Expressionism is Clearly the Most Powerful Dramaturgical Device is Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Expressionism in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” focuses upon a representative scene of the diverse cultural aspects of a New Orleans society, in the ironically named “Elysian Fields”. Williams introduces his characters through a harmonious multicultural fluency as contrasting social groups interact in normal life, thus permitting the audience to establish a familiarity with their common habits. Therefore the entrance of the southern belle protagonist allows Williams to completely manipulate the audiences’ perceptions via unique characters, symbolism and his distinctive expressionism using the “plastic theatre”.

Governing dramaturgical devices underline significant metaphors that correspond to the play’s context. Williams utilises symbolism believing that “expressionism and all other conventional techniques in drama have only one valid aim, and that is a closer approach to truth.” In similarity to other writers (William Faulkner) in the high modernist period Williams investigates the darkness of southern gothic by the potent symbolism on his tragic fantasist heroine. Her home in Laurel represents the idyllic dream of the southern past with its pride and riches. However there is a distorted veracity in these ideals:

  “…she has decked herself out in a somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown and a pair of scuffed silver slippers”

Here Blanche effectively summarises her own delicate past. Blanche’s “satin” and “silver slippers” emphasizes wealth, directly corresponding to the old South’s slave-based rise to power. However the undeniable connotation of the hendiadic “soiled and crumpled” suggests overuse and corruption, deflating the ethereal beauty behind the retrospective view of the old South. Williams supplements this message with sibilance on “scuffed silver slippers” creating a tragic poeticism. Scene one witnesses a similar description that runs in concord with these connotations as Blanche is seen “daintily dressed in a white suit” and “white gloves”. Alternatively her “soiled” quality may indicate discard and abandon despite her efforts to find a lover, also reflecting Williams’ past and his desperate search for a companion. Therefore Williams supports his ideas that “when a play employs unconventional techniques… it is actually or should be attempting to find a closer approach, a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are”. He achieves his task by Symbolism, underlining its importance in comparison to alternative techniques like Expressionism. 

  Similarly Blanche endeavours to sustain her veneer by hiding from the light. Light becomes a recurring symbol throughout the play that threatens to reveal her age, past and psychological instability. She underlines her familiarity with concealment during scene nine (“The dark is comforting to me”). During the play Blanche appears to show an affectation of cultural and monetary wealth in her grandiose manner of speech and behaviour. However when exposed to the light she flinches and cowers in fright hoping to veil her secrets:

“Mitch: Let’s turn the light on here.

Blanch [fearfully]: Light? Which light? What for?

…He tears the paper lantern off the light bulb. She utters a frightened gasp.”

The symbolic light reflects Blanche’s emotional frailty; she frets over the disclosure of her physical attributes. This delicacy is paralleled by the moth metaphor in scene one (“There is something about her uncertain manner… that suggests a moth”.). Blanche holds a metaphoric quality as it signifies the truth under the attractive outer shell. The memory of the old South could be interpreted in a similar fashion: with attractive ideals but a darker past. Oppositely the moth’s fragility may be indicative of Blanche’s own emotional weaknesses.

These potent symbols portray the contrasts between the protagonist and the modernernising habitat of New Orleans by using her to epitomize the incompatibility of lifestyles. “Desire”, stated in the play’s title becomes a potent symbol. Blanche’s dependency on men is intense and the gothic concepts of her tainted and overdeveloped sexual desires are characteristic of the old South lifestyle. Therefore Williams utilises her character to critique the treatment of women through the transition from the old to the new South. As a result the play is often charged with overtones of machismo and virility. For example the poker night:

“why don’t you women go up and sit with Eunice?”

… “Stanley gives a loud whack of his hand on her thigh.”

Stanley’s treatment of Stella is of a derogatory manner as he imposes his intense masculinity reflecting Williams’ description of “the gaudy seed-bearer”. However Stanley’s sexual magnetism attracts and satisfies the women underlining their dependency on men. Stella reveals this characteristic by granting Stanley sexual reconciliation after his abuse. This sexual desire is symbolised by both women in scene four through the euphemism of the streetcar locomotive. This is a track bound for desire (the “Elysian fields) and then for the cemeteries. This track represents Blanche’s fated descent into disaster as she searches for sexual partners in parallel to Williams; “his drug-taking and drinking increased, as did his frenetic search for sexual encounters” [Hana Sambrook]. Williams shares few implicit links to his tragic heroine; he regularly used sex for happiness and gratification (“Sexual liberation went hand in hand with confidence in his work” [Hana Sambrook]). Therefore Williams uses symbolism to reflect his own difficulties whilst investigating the role of sex in different lifestyles. 

Therefore Williams’ use of symbolism is a vital dramaturgical tool exaggerating the contextual messages referring to women’s roles in a modern world and the corruption of the old South. Characterisation is an equally influential technique adding power and meaning to the play. Firstly Williams chooses to use the romantic idealist Blanche to investigate the effect of insanity in a person’s behaviour. Blanche’s erratic emotional behaviour mirrors the theme of existential angst as she struggles to adapt to the modern North lifestyle. Like Mitch she retires to the bathroom for composure (“My nerves are in knots. Is the bathroom occupied?”). However Blanche is unable to alter her characteristic temperament to exist in the modern milieu. She fervently endeavours to control her emotional situation (“Oh, let me think, if only my mind would function!”). Blanche uses her vanity to prove her sanity although her obsession implies her mental condition:

“I feel so hot and frazzled. Wait till I powder before you open the door. Do I look done          in?”

This vanity reveals temporary neurosis as Blanche repeatedly frets about her appearance and her future. Her appearance is important to her as she uses her feminine assets to seduce men, which she reveals is the only way she feels she can prove her existence. This existential angst coupled with the modern hardships occupy her thoughts as she attempts to coexist with contrasting personalities like Stanley. Blanche’s mental volatility mirrors that of many of Williams’ female characters. Psychological volatility is a recurrent thematic touchstone through many of Williams’ female characters in his plays. For example “Rose” in “The Last Menagerie” is a sickly and disturbed sister of “Tom”. This is all due to his maternal and sisterly relationships as his mother allowed his mentally challenged sister to be lobotomised. He therefore accomplishes he feat to reflect his traumas on his literature (“I must find characters to my own tensions”[Nancy Tischler]). 

 Characterisation is used as effectively as Symbolism. Williams focuses on his character’s desires. For example Stella returns to Stanley out of a desire to be loved and for sex. It appears that she is successfully persuaded to return by Stanley when he bellows her name (“[with heaven splitting violence] : STELLLAHHHHH!]”). The potent tone of masculinity represented by Stanley’s primitive animalistic howls appears to stimulate Stella, which represents her attraction to Stanley (“It isn’t on his forehead and it isn’t genius”… “It’s a drive that he has”). Again Stella consciously underlines her sexual attraction to Stanley’s overpowering sexual presence and virility:

“But there are things that happen between a man and a women in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant.”

This blatant reference to her dependence on physical love states her inability to control desires. Williams uses this example to emphasise human’s inability to deny their desires. Here alcohol and sex are powerful influences on human nature. Both are key examples recurrent through Williams’ life and Blanche is used to reflect these “tensions”. Blanche attempts to seduce the Young Man, who is unaware and ignorant of her intentions. His choice of soda as “cherry” signifies his innocence and virginity where as Blanche’s “chocolate” symbolises seduction, before she attempts a less subtle approach (“You make my mouth water”). Blanche’s profane predatorial behaviour leaves her unable to control her desire for the Young Man as she forces him to kiss her. Williams uses Stanley to concentrate description on his impact on others around him whereas Blanche is described directly. Therefore he augments the conflict between the contrasting characters adding friction “in order to make rape more credible” [Hana Sambrook].

Finally Williams uses expressionism to control his “plastic theatre” in a completely unique style. His approach to realistic characters and a changing setting allows greater impact on the audience (“As the characters and the settings change, they appear less predictable and their unexpected ambiguity heightens the dramatic tension”; Hannah Sambrook). Therefore what gives Williams’ plays an exceptional uniqueness is his ability to warp reality through expressionism, a popular tool during the post modernist period. This distortion of the settings greatly augments tones and emotions whilst suggesting and powering alternative messages throughout the play. For example his use of music and sounds starting in scene one with the “tinny piano”, and the fricative alliteration of “infatuated fluency of brown fingers” primarily representing the fluid social intermingling. The connotations of “brown” signify racial division similar to the “Polka” and “Varsouviana” music. Other examples of music hold a vital role in the play:

“[Polka music sounds, in a minor key faint with distance]”

“We danced the Varsouviana… A few moments later – a shot!”

The “Polka” music is used as an expressionistic device to resemble Blanche’s emotional volatility. It fluctuates, corresponding to guilt and psychological pressure that Blanche experiences. As she explains her husband’s death there are undertones of regret and this affected her temperament similar to the other deaths in her family. Therefore Williams uses expressionism to give characters powerful multifaceted, three-dimensional personalities: again combining realism with lyricism.

A similar strength of emotion is expressed through the destruction of Williams’ tragic heroine. Stanley’s brutal realism deals with the verisimilitude behind Blanche’s Romantic illusions. His animal presence bewilders Blanche in scene ten and her insults referencing to “ape” and “swine” suddenly hold a truthful message. Williams presents this animalistic primitivism through light and sound:

“Lurid reflections appear on the walls around Blanche. The shadows are of a grotesque and menacing form.

Here Williams represents Stanley’s evil intentions by the menacing grotesqueness of the stalking shadows. However these shadows appear only around Blanche portraying the psychological torment induced upon her. Stanley’s potent aura of masculinity then provides the expressionistic device of the “inhuman voices like cries in a jungle” assualting Blanche’s senses and instilling pathos from the audience. Williams’ skill with dramaturgical devices heightens tension acting as an explanative device to demonstrate the magnitude of psychological trauma. The audience watch as Blanche endeavours to escape her fate through use of the phone. Her incompatibility with the modern symbol unveils how incongruous she is to her surroundings. Blanche drops the phone. Then “a clicking becomes audible from the telephone, steady and rasping”. Much like the heart in Edgar Allen Poe’s southern gothic “The Tell-tale Heart”, Williams personifies the phone as an intense, rhythmic “rasping” in a mocking fashion. Therefore the ultimate destruction is created for Blanche through the use of expressionism.

Overall it is hard to conclude that expressionism is the most powerful dramaturgical device in “A Streetcar Named Desire”. However Williams balances characters to give them a realistic quality augmented by the plurality of meanings supported by the symbolic objects and habits of each character. This symbolism and characterisation helps induce pathos from the audience as they sympathise for the tragic protagonist. What makes Williams such a success is his combination of realism and expressionism to give each character and each scene the desired undertones. Therefore expressionism appears to be the most influential dramaturgical technique.

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