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A Streetcar Named Desire is at its surface, an undoubtedly heterosexual play. Allan Grey, its unseen gay character, makes homosexuality a seemingly marginal topic within the play. But a deeper reading of the text suggests the opposite. Tennessee Williams uses heterosexual characters as surrogates to discuss queer sexuality in a time when homosexuality was a taboo, and typically discussed through metaphor.
Allan is merely a footnote in the plot of Streetcar but thematically, he’s a vital character. Georges-Claude Guilbert explains his significance in“Queering and Dequeering the Text,” Allan fits several gay stereotypes without being “the least bit effeminate-looking.” He exemplifies gay stereotypes through the “dead queer motif, a trope commonly employed by Williams in his plays. This trope equates the lonely “poet maudit” to a “monster, freak or mad(wo)man,” and therefore queer. So although his purpose is mainly expositional, it establishes homosexuality as a presence within the text. Williams uses Allan to frame desire beyond the binary of straight men and straight women, facilitating queer interpretations of the text.
In his analysis of The House of Bernarda Alba, Juan M. Godoy explains that gay playwrights often express homosexual desire through heterosexual female characters. When I first read the article, I felt his analysis was simplistic and stereotypical. I agreed that Adela was a highly dramatic character, but she didn’t seem campy enough to be interpreted as a drag queen. Godoy’s analysis seemed like it focused more on the author’s sexuality than the text itself. But when I read A Streetcar Named Desire, I thought his analysis described Blanche perfectly. He also describes Pepe el Romano as “the character who incarnates the object of desire.” The same could be said about Stanley Kowalski. Williams doesn’t characterize Stanley as a well-rounded character. He characterizes Stanley as the embodiment of visceral sexuality; a focal point for gay men and straight women.
If there’s a woman in theatre that could be described as a drag queen, it’s Blanche Dubois. Godoy cites Susan Sontag’s explanation that while camp isn’t used “exclusively” by gay writers, it’s an “aesthetic stance” used “more often by them than others. Godoy focuses his discussion on camp around exaggeration and artifice. Tennessee Williams uses artifice and exaggeration to full effect when characterizing Blanche, which makes him a perfect example of a gay playwright using the camp aesthetic. Guilbert and Godoy make similar arguments, with Guilbert mentioning how Blanche has “often been seen” as a man in drag. Blanche’s aversion to harsh lighting and obsession over her fading youth and glamour is campy, regardless of whether she was written as a drag queen or gay man. Guilbert categorizes Streetcar as “the tragedy of the ageing queen,” another trope used extensively by Williams. To Guilbert, an ageing movie star, drag queen, and Southern Belle are all the same narrative: each have “banked on glamour, dealt in hyper-femininity for years, and find their powers of seduction faded.”
John S. Bak mentions in his analysis of A Streetcar Named Desire and M. Butterfly, that while clothing isn’t used to “signify the gayness” of Allan, it’s used instead to “construct” the identities of heterosexual characters in Streetcar. Aside from her preference for white clothing, Blanche dresses herself more like a drag queen than a Southern Belle or schoolteacher. While rifling through her luggage, Stanley pulls out “inexpensive summer furs,” fake pearl necklaces, and a rhinestone tiara. This is consistent with the camp component of artifice. Blanche desperately tries to appear upper-class but fails miserably. Even her “pretty white dress” is an example of drag. She uses it to present herself as virginal, an identity threatened by cola stains and an awareness of her past.
In “There Was Something Different About the Boy” Queer Subversion in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire,” Francisco Costa argues that “the queer subversiveness of Streetcar resides namely to a great extent in its social, political and historical context.” More realistically, it’s these social forces which forced the play to be subversive. Like Guilbert, he argues the “theme of homosexuality in Streetcar is “more crucial to the play than most critics recognize. Historical context gives additional significance to Blanche’s affair with her underage student as an indicator of homosexual themes. When Streetcar premiered, Gay men were viewed as sexual predators. And women being punished for their sexual relationships was already a common trope in literature, but this particular situation would have been especially relevant to gay audience in light of its historical context.
Blanche may pursue young men in an attempt to regain her fleeting youth, but it’s worth noting that Allan’s sexual partner was an older man. By sleeping with a high school student, Blanche switches the roles, fulfilling the desires of an older gay man. If Godoy is correct that gay writers express their sexuality through female characters, it’s no coincidence that Blanche has a preference for younger men.
But more importantly, Williams creates a parallel between straight women and gay men. Desire leads Allan and Blanche to similar destinations, suicide and a mental hospital. Both scenarios are associated with mental illness. In 1947, gay sex was a criminal act and homosexuals were considered mentally ill until 1973. At this time, Women were still lobotomized against their will. Committing Blanche to a mental institution was a powerful image, especially for gay men and straight women in the audience. They could sympathize with Blanche’s fate. Unlike Stella and Stanley, Blanche and Allan didn’t comply with the patriarchal norms of their time and were therefore punished.
Guilbert mentions the significance of the poker motif, especially through the play’s final line. “In 1947, studs rule, ‘real men’ control the game, and queers and dissolute women lose.” Williams presents poker as a masculine activity which highlights Mitch’s alterity. He stands out among the crowd of excessively masculine personalities. The other men like Stanley and Pablo are crude, but Mitch is noticeably well-mannered. He wants to go home and take care of his mother but Stanley makes fun of him, suggesting they’ll “fix [him] a sugar-tit.” Mitch can be interpreted as either a closeted homosexual or as an alternative view of heterosexual masculinity. Mitch and Allan share certain personality traits including sentimentality and an appreciation for poetry. It could be argued that neither character seems interested in women. Mitch only dates Blanche to appease his dying mother. To Guilbert, Allan reminds audiences that homosexuals “could be lurking anywhere.” Anyone, including your husband, could be gay “without you ever expecting.” Mitch’s unclear sexual orientation might serve the same purpose.
While Stella is the opposite of Blanche, Mitch is the opposite of Stanley. This parallelism might indicate that Mitch should be viewed as heterosexual, yet nonconforming in his masculine identity since the same could be said about Blanche in comparison to Stella. Mitch is also offended that Blanche kept her scandalous past a secret. He may have thought there was potential for a legitimate relationship. So it’s unclear whether he dated Blanche as a cover-up; the pressure for him to get married could have been a catalyst to date Blanche. Still, if Mitch were a closeted gay man trying to convincingly appear straight, he would probably want to date a woman his mother would find respectable. This ambiguity may have been intentional. Williams didn’t need audiences to know Mitch was gay, he may have wanted audiences to ask that question themselves.
A Streetcar Named Desire may lend itself to queer interpretation, but it would be overly simplistic to consider it a simple metaphor for homosexual desire. By focusing primarily on heterosexual characters, Tennessee Williams shows audience that gay and straight desire aren’t foreign concepts. His commentary on gender relations and sexuality transcends the social and political contexts of 1947, proving its continued relevance in the literary canon.
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