“Tragedies present an extreme form of disorder… which often leads to the death of a central character”. -Coyle. In what ways and to what extent does Williams’ use of language and dramatic techniques suggest that the portrayal of disorder indicates that the play can be regarded as a tragedy? With close study to scenes 1, 5 and 11. Disorder is a recurring theme in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and plays a pivotal part in the play becoming a tragedy.
This disorder is displayed throughout the play through many devices such as characterisation, setting, music and stage direction. An undercurrent of disorder is evident from the very first scene. This is when the plays main protagonist, Blanche DuBois, describes her journey; “Take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and get off at-Elysian Fields! ” This journey is a metaphor for Blanche’s life and especially her downfall, and the link from desire to death, or at least a psychological death, as we find out later in the play.
We understand that, like the streetcar, Blanche rides desire, and this is a metaphor for her sexual activity in the wake of the suicide of her husband, Alan, which leads to her eventual psychological death. This psychological death is symbolised by “Cemeteries”. Finally, Elysian Fields symbolises the end of Blanche’s life journey. Elysian Fields, in Greek mythology, is a resting place for the dead. This sort of metaphorical prolepsis so early in the play allows the audience an early insight into Blanche’s exit from reality and the possible disorder yet to come in the play.
Throughout the play we are shown the conflict between the play’s main antagonist, Stanley, and protagonist, Blanche. In this case, Blanche’s very arrival creates disorder as Stanley and Blanche are polar opposites in almost every aspect. Stanley represents the new American idealism of hard work and reward whereas Blanche represents the Old Money Southern ideals. As a fading Southern Belle she contrasts with Stanley’s blunt, colloquialistic language which displays a primeval instinct. The way in which he talks to Stella in the first scene displays his alpha male role: “Stella!
Meat! ” In order for Blanche to fulfil her potential of being a tragic character and the play to become a tragedy, Williams has used Stanley to feed upon her tragic flaws in order to lead her to her downfall. He uses Stanley’s patriarchal nature in order to dominate Blanche’s weakness and, despite Blanche’s better education, the audience is shown through their early squabble over the Napoleonic Code that this is a conflict that Stanley will win through his dominance. By scene 5 Blanche’s and Stanley’s conflict has become more evident as the scene has a threatening undertone.
Williams notes that Blanche’s voice, when answering Stanley’s questions about her past, contains a “note of fear”. This shows that Blanche is scared of exposing the secrets of her past to Stanley, as she sees him as a character that could easily prey on her shortcomings and, as she is already losing her battle with Stanley, this could lead to her losing complete control in their conflict. We see quite clearly that she is right by scene 11. This scene is a downbeat coda to the melodramatic scene of her rape.
She has been sent completely mad after being raped by Stanley and is confined to herself. We are able to see this through her panicking and anxiety. She claims in scene 11 that the Kowalski household “is a trap”. Her hysterical vivacity shares links with her clash with Stanley and the events carrying disorder that have taken place during her stay. Notably, she also no longer conflicts with Stanley’s character in this scene as she has completely succumbed to his brutality. She has lost her battle and her tragic flaws have led to her eventual downfall of a living death.
A dramatic device which reoccurs throughout the play is Blanche’s necessity to bathe. Blanche is often in the bath and she is constantly trying to clean herself. Furthermore it may provide evidence that Blanche is repulsed by her past sordid deeds and that she may in fact be cleansing herself of them. This is similar to the character of Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” who, after committing murder, believes she cannot was the blood from her hands and repeatedly washes them to rid them of the stains.
This dramatic device is intensified in the 11th scene when Blanche ven questions “Are those grapes washed? ” On the other hand this does contrast with Stanley’s character as when he takes a shower after beating his wife he is able to come out remorseful and cleansed; “I want my baby” This highlights the difference in Blanche and Stanley’s character and mental state and also shows Blanche’s slipping grip on reality as she cannot heal the mental scars gained from her past. Later, in scene 5, we are reminded of the delicate, moth-like nature we were first exposed to when Blanche was being described to us by Williams.
This is shown best when Blanche hesitantly discusses her sexual desire and how she had to “court the favour of the hard ones” and put on “the colours of butterfly wings”. This helps us to recall our first impressions of Blanche and allows us to compare what we now know about her to our initial impressions. It shows us that Blanche’s character is changing, and that she is no longer a character that we can fully trust. The fact that she is no longer as trustworthy as before creates a divide in the audience, as it causes them to side with either Blanche or Stanley.
In the 1950’s stage and film versions this would have been stirred by Marlon Brando’s controversial, but also likeable tour de force as Stanley Kowalski as he portrayed a figure who, in spite of his faults, still represented the New American idealism. This creates an atmosphere of unrest and is a perfect example of how Williams uses characterisation to depict disorder. Furthermore in scene 5 we are reminded of Blanche’s flirtatious nature. This is used by Williams to present a contrast in Blanche’s character as it shows her ability, or possibly urge, to self-destruct.
Despite her desire to marry Mitch, she is prepared to risk it in one flirtatious episode. It also pinpoints Williams’ intention to paint a picture of a character that the audience cannot fully trust and arouse doubts about her delicate and lady-like nature. This confirms her tragic status as Blanche is a bundle of contradictions, a character who composes herself of a blend of fact and fiction for the audience to decipher. This scene also hints at Blanche’s sexually marred past such as her blunt innuendo; “You make my mouth water”.
She also exclaims that she has “to be good and keep her hands of small children”. For most audiences, this puts an end to all hope of a prosperous outcome for Blanche and once again condemns her to the fate of a tragic hero. By scene 11 we are exposed to this very character, a Blanche who is totally devoid from reality. She maintains a quiet dignity whereas in earlier scenes she displayed an advertised vanity and hubris. When exiting the house on the arm of the doctor she claims that she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers”.
This proves to the audience once and for all that Stanley has won their conflict. This final scene shows Blanche’s psychological death, the Elysian Fields section of her downfall. This provides the audience with evidence to regard the play as a tragedy as it shows the protagonist, or tragic hero, overcome by their tragic flaw leading to their own death, or in the case of Blanche, a living death. In addition, music is used as a dramatic device to convey disorder. In the stage directions Williams tells us that the blue piano is used to signify disorder.
Although it can only be heard, in the stage version of the play, the pianos tune changes and intensifies to signify the emotions of the characters and the atmosphere of the scene such as when Williams explains “the ‘blue piano expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here”. However, this is not the only piece of music which is used to portray disorder. Contrary to the blue piano played for the audience, there is a polka tune, “Varsouviana”, that only Blanche can hear.
We understand that it is unheard by characters other than Blanche when Mitch asks “What Music? ” This music carries particular dramatic weight as it reminds Blanche of the last dance she shared with her husband before he shot himself. The intense mood of the blue piano perfectly depicts the disorder in the play, whereas the polka tune portrays the madness in Blanche’s mind. In conclusion, Williams uses language and dramatic techniques through many means to create an atmosphere of disorder.
In particular, highlighting Blanche’s tragic flaw of desire prepares the audience for her demise. Furthermore, Williams also brings renaissance-style tragedy to the modern tragedy genre. This is by presenting the classic tragic protagonist loses out to the antagonist of the play through their fatal tragic flaw. Finally, it perfectly fits the criteria of modern tragedy as it involves ordinary people in a tragic situation, in which the central character dies, albeit psychologically.