Staging and Dramatic Tension in A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams uses a variety of techniques to produce a strong sense of dramatic tension throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, as he mainly focuses on the interactions between characters to create an edgy mood. For example, Williams’ presentation of Blanche suggests she is actually the main cause of dramatic tension in the play – as her relationship with Stella and Stanley seems to be quite strained due to her own apprehensive nature. The use of setting as well as sound effects also contributes to the overall unnerving atmosphere, since these features both create an element of excitement and establish an aura of uneasiness. Consequently, the audience grows more aware of the overwrought tone that dominates the play, and becomes more intrigued by Williams’ effective use of dramatic staging.
In scene 1, Williams is immediately successful in building a tense atmosphere as he highlights Blanche’s tentativeness when arriving in New Orleans for the first time. When Blanche enters her sister’s flat, the stage directions picture her as sitting ‘very stiffly with her shoulders slightly hunched and her legs pressed close together’. The word ‘stiffly’ indicates how uncomfortable Blanche is and the fact that she is ‘hunched’ suggests that she is feeling very anxious; she is nervously cowering away in a corner of the room. In addition, Williams’ description of her legs ‘pressed close together’ implies that she senses danger, and is therefore overcome by a sudden urge to protect herself and maintain a tight, solid composure. The audience instantly recognises Blanche’s tense response to her surroundings and possibly notices that Blanche is in a vulnerable position. Blanche is said to come from a traditional middle class background of the Old South, an upbringing which was romanticised greatly; therefore, she represents an almost fanatical world full of beauty and sophistication. A Marxist view may be that the tension is amplified due to her incongruousness with her new environment; she is not used to the cramped, unsophisticated conditions of the modern New Orleans apartment and therefore feels quite uneasy about the situation. Williams’ presentation of Stella and Blanche’s relationship at the beginning of the play forms another key factor in constructing a suspenseful mood, as he establishes a sense of awkwardness between the sisters. For example, Williams notes that Blanche speaks with a ‘feverish vivacity’ which unveils how erratic and rushed she is, thus demonstrating how her mind is restless and the tension between her and her sister is all too powerful for her to maintain self-composure. Blanche’s immediate reaction appears to be to turn to alcohol as ‘she rushes to the closet and removes the bottle; shaking all over and panting for breath as she tries to laugh’. This movement reveals how Blanche is overcome by nerves and simply cannot contain herself, as she helplessly tries to remain calm but ‘the bottle nearly slips from her grasp’. Blanche’s inability to relax reinforces the tense atmosphere and informs the audience of her insecurity that is present throughout the play. A psychoanalytical view may be that Blanche is simple uncomfortable due to her own insecurity and lack of poise as she allows herself to be easily overcome with panic. Therefore, Blanche’s mental instability can be understood as a major contribution to the play’s tension – as she relies on alcohol to calm her nerves and allow herself to forget the edgy atmosphere.
Similarly, dramatic tension is generated through Blanche’s relationship with Stanley, which allows Williams to produce an ambiance filled with ominousness. The tension between Stanley and Blanche becomes particularly apparent in Scene 2 when Stanley convinces himself that Blanche is lying about the mysterious loss of Belle Reve. He grows extremely aggressive as he ‘hurls the furs to the daybed’ and ‘kicks the trunk’ when tearing his way through Blanche’s possessions. This series of motions signifies Stanley’s explosive nature so that the audience begin to understand how edgy the Kowalski household is as a result of Stanley’s violence. Williams increases the tenseness even further as Blanche ‘airily’ exits the bathroom and greets Stanley in a friendly manner, making the contrast between these characters grow very apparent. Thus, Williams creates a rather awkward mood and allows the audience to consider how uneasy the atmosphere is, as Stanley grows even angrier due to the fact that Blanche is so calm. This scenario could also link to the Marxist interpretation of class forming a key part of dramatic tension in the play; under this interpretation, Stanley is rather jealous of Blanche and her supposed hidden fortune. As a consequence, Stanley’s determination to demonise Blanche increases the wrought-up mood. Further on in scene 4, Williams adds to the dramatic tension by focusing on Stanley’s bitterness towards Blanche (after overhearing her great tour de force about his primitiveness). For example, when Stella embraces Stanley just after he returns from work, the stage directions state that Stanley ‘grins through the curtains at Blanche’ in a manner that quite an unsettling mood for the audience as well as for Blanche. Williams indeed generates a sinister tone as this eerie ‘grin’ acts as a form of intimidation towards Blanche, and again the audience is drawn into this sly yet intense resentment that these two characters direct towards. This element of the plot could link to the fact that Stanley is an immigrant of a much lower class than Blanche, and he may possibly feel threatened by the fact that she is of a wealthier background than he is; therefore, his self-fulfilling prophecy is an act of revenge to embrace his primitive, bestial nature and subdue Blanche even more. In the following scene, Stella exclaims ‘Hey! Don’t I rate one kiss?’ to Stanley, to which he hardly replies ‘Not in front of your sister.’ This cutting remark reinforces the strong tension between Stanley and Blanche and suggests that the pressure between them has a considerable impact on Stanley and Stella’s marriage. A feminist view may be that Stanley is producing the majority of the play’s dramatic tension by effectively competing for his wife with Blanche – that he purely wants to maintain the dominant male role; thus, by intimidating Blanche and creating an unnerving environment for her to live in, he is forcing her out of his relationship with Stella.
Williams’ use of setting is another way in which he manages to add to the plays dramatic tension as he conveys a true sense of edginess through the environment; for example in scene 3 (‘The Poker Night’) Williams cleverly adapts the setting to reflect a rather suspenseful atmosphere. Williams’ focus on the colours in the billiard-parlour is key as this is particularly effective in producing an agitated atmosphere. A number of references to colour are made; ‘the raw colours of childhood’s spectrum…yellow linoleum of the kitchen table…vivid green glass shade’ all of which are harsh, overwhelming colours. As these colours are quite jarring the audience is effectively warned about the fierce drama that is to follow, therefore producing a sense of apprehension. Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo are also referred to as ‘as coarse and direct and powerful as primary colours’ and Williams notes their coloured shirts – ‘solid blues, a purple red-and-white check, a light green’. These additional references to strong bright colours exaggerate the men’s potency and forcefulness which again adds to the dramatic tension; as the boldness of the men contrasts greatly with Blanche’s femininity and pale pastels that are associated with her. Likewise at the beginning of scene 4 Williams’ stage directions reflect a state of chaos and tension following Stanley’s act of violence towards Stella the night before. For example the table is said to be ‘sloppy with the remains of breakfast and the debris of the preceding night’. The fact that the table is ‘sloppy’ reflects how little has been done in an attempt to recover after the shocking occurrences and the ‘debris’ symbolises the tension that still lingers in the air from the previous night. Stanley’s ‘gaudy pyjamas’ are lying on the bathroom floor which adds to the apprehensive mood, making the audience wary of his presence as its unclear as to whether he is still in the household. The precise attention drawn to his ‘gaudy’ pyjamas also implies how Stanley dominates the play throughout due to his ability to create tension and overshadow other weak characters. The outside door is ‘slightly ajar’ which furthers the unsettled mood as the apartment is unprotected and open to the dangers of the outside world, but also creates a sense of hesitance as it’s not clear as to what is to enter or leave.
The use of plastic theatre throughout A Streetcar Named Desire also has a massive impact on the dramatic tension in the play as Williams incorporates many sound effects to reflect the strained tone. The piece of music that is used most often is the Blue piano which is meant to represent Blanche’s mental deterioration.
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