The Naked Truth

     Tennessee William's work has often been criticized for his excessive use of obscure symbolism and his apparent obsession with the debased, the doomed, and the defeated. I do not think this criticism is true of Williams' 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, nor of Elia Kazan's 1951 movie adaptation of the play.

     Both versions do include much symbolism; both versions do consist of a series of confrontations between the debased Stanley Kowalski and the doomed Blanche DuBois. However, the symbolism is NOT obscure, nor is it excessive. Some critics consider A Streetcar Named Desire sensational and shocking because the play vividly depicts the dark sordid side of life. I applaud Williams for telling it "like it is."

     Samuel Taylor Coleridge asserted in his Biographia Literaria: "The artist must imitate that which is within the thing ... by symbols." Williams does this in such a way that the average reader/viewer UNCONSCIOUSLY interprets the symbols--unless he decides beforehand to seek them out. That is what I did the second time I read Williams' play.

     In the first scene of the play, Stanley Kowalski's basic traits are symbolically revealed by his clothing. Two things are suggested by his gaudy green and scarlet bowling shirt and dirty work clothes: his sexuality and his vulgarity. Bowling connotes balls and keeping score. The garish colors of his shirt are as loud as he is. The package of bloody raw meat which he throws to Stella is a sexual symbol as well as a chauvinistic one. He is the hunter home with the kill. She, too, is his piece of meat. The columns of the Belle Reve plantation home, and Kowalski's penchant for poker are obvious phallic and sexual symbols. He tells Blanche that he was born under the sign of Capricorn; his sign is the Goat, the traditional symbol of unbridled lust. Just before he rapes Blanche, he dons the silk pajamas he wore on his wedding night. The pajamas symbolize animalistic lust. Stanley Kowalski in toto is symbolic of everything that is unacceptable to Blanche.

     Because the movie adaptation is shown in black and white, the symbolic coloring of Stanley's clothing is not apparent. His arrival with the package of raw meat is eliminated. However, Stella does later refer to Stanley as a survivor of the Stone Age bearing home the raw meat from the kill. These are the obvious deviations from Williams' use of symbols in relation to Kowalski.

     Williams uses a light motif throughout the play. It symbolizes the truth of the cold hard world of reality and Blanche's fear of seeing it. She is always dressed in white, the symbol of purity. She was born under the sign of Virgo, the Virgin--symbolic of what she is not. Her frequent bathing is a cleansing symbol. Blanche symbolically attempts to seduce Stanley when she asks him to button her dress, asks him for a drag on his cigarette, and opens her trunk. Williams uses these symbols to vivify Blanche's painful inner struggle between what she IS what she would LIKE to be.

     Because the film IS in black and white, it is evident that Blanche is blond, and her frilly fancy dresses are white. Only in the last scene does she wear a dark, somber outfit--a symbol of the doom that awaits her. As far as I could detect, the film incorporates all of Williams' symbolism in connection with Blanche.

     There are those who say that Williams makes Blanche's past life too sordid; that he overemphasizes her neurosis; that he goes too far with Stanley's cruelty. I admire Williams' expertise in telling it "like it is." I admire the two stars of the film who give us the naked truth as Williams wrote it. Vivien Leigh gives an outstanding performance in her recreation of Blanche--a woman on the edge of insanity. Marlon Brando's Stanley is as crude and despicable as Williams' Stanley--one of many twentieth century Neanderthals who use and abuse women.

     The uncouth, low-class Stanley, the sensitive, cultured Blanche--they themselves are symbolic of the war between two very different worlds. If the symbols used by Williams to depict these unfortunate beings were to be deleted, the truths of which they are the conductors would be lost. Reading or watching A Streetcar Named Desire would be a streetcar ride to boredom.

Barbara Locke Chorn

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