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    An Analysis of the General Structure of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, a Play by Tennessee Williams

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    The playwright, Tennessee Williams, achieves many different effects with the structure of A Streetcar Named Desire. Firstly, I will discuss how the general structure of the play (the layout and positioning of the scenes) affects the reader. I will also explore why it is structured the way it is – eleven scenes with no act divisions. Secondly I will explore the character of Blanche and her relationships with other characters, and how she contributes to the structure of the play.

    Thirdly I will explore Tennessee William’s own thoughts on what makes up a play, and how his own life experiences perhaps contributed to the structural elements of Streetcar. I will then explore the structural relationship Streetcar has with classical tragedy, and how Aristotle influenced certain structural elements. I will also explore Tennessee’s controversial attitude to writing and structuring his plays; he goes against any common structure in theatre used at the time – two acts with distinctive and progressive scenes – compared to Streetcar being split into eleven scenes, and one act.

    I will also discuss further Tennessee’s fascination with realism and ‘plastic theatre’, and how it relates to the structure of his plays (a term he created, and an idea he believed would launch a new type of theatre), where equal value was given to the non-literary elements of stage production and the literary text. Williams desired a form of drama that was more than just a picture of reality: he insisted that theatre should make use of all the stage arts to generate a theatrical experience greater than mere ‘realism’. This was an idea he worked on early on in his career, especially when he was writing his first play ‘A Glass Menagerie’, where ‘plastic theatre’ was introduced.

    Firstly, I will explore and analyze the general structure of A Streetcar Named Desire, and what affects this has on the reader. Streetcar is split into eleven scenes, with no acts to separate them – it has been described as being ‘eleven one act plays united by a purpose’, because each scene is so elaborate and perfectly structured it is as if each scene is a stand alone play. This description suggests each scene describes one situation or deals with one event fully enough for it to stand alone: with an exposition, a crisis and some kind of resolution.

    For instance, in Scene 1, we are introduced to Blanche; she seems to cause a disruption in the Kowalski household (the contrast of Blanche’s Southern Belle attitudes with Stanley’s working class manners). The scene then ends with a climax, as each scene in the play always does: Blanche is sick, when she remembers her dead husband, Allan Grey.

    This is an interesting cliff-hanger to end the scene, and the use of gesture adheres to Tennessee’s idea of giving equal measure to the non-literary elements of the play; Blanche’s action of “her head” falling “on her arms” (as it says in the stage directions) almost hints towards her foreseeable downfall at the end of the play, which is caused by Stanley – he initially poses the question “You were married once, weren’t you?”, suggesting it will be Stanley who is the reason for Blanche’s destruction. The effect of the climaxes at the end of scenes is that a sense of a conclusion is created, as if a ‘mini-playlet’ has drawn to a close. The scenes are also in place not only to break up the action, but also to suggest time passing; the action of the play takes place over a period of some months.

    The first six scenes stretch over the first few days of Blanche’s visit, and then in Scene 7 move abruptly to mid-September when Scenes 7-10 take place within one day. The last scene then takes place a few weeks later. These distinct lengths of time passing are confirmed in the stage directions at the beginning of each scene. As well as time passing, a new scene could be in place due to a change of location or even mood.

    For example the input of Scene II after Scene I is due to a change of location and mood; it is “6 o’clock the following evening”, Blanche is “bathing” and the mood is of a great contrast compared to the end of Scene I – an air of calm, normal life and almost security has been created. There is a clear chronological progression of events between the three ‘groups’ of scenes, with each group having a noticeably different mood, almost as if the play were split into three acts. Tennessee’s previous experience of working in the film industry, being a screenwriter, could also be a reason for this controversial structure.

    Writing for the cinema rather than the theatre requires the dramatist to think in terms of a sustained sequence, with small ‘scenes’ or ‘events’ coming together to form a large collection of shots, creating a piece of cinema. It is also interesting to note that Williams’ managed to transfer his plays into films with great success – A Streetcar Named Desire being a great example. The structure of the play departs from the well-established theatrical practice in having no act divisions and the layout of the eleven scenes progressing without being broken up into acts is appropriate as it suggests the relentless movement towards Blanche’s final catastrophe.

    There are recurring themes and motifs throughout the play that give the play structure and add to its meaning. The fact that each scene contains enough information to make its action comprehensible means that certain elements recur throughout the play – the story of Blanche’s past being a great example of this. In the first scene, the topic of Blanche’s marriage is faintly suggested as being something prominent in the play, as the mention of it causes her to be sick; this idea is accompanied by “the music of the polka” which “rises up, faint in the distance”.

    In Scene II, the referencing to her dead husband is part of an argument with Stanley, when he is trying to find the “legal papers” that are supposedly connected “with the plantation”, at Belle Reve. The papers turn out to be poems that were sent between Blanche and her lover, Allan Grey, and this argument with Stanley reveals a possible sense of guilt felt by Blanche; the mentioning of the papers being “poems a dead boy wrote” and “I hurt him the way you would like to hurt me”.

    As well as suggesting a sense of guilt, this introduces a sense of foreboding; Stanley would indeed like to hurt Blanche, and this foreshadows to the end of the play when he subsequently rapes her, and Stanley says they “had this date from the beginning”, which is, of course, true. Later on in the play, in Scene 6, the boy is mentioned again; when Blanche is recounting the night he died. The polka music sounds again, in a “minor key”, and then stops abruptly after a gunshot is heard, symbolising the suicide of Allan Grey, bringing Blanche instantly back to reality.

    It then later resumes in a major key – possibly for dramatic contrast, or to show that she is starting to move on. The polka music became a part of that scene, playing alongside Blanche’s description of the marriage and destruction of Allan Grey, and her “first discovery of love”, giving it more meaning and making it more ominous thanks to the polka music playing again. A sense of foreboding is also created, with certain leitmotifs permeating the play.

    An example of this is Blanche’s hydrotherapy – her constant attempts of washing ‘her sins away’, and being forever cleansed and presentable in front of Stanley. This ‘purification’, taking place in what seems to be the only private area and place of ‘retreat’ in the apartment, is a ritual whereby Blanche tries to forget her past. The reader knows she will never really wash away her past, as her impending doom is constantly suggested with the leitmotif of Allan Grey and her past.

    Throughout the play, each reference to the short-lived marriage seems to strip away a layer of Blanche’s ‘façade’, which is protecting her from reality. This is until she is finally stripped from this protection, and left vulnerable and exposed in the glare of the un-shaded light, of which Mitch removed the “Chinese lantern” prop. This seems to be the turning point of the play, and the beginning of her downfall to destruction. When Mitch rejects Blanche’s true self, she has no choice but to retreat into an enclosed world of her dreams, causing her ‘madness’ to set in.

    Secondly, I will analyze Blanche’s part in the play as a structural element, and how her relationships with other characters relates to the structure of Streetcar. The play seems to revolve around Blanche, and ‘the game’ that goes on between her and Stanley. The confrontations between them are a big part of the play, which builds up to Stanley raping her. The clashing of the two diverse worlds, and Stanley’s working class background consequently winning, leads to Blanche’s downfall.

    An example of this is Blanche’s maladaptive behavior when she arrives in New Orleans. Her constant Southern Belle attitude – constantly worrying about her appearance, constant polite behavior – compared to Stanley’s animalistic physicality: “stalking across the room” and being the “gaudy seed bearer”, leads to Stanley being the dominant character in their relationship. Stanley recognizes Blanche as a potentially dangerous ‘invader’ to his territory – New Orleans – and he cannot accept her as a part of his community.

    He almost makes it his ‘goal’ to destroy her – the impossibility of the arrangement between the Southern Belle that is Blanche, in her “white suit with a fluffy bodice” and the ‘fine specimen’ that is Stanley: a “richly feathered male bird among hens”, leads to Stanley raping her. Blanche seems to be the ‘organizing factor’ of the play: the action revolves around her. The play begins with her arrival and ends as she is led away to the mental hospital – Blanche seems to be at the center of the reader or viewers attention throughout the play. She appears in every scene, and if you glance at the eleven scenes you will notice that the final climax of each scene more often than not centers on her.

    As Blanche is the focus of the play it is unsurprising that many of the key symbols revolve around her: the Chinese lantern; the Varsouviana; the streetcar with its inescapable headlong rush towards doom; the Mexican flower seller in Scene 9 who is a portent of death, and the continual bathing indicative both of a desire to wash her self clean of the guilt she feels for her husband’s death and a wish to purify herself of her seedy sexual history.

    The description of Blanche’s arrival mirrors not only the process of her destruction, but could also symbolize the structure of the play. Blanche being told to “take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries” and to then “get off at – Elysian Fields!” almost describes the path she will take to her demise: she takes the “streetcar named Desire” by having “intimacies with strangers”, which leads her to Stella and ultimately Stanley, where she gets raped. Her desire and eroticism will lead her to “Cemeteries”, obviously meaning death.

    The “Elysian Fields” mentioned could suggest paradise after death (heaven), or could relate to the madness she will experience in which she escapes from reality to try and flee to a ‘paradise’ where no one could hurt her. It could also be ironic as Blanche assumes Elysian Fields, where Stella lives, would be paradise, but it is far from it (according to Blanche).

    This description of her journey also mirrors the structure of the play: her arrival, taking the “Streetcar named desire”, where the sexual relationship between her and Stanley is instigated from the beginning, and then “transferring to Cemeteries”, where her destruction takes place (the rape), and then finally arriving at “Elysian Fields”, her madness. This simple idea adds to the sense of inevitability and foreboding of Blanche’s destruction; the streetcar will always arrive at its destination, just as Blanche will always reach her destination: her tragic destruction.

    Thirdly, I will analyze Tennessee’s own thoughts on the structure and elements of a play, and the similarities the structure of Streetcar has with classical tragedy. In the afterword of Camino Real, Tennessee says that “the colour, the grace and levitation, the structural pattern in motion, the quick interplay of live beings, suspended like fitful lightning in a cloud, these things are the play, not words on paper, nor thoughts and ideas of an author, those shabby things snatched off of the basement counters at Gimbel’s”. He means that watching the play live, with the “structural pattern in motion” and the “interplay of live beings” is where the true meaning of the play will be revealed: where the characters come to life and the structural pattern displayed.

    Although these elements seem to make sense to you when you read the play, plays are meant for “seeing and feeling”, and experiencing what Tennessee describes as the “incontinent blaze of live theatre”. He goes on to say, in his afterword, that the printed script of a play is “hardly more than an architect’s blueprint of a house not yet built or built and destroyed”, meaning you have to watch a play to genuinely feel its true purpose and hear and see the music and scenes that were initially in your head.

    This relates to A Streetcar Named Desire in the sense that the structure of the play, starting with the arrival of Blanche and ending with her downfall, can be seen more vividly in live theatre especially with the use of ‘plastic theatre’ – the props, music and stage directions that the reader can only imagine can be truly experienced by the viewer, making Blanche’s destruction all the more realistic and tragic.

    Streetcar does have similarities with classical tragedy, in particular Greek tragedy, where Aristotle derived the three ‘unities’ – the unity of place (the setting should remain the same throughout the play), time (the action of the play should take place within twenty-four hours) and action (the play should center around the main characters, with no sub-plots, and there must be a satisfying ending). The three ‘unities’ were considered ‘rules’ that playwrights must adhere to. Even in Streetcar, the unities of action and place are both deemed ‘correct’.

    The first thing to notice is the unity of place, with the entire action taking place in the Kowalskis’ apartment, or outside it. The action remains centered around the tragically intertwined lives of Stella, Blanche, Mitch and Stanley and it is only the time of the play that stretches over several months, starting in May, reaching its climax in September, with the tragic aftermath happening some weeks later.

    By having the characters confined to Stanley and Stella’s cramp apartment, and its immediate surroundings (they do not travel to Laurel, for instance), apart from following the ‘rules’ laid down by Aristotle, Tennessee is also drawing attention to the fact that Streetcar explores the theme of a humans animalistic need to secure a territory or home, and defend itself against intruders. This idea relates perfectly to Blanche travelling from Laurel, and ‘intruding’ into Stanley’s territory. Stanley then makes it his ‘goal’ to intrude her ‘territory’: revealing information about Laurel and her past, and subsequently raping her.

    By having Streetcar conform to these traditional rules of classical tragedy, yet having Tennessee push the boundaries with the controversial structure of the eleven-scene play with no acts, shows Tennessee’s desire for change, but also his limitations where he feels as though he should conform to these traditional ‘rules’ of scriptwriting. In some sense this could relate to his personal life: being a gay man in a society where homosexuality was illegal, he wants to constantly break these rules and be rebellious, yet is restrained by society and forced to conform with what was the law at the time.

    In conclusion, Tennessee Williams creates multiple effects with the structure of A Streetcar Named Desire. A sense of foreboding is created from the beginning, with the confrontations between Blanche and Stanley. The leitmotifs permeating the play add structure and meaning to it by introducing different themes – the ritual of Blanche washing herself introduces a theme of purification and escape from the past, and the repeated mentioning of Blanche’s past introduces the theme of homosexuality but also youthfulness, sex and guilt.

    Tennessee’s obsession with escaping from reality is expressed through the character of Blanche, who is such a prominent character she becomes part of the structure of the play – appearing at the climax of every scene, or ‘one act play’, the play seems to revolve around her. The idea of Streetcar being a collection of one-act plays is interesting, as it relates to Tennessee’s time working in cinema.

    Music also plays a big part in the structure of the play, and the use of the polka music throughout the play could also relate to Tennessee’s experience in the film industry; the repetition of musical motifs played alongside certain characters is used in film to help the audience members connect a certain theme or mood with characters; in this case it is the polka music played when Blanche is recounting her brief marriage with Allan Grey, and its tragic end.

    The concise structure of A Streetcar Named Desire gives the play a deeper meaning and makes the inevitably tragic end all the more unbearable for both the audience and the reader. Although, a play that is simply read and not experienced is, according to Tennessee Williams: “only the shadow of a play, and not even a clear shadow”.

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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    An Analysis of the General Structure of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, a Play by Tennessee Williams. (2023, Mar 12). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/an-analysis-of-the-general-structure-of-a-streetcar-named-desire-a-play-by-tennessee-williams/

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