Brenda Murphy

Critical Insights: A Streetcar Named Desire
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Critical Insights: A Streetcar Named Desire.  Pasadena: Salem Press, 2010.

Critical Insights: Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire offers a diverse selection of criticism on Williams’s most important play. The volume is divided into two parts. The first, which provides the context for criticism, is composed mainly of essays that were commissioned specifically for this volume. The second consists of reprinted essays that are not only interesting and revealing studies in themselves, but reflect the plays’s critical history as well.

As background for the individual critical studies, the editor’s Introduction and Catherine Steindler’s Paris Review perspective present a general critical context for Streetcar, and Robert J. Forman provides a brief biography of Tennessee Williams. These essays are followed by new articles that illuminate A Streetcar Named Desire from several different perspectives. Camille-Yvette Welsch presents the play in the context of the aftermath of World War II and the threat of the atom bomb, amid the many stresses on the returning soldiers and their wives and the explosion of interest in sexuality accompanying the Kinsey Report. Kenneth Elliott provides a revealing analysis of the tragedy of Streetcar in the context of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Neil Heims argues compellingly that "the volcanic forces smoldering and unleashed" in Streetcar suggest a play whose action is "a reaction to repression, to suppressed inadmissible material," and its consequences. Janyce Marson discusses some of the important issues that have interested the play’s critics in the more than sixty years since its premiere.

The essays reprinted in the second section reflect the variety of critical and theoretical perspectives that have been trained on A Streetcar Named Desire, beginning with the much-discussed question of Streetcar’s complex relationship with tragedy. Verna Foster argues that the play is tragicomic, "a genre that offers its audience a less cathartic, more ambiguous and disturbing kind of theatrical experience than tragedy might" and is also "an experience better suited to the needs and tastes of audiences in mid-to-late twentieth-century America." Britton J. Harwood suggests that Streetcar begins where a tragedy has already ended, arguing that its action "transposes the elements of tragedy into ironies" at the expense of Blanche, who must experience "a version of the tragic in which no real purpose or perception is possible."

One of the most significant and productive lines of recent criticism about Streetcar focuses on the issues around sexuality, gender and sexual identity. In two articles that make productive use of the authors’ studies of Williams’s drafts of the play, John S. Bak examines the process by which Williams arrived at Stanley’s rape of Blanche as "the sole means of providing dramatic closure to his morality play" and Dan Isaac argues that, in the contest between Blanche and Stanley, Blanche is "victorious in her defeat." Dean Shackelford makes use of the gender theories of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler to examine the central trope of the closet in Streetcar, arguing for its subversive quality. In a poststructuralist analysis, Anne Fleche examines the tropes of spacial violation and sexual violence in the context of the relationship between realism and expressionism. Streetcar has been the subject of a number of adaptations into other media, such as film, opera, and dramatic parody, which have a complex and sometimes vexed relationship with the play. Three articles examine Streetcar adaptations. Linda Costanzo Cahir addresses the struggle of Elia Kazan, the director of both the play’s original production (1947) and its first film adaptation (1951), to adapt the play authentically in the face of the censorship efforts of the motion picture industry’s censorship board, the Legion of Decency, and the film’s own producers. Keith Dorwick makes use of close textual analysis of various versions of the script as well as the film and opera adaptations to examine the progressive excision of the homosocial from the play and film. Finally, in a revealing study that includes a detailed account of Lillian Hellman’s unused scenario for the film, Nancy Tischler details the effects of censorship and the production code in developing the screenplay. A Chronology of Williams’s life, Literary Lineage, and Bibliography completes the volume.

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