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Professional News
‘Streetcar’ Provides Analysts With Much to Ponder
Psychiatric News
Volume 46 Number 6 page 8-21

Tennessee Williams is unquestionably one of America's great playwrights. His play "A Streetcar Named Desire," which opened on Broadway in 1947, received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. In 1951 it was adapted as a major motion picture.

A group of psychoanalysts put "A Streetcar Named Desire" on the couch, so to speak, at a session of the American Psychoanalytic Association meeting in New York City in January. The session was headed by two analysts from Chicago—€”Arnold Tobin, M.D., and Eva Lichtenberg, Ph.D. Analysts, trainees, and psychiatry residents also joined in the discussion.

Although the panel and audience examined various facets of the play, three devices used in it especially attracted their attention: the family, a stranger, and flashbacks.

The plot of the play is essentially this: A woman named Blanche takes a streetcar named "Desire" (because its destination is a street with that name) to the French Quarter in New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella. Before long Stella's husband, Stanley, and Blanche are on an emotional and physical collision course. Stanley can't tolerate Blanche's pretensions and tries to unmask her in cruel, violent ways. Finally he rapes her. Soon after, she has a nervous breakdown and is committed to a mental hospital. Some people believe that Williams modeled Blanche after his own sister, Rose, who had schizophrenia and who spent much of her life in a mental hospital.

So this play concerns a family—€”perhaps in ways Williams' own family—€”and as one analyst commented, "The American playwright Arthur Miller once said that all great plays are about family." And indeed, that may be one reason why this play is great, another analyst observed. It divulges how all families are delicate social structures that can be unbalanced easily.

Regarding the use of a stranger in the play, the stranger is Blanche, Tobin commented. She disrupts the lives of Stella and Stanley. Williams also used the stranger device in some of his other plays as well, and so did the ancient Greeks, Tobin said.

The reason that use of a stranger is such a potent dramatic device, Tobin continued, is that the arrival of a stranger is a universal experience for all of us. It can be the birth of a child, the birth of a sibling, an illness, a financial setback; it can acutely upset our desires and needs.

"You can also find the use of a stranger in a number of Chekhov plays," another analyst observed. "Isn't that what drama is all about? Someone new or something new arrives and challenges people, and you watch how they deal with it."

As for the use of flashbacks in the play, a good example is one explaining why Blanche acts the way she does, one analyst said. Flashbacks are also used in many modern plays, but they are not in Shakespeare's plays, he pointed out. The reason that flashbacks are found only in modern plays, he conjectured, may be due to Freud's influence—€”that is, the use of introspection to understand why people act as they do.

As valuable as the use of a family, a stranger, or flashbacks is for plays, such devices alone cannot make plays great, the analysts, trainees, and psychiatric residents present tended to agree. "For a play to be great, you need not just ideas, but emotional tension," Tobin said. Another concurred:

"For me, the affective tone of —€˜A Streetcar Named Desire—€™ is deeply tragic. Stella and Stanley become reunited, but at Blanche's expense. She is taken away to a mental hospital." 8_1.inline-graphic-1.gif

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