodramatically affected, “Ahhh! Merciiii!” give this scene a profoundly self-aware sense of the theatrical. Stanley himself indulges in theatricality at the end, when he dons his wedding night silk pyjamas to celebrate alongside Blanche, who is clad in her tiara and “fine feathers.” Commenting on their mutual costuming, Stanley acquiesces, “I guess we are both entitled to put on the dog! You having an oil millionaire, and me having a baby (90)!” However, Stanley’s reason for celebration is grounded in reality (Stella is giving birth in a nearby hospital), and Blanche’s reason is pure fantasy.
Streetcar is filled with such instances in which audience and performer are one. The play has been seen by many as postmodernist in this deconstruction of the self. There is no true self—just performances projected out into the world in endless recursivity. In her final confrontation with Mitch, Blanche comes to terms with her deceitfulness. “I don’t want realism. I want—magic! …I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that’s a sin, then let me be damned for it! Don’t turn the light on (84)!”
Much of Blanche’s fabrications result from an acute awareness of sexual double-standards she tries to offset—disadvantages that Williams himself was very attuned to as a homosexual writer. Blanche lies primarily to manipulate her circumstances to better suit her feminine agenda, explaining to Mitch that she refuses to accept the hand fate has dealt her. Streetcar is, at heart, a work of social realism. Blanche’s need to alter reality through fantasy is partly an indictment of the failure of modernity for women, a critique of the social institutions and postwar attitude of America that so restricted their lives.
Blanche lies about her age because she views it as another setback of reality. She puts on an act of propriety for Mitch as well, to better fit the role of a desirable, acceptable woman. As she confesses to Stella, “I want [Mitch’s] respect. But…men lose interest quickly. Especially when the girl is over—thirty…of course, he—he doesn’t know—I mean I haven’t informed him—of my real age (57)!” When Stella asks why she is so sensitive about her age, Blanche responds, “Because of the hard knocks my vanity’s been given. What I mean is—he thinks I’m sort of—prim and proper, you know! I want to deceive him just enough to make him—want me…” Blanche’s creation of magic is borne of a necessity to cope with and survive reality. Her complete dependence on men blurs her distinction between survival and marriage, and instead she associates Mitch with precious reprieve. When Stella asks Blanche if she even wants Mitch (after Blanche’s rambles of wanting Mitch to want her), Blanche’s response is very telling: “I want to rest! I want to breathe quietly again! Yes—I want Mitch…Just think! If it happens! I can leave here and not be anyone’s problem…” Her desperate obsession with securing Mitch’s desires glosses over the fact that she likely does not desire Mitch for who he is, only what he represents. Their differences are jarring, and his bumbling and boorish nature falls far from her romantic ideals. This is sadly reminiscent of her impossible love for her closeted husband, Allan Gray—that is, love of an image she created. The role she created for her first love proved ultimately unreal and irreconcilable with his true identity.
In her present desperation, Mitch represents a sort of emancipation to Blanche, who is incapable of seeing around her dependence on men for financial and social sustenance. This limiting view deprives her of any realistic conception of how to rescue herself, and further deludes the logic of her world and secures her downfall. Her obsession with her own sense of mortality stems from her inability to see life outside of marriage—a life of solitude to her is synonymous to destitution, social death, and essentially, the end of life as she knows it. One has an image of Blanche drowning, struggling to stay afloat, and her growing exhaustion from keeping up pretenses is ominous, marking a looming deadline for the tragic heroine. “It isn’t enough to be soft—you’ve got to be soft and attractive—and I’m fading now. I don’t know how much longer I can turn the trick (56).”
Throughout the play, Blanche also avoids appearing in direct, bright light as part of maintaining her painstakingly constructed image. She especially avoids light in front of Mitch so that he doesn’t see the reality of her fading beauty, refusing to go on dates with him in the daytime or to well-lit locations. She also covers the light in the Kowalski apartment with a Chinese paper lantern when she arrives. Light also symbolizes the reality of Blanche’s past, and her inability to tolerate it foreshadows her increasing inability to tolerate reality as well.
Blanche describes being in love with Allan Gray as having the world suddenly revealed by a blinding, vivid light. Since his suicide, the bright light has been missing—“And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light stronger than this kitchen candle (68)…” The bright light reflects Blanche’s greater acceptance of reality back then, as well as her youthful sexual innocence. In the aftermath of Allan’s death, she has experienced only dim light through inconsequential sexual affairs with other men, which represents her sexual maturity and disillusionment.
These sexual experiences have made Blanche an increasingly hysterical woman, and her frequent need to bathe herself is another form of employing fantasy, in that they symbolically cleanse Blanche of her illicit past. Just as she can never fully erase or recreate the past, Blanche’s bathing is never finished. This use of water to undo a misdeed is turned upon Stanley as well, whose violent temper is soothed by the shower after he beats Stella, rendering him remorseful and longing for his wife. However, Stanley’s use of water doesn’t serve to alter reality to the same extent. This disparity in usage is seen in their use of alcohol as well. Stanley and Blanche both drink excessively in the play, though Stanley’s drinking is social and Blanche’s is antisocial. Blanche drinks on the sly in order to withdraw from reality, and her drunken stupors allow her imagination to take flight, e.g. concocting fantasies of escaping with Shep Huntleigh. While Stanley can rebound from his drunken escapades, Blanche further deludes herself and sinks into greater departures from sanity.
Williams dramatizes fantasy’s inability to overcome reality through the antagonistic relationship between Stanley and Blanche, which is symbolic of the overarching struggle between appearances and reality. This struggle drives the plot, and establishes a tension that is ultimately resolved with Blanche’s failure to recreate her own and Stella’s existences.
Stanley’s disdain of Blanche’s fabrications stem from being a practical man firmly grounded in the physical world, and he does everything he can to unravel her lies. However, one soon realizes Blanche and her fantasies are one and the same—the more Stanley succeeds at unraveling her made-up world, the more he unravels Blanche herself—ultimately to insanity. As Blanche gradually fails at rejuvenating her own life and saving Stella from a life with Stanley, her nerves make her increasingly hysterical over the more minor upsets, and the smallest of setbacks seems insurmountable. It is interesting to note that her final struggle with Stanley is also a physical one in which he rapes her, causing Blanche to retreat entirely into her own world. Whereas she originally colors her perception of reality according to her wishes, at this point in the play, Blanche ignores reality altogether.
The play also explores the boundary between the exterior and interior through use of the set. The flexible set allows the surrounding street to be seen at the same time as the interior of the Kowalski apartment, expressing the notion that the home is not a domestic sanctuary. Blanche cannot escape from her past in Stella and Stanley’s home because it is not a self-defined world, impermeable to greater reality. The characters often bring into the apartment issues and problems encountered in the larger environment, such as Blanche bringing her prejudices against the working class. The back wall of the apartment also becomes transparent at various points in the play to show what is happening on the street. A notable instance of this is just before Stanley rapes Blanche, and the struggles on the street are shown to foreshadow the violation about to occur within the home.
Although reality ultimately triumphs over fantasy in Streetcar, Williams suggests through Blanche’s final, deluded happiness, that fantasy is an important and useful tool, a vital force which colors every individual experience, despite the inevitable triumph of objective reality. At the end of the play, Blanche’s retreat into her own private fantasies enables her to partially shield herself from reality’s harsh blows. Her sensitive nature is seen in her reproach to Mitch, “I thanked God for you, because you seemed to be gentle—a cleft in the rock of the world that I could hide in (85)!” To Blanche, the world is hard, cold, and unfriendly like the rock, and she is unable to face its indifference directly.
Blanche’s insanity emerges as she retreats fully into herself, leaving the objective world behind in order to avoid accepting reality. In order to escape fully, Blanche must come to perceive the exterior world as that which she imagines in her mind. When Mitch accuses Blanche of lying to him toward the end, she answers, “Never inside. I didn’t lie in my heart (85).” Thus, objective reality is not an antidote to Blanche’s fantasy world; rather, Blanche adapts the exterior world to fit her delusions.
In Scene Seven, Blanche sings the popular ballad, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” while she bathes. The lyrics of the song reflect Blanche’s fantastical understanding of herself and her approach to life:
“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me.”
Similarly, Blanche views her fibs as harmless and as a means of enjoying a better way of life, requiring only her object of devotion to believe in this imagined reality as well. Williams ironically juxtaposes her bathroom singing with Stanley’s revelation of her sexually corrupt past to Stella in the room outside. Here, even within the domestic set, these fantasies cannot be compartmentalized effectively. Though the bathroom houses a temporary reprieve from reality, the boundary between fantasy and reality is essentially permeable on all levels—in both the physical and psychological realms, between the apartment and the street, and within the two-room apartment as well.
While fantasy and theatricality begin with Blanche, they do not end with her departure in the play. As Blanche leaves with the doctor, Stella is still living in denial. “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley!” she tells Eunice beforehand. Stella chooses to live with herself and Stanley by telling herself a much greater lie than any ever concocted by her sister. The necessity of fantasy in handling reality is reinforced a final time, as Eunice assures Stella, “Don’t you ever believe it. You’ve got to keep on goin’, honey. No matter what happens, we’ve all got to keep on going.”
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