The Theme of Sexual Desire in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

A Streetcar Named Desire’s original drafts were started in the early 1940’s by playwright Tennessee Williams, who prepared and tested numerous titles for the work. Eventually, the completed play opened on December 3, 1947 in New York City staring Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and directed by Elia Kazan. This run of Streetcar Named Desire lasted 855 performances until 1949 and won Williams a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. Later, in 1951, the film version was adapted and starred Brando alongside Vivien Leigh as Blanche with Kazan holding the seat as director once again. Both the play and film adaptations of A Streetcar Named Desire have received critical acclaim and much success, so much so that Williams’ work is both read and viewed in high schools and colleges across the country.

Blanche Dubois is a recently widowed schoolteacher from Mississippi. Under mysterious circumstances, she moves in with her sister Stella, played by Kim Hunter, and Stella’s auto-part supply man of a husband, Stanley. The couple lives in a dilapidated apartment in a lower class neighborhood in New Orleans, a lifestyle that Blanche isn’t quite comfortable with and struggles to adjust to. Blanche grates Stanley’s nerves from the start, with her particularly patronizing behavior and inability to answer his questions about the creditors that took away the DuBois family estate. Tension rises between Blanche and Stanley quickly after he physically abuses Stella in a fit of drunken rage and Blanche urges Stella – to no avail – to leave her brutish husband. Things come to a head when he discovers that she’s been lying to them all about her mental health and he reveals the truth about her leave of absence, which truly came after it was revealed that she had sexual relations with a minor.

Though Brando’s portrayal of Stanley is captivating, all the more captivating is Vivian Leigh’s Blanche, who serves as the films protagonist. Blanche is an extremely complex character – both in text and on screen. On the outside she is high society, pure, condescending, glamorous, delusional, and victimized. She spends most of the first scene talking down to Stella, mentioning that she looks as if she’s put on weight while praising herself for remaining the same size since they last saw each other. She dresses in rhinestone crowns, “fluffy bodices” and pearl necklaces and earrings. Her wardrobe appears to be filled with clothing that’s either white or colors that one easily associates with purity.

Yet, she is capable of manipulation and adept at spinning lies as clearly evidenced by her constant lies about a Mr. Shep Huntleigh, who does not really exist, or her lies about being on a leave of absence. This is also clear based on her manipulation of Mitch, played by Karl Malden, into making him fall for her or her emotional manipulation of Stella. Beneath this façade, Blanche seems to be terrified of losing control and terrified of reality. She spends a lot of the play and film sneaking drinks so that she can “calm her nerves” and one could even argue that her manipulation is simply her creating a reality that she doesn’t have to be so afraid of.

Blanche struggles to maintain her glamorous façade and here in lies her greatest conflict; keeping up with her lies and not mixing reality and fantasy – Blanche fails to discern between reality and fantasy and gets caught in her lies. She can never quite get her story straight – Blanche struggles to maintain some semblance of control in her life after she seems to have lost so much of it in the past.

Streetcar and Blanche’s story in particular serves as an extreme statement about human sexuality and gender roles. Women like Eunice abuse their husbands and spend their days drinking when they’ve had a rough day and men like Stanley do the same while Stella and Steve spend their days doting. For Blanche, this reflection on gender roles falls in her inner desire to fight against the stereotypes. Blanche serves as an image of the conflicted place of both women and men in a society in which expected ideals and behaviors no longer match the realities of contemporary gender relations. Though Blanche, as a woman, is meant to be prim and proper and lady-like, she struggles with carnal desires and animal urges just as men do and she buts heads with Stanley because he, as a man, is allowed and almost expected to give into these temptations that Blanche is expected to stray away from.

The world of the film is cramped and close, but open and free. Everyone in this neighborhood knows and can hear everyone else’s business. When someone’s fighting, or more specifically, when Stanley and Stella fight, the entire neighborhood gets involved, when there’s a game of poker, Stanley invites everyone in the vicinity to play. Things are in close quarters still – to mimic the play, despite the added sets like the train station, the city streets, the bowling alley, and the factory. Still, there’s a distinct lack of privacy in this world that is so loud and busy and chaotic. Through the play stage directions read “banging and slamming” and through the film, the music swells at moments of intense conflict – the cacophony of the original piece is kept fully intact despite it’s transformation to screen.

Even still, there’s also an air of sensuality and a sexual charge that surrounds Elysian Fields. The stage directions perfectly exemplify this when they describe Stella and Stanley’s reunion after he hits her. “The low-tone clarinet moans… her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans” and in the film, we see their reunion as sensual and passionate as ever, despite the reality of their reunion and despite the constraints of 1940s film.

The biggest change from text to screen is in some of the plays larger themes. Blanche’s husband goes from having a torrid homosexual affair and committing suicide to simply being driven to suicide by Blanche’s distain for his “sensitive nature.” In the play, Stella doesn’t believe Blanche and chocks her rape accusations about Stanley to her declining mental state, while in the film, a “Hollywood ending” results in Stella blaming Stanley for Blanche’s fate – she decides to leave him after all. These two changes – to comply to the Hollywood Production code – served to slightly soften the impact of Blanche’s ever declining mental state, but ultimately left the film’s final theme of human sexuality intact.

Perhaps this work is so revered because it is easy to fall into the dream-like world of Williams’ and Kazan’s version of New Orleans’ Elysian Fields; easy to trust and “root for” Blanche, despite how disillusioned she may seem; easy to understand how someone like Stella could repeatedly fall for the animal magnetism of Stanley, despite his more brutish qualities. There are many aspects of this work that call for audience members and simply readers alike to delve deeper into the hidden meanings and inner workings of Streetcar.

Rachel Barkley

Rachel Elizabeth Barkley is a recent college alum of Albright College with a B.A. in Digital Video Arts. A film buff and amateur film maker, Rachel has been writing and directing her own works since high school and is an aspiring screenwriter/director. She writes based on her life so her films include quirky dialogue, charmingly crafted meet cutes, and awkward moments that would rival those within a Wes Anderson film.

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