The sexual content of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which later became a popular and critically acclaimed film, raised eyebrows and led to self-censorship when the film was being made. The director left a number of scenes on the cutting room floor to get an adequate rating and protect against complaints of the play’s immorality. Williams’ play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948.
In the play, Blanche DuBois is a fading, though still attractive, Southern belle whose pretensions to virtue and culture only thinly mask her alcoholism and delusions of grandeur. Her poise is an illusion she presents to shield others (but most of all, herself) from her reality, and is an attempt to make herself still attractive to new male suitors. Blanche arrives at the apartment of her sister Stella Kowalski, which is on Elysian Fields Avenue in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans; one of the streetcars that she takes to get there is named “Desire.”
The steamy, urban ambiance of Stella’s home is a shock to Blanche’s nerves. Stella, who fears the reaction of her husband Stanley, welcomes Blanche with some trepidation. As Blanche explains that their ancestral Southern plantation, Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi, has been “lost” due to the “epic fornications” of their ancestors, her veneer of self-possession begins to slip drastically. Blanche tells Stella that her supervisor allowed her to take time off from her job as an English teacher because of her upset nerves, while in reality she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. This turns out not to be the only seduction in which she has engaged, and, along with other problems, has led her to escape Laurel. A brief marriage marred by the discovery that her husband, Allan Grey, was having a homosexual affair, and his subsequent suicide, has led Blanche to withdraw into a world in which fantasies and illusions blend seamlessly with reality.
In contrast to the self-effacing and deferential Stella and the pretentious refinement of Blanche, Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, is a force of nature: primal, rough-hewn, brutish, and sensual. He dominates Stella in every way and is physically and emotionally abusive. Stella tolerates his primal behavior as this is part of what attracted her in the first place; their love and relationship are heavily based on powerful – even animal-like – sexual chemistry, something that Blanche finds impossible to understand.
The arrival of Blanche upsets her sister and brother-in-law’s relationship dynamics and system of mutual dependence. Stella’s concern for her sister’s well-being emboldens Blanche to hold court in the Kowalski apartment, infuriating Stanley and leading to conflict between him and Stella, who is pregnant. Blanche and Stanley are on a collision course, and Stanley’s friend and Blanche’s would-be suitor, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, gets trampled in their path. Stanley discovers Blanche’s past through a co-worker who travels to Laurel frequently, and he confronts her with the things that she has been trying to put behind her, partly out of concern that her character flaws may be damaging to the lives of those in her new home, just as they were in Laurel, and partly out of a distaste for her pretense in general. However, his attempts to “unmask” her are predictably cruel and violent. In their final confrontation, it is implied that Stanley rapes Blanche, resulting in her nervous breakdown. Stanley has her committed to a mental institution, and in the closing moments, Blanche utters her signature line to the kindly doctor who leads her away: “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
The reasons behind attempts at banning this play are obvious: its earthy sexuality is at the forefront.
Despite those efforts, A Streetcar Named Desire remains a classic in 20th century playwriting.