A Streetcar Named Desire | Critical Essay by Mark Royden Winchell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of A Streetcar Named Desire.
This section contains 5,378 words
(approx. 18 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Mark Royden Winchell

SOURCE: "The Myth Is the Message, or Why Streetcar Keeps Running," in Confronting Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire: Essays in Critical Pluralism, edited by Philip C. Kolin, Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 133-45.

In the following essay, Winchell considers the enduring popular and critical success of A Streetcar Named Desire in light of the play's complex male-female dynamic that defies classification as either misogynistic melodrama or tragedy.

Certain works of literature seem to enter the popular imagination from the moment they are published. Their appeal is not confined to language or genre; they embody stories and characters that can be transferred from one art form to another without loss of power. For this reason, such stories and characters are often known to many more people than have read the original work. No doubt, millions with little idea who George Orwell was "know" that "1984" and "Big Brother" are ominous concepts. The term Uncle Tom is widely used by persons who would have difficulty identifying Harriet Beecher Stowe. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tarzan, Frankenstein, and Dracula haunt a culture that has largely forgotten the names of Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. Recognizing that this is so is far easier than explaining why it is so.

With few exceptions, sophisticated literary critics dismiss works that have touched a mass audience. Particularly in our own century, the gap between elite and popular culture is an article of faith. As a result, the literary clerisy spends its time analyzing or deconstructing texts while the majority culture continues to enjoy songs and stories. (As Dwight Eisenhower is reputed to have said: "I may not know what's art, but I know what I like.") Of course, in times past, Shakespeare appealed to both the aristocracy and the groundlings; the serialized fiction of Dickens and Thackeray was read as avidly as soap operas are now watched; and Longfellow, prior to reading before Queen Victoria, signed autographs in the servants' quarters.

Among twentieth-century American poets, only Robert Frost bridged the gap between serious and popular literature. In the realm of fiction, the trick was turned (but only in selected novels) by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald, and Robert Penn Warren. In drama, where performance enables a writer to reach an audience beyond the confines of the printed page, the record is no better. Eugene O'Neill never seized the popular imagination, and Edward Albee came close only in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? For Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman enjoyed a popular and critical success neither precedented nor duplicated in his career.

The one American playwright who is a conspicuous exception to the dichotomy between "high" and "low" culture is Tennessee Williams. Williams's South, with its sexual ambivalence, self-delusion, and irrational violence, has become part of our popular mythos, the ambience of countless B-movies and television melodramas. With only slight exaggeration, Marion Magid writes:

A European whose knowledge of America was gained entirely from the collected works of Tennessee Williams might garner a composite image of the U.S.: it is a tropical country whose vegetation is largely man-eating; it has an excessive annual rainfall and subsequent storms which coincide with its mating periods; it has not yet been converted to Christianity, but continues to observe the myth of the annual death and resurrection of the sun-god, for which purpose it keeps on hand a constant supply of young men to sacrifice…. [T]he sexual embrace … is as often as not followed by the direst consequences: cannibalism, castration, burning alive, madness, surgery in various forms ranging from lobotomy to hysterectomy, depending on the nature of the offending organ.

Beyond this, particular Williams plays, such as The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, have entered American popular culture to a degree unmatched by the work of any other critically acclaimed dramatist. Even these achievements, however, pale to insignificance in comparison to what Williams wrought in A Streetcar Named Desire. Surely, no play of the American theatre, perhaps no play in English since the time of Shakespeare, has won such praise from both the critics and the populace. When they agree on so little in the realm of literature, one wonders why the critics and the people are of a single mind on this one play.

In seeking to answer this question, I have found myself repeatedly borrowing concepts from the criticism of Leslie Fiedler. Although Fiedler's massive bibliography includes commentary on most major works of American literature (as well as many minor ones), I am not aware of his having written on A Streetcar Named Desire. Nevertheless, Streetcar seems particularly suited for a Fiedlerian treatment (if such a pompous phrase does not violate the populist spirit of Fiedler's muse). At least since his seminal essay, "Cross the Border—Close the Gap," Fiedler has tried to identify the universal sources of literary response by treating popular culture with the same reverence critics automatically extend to canonical texts. Moreover, Streetcar raises many of the same issues that Fiedler has long found at the heart of our storytelling tradition.

A Fiedlerian approach to Streetcar would identify those elements in the play that transcend the distinction between elite and popular culture. What is needed is an understanding of the play's mythopoeic power. This is something quite different from a cataloging of allusions to ancient legends, which may or may not be known to a mass audience. Streetcar is a play that raises disturbing questions about hearth and home, sex roles, family loyalty, and the power of eros. Because this is done within the context of a drama, the aesthetic distance between audience and artifact is much less than it would be with a sociological essay or even a novel. We respond to issues of universal concern at a visceral level long before that response is articulated, or "rationalized," in the form of criticism. I suspect that Streetcar remains such a riveting play in the country of its origin precisely because its particular treatment of universal themes—myth as opposed to mere mythology—is deeply rooted in American culture and literature.

Fiedler has argued for more than forty years that we can pretty well divide the canon of American literature between works that view home as Heaven and those that see it as Hell. The texts celebrated in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) (and, before that, in D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature [1923]) belong to the latter category. Beginning with Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, "The uniquely American hero/anti-hero … rescues no maiden, like Perseus, kills no dragon, like Saint George, discovers no treasure like Beowulf or Siegfried; he does not even manage at long last to get back to his wife, like Odysseus. He is, in fact, an anti-Odysseus who finds his identity by running away from home" (Fiedler, What Was Literature?). The reason for this is quite simple. At home, he is subject to a loathsome form of tyranny known as "petticoat government." The tyrant may be a henpecking wife, such as Rip's Dame Van Winkle, or a nitpicking guardian, such as Huck Finn's Miss Watson (we have endless variations of these two in TV situation comedies and the funny pages of the daily newspaper). In either case, the only escape is into the wilderness and the society of fellow males.

Against this basically misogynistic canon is a countertradition of domestic literature. From the popular women novelists whom Hawthorne dismissed as that "damned tribe of scribbling females" to the writers of today's soap operas, laureates of the domestic tradition posit a stable home life, complete with heterosexual bonding and close family ties, as the greatest human good. Even when it is thwarted by the conflicts necessary to literature and endemic to life, it is still the ideal. As antithetical as they might seem, the domestic paradigm and the misogynist tradition both agree that the woman rules the home. The only disagreement is whether she is a benevolent despot or a hideous shrew. The patriarchal insistence that the man is king of his castle is generally understood as mere male bluster.

To say the least, the Stanley Kowalski household does not conform to the matriarchal conventions of our literature. Stanley is unquestionably the king of his castle. As a traveling salesman, he enjoys the freedom of the road. As captain of his bowling team, he is at no loss for male camaraderie. These experiences, however, are not an evasion of domestic unhappiness. Stanley's loving and obedient wife is always waiting for him, eager to gratify and be gratified. Even in the home, she accommodates him and his friends. Rip Van Winkle may have to meet his buddies at Nicholas Vedder's tavern, Dagwood Bumstead may have to hold his card games in the garage, but Stanley plays poker in the middle of his apartment. Only in the person of Eunice, who threatens to pour boiling water through the floorboards of the upstairs apartment, do we see even a vestige of the henpecking wife. As politically incorrect as it may be, the Kowalski household embodies a patriarchal vision of home as Heaven. There is not enough potential conflict here for either tragedy or farce. Not until Blanche enters the scene.

From the moment of her first entrance, Blanche brings with her a vision of home that varies sharply from what she encounters in Elysian Fields. Even before she utters a word, her expression of "shocked disbelief" speaks volumes. In first identifying Stella by her maiden name, Blanche instinctively places her sister back in her old home rather than in the one where she is "Mrs. Stanley Kowalski." Later in the scene, Blanche verbalizes her displeasure with Stella's current living arrangements, suggesting that she has somehow betrayed the memory of Belle Reve. Only a little scrutiny is required to show how problematic Blanche's air of superiority actually is.

To begin with, she has come to Elysian Fields not from Belle Reve but from Tarantula Arms. It is doubtful that accommodations there were any more aristocratic than in the French Quarter. Moreover, reliable information about Belle Reve itself is quite sparse. Clearly, the family home in Laurel has been lost on a mortgage. But how grand was it? With the exception of Stella, the closest that anyone in Elysian Fields has come to the place is a photograph of a mansion with columns. That photograph has been enough to impress Eunice and Stanley; however, Stella, who has actually lived in Belle Reve, seems unconcerned about its loss. Blanche, who at the very least is a pathological liar, remembers the place as a plantation. But there are no plantations in Laurel, Mississippi, which is in the heart of the Piney Woods. If there were even servants at Belle Reve, we hear nothing of them. In fact, Stella says that when she waits on Blanche, it seems more like home. There are enough hints in the play to suggest that the grandeur of Belle Reve is as suspect as the value of Blanche's rhinestone tiara and summer furs. (The supposedly hardheaded Stanley is taken in by all three.)

Even if we see Belle Reve as a latter-day Tara, it is lost in a way that Tara never was. Margaret Mitchell's image of the Old South as a matriarchal Eden had captured the public imagination by the time that Streetcar premiered on Broadway in 1947. In 1951, moviegoers would have been reminded of this image by the mere fact that Vivien Leigh, who had played Scarlett O'Hara on the screen, was cast as Blanche in the film version of Williams's play. In Mitchell's antebellum South, women ruled the home while men fought duels and argued over secession. These same men mortgaged the matriarchal paradise by leading the South into a war it could not win. (The region's only assets, according to Rhett Butler, were "cotton, slaves, and arrogance.") After the war, Scarlett adapted to changing circumstances to do whatever was necessary to regain Tara and hold off the carpetbaggers. This Darwinian feat, however, was beyond the capabilities of the leading men of the old order (anachronistic cavaliers such as Ashley Wilkes), who were reduced to riding in white sheets at night to prove their manhood. The only exception was the social outcast Rhett Butler.

Belle Reve is not destroyed by war or Reconstruction, but like Margaret Mitchell's South, it is victimized by a failed patriarchy. Over a period of centuries, to hear Blanche tell it, Belle Reve was lost as her "improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications." (In fact, only a female cousin left enough insurance money to provide for her own burial.) Unlike Scarlett, the women of Belle Reve are incapable of filling the void left by these inadequate men. Stella escapes from this doomed home, and, except for Blanche, all the other women die. Blanche herself is denied a normal family life when she discovers her husband's homosexuality, and the guilt she experiences from driving him to suicide leads to a series of debaucheries that renders her incapable of even pursuing the modest career of a high school English teacher.

Although Blanche is less than an admirable character, she strikes some audiences as at least an object of pity when she falls into Stanley's brutish clutches. And yet, if we look at the situation objectively, Stanley's motives—if not his methods—are superior to Blanche's. His patriarchal authority is never challenged by Stella; however, Blanche does little else from the moment of her arrival at Elysian Fields. When she tells Stella in scene I that she will not put up in a hotel because she wants to be close to her sister, her need for companionship is apparent (not to mention her lack of funds). But this residency also gives her a strategic position from which to undermine Stanley and to entice Stella with fantasies of life among the aristocracy. Not only does she install herself as an indefinite squatter in a two-room apartment, she does everything within her power to wreck the contented home life that had existed in that apartment. One can hardly blame Stanley for fighting back.

Throughout much of the play, the conflict between Stanley and Blanche would seem to be between a crude member of the underclass and the quintessential schoolmarm. The standards of etiquette and decorum that Blanche purports to represent have been the scourge of every redblooded American male since Miss Watson tried to force Huck to mind his manners (while she was preparing to sell Nigger Jim down the river). What Mark Twain plays for farce is deadly serious in the world of Streetcar. Blanche is not trying to "sivilize" an urchin who is living in her home. She is trying to wreck the home she has invaded. Although never really hidden, this intention is made unmistakably clear in Blanche's speech to Stella toward the end of scene 4 (a speech that Stanley overhears). What she has just finished proposing to Stella is a kind of feminist variation on the anti-Odysseus theme. In this scenario, Stella will run away from home to join Blanche (who has already fled Laurel) in a chaste female bonding—not in the forest or on the river, but in a shop of some sort endowed by a sexually unthreatening Shep Huntleigh.

When Stanley's boorish behavior is insufficient to drive Blanche away, he discovers something that must be the realization of every rebellious schoolboy's fantasy: the schoolmarm is not what she pretends to be. As Henry Fielding observed in his preface to Joseph Andrews, the exposure of hypocrisy is the source of endless delight. When Stanley reveals the sordid details of Blanche's recent conduct to Stella in scene 7, it is with a kind of righteous gloating. "That girl calls me common!" he says. The only reservation that might prevent the audience from sharing Stanley's glee is the hope that a reformed Blanche will find happiness as Mitch's wife, a solution that would also remove her from the Kowalski household. Stella is convinced that this would happen if Stanley would only keep his mouth shut.

Unfortunately, all available evidence suggests otherwise. Blanche's newfound circumspection is only a ruse to lure Mitch to the altar. If there is any doubt of this, consider the end of scene 5, when Blanche's attempted seduction of the newsboy is followed immediately by the arrival of Mitch, with a bunch of roses in his hand. As Blanche's husband, Mitch would probably arrive home one afternoon to find his wife in the sack with some less hesitant newsboy (just as Blanche found her former husband in bed with a man). She sees Mitch not as a spouse to love (even in the exclusively physical way that Stella loves Stanley) but as a sexually timid benefactor, a poor girl's Shep Huntleigh. It is hardly dishonorable for Stanley to want to protect his naive friend from such a fate. In the world of male camaraderie, his bond with Mitch is just as compelling as the blood ties that unite Stella and Blanche.

If Stanley is justified in wising Mitch up about Blanche's past, he clearly crosses the line of acceptable behavior when he attacks her sexually in scene 10. And yet even this inexcusable act must be analyzed within the context of the play. There is little evidence to suggest that Stanley returned home that night with the intention of raping Blanche. He is in a good mood because of the impending birth of his child and even offers to "bury the hatchet" and drink "a loving cup" with Blanche.

It is only after she speaks of casting her pearls before swine that his mood changes. This reference can't help reminding Stanley of the tirade he overheard in scene 4. (That speech, with its Darwinian imagery, was more than a little ironic, since it is Blanche, not the atavistic Stanley, who is in danger of becoming extinct because of an inability to adapt to a changing environment.) Although he had not overheard her references to Shep Huntleigh in that earlier scene, a woman as talkative as Blanche might well have tipped her hand to him at some point during her interminable stay in the Kowalski apartment. In any event, the audience is reminded of Blanche's plot to "rescue" Stella by breaking up her marriage to Stanley. As Stanley has yet to lay a hand on Blanche, our sympathies must still be with him.

Since the consummation of what happens between Stanley and Blanche occurs offstage, we are left to imagine the details. On the basis of what we do know, it is reasonable to assume that Stanley believes he is simply doing what Mitch was unable to do in the preceding scene: enjoy the favors of a notoriously promiscuous woman. Blanche held Mitch off by screaming "Fire," something she does not do when Stanley approaches her. When he says, "So you want some roughhouse! All right, let's have some roughhouse!" his assumption is that she enjoys violent foreplay. It is possible to interpret Stanley's next statement—"We've had this date with each other from the beginning"—as a confession that he has been plotting to destroy her. But it is at least as plausible that he is referring to Blanche's flirtatious advances, which began as early as scene 2. Whatever happens offstage, Stanley can hardly be said to have driven Blanche insane. She may think that she is waiting for Shep Huntleigh when the Doctor and Matron come to cart her off to the insane asylum in scene 11, but she also thought that in scene 10 before Stanley even came home. If anyone drives Blanche crazy, it is Mitch by foiling her wedding plans.

Despite all of these mitigating factors (which seem far more disingenuous in the postfeminist nineties than they would have in 1947), the rape so diminishes Stanley morally that we are deprived of any easy satisfaction we might have felt in his triumph over Blanche. If Williams personally empathized with Blanche more than with Stanley, the rape may be his desperate attempt to win audience sympathy for a victimized woman. But that is about all he is able to do. It is beyond even Williams's considerable art to convince us that Blanche is a genuinely tragic figure; she has too many flaws, too little stature, and almost no self-knowledge. Blanche can excite pity in the truly sensitive but only fear in the most defeated and self-loathing among us.

Although critics have never been entirely comfortable with the confused feelings Williams's two antagonists evoke, some balance is necessary to maintain dramatic tension. The rape creates that balance. It does not elevate Blanche to the level of tragic heroine, but it does prevent the audience from siding too enthusiastically with Stanley. Remove the rape, and Streetcar is reduced to a sexist melodrama, in which the gaudy seed-bearer reasserts patriarchal control over a household threatened by a hypocritical and self-serving matriarchy. Of course, the circumstances of the rape are ambiguous enough that what the mass audience loses in melodrama it gains in sadomasochistic titillation.

In a sense, Williams's audience can have it both ways: it can censure Stanley and pity Blanche (the "proper" moral and aesthetic response, to be sure) while guiltily enjoying his triumph over her. At least, this would seem to be true for the men in the audience. As males, we have secretly cheered the bad boy on as he proves something we have always wanted to believe, that the sententious schoolmarm is really a secret nympho. There is even a sense in which the male who has allowed himself to identify with Stanley can see Streetcar as having a fairy tale ending. The witch has been dispatched (if not to the hereafter, at least to the loony bin); the home is safe; and the prince and princess of Elysian Fields live happily ever after—seeing colored lights unsubdued by magic lanterns. But what of the woman spectator? In what way is she able to experience the mythic power (as opposed to merely admiring the artistry) of Williams's play? It is certainly not through a macho identification with Stanley.

One can imagine a woman who believes herself wronged by men feeling an affinity with Blanche. If we read Streetcar as a feminist fable, Stanley's rape of Blanche might be a paradigm for how men deal with women in a patriarchal society. (Stanley and Mitch would both seem to be purveyors of the double standard, while Stella is nothing more than a sex object and childbearer.) Not surprisingly, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar see the play as an indictment of "the law of the phallus and the streetcar named heterosexual desire." In an even more detailed feminist analysis, Anca Vlasopolos reminds us that it is not just Stanley but the entire cast of the play that expells Blanche at the end. Stanley and Mitch may have been the catalysts of Blanche's downfall, but Stella—with the encouragement of Eunice—seals her sister's fate by choosing to believe Stanley so that her marriage might be preserved. The poker buddies simply stand around in awkward, bovine acquiescence.

The problem with these interpretations is not that they are untrue but that they are inadequate. For much of her life, Blanche's difficulties stemmed from the lack of a forceful patriarchy. As we have seen, her male forebears abdicated their role as providers and saddled her with mortgage and debt. Her behavior toward her husband may have had terrible consequences, but it was not without provocation. Allan Grey wronged Blanche by marrying her, knowing that she loved him in a way that could bring her only traumatic pain when she discovered the truth about his sexual orientation. He then allowed her to believe that the fiasco of their wedding night was her fault. Finally, when she quite understandably tells him that he is disgusting (which he is), he takes the coward's way out by killing himself—apparently not caring what effect this will have on Blanche or anyone else he leaves behind. It is the absence of assertive men, not their chauvinistic presence, that has been Blanche's undoing. In fact, Blanche even admits to Stella that Stanley may be "what we need to mix with our blood now that we've lost Belle Reve."

For women, the emotional power of Streetcar may come from an identification with Stella. Unlike Stanley and Blanche, who, depending on your perspective, are either superhuman or subhuman, Stella seems a fairly ordinary person. In purely Darwinian terms, however, she is clearly the heroine of the play. She has survived because she has successfully adapted herself to changing circumstances. (Blanche is doomed by her inability to adapt, whereas Stanley seems bent on adapting the environment to himself.) Although Blanche blames Stella for betraying Belle Reve by leaving, there is no reason to believe that she could have saved the place by staying. Unlike Lot's wife, she does not cast even a regretful glance back. Stella has no illusions about the desirability of a world in which women are worshiped but not supported. Stanley spells out the difference between these two worlds in his typically blunt manner. He reminds Stella: "When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going!"

In pulling her "down off them columns," Stanley brings Stella into a world of male dominance. At least symbolically, it is an act of brute force, and one that Stella "loves." As Gore Vidal noted nearly forty years after the Broadway premiere of Streetcar: "[W]hen Tennessee produced A Streetcar Named Desire, he inadvertently smashed one of our society's most powerful taboos (no wonder Henry Luce loathed him): he showed the male not only sexually attractive in the flesh but as an object for something never before entirely acknowledged by the good team, the lust of women." Moreover, the fact that Stanley, as a "Polack," is considered socially inferior to the DuBois sisters makes his sexual assaults on them what Fiedler calls "rape from below." For Stella, this simply adds to the fun; for Blanche, it presumably adds to the horror.

We know that Stella was "thrilled" when Stanley broke the light bulbs with her slipper on their wedding night and that she nearly goes crazy when he is away on the road. The notion that women enjoy this kind of brute sexuality has long been a commonplace in popular literature. After all, an entire genre of romance novels, which are purchased almost exclusively by women, is called "bodice rippers." In one of the most memorable scenes in the greatest romance novel of all time, Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler takes Scarlett by force in what is quite literally an act of marital rape. After quoting this scene in the novel, Fiedler writes: "Finally, however, [Scarlett] likes it (as perhaps only a female writer would dare to confess, though there are echoes of D. H. Lawrence in the passage), likes being mastered by the dark power of the male, likes being raped" (What Was Literature?).

We have a similar phenomenon in the relationship of Stanley and Stella, except that Stella does not even put up token resistance. In the scene from Gone With the Wind, Rhett carries a protesting Scarlett up the staircase of their mansion. In Streetcar, we have a scene that is almost the mirror opposite. After Stanley has gone ape on his poker night and hit the pregnant Stella, she and Blanche flee upstairs to Eunice's apartment. When he realizes what has happened, Stanley proceeds to scream (with heaven-splitting violence): "STELL-LAHHHHH." According to the stage directions:

The low-tone clarinet moans. The door upstairs opens again. Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose around her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the dark flat.

(Like Scarlett, Stella wears a look of serene contentment on the morning after.)

If there is a single scene in Streetcar that remains in the memory, it is this one. The film version has been endlessly replayed as a kind of touchstone in the history of the cinema. Moreover, it has been parodied and spoofed by countless impressionists and nightclub comedians. Now a permanent part of our popular culture, this scene can be said to sum up iconographically what Streetcar is all about. For men, it is a fantasy of complete domination; for women, one of complete submission.

Like other works that have entered the realm of popular myth, Streetcar loses none of its power when transferred to another medium. This fact is particularly astonishing when one considers that, in bringing this play to the screen, Williams and director Elia Kazan faced not only the normal aesthetic challenges of such an undertaking but a battle with the censors, as well. The story has been frequently told of the many lines of vulgar or suggestive dialogue that had to be bowdlerized. Then, there was the insistence that any hint of Allan Grey's homosexuality be removed. Finally, the censors would allow Stanley's rape of Blanche to remain only if Stella would punish Stanley by leaving him (on the assumption that only the breakup of this home could preserve traditional family values). Nevertheless, the subversive appeal of the play manages to survive.

The sanitizing of Williams's language (which is not all that shocking when judged by today's standards) is about as effective as the bleeping of profanity on television. Adult theatregoers know how people such as Stanley Kowalski talk without having to hear the actual words. Besides, more than enough sexual energy is conveyed by Marlon Brando's body language and magnetic screen presence. The issue of Allan's homosexuality is not crucial, either. In talking about her husband's weakness, Blanche at least implies a deviancy that dare not speak its name. It is perhaps even more in character for her to withhold the sordid details from Mitch.

Finally, when Stella leaves Stanley in the movie (just after Blanche has been escorted out of the apartment by the psychiatrist and the Matron), it is not for the first time. She has left him many times before, most recently in the aftermath of the poker game. As Maurice Yacowar points out, "Stella's last speech is undercut by several ironies. She expresses her resolve to leave to the baby, not to the rather more dangerous Stanley. And she does not leave the quarter, but just goes upstairs to Eunice's apartment; and Stanley's call had been enough to bring her back from Eunice's before." When the movie closes with Stanley screaming for Stella, it is difficult not to visualize her returning much as she had in that earlier unforgettable scene.

It is more than a little ironic that Tennessee Williams, the homosexual misfit, should have written such an aggressively heterosexual play. As a man who shared many of Blanche's faults (promiscuity, self-hatred, and paranoia, though never hypocrisy), he must have felt closer to her than most of his audiences do, pity being the greatest kindness that most of these strangers are willing to extend to her. Certainly, it takes a jaundiced view of home and family to present the Kowalski household as their embodiment. But that is exactly what Streetcar does. For nearly fifty years there has been a place in the American imagination where it is always three a.m., and a man in a torn t-shirt screams for his wife with "heaven-splitting violence." Despite the protests of film censors and outraged feminists, she will always slip down the rickety stairs and into his arms. This is because "there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem unimportant," and because "life has got to go on. No matter what happens." As long as people continue to believe such things, A Streetcar Named Desire will keep running.

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