How Does “A Streetcar Named Desire” Serve as a Requiem for the Old South?
Throughout the 19th century, an ostentatious society of plantation owners dominated the American south. As the first half of the 20th century progressed and the pre-Civil War era became an increasingly distant memory, a societal evolution rocked the world views of these genteel yet outdated folks, while industrialization and immigration became key drivers of the American social landscape. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) famously embodies the clash of these two cultural worlds in its conflict between two characters, Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stanley (Marlon Brando).
Blanche embodies the image and ideals of the Old South, while Stanley is a Polish immigrant’s son, born in America, employed as a factory worker, and steadfastly contributing to the demise of the aristocratic southern lifestyle Blanche represents. In the middle is Stella (Kim Hunter), Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife, who was raised in the same setting as Blanche but took to the changing times and married Stanley despite his lower social rank. The film is set in late 1940’s New Orleans, a diverse and modern society in the New South where Stanley thrives and Blanche, quite literally, loses her mind.
Immigrants are the foundation of the United States, but Blanche harbors resentment about them and fosters antiquated ideals and pretensions about the social elite. By the time period of A Streetcar Named Desire’s setting, many people considered Americans to be Americans despite where they came from, and the number who shared Blanche’s romanticized attachment to the Old South was dwindling.
“This play is very much about the symbolic clash between old versus new and past verses present. Whether that’s Old America versus New America, old south versus new south, the dying aristocratic class versus the rising industrial working class, or imagistic pastoral sensitive past versus harsh straightforward brutal present.
In all of these examples, Blanche and Stanley act as representatives of their respective sides. Blanche is all about the past. We learn about her past, the fake version and then the real. Stanley has no past. We know he was a soldier, but that’s it. He is always in the moment, consistently present. Everything we know is what we see in front of us. Whatever the clash, there is a clear victor in Stanley: A new industrial straightforward harsh America rises to the top. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Stanley wins the battle but he’s certainly the victor.” - TheatreFolk
Blanche somewhat resents Stella for denying their heritage and wedding someone beneath their station, despite the fact that he represents the future. But Tennessee Williams’ image of Stanley is far from wholly positive—the character possesses an inherent barbarism made evident by his eventual physical and sexual assault on Blanche. This ferocity is Williams’ commentary on the direction society was headed and the cruel march forward of the times, despite any casualties that would result. Gentility and decorum would no longer be central to the new society; instead, survival and endurance would be the means to getting ahead.
In this environment, Blanche begins to realize she’s a relic. In the straightforward, industrial America, the Stanleys rise to the top. While Blanche fights to re-live the past and re-establish the glamour of her youthful ways, all her actions are for naught. Her looks, family name, manners, and the other elements of the Old South image that would have formerly given her social standing are irrelevant now, and this realization dawns on her as the story progresses. She is history’s loser.
As much as Streetcar‘s postwar America appears to be moving forward for some, the story highlights that restrictions on women are as binding as ever. Blanche and Stella are both forced to depend on men and marriage for their survival, while Stanley’s insistence that he be recognized as the undisputed master of the house reflects the mentality of men during the Old to New South transition. (The statement on gender relations is especially powerful in the original ending of the play, when Stella remains in the comfort of Stanley’s arms, even though she suspects he attacked Blanche. The film version sanitized the ending for censorship reasons, taking away some of this impact.)
When Blanche ultimately can’t win the favor of a man (and society forbids her to support herself), she goes insane and snaps out of realistic existence. This happens in tandem with the birth of Stanley and Stella’s child—a fresh, physical symbol of the future of America. Their baby is a collaboration of Old South and New South and represents the forthcoming generations of Americans.