1.1 The Concept of Class
1.2 Film Theories
2 Tennessee Williams – Some Biographical Notes
3 The Plays
3.1 A Streetcar Named Desire
3.2 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
3.3 Sweet Bird of Youth
3.4 Aspects of Class in the Plays
4 The Film Adaptations
4.1 Tennessee Williams and Hollywood
4.2 A Streetcar Named Desire
4.3 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
4.4 Sweet Bird of Youth
4.5 Aspects of Class in the Film Adaptations
illustration not visible in this excerpt
Tennessee Williams is one of America's greatest playwrights whose talents of creating tension and atmosphere went beyond the métier of theatre and were convincing in the field of motion pictures, too. Elia Kazan, the successful theatre and film director, particularly admired the artist’s gift of evoking emotions:
[Williams] has a positive genius for dealing with subject matter that is on everyone’s mind and part of everyone’s experience, but which has not been dealt with by other writers. (Baer, 16)
In this thesis, however, I shall not attempt at evaluating Williams’s total works. Rather, my object is a comparative analysis of select plays by Tennessee Williams and of their film adaptations: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947, 1951), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955, 1958), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1959, 1962). Special attention has been given to examining the social differences in the plays and films. By focussing on the methods of characterisation employed I shall investigate more or less typical class representations in the two different media. I shall work out the social politics of the playwright, theatre and film directors, and – as far as possible – the actors’ and actresses’ contributions to the dramatic contents. The multitude of interpretations and variations usually gives proof to the value of artistic works.
The methods applied in this thesis are literary research and film studies. As a matter of course, I analysed the plays on their written basis, which raises the general question to what extent the perceptions by the audience and the reader differ. ‘The readers of a play must use their imagination to flesh out the characters, and to place them in an appropriate setting’ (Sambrook, 6). Williams gives very precise and evocative stage directions, which help the reader to imagine the situations in many details. Meaning is often conveyed by poetic images. By employing figurative language he tries to ‘paint a word picture or convey in words the quality of a sound’ (Sambrook, 48). The critic also notes that in Streetcar, these stage directions contrast and ‘serve to underline the uneducated speech’ (Sambrook, 14) of most characters, except for the DuBois sisters. The audience of a play or film, on the other hand, cannot perceive these aspects; rather, the spectators are confronted with a particular setting and with concrete actors and actresses. Additionally, the audience hears the play, including the intonation and emphasis in the dialogues as well as the background music and any additional noises. The reader, however, has the advantage of being able to reread certain scenes or the entire play; generally, there is neither a fixed reading time nor order. In this respect, parallels can be drawn to the viewers of film adaptations on video. The audience in a theatre or cinema, by contrast, experiences the play collectively and on one particular day. The performance takes place within a clear time span and is normally interrupted by intervals. Williams’s plays are certainly no closet dramas but written for the stage. The quality of the performance on stage, however, depends to a great extent on the artistic skills of the actors and actresses. It is up to them to create tension and to push the action ahead. The audience cannot influence the pace of the action. Thus, the advantage of reading Williams’s plays is twofold: the reader ‘can appreciate the beauty of the language as much as its dramatic effectiveness’ (Sambrook, 7). Moreover, the reader is able to dwell on a specific point of the play and to draw comparisons, parallels, or any other conclusions. In my analysis, I have benefited from this opportunity.
1.1 The Concept of Class
When it comes to defining the term class, its manifold uses cause problems with summarising all its abstract meanings. In this thesis, class refers to the characteristic features of social differences, as regards birth, education, profession, possession, and standard of living. Karl Marx’s theory of class is generally confined to the dichotomy between oppressing and oppressed people, possessing and non-possessing people. Yet, it is necessary to differentiate this rather rigid concept of class, as social differences do not exclusively result from these dichotomous contrasts.
Society is not necessarily defined by head-on antagonisms of rival groups; rather, oppositions are manifold, mostly gradual, and only rarely polar. (Mayer, 110n. 2)
Social differences also operate on subtler levels, for instance, as to language use, value systems, outward appearance, and etiquette. I agree with Ronald Macaulay that ‘[b]oth speech and physical appearance provide advance information about an individual’s age, sex, prosperity, and meticulousness, among other things’ (Macaulay, 1). The question to which extent these factors affect social differences will also play a decisive role in my analysis.
It is also important to note that the modus operandi of class formation is abstract and assumes that classes are created as social identities, which means that a collective share certain features and social relations. The members of a class demarcate themselves clearly from other classes. Yet, whereas these assumptions are valid on a general level, they do not necessarily prove true when it comes to detailed portrayals of individuals. Thus, the social class to which the characters in Williams’s plays apparently belong will only serve as a starting point for my analysis; subsequently, I shall explore the characters’ special qualities, which in some cases have a blurring effect as to their apparent class attachment. Since ’social difference, as part of one’s inheritance, is not received but assumed’ (Mayer, 110n. 3), it is worth examining how the characters of Williams’s plays express their strivings for certain social affiliations. I shall show how Williams’s plays deconstruct the myth of America as a classless mass society in which all citizens live on the same conditions as to consumption and possession. This illusion of a unified affluent society contradicts all sociological and economic findings which prove the still existing huge inequality of income, wealth, and economic power in the United States.
Bill Nichols’s concept of class includes another aspect: he emphasises the role of the audience and touches upon the problems of deficient class representation:
The question of class inevitably raises the question of audience. To what extent are we, as viewers, drawn into an arena of interpretive struggle where issues of class and historical consciousness fight it out with their transcendental, ahistorical alternatives? Questions of the representation of class and the urge to “get it right” are only a portion of the problem of reception and interpretation. Accuracy, authenticity, fidelity figure into representations that may remain caught within a system of narrative realism that proves incapable of representing what has yet to come into being. Realism and its vicissitudes may leave us trapped within a realm of verisimilitude (mimesis), where manifestations of dialectical consciousness remain partial, incomplete, or encased within the conventions of narrative agency that identify character with action, thereby making class into an abstraction without agency. (Nichols, 74 – 75)
Class representations in literary works are naturally subjective and artificial to a certain extent. The playwright expresses his personal awareness and interpretation of social differences through fiction.
[P]erception of reality is always already an interpretive act that is prefigured by a collective discourse that is produced by the combination of material and social conditions. (Mayer, 110n. 2)
It is true that the “faithfulness” and “authenticity” of Williams’s representations can hardly be measured for it is not clear what “authenticity” actually means in this context. Most critics, however, agree that Williams has a great talent for precise characterisations and realistic descriptions of Southern life. ‘Williams writes about what is. And his vision of reality is always a vision of corruption in the bud’ (Sagar, quoted in Fedder, 117). Williams approaches universal themes which go beyond regionalism and enable the reader and audience to draw general conclusions on the time and situations depicted in the plays.
1.2 Film Theories
Ever since the first motion pictures were produced more than a century ago, the specialities and problems of this medium have been the focus of critical reflections. The 1960s, however, are largely considered as the beginnings of steady film criticism. Film is often compared to various fields of art, for instance, painting, photography, music, dance, theatre, and architecture. The cinema’s “synthetic multiplicity of signifiers” has frequently been defined in terms of other arts: “painting in motion” (Canudo), “sculpture in motion” (Vachel Lindsay), “music of light” (Abel Gance), and “architecture in movement” (Elie Fauré). Stam argues that ‘the cinema “inherits” all the art forms associated with […] matters of expression’ (“Dialogics”, 61). The vast array of film theories stretches to interdisciplinary fields of study such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, literature, psychoanalysis, gender and cultural studies. Russian formalism, the Bakhtin school, the Frankfurt school, auteur theory, structuralism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, cognitivism – all these movements dealt or still deal with film theories in one way or the other. Film theories are hence marked by pluralisation.
Furthermore, the impact of political circumstances on the production and reception of films has to be taken into account. Hollywood’s dominant position among the film industry is worth examining from both a psychoanalytical and politico-economic point of view in order to show, for instance, how the “Dream Factory” ‘exploit[s] the spectator’s voyeuristic and regressive tendencies to maintain itself as an institution’ (Stam, Film Theory, 167). In the last two decades, critical reflections also dealt with spectatorship and its socially differentiated forms. The spectator was now seen as an active and critical recipient who compensated for certain lacks, for instance, the lack of the third dimension. The theory of “suture” focussed the attention on how the spectator is stitched or bound into the film, for instance, by the shot/reverse-shot strategy.
Contra earlier apparatus theory, it was now argued that the strong subject-effects produced by narrative cinema were not automatic or irresistible, nor could they be separated from the desire, experience, and knowledge of historically situated spectators, constituted outside the text and traversed by sets of power relations such as nation, race, class, gender, and sexualtity. (Stam, Film Theory, 230)
According to Casetti, the viewer is an “active interlocutor and interpretant”, who is offered a specific position and role. The ‘spectator can negotiate that position in function of personal taste, ideology, and cultural context’ (Casetti, quoted in Stam, Film Theory, 255). The spectator either goes along with the dominant reading, or is partly (negotiated reading) or totally opposed to the “mainstream” thoughts and the subjectivity they produce (resistant reading). These three strategies operate on different axes; the spectator may show a resistant reading on one axis (e. g., class) but simultaneously agrees with the dominant ideology on another one (e. g., race). The polymorphous composition of spectatorship, thus, makes it difficult to draw generalised conclusions on recipient behaviour. The heteroglossia within the spectatorship includes aspects of class, race, ethnicity, nationality, local attachment, community affiliations, culture, gender, and sexual preference. The spectators’ social, moral and ethnic positions, however, can be “temporarily bracketed” because of the cinema’s far-reaching “projection-identification” effects. Due to Hollywood’s unbroken dominance and international impact, film recipients run the risk of being “brainwashed” by one-sided (re-)presentations, for they often convey hegemonial, racist and misogynist ideologies. American commercial cinema frequently does not deal with gender and power issues in a critical and desirable way. Its prior social functions were and still are to ‘reinforce rather than to challenge dominant ideology’ (Robinson, quoted in James/Berg, 172 – 173). It is thus highly important to encourage the spectatorship to read films critically. A critical film reception, though, requires liberal, cultural and political circumstances. Yet, not only spectators are urged to be critical, but also film-makers should read their literary sources carefully. An adaptation may be also a critique.
As to film adaptations, another trope becomes relevant – “fidelity” to the literary precursor. In the mid-1970s, Geoffrey Wagner classified adaptations according to the degree of their “faithfulness to the letter”: (a) transpositions refer to a minimum of changes from one medium to the other; (b) commentaries bear some more alterations; and (c) analogies differ largely from the original source and represent a different work of art. Yet, these differentiations are very arbitrary and difficult to apply for adaptation categorisation. It is hard to define how much of the original “spirit” and “mood” is transmitted from one medium to the other. Moreover, a close transliteration does not guarantee a “successful” adaptation. The use of Wagner’s tripartite scheme is therefore questionable since film adaptations are in any case completely different and independent works of art and need to be seen as such.
Unfortunately, most discussions of adaptation in film can be summarized by a New Yorker cartoon that Alfred Hitchcock once described to François Truffaut: two goats are eating a pile of film cans, and one goat says to the other, “Personally, I liked the book better.” (Naremore, 2)
Today, “fidelity” is generally seen as less important in film criticism. Some critics plead to see the original text as “resource” and focus on the reasons for which a particular source is chosen. Dudley Andrew points out that ‘[e]very representational film adapts a prior conception. Indeed, the very term representation suggests the existence of a model’ (Andrew, 29). Naremore maintains that this assertion is true for all representational artefacts (cf. 9). Film adaptations, in this respect, are ‘a kind of multileveled negotiation of intertexts’ (Stam, “Dialogics”, 67). Every film adaptation is a specific interpretation of its literary source(s); the film directors – together with the actors, actresses and the crew of the set – visualise their individual views of the narrative, which are inevitably never completely congruent with the readings of the spectators who are familiar with the novel or play. In many cases, though, the spectators do not, or only partly, know the original text. It is thus one of the biggest advantages of the mass medium “film” to confront a broad audience with the – more or less altered – contents of literary masterpieces. Movie-goers clearly outnumber theatre-goers, and the range of television broadcasts is hors concours, anyway. The fear, however, that the film will replace the novel is unfounded. The masses of novels – of different quality, though – on the book market prove the unbroken popularity of the written word. Moreover, the success of a film adaptation frequently causes a revitalisation of the original source.
Deviating from the “fidelity”-discourse, Naremore argues that the focus of attention should shift from mainly formal to economic, cultural, and political issues. The theory of film adaptations needs
a broader definition of adaptation and a sociology that takes into account the commercial apparatus, the audience, and the academic culture industry. (Naremore, 10)
Time is another decisive factor in film theory: the time gap between the publication of the literary work and the film production as well as between the film production and its reception needs to be considered. Every work of art is a “child of its time”, representing contemporary socio-political circumstances as well as the state of techniques, methods and philosophy at the time of its creation. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, McCarthyism caused a nationwide anti-communist hysteria, which also affected the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In that era, the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) controlled the ideological content of films and books and applied extremely undemocratic methods to have film-makers, actors and actresses name names of colleagues who allegedly supported communist ideas. Kazan was one of those many informers who put the names of colleagues on the “blacklist” and hence ensured his own job in the film industry. Regardless of Kazan’s unquestionably great achievements as theatre and film director, many people in the film industry have never forgiven him his collaboration with the HUAC inquisitors. A further effective means of censorship was the Production Code Administration (PCA) certificate, which prohibited the release of films containing “immoral” elements according to “Catholic” standards. The film producers themselves founded this censorship office in 1934 in response to ‘intense Catholic lobbying efforts for “cleaner” films and over which a prominent Catholic layman, Joseph Breen, […] magisterially presided’ (Palmer, 208).
The film adaptations of Williams’s plays were produced on these restrictive conditions. Altogether, fifteen of Williams’s plays were made into films between 1950 and 1969, for seven of which the playwright himself collaborated on the scripts. In the second part of my thesis, I shall focus on the film adaptations of Streetcar, Cat, and Sweet Bird produced in the 1950s and early 1960s. The general, formal differences of the two media will be analysed as well as the main alterations in the screen versions. The shift of focus and the reasons for the different politics of the plays and films need to be clarified. The question will be raised if the representation of class and gender in the films is different from that in the plays. The theoretical basis for my investigation will be a blend or layering of various concepts and point-of-views, including, for instance, spectator- and gender-oriented approaches. I make use of the pluralisation of film theories by picking certain aspects which are applicable to my case studies in a meaningful way.
When starting with this thesis, I intended to analyse Williams’s Baby Doll as fourth play and film. This piece of art is of special interest as it is written as a screenplay, largely deriving from Williams’s early one-act plays 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and The Unsatisfactory Supper. When the film – once more with Elia Kazan as director – was released in 1956, it caused quite a stir among leading Catholics who felt responsible for the moral integrity of the American spectatorship. The film poster featured “Baby Doll” Carroll Baker sleeping in a crib. Her seductive posture and the ‘double entendre title falsely implied that the story was somehow concerned with the sexual predation of, if not little girls, then innocent gamines’ (Palmer, 225). Predictably, the Legion of Decency condemned the film. Yet, some Protestant voices spoke up for the spectator’s freedom of choice whether to watch the film or not.
Williams’s Baby Doll thus earned the dubious distinction of being the only film to spark a full-fledged and much-reported ecclesiastical debate, one that brought into focus the conflict between an older and an emerging view of how the film industry should function in American society. (Palmer, 223)
The film version, however, is presently unavailable in Austria and Great Britain. For some reason, Baby Doll has been taken out of the current range in the video market. Thus, I am unfortunately not able to consider this film in my thesis.
2 Tennessee Williams – Some Biographical Notes
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, on March 26, 1911, the first son and second child of Cornelius Coffin Williams and Edwina Dakin. His father came from a prestigious Tennessee family which included the state's first governor and first senator. His mother, a Southern belle and the daughter of the highly respected Episcopalian rector Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin, was of genteel upbringing. There were three children born to the marriage: Rose Isobel, two years older than Tom, and Dakin, eight years younger.
After losing his job at a telephone company, the father worked as a shoe salesman. In 1913, the family moved from Columbus to Nashville, Tennessee, and two years later to Clarksdale in Western Mississippi. In 1916, Tom’s diphtheria developed into Bright’s Disease; he was unable to move his legs for about two years. In 1918, the family moved to the urban environment of St Louis, Missouri, where the father took up a manager position in a shoe company. At that time, the mother had a miscarriage and felt very uncomfortable in the anonymity of the large city. The father started to drink heavily, and Rose’s mental instability began to cause concern. Tom’s sister used to be his best friend and ideal playmate because of her wild imagination and inexhaustible spirits, turning their back yard in Clarksdale into a fairy world. Yet, when Rose attained puberty, she was suddenly thrown off balance and never recovered. Her loss of equilibrium also strongly affected Tom. Alienated from the world due to schizophrenia, Rose was finally moved to a hospital in 1937. Her parents made her undergo a pre-frontal lobotomy, a questionable operation Williams highly disapproved of. Approximately ten years later, Williams could eventually afford to have Rose committed to a private clinic. Throughout his life, the playwright was close to his sister; he also worked her fate up in the short story Portrait of a Girl in Glass and in the play The Glass Menagerie, where the mother unsuccessfully tries to find a man for her crippled and introverted daughter.
When all the tragedy began in St Louis, Williams suffered much from the unhappiness at home but found consolation in reading and later in writing. ‘At the age of fourteen [he] discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which [he] felt acutely uncomfortable’ (Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays, Foreword, 9).
In the South we had never been conscious of the fact that we were economically less fortunate than others. We lived as well as anyone else. But in St. Louis we suddenly discovered there were two kinds of people, the rich and the poor and that we belonged more to the latter …. If I had been born to this situation I may have not resented it deeply. But it was forced upon my consciousness at the most sensitive age of childhood. It produced a shock and a rebellion that has grown into an inherent part of my work. (Williams, “Facts About Me”, quoted in Nelson, 20)
Now, the lower middle-class boy was knocked into class-consciousness. At the age of 16, he won third price and received $ 5 from Smart Set magazine for his answer to the question “Can a Good Wife Be a Good Sport?” A year later he published "The Vengeance of Nitocris" in Weird Tales.  In 1929, after a trip to Europe, Tom’s grandparents enabled him to enter the University of Missouri at Columbia. Although not distinguished academically, he greatly profited by his three academic years, studying in particular the modern European dramatists Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, and Henrik Ibsen. The Depression era and his father’s authoritative command, however, put an end to his studies and forced him to earn money. After some occasional jobs, he began to work as a clerk in the shoe company where his father was employed.
In spring 1935, Williams claimed to suffer from a heart attack and “recuperated” at his grandparents’ home in Memphis, where he wrote the one-act play Cairo, Shanghai, Bombay, staged by amateurs in the same year in Memphis. In autumn, he enrolled at Washington University in St Louis. His one-act play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton was published in manuscript in 1936. One year later, Candles to the Sun and The Fugitive Kind were produced by the Mummers, an amateur group of St Louis.
After graduating with a degree in English literature at the University of Iowa in 1938, Williams took a series of part-time jobs in Chicago and New Orleans. He moved to an attic apartment at 722 Toulouse Street in the old French Quarter and sent out scripts under the pseudonym Tennessee. In California he tried his luck as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Then, he went to Taos in New Mexico and returned to St Louis to work on Battle of Angels, which was the first play professionally produced by the Theatre Guild in Boston in 1940. In New York, Williams got into contact with the agent Audrey Wood and won the Group Theater price of $ 100 for American Blues.  In addition, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant of $ 1,000.
His one-act play The Long Goodbye was performed by students at the New School for Social Research (NY) in 1940. He went to Memphis and Provincetown, on Cape Cod, where he had an affair with Kip Kiernan. Williams kept on moving, staying at Acapulco (at the Hotel Costa Verde), in St Louis, New Orleans, Key West, Georgia, and Jacksonville; however, he always returned to New York for some time. He did not go to Europe during WW II as he was exempt from war service for health reasons.
The playwright began screenwriting for MGM for stars like Lana Turner, but he soon lost the job again. In 1942, an early version of The Glass Menagerie was rejected as a movie; after some modifications, the film was finally produced in Chicago two years later. The Glass Menagerie contains autobiographical elements of both his days in St Louis as well as of his family’s past in Mississippi. It had a very successful run in Chicago and eventually made its way onto Broadway in 1945, where the play won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the best play of the season. Hence, the playwright Williams was well-known and appreciated at the age of 34.
Over the next eight years, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, A Rose Tattoo, and Camino Real were performed on Broadway. In 1946, Williams started living with Pancho Rodriguez y Gonzales, until he fell in love with Frank Merlo one and a half year later. After a trip to Europe (Paris, Naples, Calabria, Sicily, Rome, and London) he returned to New York and lived with Frank Merlo, who accompanied him on his next travels to Paris, Rome, Vienna, Venice, as well as to Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Spain, and Holland.
In 1947, he received his first Pulitzer Price for A Streetcar Named Desire. Williams eventually reached a world-wide public when The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were made into motion pictures in 1950 and 1951. Not only was the highly successful play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof honoured with his second Pulitzer Price but also with the Drama Critics’ Circle and Donaldson awards in 1955. In the same year, the famous playwright had to overcome a temporary period of writer’s block and restlessness, which kept him on constant move. In addition, he became heavily dependent on drugs. In 1957, his father died and his mother was in psychiatric treatment; Williams himself consulted the psychoanalyst Dr Lawrence Kubie for about one year, discussing the reasons for his anger and envy, as well as the problematic term “hate”.
Nonetheless, the artist’s reputation continued to grow as many more of his works were produced on Broadway and made into films, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, Rose Tattoo, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana, and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
After Frank Merlo’s death in 1963, Williams moved with William Glavin, a paid companion, into an apartment on West 72nd Street. Twelve years later, Williams published his Memoirs. He died on February 24, 1983, at the Hotel Elysée in New York City by choking on a medicine bottle cap. His brother Dakin arranged his funeral in St Louis, against Williams’s expressed wish to be buried at sea, as the poet Hart Crane was.
3 The Plays
Williams is regarded as one of the greatest American playwrights and a great innovator of his genre. In his literary works, he repeatedly deals with the sensitive themes of homosexuality and violence. His belief in the falsehood of religion also shocked contemporary audiences. Most of his plays reflect his own family life and experiences with alcohol and drugs. In Williams’s representations, the family as the nucleus of society is not a place of protection and security. Rather, struggles with and within the family are the starting point of dramatic action. The home is transformed into a “battlefield” where mentally unstable and weak people are left defeated in the end. Isolated characters who are cut off from all family ties, for instance Blanche DuBois, fail to find back to reality. Many of Williams’s plays start after the family has disintegrated; subsequently, the audience is confronted with the results of the family breakdown. In most of the playwright’s works, violent actions – both aggressive behaviour and subtle, mental cruelty – have a strong impact on the course of events. Williams justifies the recurring violent elements with the ‘Aristotelian idea that violence is purged by its poetic representation on a stage,’ which means that the audience endure and tolerate aggression performed by actors and actresses because it is not real but imitated violence. It is even morally tolerable to approve of cruel actions, in particular if a “bad” character “really deserves it”. As to Williams,
[he has] always felt a release from the sense of meaninglessness and death when a work of tragic intention has seemed to [him] to have achieved that intention, even if only approximately, nearly. (Williams, Streetcar, Foreword, 12 – 13.)
Most of his “works of tragic intention” are set in the South of the United States. Geographically, the Ohio River parts the North from the South. Despite the diversity of the Southern states, they share their historic and cultural inheritance, as well as the same climatic conditions. The South of the big plantations and slavery, which remained up to the Civil War, is called the “Antebellum South”. Specifying the same geographical territory, the “New South” no longer implies the sense of colonial aristocracy but is rather determined by industrialisation. This specific setting situates the action in Williams’s own cultural milieu. The playwright’s ambiguous position towards the South, a kind of love-hate relationship, is reflected in his literary works; contemporary economic decay is juxtaposed to fascination with the past. He said once, ‘I write about the South because I think the war between romanticism and the hostility to it is very sharp there’ (Spoto, 139).
Some characters, for instance Big Daddy and Big Mama, Maggie, Blanche, Stanley, and Boss Finley, speak with Southern accents, which add a specific regional colouring to the drama. The characters make use of typical Southern expressions and syntax. To the reader, the special Southern inflections are perceptible through certain spelling variations: for instance, “hawss” for “horse”, “you’self” for “yourself”, “lawd” for “lord”, “yaisss” for “yes”;
Margaret: […] And when they infawmed him that […] (Cat, 21)
Margaret: […] Why did y’give dawgs’ names to all your kiddies? (Cat, 29)
Big Mama: […] Whacha took off you’ dress faw? […] (Cat, 32)
Big Mama: Awright, Sookey. (Cat, 34)
Big Mama: […] Cain’t I see he’s drinkin’ […]? (Cat, 86)
Tom Junior: […] Gawge, I want you with me on this boat trip tonight, Gawge. (Sweet Bird, 56)
Boss: Little Bit, you hold you haid up high when we march into that ballroom. […] (Sweet Bird, 94)
For Boxhill, Williams’s outstanding literary quality lies in the lyricism of his dialogues ‘that he creates out of the natural poetry of Southern American speech, an idiom that is at once rhythmical, imagistic and genuine’ (Boxhill, 25). Furthermore, local Southern expressions not only characterise the people of the plays but also express a circumstantial realism.
Williams’s talent of fleshing out the central characters of his plays makes Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy, Maggie the Cat, Laura Wingfield, and others prominent figures in American theatre. The focus of attention is often on the mental state of the characters, and they frequently ‘burst out in unexpected directions’ (Porter, 153). In most of Williams’s plays, there is an overbearing male figure (e. g., Stanley Kowalski, Big Daddy, Boss Finley), and a very emotional female (e. g., Blanche DuBois, Maggie the Cat, Heavenly Finley). Both extremes strive for surviving in a world that seems bent on crushing the human spirit. For Kazan, it is the realistic representation of the characters which is most outstanding:
All his characters are felt for. No one is a heavy. All are wrong and right, magnificent and foolish, violent and weak. In other words, Williams deals with real people. In his work you will not find the lily-white hero, the noble protagonist, the self-righteous moralist, and the other absurd stock figures of much of our drama. People recognize people. Audiences instinctively feel Williams is writing about their real problems – personal, social, whatever. There is also no infringement on the part of mystery and confusion that is part of every human soul. He doesn’t tend to clean things up, clear them up, straighten them out, oversimplify, or the rest of that kind of dramatic claptrap. (Kazan, quoted in Baer, 16)
Williams aims at the creation of a so-called ‘plastic theatre’ which enables ‘a closer approach to truth’ (Kallenberg-Schröder, 76). As regards the endings of Williams’s plays, they do not fob the audience off with overjoyed faces of “the good people” and with the punishment of “the villains”; rather, there is always some sort of attractive incertitude in the end, which admits various scenarios for future developments.
Generally speaking, Williams’s plays deal with a wide range of themes: sexuality (homosexuality, prostitution, nymphomania, voyeurism, castration, abortion and infertility), diseases (cancer, syphilis, neurosis, pleurosis), violence and death, as well as the gap between the Antebellum and the New South, the problem of fading beauty and youth, and the importance of wealth and public appreciation. However, there seems to be one ubiquitous theme which contains all others: the issue of social differences. Williams’s character constellations always embrace the entire social structure: the upper class (e. g., the DuBois family, Big Daddy, Boss Finley), the lower middle and working classes (e. g., the Kowalskis, Maggie the Cat, Chance Wayne), and the underclass (e. g., the prostitutes, the field-hands on the plantations, the servants).
3.1 A Streetcar Named Desire
Williams wrote several versions of Streetcar in 1945. The first two versions were entitled The Moth and Blanche ’s Chair in the Moon, and both refer to the female protagonist. However, the playwright then changed the focus of the play and named it The Poker Night. The ethnic identities of the characters, too, were modified several times: first, the family at the centre of the play was Italian; later, the two sisters became Southern belles, and Stanley turned into an Irishman, before he finally took on a Polish-American identity. Blanche repeatedly calls her brother-in-law a “Polack”, emphasising the low social standing of his ethnic group.
Most of the Polish immigrants before the 1940s and 1950s were not political refugees, or middle class – they were labourers, mostly uneducated and looked down upon. (Sambrook, 9)
Generally speaking, from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the majority of the nation’s industrial proletariat were Slavs.
In 1947, Elia Kazan directed the first production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Barrymore Theatre in New York. The dramatis personae was a star cast: Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Marlon Brando as Stanley, Karl Malden as Mitch, and Kim Hunter as Stella. Later on, Tandy and Brando were succeeded by Uta Hagen and Anthony Quinn. In London, Laurence Olivier directed the play with his wife Vivien Leigh and Bonar Colleano.
The play begins with Blanche DuBois’s arrival at her sister’s place in New Orleans. The atmosphere there suggests vulgarity and poverty. The heroine, a fading Southern belle, is shocked by the catastrophic conditions in which Stella, five years younger than her, lives: the two-room apartment is seedy and shabby; to Blanche, the ’raffish charm’ (Streetcar, 115) of the cosmopolitan city cannot compensate for the filth and noisiness of the quarter, which is crowded with prostitutes and sailors. By way of contrast, the two sisters grew up in the Southern ancestral mansion Belle Reve. Whereas Stella left and married a man from the working class, Stanley Kowalski, Blanche stayed and looked after their family. Yet, at the parental manor the people passed away one after the other, and finally the house and money were lost, too. Stanley suspects Blanche of having embezzled Stella’s share of the inheritance. Yet, his suspicions turn out to be untrue; Blanche lost the estate because of disastrous circumstances and economic decline. At that time, a woman was not supposed to have economic knowledge. In fact, Blanche simply lost everything she ever had: the estate, her family members, her husband, her job, her youth, and high standing. At the age of sixteen, Blanche fell in love with the young poet Allen Grey and married him. Yet, her husband was a homosexual and committed suicide. His death was the turning point for Blanche, who felt guilty of the tragedy; since then, she gradually faded. As a consequence of an affair with a student, she had to quit teaching. After the loss of the mansion, she moved to some local hotels, where she had many ‘intimacies with strangers’ (Streetcar, 205) and never paid any rent. Finally, she was expelled from the city of Laurel, Mississippi, whose name is a cruel pun on Blanche’s dishonourable leave. Blanche does not tell her sister about her shameful past but pretends to be on a leave of absence from teaching. In search of protection, she finds a possible husband among Stanley’s friends – Harold Mitchell, called Mitch. Yet, Stanley interferes; he finds out the secrets of his sister-in-law and tells Mitch, who subsequently scorns her. While Stella is lying in hospital to give birth to their first boy, Stanley rapes Blanche, which symbolises her death blow. Stella decides not to believe her sister’s story about her husband and stays with him. In the end, the defeated woman is transported to a mental asylum, where she will probably suffer another violation – of her mind and freedom.
The title of the play is pun on a tramcar named Daisy Rae that once ran through the old French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche DuBois, the heroine of the play, actually rides on two streetcars to get to her sister Stella Kowalski. The names of the trams and of the stop where she finally gets off already foreshadow the tragic course of events. These streetcars are symbols of the inexorability of fate as they run unswervingly along the rails to their destination. In the opening scene, Blanche says to Eunice Hubbel, her sister’s neighbour and friend:
They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields! (Streetcar, 117)
In the beginning, Blanche is still full of hope and desire that her sister will help her to find her way back to life. In fact, Stella is the only person left she can turn to. Most of all, Blanche desires safety and protection in an industrialised, capitalist world she cannot cope with because of her persistent belief in the traditional, feudal values of the Antebellum South, which no longer exist. However, the sexual aspect of desire is also true for Blanche: she is a nymphomaniac. At Belle Reve, she slipped outside the house to “answer the calls” of the soldiers; as a teacher, she had an affair with a 17-year old student. Then at New Orleans, she recklessly tries to seduce a young subscription collector. The vision of her own death also reflects her special liking for young men: ‘I will die – with my hand in the hand of some nice-looking ship’s doctor, a very young one with a small blond moustache and a big silver watch’ (Streetcar, 220). When she proposes to Mitch to sleep with him, she asks him in French, well aware that the addressee does not understand a word. She is a ‘moth [that] will flutter and not settle down’ (Sambrook, 22). Although she eagerly looks for domestic protection in a permanent relationship with Mitch, she flirts with other men. Furthermore, Stanley’s sexual power seems to attract Blanche. Some critics even assume that the heroine wants to be raped by her antagonist. Kazan compares Blanche to ‘a woman playing affectionately with an animal that’s going to kill her’ (Ciment, 71).
The name of the second tram, Cemeteries, anticipates Blanche’s imminent death at her sister’s place. She rides six blocks on that streetcar, which approximately corresponds to the amount of months Blanche stays with the Kowalskis; she arrives in May and stays until some weeks after her birthday on September 15. The street name Elysian Fields refers to the dwelling-place of the dead and is the equivalent of paradise in Greek mythology. Certainly, neither does her sister’s apartment resemble a beautiful abode, nor does Blanche find salvation there. Quite on the contrary, this place is a perfect hell for her. Elysian Fields may also refer to the asylum to which the heroine eventually is moved. ‘Blanche’s ultimate fate will be the living death of the asylum’ (Sambrook, 15). The ending of the play bears autobiographical elements since Williams’s sister spent most of her life in a mental home, too. In a way, Stella is representative of Williams as both feel remorse for their sisters’ impairment of life.
The dramatic action of Streetcar derives largely from the social differences of the two main characters, Blanche and Stanley. Both are products of their social classes, whose rigid world views do not tolerate any deviations from their value systems. Their contrasting worlds clash, and the new one eventually devastates the old one. Both protagonists are ambiguous characters. Blanche, on the one hand, represents the plantation generation of the Antebellum South. Her surname, DuBois, derives from her French Huguenot ancestors but may also be taken as a reference to W. E. B. DuBois (1868 – 1963) and his concept of double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the author, sociologist and civil rights leader explains the reasons and consequences of white Americans’ hostility towards African Americans.
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (DuBois, “Of Our Spiritual Striving”, paragraph 3)
In certain respects, this double consciousness is also true of Blanche. She, too, sees herself through the eyes of others, focussing all attention on her outward appearance. She plays the Southern belle with conservative attitudes because Mitch wants a wife who embodies these values. Two souls dwell in her breast, as Blanche wants both poetry, Culture, magic as well as social security, which only proletarian Mitch can give her. She is both an educated, aristocratic lady as well as a “nymphomaniac” seducer of boys. In the end, the struggle between these opponent strivings destroy Blanche.
The French name of the lost mansion, Belle Reve, also refers to European culture. The “beautiful dream” implies the notion of fantasy, which plays a major role in Blanche’s perception of the world. Her genteel pretensions, however, are particularly shown in her refined manners, beautiful clothes, and poetry. Her distinguished taste becomes clear, for instance, in the offhand manner in which she expects the poker players to stand up when she comes in. Blanche is well aware of social distinctions; her snobbery makes Eunice’s kindness towards her the most natural thing. At a later point, Blanche directs Mitch how to present the bunch of roses like a gentleman. Furthermore, the Southern belle is very disappointed when she learns that there are no occasions to show off her extravagant clothes and accessories. She is also familiar with poetry and easily identifies the inscription on Mitch’s cigarette case. In these respects, Blanche is the personification of Culture and clearly opposes Nature, represented by the brutish Stanley. Yet, her perseverance in the old Southern social code leaves her lost in a world where these upper-class values are no longer valid. Hence, Blanche is out of place and inevitably fails in the end.
Blanche’s alcoholism, promiscuity, and seductiveness, however, do not conform to the stereotypical picture of a distinguished Southern lady. In the second scene, Stanley comments on Blanche’s flirtatious and indecent behaviour: ‘If I didn’t know that you was my wife’s sister I’d get ideas about you!’ (Streetcar, 138) In the poker night, too, Blanche’s exhibitionism recalls a prostitute. She tells Mitch that she has old-fashioned ideas; yet, in the very moment of enunciation ‘[s]he rolls her eyes, knowing he cannot see her face’ (Streetcar, 180). The ambiguity of her character, however, is most striking when she gradually exposes her weak and tender sides, which seem quite contradictory to her bossy and arrogant behaviour. Twice in the play, she expresses her ”dependency on the kindness of strangers”, which shows her isolation from the family. Blanche is a woman who desperately needs protection, and thus the reader and the audience pity her and sympathise with her.
It is highly questionable, though, if Blanche’s intentions to enter a steady relationship with Mitch are really serious. The incongruence of the couple is obvious right from the beginning. The factory worker Mitch stammers monosyllabic answers and seems dull compared to Blanche’s high-flown eloquence; he looks clumsy as he presents her the bunch of roses and fails to entertain her when they go out; Blanche prefers the soft darkness which ‘hides the ugliness of the real world, enabling her to maintain her illusions’ (Sambrook, 57). Mitch, on the contrary, tears off the lantern from the light bulb because he wants to see Blanche’s face in the glaring light. On account of these differences, it does not seem reasonable that a Southern lady with genteel pretensions would strive for a marriage with a simple and socially inferior man like Mitch. Yet, despite their diversity, they share the need of someone to rely on and to live with. Once, Blanche compares their relationship to Alexandre Dumas’s novel La Dame aux Camélias, in which a Parisian higher-class call-girl renounces her lover. In Streetcar, by contrast, it is the lover who despises the coquettish woman. When Blanche’s hypocrisy is proved, Mitch ends the romance. He accuses her of deceitfulness and discards her for pretending to be virtuous. He neither understands nor accepts her explanation of the situation. There is a complete lack of empathy between them. Now, Blanche is nothing but a prostitute in Mitch’s eyes: ‘You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother’ (Streetcar, 207). In revenge for her disloyalty, he tries to abuse her sexually but flees as she starts screaming.
One basic reason for Blanche’s tragedy is her refusal to face reality; she creates her own fantasy world. Yet, she is not totally confused but remarkably clear-headed and frank about her special method of carrying on. During the final confrontation with Mitch, she reveals her full awareness of being a liar and foreshadows her tragic end at the same time:
I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! [Mitch laughs.] Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! (Streetcar, 204)
However, not only is Mitch Blanche’s counterpart, but regarding his shyness and slow-thinking he is also an opponent to the authoritarian and shrewd Stanley. Moreover, ‘Mitch’s interest in Blanche encourages Stanley to think of her as sexually desirable, and is yet another factor in the catastrophic climax of Scene 10’ (Sambrook, 38). Finally, Blanche’s destroyer is her brutish brother-in-law and antagonist throughout the play. Stanley represents vulgarity and aggressiveness; he could not care less about table manners and has a violent temper.
[… He is of medium height, about five feet eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the centre of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens. Branching out from this complete and satisfying centre are all the auxiliary channels of his life, such as his heartiness with men, his appreciation of rough humour, his love of good drink and food and games, his car, his radio, everything that is his, that bears his emblem of the gaudy seed-bearer. He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flushing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them.] (Streetcar, 128)
In these stage directions, Williams draws a very concise portrait of the male protagonist. Throughout the play, the playwright emphasises the characters’ different personalities, which determine all their actions. As far as Stanley is concerned, he is as ambiguous as Blanche; he is a brute and a sympathetic figure at the same time. His parents are Polish, but Stanley feels ‘one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it […]’ (Streetcar, 197). He does not tolerate being pejoratively called “a Polack” by Blanche. The working man is down-to-earth and has a strong head; his substandard language suggests that he lacks education; yet, he is shrewd and normally gets what he wants; he is a man who magnetically gathers people around him; he is a leader figure, which is shown in the loyalty of his poker and bowling friends. Stanley knows his place in the world and claims his “rights” wherever he is; he rules autocratically: ‘[…] I am the King around here, so don’t forget it!’ (Streetcar, 195) Therefore, the hostility between him and Blanche is inevitable since she tries to make Stella revert to the past of Belle Reve. Like Blanche, he is very class-conscious; he has married an aristocratic woman and is well aware of the differences in appearance and behaviour between himself and his wife. Stella is ‘… of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s’ (Streetcar, 116), and Stanley is proud of having removed his wife from her former life:
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 off them columns and how you loved it, having them coloured lights going! And wasn’t we happy together, wasn’t it all okay till [Blanche] showed here? (Streetcar, 198 – 199)
 The first year in brackets indicates the first publication of the play; the second year
indicates its first film release.
 In Streetcar’s eleven scenes there is no indication of a break for an interval (cf. Sambrook,
 Cf. Whelehan, 13.
 Cf. Kolko, 3 – 6.
 Cf. Stam, “Dialogics”, 62.
 Cf. Stam, 327 – 330.
 Stuart Hall defined this tripartite scheme (cf. Stam, Film Theory, 230).
 Cf. Stam, Film Theory, 231.
 Cf. Stam, Film Theory, 233; hooks, 312.
 Cf. Stam, “Dialogics”, 63.
 ‘In fact, adaptation theory has available a whole constellation of tropes – translation,
reading, dialogization, cannibalisation, transmutation, transfiguration, and signifying –
each of which sheds light on a different dimension of adaptation’ (Stam, “Dialogics”, 62).
 Cf. Wagner, Geoffrey. The Novel and the Cinema. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson
UP, 1975, quoted in McFarlaine, 10 – 11.
 Cf. Orr, Christopher. “The Discourse on Adaptation.” In: Wide Angle 6/2 (1984), 72 – 76,
quoted in McFarlaine, 10.
 The decision by the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to bestow
an honorary award on Kazan at its Oscar ceremony in 1999 was a highly controversial
act with clear-cut political implications (cf. Weinraub; Walsh; Baer, 158 – 173).
 Cf. Sambrook, 43; McCraw, 764.
 Barnes calls the father ‘a more or less typical American go-getter’ (108).
 Cf. Koepsel, 18.
 Williams’s complete works are listed in the Appendix.
 Cf. Sambrook, 69.
 Then, American Blues comprised three plays: “Mooney’s Kid Don’t Cry”, “The Dark
Room”, and “The Case of the Crushed Petunias”; in 1948, it was expanded and included
“The Long Stay Cut Short, or The Unsatisfactory Supper” and “Ten Blocks on the
Camino Real” (cf. Lester, 13).
 In The Night of the Iguana, Williams sets the action at ‘a rather rustic and very Bohemian
hotel, the Costa Verde, which, as its name implies, sits on a jungle-covered hilltop
overlooking the “caleta”, or “morning beach” of Puerto Barrio in Mexico’ (Williams, The
Night of the Iguana, 228).
 The film Streetcar Named Desire won the New York Film Critics’ Circle Award in 1952.
 Cf. Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays, Foreword, 11 – 12.
 The film adaptation of Orpheus Descending was released under the title Fugitive Kind in
 In 1962, The Night of the Iguana won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
 This is particularly true for The Glass Menagerie: In this play, Williams draws a sensitive
portrait of his sister Rose.
 Cf. the compelling depiction of Brick’s alcoholism in Cat.
 Cf. Kallenberg-Schröder, 74 – 76.
 Some critics use the term “Old South” for designating this territory, which is ambiguous,
though, as in a different context, the same term refers to the states on the Atlantic Coast.
 Cf. Watson, 190 – 191.
 Cf. Koepsel, 134 – 142, 146 – 149.
 Cf. Koepsel, 116 – 127.
 Cf. Sturm, 4.
 Altogether there are twelve different manuscript versions of Streetcar (cf. Kolin,
 Cf. Sambrook, 9.
 Cf. Boxhill, 76; Nelson, 112; Sambrook, 10.
 Interestingly, Streetcar’ s heroine is never referred to as Mrs Blanche Grey, which would
evoke a comic effect because of its double colour connotations.
 Koepsel notes that Blanche does not resemble the Greek nymph Daphne either, who ran
away from Apollo’s love and was changed into a laurel tree (cf. Koepsel, 79).
 The gender of the child is indicated in a stage direction: in the final scene, the baby is
wrapped in a pale blue blanket (cf. Streetcar, 225).
 Cf. Sambrook, 33.
 Cf. Ciment, 67. Most critics, however, argue that the play’s title refers to a real streetcar
named Desire, which once rattled through New Orleans.
 Cf. Sambrook, 38.
 Cf. Streetcar, 172 – 174.
 Cf. Streetcar, 177.
 Cf. Koepsel, 104.
 The Souls of Black Folk can be read online: http://www.bartleby.com/114/.
 According to Sambrook, the culture of the U.S. South and Europe meet successfully in
Streetcar as to parallels with the literary works of Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen (cf.
Sambrook, 69; Porter, 170 – 171).
 Eunice helps Blanche at her arrival to get into the Kowalskis’ apartment (cf. 117 – 119).
 The inscription is from a sonnet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: ‘And if God choose, / I
shall but love thee better – after death!’ (Streetcar, 149)
 Blanche exposes herself in silk underwear to the poker players (cf. Streetcar, 146 – 148).
 After the row and reconciliation between Stanley and Stella (cf. Streetcar, 155), and when
the doctor eventually takes her away from the apartment (cf. Streetcar, 225).
 According to Porter, the reader also sympathizes with Blanche because she stands for
the old ideals which ‘still draw sustenance from that subterranean cavern where
emotional prejudices linger;’ in this respect, Blanche ‘still exert[s] a real influence on
American society’ (Porter, 154).
 In the play, Camélias is spelled incorrectly, which may refer to Blanche’s wrong
pronunciation of the title. She perhaps only pretends to speak perfect French.
Furthermore, “Belle Reve” is also grammatically and orthographically wrong: “a beautiful
dream” translated into correct French is “un beau rêve”. The mansion’s name, thus,
unveils its being phony.
 Cf. Sambrook, 58.
 Cf. Sambrook, 38.
 Cf. Fedder, 85.
 Stanley is the bowling team-captain and decides where to play (cf. Streetcar, 197).
 Cf. Stanley’s suspicion of the loss of Belle Reve (cf. Porter, 166).
 Cf. Sambrook, 36.
- Quote paper
- Sabine Rohrhofer (Author), 2002, Aspects of class in select plays by Tennessee Williams and their film adaptations: "A streetcar named desire", "Cat on a hot tin roof", "Sweet bird of youth", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/4764