A Streetcar Named Desire: Music

‘New Orleans is a city with a rich musical heritage, but the music in A Streetcar Named Desire is much more than a naturalistic device.’ In the light of this statement, explore Williams’ use of music in the play.

Williams’ interweaves his significant use of music in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in order to heighten the tension and drama, reveal secrets and the progressive madness of Blanche and to portray the evident insinuation of Stanley’s predatory appeal to the vulnerable prey – Blanche. Williams cleverly took advantage of the rich musical heritage in New Orleans, in order to further convey the unbalanced characteristics of specifically Blanche and Stanley.

The music of the play was illustrated through the ‘Blue Piano’, the Polka – Varsouviana and sounds such as the “hot trumpet” and “locomotives”. All of which play a gargantuan role in presenting different actions and emotions, including cruelty, lamentation and self-destruction. The use of Plastic Theatre enhanced the connection of music to the play. However, the music was clearly demonstrated through the didascaliae: “there is a bellowing laugh from the interior of the flat. Then the ‘blue piano’ and the hot trumpet sound louder.” This highlights the direct juxtaposition of laughter, through the dichotomy of the ‘Blue Piano’ being calm and symbolise ‘life’, to the laughter being more upbeat and louder. Further underscoring feminine weakness and male strength, linking back to Stanley being predatory and Blanche being prey: “You must have had lots of banging around in the army, and now that you’re out, you make up for it by treating inanimate objects with such a fury!” Each verb is violent and assertive, further foreshadowing Blanche and Stanley’s prominent characteristics.

Moreover, Blanche symbolises her feminine dependency through the actions depicted in the didascaliae: “She now seems faint with exhaustion” and “Blanche utters a sharp, frightened cry and shrinks away.” Further linking to her being vulnerable, weak and submissive. The ‘blue piano’ appears to start playing whenever there are moments of suffering: “Blanche opens her eyes. The ‘blue piano’ sounds louder.” This is as a result of Stanley being deliberately cruel through “becoming somewhat sheepish” when he revealed to Blanche about Stella having a baby. Further emphasising Blanche’s progressive decay and destruction through her suffering from Stanley, as the music begins when she’s notified of the hidden pregnancy; which exposes the use of music as more than a naturalistic device to reveal her intense emotions.

Furthermore, the use of locomotives links tightly with the polka music as the Varsouviana symbolises Blanche’s madness and intense emotions when it comes to remembering the death of her husband who she states: “the person I loved I lost.” Which connotes to the music as it builds intensity and a sense of being unsettled chaos: “A locomotive is heard approaching outside.” and “Polka music sounds” Both of which further underscoring the heightened emotion, tension and drama. Linking to the structure and development of the plot, as the amount of didascaliae increases, the music appears numerous times; underscoring Blanche’s emotions revealing the progression of her deterioration.

To further exemplify this point, the locomotives have a penetrative quality and insinuates phallic imagery; as Stanley – the predator – was linked to having a sense of wantonness and a raw sexual portrayal: “Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes” Further emphasising how it is connected to Blanche’s intimidation by Stanley whenever he speaks, the locomotive sounds appear. Resulting in Blanche’s progressive madness and decay to complete deterioration. This ultimately being linked to how the music was used whenever Stanley would slowly reveal Blanche’s secrets, to further highlight her metaphorical death and complete ‘hysteria’. Further linking to Greek tragedy and the ‘Elysian Fields’ being the final resting place to Greek hero’s; which undermines Blanche’s metaphorical death through her femininity linking to ‘hysteria’ to her progressive decay and deterioration, supported by the intensified music.

The genre of plastic theatre through the pathetic fallacy of music and didascaliae portray significance to modernist theatre and the progression from Greek tragic theatre. These connotations are initially presented through the setting of ‘Elysian Fields’, the resting place of Greek heroes, and the foreshadowing of Blanche. Shakespearean tragedy is then portrayed through Blanche’s metaphorical death and the intensified emotions and built-up drama. Greek Tragedy focused on the politcal catharsis of society whereas Shakespeare blended both politcial and personal tragedy and this trend continues to modern theatre as an evocation of intensely personal suffering. This is often presented within the microcosm of a community that is symbolic of the wider society; in Streetcar this is exemplified in New Orleans as the symbol of New America outstripping the Old confederate ideologies. Lastly, modern drama, known as ‘Kitchen Sink Dramas’ are linked through the use of plastic theatre; which ultimately focused on how the character and place allowed the reader to see the disintegration that happens to those characters over a period of time as the dominant and masculine Stanley, tramples on the more delicate and weaker surrounding him – Blanche. The “Blue Piano” and music of New Orleans seeks to blend the modernist elements of Plastic Theatre with Tenessee’s wider societal comments on cruelty and degredation.

In conclusion, Williams did indeed use music in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ for more than a naturalistic device, as he used it crucially to highlight the main character’s actions, emotions and the process of how they initially were, to how they became towards the end of the play, through tragic and seemingly unstoppable events. The use of pace coupled with the music and the titular streetcar line from ‘Desire’ to ‘Cemeteries’ and ‘Elysian Fields’ creates an inexorable drive towards both death and degradation. It allowed the reader to empathise and feel the visceral tension and drama, through the use of didascaliae and plastic theatre as an all encompassing experience.

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