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“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This timeless saying embodies the ability of imagery to convey multiple messages and themes in an overarching structure. Through detailed nuance, the playwright Tennessee Williams utilizes the imagery found in his characters’ actions and settings to surpass the limitations of explicit narration. His technique is especially useful for depictions that are multifaceted in nature and require subtle progression. When portraying the human psyche, such techniques give remarkable depth to characters and their development throughout a story. Through recurring patterns in scenes, dialogue, and the general tendencies of his characters, Williams is able to outline a psychological breakdown that not only avoids being superficial, but is also stimulating to the audience. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams uses music, lights, and dialogue to illustrate Blanche DuBois’ dependence on illusion and her descent into madness.
Often, music is used as a relief to trauma. Williams contradicts this tendency by using music to usher in tense scenes. In one scene, Blanche DuBois reveals the importance of a recurring tune – the Varsouviana: “The ‘Varsouviana’! The polka tune they were playing when Allan – Wait! [A distant revolver shot is heard. Blanche seems relieved.] There now, the shot! It always stops after that.” (Williams 141). The Varsouviana signals moments of discomfort, despair, and anxiety for DuBois. It is the prodromal tie to DuBois’ deteriorating mental state. As mentioned, this polka was playing when Allan Grey committed suicide. DuBois feels immense guilt in regard to her late husband’s death. Because of this, the tune indicates death and impending disaster. The polka music acts as a foundation for DuBois’ relationship to tragedy and skewed mental state. Music also represents Blanche’s dysfunctional need for reassurance. While Stella and Stanley are arguing, Blanche, completely oblivious, sings during a habitual bath:
BLANCHE [singing blithely]: “Say, it’s only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea – But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me…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…”
“Without your love,
It’s a honky-tonk parade!
Without your love,
It’s a melody played In a penny arcade…” (Williams 120-121)
Williams’ choice of the song “It’s Only a Paper Moon” is not accidental. Although Blanche sings the lyrics with lightheartedness, her lyrical choice and purposeful omission shows her emphasis on staying in her fantasy world. Further, to remain in her delusion, Blanche needs to feel some sense of adoration from others. The “honky-tonk parade” and the “penny arcade” represent DuBois’ view of her own reality; it is cheap, tacky, and gaudy. Williams purposely omits some lyrics and left only those necessary to convey the delusion. Williams uses music as a canvas and vehicle to illustrate Blanche DuBois’ psychosis.
Another recurring pattern in A Streetcar Named Desire is DuBois’ avoidance of bright lights. In one scene, DuBois demands the cessation of the light in order to protect her image: “And turn that over-light off! Turn that off! I won’t be looked at in this merciless glare” (Williams 120). For DuBois, light eradicates the darkness of her illusion. Light represents inescapable truth and figuratively illuminates DuBois’ reality. When threatened with her unsavory situation, DuBois retreats into darkness and thus fantasy. In essence, she cannot handle or cope with the truth. The reason for this weakness is revealed when Blanche discusses the repercussions of her late husband death: “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 that’s stronger than this – kitchen – candle.” (Williams 115). When Allan dies, something in Blanche dies as well. She ties her loss to the loss of light. Thus, she hides from lights, not only because they expose the truth, but because she no longer has a light, internally or externally, that is comparable. Her aversion comes to a climax when Mitch threatens to turn on the lights: “And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! – Don’t turn the light on! […He turns the light on…she cries out and covers her face.]” (Williams 145). This shows DuBois’ extreme aversion to light. In her statement, she refers to her tendency to lie and argues that she has no regrets in doing so. Her avoidance of light and truth shows DuBois’ dependence on denial and deception. Blanche has descended so far into her fantasy word that she cannot bear any representation of truth, in this case, light. For Blanche DuBois, light present a clarification of her world and this, she cannot handle.
For many, living in a fantasy world offers a false sense of security. For DuBois, her delusion poses a crutch that she relies on to walk through her life. Early in the play, DuBois hints at her tendency to obscure the truth: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.” (Williams 60). To DuBois, truth is an insult or “put-down.”; it literally disgusts her. Due to her particular associations with light, Blanche treats luminous objects with contempt. When exposed to light, DuBois’ sense of self-worth and security is dismantled. Truth without embellishment is derisive. To maintain her coping, rather than make an internal change, Blanche alters the external appearance of things in a way that makes them more palatable. Despite the consistency of her lies, when cornered Blanche DuBois reveals that, on some level, she is quite aware of truth and her tendency to deceive: “I don’t want realism. I want magic…I try to give that to people…I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be truth.” (Williams 145) DuBois needs the option of fantasy. She needs to believe that the world is kinder and prettier than it is actually. Through her alterations of the truth, Blanche forces the world to be as beautiful as she wants it to be. This particular relationship foreshadows Blanche’s inevitable descent into madness when those securities are removed. She cannot live in fantasy forever. When DuBois is led away by the doctor, her mental state is completely dissolved and she succumbs to her own madness: “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” (Williams 178). When faced with the choice of embracing reality or remaining in fantasy, DuBois chooses the latter and her mental state degenerates. In this scene, DuBois is forced to acknowledge her circumstances and as a result, declines. Her impending placement into a mental institution simply reinforces the sanctuary of her mind. She fully submits into her delusions. She now finds herself in a world where reality and illusion are one.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’ use of music, lights, and dialogue illustrate Blanche DuBois’ addiction to illusion and her fall into madness. In the play, music provides both a background to DuBois’ trauma, develops the scenic mood, and reveals much of the protagonist’s coping mechanism. Its antithesis – bright lights – attempts to expose those things in life that DuBois desires to conceal. In response, DuBois actively lives in shadows of illusion through her clouded perception. With each obstacle, Blanche’s need for fantasy increases to the point where she no longer can perceive the difference between fantasy and reality.
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