Of the major plays by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire contains the most explosive moments. This is perhaps his most popular play. Thanks to director Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, and Vivian Leigh, it became a motion picture classic. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you have probably seen the iconic clip in which Brando screams for his wife, “Stella!!!!”
Blanche Du Bois serves as the delusional, often vexing but ultimately sympathetic protagonist. Leaving behind her sordid past, she moves into the dilapidated New Orleans apartment of her co-dependent sister and brother-in-law, Stanley – the dangerously virile and brutish antagonist.
Many academic and armchair debates have involved Stanley Kowalski. Some have argued that the character is nothing more than an apelike villain/rapist. Others believe that he represents the harsh reality in contrast to Du Bois’ impractical romanticism. Still, some scholars have interpreted the two characters as being violently and erotically drawn to one another. Personally, I think he’s a just big jerk. (I know it’s not very academic – but that’s how I feel!)
From an actor’s viewpoint, Streetcar might be Williams' best work. After all, the character of Blanche Du Bois delivers some of the most rewarding monologues in modern theater. Case in point, in this provocative scene, Blanche recounts the tragic death of her late husband:
Blanche:#1) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. When I was sixteen, I made the discovery -- love. All at once and much, much too completely. It was like you suddenly turned a blinding light on something that had always been half in shadow, that's how it struck the world for me. But I was unlucky. Deluded. There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn't like a man's, although he wasn't the least bit effeminate looking -- still -- that thing was there ... He came to me for help. I didn't know that. I didn't find out anything till after our marriage when we'd run away and come back and all I knew was I'd failed him in some mysterious way and wasn't able to give the help he needed but couldn't speak of! He was in the quicksands and clutching at me -- but I wasn't holding him out, I was slipping in with him! I didn't know that. I didn't know anything except I loved him unendurably but without being able to help him or help myself. Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty -- which wasn't empty, but had two people in it ... the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years ...
Afterward we pretended that nothing had been discovered. Yes, the three of us drove out to Moon Lake Casino, very drunk and laughing all the way.
We danced the Varsouviana! Suddenly, in the middle of the dance the boy I had married broke away from me and ran out of the casino. A few moments later -- a shot!
I ran out -- all did! -- all ran and gathered about the terrible thing at the edge of the lake! I couldn't get near for the crowding. Then somebody caught my arm. "Don't go any closer! Come back! You don't want to see!" See? See what! Then I heard voices say -- Allan! Allan! The Grey boy! He'd stuck the revolver into his mouth, and fired -- so that the back of his head had been -- blown away!
It was because -- on the dance floor -- unable to stop myself -- I'd suddenly said -- "I saw! I know! You disgust me ..." And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that's stronger than this -- kitchen -- candle ...
This play blends elements of tragedy and hope, earning its place as the most powerful work of Tennessee Williams’ collection.
The taciturn protagonist Brick Pollitt struggles with alcoholism, the loss of his youth, the death of a loved one, and several other inner demons, not the least of which might be his repressed sexual identity. Brick is devastated over the suicide of his friend Skipper who killed himself after he tried to discuss his feelings. When Brick and his father finally determine the source of his angst, the protagonist learns about self-forgiveness and acceptance.
Cat represents the most headstrong of the playwright’s female characters. Like other women in Williams’ plays, she experiences adversity. But instead of verging on insanity or wallowing in nostalgia, she “claws and scratches” her way out of obscurity and poverty. She conveys unbridled sexuality, yet we learn that she is ultimately a faithful wife who lures her husband back to the marriage bed by the play’s end.
The third major character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Big Daddy, the wealthy and powerful patriarch of the Pollitt family. He exhibits many negative traits. He is gruff, callous, and verbally abusive. Yet, when Brick and the audience learn that Big Daddy is on the brink of death, he gains out sympathy. More than this, when he overcomes despair and bravely embraces the little remainder of his life, he earns our solemn respect.
The inevitable death of the father awakens a long-overdue sense of purpose with the son. Brick decides to return to the bedroom with the ambition of starting a family. Hence Tennessee Williams shows us that despite the unavoidable losses throughout our lives, loving relationships can endure and a meaningful life can be attained.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955.
- The play was adapted into a 1958 film which starred Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives, who originated the role of Bid Daddy on Broadway.