Structure and other Greek Things


These notes contain many references to theories about how a play should be written. Many of these theories are Greek in origin and, although a little complex at times, they may be very useful when comparing this play to Oedipus Rex.


The Unities:

The convention of imposing rules on playwrights is a long-held tradition. The so-called three unities — of time (demanding that the action of a play should take place within twenty-four hours), of place (requiring the setting to remain the same throughout the play) and of action (that the play should centre on the main characters, with no sub-plots, and that the action should have a satisfying ending) — were wrongly attributed by Renaissance literary critics to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and critic. Whilst Aristotle certainly discussed several Greek tragedies, he never laid down any strict rules.


If we look at A Streetcar Named Desire, the first thing to strike us is the unity of place, the entire action taking place in the Kowalskis’ apartment or outside it. The action remains centered around the tragically intertwined lives of Stella, Blanche, Mitch and Stanley and it is only the time of the play that stretches over several months, starting in May, reaching its climax in September, with the tragic aftermath happening some weeks later. This focus on character and place allows us to see the dismal disintegration that happens to those characters over a period of time as the world of the strong, represented by Stanley, tramples on the more delicate and fragile worlds of those surrounding him




Tennessee Williams divides A Streetcar Named Desire into eleven scenes each one leading naturally to a climax, either a dramatic gesture (in Scene 1 Blanche sinks back, her head in her arms, to be sick) or a punch line (Blanche again, in Scene 3, ‘I need kindness now’, or in Scene 6, ‘Sometimes —. there’s God — so quickly!’). The effect is a sense of conclusion, as if a mini- playlet has drawn to a close.


The action of the play covers a period of some five months. The first six scenes stretch over the first few days of Blanche’s visit in May, but Scene 7 moves abruptly to mid September when Scenes 7 to 10 take place within one day. The last scene follows a few weeks later.


As such the first group of scenes sets the stage for the calamities that will take place in the second group, and the last scene, which takes place some weeks later, shows the outcome of these events. There is a clear chronological progression of events between the three groups of scenes with each group having a noticeably different mood, almost as if the play were split into three acts.


Dramatic tension is heightened early in the second group of scenes when Stanley denounces Blanche while she, blissfully unaware, is singing contrapuntally off-stage in the bathroom. In Scene 8 the mounting tension culminates in Stanley’s cruel birthday present of a bus ticket back to Laurel. In Scene 9 the first of the symbolic - one might say Expressionist - figures appears, the Mexican seller of flowers for the dead, followed by Mitch’s attempt at raping Blanche. The readers or audience may have guessed what will follow in the next scene. Scene 10 starts amiably enough, with Stanley even offering to ‘bury the hatchet’, but soon the tone of the conversation, and the mood of the set, changes. As Stanley strips off Blanche’s pretensions, menacing shapes appear on the walls of the apartment and the street outside is filled with violence. The climax is now inevitable, foreshadowed by Blanche’s terror. The condensed period of time in this ‘Act’ creates the impression of Blanche hurtling irrevocably to her doom.




Though far from being the heroine of classical tragedy, Blanche still commands our attention. She appears in every scene, and if you glance at the eleven scenes you will notice that the final tableau of each scene more often than not centers on her, and that she speaks the punch line. In the last scene particularly this pathetic deluded woman acquires the dignity she has been lacking. Her irritating mannerisms fall away, and she leaves on the doctor’s arm with the famous line ‘Whoever you are — I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’. She leaves, ignorant of what lies ahead of her, and the pathos of her ignorance has the effect of somehow diminishing those whom she is leaving without a backward glance: the hysterical Stella, the blustering bully Stanley. In a pointed contrast to Scene 3 this time the poker players stand up awkwardly as she passes through. The echo of the earlier scene is stressed by the repetition of Blanche’s words. It draws our attention to the changed circumstances and to the change in Blanche herself.


As she is the focus of the play it is unsurprising that many of the key symbols revolve around her: the Chinese lantern; the Varsouviana; the streetcar with its suggestions of the uncontrollable power of passion and the inescapable headlong rush towards doom; the locomotive which re-emphasises the latter point; the Mexican flower seller in scene 9 who is a portent of death; the continual bathing indicative both of a desire to wash her self clean of the guilt she feels for her husband’s death and a wish to purify herself of her seedy sexual history.




Hubris is another famous Greek dramatic rule: it means the humiliation or downfall of an arrogant person caused by their own pride. The rule of hubris, however, is curiously reversed here, as the vain, self-deluded Blanche acquires tragic status after her, downfall. Having been at the centre of the play throughout, Blanche stages a dramatic exit. Stanley’s fondling of Stella provides an ironic conclusion: Stella has bartered her sister for sexual gratification and now she is left with Stanley.