Anne Fleche - the Space of Madness and Desire

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Tennessee Williams exploits the expressionistic uses of space in the drama, attempting to represent desire from the outside, that is, in its formal challenge to realistic stability and closure, and in its exposure to risk. Loosening both stage and verbal languages from their implicit desire for closure and containment, Streetcar exposes the danger and the violence of this desire, which is always the desire for the end of desire. Writing in a period when U.S. drama was becoming disillusioned with realism, Williams achieves a critical distance from realistic technique through his use of allegory. In Blanche's line about the streetcar, the fact that she is describing real places, cars, and transfers has the surprising effect of enhancing rather than diminishing the metaphorical parallels in her language. Indeed, Streetcar's "duplicities of expression"(3) are even more striking in the light of criticism's recent renewal of interest in allegory.(4) For allegory establishes the distance "between the representative and the semantic function of language" (I89), the desire that is in language to unify (with) experience. Streetcar demonstrates the ways in which distance in the drama can be expanded and contracted, and what spatial relativism reveals about the economy of dramatic representation.

Tennessee Williams' plays, filled with allegorical
language, seem also to have a tentative, unfinished character. The metalanguage of desire seems to preclude development, to deny progress. And yet it seems "natural" to read A Streetcar Named Desire as an allegorical journey toward Blanche's apocalyptic destruction at the hands of her "executioner," Stanley. The play's violence, its baroque images of decadence and lawlessness, promise its audience the thrilling destruction of the aristocratic Southern Poe-esque moth-like neuraesthenic female "Blanche" by the ape-like brutish male from the American melting-pot. The play is full in fact of realism's developmental language of evolution, "degeneration," eugenics. Before deciding that Stanley is merely an "ape," Blanche sees him as an asset: "Oh, I guess he's just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume, but maybe he's what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Reve" (285). The surprising thing about this play is that the allegorical reading also seems to be the most "realistic" one, the reading that imposes a unity of language and experience to make structural sense of the play, that is, to make its events organic, natural, inevitable. And yet this feels false, because allegorical language resists being pinned down by realistic analysis -- it is always only half a story. But it is possible to close the gap between the language and the stage image, between the stage image and its "double" reality, by a double forgetting: first we have to forget that realism is literature, and thus already a metaphor, and then we have to forget the distance between allegory and reality. To say that realism's empiricism is indistinguishable from metaphor is to make it one with a moral, natural ordering of events. Stanley is wrong and Blanche is right, the moralists agree. But the hypocrisy of the "priggish" reading is soon revealed in its ambivalence toward Blanche/Stanley: to order events sequentially requires a reading that finds Blanche's rape inevitable, a condition of the formal structure: she is the erring woman who gets what she "asks" for (her realistic antecedents are clear). For the prigs this outcome might not be unthinkable, though it might be -- what is worse -- distasteful. But Williams seems deliberately to be making interpretation a problem: he doesn't exclude the prigs' reading, he invites it. What makes Streetcar different from Williams' earlier play The Glass Menagerie (I944)(5) is its constant self-betrayal into and out of analytical norms. The realistic set-ups in this play really feel like set-ups, a magician's tricks,...
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