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A Streetcar Named Desire

- A Modern Tragedy
A distinctive mark of the drama of the American playwrite, Tennessee Williams (1911-83), is to be found in his mixture of realism - in the dialogue and in the depiction of characters - and an expressionistic use of symbolic representation. According to the short biography in The Norton Anthology, Williams, himself, labeled his style 'poetic realism'1. A notion that captures the essence of his style more accurately than the common notion of 'social realism', which do capture the idea of depicting 'ordinary people' and their 'everyday life', but also connotes a dry style deprived of the poetry and magic we find in Williams' drama. A Streetcar Named Desire from 1947 is definitely infused with this 'poetic realism', but also inserts itself in a tradition of modern tragedies in Western drama.2 Bennett and Royle state that "modern tragedies tend to be about ordinary people rather than kings or queens"3, and it can certainly be said that tragedy and realism meet in Streetcar. Blanche DuBois, a Southern belle of aristocratic descent and the protagonist of Streetcar, is a famous tragic character in American literature, and her downfall - which basically is what Streetcar is about - obviously contains some of the epic qualities normally associated with tragedy. Most people, thus, would probably agree that Blanche's fate is tragic and that she has an unmistakeably tragic air. But is Streetcar a tragedy in the classical sense of the genre? It certainly bears some of the traits, but what really determines whether a story is a tragedy or not? In their discourse on 'the tragic' in literature, Bennett and Royle suggest - based on Shakespeare's 'great tragedies' and Aristotle's definition of tragedy in Poetics - that

Baym, Nina (Ed.):The Norton Antology of American Literature, W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2008, p. 2336. 2 Bennett and Royle mention Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House from 1879 as "one of the first modern tragedies in European drama". Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle: An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory; Pearson Education Ltd, 2009, p. 113. 3 ibid. 1

tragedy comprises four basic elements4. Firstly, we have to have a central character "with whom we are able to sympathize or identify." Secondly, this character "should suffer and (preferably) die" which "should roughly coincide with the end of the play". The third element, which is a bit more complex, is about the inevitability of the downfall, or, more precisely, about the paradoxical feeling - the spectator's feeling, that is - that this downfall is both unacceptable and, according to some inner logic, 'right' at the same time. The fourth element of the tragedy is that the death and destruction should not be reserved for the protagonist, it should also, in some sense, apply to the surroundings - and, ultimately, it should be felt by the reader, too, in his or her life. This element can be described as apocalypticism. In this paper, I will take A Streetcar Named Desire to the test, and try to determine to which degree the play can be said to be a tragedy according to Bennett and Royle's 'demands'. As for the first element, Blanche DuBois surely is a central character, and even though her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, is also a major character, it is undoubtedly Blanche who is the protagonist. Whether we sympathize or identify with her or not is harder to determine. As Bennett and Royle point out, though, it is important not to confuse this with 'feeling sorry for'. Rather, sympathy, in this context of tragedy, is a question of identification, of "experiencing and suffering with her or him the central character."5 We certainly experience with Blanche, and we also suffer with her, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Blanche is certainly no heroine, and our reluctance to take part in her suffering probably stems from the simple fact that we find her rather annoying with all her affected manners, her conceited feeling of superiority and her phony dignity. As we gradually discover the sorry state she is in, and to which degree she is fighting for survival, we perhaps come to sympathize more with her. But it is a sympathy that leans towards the sense of 'feeling pity', which deviates in quality from the sense Bennett and Royle are talking about. The second element is closely related to the first in the sense that the death of the protagonist is only tragic to the extent that we sympathize with him or her. Now, Blanche does not actaually die, but in the end of the play she loses her grip on reality, goes into delusion and madness and is being taken to an insane asylum. Surely, it can

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Bennett and Royle, pp. 106-116. Bennett and Royle, p. 110. 2

be argued that she thus experiences some kind of death, may it be a living one. And we do feel that it is tragic, particularly because of the way she is treated by Stanley most likely raped and then sent off to an insane asylum. It might have been otherwise, had Stanley not raped her, but his cruelty gives her the ultimate push into madness. It is important, though, to remember that her downfall started long before the play even takes its beginning. The arrow never pointed anywhere but down for her, and it can be argued that she was on the edge of a precipice right from the beginning of the play. This points directly to the third element of the tragedy, the element of inevitability. Given the outline of Blanche's life as well as her 'tragic flaws' of dwelling in a romanticized picture of the past and of depending too much on men (and notably, sexual relations with them), there is a certain inner logic in the completion of her downfall. It is regrettable and we can pity Blanche and her destiny, but ultimately it is, as Judith J. Thompson points out, "the way of the world".6 Yet it feels both 'unjustifiable and unacceptable', especially because of the injustices to which she is prone. It is a paradox to feel both things at the same time, but this irrationality stands at the core of the tragic, according to Bennett and Royle: "the tragic is not rationalizable, rather it is an affront to our desires for meaning and coherence."7 The third element of tragedy is thus very much present in the play. When looking for the fourth element in Streetcar, we have to make it clear what Blanche represents, since the death of the protagonist in a real tragedy has serious consequences for the surroundings and, ultimately, for the reader, according to Bennett and Royle. We may find Blanche annoying and conceited, but we do learn that she was a refined and likeable person as a young girl and that it is the brutality of the physical world that has destroyed her and banished her to a life in illusion. Stanley - being the epitome of the animalistic brutality of the physical world - gives her the final, severe blow in a long row of severe blows. Illusion of the spirit, as represented by Blanche, is clearly defeated by the vulgar brutality of the physical world, as represented by Stanley. Thompson points out that the expulsion of Blanche marks the end of illusion, just as the birth of the child "ensures that Stanley's brutish nature will prevail." She goes on to conclude that "in its dual vision, the play balances a lament

Thompson, Judith J.: Tennessee Williams' plays : memory, myth, and symbol. New York: P. Lang, 2002. p. 49. 7 Bennett and Royle, p.111. 3

for the loss of illusions with a lusty embrace of being." 8 The illusion of 'mind over matter' dies with Blanche, and that is perhaps Williams' 'apocalyptic' testimony. As I have tried to show, all four elements of tragedy can be found in Streetcar. The downfall of Blanche DuBois is a tragedy, albeit a modern one, where the protagonist is by no means a heroine, and, more importantly, we only sympathize with her to a certain extent. And only to that extent do we feel the tragic. The cynical, or maybe just realistic outlook of 'this is just the way of the world' is perhaps the imprint of the modern tragedy.

Thompson, p. 49. 4

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