How does “A Streetcar Named Desire” serve as a requiem for the Old South | ScreenPrism

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Q: How does “A Streetcar Named Desire” serve as
a requiem for the Old South?
Related: A Streetcar Named Desire
Jeff Saporito | October 1, 2015
A:
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genteel yet outdated folks, while industrialization and immigration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.
A Streetcar Named Desire, American History, Elia Kazan, Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando,
Tennessee Williams, Vivien Leigh, Warner Bros. Pictures
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