Reading the scene description at the beginning of Scene One, one is immediately drawn to the name of the building in which Stella and Stanley live: “Elysian Fields”. One later realises that this is a misnomer. It suggests ideal happiness and the perfect resting-place we all strive to reach. It has special significance, therefore, because this description is far from true in the case of Williams’s characters. Despite its name, “the section is poor”, but one is told that it possesses a “raffish charm”.
The area is disreputable, later reinforced by particularly coarse-minded Negro women; but the atmosphere is pleasant.
One has the impression that the area was once intended to be very upmarket, suggested by its “quaintly ornamented gables”, but that its grandeur has deteriorated with age. Ever present in the background there is the fluent melody of the “blue piano”, acting as an accompaniment to the action that takes place in the foreground. Personally, I feel that the blue piano sums up the entire atmosphere of the scene.
It is jazzy and enjoyable, but at the same time it creates an impression of sadness – there is an underlying factor that is clear to pick out.
The whole scene – what one can see and hear – is an oxymoron: pleasant but sad. In the words of Mr Williams himself, “the blue piano expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here”. The atmosphere is more obviously established by the opening lines of the scene. There is a Negro woman making sexual references (“lick her”, “icy cold wave all up an’ down her”) as well as a street vendor shouting out, “Red hot! “.
The area is culturally and ethnically diverse: there are Negro women, white Americans, and a sailor. One also learns more about the area by listening to what these minor characters are saying.
For example, one learns from the conversation between the Negro woman and the sailor that there is a seedy “clip joint” in the vicinity. Not much more can be said about the minor characters, but Williams uses them to full effect at the beginning of the play, where they are most important. Not only do they set the scene, as discussed, but they also captivate the audience right from the start, before the even more interesting main characters come on stage. The minor characters also have one more ri?? le at the beginning: they provide a stark contrast for the entrance of Blanche.
Whereas they are loud, brash and confident, Blanche is totally different. Williams says she is “incongruous to this setting”. This is evident from her appearance. She is dressed in gloves, bodice and necklace, and it is all white, which always suggests purity. Even her pearl earrings serve to highlight her beauty, and even her fragility. She is indeed fragile – Williams describes her as “delicate” and uses the simile of a moth – in other words, she should avoid the light – not so that she does not get burned, but so her beauty is not affected.
This reference to light comes up throughout the play. Later in this scene, Blanche orders her sister to turn the light off – it shows she is hugely vain and maybe not so naturally beautiful after all. Blanche’s character is evident in these first few moments. The way she looks in “shocked disbelief” at “Elysian Fields” reveals her standards. Also evident from the clothes, she is obviously a rich lady – or was one. There is also a touch of vanity here: if she is no longer rich (although the audience does not know this yet), then how can she afford such clothes?
The answer is that her appearance is her life’s priority. After Blanche is admitted into the apartment, her manner stays the same. She is obviously uncomfortable and is unused to such conditions. She sits tightly, and this perching gives the impression of a fragile and very timid bird. At the same time it reveals something new about her personality: she likes to be in control. She does not like the situation, so she controls its effects on her by curling up into a ball like a hedgehog. But this does not last. She soon becomes less tense and begins to look around her, like anybody would.
At first this may be seen as natural curiosity, but knowing Blanche’s nature, one would realise that her reason is very different: she is looking for something to drink. I think that this surprises the audience somewhat. So far it has seen this refined lady, who seems respectable in every way, despite being quite uptight. And yet here is the chink in her armour – she has a drinking problem. For it is very obviously a problem – later on, dramatic irony is utilised when Blanche searches for something to drink in the presence of her sister, pretending as if she does not know where the bottle is.
And shortly after that the audience can see her shaking. This may be put down to the unusual situation she is in, or the revelations she has to tell, but her alcohol problem is no doubt a contributor to such behaviour. Perhaps most obviously, the act of searching through things she disapproves of goes entirely against her nature, and this accentuates the problem she has. In fact, there is some comedy here: she still washes the glass. This obviously hides her problem from others, but it also reminds the audience that she has not forgotten her snobbish values altogether. Blanche has many more bad points.
Her vanity is further indicated by her constant need to bathe. The references to water are frequent. But her worst attributes are the ways in which she communicates with other people, most notably in the first scene, her sister. As mentioned before, Blanche likes to be in control: she exerts her authority over her sister by giving her orders – “And turn that over-light off! “. She is also constantly seeking praise from Stella. This could be because she needs to feel better than Stella does in order to have a relationship with her. It is also because she is very vain – she knows that she is beautiful.
Blanche is also quite nasty at times. A classic line of hers is, “I meant to be nice about it… ” – she reveals her falseness here. Instead of being genuine and honest, she had intended to lie to her sister. And the fact that she tells this to Stella means that she is very tactless and ignorant of other people’s feelings. Another classic quotation is this one: “Where were you? In bed with your – Polak! “. There are two things that are nasty about this line. The first is that she tries to blame poor Stella for everything that has happened at Belle Reve, even though she was not there.
Secondly, she uses a derogatory term to describe Stanley – showing that she is both full of hate for Stanley himself and rather racist towards Polish people. I believe this is the point at which the audience fully realises that Blanche is not a nice person. Yet there are two good things to be said about Blanche. The first is her education. She is obviously very knowledgeable. Her references to Edgar Allen Poe are suitably intelligent, and suggest both her privileged upbringing and her current career. The second is her actions at the end of the scene, when the audience is forced to feel pity towards her.
At the mention of her early marriage, the polka music, which is associated with Blanche throughout the play, accompanies her as she responds very quietly and then faints. This rather reminds me of a similar scene in The Glass Menagerie when Laura faints, although one is more inclined to pity Laura than Blanche. Stella is totally different to Blanche. Unfortunately, no description of Stella is given, except that she is a “gentle woman”, but one can tell by their characters that they have different outlooks and attitudes to life and other people.
The only thing the two women share is their upbringing, but they are even distinguishable here by their present situation. Blanche has stayed comfortable for as long as she can, eventually being forced out of her lifestyle by a situation, whereas Stella has already willingly given up her birthright and her privileges to be with the man she loves. This definitely says something about Stella: she is not materialistic or snooty, and she regards people other than her self as important. Stella interacts with Blanche and Stan in different ways.
She is the “little sister” to Blanche, ready to comply with her wishes immediately. She dare not refuse Blanche, perhaps because she is a guest, but more likely because Blanche has a stronger personality – an example is when she turns the light off for Blanche. This is not an issue as far as Stan is concerned. She will still give Stan what he wants, but she is more ready to stand up to him: “Don’t holler at me like that,” she says, albeit mildly. Mildness is Stella’s usual stance. But we see that even she draws a line somewhere.
When Blanche bombards her with blame for Belle Reve, Stella is understandably very upset (she cries – she is emotional), but she also stands up to Blanche by saying, “Blanche! You be still! That’s enough! “. It is interesting that she says this immediately after Blanche brings Stan into the equation – as if Stella loves Stan so fiercely that she will not let anyone harm him, verbally or otherwise. Stan himself is very much a man’s man, and one gets the impression that he is incapable of such love that Stella has for him.
He virtually ditches Stella in order to go bowling with his friend Mitch – he could not care less whether she came to watch him or not. He “bellows” in a confident manner, and later on several associations are made with him and animals. He is a raw male, who evidently enjoys the company of women, but perhaps does not regard them as equal: he uses words such as “baby” and “little woman” – he tries to put Stella in her place and exert his superiority. Finally, he is not very bright: his humour is obvious, coarse and not at all funny. “Haven’t fallen in, have you? “.
There is a lot to learn about the nature of each of the characters in the first scene, but there is perhaps more to learn about their histories and their present situations. Exposition is used right from the start. Notably, much is learned about Blanche through almost a “hot-seat” approach of Eunice asking her questions. In a few short lines we learn that Blanche has a sister called Stella and that Stella is married – both her maiden name and her married name are mentioned. We also learn that Blanche is a teacher, that she lives in Mississippi in a home called Belle Reve. We are even told that it has white columns!
More is learned about Belle Reve later when Blanche is being very dramatic to Stella, blaming her for everything that has gone wrong. Yet more exposition is used at the very end of the scene, when we learn that Blanche was married once and that the boy died. This is obviously important for the rest of the play – it is purposefully there to end the scene and stay in the minds of the audience members. Finally, there is one thing I have not yet mentioned, because I believe it to be the most important part of the scene, and perhaps part of one of the general themes of the play.
This important part is the directions given to Blanche to get to Stella’s apartment. She must take a streetcar named Desire and transfer to one called Cemeteries, where she will be taken to Elysian Fields. As well as being the obvious source for the title of the play, this signifies a natural progression in life in general. Desire, to death, to the Elysian Fields, or Heaven. At the moment I am not able to comment much on its meaning, but it is definitely very important.