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Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski: polar opposites

Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski: polar opposites Photo: Richard Campbell.

Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski just might be the most contrasting characters found in modern drama. Practically every aspect about them is a polar opposite, from their gender and background to their outlook towards life.

While every production takes a different approach to these two fascinating characters, playwright Tennessee Williams wanted Blanche and Stanley to be evenly matched, having ‘a balance of power’. The richness of A Streetcar Named Desire’s text is found not necessarily within the plot but within the power struggle between these two icons of modern theatre.

Romanticism versus Reality

They practically begin the play in opposition. Stanley enters first, dressed in blue denim and carrying a blood-stained pack of meat. He’s boisterous as he enters, and he happily tosses the meat to wife Stella—literally ‘bringing home the bacon’. Blanche enters soon after, ‘daintily dressed’ and looking like she’s ‘arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party’ with fine, white clothing. She has taste, but she’s fragile and seems lost. Famously, Williams compares her to a moth in these opening moments.

Much has been made of Stanley’s ‘animalistic’ nature which is in contrast to Blanche’s refined tastes, but practically every aspect of their being is a juxtaposition. Blanche believes in a warm romanticised past that should be preserved, while Stanley believes in a cold, stark realism. Blanche spends the entire play trying to conceal through illusion, whereas Stanley constantly attempts to uncover truth to show reality.

According to Elia Kazan, the original Broadway production’s director, Blanche believes ‘light and culture are dying in the barbaric modern world’, a world Stanley represents. This is highlighted in Blache’s exchange with Mitch, when she says: I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell them what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!’

Even the characters’ background is in opposition. The play is about uncovering the truth about Blanche’s rather complicated past where little is ever known about Stanley’s history (other than his Polish roots and that he served in the US Army during WWII). Even the location of the play’s setting in the French Quarter of New Orleans is a contrast: Blanche comes from a privileged white background, a plantation that would have had an established racial divide, but the play is set in a community that was famously multi-racial—a rare place in America where different races lived, worked and socialised with each other.

Sexuality

While one can find rich contrasts throughout the play, Williams’ offers a rather colourful, complicated one through sex. Yes, the play can be seen as a ‘war of the sexes’ embodied between Blanche and Stanley, but in many ways that is too easy of a reading.

Williams offers something far more complicated here: Streetcar just might be the first major play to perform on Broadway where sexuality was a major theme. All of the major characters of the play have blunt sexual appetites—including the women. In speaking about Stanley, Gore Vidal said that the character ‘changed the concept of sex in America. Before him, no male was considered erotic’. His sexual charge was considered a form of masculine truth, and audiences were enthralled.

Blanche, however, became seen as a ‘nymphomaniac’ and even had the term ‘slut’ branded about. Her name of ‘blanche’, highlighting the concepts of purity and cleanliness, can be seen not as a truth but as irony on her sex life.

Contrasting intents

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these two characters is the fact that neither has evil intent. It is their contrasting natures that lead to inevitable conflict, perhaps brought upon due to their own limited perceptions.

Blanche might be a symbol of a lost elegant world of manners, but she also has moments of cruelty and can be blinded by desire. Stanley has moments of brutality and can lash out, but he also has moments of tenderness and continuously tries to be a good husband and friend by pursuing truth.

Through the dramatic conflict between Blanche and Stanley, theatre is given an explosive confrontation on the battle lines of class, gender and American ideals. Both also desire what the other has: Blanche is attracted to Stanley’s working-class masculinity which she also claims to hate; Stanley is fascinated by Blanche’s qualities of aristocratic arrogance and blatant sexuality, which he also comes to despise.

A Streetcar Named Desire is sparked not by a plot-driven narrative but through the explosive energy that is created through these characters’ constant struggle for supremacy over the other.

© Michael Cox

A Streetcar Named Desire
1st Sep to 7th Oct, 2017.

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