The Sopranos: Music and Control in A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a play about the fight for control in an American household and who decides the winner of that fight. Throughout the play, Blanche DuBois, a white, upper-class, old-moneyed woman, struggles to exert control over Stanley Kowalski, a middle-class man who, while American, is of recent Polish ancestry and thus lower in the American ethnic hierarchy. The play presents its reader with a problem: in the Kowalski household, there are three people but only two rooms; one person, either Blanche or Stanley, must leave. The play tracks their struggle to be the one who stays. The third scene, the poker scene, reflects how Williams uses music to convey the course Blanche and Stanley’s fight for control. Although there is a push-and-pull throughout the scene, with each character gaining and losing control, an external force, not an individual, decides the winner at the end of the scene by playing music that reflects Stanley’s character instead of Blanche’s. The music in A Streetcar Named Desire tracks the flow of power in the play acting both as a tool of resistance and an enforcement of male dominance.
Blanche uses foreign music to undermine Stanley’s authority by exploiting his insecurity in his American identity. Blanche derives her power over Stanley not from gender, but from ethnic and class privilege. Thus, when she “crosses leisurely to a small white radio and turns it on… [and] Rhumba music comes over the radio” she asserts her dominance over Stanley by calling his American identity into question (54–55). Blanche, coming from a family with a long history of being wealthy plantation owners, is secure in her American identity. Even though Stanley was born in America and fought in the army, his Polish identity places him below Blanche on the ethnic ladder, thus giving her an arena in which she is above him. However, because this ethnic privilege is the only area in which Blanche is above Stanley, she continues to exploit it in her attempts to control him. Later, when Blanche plays “Wien, Wien, nur du allein”, she deliberately plays an Austrian song not only to exploit Stanley’s insecurities, but also to establish herself as a potent opponent because, like Blanche and Stanley, Austria and Poland have a long history of conflicts for control and dominance. Blanche’s ability to exploit Stanley’s insecurities and gain the upper hand in their fight for control shows music as a tool to resist male dominance as well as a reflection of who currently holds power.
Stanley also uses music, or its silencing, to reassert his dominance over Blanche. Although Blanche may have class superiority, Stanley is still a man and he uses physical force to deprive Blanche of her power. After Blanche plays “Wien, Wien, nur du allein,’’ Stanley “stalks fiercely through the portieres into the bedroom. He … snatches [the radio] off the table. With a shouted oath, he tosses the instrument out the window” (62). In this moment, deprived of her music, Blanche no longer holds power over Stanley. This loss also means that now gender takes precedence over class and ethnicity, which is why when Stella calls Stanley a “drunk — drunk — animal thing,” she, like her sister, no longer has her class privilege to protect her and is thus vulnerable to Stanley’s physical abuse. The sudden switch from Blanche being dominant to Stanley shows how fragile the power balance in the Kowalski household is and how temporary the power music gives can be. The inherent power imbalance between Blanche and Stanley is also reflected in how men can provide, control, and destroy music while women can only turn it on and off.
The last song in the scene asserts that Blanche and Stanley’s fight is ultimately trivial — society has already predetermined the winner and has the power to ensure that their choice wins. Stanley prevails over Blanche at the end of the scene when Stella, having been hit by Stanley and gone to Eunice’s apartment with Blanche, returns to him. As Stanley goes to Eunice’s apartment, the Mills Brothers’s song “Paper Doll” begins to play. Although Stanley does not put this song on — the “entertainers in the bar around the corner” sing it — the song is linked to him (65). Much like the speaker of the song who would rather have a “Paper Doll to call my own/Than have a fickle-minded real live girl,” Stanley is trying to take back control over Stella and becomes frustrated whenever he cannot control the women in his life. Williams’s choice to have the entertainers perform “Paper Doll” instead of having Stanley sing or play it indicates that Stanley and Blanche’s fight for control does not matter because society will choose the winner — and in a patriarchal society, that winner will always be a man.
The power of external music that first appears in the poker scene foreshadows Blanche’s final defeat and explains why this defeat was inevitable. Later in the play, as a Polka tune, associated with Stanley, fades out, Blanche says “Sometimes — there’s God — so quickly!” (116). In this moment, Blanche marvels at the existence of a larger force that seems to have the power to give and take away control as it pleases. The poker scene plants the seed for this realization because Stanley’s win after a night of fighting does not come from him, but from the outside world. Stanley’s throwing the radio away during the poker scene also initiates Blanche’s decline. Afterwards, she can no longer play music. Even when she sings, performing Ella Fitzgerald’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon” in Scene Seven, her music can only narrowly stop Stella from fully taking Stanley’s side and even then, he still talks over Blanche’s singing as he disparages her. At the end of the play, when Stella questions her decision to institutionalize Blanche, Eunice replies “You done the right thing, the only thing you could do. She couldn’t stay here; there wasn’t no other place for her to go” (176–177). In a world where men have power, where a happy existence for two poor women and a baby is practically impossible, Blanche was never going to be the one to stay in the Kowalski household. The end of the play is a twisted parallel of the poker scene in which Blanche no longer has access to any music except for a distorted version of the “Varsouviana” that torments her, playing from an unknown external source, the same external force that has supported Stanley throughout the play. Although it might seem like Stanley defeats Blanche when he assaults her, he truly wins when the only music, the only source of control in the play, supports him. This support enables him to destroy Blanche, putting her into an asylum, an institution that has historically isolated and stigmatized women who challenged the status quo. The last line introduces a new game of poker, declaring that men have won, yet with the arrival of Stella and Stanley’s baby, there is a hope that new music can arise and the world can change.
The music in the poker scene foreshadows Blanche’s loss against Stanley by introducing the potency of music as an instrument of control and establishing the power of the music society plays. Although Blanche gains brief control of the music and has moments wherein she effectively undermines Stanley’s authority, those moments are brief. In addition, her music, her means of control, is ultimately ripped away from her. The external music in the scene supports Stanley and makes sure that he wins at the end of it when Stella returns to him. So, if the outcome of their fight for control was predetermined, is the struggle worthless? If it was, then the play would not have such a visceral impact on its reader. There is a saying that the gods’ knowing the result of a game does not stop us from playing it. Even though Stanley will win because he lives in a world in which men have power over women, this outcome should not and does not discourage Blanche from fighting for power. In both Streetcar and our real world, progress is slow, but even if men win at the end of the play, Blanche’s ability to seize power, if only for a moment, shows the reader that resistance is possible, and that perhaps, with enough of these small moments of stolen control, we can change the power structures around us so that one day there can be a different winner.
“Behind the Scenes of the Poker Scene in Elia Kazan’s 1951 Film Adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.” AS & A2 English Blog: Revision Notes and Example Essays on the Edexcel A Level English Syllabus , 2015, blogasenglish.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/a-streetcar-named-desire-2.jpg.
“Cover of New Direction’s Printed Edition of A Streetcar Named Desire.” Amazon, www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FStreetcar-Named-Desire-Directions-Paperbook%2Fdp%2F0811216020&psig=AOvVaw3y92pXrsMQoykueIwXXevz&ust=1610662183881000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAIQjRxqFwoTCKjw4Kz2me4CFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD.
The Mills Brothers. “Paper Doll.” The Glow Worm, Johnny S. Black, Decca, 1943, track 1. ST Lyrics, https://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/themajestic/paperdoll.htm
Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New Directions, 2004.