Critical Insights: A Streetcar Named Desire

Critical Insights Series

The series focuses on an individual author's entire body of work, a single work of literature, or a literary theme.

At a Glance
  • 1 Volume; 300 Pages
  • 10-14 essays offering Current Critical Analysis by Top Literary Scholars
  • Introductory Essay by the Editor
  • Chronology of Author's Life
  • Complete List of Author's Works
  • Publication Dates of Works
  • Detailed Bio of the Editor
  • General Bibliography
  • General Subject Index
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Edited by Brenda Murphy

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Editor: Brenda Murphy,
    Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor
    of English at the University of Connecticut

October 2009 · 1 volume · 336 pages · 6"x9"

Includes Online Database with Print Purchase
ISBN: 978-1-58765-628-6
# of Pages: 336
# of Volumes: 1
Print List Price: $105
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e-ISBN: 978-1-58765-629-3
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In-depth discussions of Tennessee Williams' great drama - Plus complimentary, unlimited online access to the full content of this great literary reference.

A Streetcar Named Desire quickly became an international sensation when it premiered on Broadway in 1947. The play ran an impressive 855 performances and won a Pulitzer Prize before theatres in cities as far flung as Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, and Melbourne began staging their own productions. When the play was adapted to film four years after its premiere, its reputation as one of the most compelling American dramas of the twentieth century was cemented. Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski became iconic characters, and Marlon Brando, a largely unknown actor before Streetcar, was rocketed to stardom by his compelling performance.

This volume in the Critical Insights series, edited and with an introduction by Brenda Murphy, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, brings together a variety of new and classic essays on Williams's famous play. Murphy's introduction sets the stage for critical investigations of the play in its description of the delicate negotiations that played out between Williams and Elia Kazan, the play's and film's director, as the two finalized the stage script and, later, the screenplay. A brief biography of Williams and a new essay by Paris Review contributor Catherine Steindler discussing Williams's penchant for extreme, nearly mad characters provide further introductory material to Williams's achievement.

For readers new to Williams's play, a quartet of original essays provide valuable context. Camille-Yvette Welsch examines the play in light of post-war American culture and censorship and Kenneth Elliott compares Williams's treatment of tragedy with Arthur Miller's in his equally iconic play of the same period, Death of a Salesman. Neil Heims, in turn, considers how repression drives the play's action, while Janyce Marson reviews a selection of Streetcar criticism.

Nine previously published essays are also collected here to deepen readers' understanding of the play and its critics. Verna Foster and Britton J. Harwood examine Williams's unique adaptation of the tragedy and tragicomedy to suit the strictures of modern drama and the tastes of contemporary audiences. John S. Bak, Dan Isaac and Anne Fleche offer interpretations of Blanche's rape, while Dean Shackelford discusses the homosexual subtexts of Williams's works. Finally, Linda Costanzo Cahir, Keith Dorwick, and Nancy M. Tischler all examine various Streetcar adaptations, from the 1951 film to the 1995 opera.

Rounding out the volume are a chronology of Williams's life as well as a complete list of Williams's dramatic, poetic, fiction, and nonfiction works and a lengthy bibliography of critical works for readers desiring to study Williams in greater depth.

Each essay is 5,000 words in length, and all essays conclude with a list of "Works Cited," along with endnotes. Finally, the volume's appendixes offer a section of useful reference resources:

A chronology of the author's life
A complete list of the author's works and their original dates of publication
A general bibliography
A detailed paragraph on the volume's editor
Notes on the individual chapter authors
A subject index

From "About This Volume"
This collection of essays on A Streetcar Named Desire offers a diverse selection of criticism on Tennessee Williams’s most important play. The collection is divided into two main parts. The first, which provides the context for the criticism, is composed mainly of essays that were commissioned specifically for this volume. The second consists of reprinted essays that are not only interesting and revealing studies in themselves but reflect the play’s critical history as well.

As background for the individual critical studies, the editor’s introductory essay and Catherine Steindler’s “The Paris Review Perspective” present a general critical context, and Robert J. Forman provides a brief biography of TennesseeWilliams. These essays are followed by new articles that illuminate A Streetcar Named Desire from several different perspectives. Camille-Yvette Welsch presents the play in the context of the aftermath of World War II and the threat of the atomic bomb, amid the many stresses on returning U.S. soldiers and their wives and the explosion of interest in sexuality that accompanied the Kinsey Report. Kenneth Elliott provides a revealing analysis of the tragedy of A Streetcar Named Desire in the context of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Neil Heims argues compellingly that “the volcanic forces smoldering and unleashed in A Streetcar Named Desire suggest that it is a play whose action is a reaction to repression, to suppressed inadmissible material,” and its consequences. Janyce Marson discusses some of the important issues that have interested the play’s critics in the more than sixty years since its premiere.

The essays reprinted in the “Critical Readings” section reflect the variety of critical and theoretical perspectives that have been trained on A Streetcar Named Desire, beginning with the much-discussed question of the play’s complex relationship with tragedy. Verna Foster argues that the play is tragicomic, “a genre that offers its audience a less cathartic, more ambiguous and disturbing kind of theatrical experience than tragedy might” and is also “an experience better suited to the needs and tastes of audiences in mid-to-late twentieth-century America.” Britton J. Harwood suggests that A Streetcar Named Desire begins where a tragedy has already ended, arguing that its action “transposes the elements of tragedy into ironies” at the expense of Blanche, who must experience “a version of the tragic in which no real purpose or perception is possible.”

One of the most significant and productive lines of recent criticism about A Streetcar Named Desire focuses on issues around sexuality, gender, and sexual identity. In two articles that make productive use of the authors’ studies ofWilliams’s drafts of the play, John S. Bak examines the process by which Williams arrived at Stanley’s rape of Blanche as “the sole means of providing dramatic closure to his morality play” and Dan Isaac argues that, in the contest between Blanche and Stanley, Blanche is “victorious in her defeat.” Dean Shackelford makes use of the gender theories of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler to examine the central trope of the closet in the play, arguing for its subversive quality. In a poststructuralist analysis, Anne Fleche examines the tropes of spatial violation and sexual violence in the context of the relationship between realism and expressionism.

A Streetcar Named Desire has been the subject of a number of adaptations into other media, such as film, opera, and dramatic parody, which have a complex and sometimes vexed relationship with the play. Three essays here examine adaptations of Williams’s work. Linda Costanzo Cahir addresses the struggle of Elia Kazan, the director of both the play’s original production (1947) and its first film adaptation (1951), to adapt the play authentically in the face of the censorship efforts of the motion picture industry’s censorship board, the Catholic Legion of Decency, and the film’s own producers. Keith Dorwick makes use of close textual analysis of various versions of the script as well as the film and opera adaptations to examine the progressive excision of the homosocial from the play and film. Finally, in a revealing study that includes a detailed account of Lillian Hellman’s unused scenario for the film, Nancy M. Tischler details the effects of censorship and the Motion Picture Production Code in the development of the screenplay. Achronology of Williams’s life, a list ofWilliams’s works, and a bibliography complete the volume.