Following the loss of the family estate, Belle Reve (beautiful dream), Blanche DuBois comes to stay with her sister, Stella, who lives in a seedy two room New Orleans apartment with ex-WWII officer turned salesman, Stanley Kowalski, an American of Polish descent. There is immediate sexual tension between Blanche and Stanley; at the same time Stanley resents Blanche's superiority and suspects her of trying to cheat him of the proceeds from the sale of Belle Reve; he thinks her jewels are real and he dislikes her sponging off her sister.
There is violence. On poker night, when the men are the studs and shoot the bull and "one-eyed Jacks are wild", Stanley and Stella and Blanche fight over the radio which Stanley breaks, he hits Stella and Blanche, horrified, takes Stella to a neighbour. Later Stella returns to Stanley, telling Blanche that these little spats don't matter: Stella and Stanley are very much in love and, following a scene where Blanche does all she can to run Stanley down, as Stanley eavesdrops, Stella declares her love and, when Stanley enters, embraces him in view of Blanche.
Domestic violence is reiterated when the neighbour's husband fights with her and she flees him; she too goes back to him after a few minutes.
Blanche is setting out to attract Mitch, the only unattached male in the poker group, who lives with his mum, and he is coming to her birthday party, but Stanley has found out about Blanche's past and tells Mitch, an old wartime buddy, so Mitch tells Blanche he doesn't mind fooling around with her but she won't be good enough for his mother. Blanche's history includes an early elopement with a poet whom she later found in bed with another man; her husband shot himself when she told him how he disgusted her. Subsequently she has had casual liaisons while living in a hotel (it sounds as if she is almost a prostitute; when flirting with Mitch she tells him she will be La Dame Aux Camellias, the eponymous courtesan in the Dumas book, and asks him "Voulez vous couchez avec moi ce soir?" but he doesn't understand French) and got sacked from her schoolteacher job after an indiscretion with a seventeen year old boy.
There are some wonderful things about this play. It simmers with sexual tension, especially in the poker scenes; Stasnley keeps taking hius shirt off and the men all wear bright primary colours, including for Stanley silk pyjamas. Williams uses the street life outside the flat to great effect, including a Mexican flower seller calling out "Flores por los muertes" (flowers for the dead) and the noise of a train which emphasises the impending doom. He also uses polka music (first in a minor key, then in a major key) when Blanche is remembering how her husband killed himself; the music is playing in Blanche's mind and signals her growing madness. The incidental music also includes jazz and a blue piano; Williams is using stage directions to underlines the action on the stage.
Stanley and Blanche are wonderful characters and the play is heavy with their class warfare and their sexual tension even though Stella, Blanche's sister, is Stanley's wife and having his baby. There are some stonking lines including Stanley explaining why he isn't polite around women:
- "I never met a women that didn't know if she was good-looking or not without being told, and some of them give themselves credit for more than they've got."
- "A shot never does a coke any harm!"
- "I like to wait on you, Blanche. It makes it seem more like home."
- "Haven't you ever ridden on that streetcar?" [the one named Desire]
- "Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.": Blanche's last line
- [The final line, spoken by a poker player]: "This game is seven-card stud."
I have just watched (23rd May 2020) the National Theatre Young Vic 2014 production starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche, Ben Foster as Stanley, Vanessa Kirby as Stella and Corey Johnson as Mitch. It was broadcast as part of the NT at Home season in which the NT are streating us to some of their back catalogue during the Coronavirus lockdown. And what a treat this was. Stellar performances from each of the four leads and great support from the rest of the cast. The thing about this play is that it keeps on punching you. Just when you think that must the the climax, it winds up again to an even bigger one.
This must have been a shock when it was first performed on Broadway in December 1947. The depiction of raw working class lives, the resentment of Stanley about being called a Polack, the domestic abuse and the tempestuous marriage between Stanley and Stella, and the gradual descent into madness of Blanche symbolising the descent into chaos of the old Southern plantation way of life must have been a red rag to a bull to most of the USA, recovering from a war, sliding into the Cold War, and developing their nascent consumerist society. The original cast included Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch, as well as, famously, Marlon Brando as Stanley (later replaced by Anthony Quinn). The original leads also appeared in the 1951 film version except that Jessica Tandy (who eventually won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy) was replaced by Vivien Leigh; the four film leads each won an acting Oscar expect for Brando who only got nominated.