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The setting for "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a modest, two-room flat in New Orleans. This simple set is viewed by the various characters in sharply contrasting ways-ways that directly reflect the dynamics of the characters. This clash of views speaks to the heart of the plot of this popular play.
An Overview of the Setting
"A Streetcar Named Desire," written by Tennessee Williams is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The year is 1947-the same year in which the play was written.
- All of the action of "A Streetcar Named Desire" takes place on the first floor of a two-bedroom apartment.
- The set is designed so that the audience can also see "outside" and observe characters on the street.
Blanche's View of New Orleans
There's a classic episode of "The Simpsons" in which Marge Simpson lands the role of Blanche DuBois in a musical version of "A Streetcar Named Desire." During the opening number, the Springfield cast sings:
Stinking, rotten, vomiting, vile!
Putrid, brackish, maggoty, foul!
Crummy, lousy, rancid, and rank!
After the show aired, the Simpsons' producers received a lot of complaints from Louisiana citizens. They were highly offended by the disparaging lyrics. Of course, the character of Blanche DuBois, the "faded Southern belle without a dime," would completely agree with the cruel, satirical lyrics.
To her, New Orleans, the setting of "A Streetcar Named Desire," represents the ugliness of reality. To Blanche, the "crude" people that live on the street called Elysian Fields represent the decline of civilized culture.
Blanche, the tragic protagonist of Tennessee Williams' play, grew up on a plantation called Belle Reve (a French phrase meaning "beautiful dream"). Throughout her childhood, Blanche was accustomed to gentility and wealth.
As the estate's wealth evaporated and her loved ones died off, Blanche held on to fantasies and delusions. Fantasies and delusions, however, are very difficult to cling to in the basic two-room apartment of her sister Stella, and specifically in the company of Stella's domineering and brutal husband, Stanley Kowalski.
The Two-Room Flat
"A Streetcar Named Desire" takes place two years after the end of World War II. The entire play is staged in the cramped flat in a particularly low-income area of the French Quarter. Stella, Blanche's sister, has left her life at Belle Reve in exchange for the exciting, passionate (and sometimes violent) world that her husband Stanley has to offer.
Stanley Kowalski thinks of his small apartment as his kingdom. During the day, he works in a factory. At night he enjoys bowling, playing poker with his buddies, or making love to Stella. He sees Blanche as an intruder to his environment.
Blanche occupies the room adjacent to theirs-so close that it impinges on their privacy. Her garments are strewn about the furniture. She adorns lights with paper lanterns to soften their glare. She hopes to soften the light in order to look younger; she also hopes to create a sense of magic and charm within the apartment. However, Stanley does not want her fantasy world to encroach upon his domain. In the play, the tightly-squeezed setting is a key factor in the drama: It provides instant conflict.
Art and Cultural Diversity in the French Quarter
Williams offers multiple perspectives on the play's setting. In the play's beginning, two minor female characters are chatting. One woman is black, the other white. The ease with which they communicate demonstrates the casual acceptance of diversity in the French Quarter. Williams is presenting here a view of the neighborhood as having a thriving, exuberant atmosphere, one that nurtures an open-minded sense of community.
In the low-income world of Stella and Stanley Kowalski, racial segregation appears to be nonexistent, a sharp contrast to the elitist realms of the old South (and Blanche Dubois' childhood). As sympathetic, or pathetic, as Blanche may appear throughout the play, she often says intolerant remarks about class, sexuality (in the case of her homosexual husband who was devastated by her negative comments), and ethnicity.
In fact, in an ironic moment of dignity (given his brutality in other contexts), Stanley insists that Blanche refer to him as an American (or at least Polish-American) rather than use the derogatory term: "Polack." Blanche's "refined" and disappeared world was one of brutal racism and denigration. The beautiful, refined world she longs for never existed.
In the present as well, Blanche maintains this blindness. For all of Blanche's preaching about poetry and art, she cannot see the beauty of the jazz and blues which permeate her present setting. She is trapped in a so-called "refined," yet racist past and Williams, highlighting the contrast to that past, celebrates the uniquely American art form, the music of the blues. He uses it to provide transitions for many of the play's scenes.
This music can be seen to represent the change and hope in the new world, but it goes unnoticed to Blanche's ears. Belle Reve's style of aristocracy has died away and its art and genteel customs are no longer relevant to Kowalski's post-war America.
Gender Roles After World War II
The war brought innumerable changes to American society. Millions of men traveled overseas to face the Axis powers, while millions of women joined the workforce and the war effort at home. Many women discovered for the first time their independence and tenacity.
After the war, most of the men returned to their jobs. Most of the women, often reluctantly, returned to the roles as homemakers. The home itself became the site of a new clash.
This post-war tension between the roles of the sexes is another, very subtle thread in the conflict in the play. Stanley wants to dominate his home in the same way males had dominated American society before the war. While the main female characters in "Streetcar," Blanche and Stella, are not women who are seeking the socio-economic independence of the workplace, they are women who had money in their youth and, to that degree, were not subservient.
This theme is most evident in Stanley's well-known quote from Scene 8:
"What do you think you are? A pair of queens? Now just remember what Huey Long said-that every man's a king-and I'm the King around here, and don't you forget it."
Contemporary audiences of "Streetcar" would have recognized, in Stanley, the male side of what was a new society-wide tension. The modest two-room flat that Blanche disdains is this working man's kingdom and he will rule. Stanley's exaggerated drive for domination indeed extends, at the end of the play, to the most extreme form of domination, rape.