Tennessee Williams BornMarch 26 1911, Columbus, Mississippi DiedFebruary 24 1983, New York OccupationPlaywright GenreSouthern Gothic (Southern Gothic relies on supernatural, ironic, or unusual events to guide the plot. It uses these tools not simply for suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South)
Who Was Tennessee Williams? Williams is thought to have been able to identify with a fragility and vulnerability in women and once said: “I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.”
From an early age, Williams used writing as “an escape from a world of reality in which [he] felt acutely uncomfortable”. He lived in New Orleans from 1938, a place where all manner of behaviour was tolerated, even encouraged. It was in New Orleans that he was inspired to create Streetcar. He apparently saw two streetcars. One was named “Desire” and the other “Cemetery” – which he thought was symbolic of life.
Historical Context As a Southerner, Williams was more affected by the events of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) than WW2. Following their defeat by the Northern states, the South suffered economically during and after the Civil War. However, this sense of decaying grandeur added to the romantic appeal for many writers, including Williams. As time moved on, industrialisation continued in the cities. Whilst the plantations continued to decay, urban growth and capitalism flourished in the cities. (Stanley and Blanche are symbols of the urban and the decaying traditional plantations respectively).
Williams was interested in the progress of American history. Stanley represents the American Dream that all men are born equal and can succeed equally, whilst Blanche represents the old world, where class and race are still important issues. Although Williams was working on the play during the Second World War, its setting in time (in the years after World War Two) is of no real importance. What is important, however, is its setting in terms of place
Slavery was regarded as evil by the Northern States, although the Southern States regarded it as critical for their tobacco and cotton industries When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860 he promised that slavery would continue to be legal in states where it already existed
At first the Northern half of the United States wanted only to stop slavery spreading to other states, but gradually as anti-slavery feeling grew stronger, the total elimination of slavery became the aim of the North The Civil War occurred when the Southern States tried to separate from the Union in order to protect their “state rights” – amongst them the right to practice slavery
The American Civil War ended in April 1865. As the Southern States had lost the war, many Southerners looked back sadly to the plantation life that had characterised their region pre- Civil War
As the traditional South declined, the Northern States prospered. Industry flourished and immigrants from all over the world arrived to make America their new home in a bid to achieve the American Dream
In the play, the character of Blanche symbolises the crumbling grandeur of Southern plantations Stanley is the new American in the new America. He is an immigrant who believes that he too can achieve the American Dream
Cultural Context Tennessee Williams saw the South as a broken and damaged place in which the decay was somehow charming. He said: “I write out of love for the South … once a way of life that I am just able to remember – not a society based on money … I write about the South because I think the war between romanticism and the hostility to it is very sharp there.”
Williams is an almost completely non-political writer. More than any other American dramatist, he began to move away from writing about the large political issues to writing about the emotional burdens of everyday life. The tensions in this play come partly from cultural conflict – the worlds of Stanley and Blanche are so opposed that neither can understand the other.
Social Context Women in the Old South had a social and symbolic role and were expected to be passive and innocent. This world could not give Blanche what she needed and so she tried to buy into the ‘light and culture’, but by doing this she discovers that there is corruption and deceit behind the disguise. All of the Southern writers seemed to have colourful imaginations which were often strange and grotesque.
Theatrical Context Stage Craft (eg music, lighting used to represent the workings of the protagonist’s inner mind) allow the audience to experience the mental condition of the central character Symbolism: Williams structures Streetcar using a vast array of imagery arranged in patterns of opposition.
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