A Streetcar Named Desire: Tennessee Williams's Background

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Tennessee Williams’ Background to

A Streetcar Named Desire

• From an early age, Williams used writing as “an escape from a world of reality in which [he] felt acutely uncomfortable”.

• He wrote about the human condition as he saw it; unafraid to tackle topics such as incest, rape and madness.

• He believed that “we are all savages at heart”. Which of the characters in Streetcar prove or disprove this?

• He lived in New Orleans from 1938, a bohemian place where all manner of behaviour was tolerated, if not encouraged. It was here that he was inspired to create Streetcar. It is said that he saw, on the Vieux Carré, two streetcars. One was named “Desire” and the other “Cemetery” – which he thought was somehow symbolic of life itself.

• We find, in this play, an implicit condemnation of homosexual behaviour. Was this his attempt to pacify those who disagreed with homosexuality or influenced by the fact that he was a homosexual but extremely uncomfortable with his sexuality?

• He also has a preoccupation with physical ugliness and the inevitability of death. He suffered a crisis in 1946 when he believed, incorrectly, that he was suffering from incurable cancer. Is this why Blanche is so afraid of the light?

• His sister Rose suffered a breakdown in 1937 and was admitted to a mental hospital and, not long afterwards, she was lobotomised. Williams suffered from depression throughout his life and lived in fear that he too would go insane.

• In the mid-twentieth century, Americans were fascinated and charmed by the idea of the South, a place they associated with a landed elite in elegant houses, flaunting their inherited wealth and studied gentility. For Williams, the South stood for strong cultural values whilst the North was greedy and sordid. Thus we can see that Blanche and Stanley are opposites.

• Williams was influenced not only by American drama, including that of the South, but also by European culture. Like Ibsen and Miller, he increases dramatic tension through revealing to the audience the degree to which the characters’ self image is pretence. The climax comes when the character is forced to confront both the past and the present simultaneously, either acknowledging their actions and dealing with the consequences or retreating further into pretence, even madness.

• Williams’ greatest dramatic influence was the brilliant Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Chekhov, with his elegant juxtaposition of the humorous and the tragic, his lonely characters, and his dark sensibilities, was a powerful inspiration for Tennessee Williams' work.

• Another European writer who influenced Williams was D. H. Lawrence, who offered Williams a depiction of sexuality as a potent force of life in novels such as The Rainbow, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover


Context of the author:

➢ Williams is thought to have been able to identify with a fragility and vulnerability in women and once said: I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created. ➢ He found examples of universal experience in the fringes of acceptable behaviour – maybe this relates to his personal experiences.

Dramatic / Theatrical context:

➢ Find out about plastic theatre (aka ‘sculptural drama’). You should also be able to discuss at least one film version of the play, preferably the one directed by Elia Kazan starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. Kazan had previously directed the stage version of the play with Williams’ close involvement. ➢ As the Twentieth Century dawned, so too did a distinct Southern Literature. Writers’ fascination with the past began to turn towards the economic decay symbolised by the decaying beauty of the plantations (see Belle Reve). ➢ In the 1920s, playwrights were looking at the behaviour of the...
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