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Plastic Theatre


(notes refer to Williams' The Glass Menagerie)


Expressionism


Symbolism



A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Language and Style

“Lyric” is a word generally used to describe poetry, not drama or prose. A lyric poem is usually short , extremely subjective and personal, expressing the thoughts of a single speaker (not necessarily the poet) rather than relating a narrative. It is the most common poetic form.
Williams’ style, however, is frequently described as being lyrical, often by himself. This particular play expresses passions and emotions he himself felt powerfully (fear of death, fear of madness, love, sexual desire, regret for a dying way of life and so on.) His characters, with a few exceptions, may speak clumsily, but there are moments of poetic beauty and highly wrought emotion, made all the more effective and noticeable by the fact that they often come from less than eloquent people. Poetry is the language of high passion, and there is much passion in this play.
An example is when Blanche tries to explain to Mitch what effect the suicide of her young husband has had on her (scene VI, p. 184). It is not enough for her to say, “It ruined my life” – this does not express adequately what she feels. Normal, literal language will not express what she wants to say (an example of what postmodern critics call aporia, so she must resort to metaphor, the language of poetry:

“And then the searchlight which had been turned on the world was turned off again and never for one moment since has there been any light that’s stronger than this – kitchen – candle…”

The light/dark (life/death) imagery is powerful enough to express what an overwhelming, all – encompassing effect her husband’s death has had; for Blanche, everything after that moment is dark. Compare Catherine’s inability to explain her love for Heathcliff to Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights:

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire … Nellie, I am Heathcliff.”

Like Blanche, Catherine uses metaphor (saying something which is not literally true) in order to express a truth – her love for Heathcliff – which goes much deeper than everyday language can.
Even Stanley Kowalski – normally clumsy with language – resorts on at least one occasion to poetical expression, when he describes sexual ecstasy as coloured lights (scene VII, p. 198 – 99).
One other instance of the use of poetic language is in the stage directions, which seem to be used more to create a “mood” or tone than as any practical advice for actors or directors. The detailed stage directions at the start of scene one, for example, evoke brilliantly the sexual, tense, physical, broken – down but still elegant, friendly yet threatening atmosphere of New Orleans.
Language is also used to create characters. Blanche uses several different styles of language, each of which tell us something different about her character, as this table shows:


STYLE
EFFECT ON CHARACTER
SNOBBY (E.G., P. 119 – “I’D LIKE TO BE LEFT ALONE.”
DIFFERENT FROM NEW ORLEANS RESIDENTS; DIFFERENT SOCIAL CLASS.
USE OF QUOTATIONS
WELL READ TEACHER OF ENGLISH; LOVER OF POETRY; OLD FASHIONED, ROMANTIC.
USE OF POETICAL LANGUAGE
YEARNS FOR BEAUTY; SENSITIVE
USE OF BUSINESS TERMS (DISCUSSING BELLE REVE WITH STANLEY)
HAS GONE THROUGH A LOT OF BUSINESS DEALINGS OVER THE HOUSE.
FLIRTATIOUS LANGUAGE. (E.G., “MAY I HAVE A DRAG ON YOUR CIG?” – SCENE II)
FLIRTATIOUS “SOUTHERN BELLE” OR MORE SEXUALLY EXPERIENCED THAN SHE PRETENDS.
DISJOINTED, TENSE, PANIC – STRICKEN (E.G., “I CAN’T BE LEFT ALONE” – SCENE I, P. 124)
FRAGILE MENTAL CONDITION; HAS HAD BAD EXPERIENCES OF SOME SORT.
AUTHORITATIVE, BOSSY (E.G., “TURN THAT OVER – LIGHT OFF” – SCENE I, p. 120
EX – TEACHER; MANIPULATIVE, DOMINEERING, SPOILT.


Blanche’s character, then, is exposed to us by the way she speaks (as well as by the way she acts).
Stanley, unlike Blanche, is not skilful with language (“I never was a very good English student” – scene I, p. 129.) He is more a man of action than of language, and his personality – violent, dynamic, impulsive - is revealed to us more by what he does than what he says. His use of language does still matter, however ; the very fact that he is not eloquent tells us a lot about his background and character, as well as very obviously setting him up as the opposite (in some ways) of Blanche. He tries to use language to intimidate Blanche and Stella over Belle Reve – going on about the “Napoleonic Code” or his various “acquaintances” who will “appraise” things for him (scene II). However, at this point he sounds more like an uneducated man trying vainly to impress people – exactly what he is, in fact. Much more honest and powerful is his heart–wrenching, simple, cry of “STELLAHHH!” – violent, loving, sexual and poetic in its own way.
Stella’s language is generally restrained and practical, as is fitting for someone who has realised that her old way of life is now obsolete and has quietly taken up and adapted to a new way of life.
The last of the four main protagonists, Mitch, is simple. He is deeply conventional, boring, timid – a born loser. He speaks in stock phrases and cliches (“Poker shouldn’t be played in a house with women” – scene III: “A man with a heavy build has got to be careful” – scene VI.) These are phrases which he obviously repeats often. Again, the way he speaks reveals his character to us; he is conventional and dull, too unimaginative to realise that he and Blanche, whatever their faults, probably represent each other’s last chance. Once he finds out that she is not “pure”, he , acting in a typically “macho” way, stops seeing her as a potential wife – someone to take home to his mother – and starts viewing her as a whore. This, we presume, is why he feels justified in trying to rape her.
Williams’ style is, as we have seen, lyric, in that it is often very subjective. In fact, it resembles poetry in many ways – it is densely symbolic and image-laden(with lights, streetcars, moths, colours, sounds etc. all taking on deeper significance – Williams once wrote that “I have a poet’s weakness for symbols.”) Also, it is full of sensory experience (colours, sounds, descriptions of smells, sensations and so on.)



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