Anger, deceit, snobbery, sex, madness: Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play about two sisters in a small flat in the French Quarter of New Orleans has it all.
The flat belongs to the younger sister, Stella, and her husband, Stanley (that Louisiana observes ‘Napoleonic law, whereby the property of the husband is the property of the wife, and vice-versa’ is a plot point), who are poor, passionate, and apparently happy – until older sister, Blanche, turns up, broke and needing a place to stay.
Unlike Stella, Blanche had remained in Laurel, Mississippi, in the family home of Belle Reve, to which she had returned following the death of her husband. There she apparently watched as age and sickness claimed the other members of the family, and increasing expenses and her own profligacy claimed Belle Reve.
Over the course of the play we gradually learn more of Blanche’s past, partly through her own revelations and partly through the discoveries of others, most notably Stanley. Exactly how much of what we learn is true is difficult to determine, as Blanche is mentally unstable and Stanley hates Blanche and pretty much just wants rid of her. He gets his wish at the climax of the play when Blanche finally breaks down completely (thanks in no small part to Stanley’s own reprehensible actions) and is taken away by a doctor.
The play is a work of social commentary, addressing then-contemporary themes around sex and desire and particularly taboo sexual behaviours such as (female) pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and rape. Female dependency on male provision and protection is also explored: Blanche is vulnerable because she does not have a husband to provide these things, while Stella is adamant that she will not leave Stanley to come away with her sister even after Stanley hits her. The often-complicating factor of female sexual desire, either for lovers in general or for a particular lover, frequently overlooked in more recent treatments of the subject, is also explored.
“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
– Blanche’s final line.
More subtle is the conflict between realism and idealism: towards the end of the play Blanche admits that she lies as a means of ‘creating’ a more appealing version of the world than actually exists, and at the end of the play she appears to have come adrift from reality completely. Though a realist, Stanley too allows dreams to overcome reality at the start of the play when he hopes, as Blanche’s brother-in-law, to profit in some way from her apparent wealth. Of the major characters, only Stella appears completely accommodated to reality.
This was not my favourite play ever, simply because it consisted almost entirely of shouting, screaming, and general unpleasantness. While this is certainly the reality of many people’s lives that doesn’t make it ideal, or even desirable, and while I didn’t particularly like Blanche and her snobbery, I can empathise with her desire to escape from the whole sorry mess.