"Blanche certainly proceeds through Williams` memory play structure

The Technique of a Memory Play
- Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire -
1. The definition of a memory play
*A term coined by Tennessee Williams himself, in order to describe The Glass
Menagerie (1944):
"Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others
are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches,
for memory is seated predominantly in the heart. (...) The play is memory.
Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic."
*A memory play has three parts:
1) a character experiences something profound and usually painful.
2) an amount of time ellapses, or, as Williams says, there is an "arrest of time" in which the
consciousness of what has occurred forms.
3) the re-living of the same painful experience over and over again, until the character is able
to reach redemption.
"Blanche certainly proceeds through Williams' memory play structure;
however, we do not discover whether or not she finds, in her insanity,
psychological freedom from the tormenting memory of her husband's
death."(Darryl E. Haley: Promiscuity and Penance: Sexual Outcasts in A
Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer, Orpheus Descending, Sweet Bird of
Youth, and Confessional)
2. The position of memory play in the tradition of realism
* The play is realistic insomuch that it deals with a specific time and place (New
Orleans, mid-twentieth century etc.) But, for Williams' characters themselves, mere reality is
not enough, or, as one critic says, they are
"characters who themselves distrust the real until it is transformed by the
Williams rejected the mere mimetic representation of reality and considered that only
through imagination or memory can events become significant. He says that everyone
"should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art
[because] truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic
imagination represents […] only through transformation."
3. The devices used to signal a change of atmosphere
* Williams makes use of such stage effects as light, music, scenography, sounds to
create the atmosphere of memory, which often leaves out, transforms, distorts, or puts heavy
accent on one detail or another from one's past.
* Light: Blanche has an aversion to light and only feels secure when the light is
dimmed. The lighting is dim and the light bulbs are covered with lanterns just like memory is
a kind of lantern that presents the past in a modified way.
* The polka or the Varsouviana: Williams says that "In memory everything seems to
happen to music."
The polka is the melody that was playing at the dance during which Allan killed
himself. You as a reader always have it written in the stage instructions that a polka starts to
play every time that Blanche starts thinking about the past events that haunt her. This polka
is actually a signal, a warning, a sign that an avalanche of the past is to ensue. So the polka
takes you into the reality of Blanche's memories of the past. The first actual introduction of
the polka:
"STANLEY: You were married once, weren't you?
/The music of the polka rises up, faint in the distance/" (SND, scene 1)
From then on, every time Blanche starts to remember something from her previous
life, the Varsouviana is heard. It gets more and more often and more and more intense as the
play progresses and as she starts fading into madness gradually.
Conversely, every time someone pulls her back into reality, you see the stageinstructions of the polka stopping. Like Mitch ringing the doorbell in scene 9.
"You've stopped that polka tune that I had caught in my mind." (SND, scene
Blanche is only free of the sound of the polka once she hears a gunshot:
"/A distant revolver shot is heard. Blanche seems relieved./
There now, the shot! It always stops after that.
/The polka music dies out again./" (SND, Scene 9)
4. Blanche's re-invention of her own history
* All the stories about Blanche's past truly do take the "poetic license" that Williams
mentions. She tries to forget the fact that she was once a prostitute, and instead she still
thinks of herself and plays the role of a southern belle (the white dresses that she wears, her
conduct, her refined speech, her insisting on no sexual intimacy with Mitch).
In scene ten, where Mitch comes to confront Blanche about her past, she tells
Stanley that Mitch came back, which, of course, you, as well as Stanley, know is not true.
"He came to see me tonight. (…) And to repeat slander to me, vicious stories
that he had gotten from you! I gave him his walking papers. (…) But then he
came back. He returned with a box of roses to beg my forgiveness! He
implored my forgiveness." (SND, Scene 10)
Blanche is supposed to be a Southern belle, an angel of the house who is gentle,
romantic and classy, she the stage instructions upon arriving at Stella's house are that she is:
"/She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl,
white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or a cocktail party in
a garden district./" (SND, Scene 1)
5. Memory play on a collective level
* Blanche's story = the story of the Old South
* Blanche's two essential problems are also the problems of the American South,
because the American South in the first half of the twentieth century was such a sharp
contrast to its previous glory. It was decaying, the old and respectable families like the
DuBois were fading, they were poor and only had their name left. The economy was bad,
heavy urbanization was starting, there was nothing left of the old southern chivalry.
Basically, those two problems are:
1. living in the past
2. and the inability to cope with the present and the changes → a wish to constantly
remember the past and suit it to an image you want to project for other people → the
essence of the memory play.
6. The ending
"Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
→ she continues to act as if the Doctor was a Prince Charming or the Shep Huntleigh she's
been waiting for all her life. Proof that Blanche never actually reaches the third stage of the
memory play but keeps deluding herself?