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Braman Thillainathan                                                                        English Literature


‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was written by Tennessee Williams in 1947, eliciting the most critical commentary of any of his works, as well as being highly divisive: upon its release, one reviewer defined it as the product of an “almost desperately morbid turn of mind”; George Jean Nathan criticised the “unpleasant” nature of the play, calling it “’The Glands Menagerie’”. Williams’ focus on realism, and the subsequent omission of clear-cut protagonists and antagonists in ‘Streetcar’, also drew glowing reviews, from the pre-eminent theatre critic Brook Atkinson, for example, who called Williams “a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough”. This difference in opinion does not stop at subjective criticism of the play, but even the specific genre which ‘Streetcar’ falls into. Many assume it to be a tragedy of some type, and there is indeed much to commend this view. However, the ambiguous nature of many aspects of the play and Williams’ inclusion of alternate dramatic devices has led many to believe that ‘Streetcar’ should not be classified as a tragedy, but as a melodrama.

In any tragedy, the tragic protagonist is of vital importance: everything is centred on the protagonist, their flaw and subsequent downfall. However, in ‘Streetcar’, there is large uncertainty as to who this tragic protagonist actually is. This equivocacy may be observed in the difference in artistic opinion between the play’s original director, Elia Kazan, and the play’s second director, Harold Clurman. Elia Kazan was a close friend of Tennessee Williams, who told him to ensure that “Blanche (had) the understanding and compassion of the audience... without creating a black-dyed villain in Stanley”. Indeed, from his director’s private notebook, published in 1976, it is clear that Kazan’s sympathies lie with Stanley, who he sees as defending his household against the corrupting influence of Blanche: for instance, Stanley’s seemingly crude violation of Blanche’s belongings in an attempt to find legal papers and his later physical violation of her person would have been justified in Kazan’s eyes, as the social incorrectness of Blanche’s intrusion into his domestic kingdom and subsequent undermining of his authority and values (“Well - if you’ll forgive me - he’s common!”, “He acts like an animal… Stanley Kowalski - survivor of the Stone Age!”, “Don’t hang back with the brutes!”) outweighs the respective incorrectness of his retaliatory actions (“Come to think of it – maybe you wouldn’t be bad to – interfere with…”). As such, Kazan’s direction dictated that Stanley be the victim of Blanche’s actions. It was even reported that some members of the audience cheered the rape of Blanche in Kazan’s production, with critic Signi Falk noting the “waves of titillated laughter (which) swept over the audience” . In direct opposition to Kazan, Clurman reallocated the role of victim to Blanche, positing that ‘Streetcar’ portrays the crushing of sensitivity (Blanche) by brute force (Stanley), therefore portraying the rape as such instead. These contradictory interpretations illustrate the crucial problem in labelling ‘Streetcar’ as a tragedy, at least in a strictly Aristotelian sense: there is no singular, defined hero or heroine, both can be interchangeably depicted as victim or antagonist. There is even discussion as to whether Stanley and Blanche represent either. Williams himself seems to support this:

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“I don’t want to focus guilt or blame on any one character but to have it a tragedy of misunderstanding and insensitivity to others” .

This has only confirmed the ambiguous nature of the play, fuelling and perpetuating the uncertainty surrounding it and taking it even further away from the Aristotelian tragic ideal. Additionally, Aristotle dictated that tragedy should chart the demise of a great person, as he argued that their cataclysmic downfall due to hamartia would evoke higher pathos in the audience; Williams focuses instead upon the demise of people in the dregs of society, ensuring that there ...

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This is a very strong essay - well expressed, perceptive and effectively researched, showing an excellent knowledge of the text. Occasionally there is too much context at the expense of analysing text, but generally, this is a well balanced, superbly crafted commentary.