What Can We Steal From Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”?

Title of Work and its Form: A Streetcar Named Desire, play
Author: Tennessee Williams
Date of Work: 1947
Where the Work Can Be Found: Streetcar is revived a great deal.  The last Broadway production was in 2012 and featured a multiracial cast.  You can also find the play in nearly any bookstore.  Here’s an idea: why not go to a local college bookstore and look for a used copy?  You may even buy a bunch of other great books you weren’t expecting to find.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization

Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams was one of the most important American playwrights of the twentieth century.  He was even a celebrity.  Can you believe it?  In the not-too-distant past, playwrights received Kardashian levels of attention!  (Well, maybe not that much attention, but you get the idea.)  In A Streetcar Named Desire, a destitute Blanche DuBois shows up at the Elysian Fields to stay with her sister Stella.  Blanche and Stella are Southern belles whose family was a part of the aristocracy.  (Note that I used the past tense.)  Stella loves her “low-class” life and her “low-class” husband, Stanley Kowalski.  Stanley is not happy that Blanche has decided to stay with them and feels that Blanche is undermining his authority.  He also thinks that Blanche owes him money by way of her sister.  (The Napoleonic Code, don’t you know.)  Please don’t just read a full summary of the play; allow the magic of the play to draw you in as Williams creates three of the strongest characters in American theater.

How in the world did Tenn create such complicated characters?  First of all, he gave them time to develop.  (That’s part of why I urge you to simply read the play or to see it in the theater.)  You can’t simply tweet a real character into being…unless you use an awful lot of tweets.  Which would defeat the purpose in the first place.  Think of a mother who loves her child, regardless of the trouble he or she causes.  You need to be that kind of parent to your characters.  Would you visit a random prison inmate?  Probably not; you don’t know him!  And he’s an evil criminal!  No, you wouldn’t spend much time thinking about the guy.   If it’s your child, however, you are much more likely to see the inmate’s humanity, to understand that he has hopes and dreams and fears just like everyone else.

Think of the famous “Stella!” scene.  (That would be Scene Three.) Yes, Stanley just threw a radio out the window.  And he put his friends in the middle of an uncomfortable situation.  And he beat his pregnant wife.  It would be very easy to make Stanley a moustache-twirling villain.  Instead, Tenn gives Stanley a softer, more vulnerable side.  After his friends rush Stanley outside, he is standing on the street, feeling as though he’s lost the world.  With the anger- and alcohol-induced rage receding, he realized that he’s hurt his “baby.”  (Not to mention the literal baby in Stella’s tummy.)  Against Blanche’s wishes, Stella rises as if pulled by a supernatural force and descends the stairs.  Why does she go back to such an unpleasant man?  There are a million reasons!  Stella doesn’t like being beaten, but…she kinda likes it.  And Stanley is weeping because of what he has done.  He “falls to his knees on the steps and presses his face to her belly.”  Mr. Kowalski subjugates himself to his wife and acts like a child.  Isn’t it more satisfying that Williams makes his characters messy and complicated?  (Real people are messy and complicated.)

Williams was also very good at communicated character detail very efficiently.  Only a few seconds into the play, Stanley Kowalski makes his entrance.  Look at what Williams writes:

Stanley (Bellowing): Hey, there!  Stella, Baby!

(Stella comes out on the first floor landing, a gentle young woman, about twenty-five, and of a background obviously quite different from her husband’s.)

Stella (mildly): Don’t holler at me like that.  Hi, Mitch.

Stanley: Catch!

Stella: What?

Stanley: Meat!

(He heaves the package at her.  She cries out in protest but manages to catch it: then she laughs breathlessly.  Her husband and his companion have already started back around the corner.)

Stanley’s first action is a big one.  He throws his wife the meat.  Yes, there are a couple ways of interpreting the action.  Stella tells her husband not to shout at her; he ignores her reprimand.  Like a caveman, Stanley has brought home a big hunk of cow and has given it to his woman to cook.  Stella is amused and titillated by the brutality of what Stanley has done.  And does Stanley care at all about her reaction?  Nope?  And we learn all of this from some rump roast flying through the air.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make your characters messy and complicated.  Admit it: you sometimes don’t understand your own thoughts and actions.  Why should your characters be any different?  Stanley doesn’t understand how much of what he does is motivated by his insecurity and Stella understands that she needs to be saved…but knows she doesn’t want to be.
  • Give your characters meaningful actions.  Stanley tosses dinner to his wife.  Mitch rips the paper lantern from the lamp.  Blanche sneaks a shot of Stella’s booze about twelve seconds before telling her sister she hasn’t had a drop to drink.  These actions pack a lot of characterization into a very short period of time.

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