Heat in A Streetcar Named Desire

     There are several elements in Tennessee Williams' 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed in 1951 by Elia Kazan, that contribute to its effectiveness as a piece of fiction. One of these elements is heat. There are two kinds of heat involved in this work. The first heat is climatic heat, the temperature of the play's setting. The second heat is a personal heat that arises in character/ character interaction. The two heats interact from time to time, and the resulting hotbox makes this play drive on.

     The play is set in New Orleans, and New Orleans summers are hot. The combination of heat and humidity is conducive to a number of things. For one thing, Stanley (Marlon Brando on screen) takes his shirt off a lot. Also, tempers become a little (hotter) shorter, and nerves wear thin. Furthermore, the heat makes everybody sweat, and sweating is, I suspect, anathema to Blanche (Vivien Leigh in the film), so she takes her epic baths every day. This makes Stanley angry, and his heat-shortened fuse burns even shorter.

     Then there is the interpersonal heat. Stanley is on fire every second of his existence. The fire only burns stronger when there are other people around. Stanley and Stella are always hot for each other. This is especially evident in Kazan's film version of the play. When Marlon Brando's Stan smacks her (Kim Hunter) around, one can feel the raw fire that burns in him (and her too, in a subtler way.) The heat is even more recognizable when Stan screams for her after his shower. The water in Stanley's hair and on his body could easily be transformed into sweat, and Stella's sultry how-bad-do-you-want-me-Stanley-as-I-come-back-down-these-steps walk is an announcement of her woman-power. It is a very hot scene, and the ensuing love-making brings the film to a brief boil.

     Stella is not the only one making sparks with Stanley. Blanche is quite the flame-thrower herself, whether she likes it or not. Her feelings toward Stanley, while not as deep as Stella's, are just as hot, if not hotter). A good part of her despises Stanley; but there is also, I think, a wild desire for him somewhere in the tangles of her heart. She probably despises that too.

     When these three desires are put together, who would not expect a meltdown? That is certainly what happens, when Blanche finds out the heat is too much for her to take. The only place she can go is into the cool embrace of insanity. So she does.

Jared R. Nelson

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