Use of Dramatic Light and Sound in A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire

To What Dramatic Effect Does the Playwright Make Use of Light and Sound?

A Streetcar Named Desire is a play written by Tennessee Williams in 1947. Like in many other modern plays, here the playwright makes an extensive use of stage effects: the ideas are expressed not only through words, but also by sound, music and light. They are used to set the context and the mood of the scene – or of the play in general; to implicitly suggest an idea, an action; to show the feelings of a character, and to let the audience into his/her mind. None of these effects are eye-candy-like props, but real dramatic devices that are indispensable for the spectator to fully appreciate all the dimensions of the play.

Throughout the play, sound and music constantly give the audience a strong sense of setting: the “perpetual Blue piano”, the jazz music played by the Negro entertainers and the call of street vendors always remind us of the place where this tragedy is set – a multi-ethnical neighborhood of New Orleans, where people are not wealthy but life is easy and full of colors. At the arrival of Blanche in scene one, this popular joyfulness creates a wide contrast with her social background – she is aristocratic, well-mannered and fragile, and therefore from the very beginning of the play Williams shows the audience that she will not be able to fit in this new world that is much too different from hers. In that way the ambience created by sound and music give us a hint about the tragic end of the play.

Another aspect that this setting shows is that it is a tragedy of everyday life: the audience can hear the “confusion of street cries” and can see the lights of other tenements in the background. We can think that by adding those elements the playwright means to emphasize the fact that unlike in classical dramas, here the play is not about kings or heroes: it is just the tragedy of a common woman, no more special than the tragedy that each other families in the background and the people on the street may be going through. In a sense it shows the cruelty of modern world: nobody – except Stella and Mitch – care about Blanche’s suffering, and as she is sinking more and more, the world just moves on as if nothing happened. Then we can say that it is a subtle social criticism that is carried by the visual and sonic effects.

Still as a part of the setting, the use of the locomotives passing beside the building is a good example of the association of light and sound. Evoked many times in the play, its most significant effect is seen in the scene when Blanche narrates the tragic story of her marriage with Allen Grey: its thunder-like noise is heard and its headlight glares onto the scene. Its loud noise and its image of a huge, unstoppable metallic monster may bring forward the fact that this painful memory is devastating her, and its powerful headlight symbolizes, quite paradoxically, the “blinding light” of love for Blanche, a light that had shined briefly on her and then went away instantly, exactly like the light of a passing train.

In the play, light is an important motif, which is an element of the text and used in stage effects. From the beginning, it is stated that Blanche’s “delicate beauty must avoid a strong light”, which is a stage direction for the entire play. Indeed, on the stage Blanche always appear in a dim light: she puts a paper lantern over the naked light bulb in the kitchen, and when she sees Mitch she only lights on a candle. This absence of strong light can convey many layers of meaning to the spectator. First, as the stage direction suggests, light is almost aggressive to Blanche’s fragile beauty – the dim light from the paper lantern contrasts with the violent “raw color[ed]” light at Stanley’s poker night. As we progress through the play, we learn that darkness is “comforting” to her – she can protect herself behind the screen of darkness, only showing to the men’s eyes what “ought to be the truth”, which is a younger, purer and more attractive Blanche. When Mitch tears down the lantern and turns on the bright light over her, the significance is obvious: he has torn down her last line of defense, revealing her real age and her other secrets to the world, leaving her broken and helpless. The loss of this protective darkness is the final blow given to her before she falls into lunacy. Therefore we can see that light as a stage effect plays an undeniable role in helping the spectator to understand the evolution of a character.

Like the paper lantern, the polka music called the Varsouviana is also a recurrent element in the play. This tune, the one on which Blanche and her husband Allen Grey had their last dance before he kills himself, represents the most painful memory in her life, a death for which she blames herself. We can see that the Varsouviana has a more and more important place in the play as the plot unfolds: when it appears the first time it is only “faint in the distance”, and only for a few moments. But afterward it comes back more regularly, and we know that it is in her mind – it is like an aparté between Blanche and the audience, letting us into her decaying mind that is haunted and consumed by this memory. When she hears the shot of the revolver that marks the end of the polka, the audience hears it as well, which shocks us and makes us understand how profoundly this event affected Blanche. So in this case music is a window into the character’s mind opened for the spectator.

From the birthday night, when Blanche discovers that her past has been discovered by Stanley, she enters a process of progressive degradation, mental and physical, expressed through sound and light. The mental confusion is shown by the “hectic breakdown” of the distant piano, and at the end when her madness is really expressed, even the Varsouviana is “filtered into weird distortion”. This deformation of music clearly suggests the chaotic state of her mind. When she is physically offended, first by Stanley – who rapes her – then by the Matron of the institution, her fear and the threat upon her is represented by “inhuman voices of the jungle” and “lurid reflections [of] odd, sinuous shapes”. The image of a jungle suggests the violence and bestial nature of her aggressor, and also puts forward the idea that it is the cruelty and inhumanity of a whole society that is causing Blanche’s fall. Altogether these elements paint a very moving image of Blanche’s degradation, and provoke the compassion of the audience for this fragile girl who cannot stand this world where is too much violence and too few care and understanding.

We have seen how the playwright could convey his ideas to the audience through visual and sonic effects. In a play like A Streetcar Named Desire, one could argue that those stage effects are not less important for understanding the play that the text itself. They have the advantage of making the play more alive and more accessible, although they give less freedom to the imagination of the stage directors. But the most interesting point of using light and sound is that it is a way for the playwrights to express more ideas, ideas that are often not expressible simply by words.