Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview

Streetcar Named Desire-
Nietzsche Descending
Joseph N. Riddel

To see A Streetcar Named Desire as a realistic slice-of-life is to mistake its ambitious theme; to find it social protest is to misread the surface, for just as in The Glass Menagerie, Williams gets in his social licks while groping for a more universal statement. It is not, however, in its subthemes that Streetcar fails but in its overabundant intellectualism, its aspiration to say something about man and his civilization, its eclectic use and often contradictory exploitation of ideas. Williams has been called neo-Lawrencean, placing him in that assemblage of revived romantics and primitives in revolt against a sodden, effeminate age, but he is a Nietzschean as well, if in a very imperfect and perhaps overimpetuous way.

In Streetcar, as in several other plays, Williams borrows from Nietzsche in great chunks, often undigested, using his sources with that liberal freedom that has become characteristic of the American artist in search of a theme. Readers of Streetcar are soon aware of the problems this creates, for they are faced at the beginning by a welter of symbols—both linguistic and theatrical—that force upon the realistic surface a conscious, almost allegorical pattern. Williams has, at various times, had less success with the integration of his excessive symbolism and his theme, as in the satyr-like spiritualism of The Rose Tattoo or the panic-homosexual-psychoanalytic motif of Suddenly Last Summer. But even in Streetcar one must begin with a contradiction between his intellectual design and the militant primitivism of the theme; or to use a philosophical gloss, one must begin with Nietzsche's Apollonian-Dionysian conflict, in an almost literal sense.

____________________
From Modern Drama 5, no. 4 (February 1963). © 1963 by the University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama.

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