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The aftermath of WWII in A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams never imagined that his revolutionary play A Streetcar Named Desire would
provoke the admiration of the post-war audience and critics and would signify a crucial point in his
career as a playwright. Since its first performance in 1947, the play elicited the applauses of a
shocked but delighted audience and the many positive critical responses that praised its suggestive
atmosphere, its smart use of stage elements, its impressive realism in the characters' portrayal and
its thematic variety: violence, sex and death, madness, marginalization, redemption, illusion and
reality... etc. (Roudan 45-46). At the time of the play's publication, the United States was
undergoing the socio-political consequences of the Second World War while American population
debated or ignored the moral implications of the recent international massacre. Conscious of this
fact, Williams wrote his work and took the social insecurities and traumas to the stage and obliged
his deluded audience to face themselves through the brutal confrontation between the opposite
characters of Stanley and Blanche. From a socio-political perspective, A Streetcar Named Desire
and Elia Kazan's film version analyse the moral conflicts and the contradictory attitudes of the post-
war society, emphasized by making the spectator's sympathy shift between one character or the
other.
A Streetcar Named Desire is set in the following years of the war, a time undoubtedly
marked by crucial changes in Williams' contemporary society. The idealistic and ambitious
American nation had decided to prove its political superiority and its military power to the
international community by attempting to defeat the threat of Nazi Germany. In 1941, the country
broke its announced but never maintained isolationist policy after the Japanese attack against Pearl
Harbour, joining the war on the side of the Allies. American population had already heard about the
critical situation in Europe and the evil deeds carried out by Germany and its allies so, after the
attack, the indignant public opinion keenly supported what they considered a just war, a moral
conflict for a good end. Eventually, the American forces succeeded and brought the war to an
imminent end, yet the government approved a final act of extreme violence: the dropping of the
atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to force the Japanese rendition. This deadly
action, which preluded the hysteria about a catastrophic nuclear warfare, proved the absence of
good sides in any violent conflict, where any of them possessed any moral superiority over the
other. The horrified population saw a nearer example of the atrocities of war when some soldiers
returned home and found it extremely hard to adapt themselves to their old lives while others
needed medical assistance as they suffered from severe psychological diseases caused by the
traumatic events experienced, including depression, flashbacks, personality changes, and extreme
sensitivity to sound. On the other hand, forced by the absence of many men who were fighting in
Europe and the Pacific or working in factories far from home, women started to play a more active
role in society thanks to their massive incorporation to the labour world in traditionally male jobs
and to other fields from which they had been excluded until then. Women were taught by a huge
propaganda campaign that its was patriotic and not unfeminine for them to work in non-traditional
jobs. When the war ended, some married women came back to the domestic work and childcare
while others saw a wide range of new opportunities and remained in their positions as working
women (Women). Yet from the hypocritical point of view of patriarchy, this increasing
emancipation of women that contributed so much to the economic development of the country
during the war now meant a threat to the social established order in which women stayed at home
and men made money and held the power as the head of the family. Moral ambiguity, guilt,
traumatic experiences, broken families, the reaffirmation of the patriarchal order and other conflicts
derived from the social changes in the following years of the war are reflected in A Streetcar
Named Desire.
Born in 1911, Williams was a young man who experienced both the World War I and the
Great Depression years, making him aware of the social problems of his country, which he
thoroughly represented in his stories combining a realistic social dimension and psychological
portraits with expressionist imagery, poetic dialogues, etc. Before Williams, the post-war theatre
was dominated by musical comedies and revivals of classic and modern works like Shakespeare,
Shaw or Wilde (Roudan 1, 2, 48). Now, preluded and inspired by O'Neill's tragic drama in which
characters fell into despair unable to communicate with each other, William's drama appears as a
new and realistic contribution to American drama. According to drama historian Ethan Mordden, it
meant a brutal reply to the illusion-loving theatre of the 1930s, for Williams speaks truth to
someone whose whole life is a lie, the deluded Blanche DuBois. Indeed, the author reflects in a
impressively explicit way the collective conflicts of his time through the confrontation of two
contraries, embodied by the antagonism of Blanche and Stanley (and even by Blanche's emotional
instability), characters that attempt to recover their lives in the changing post-war world. The play
introduced the audience to truly adult themes: prostitution, homosexuality, rape, domestic violence,
alcoholism, mental breakdowns... From the very beginning, although the initial stage directions sets
a charming and tender atmosphere, this is a sort of fake wellness as there is a sense of underlying
decadence that inevitably emerges in the setting and consequently in the characters' emotions (The
sky is () tender blue, almost a turquoise, which (...) attenuates the atmosphere of decay ).
Most readers usually state that Blanche DuBois is the protagonist of the play, led by the fact
that she is the character who triggers the conflict of the plot and the one who awakens the interest
and empathy of the audience. Actually, the play can be summarized as Blanche's journey, from her
escape from a destructive desire that took her near the sight of death to her final punishment in
madness due to her lack of success in forgetting the past and learning from it. Her central role in the
story is somewhat highlighted in the opening scene of the play when Stella and Stanley's peaceful
life is suddenly disturbed by Blanche's arrival and her news about the loss of Belle Reve. In Kazan's
film all the focus is on Blanche, where the added sequence of her disorientation when arriving at a
crowded station right before taking the famous streetcar opens the film. In this last case her first
appearance is symbolically more interesting: Blanche becomes a ghostly figure that comes out from
behind a white steam cloud, emphasizing her fragile nature or symbolizing her metaphysical
approach to a place where, according to Greek mythology, only the heroic and the virtuous could
rest (They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and
ride six blocks and get off at--Elysian Fields!). Although Blanche follows in a way the literary
figure of the femme fatale, that is, an economically independent and sexually active woman who
deceives and seduces men for self-interested purposes (Yes, a big spider! That's where I brought
my victims.), it is this Southern Belle's overwhelming guilty for her sins and her desperate search
for redemption what provokes the spectator's sympathy. Besides, her characterization as a woman of
a fragile nature, weak character and delicacy in manners transmits the idea that she is somebody
that needs urgent help and especial care. She is The Broken Tower (Hart Crane's poem appearing
in the epigraph chosen to introduce the play), a confused woman who enters the broken world / To
trace the visionary company of love, a love that faded away with his husband's death and her
overwhelming desire to recover what is lost leads her to take wrong decisions.
The character of Blanche has been regarded as Williams' most outstanding creation due to
the rich interplay of reality, madness, fragility and strength within her, making possible many
readings of her behaviour in the overall meaning of the play. Reduced to a mentally and emotionally
unstable person haunted by guilt and the memory of tragic casualties that she witnessed and
provoked, the post-war audience may have seen in Blanche DuBois the soldier that returns home on
the verge of madness as a result of traumatic past experiences or even their own commotion for the
result of the war. In scene 3, Blanche makes a comment on the bitter situation of her time and
expresses her desire for protection: There's so much confusion in the world... I need kindness
now, embodying the present society that tries to forget the traumatic past. Blanche has also
witnessed several casualties in Belle Reve, which became her gloomy battlefield, the Reaper's
headquarters, bursting with disturbing images of death while she found herself unable to do
something to prevent it (() that dreadful way! () Sometimes their breathing is hoarse, and
sometimes it rattles, and sometimes they even cry out to you, "Don't let me go!"). Despite this
devastating experience that turned her into a psychologically ill person, the audience can see in
Blanche a hint of military heroic strength since she never abandoned the battle and stayed to bury
her relatives, a fact which leads her to reproach her sister for having deserted (But you are the one
that abandoned Belle Reve, not I! I stayed and fought for it, bled for it, almost died for it!) and to
reject inexistent accusations from her. Yet Blanche did not only saw death, but also does she believe
to have caused it since her beloved husband Allan killed himself due to her contempt for his
homosexuality. With her words of disgust, uttered in a fateful night on a dance floor, she pulled
indirectly the trigger that killed her husband and the memory of this bloodshed torments her. In the
play, Blanche is less hard on herself when expressing her guilt about such event, simply stating I
hurt him (...), whereas in the film, where Allan's homosexuality is replaced by a sort of deep
depression, Blanche confesses to Mitch in tears: I killed him. Her resultant obsession with death
is transmitted by references to Browning's sonnets (And if God choose, I shall but love thee better
afterdeath!), her fear of a vendor shouting Flores para los muertos and references to Mr.
Edgar Allan Poe's gothic work, especially the parallelism between the DuBois family's story and
that in Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, being Blanche and Stella the only surviving siblings
of a large agonizing family due to its decadency derived from their sins.
As a consequence, Blanche is transformed into emotionally and psychologically sick person
and appears to suffer from the same symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that soldiers
experienced when returned home from war, such as depression, flashbacks, personality changes,
and extreme sensitivity to sound. The latter, music and sounds, are very present throughout the play
filling the dramatic silences, reinforcing the lyricism of the dialogues and transmitting in an
expressionist way what is inside Blanche's mind. Thus the painful moment of her husband's
death/murder is remembered in dramatic moments that call to mind similar episodes of post-
traumatic flashbacks: a polka music played only in her mind and therefore not listened by Mitch
takes her back in time in order to relive the event (That--music again... The "Varaouviana"! The
polka tune they were playing when AllanWait! There now, the shot! It always stops after that.)
and, in an addition of Kazan's film, Blanche's words recalling her husband's last minutes of life A
few moments later--a shot! are emphasized with the sudden echo of an actual shot. Her sister
Stella, and in a certain way Mitch, acts as the familiar support she needs to recover from the trauma,
always protecting and serving her sister but deeply affected by the soldier's disease and further
consequences of it, like her inclination to alcoholism.
However, in a demonstration of Williams' ability to combine myth and reality, Blanche
becomes unsuitable for these apparent Elysian Fields due to her inability to redeem herself, and
therefore this place of salvation reserved for the heroic turns into a dark, even gothic, scenario
where her flaws and errors are accentuated and judged in the same way that the condemned are
trapped in hell or the purgatory (In desperate, desperate circumstances! Help me! Caught in a
trap). Her scornful attitude towards Stanley may derived from his representing the violent side of
human being, the primitivism that leads to kill others, which is keenly despised and rejected by
Blanche since the very beginning and even more so after having witnessed his brutal attack against
Stella in the poker night (There's even something--sub-human--something not quite to the stage of
humanity yet! Stanley Kowalski--survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the
kill in the jungle! (...) Somebody growls--some creature snatches at something--the fight is on!).
This is the moment in which the author attempts to convey his utopian vision of the role of art and
literature in a perfect society. He considers these elements essential tools to educate and shape well-
mannered and reasoning beings that could control the lowest of human instincts and become
members of a civilized country (Such things as art--as poetry and music--such kinds of new light
have come into the world since then! That we have got to make grow! And cling to, and hold as our
flag! In this dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching.... Don't--don't hang back with the
brutes!). Williams knew about the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 and 1946, in which the defeated
nazis' war crimes were punished by the victorious Allied forces, but wondered who would punish
USA's war crimes in, for instance, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe following Churchill's statement
about the trials where he rejected the cold blooded execution of soldiers who fought for their
country. (Nuremberg), Williams does not punish Blanche by killing the character, as it is usually
done in literary works with femmes fatale like her, but by a process resembling the sin itself, some
kind of Contrapasso law. Blanche is a woman overcome by an acute sense of guilt and a tendency to
see herself as a victim and a victimizer, feeling that some things are not forgivable. Deliberate
cruelty is not forgivable., words applied to Stanley but also to herself. Like the tormented soldier,
Blanche is conscious of the fact that her main fault has been to deny help to her equal and to
provoke his death. It is true that Stanley is her ultimate victimizer but, in her sick mind, he is also
the one to judge and sentence her for her cruel and lustful sins in the same cruel and lustful manner
(I hurt him the way that you would like to hurt me). Blanche is depicted as the brave soldier, the
tragic and romantic hero that displays strength, but her fragility and weakness when getting over
past traumas make her final triumph impossible to achieve.
The character of Stanley Kowalski stands out in a clear opposition to Blanche as the
heartless obstacle that prevents her from achieving her vital goals and this role of the perfect
antagonist is clearly marked since his first appearances. Sweaty, aggressive, realistic and vulgar, he
is the vital force that confronts Blanche's refinement, delusion and weakness. Indeed, Marlo
Brando's outstanding performance on the stage and in the film version of the play embodies
perfectly Stanley's disgusting personal traits, being the actor himself who defined and expressed his
contempt for Stanley: He's the antithesis of me... He's intolerant and selfish... a man without any
sensitivity, without any morality (Cohan).
However, as the play's plot is developed, Stanley seems to gain the audience's empathy as he
turns out to represent the strong American power (But what I am is a one hundred percent
American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it), a former soldier
of Polish heritage who tries to be egalitarian, demanding for him the same rights as the decadent
aristocratic upper class represented by Blanche (Look at these feathers and furs that she come here
to preen herself in! () Where are your fox-pieces, Stella?). Largely ignorant, he at least possesses
the virtue of honesty and despises any instance of deception, especially when he is the one
deceived. Yet, like the United States in the war, he was capable of abuses of power as well, using
last resort methods to achieve peace. The poker game in scene 3 is a meeting of different old
soldiers, in which Stanley is the leading voice of the game, the one who deals the cards and sets the
rules at home, and Mitch is the sensitive counterpoint worried about her mother's illness, seduced
by Blanche's dishonest charms and finally deceived.
He stands for the American masculine power that fights against any kind of repression and
dominance, asserting himself by imposing her power over women and by claiming his dominion
over everything that is his, that bears his emblem, which obviously includes his wife Stella. This
sexist component of his character reflects the hypocritical attitude of patriarchy after the war, which
attempted to take back to the domestic realm the emerging new independent woman who,
encouraged by the State itself, worked outside home in the war years. In the same manner, Stanley
always adopts a misogynist attitude towards women, considering them sexual objects and always
conscious of his sex appeal (He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude
images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them. () with the power and
pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens.), establishing a relationship with Stella largely
based on sexual desire (When he's away for a week I nearly go wild!) . Stella is also portrayed as a
being that should be dominated, she is Mrs. Stanley Kowalski, a woman unable of taking care of
herself. Fortunately, Stanley's patriarchal voice is present to remind her of her obligations as a wife
and future mother and take care of her interests ((...) we have the Napoleonic code according to
which what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa.). When Stanleys wife
complains about his table manners, he teaches her a lesson about how to talk to a man by smashing
all the plates and even mistreating her. Williams surprised the audience with the representation of
such a private issue as domestic violence, conveying the origin of public barbarity could be sought
in the violence present in the heart of the American family.
Although audiences were shocked by Stanley's final reaction against Blanche in scene ten,
the spectators were already familiar to violent episodes in their everyday lives. It is possible that
some people did not even interpret it as a sexual abuse while others were likely to forgive him as
they struggled to forgive the country for dropping the bomb. After all, Blanche is the enemy who
invades his home with dishonest intentions, insults him, corrupts Stella and disrupt the peace and
order of the American family, in which Stanley should dominate over Stella. Stella agrees with him
submissively and accepts a victorious Stanley that slips his fingers between the buttons of her
blouse back into her life just like Americans accepted the reality of violence into their own lives
(Welsch). Still, there is a remaining feeling of confusion in the audience's sympathy for Stanley,
some sort of shame for silently supporting his savagery. Williams himself described the rape as the
ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the brutal forces in modern society (Cohan).
The Hollywood industry could not permit that this monstrous behaviour served as a model to the
public and changed the end of the play in order to punish the crime of the rapist, finally making
Stella and her child run away from him and his frightening authoritative calling, although the
audience knows she will come back as she did once.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams meditates about one terrible fact: the war
had meant America's opportunity to recover from the Depression years and to achieve a better
position in the international political and economic frame, but at a very expensive cost for the social
conscience. Not even nowadays, the motivation of protecting the country does not prepare anyone
for having a fighting friend dying in one's lap, or being unable to do anything while watching
someone die at one moment and kill someone at the other. The sounds of death lingered in the
soldiers' minds just like Blanche can not stand the memory of Belle Reve and Allan in hers.
Paradoxically, the reader/audience that approaches Williams' play is somewhat attracted by Stanley
and his selfish, heartless and misogynistic personality, making one wonder which principles actually
rule contemporary society. The last scene of the play shifts audience sympathies one last time.
Suddenly it is Stella who represents the public condemnation of violence (Oh, my God, Eunice
help me! Don't let them do that to her, don't let them hurt her!). Eunice finally points out an
important truth, which serves as a conclusion to any traumatic period: Life has got to go on. No
matter what happens, you've got to keep going.

Cristhian Villamar.

Works cited and consulted.

Cohan, Steven (1997). Masked men: masculinity and the movies in the fifties. Indiana
University Press
Gmez Garca, Ascensin. (1988) Mito y realidad en la obra dramtica de Tennessee
Williams. Salamanca. Universidad de Salamanca.
Mordden, Ethan (1981). The American Theatre. New York. Oxford University Press.
Nuremberg Trials. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg_Trials. Last Modified: 25 May 2011.
Roudn, Matthew C. (ed.) (1997). The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams.
Cambridge University Press.
Welch, William M.Trauma of Iraq war haunting thousands returning home. USA today.
http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2005-02-28-cover-iraq-injuries_x.htm. Posted:
2/28/2005 2:08 AM.
Welsch, Camille-Yvette. World War II, Sex, and Displacement in A Streetcar Named
Desire in Murphy, Brenda (ed.) (2009). Critical Insights: A Streetcar Named Desire.
Pasadena. Salem Press.
Women and World War II. About.com - Women's History.
http://womenshistory.about.com/od/warwwii/Women_and_World_War_II.htm. Last
Modified: 2011

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