A comparison between the Plastic Theatre and Expressionism in A Streetcar Named Desire
Expressionism was key in many of Williams’s plays – so much so that it was he who came up with the term ‘Plastic Theatre’. Throughout his plays, and particularly in A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams uses expressionism to show emotions or themes which may not be wholly obvious from just the dialogue. In particular, he uses expressionism (which comprises of the use of costume, lighting, props etc.) to relate his plays to a sense of fraught, edgy emotion. Without the purely physical elements that define its characters, A Streetcar Named Desire would be robbed of some of the expressive subtlety and power that makes Williams’s work so memorable.
One of the central ways in which Williams uses expressionism is with costume, which he uses to portray different characters, and in particular to show the contrast between various characters. The “work clothes” Stanley first appears in represent how stereotypically male he is, as the breadwinner of his family. Williams also uses the “bowling jacket” to emphasise his superiority as they symbolise a proficiency in sports typical of an alpha male character. The same idea is continued with other male characters. When they gather together they are dressed in “primary colours” to represent the fact that they are “coarse and direct and powerful”, as shown in scene III. This shows how dominant they are intended to be, and how the power is intended to lie with them. Whilst Stanley’s work clothes show how at ease he is with himself, Blanche’s show the opposite. She is dressed in a “white suit with a fluffy bodice” as though dressed for “a summer tea or cocktail party”. This immediately shows her to be out of place and almost delusional about what she’s coming to, echoing the idea expressed through the street name “Elysian Fields” about her naïve expectations. Her “white clothes” show how Blanche wants to be considered innocent, when in reality she is not innocent at all – a technique often used by Williams. Again this is an indication of trying to hide her true character, as well as perhaps a deep desire to be innocent again and cleanse herself of her sins (most specifically, losing Belle Reve). Costume is also used to highlight other aspects of Blanche’s personality. For example, the fox fur-pieces that Stanley finds in her suitcase in scene II are representative of the animalistic aspects of her personality, and more specifically the sly, coquettish elements of her character; the “costume jewellery” he finds along with it symbolise how Blanche is always trying to put a façade and give an illusion of wealth that is far from the reality. Later on, certain clothes are used to show the desire and lust felt by Blanche. This is particularly evident in the way that Williams often uses red costume, for example the “red satin robe”, to demonstrate the lust that a certain character – usually Blanche –is experiencing. This is sometimes used to show the relationship between Stella and Blanche, such as when Stella is dressed in a “light blue satin kimono” to show her icy disapproval of Blanche’s behaviour at this point. Blue is also a fairly innocent and calm colour, in contrast to Blanche’s red, suggesting that Stella has greater control over herself and that she does not feel the need to assert her sexuality in the same was as he sister.
However, it is not merely the costumes themselves that can be used symbolically, but also what exactly is being done with these costumes. When Blanche “throws off her robe” in scene II, it is part of her attempt to flirt with and seduce Stanley; it is also expressing her sexuality, which she reveals metaphorically by revealing herself literally. This is repeated in scene III: Blanche undresses whilst discussing Stanley, again exposing her sexuality and her attraction to him. Conversely, when she gets dressed into a “dark red satin wrapper” in scene III this too is used to suggest her sexuality, and more specifically her sexual attraction to Mitch. In scene IV, Stanley’s “gaudy pyjamas” lying across the threshold of Stella’s room shows his imposing presence over both the women, even when he is not actually present. This acts to reinforce his dominant persona and his power over his wife. This same idea is shown at the beginning of scene II, when Blanche’s dress is “laid out on Stella’s bed”. This is showing Blanche to be encroaching on Stella’s space, almost trying to take what is her, and also asserting her sexual dominance. This is mirrored by the way that Blanche treats her sister’s husband – flirting with him – in an attempt to win over what isn’t hers. Whether she wants this simply because she is lonely and has nobody of her own, or because she wants to take from her sister in some sort of competition is not clear. The theme of Blanche’s desperate attempts at asserting herself is also shown through their exchanges with each other, such as when Stella says “I just got into the habit of being quiet around you”, which Blanche completely dismisses by replying “a good habit to get into…”
Williams also employs lighting to show the different aspects of character’s personalities and also to show their emotions at different points. With Blanche this is introduced almost immediately, as in scene I Williams describes how she “must avoid a strong light” and backs this up by his comparison of her to a “moth”. This shows how she is drawn to light – here meant to symbolise desire – but at the same time this light and desire is harmful for her. This idea is used to reflect the idea of the streetcars desire and death, and how one cannot be had without the other. However, Blanche’s desire to avoid a bright light, which is expressed so frequently (“Turn that off!”, “I can’t stand a naked light bulb”), is also representative of her obsession with appearance, linking back to the ideology of the ‘Old South’ which was so focused on outward appearances. This is supported by her apparent revelling in the light when she feels that she is at her best or in her element, such as in scene III when Blanche “moves back into the streak of light. She raises her arms and stretches, as she moves indolently”. This almost feline description shows Blanche in her element, and her ready willingness to flaunt herself when she is so. Her changing attitude to light also shows the internal struggle within her as she attempts to cling onto attitudes relating to the Old South that don’t really fit with her anymore: in reality she is desperate to give in to her sexuality but these ideals that she is grasping on to dictate that she can’t. This is shown again in scene III as Blanche “stands in her pink silk brassiere and white skirt in the light”, showing her revealing and exposing her sexuality yet again.
The setting is another crucial element to this play – partly because New Orleans itself was so important to Williams as the only place where he felt accepted, but also because he creates an atmosphere in which Blanche cannot feel accepted, but instead feels totally out of place. Williams’s initial description of New Orleans is very poetic and romantic: “a peculiarly tender blue, almost turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay”. He also describes an up-beat and lively atmosphere with the “entertainers at a bar-room around the corner” and the “raffish charm”. However, despite all these things that made Williams feel so accepted and at home, New Orleans is a place where Blanche cannot truly feel comfortable – an idea ironically represented by the street name “Elysian Fields” which should be a heaven but instead becomes her hell. This is the result of a series of ‘flaws’ in Williams’s description which would have bothered Blanche even though it did not do the same for him: the houses “weathered grey” are such an obvious representation of the kind of deterioration that Blanche could not stand and tried so desperately to hide in herself. Furthermore, the “infatuated fluency of brown fingers”, which is made to sound so poetic here, would likely have been far more uncomfortable to Blanche who, although perhaps not necessarily a racist, would certainly still have been retaining certain racist attitudes due to her position in the south. This whole description of a place that in many ways seems idyllic, but with flaws that compromise Blanche’s character, strengthens the impression that she is totally out of place and does not belong.
Williams continues this approach with his description of Stella’s house. Immediately the impression that Blanche will not be happy here is created by the “light blue” blinds, representing sadness, and also the fact that the house is described to be small – “two rooms” and “a narrow door”. This is clearly a contrast to Blanche’s expectations and therefore are part of the disappointment that she feels on entering the house. This disappointment is first introduced when she reaches New Orleans – “They mustn’t have–understood –what number I wanted” – and continues to build throughout the entirety of the play. Furthermore, the “folding bed” used by Blanche suggests impermanence, and also shows her up as a guest or someone who has enforced their presence onto someone, rather than someone totally prepared for or welcome. The idea of exposure that Blanche tries so hard to hide from is also shown in the set-up of the house, as there’s no door between Blanche’s room and the room when Stella and Stanley sleep. However, as well as the idea of exposure, Blanche also uses this to insinuate that Stanley would behave inappropriately by asking “will it be decent”.
Another important component of plastic theatre used in this play is sound, most prominent in the appearance of the “blue piano”, which is usually used to signify the feeling of loss, particularly in Blanche. For example, this blue piano appears when Blanche tells Stella about the loss of Belle Reve in scene I and when Blanche finds out her sister is pregnant in scene II – signifying her fear of losing her sister. In scene III, the song “paper doll” is played. This song is all about wanting a paper doll as opposed to a real woman so that the man can totally control her, and this corresponds to Stanley begging to have Stella back just after he has hit her. The implication is that Stanley wants to have total control over Stella, and really to be something closer to an owner than a partner. Indeed, a number of objects, or props, are used in Streetcar by Williams to suggest the emotions of characters and dynamics of relationships. The first notable example of this is in scene 1 when Stanley “heaves the package” of meat at Stella, forcing her to catch it. This sexual act symbolises the thrusting of Stanley’s sexuality onto Stella and represents his crude and uncouth behaviour, as well as his primitive nature. However, the fact that Stella receives this package – however reluctantly – represents her acceptance of Stanley and his primal ways. Cigarettes and matches are also used to show the ignition of passion frequently. The first example of this is in scene II when Stanley lights a cigarette whilst talking to Blanche, showing his sexual attraction to her. This is repeated in scene III when Mitch “strikes a match” to show the suddenly increasing passion between Mitch and Blanche. The use of fire to suggest this in both of these cases indicates that the passion is sudden, powerful, but also that it probably will not last, but will instead burn out.
Williams uses both expressionism and plastic theatre to such an extent in Streetcar that often the stage directions are more important and revealing than the dialogue itself. In particular, the use of costumes is crucial in displaying the realities of different characters, and perhaps this is why costume is used so frequently by Williams – rarely, if ever, is a costume mentioned without there being some significance behind it. Maybe this is because costume is the most obvious way of showing a contrast between what a character is trying to display about himself and what the reality of that character is. Furthermore, plastic theatre was an important way for Williams to draw parallels between his characters and himself; for example, by showing us Blanche’s vulnerability through her costume and her aversion to light, he is also able to express his own vulnerability and fear of exposure.
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