This is a model essay written for fifth and sixth year students of SQA Higher English
Choose from a play a scene which you find amusing or moving or disturbing. Explain how the scene provokes this response and discuss how this aspect of the scene contributes to your understanding of the play as a whole.
In “A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams” we are confronted by the disturbing decline of the main character, Blanche Dubois, at the beginning of scene ten. She had attempted to maintain the façade of being a genteel and restrained Southern Belle, all fine manners, elegant dresses and good education for much of the play. However, her attempts to sustain this illusion have been confronted with the stark reality of her past and this has led to a marked deterioration in her mental state.
At the beginning of the scene we see the once poised and refined Blanche dressed in a “soiled evening gown”, a cheap rhinestone tiara and “slightly scuffed silver slippers”. Her attempts to create what she had previously called “temporary magic- the illusion of glamour and sophistication- have failed.
At this stage of the play Stanley Kowalkski, her brother in law and nemesis has uncovered the somewhat sordid details behind Blanche’s departure from her position as a high school teacher in the town of Laurel: she had been involved in an affair with a seventeen year old student and been discovered. Moreover, she had been staying at the hotel Flamingo where her behaviour could be described as morally dubious, with hints that she veered close to prostitution. As noted earlier, her attempts to glamorize her predicament and use the illusion of class that her clothing once gave her have failed. She seems to be unravelling before our eyes. The tiara is tilted, the clothing is grubby and out of place in the far from grand setting of a one room apartment in a run-down part of New Orleans and, most worryingly of all, Blanche is muttering excitedly to a group of “spectral admirers”. All in all, this is a disturbing portrait of a women going through mental collapse.
These are ghost figures from her past that have been evoked from Blanche’s troubled mind. Previously in the play Blanche has been in control of the illusions that she created, particularly in the combination of the prim maiden coupled with enticing seductress that she has created for her admirer Mitch. Now she appears to be in the grip of an illusion that is controlling her. The moment when Blanche slams a hand mirror onto the table in front of her is shocking in its violence, but also in the manner in which it symbolizes Blanche’s self-loathing and, perhaps, the flicker of self-realization that the ability to manipulate illusion and “Put on butterfly wings” has been lost.
We need to realise that Stanley Kowalski has taken definite and methodical steps to destroy Blanche’s mind. The play has been a struggle between the blue collar, working class Stanley- clearly a character who represents the power and the crassness of modern America- and the middle-class ethics, values and “Southern Belle” behaviour of Blanche: a remnant of the older American South. Stanley has been utterly triumphant in this struggle. Stella has refused to leave Stanley despite Blanche’s protests that Stella is too good for this “Vulgar” and “ape-like” man. In a moment of telling dramatic irony, Stanley hears these insults from Blanche, but rather than exploding in rage, which would only reinforce the accusations he bides his time and probes into Blanche’s past. Timing his retaliation precisely, he reveals Blanche’s past at her birthday supper and presents her with ticket home. More cuttingly, he has also informed Mitch of the accusations of promiscuity. Mitch is the man whom Blanche sees as a saviour, “a cleft in the hard rock of the world” in which she can shelter by marrying. Therefore the state in which we see Blanche descend to at the beginning of scene ten is the consequence of deliberate and cruel behaviour on the part of Stanley. Tellingly, it is Blanche herself who makes the point that “Only deliberate cruelty is unforgivable”. This condemns Stanley, but unwittingly Blanche also condemns herself. Her life has hinged around the moment when she told her first husband, Alan, “You disgust me”, prompting him to commit suicide following the implied revelation of his homosexuality. Blanche herself has deliberately and cruelly destroyed the one man she truly loved and has never recovered from this moment
Mitch, acting on Stanley’s information, has also belatedly arrived at the apartment to deliver the blow that he will not marry Blanche as “You ain’t clean enough to bring home to my mother”
Moreover, Blanche has been “drinking steadily” since the blow of the birthday party revelations. The anxiety and near alcoholism that have accompanied her character since the opening of the play are combining to loosen her grip on reality. Tennessee Williams makes extensive use of lighting and sound in scene ten to evoke the mental deterioration that Blanche is undergoing. Ominous shadows loom outside and the shadow play of a prostitute brawling with man seems to foreshadow the terrifying future that Blanche sees for herself. The negative aspects of Blanche’s character that have been hinted at or just about controlled up until this point in the play- her mingling of illusion and reality now seem to be combining for a disastrous climax to the play as she appears increasingly detached from reality and intensely vulnerable.
She has been totally defeated by Stanley and now finds herself alone in the small apartment with the euphoric Stanley. He has just returned from the hospital- the trauma of the revelations at the birthday party had forced his wife Stella into labour. He appears conciliatory and jovial towards Blanche at first, but hints of a predatory sexual nature establish themselves as he “licks his lips” and makes clumsy comments about ripping off his silk pyjamas to celebrate the imminent arrival of first child. It should be remembered that Blanche has in the past few hours undergone public humiliation from Stanley and the subsequent physical degradation at the hands of Mitch who drags her face into the light and attempts to force himself on her now that he has crudely categorised her as promiscuous and sexually available.
As the scene continues Blanche resorts to her old ways and desperately tries to weave another illusion about preparing to go off on a Caribbean cruise with the millionaire Shep Huntleigh. However, her inconsistencies in the story provoke an explosion of rage from Stanley who, once again, shreds Blanche’s illusion by telling her that he knows exactly where Mitch is. He then derides her clothes and taunts her about the absence of Shep Huntleigh. He has humiliated her, destroyed her hopes of marriage and security and is preparing to render her destitute by sending her back to Laurel. When he looks at her, it is with the “crudely categorising” gaze described in scene one. When he says, “Maybe you wouldn’t be so bad to interfere with.” this is the language of predatory sexual abuse. Stanley has identified Blanche as a woman totally within his power with whom he can do as he likes. Broken and humiliated, Blanche has become an object to be taken and disposed of: Stanley rapes her.
His self-justifying, “We’ve had this date from the beginning” suggesting that this is in some way a consensual act is chilling. It reveals that the way in which Stanley “crudely categorises women” seems natural and acceptable to him and perhaps to men more generally.
The scene is powerful and disturbing Blanche’s life of illusion is shattered by Stanley in a series of events culminating in the chilling rape. They represent they collision of different views of America, with Stanley’s powerful yet crude view of the world ultimately winning the day by crushing the illusion that Blanche has used to survive.