Music In Streetcar Named Desir Essay, Research Paper
In Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley and Stella Kowalski, newlyweds, live in a neglected but amiable part of New Orleans. One day Blanche, Stella’s sister, comes to visit, setting up the conflict of the play: an emotional struggle between the tough, harsh, blunt Stanley and the fragile, delicate gentility of Blanche. Blanche and Stella used to live on a Southern plantation, but Stella gave up the ways of the Southern gentry when she met the uncultured Stanley. Meanwhile, Blanche watched the family estate, Belle Reve, slip through her hands and into foreclosure.
Blanche claims to be on leave of absence from the high school where she teaches. She expects things to go smoothly once she arrives, using her wit and humor to charm her way into Stanley’s heart, but things do not go as planned. She quickly develops contempt for Stanley and the way of life her sister has chosen, especially when he strikes Stella in a fit of drunken rage. Stanley’s attitude is not much better. He is repulsed by what he perceives as her fake southern gentility and is galvanized to anger when he overhears her label him brutish and animal-like.
One person seems to stand above the Kowalskis in grace and refinement: Mitch. Mitch works in the same factory as Stanley, but his innate good nature and sincerity encourage Blanche to return his affection. As the summer progresses Blanche keeps a limit on the intimacy of the relationship, professing to be an old-fashioned girl with strict ideals and morals. However, Blanche’s true past catches up to her.
When she was younger, she fell in love and married a young man, Allan. Soon after they were married, she walked in on her husband in bed with another man. Before long she confronted her Allan with his homosexuality, whereupon he ran outside and shot himself in shame. After this, she started seeking solace in the arms of others, many others, so many in fact that no man in her town of Laurel, Mississippi would date her. With her reputation tattered she sought solace in the arms of a 17-year-old student of hers, which lead to her dismissal. Stanley discovers this dark secret and tells Mitch, effectively ending the relationship that he and Blanche were enjoying. To further exacerbate the tension in their relationship, Stanley’s gift to Blanche on her birthday is a ticket back to Laurel, the town she had fled.
From then on, Blanche’s grasp of reality slowly collapses. She begins hallucinating, and it is at the end of the play that Stella, with great regret, has Blanche committed to a mental institution.
Music’s Role in A Streetcar Named Desire
In A Streetcar Named Desire, much like in many other plays, music plays a vital role in helping to create a certain mood in a scene. But in Streetcar, it often also serves as a recurring theme, helping to illustrate Blanche DuBois’ mood or telling the audience when something significant happens. Indeed, whether it is the Blue Piano that serves as the background music for most of the play or the “rapid, feverish polka tune, the Varsouviana,” music plays a vital role in the play: musically portraying Blanche’s state of mind.
When the play first begins, the stage direction indicates that the “Blue Piano” is heard. As the first scene progresses, the music remains the same, until the end of the scene, when Stanley comes home. Here the stage direction states, “The music of the polka rises up.” This piano is an instrument used in Blues, as the name would suggest, which is quite the melancholy style of music, rarely going into jovial melodies, and therefore works well in musically describing Blanche’s general mood during the play. The music is sad, depressing, lamenting, much like Blanche is about her life on Belle Reve, the family’s plantation in Laurel, Mississippi, her love life, and life in general.
Toward the end of the first scene a polka can be heard gaining strength. The change in music, from the Blue Piano to the polka, always appears whenever Blanche’s past is mentioned. In this case Blanche mentions her husband’s passing before breaking into tears. It is only later in the play that one learns the circumstances of her spouse’s death: After insinuating to him that he might be a homosexual, he runs out of a casino and commits suicide in utter humiliation. During all this the band was playing the Varsouviana, and therefore:
“The music, through its association in her memory with impending death, becomes a symbol of imminent disaster. Blanche hears it, for instance, when Stanley hands her a Greyhound bus ticket for a trip back to Laurel. The music weaves in and out of the scene in which Mitch confronts Blanche with his knowledge of her background. Williams writes in the stage directions: ‘The rapid, feverish polka tune, the ‘Varsouviana,’ is heard. The music is in her mind; she is drinking to escape it and the sense of disaster closing in on her.”
In Blanche’s mind, the Varsouviana is associated with impending, inevitable misfortune; for that reason it always plays in Blanche’s mind when she is confronted with her wild, wanton past; a past she would rather forget.
Proof that the Varsouviana only plays to Blanche is easily found in the second scene: Stanley tells Stella that he has suspicions concerning the actual fate of Belle Reve. While the motives driving him toward these suspicions are purely egotistical, they are warranted. This is because, in Louisiana, the “Napoleonic code” is part of the law code, stating that anything owned by either part of a married couple automatically belonged to both partners. As Belle Reve was part of an inheritance, Stella should have received part of it, and also part of the proceeds of its sale. Therefore his motives are purely acquisitive. Blanche claims to have lost the family plantation to creditors, but the suspicious Stanley looks doubtfully at Blanche’s fine clothing. Because she is a mere high school teacher, she could not afford these fine clothes unless she had sold Belle Reve, in which case Stella, and by the Napoleonic Code also Stanley, would be entitled to a part of the proceeds. Because Belle Reve is closely associated with the past that Blanche left behind, one would expect that the Varsouviana would play now, but it does not. The polka does not appear, however, because Blanche is not in the scene. The music is merely a figment of Blanche’s memory, and therefore is only there when Blanche is.
Toward the end of scene five a young man comes to the door to sell a newspaper. Blanche answers the door and proceeds to kiss him, even though Mitch, a friend of Stanley’s, will soon arrive for a date with her. This offers the audience a little glimpse into the world that she had left, a world full of “intimacies with stranger.” Blanche’s past is not referred to, so it is no surprise that the Varsouviana does not play. However, it does remind one of Blanche’s past, which has made her depressed, and therefore the melancholy music that is the Blue Piano is heard again. The Varsouviana is not heard because Blanche is not reminded of her past; this scene just serves as a window into the former world of Blanche.
In scene 6 Blanche tells Mitch of her tragic past, but only up to Allan’s death. In this scene Blanche tells of how she found her husband in bed with another man, but made nothing of it at the moment. Later, when she and her husband were dancing to the Varsouviana at a casino, she could not stop herself from saying “I saw! I know! You disgust me ” to her husband about what she had seen him doing. When she had said this, her husband ran out of the casino and shot himself. Because the Varsouviana was playing at the Casino at that time, it always appears in conjunction with memories of that fateful day. The music of the play, mainly the Varsouviana, is a one of the many forces that leads Blanche on a downward spiral, culminating in her insanity and commitment to a mental institution.
There are also cases quite different from that stated above, where the Varsouviana does not appear, but rather disappear. One such occurrence immediately follows the one referred to in the paragraph above. After hearing Blanche’s terrible tale of Allan’s death Mitch is filled with sympathy and affection for Blanche, telling her, “You need somebody. And I need somebody, too. Could it be – you and me, Blanche?” In this moment of emotional bliss Blanche completely forgets about the troubles of her past; therefore the Varsouviana fades from the scene as well as from her mind. This scene represents the first time that the Varsouviana fades from a scene, instead of just growing in strength as it proceeds. Every other time the Varsouviana turns up is when Blanche tells of her past, and the song continues until the end of the scene.
In scene seven, Stanley tells Stella all about Blanche’s wild and promiscuous past: Since losing her husband Blanche has gone out on a date with every man in Laurel, eventually getting a reputation as “easy.” Belle Reve, where she lived, was even known to the nearby Army base as an “Out-of-Bounds” spot where sexual favors were easily found. Soon no more man would engage in these “intimacies with strangers” she found so gratifying. Her search of intimacies eventually led into the arms of a student of hers. When the boy’s father caught wind, he lead to Blanche’s dismissal from the school. This behavior is an indirect consequence of her husband’s suicide, and therefore one would expect the Varsouviana to pop up in this scene again. But again, Blanche is not in the scene, so it is not coursing through her mind. It is only at the end of the scene, where Blanche suspects Stella of not telling the entire truth that her mind breaks into a mental panic signified by the Piano going “into a hectic breakdown.”
In scene 8 the Kowalskis and Blanche pretend to celebrate Blanche’s birthday, but the mood is actually quite somber. Mitch had been invited, but Stanley had told him about Blanche’s past, so he decides not to attend. Blanche is severely disappointed by Mitch’s absence, Stanley’s annoyance of Blanche is growing. Stella’s mood is simply disturbed by the other two. The “hectic breakdown” of the Piano continues until the middle of the scene, symbolizing the near-collapse of Blanche’s world. Mitch has left her; Stella, long her only supporter, is now silent; and Stanley is still chipping away at the little armor that Blanche has. She does not know how to continue. Mitch’s nonattendance gives Blanche the most stress. Shortly after she calls Mitch, leaving a message because he is not at his home either, Blanche regrets having made the call, at which point the Piano slowly starts to fade out. Blanche is suddenly filled with more sense of worth, restoring her mental order and causing the symbolic Piano fade out of her mind, and out of the audience’s awareness.
Later in the same scene, a noticeable change occurs in both Blanche and, accordingly, the music. Before long Stanley gives Blanche a Greyhound ticket back to Laurel, at which point the Varsouviana starts up, meaning that she has been reminded of the past she would rather forget. With the ticket Stanley lets Blanche know that he wants her out of the house. Not only that, but he also has such contempt for her that he would send her back to Laurel, the town in which she cannot resume a normal life because of her reputation there. She dreads the return to Laurel so much that she runs into the bathroom, gagging.
This trepidation also allows the Varsouviana to continue into the next scene, which takes place later that night. Blanche is sitting with a bottle of liquor and a glass, trying to drink away the music. Mitch walks in to explain his absence earlier in the evening. Blanche is slowly starting to spiral into the dementia that will be her ultimate fate. The events that unfolded the fateful night when Allan shot himself are being replayed in her mind, only stronger than at any point in the play. She still knows that Mitch is there, but to her it seems as if the music is coming from outside her mind, the apartment. This is easily proven by the fact that she asks Mitch about the music she hears. Mitch merely reacts with befuddlement about the question, whereupon Blanche, and the audience, hear a gunshot, after which the music dies down. Blanche is now completely fixated on alcohol, trying to drink away the pain of the memories. This apparently works, because not much later Mitch asks her about her past, with the knowledge he had gotten from Stanley, and the Varsouviana does not reappear.
Finally, the last appearance of the Varsouviana is in the last scene. Here, Blanche’s mind is no longer functioning completely, as evidenced by her asking about a supposed love interest. Here the Varsouviana “rises audibly” just before she inquires about this suitor. Blanche is told that she is going on a trip, but she does not realize that she has actually been committed to an insane asylum. When she is lead to the door, where the doctor from the institution waits, the Varsouviana still plays, and it continues until the very end of the scene. She is told that the person at the door will take her to the harbor, a ship awaits her arrival to take her on vacation, but she is so delusional that she does not realize that the doctor, dressed in doctor’s clothing, is by no means a taxi driver. As Blanche is led out, the Varsouviana fades out, as its source, Blanche, is no longer there, and is replaced by the Blue Piano that was the music at the beginning of the play. It is the sad, melancholy Blue Piano, because everyone, with the exception of Stanley, now experience what a soul in pain feels like.
In A Streetcar Named Desire the background music is directly associated with the character of Blanche DuBois. From the moment Blanche enters the first scene, the audience is immersed in melodies of memory and pain. Because her husband’s suicide was such a defining moment in Blanche’s life, and because her life went downhill from that point on, the Varsouviana is forever associated with imminent calamity and impending disaster. It played when she tells of her past, which will lead to her undoing, and when she is led off to the insane asylum. In short, the Varsouviana plays at each critical juncture of Blanche’s character. And when it does not play, the Blue Piano is often heard, musically describing Blanche’s mood. It, like Blanche, is sad, depressed. In short, not one moment goes by in which the music of the play does not work in unison with the character of Blanche.