TENNESSEE WILLIAMS (1911-1983): 'A Streetcar Named Desire'.
(2) Madness; Sounds; Poe.
Illustration 1: Tennessee Williams.
In the opening scene of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' (1947), Blanche DuBois describes her sister's ramshackle New Orleans' apartment as follows: 'Only Poe! Only Mr Edgar Allan Poe! - could do it justice!'. Unconsciously, she invokes a spectre of Gothic fiction, which may be a subtle background presence in this play.
Illustration 2: Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49).
The acknowledgement of Poe - Williams's great nineteenth-century literary precursor - feels more than cosmetic; in particular for that author's correlation of insanity with aural disturbance. Roderick Usher (in 'The Fall of the House of Usher', 1839), morbidly sensitive towards noise, becomes cursed by the scratchings of his sister - buried alive - attempting to claw a way out of her tomb. In another story, an unnamed murderer is driven mad by the beating of his victim's heart, long past the point of that individual's death: 'The disease [madness] had sharpened my senses - not destroyed - not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute' ('The Tell-Tale Heart', 1843).
Illustration 3: 'The Fall of the House of Usher'; Harry Clarke, illustrator.
Illustration 4: 'The Tell-Tale Heart'; Harry Clarke, illustrator.
In 'A Streetcar Named Desire', the suicide of Blanche DuBois's young husband reoccurs as a series of sense memories - shock waves and sound waves - that convey her palpable nervous disorder and descent into mental chaos. She describes a sound 'that goes relentlessly on and on in your head' (Scene Nine), a mixture of gunshot and a polka tune, the 'Varsouviana', both heard at the location of her lover's death. Later, background songs combine with 'inhuman voices' (Scene Ten) and the cry of a train, all 'echoing' and 'reverberating' (Scene Eleven) the fragmentation of her personality.
Illustration 5: Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951, film version).
Central to the Gothic tradition is a concept of decay. For a male author, Williams creates an astonishingly perceptive and empathetic representation of female sexuality on the downturn. 'Miss DuBois' is conscious she is older and her looks are fading. A sense of imminent death emerges, pathologically, as its obverse - desire (from Thanatos to Eros), manifested in her promiscuity and abnormal attraction to young men.
Poe writes (in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'): 'True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous, I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?'. This positive view of mental illness, as a gateway to acute insight and heightened sensory experience, seems to resound throughout 'A Streetcar Named Desire', particularly its final scene (Scene Eleven). Blanche DuBois had sought refuge in her sister's home, situated (ironically) at 'Elysian Fields', which becomes, instead, a place of abjection as she begins to psychologically unravel. Religious references abound: a Madonna in a painting; a soul taken to heaven; and cathedral chimes. Caught between the dangerous carnality of her physical surroundings and the 'cynical detachment' of institutionalised psychiatric care, Williams presents his character's doomed romanticism (and retreat into insanity) almost beatifically - like a rite of purification.