Why Seeing Something Isn’t Enough

A Streetcar Named Desire (Play & Kazan Film, 1951)

By Tennessee Williams

A Streetcar Named Desire is arguably Williams’s best play. He wrote it at just the right time, as naturalism took over the stage from melodrama. In this one play, Williams juxtaposes the two styles in the characters of Stanley Kowalski (bash, tempered, also insecure) and Blanche DuBois (prim, proper, but sorted and delusional, given to antiquated, exaggerated gestures). He also created two characters that actors from the play’s inception have wanted to play, exemplified by the numerous stagings and adaptations.

While playwrights pen dramas to engage audiences, that doesn’t mean reading a play isn’t a worthwhile and rewarding experience.

In the case of Streetcar, reading allows you to see Williams’s scene directions. These can be enlightening, as, for example, when Blanche enters for the first time in Scene One. Williams describes her and her proper attire and finishes with: “There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.” What may strike you here is Williams’s reference to a moth, which can be ghostly, especially in combination with white clothing, as well as the adage, “drawn like a moth to a flame,” followed by the consequences, “Thus hath the candle singed the moath.” (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, act 2, sc. 9) Needless to say, but said nonetheless, the flame is Stanley and the singeing occurs at the end of Scene 10, when Stanley says, while tussling with Blanche, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” And as for ghostly, or gossamer, or, perhaps, a shadow of a person, isn’t that exactly Blanche, someone not entirely in this world?

Also, consider how the meaning you derive from a play or film comes directly from those producing and performing in the drama? Unlike a novel, where you can interpret, construct, and play scenes in your mind, in a produced work others have pretty much done that for you. But reading the play allows you to see the action and characters in a different light, once, of course, you’ve blocked what you may have seen on stage or film. Sometimes it can be even more engaging than just viewing a work.

Then there is the film adaptation process and, especially with older films, censoring. To illustrate, while the film features a bowling alley scene in which Blanche sets her eyes on Stanley for the first time, in the play it occurs in the apartment and after Stanley blows in with a butcher-wrapped slab of bloody beef. When asked what he has, he responds, “Meat.” That’s really quite brilliant and economical writing, for with that one word we conjure up all kinds of images of Stanley: the manly man, the hunter-gatherer, a man who takes what he wants, and the like, all contrasting starkly with Blanche’s demureness.

Another difference is the quote from Scene 10 above. The strong implications of the that line seemed too much for the film censors of the day, to direct a reference to the rape about to occur.

Finally, the biggest, most important edit comes at the end of the play/film. After everything Stanley has inflicted upon Blanche, Stella elects to stay with him, a testament to the animal attraction between them, as well as their emotional need for each other. In the film, however, censors could not abide such an ending, for in their view (that is, the Legion of Decency), Stanley had to suffer retribution. Consequently, you’ll see Blanche taking the baby to the upstairs apartment, leaving Stanley.

What? All this and nothing said about the story? No, because it’s hard to imagine anybody doesn’t know the story of Stanley, Stella, and Blanche, and what happened in the small apartment in the Elysian Fields quarter of New Orleans.

A note of advice: when you purchase a copy of Streetcar, buy one containing Williams’s essay that appeared in the New York Times, “On a Streetcar Named Success.” It’s nourishment for the artistic soul in you. c/w

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