Sexuality & violence



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In Scene Four Stella tells the story of her wedding night, when Stanley ran through the flat, smashing all the lights with his slipper - a wild, riotous expression of his virility, a destructive act of foreplay. This story very neatly conveys one of the themes of the play, the strange relationship between sexuality and violence. One of the most remarkable twists is when Stella so readily goes down to the flat to sleep with the man who has just assaulted her.

What becomes patently clear is that there are well-established patterns of abuse and reconciliation in the Kowalski partnership. We suddenly realise that Stanley's bad behaviour has previously also been witnessed in public, with Eunice's fiery comment: "I hope… they turn the fire-hose on you, same as the last time". What we are being told is that this is not the first time his rage has got the better of him, and it becomes apparent that it is (as domestic violence usually is) a recurring cycle of aggression that flares up at regular intervals. But is sex itself something inherently violent and animalistic, or is it the essence of a loving relationship? This is the argument that Stella and Blanche have the morning after the disastrous poker game.



Stella: But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark - that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant

Blanche: What you are talking about is brutal desire - just - Desire! - the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the quarter, up one old narrow street and down another….

Stella: Haven't you ever ridden on that street-car?

Blanche: It brought me here - where I am not wanted and where I'm ashamed to be…

While Stella sees sex as wonderfully enigmatic and powerful, Blanche sees it as "brutal", nothing romantic or mysterious about it. Through her promiscuity she has come to understand the nature of the act, and feels qualified to describe it - via the metaphor of the "streetcar" - as something basely physical and "mechanical". The adjective "rattle-trap", and the verb "bangs", emphasise the qualities of hardness, of metal, of functionality. When Blanche answers that "It brought me here" she is playing with the metaphor, elaborating on it. The streetcar literally brought her to the "here" of Stella's flat - but riding the street-car of Desire (ie her many casual sexual encounters) has brought her to this stage of her life: tired and worn out, with an uncertain future as a spinster.


  • DEATH AND SEXUALITY

Death and sexuality often appear in close proximity in the play. When Blanche is justifying the loss of "Belle Reve"; to her sister, she contrasts the awful experience of watching the process of dying, with the clean and easy experience of the funeral. Resentfully, she questions Stella: "Where were you? In bed with your - Polack!". There's another sex-death connection in Blanche's tragedy: her husband, apparently homosexual in orientation (suffering from a "softness and tenderness which wasn't like a man's", a "degenerate"). He is discovered by Blanche in the act with someone else, and as a consequence shoots himself the same night. Mitch has also had a difficult time with death - a dying girlfriend left him a silver cigarette case, with a line from a Browning poem engraved on it. For him, love and sexual attraction are also intertwined with death. And, to top it all, he is supposed to find a mate before his mother dies…


  • REALITY V ILLUSION

From early on we detect the special role of light in the play. Light, not so much as a stage effect (although this also plays a role) but as a thematic concept. Already in the first scene, Blanche says to Stella: "I won't be looked at in this merciless glare" Blanche avoids the bright light, preferring diffused, soft light - and goes for whites in her clothing (which contribute to her "moth"-like appearance). In contrast to this Stanley sports bright, vividly coloured clothes, like his silk bowling shirt and his wedding night pyjamas. Williams likens the poker scene to a Van Gogh painting, in its "lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colours of childhood's spectrum".

Stanley's choices of light and colour reflect his mode of perceiving the world. He values the naked truth, telling it like it is - he exposes rather than hides. In slowly exposing Blanche, he revels in the role of private investigator. And part of the pleasure of poker is the act of exposure - of laying down the cards that have been concealed. As the play develops we begin to realise that one of the key thematic tensions is the struggle between Stanley’s garish reality and Blanche's magical illusion, between his will to expose and her drive to conceal.

When Stanley confronts Blanche on the "Belle Reve" lost legacy saga, she plays and flirts with him.

Blanche: You're simple straightforward and honest, a little bit on the primitive side I should think. To interest you a woman would have to - [She pauses with an indefinite gesture.]


Stanley [slowly]: Lay …her cards on the table.

Blanche [smiling]: Yes - yes - cards on the table…Well, life is too full of evasions and ambiguities, I think. I like an artist who paints in strong, bold colours, primary colours. I don't like pinks and creams and I never cared for wishy-washy people.

Here Stanley reveals his values - revealing one's hand. Blanche on the other hand doesn't actually like strong, vivid colours. In Scene Five Stanley begins to expose Blanche's past "indiscretions". She explains to Stella that "when people are soft - soft people have got to court the favour of hard ones, Stella. Have got to be seductive - put on soft colours, the colours of butterfly wings, and glow - make a little - temporary magic just in order to pay for one night's shelter!"

Her seductiveness buys her a bit of attention from men. Soft light is opposed to hard light, soft people to hard people, magic to reality. The glow or magic she creates lubricates the process - the hard men are attracted to the softness, and she pretends she has found love and protection. She explains further to Stella, "And so the soft people have got to - shimmer and glow - put a paper lantern over the light". And she follows this statement by turning on the paper lantern in the bedroom. This paper lantern becomes the symbol of her illusory world - the soft light it generates hides her age, her sexual history, her crumbling 'aristocratic' identity, her pain and despair. It is the opposite of the "lurid brilliance" of Stanley's poker game, where things are what they are in all their intensity.


  • ANIMAL IMAGERY

Whatever the interpretation of the imagery, you cannot deny its occurance throughout the dialogue and the stage directions of the play. And that generally the images are negative towards Stanley. At the end of scene one, a description of Stanley explains his "essence". Note the many animal images:

“Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood the centre of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependently, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird amongst hens. …He sizes women up at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them."

Here, the animal attributes are sexual attributes. It presents us with a picture of Stanley as a kind of mechanical sex-machine, with reflex reactions to the opposite sex; a creature that thinks, breathes and dreams sex. When the radio goes flying out the window even Stella can't contain the animal imagery: "Drunk - drunk - animal thing, you!". Of course, this really gets him going, and he becomes even more brutish, striking her in the presence of his mates. And then later after he has howled on the street for her, she comes down to his level and in their embrace they "come together with low, animal moans". What is interesting here is Stella's "coming down" as it were to the level of the animal kingdom - a realm of animal desire. Remember, Stanley also tempted her "down" a notch with his animal lust and sexuality: "I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them coloured lights going”. But the animal connotations are not always sexual.


Blanche: He acts like an animal, has animal habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one. There's even something - subhuman - about him something not quite to the stage of humanity yet! Yes, something ape-like about him…

This is Blanches most outspoken moment, where she really goes to town on Stanley's shortcomings. Stanley’s "animal habits" are not just the sign of his manliness, but rather the sign of retarded development, and a lack of adequate socialisation.



  • CLASS CONFLICT

The animal imagery is linked to the class tension between Stanley and the sisters. As we have seen, this tension resolved itself sexually when there was just the couple. But Blanche's presence and her values make Stanley feel very uncomfortable, and possibly inferior about his working-class immigrant identity. When Stella also starts to represent his behaviour as animalistic, he flips. Stella says to Blanche that he is "too busy making a pig of himself" and he responds "Pig - Polack… what do you two think you are? A pair of Queens?". Stanley interprets the animal metaphor of the "'piggish behaviour"' as another example of snooty contempt for his class and culture.

While Stanley is initially somewhat in awe of Blanche's upperclass trappings, he decides to wage a kind of class war against her, the primary objective being to show up her upper-class posturing and superiority as a sham. After overhearing Blanche, he plots to bring her down, hugely resenting her arrogance and view of him as "common". When he finally gets the low-down on Blanche, he comes in excitedly and confides to his wife: "I've got the dope on your big sister, Stella", and then "That girl calls me common!".


While Stanley might resent the upper class snobbery, he certainly has nothing against his wife's family's money. His materialistic values come to the fore when he hears about the loss of the "'Belle Reve"' - suddenly he is no longer the master of the house, but the husband who, according to 'the Napoleonic Code', shares ownership of his wife's property. He reckons they have been "swindled" by Blanche; greed and self-interest immediately lead him to suspect and alienate his own sister-in-law - her furs and costume jewellery are seen to be evidence of her living beyond her means. Stanley plays to win or lose. He sees himself as a leader and winner whether it be at work, at home or at a play. In the final poker game he states: "To hold front-position in this rat-race, you've got to believe you're lucky". He's in there playing the game. He's beaten Blanche hands down, and feels no guilt at her losses. Neither Stella nor Blanche know the rules of this new game. Their upper class sense of entitlement gets them nowhere in the urban jungle of New Orleans. Stanley has forced Stella to choose between himself and Blanche; her new-born baby and her economic dependence on him don't leave her much of a choice.





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