What part does fantasy play in the lives of the characters in A Streetcar Named Desire; how is this fantasy presented and to what effect on the audience?
“I don’t want reality. I want magic.”
In Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, we see how Blanche finds herself in a “desperate situation” as all her “lies and deceit and tricks” begin to haunt her until finally she is no longer able to distinguish reality from illusion. Unfortunately for her, Blanche is “only passing through” Elysian Fields, the quarter with its “raffish charm” and ominous ring (asylum) as we sense that her future is “mapped out” for her “from the beginning”. She engages Stanley in a dramatic battle for territory, creating illusions in a final attempt to find that “cleft in the rock of the world” after having run from “one leaky roof to another” searching for “protection”. Williams makes Blanche’s vulnerability clear from the outset by alerting us to the incongruity between her costume and moth like appearance and the streetcar “that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another”. Blanche is no longer able to deal with reality; the loss of Belle Reve, the death of her young husband, loss of her job and fading looks all force her to turn to illusion. For Blanche, her fantasies are a final, desperate attempt to find “protection” from the harsh reality of Stanley Kowalski, “survivor of the Stone Age” and his deliberate cruelty that is “not forgivable”. Williams has utilized the elements of stagecraft, effectively employing costuming, lighting, characterization, stage directions and sound to present the part that fantasy plays in the lives of the characters in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Throughout the play, Williams effectively employs costuming to highlight the characters’ ability to “put on a face for the people [they] meet”. Immediately Williams alerts us to Blanche’s incongruity to her setting by dressing her in a “white suit with a fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat”. With her delicate, moth like appearance and classy and civilized nature she is contrasted to the primary, bold colors of Stanley “the gaudy seed bearer” and his primitive ways. The dissonant tension between Blanche’s “fluffy white bodice” and her “scarlet satin robe” reveals the dichotomy between Blanche’s whore versus virgin personality. Blanche’s costumes are a way for her to escape reality, with each costume masquerading the truth, as she turns to fantasy. Dressed in “white clothes” she appears to be the moth like “Southern Belle” who she leads Mitch to believe she is, yet in her satin robe she presents herself to be the “scarlet woman” who has claimed so many “victims”. However, it is in the penultimate scene where perhaps Blanche’s true character is revealed through Williams’ choice of costuming. The “somewhat soiled and crumpled white satin evening gown” seems to be representative of her true identity; once pure and innocent but now past its use by date, “no loner able to turn the trick.”
Williams’ characterization enables us to fully understand the characters needs for fantasy through their actions and what they say. Throughout the play, Williams’s directions betray to the audience Blanche’s feelings through her actions. Her continuous “pressing [of] her hands on her ears”, “bit[ing] on a pencil” and “twisting [of] a washcloth” reveal to us Blanche’s nervousness, despite her attempts to “laugh off” the penetrating brutality of reality. Williams further emphasizes Blanche’s deteriorating state of mind through her dialogue. With her illusions in place, Blanche’s speech flows uninterrupted as she takes control of the situation. When uncertain and at times hysterical, Williams employs irregular punctuation, often with dashes and pauses, to display her confusion and uncertainty as she gradually begins loose her grip on reality. Williams’ use of dramatic irony alerts the audience to his protagonist’s deceptive character and the lies that she uses to cover her disreputable past. For Blanche, alcohol is the drug that is able to relieve the harsh reality and we chuckle at her response that “she rarely touch[es] it” as through dramatic irony we are already aware of her two previous drinks.
Juxtaposed with Blanche, Stanley’s actions and dialogue accentuate his “ape” like ways. His speech, often consisting of single words, in addition with his actions as he “heaves”, “tosses”, “snatches” and “stalks fiercely” emphasize his unrefined character and raw animalistic magnetism.
“He acts like an animal, has an animal’s habits!
Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one!”
Lighting is used by Williams throughout the play to expose Blanche’s final attempts to “make a little- temporary magic”. The symbolic “paper lantern” that conceals the “naked light bulb” seems to represent Blanche’s attempts to conceal reality in order to hide behind her illusions. She refuses to allow others to see her in “plain” light both physically and metaphorically, not wanting to expose neither her “fading looks” nor the truth about her many “intimacies with strangers”. To Blanche “the dark is comforting”, a way for her to hide behind her fantasies so she cannot stand the “raw nakedness of light” as it shows through her illusions. When Mitch “tears the paper lantern off the light bulb” and “turns on the light”, the audience too feels the harsh light of the “electric bulb”, as he exposes her to the one thing that Blanche is desperately trying to escape from- reality. Stanley gets “the colored light going” with Blanche, “lay[ing] [her] cards on the table” as Williams manipulates us to empathize and even sympathize with Blanche as she no longer has a place to hide. In the final scene “the lurid reflections appear on the walls in odd, sinuous shapes” as we, like Blanche, feel the walls finally closing in on her.
Williams employs the Varsouviana music as dramatic irony to alert the audience to the state of Blanche’s psyche. When the Varsouviana polka with “its music rising with sinister rapidity”, heard only in Blanche’s head, is played we immediately associate it with her psychological deterioration. Williams’ use of the Varsouviana accentuates Blanche’s desperate search for “protection”, thus inspiring audience sympathy. Similarly, Williams employs the music of the blue piano, trumpet and drum to emphasize the character’s feelings. Blanche’s breakdown is mirrored by “the distant blue piano [that] goes into hectic breakdown”. Here Williams manipulates the music, providing the audience with an insight into Blanche’s psyche. Williams also use the sound of “the approaching locomotive” as dramatic irony to alert the audience to the advancing final fate of Blanche, as the line between reality and illusion begins to fade.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, fantasy is presented as a means of escape from reality as well as a necessity for survival. The role of fantasy in Blanche’s life in is to shield her from the harsh glare of reality and to establish security within the post war American society, where “men don’t even admit your existence unless they are making love to you”. Rather than helping Blanche, her fragile illusions and fantasies lead to her deterioration and ultimately her ruin. Fantasy is an outlet of escape that Blanche shakily clings to. She wants to be rescued, to be loved, to be what she once was, to be “believed in”. Stella also insists on maintaining her fantasy, unable to believe Blanche’s story that Stanley raped her and “go on living with Stanley”. Despite her pragmatic nature, she too turns to a world of fantasy in order to have her “existence admitted”. The rape scene represents the death of Blanche’s illusions, leaving her with nowhere to hide. Stanley turns “a blinding light on something that has always been in half shadow”, succeeding in destroying Blanche’s own little world of “enchantment”, again establishing his dominance by “killing her illusions”. People like Stanley “abused her, and forced her to change” by taking advantage of her vulnerability and somewhat naï¿½ve nature, forcing her to turn to illusion. However, when Blanche’s fantasies clash with reality, they ironically lead to her demise, although we cannot really condemn Blanche for her “lies and deceit” for she “never lie[d] in [her] heart”. For Blanche, fantasy is “what ought to be the truth.”