Plastic Theatre in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Tennessee Williams often used techniques involving lighting, props, and staging not only to help sell a scene to an audience, but to give them a look inside the minds of the characters. He was so fond of this method, that he named it himself, Plastic Theatre. He utilised it in his play “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and it is perhaps one of the main reasons that the play was so popular, making Williams a world-renowned playwright.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is home to some very complex characters, who keep a lot concealed from one another; namely Blanche DuBois, the ‘southern belle’ with a dark past of prostitution, desperation, and death. With such intricately constructed backstories, such as Blanche’s, all the details may not be displayed very obviously to the audience in a fast-paced production, so plastic theatre is used to give hints towards deeper aspects of the plot. An example of this is in scene 9, where Mitch confronts Blanche about the stories he has been told about her. The first set of stage directions for this scene convey a great deal of stress surrounding Blanche, she is “hunched”, “drinking to escape… the sense of disaster closing in on her”. The ways in which Williams presents this to the audience is by playing the ‘Varsouviana’, the “feverish polka tune” that was playing as Blanche’s husband killed himself. The audience would not suspect anything of the tune, until mitch knocks on the door, quickly ending the music with the simple stage direction, “the polka tune stops.” This is the first hint that only she can hear the music. It is confirmed to the spectators when the music starts again, pestering Blanche, but when she voices it, Mitch says, “what music?”. This reveals to the audience that they are experiencing the same as Blanche, a bond that intensifies throughout the following scenes, where both Blanche and the audience are distressed by her rape, and by her admission into the psychiatric hospital. The utilisation of plastic theatre in the critical points in the play, bring the characters closer to the audience, getting them to be emotionally invested in them, and more empathetic towards them.
Costumes also play a huge role in how the characters are perceived, or in this case how they want to be perceived. Blanche dresses in white for most of the play, opting for a “red satin robe” after one of her “hot baths”. This displays how Blanche is always trying to romanticise things, something as simple as a bath robe must be made from a material such as satin, and in as bright a colour as red. The stark contrast between the vibrant red of her bathrobe, and the “weathered grey” of the setting, is mirroring the differences between the characters onstage at the time, Blanche and Stanley. Stanley is first shown in his “work clothes”, showing that he is a practical, hardworking man. Williams establishes Stanley’s authority in the house with the “bowling shirt”, as it displays an idea of physical capability, typical of ‘alpha male’ characters. Similarly, the other male characters in the play are seen wearing primary colours when they get together for poker nights, to represent that they are “coarse and direct and powerful”. This shows that they are meant to be dominant over the women of the play, which of course ends up being true.
The lighting is also extremely important as it can give an intense atmosphere for a whole scene, or just one character, and it is something that is experienced by the audience first-hand, so they do not miss any changes in lighting. It can be used at times when there is a scene that is particularly stressful, or ‘dark’ in nature, like in scene 10; “shadows and lurid reflections” are present in the moments leading up to Stanley raping Blanche. It heightens any feelings of unease that the audience may have already been feeling and builds on the bond between Blanche and the viewers. Conversely, lighting is used ‘backwards’ for a lot of the play, due to Blanche’s discomfort with being seen in the light; that it may reveal her true aging, explaining that “the dark is comforting to her”. In scene 9, Mitch forces her into the light, he stares at her, causing her to “cry out and cover her face”. Most of the play until this point is dark, to represent the working-class living conditions of the Kowalskis, but now we have a bright light on the stage, which would cause some discomfort among the audience as they have not been used to it thus far. This further bonds them to Blanche, to create a more meaningful plot for the audience to experience too, causing a great response after the play is over. This is because even though they are left feeling sorrowful for Blanche, being able to induce these emotions in people is what makes Williams such an incredible playwright, and the audience recognises this.