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A streetcar named desire and tennessee Williams' object-relational conflicts.

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International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4(2): 110–127 (2007)
Published online in Wiley InterScience
(www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/aps.127
A Streetcar Named Desire and
Tennessee Williams’
Object-Relational Conflicts
W. SCOTT GRIFFIES
ABSTRACT
Art, as a symbolic expression, often reflects intrapsychic conflicts within the artist,
and many of Tennessee Williams’ plays contain themes of desperate loneliness, human
disconnectedness, and victimization between the powerful and the weak. Williams’
genius as a playwright did not save him from painful depression that contained the
above themes. He described his internal conflict as a psychic split between identifications with his aggressive, alcoholic father and his sensitive, artistic Dakin (that is,
maternal) roots. Of his plays A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most compelling. This paper examines the Blanche/Stanley victim/victimizer paradigm as the dramatization of a core conflict within Williams. Using historical data from his biographies,
the author attempts to explicate the hypothesis that in Williams a “Stanley” representation was in violent conflict with a “Blanche” representation. The author proposes
that this conflict significantly shaped Williams’ psychic organization and became a
central and oft-repeated theme in his art and his life. Copyright © 2006 John Wiley
& Sons, Ltd.
Key words: intrapsychic conflicts, human disconnectedness, victimization
INTRODUCTION
Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) is considered one of the greatest literary artists
of the American theater. Born in Columbus, Mississippi, he wrote diligently and
compulsively nearly every day of his life from early childhood. His initial aspiration was to be a poet. He identified strongly with the poet Hart Crane, and
wrote poetry and short stories throughout his adolescence. He published his first
short story, about an Egyptian queen, in Weird Tales when he was 17.
Williams began writing plays along with short stories while in college. He
also took small acting roles as a way of studying plays. In this, he was following
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
somewhat in the footsteps of his mother, who at a young age had had theatrical
aspirations and taken several leading roles in local community theater. Williams
first attended the University of Missouri, where he majored in journalism. His
father, Cornelius, was determined to make him “a man,” now that he was away
from his mother’s doting protection, and he felt that the required ROTC course
there was just what his son needed. But, after Williams received an F in ROTC,
his father refused to pay for further schooling, and forced him to work in a shoe
factory. After several years, Williams re-entered college at Washington University
in St Louis, where he was thought to hold some promise as a writer, but he could
not fulfill the graduation requirements – in particular, the physical education
requirement. He also received a D in General Literature III, evoking a sneer from
his father who disapproved of his literary aspirations. At the encouragement of
Willard Holland, a theater director who believed in Williams’s potential as a
playwright, he transferred to the University of Iowa.
After graduating from Iowa, Williams mostly traveled about and wrote. He
sent occasional short stories to Audrey Wood, his agent in New York, who wired
him small funds to keep him alive. Between trips to New York, New Orleans,
Mexico, and Key West, he returned home to his mother for money, food, and
shelter.
Williams’ big break came at the age of 34 with the opening of the The Glass
Menagerie (1945), his most autobiographical play. It is a play seen through the
clouded lens of memory. Tom (Williams’ birth name), the protagonist, is trapped
in life: he is working in a shoe store and living in a small tenement apartment
in St Louis, providing for his histrionic mother and disabled sister while he
dreams of being a poet. His father is introduced in the opening scene by a picture
on the end table and Tom’s famous line, “This is my father who has fallen in
love with long distances.”
Shortly after the opening of The Glass Menagerie, Williams began writing A
Streetcar Named Desire (1947). At least part of the play was written while he was
living in New Orleans in “one of the loveliest apartments I’ve ever occupied
near the corner of St. Peter and Royal St” (Williams, 1975: 109). He was having
severe abdominal pain at the time, and thought he was dying of pancreatic
cancer. He made mention in his memoirs of the intensity of the writing, and
the thought of death may have compelled an even greater compulsion to write.
“I took up where I left off with ‘Streetcar,’ ” he writes, “which I was then calling
‘The Poker Night.’ I wrote furiously on it. For, despite the fact that I thought I
was dying, or maybe because of it I had great passion for the work” (Williams,
1975: 109).
Streetcar opened in 1947 starring Marlon Brando as Stanley, Jessica Tandy as
Blanche, and Kim Hunter as Stella. The play won the Pulitzer Prize, and solidified Williams’ reputation as one of the greatest tragic dramatists of the twentieth
century. However, all critics were not so kind to his work. Henry Taylor (1948),
a critic, wrote an extremely harsh criticism just after A Streetcar Named Desire
opened in New York:
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
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If, as in Tennessee Williams’ case, there was never more than a small patch of happy
boyhood in a youth-time dominated by developing family tragedy, by poverty and hard
work and many menial jobs, his static stare will always give him back the same gloomy
landscape in which even the small Eden seems a dying mirage and the relationship of
forces remains fixed in an endless and cannibalistic assault of the insensitively powerful
upon the pathetic and defenseless. The more he stares at the instances of his life, the
more they are the same. He grows older, he knocks about on his own, he writes plays, he
is welcomed and acclaimed; yet curiously, he is still the traumatized youngster inexorably
recreating the pattern of his trauma, unable to break through to adult reality. (Taylor,
1948: 98)
Williams once told an interviewer: “My work is emotionally autobiographical.
It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional
currents of my life” (Contemporary Literary Criticism, 1984). Taylor’s critique,
although perhaps somewhat exaggerated and insensitive, underscores the critics’
recognition of the repetition and intractability of powerful themes of human
disconnect and victimization seen both in Williams’ art and in his life. Many
critics came to feel that much of Williams’ later work was a rewriting of earlier
plays and stories, and that his new material showed little artistic development.
Gore Vidal said in 1976:
Tennessee is the sort of writer who does not develop; he simply continues. By the time
he was an adolescent, he had his themes . . . I am not aware that any new information
(or feelings?) has got through to him in the [past] twenty-eight years. (Gale, 1984: 453)
This paper is a psychoanalytic exploration of the emotional themes Williams
dramatized so vividly in A Streetcar Named Desire, and how they entrapped one
of the world’s greatest playwrights.
BLANCHE AND STANLEY
Like all of Williams’ plays, A Streetcar Named Desire is autobiographical. The
story has many layers and many levels of symbolism, but the central conflict is
between the animalistic Stanley and the sensitive and vulnerable Blanche. The
play begins with the introduction of Blanche DuBois, as she gets off the streetcar
in the French Quarter. The family plantation, “Belle Reve,” where she has been
living, is lost to disrepair and bankruptcy; she has come to New Orleans seeking
refuge with her younger sister, Stella, who lives with her blue-collar Polish
husband, Stanley Kowalski.
As the story unfolds, the audience witnesses the progressive victimization of
Blanche by the brutish Stanley. He bristles over Blanche’s need to hold on to
her illusory world of gentleman callers and a genteel Old South. He cannot see
her fragility, her sensitivity, or the empty loneliness that compels her to engulf
others. He can only see consuming, castrating intentions, a narcissistic hunger
that cannibalizes men and boys. He feels that he must destroy her, or be
destroyed.
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
From the beginning of the play, Williams makes clear the antithetical characteristics of his two protagonists. As Blanche arrives in the dark and decadent
French Quarter in Scene I, Williams describes her as:
. . . incongruent to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with fluffy bodice,
necklace, and earrings of pearl, white glove and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a
summer tea or cocktail party in the Garden District. Her delicate beauty must avoid
strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner as well as the white clothes
that suggest a moth. (Williams, 1951: 15)
Stanley, in contrast, is:
. . . of medium height, about five foot eight or nine, and strongly, compactly built. Animal
joy is in his being as implicit as all his movements and attitudes. Since earliest manhood,
the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with
weak indulgence, dependently, but with a power and pride of a richly feathered male bird
among hens. He sizes up women at a glance, with sexual classifications, crude images
flashing into his mind and determining the way he smiles at them. (Williams, 1951:
29)
From the moment they meet, the sparks fly between this anti-couple; there is
no possibility of reconciliation or even of co-existence. Stanley accuses Blanche
of stealing his family jewels, and unloads her treasure chest. Her need to see
herself as a refined southern belle is a cover for her more nefarious intent, Stanley
is sure, and she will not deceive him. He says, “Some men are took in by this
Hollywood glamour stuff and some men are not.” Blanche responds, “I’m sure
you belong to the second category” (Williams, 1951: 39).
Although they have met only briefly, they appear to know each other well.
In Scene II, Blanche wants to confront Stanley alone. She asks Stella to fetch
her a lemon coke, and then says to Stanley: “The poor little thing was out there
listening to us, and I have an idea she doesn’t understand you as well as I do”
(Williams, 1951: 4). They are attracted to each other with the sticky attractions
of abused to abuser, and vice versa. Blanche needs to disavow the primal animalistic part of herself as much as Stanley needs to deny his own passivity and
neediness. But in moments of truth, the hidden sides of their alter egos become
manifest – Stanley screams desperately for Stella and falls weeping at her feet
when she abandons him, and Blanche, we find out, as fearful and dependent as
she is, has a history of sexually exploiting men and boys.
Stella tries to explain to Stanley that it is people like him who have made
Blanche what she is. “You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody was
tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her
to change” (Williams, 1951: 111).
But Stanley’s fears of being engulfed and unmanned are a barrier to any kind
of empathic understanding of Blanche. He can approach her only with the Don
Juanism of threatened phallic dominance. When he finds out the “truth” about
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
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her, he immediately goes for the kill. Despite Stella’s pleas, Stanley will not allow
Blanche to “possess” Mitch, his friend.
Stanley’s eventual indictment of Blanche strips her of her illusion of southern
aristocratic purity and breaks the last prop of her self-esteem. He feels justified
in this destruction because he feels menaced by the passive dependency and
engulfing cannibalistic wishes that she represents. He uses his phallic dominance over her not to protect or rescue her, as she so desperately wishes, but to
rape her. The rape sadistically crushes the last of the narcissistic illusions that
support her sanity.
Blanche’s fears of her own assertiveness leaves her dependent on Stanley and
subject to his fears – that sensitivity and gentility will destroy him, unless he
destroys them first. And he does. Blanche collapses into psychotic delusion. She
attempts to hold on with a delusion that Shep Huntleigh, her gentleman caller,
will rescue her. And in the end, when the good doctor offers his arm to remove
her from the house, she smiles as she is guided out. Her comforting and famous
line – “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” (Williams, 1951: 142)
– echoes a statement that Williams repeated many times throughout his
memoirs.
IRRECONCILABLE PSYCHIC SPLITS WITHIN TENNESSEE
WILLIAMS
Williams spoke over and over again of the “Blue Devils” that drove him “halfmad” and that stemmed from the irreconcilable psychic split within him between
his Williams and Dakin side (Leverich, 1997: 37–38, 174). His parents had been
locked in a victimizing relationship from the moment the children entered their
lives. The only real sense of calm and peace in the household was when the
father, Cornelius, was away as a traveling salesman, as he was in the first seven
years of Tennessee’s life. During that time, Tennessee, his sister Rose, and their
mother Edwina, stayed in the home of the Dakin grandparents in Clarksdale,
Mississippi. Williams remembers these days as shrouded in kindness, sensitivity,
and gentleness. He said: “All that is not the worst of me surely comes from Grand
[his maternal grandmother] except my Williams’ anger and endurance, if these
be virtues. Whatever I have of gentleman in my nature, and I do have much in
response to gentle treatment, comes from the heart of Grand, as does the ineluctable grace and purity of heart that belongs to the other Rose in my life, my
sister” (Williams, 1975: 110).
When Cornelius came home, his explosive nature burst into the quiet, cultured serenity like Stanley’s poker game broke into Blanche’s quiet bath:
Hard working and hard drinking, boisterous and coarse as ever, CC [Cornelius] would
still periodically storm the bastion of the Dakin household and as quickly leave it in
peace. (Leverich, 1997: 45)
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
Cornelius’ restless and aggressive temperament suggested his roots: his forbears
were early pioneers of Tennessee. But it was the Dakin temperament that
informed the young Tom Williams’ cultural aspirations:
Tom Williams was, in fact, growing up more a minister’s son than the son of a traveling
salesman, whom he scarcely recognized as a father. A Puritan strain that would for all
of his life become the gentle Dakin side of his nature came in direct conflict with the
side born of the wild, cavalier disposition of the Williams’ family. This dichotomy divided
him against himself and was exhibited in contradictory behavior. (Leverich, 1997:
37–38)
As a gentleman caller, Cornelius had courted and pursued Edwina successfully,
and they had fun together as a young couple without children. Cornelius was
from Knoxville, Tennessee and was working in Columbus, Mississippi as a
manager for a telephone company when he met Edwina. Knoxville was a part
of the industrial South, far different than the genteel, ante-bellum plantations
of Columbus. During their courtship, Cornelius hid the side of his Knoxville
character that enjoyed hard drinking, loose women, and all-night poker
games.
Once married, the young couple honeymooned in Gulfport, Mississippi,
where Cornelius also took a management job. Those days were idyllic, and
almost each day Cornelius would bring home a wrapped gift for his new wife.
“For eighteen months we were childless and Cornelius was delighted” (Leverich,
1997: 33). But Cornelius’ mood changed drastically when Edwina told him she
was pregnant. Shortly after, he left his management job, and returned to the
road where his life was strictly his business. Pregnant and feeling isolated,
Edwina moved back with her parents in Columbus. Cornelius appeared indifferent to the decision.
Fourteen months later Edwina delivered their second child. From the start
of Tom’s life, Cornelius was jealous of his wife’s affection for their new son.
Shortly after Tom’s birth, Cornelius said to his daughter Rose, “We don’t think
much of that baby, do we?” (Leverich, 1997: 36). Cornelius had lost his own
mother to tuberculosis at the age of five, and when his attention needs went
unmet, he was prone to rage and physical violence. The children, therefore, it
appears, became his competitors. The minute he would enter his house, he would
fly into a rage, as if he wanted to tear it down. He would pick up a bill for items
Edwina had bought for the children and burst into bouts of violent anger and
rage. He criticized his son’s love of books and felt that he would amount to
nothing. His attacks of his son only led to Edwina to dote over young Tom even
more.
Whether intentionally or not, Edwina had fashioned a vengeful weapon that served as
a permanent wedge between father and son. And it served to isolate Cornelius within
his own family. From the time he first referred to Tom as “Miss Nancy,” Cornelius was
instrumental in creating the very thing in his son that he abhorred and feared most. It
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
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was a defense of his own masculinity as he wanted it manifest in his son. A father’s selffilling prophecy that became affixed in the child’s mind. At the same time, Edwina was
reinforcing Cornelius’ prediction by pressing her claim upon “my boy” in the form of love
diverted, excessive, coveted. (Leverich, 1997: 83)
Williams’ feelings for his father were quite confused. Although he feared and
hated the aggressive, abusive bully, he also longed for his father’s love and
affection:
When he was asked (in an interview) about the one thing he might wish to change in
his life had he the power, he quipped, “One thing? Well I have two of most things you
are supposed to have, two of . . . but one thing? Well, I don’t want to change my sex.”
Then his manner became more serious: “One thing?” After a long silence, Tennessee
removed his mask and Tom Williams confessed, “I would have won my father’s affection.
He wanted to win mine. But I . . . my mother turned us [my sister and me] against my
father, and I regret that the most, I think.” (Real, 1983: 42–44).
Although Williams acknowledged throughout his life that he could be a “crocodile” – that like Stanley, he too could be aggressive and animalistic, especially
when drinking – his first manifest neurosis was a paralyzing, pathologic shyness.
When he was called on in class, he often froze with fear:
I blushed when every one looked into my eyes: Mostly females, since my life was spent
mostly among members of that gender . . . I don’t think I had feminine mannerisms, but
somewhere deep in my nerves there was an imprisoned young girl, a sort of blushing
school mate much like the one described in a certain poem or psalm “she trembled at
your frown!” While the schoolmate imprisoned in my hidden self, I mean selves, did not
need a frown to make her tremble; she needed only a glance . . . Few people realize, now,
that I have always been and even in my years as a crocodile, an extremely shy creature – in
my crocodile years I compensate for this shyness by the typical Williams’ heartiness and
bluster and sometimes explosive fury of behavior. In high school, I had no disguise, no
façade, and it was at the university high school that I developed the habit of blushing
when anyone looked me in the eyes as if I harbored beyond them some quite dreadful
and abdominal secret. (Williams, 1975: 17)
He had not always been shy and inhibited; in fact, before he was five, he was
known as a neighborhood bully. But in the summer of 1916, he was bedridden
for a long time with diphtheria, and could not walk for almost a year. The illness
gave Edwina an even greater hold on him, and his paternal identifications were
further repressed. Edwina said: “That disease was a dreadful thing. It took all
the belligerence out of Tom” (Williams and Mead, 1983: 17).
The ultimate effect of the ailment was to leave both Tom and Edwina emotionally
entwined and to turn Tom’s childhood energies in upon himself, opening the way to an
interior life that would become his own very private world. Looking back, Tennessee
Williams declared that the illness had changed his nature as drastically as it had his
health; “Prior to it, I had been a little boy with a robust, aggressively bullying nature.”
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
After it and because of it, he became “a decided hybrid,” different from the family line
of frontiersmen-heroes of east Tennessee . . . The shock of nearly losing her “precious”
boy aroused in Edwina an overprotective concern that prompted Cornelius to complain
that she was pampering Tom too much and making a sissy of him. From then on, the
more attentive Edwina was to the child’s symptoms, the more preoccupied Tom became
with this and other of his illnesses that were to follow. The seeds of his life long hypochondria had been sown. (Leverich, 1997: 43)
While the bully side of himself became more latent after the diphtheria, it
remained a part of his character. Leverich says:
I believe that subconsciously in manifold ways, the Williams side in Tennessee was
acquired directly from CC Williams, manifested in his sudden irrational burst of temper,
his strange attitude toward money, his great pleasure in a game of poker, his need to win
and dominate, his addiction to alcohol, his sexuality, his pride in his heritage, and his
dedication to work. None of these characteristics appear to have come from the gentler
Dakin side of his nature, inherited from his mother and her parents. (Leverich, 1997:
xxv)
However, the sparseness of healthy identifications with his abandoning father,
and the physical castration of the diphtheria, left Williams too vulnerable to
the dominating force of his mother, who while perhaps “gentle and vulnerable”
on the one hand, was, like Blanche, engulfing and castrating on the other.
Leverich articulates this dynamic beautifully:
Something as deeply embedded as one’s psychosexuality cannot be simplistically attributed to any single influence or trauma in a child’s life. Still, I can think of nothing that
injures more the developing manhood of a young boy, nothing that can be more intensely
felt, than the unrequited love of a son for his father. And no mother’s or sister’s love can
replace or compensate for the rupture. It was a loss that Tennessee felt to his dying day,
a loss that he projected into the act of creation. The missing ideal of a son and the loving
image of his father became instead the identity of the artist in revolt. It was why Tom
chose the name Tennessee, deeply impressed as he was with the fighting spirit of the
father’s Tennessee forbearers. (Leverich, 1997: xxv)
Williams’s first infatuation was with Hazel Kramer, whom he met when he was
11. Their involvement appears to have paralleled his close relationship with his
sister Rose. In his Memoirs (Williams, 1975: 18), Williams describes the embarrassing experience of ejaculating in his white flannels at the age of 16 or so,
when he put his arm around Hazel’s bare shoulders one summer evening. He
and Hazel went to different colleges after high school, and he missed her greatly
and mourned their relationship.
His first and only heterosexual encounter happened while he was in
college, with the girl he calls Sally in his Memoirs. He humorously describes
this event as her fucking him as if he were a hobbyhorse. Williams’ brother
Dakin and the writer Mead, who wrote Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography
(Williams and Mead, 1983), comment that Williams always found heterosexual
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sex funny. But his description of sex with Sally might as well be considered
another manifestation of hyperphallic Don Juanism, in that he appeared quite
proud of the strong erection that controlled this sexually assertive “nymphomaniac,” as he calls her. Williams writes: “Afterwards I went straight to the men’s
room at the ATO house. Another brother peed as I peed and I said, ‘I fucked a
girl.’ ‘Oh, how was it?’ ‘It was like fucking the Suez Canal,’ I said, and grinned
and felt a man full grown” (Williams, 1975: 144–145). Aspects of Williams’ sexuality appeared to be torn between being a Don Juan who fucked women like a
hobbyhorse, or a Blanche, who promiscuously engulfed young boys.
Into his adult life, Williams’ yearning for his absent father appears to
have been at least partly expressed through such acting-out behaviors as selfdestructive cruising and alcohol and drug addictions, as well as through his
compulsive writing. Among many feelings, writing was a verbal catharsis of an
enormous violence within him. He wrote: “Violence! All of my old psychiatrists,
but especially Dr Lawrence Kubie, the Frenchman, told me I had it in me, and
right he was about that. Except that my violence is all verbal.” (Williams, 1975:
238). According to one literary critic, when asked about the meaning of A
Streetcar Named Desire, he said: “It means if you don’t watch out, the apes will
take over” (Krutch, 1953). It is not difficult to draw parallels between this internal representation of a bully, however deeply buried, and Williams’ dramatic
creation of the animalistic Stanley, whose preferred cruelty is to wreak havoc
on the innocent and vulnerable. How could he marry the Stanley and Blanche
representations within him without one of them murdering the other? Yet he
had to, since both were so much a part of who he was. His only hope to prevent
the annihilation of either of these vital aspects of his self was to commit the
necessary violence through his art – murdering creatively and figuratively, over
and over again.
By this means he was able to escape the fate of his sister Rose, who did not
have creative genius as a way of coping with her overwhelming emotional dysregulation. Rose regressed into a delusional world of somatic illness and sexual
immorality in her early twenties (Leverich, 1997: 247). She, too, had been
notably traumatized by her father’s abandonment and rejection, as well as by her
mother’s need to see her (unrealistically) as a southern beauty endlessly courted
by strings of gentlemen callers. Like her brother, she had an unfilled need for a
father’s protection from her mother’s consuming need to escape from an impossible reality.
Like Blanche, Edwina was a model escape artist. Her high-strung, histrionic
nature had chased away many a man, yet she kept herself narcissistically impervious to the injury by creating an illusional world where admiring gentlemen
callers replaced any painful or unwanted realities. Williams speaks directly of
his need to escape, and the way his writing enabled him to do it, both physically
and emotionally: “I live like a gypsy, I am a fugitive. No place seems tenable to
me for long any more, not even my own skin. I’ve made a covenant with myself
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
to continue to write, since I have no choice, it is so deeply rooted as a way of
existence and a form of flight” (Williams, 1975: 247).
The hunger for a father’s security, strength, attention, and value that Williams
made so apparent in Blanche was painfully present in Rose, in Williams himself,
and in their mother. All of them struggled with oral attention needs so strong
that they pushed away, and threatened to destroy, the man the three of them
needed most. Edwina alienated her husband, and then in rage destroyed any
positive image of him for her children. During adolescence, Rose voiced fantasies
(or realities) of sexual immoralities in her family, some of which have been
speculated to stem from longings for her father (Leverich, 1997: 247). Williams’
own insatiable cruising landed short-term, one-night-stand exciting objects that
only recreated his feelings of aloneness and abandonment.
Williams started his day ritualistically with black coffee in the early morning.
He wrote compulsively until the mid-afternoon, at which point he began drinking with friends, often disappearing into the night in search of anonymous
sexual partners. Like Blanche’s, Williams’ promiscuity and hunger for short-term
sexual partners was a prominent aspect of his life. It was also a major theme in
the controversial Memoirs that he published in 1975, when he was 61. Blanche’s
seduction of a young boy is not so different from Williams’. “Sexuality is an
animalistic emanation, as much for the human being as the animal,” he said.
“Animals have seasons for it. But for me, it was a round-the-calendar thing”
(Williams, 1975: 53).
He never seemed to fully understand his cruising compulsion. He often
cruised with a friend, so he thought the behavior might be something he did for
companionship, not for the gratifications involved in the repetitive and superficial sexual endpoint itself. Yet the cruising had risks and dangers. During one
episode, he and a partner solicited sailors in Times Square, and were brought to
a dark attic room where they were bound and beaten badly (Williams, 1975:
98–99).
Most of Williams’ relationships were fleeting and short-lived. He could be the
violent and sadistic Stanley, as in his relationship with Pancho Rodriguez y
Gonzales, a handsome young hotel clerk who came to New Orleans to live with
him during the writing of Streetcar. According to one psychoanalytic writer, their
relationship clearly paralleled that of Williams’ parents; it was highly volatile
and full of physical and emotional abuse, infidelity, and alcoholism (Silvio,
2002). Fritz Bultman, an acquaintance of Williams and observer of this relationship, said of it: “I saw something I didn’t like – something opportunistic and
abusive in Tennessee. I must say that I thought he mismanaged things with
Pancho, and I didn’t trust him after that.” (Spoto, 1985: 137). Or he could be
Blanche, subjecting himself to aggressive rape and pursuing the repetitious consumption of young boys. Sometimes the boys he took into his home or hotel
rooms would steal from him and run off, leaving him to feel victimized and even
more empty.
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One of the more notable of Williams’ early homosexual loves was Kip Kiernan,
a beautiful dancer who left Williams after a woman convinced him that Williams
was turning him into a “homo” (Williams, 1975: 61). There were other beautiful
boys – painters and poets – with whom he had brief affairs.
Williams’ longest steady relationship was with Frank Merlo, a man whom
he met one weekend at an upper East coast town, on vacation with friends.
Their connection lasted for 14 years, and appeared to have the kind of potential
depth that Williams longed for. Even so, however, Williams eventually left him
for a young painter. When Merlo was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly afterwards, Williams persuaded him to move back into their cottage in Key West –
and while Merlo made his sickbed downstairs, Williams stayed upstairs with his
new lover. When Merlo died in 1961, Williams plunged into the deep 10-year
depression, a form of complicated bereavement, that he called his “Stoned
Age.”
It is difficult to tell how deep Williams’ relationship with Merlo really was,
or whether the fundamental aspect of the relationship was his use of Frank
as a narcissistic extension object. He describes Merlo in his Memoirs as the
“Little Horse,” for his equine Italian features (Williams, 1975: 155). He was
attracted to Merlo’s tight muscles and tanned body. On several occasions Merlo
proved that he could buffer Williams from narcissistic injury – both from harsh
literary critics and from the anti-gay “Norms” who might look down on his
homosexual relationships. Merlo had a quick wit, and was ready to take on with
verbal attacks any of Williams’ perceived adversaries. Merlo seems to have cared
genuinely for Williams; he had potential for depth, and he was sensitive to
Williams’ narcissistic fragility. But Williams’ abandonment of Merlo, and Merlo’s
ultimate abandonment of him by death, left Williams once again tragically
alone. As he put it, “My greatest affliction is perhaps the major theme of my
writings, the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, a ponderous
shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights” (Leverich, 1997:
xxxiii).
Leverich describes a psychic line in the characters of the brother and sister
in The Glass Menagerie and The Two Character Plays. With it he beautifully
articulates Williams’ internal loneliness: “Tennessee was conveying with the
power of illusion what in life is so often inexpressible: the tragic failure to communicate one’s true feelings not only to others but also to one’s self in an interior
dialogue. Through that failure, there emerges a theme underlying almost all of
his writings: the terrifying isolation of loneliness” (Leverich, 1997: xxiii).
During the “Stoned Age,” after Night of the Iguana (1961) and Merlo’s death,
Williams’ creativity began to flag. Up until this time, he had written 12 plays
and had received two Pulitzer prizes – one for Streetcar and another for Cat on
a Hot Tin Roof. After 1960 he continued to write compulsively each morning,
but he never produced another major Broadway hit. He died alone in a New
York hotel in 1983, possibly having aspirated the cap from a bottle of eye drops,
while heavily intoxicated with barbiturates (Baden, 1999).
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
DISCUSSION
I have tried to adduce biographical material to support the premise that
Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski are the symbolic externalization of a
core object-relational conflict in Tennessee Williams. Blanche represents a
passive-dependent victimized self within Williams, while Stanley represents
a sadistic, victimizing, aggressive self. They are opposite poles of an objectrelational split that resulted in a compulsion toward victimization paradigms
both in Williams’ life and in his art. Intense conflict between Williams’
mother and father, and the way it played out, left him it seems to me, with an
unbridged psychic dichotomy between maternal and paternal identifications.
The extreme depth of hatred and opposition between his parents, and the consequent lack of a secure, safe parental attachment, left Williams without any
way to integrate, decathect, and sublimate archaic internalizations (Ogden,
1983). Within him, I believe, a primitive Stanley introject was in intense and
permanent conflict with a threatening Blanche. Both contained derivatives of
key aspects of his authentic self, but they could neither comfortably co-exist nor
developmentally mature. Instead, Williams regulated them, and kept them in
check, primarily through the creative use of symbolic projection. This technique,
although it stabilized him somewhat as a defense against the psychotic annihilation that overwhelmed his sister Rose, left him feeling alone, isolated, and
emotionally stagnant.
When Flaubert was asked after whom he modeled Madame Bovary, he is said
to have responded, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Like Flaubert, Williams is both
Blanche and Stanley. Elia Kazan, the famous director of both play and movie,
said: “Blanche DuBois, the woman, is Williams. Blanche DuBois comes into a
house where someone is going to murder her. The interesting part of it is that
Blanche DuBois/Williams is attracted to the person who is going to murder her”
(Williams and Mead, 1983: 147).
A literary scholar in a paper entitled “Blanche Dubois as New Woman – Old
Lunatics in Modern Drama” underscores how the use of projective identification
characterizes Blanche and Stanley’s struggle. “Blanche projects onto Stanley the
very attributes she would need in order to protect her Belle Reve – assertiveness,
inner conviction, and outer confidence. The projection brings out Stanley’s need
to bully what is his own under-developed femininity or otherness” (Kailo, 1993:
125). Stanley cannot accept his passive-dependent feelings without fearing that
he will be consumed by feminizing cannibalistic women, and Blanche cannot
accept her oral aggressive and castrating wishes without fearing that she will
ultimately destroy or push away the man she so desperately feels she needs. So
they project these aspects of themselves onto the other, and through projective
identification create the victim–victimizing enactment in which each becomes
the part of the other they fear the most. Like the two poles of Williams’ split
internal representations, Blanche and Stanley seem to have had a date with each
other from the beginning.
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
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Schneiderman (1986), a psychoanalyst, in his applied analysis of Williams’
art “Tennessee Williams: The Incest-Motif and Fictional Love Relationships,”
emphasized the repeated theme of doomed and rebellious Oedipal sons attached
symbiotically to their destructive mothers. Schneiderman feels that this melodramatic device reflects the intensity of Williams’ inner conflicts, in which sex
is equated either with violence against the oedipal mother, or fatal risk for the
guilty oedipal son. Incestuous wishes and fear-ridden attempts to avoid their
punitive consequences are deflected into “safe” homosexual channels. Williams
and his fictional characters are unable to tolerate the idea of psychological separateness from love objects because of their dependency needs and wish to hold
on to magical omnipotence. Schneiderman felt that Williams’ protagonists function neurotically for the same reason as Williams: mainly, because their unresolved Oedipal and pre-oedipal attachments, intensified by punitive superego
demands, create guilt-induced inhibitions and conflicts.
I am less inclined to see Williams’ victim (homosexual)/victimizing (punitive
father) enactment as a compromise solution to positive Oedipal anxieties. I think
they reflect object-relational conflicts that impaired the formation of a secure,
well integrated self-structure capable of healthy long-term relationships of any
kind, homosexual or heterosexual. A preoccupation with psychological castration, both to and by others, is certainly evident in Williams and many of his
artistic protagonists. But it seems to me to be best viewed as an object relational
motif whereby the primary psychodynamic conflict relates to the pre-oedipal
incapacity to integrate the Blanche and Stanley representations; it is not primarily a defensive regression from positive Oedipal anxiety and guilt. The resulting
psychic organization and corresponding self-structure might best be described as
deficient in Stanley or Blanche depending on the projection. That is, the defensive projection of the Stanley within Williams leaves him devoid of assertiveness
and subject to victimization by Stanley projections; projection of the Blanche
leaves him devoid of sensitivity or gentility, and subject to victimization of the
weak and vulnerable. Again, through this lens, the experience of castration does
not equate with homosexuality as a defensive maneuver, but reflects a deficient
aspect of the self, whether homosexual or heterosexual.
Rumprecht-Schampera (1995), a psychoanalyst, has written a paper conceptualizing the psychodynamics of histrionic character disorders that I think
further helps to understand Williams’ psychic organization. Whereas more classical models of histrionic character focus on regression from the Oedipal situation, Rumprecht-Schampera (1995) focuses on the histrionic child’s difficulty
with separation within the context of a predatory mother and an abandoning
father.
In the case of little girls, Rumprecht-Schampera (1995) sees histrionic behavior as a precocious attempt to get the attention of the father to help with separation. Depending on how the father responds to this maneuver – appropriately,
by facilitating separation; by colluding pathologically with the seduction; or with
further abandonment – various constellations of trauma may result. This estab-
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
lishes a template that then shapes further relationships. Blanche’s psychic survival, for example, depends on her ability to seduce an ideal father, and all three
of the above possible scenarios eventually play out – Mitch abandons, Stanley
rapes, and the good doctor saves.
For little boys, Rumprecht-Schampera (1995) describes a dynamic resolution
similar to Stanley’s. Without the father’s phallic strength to help ward off the
predatory mother, the little boy creates an omnipotent, but makeshift and internal, phallus. In the future, he will never be able to approach women with true
intimacy, but only with Don Juan-like dominance and exhibitionism.
Williams’ dynamics of an engulfing mother and abandoning father fit the
Rumprecht model. His pursuit of the phallic father who can rescue him from
maternal engulfment resembles Rumprecht’s model for the little girl. Biographical
data suggest that the Blanche representation was more manifest, and the hyperphallic, bullying Stanley representation powerfully present, but more latent.
Although he could indeed be a “crocodile,” and his victimizing potential is clear
in some of his relationships, he treated women for the most part as good mothers
or sisters. The most notable example of this was his long relationship with his
agent Audrey Woods, who offered him the maternal support he needed early in
his career.
Williams’ cruising can also be viewed as an enactment of the Stanley/
Blanche, victim/victimizer paradigm. The psychoanalytic literature presents
several theoretical conceptualizations of cruising. Bollas (1992) underscores the
part-object quality of the sexual encounter. The sexual partner, he emphasizes,
is seen as buttock or phallus, and the acting out as a form of prementalized,
asymbolic tension discharge. Other authors (Calef et al, 1984; Socarides, 1991)
have emphasized a defensive repetition compulsion against castration anxiety.
Phillips (2001) emphasizes that cruising is a compulsive repetition of the father
abandonment. It represents the gay man’s attempt to engage the unresponsive
father, only to be repeatedly left emotionally rejected and traumatized. Fairbairn’s
(1944) concepts also seem relevant here in that Williams often appeared to enact
his attraction for the exciting but rejecting father.
An incapacity to sustain whole object relationships appears to be a core
aspect of Williams’ relational difficulties. His relationship with Merlo, it seems,
had the potential for deeper commitment. But his compulsive need to externalize internal victim/victimizer relations led to his abandoning Merlo for yet
another series of fleeting affairs with young painters or poets. He seems to have
used these many different objects as narcissistic extension objects, much, it
seems, as his mother used him. In addition, they served as exciting and rejecting
objects (Fairbairn, 1944), and a means of regulating a victim/victimizer paradigm
fused in intense erotized aggression.
Also, Williams’ dramatizations (both as enactments and as plays) might have
served him as a means of creating some perspective of a traumatic childhood
situation. In this way he created again and again a kind of bystander third party
as witness, much as Twemlow et al. (2004) have described the role of the
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
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bystander in school bullying and victim-victimizer paradigms. Both Williams
and his audiences find themselves as facilitating lookers-on, enjoying at the same
time the view of the bully’s destruction of the engulfing, castrating mother, and
the view of the sadistic bully brought to his knees by his own needs. They are
bystanders, too, in their passivity and helplessness as they watch the situation.
Williams’ inability to regulate the intense conflicts within him led at times
to paralytic depressions and attempts at self-regulation with a number of substances. He sought several different kinds of treatments for his depression,
including one that addicted him further to amphetamines. Around 1957, following his father’s death, Williams saw Lawrence Kubie in analysis for about a year
(Leverich, 1997: 9). According to Williams, Kubie gave him insight but no means
of dealing with his internal struggles, and went on to complain that Kubie
demanded that he give up writing and his homosexual relationship with Frank.
Although Kubie may have felt these behaviors to be defensively compulsive and
destructive of the analytic process, Williams experienced the demand to be
untenable, and instead of complying, he gave up Dr Kubie:
That, too, was a case of miscasting – for the mistake of strict Freudian analysis. He taught
me much about my true nature, but offered me no solution except to break with Merlo,
a thing that was quite untenable as a consideration, my life built around him. (Williams,
1975: 173)
Retrospective judgments about what exactly went on in any given therapy must
be made cautiously, especially since the data may be limited or inaccurate.
Information about Williams’ therapy is far from complete, nor is it two-sided.
One can infer that Dr Kubie was trying to limit Williams’ compulsive need to
act out his conflicts. (According to Dakin, besides the mandate that Williams
give up his homosexual relationship with Frank, Kubie apparently attempted to
schedule early morning appointments in order to break-up Williams’ compulsive
writing ritual (Williams and Mead, 1983: 215).) However, given the way classical
psychoanalysis thought about homosexuality at the time, one can wonder
whether the view of homosexuality as a defensive regression from positive
Oedipal anxieties (as opposed to a possibly free and authentic aspect of his selfidentity) would have made it nearly impossible for Williams to engage the treatment. It seems to me that it would have helped Williams more to work through,
modulate, and integrate the conflict-ridden Stanley and Blanche representations
within him, while maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude toward his sexual orientation and his freedom to choose it.
It is hard to second-guess about the kinds of therapeutic interventions that
might have best benefited Williams. His driven, defensive, compulsive acting out
and his substance dependency would have made it hard for him to engage in a
more controlled self-reflective process. Certainly it seems that he would have
required a fair amount of supportive and interpersonal work, including nonverbal
containment and facilitation of mentalization (Fonagy et al., 2002), as well as
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
A Streetcar Named Desire and Tennessee Williams’ Object-Relational Conflicts
mirroring of a more well-integrated self-representation (Kohut, 1971), at least
initially in order to develop a stable enough self-structure to regulate destructively aggressive mental states without splitting and compulsive, projective
enactments. A more interpersonal model may have been what he had in mind
when he indicated that Kubie gave him insight, but no means of actually dealing
with the intense, compulsive nature of his drives.
Williams also saw Ralph Harris, a therapist from the Karen Horney School
for an unknown time period, but given his “life of flight” possibly not for long.
His experience in this therapy was better, he said, because Dr Harris’ relationship
with him showed that he was “humanely, not just professionally, concerned”
(Williams, 1975: 206–207). He went on to add that Dr Harris allowed him to
have his highball in their sessions. Although this was colluding with Williams’
defensive compulsivity, Williams indicated that it allowed him to eventually
start talking (Williams, 1975: 206–207). Here, too, Williams may be alluding to
his need for a more interpersonal approach, at least initially, to sustain him in
the treatment.
Although the essence of Tennessee Williams’ genius appears to have been
his capacity to perceive and symbolically externalize internal conflict within
himself and others, this capacity does not appear to have led to the kind
of deeper integration that could enable him to relate differently to himself
and to others. Williams could creatively symbolize split-off aspects of himself,
but he could not integrate them as aspects of a consolidated self-representation.
Without that capacity, he felt continuously cut off from himself and from
others.
SUMMARY
I have attempted to derive a psychodynamic understanding of some of Tennessee
Williams’ compulsive behaviors and fixations by using A Streetcar Named Desire
as a symbolic representation of his core object-relational conflict. In his life, and
in his art, Williams created one version after another of a Blanche/Stanley
victim/victimizing paradigm. The irreconcilable split within him appears to
reflect a traumatic attachment experience to a narcissistically fragile, but engulfing, castrating mother, and to an insecure father who defended against his issues
around passive dependency defended by aggressive rejection and withdrawal.
The intensity of the conflict between his vulnerable parents, and its threatening
nature, was internalized as an irreconcilable split within Williams that “drove
him half mad.” It appears that he attempted to regulate these volatile aspects of
his fragile self through acting out, either symbolically in his compulsive artistic
creation, or in concrete enactments in his life. This mental resolution prevented
the kind of psychic annihilation that Rose and Blanche suffered, but despite
Williams’ genius as a playwright, it left him feeling tragically alone and isolated,
both within himself and with others.
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
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W. Scott Griffies MD
LSUHSC Department of Psychiatry
2020 Gravier St.
New Orleans
LA 70112
USA
(wgriff@lsuhsc.edu)
Copyright © 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
Int. J. Appl. Psychoanal. Studies 4: 110–127 (2007)
DOI: 10.1002/aps
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