t will surprise no one interested in modern American drama to learn that Tennessee Williams was a constant and persistent reader or that his active imagination was uncommonly eclectic. His writing is peppered with allusions, quotations, unacknowledged borrowings and conscious (and, one can be sure, unconscious) traces as well. Limiting myself to examples from A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois’ dream of her own death on the high seas from eating an unwashed grape traces back to Mae West’s line “peel me a grape,” a connection reinforced by Williams’ stage direction in Scene 6 that the bewitched Mitch enters “bearing, upside down, a plaster statuette of Mae West.” Another example: When Blanche reads the inscription on Mitch’s silver cigarette case—“And if God choose, / I shall love thee better—after—death!”—she identifies it right off as a quotation “from my favorite sonnet by Mrs. Browning!” (Scene 3),1 and surmises that there is a “romance” connected with the inscription on the cigarette case. There is one, Mitch admits, and it is a “very sad one.” “The girl’s dead now,” he says. “She knew she was dying when she give me this. A very strange girl, very sweet girl, very sweet!” You may not want to follow me here, but in this brief exchange I hear something of “The Dead,” James Joyce’s story in Dubliners, specifically the moment we learn that Gretta had, in her youth, lost the young man who loved her. “‘He is dead,’ she said at length” of Michael Furey. “‘He died when he was only seventeen.’”2 And the story of Gretta’s dead lover is also reflected ironically, I would suggest, in Blanche’s account of the death of the “boy, just a boy” who was her husband. But the ramifications of a Joyce—Williams connection and the overall implications of that connection are for another day. 3
Today, however, I will say something about what I find to be, clearly, the presence of elements of Robert Browning’s monologue, “My Last Duchess,” in A Streetcar Named Desire, particularly the way Williams opened out, transformed, paralleled, reversed and adapted the tragedy of the Duke and Duchess into the agony of Blanche and Stanley.
The Sea Horse
It was some time ago, while teaching Scene 11 of A Streetcar Named Desire, that I first heard in Blanche’s request, as she dresses for her final exit from Elysian Fields, an embedded allusion to Browning’s poem. Occupied with other matters at the time, I did not think then to pursue the matter beyond publishing a short—a very short—note on my discovery:
In the final scene of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, as the troubled Blanche Dubois dresses for Shep Huntleigh, the gentleman from Dallas who will never come, she tells her sister that she wishes to wear on her lapel “that silver and turquoise pin in the shape of a seahorse.” Stella can find it, she instructs, in “the heart-shaped box” Blanche “keeps her accessories in.”
Blanche’s choice of her seahorse pin underlines darkly what is already unavoidable. An emblem of her certain fate, her pin evokes the tamed “sea -horse” of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” It will be recalled that the Duke of Ferrara, who speaks Browning’s poem, concludes his monologue to the listening envoy with a directive: “Notice Neptune, though, /Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, /Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” It is a bold gesture, this indication of Neptune’s brutal subjugation, one in which the Duke sees himself as the dominant and dominating actor in the scene depicted in bronze. Like Neptune, he too has the power to subjugate, as he has proven in the case of his last duchess, issuing one command that brought to an end all the smiles of one whose heart, he complained, was “too soon made glad,” “too easily impressed.”
In the small Elysian Fields tenement that is dukedom enough for Stanley and Stella, Blanche has played the seahorse to Stanley’s Neptune, Dame Blanche to his Napoleon. Yet even having been broken over the long summer will not suffice, for she must undergo still another “taming.” This time it turns out less violently when the doctor affects quietly (though even more ominously) the role of an older gentleman caller, a kind of stranger come to tame Blanche, not for the endless sea voyage, but for her journey to the asylum.4
Publication of that note should have put an end to the matter—or so I thought. It didn’t.
There has been much discussion of the Duke's view of the Duchess' failings; yet to my knowledge no one seems to have commented on the quite remarkable hint in line twenty as to the precise nature of his suspicions. Besides bestowing her smile indiscriminately and being "too soon made glad," the Duchess makes the mistake—the Duke hypothesizes—of taking Frà Pandolf's "stuff" for courtesy. (Remember that the Duke also hypothesizes the substance of the artist's remarks— "Her mantle laps / Over my lady's wrist too much" and "Paint / Must never hope to reproduce the faint / Haft-flush that dies along the throat.") "Courtesy" in this context is somewhat puzzling if its primary sense is not that of courtly elegance and love. If the Duke suggests that her vulnerability is revealed in her mistaken acceptance of such remarks as the expression of courtly homage (the object of which is ideally another man's wife), then at least one motive for his own possessive response and subsequent cruelty comes into sharp focus.5 For the duchess’s perfidies and infidelities—real or merely perceived as such—she suffers her fate at the hands of the duke. But just what that fate was exactly—beyond the fact that it takes her permanently out of the picture—remains unknown, even to Browning. Asked directly on one occasion, Browning replied that the Duke’s “commands were that she should be put to death… Or he might have had her shut up in a convent.”6 For the fate of his heroine, Williams chooses, not death but internment (or, if you will, interment) in the “state institution,” Blanche’s fate paralleling, in a way, that of Williams’ own sister. So, too, does Blanche’s explanation that her hours soaking in the Kowalski bathtub is a form of “hydro-therapy” good for the nerves anticipates the less congenial form of hydrotherapy that she will undoubtedly face as part of her treatment for madness in the state institution to which she will be taken.)
Besides Blanche’s “too easy smiles,” a failing she shares with the Duke’s last duchess, one that will lead to her banishment, there are other significant traces of Browning in Streetcar. Take the Duke’s palaver over in “nine-hundred-year old name,” the word-names Ferrara and Kowalski, dowries and legacies or inheritances, the portraits—the Duchess’ portrait replicated in Stanley’s portrait, so lovingly kept by Stella as bona fides of his wartime service and his ability to survive. The “portrait” motive is enhanced at certain points in the play by the lyric sounds of the popular song “Paper Doll”—doll and portrait, both of them examples of the illusions (or mendacities) set up to counter (or at least mask) the scenic realism of what is actually going on.7
Then there is the matter of dowry in the poem and inheritance in the play. The Duke’s avarice—he’s after a second dowry—is echoed in Stanley’s concern that he has been cheated out of his and Stella’s share in the family place, Belle Reve, thanks to the provisions of the Napoleonic Code in force in the state of Louisiana (Scene 2). His knowledge of the Code, at least reassures Stanley. “Remember what Huey Long said—‘Every Man is a King!’’’ he warns. “And I am the king around here, so don’t forget it.’” (Scene 8) And his castle, one notes, is the first floor of a shabby rental in the Quarter.
Illusions and Names
Blanche’s penchant for “illumining” her life carries over into how she regards her own name, translating its meaning for Mitch (the wooer she would enchant): “It’s a French name. It means woods and Blanche means white, so the two together mean white woods. Like an orchard in spring.” (Scene 3) Of course, as we see, she is a “Snow White,” for whom no Prince (or Rosenkavalier, as she calls the feckless Mitch) will come to save her from her destined date with Stanley and, later, the state asylum. There is no comparable explanation for Stanley Kowalski, however. He merely rejects the designation of Polack and insists that he is an American. Unlike Browning’s duke, who boasts of his “nine-hundred-year old name” and complains that his last duchess did not value it as she should have (after all, such a name was more than enough compensation for the dowry she brought into their marriage), Stanley stands solely, it seems, on his assertion: “I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is a one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don’t ever call me a Polack.” (Scene 8) Still, his surname, Kowalski, links him, oddly, to Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, for while a “stanley” is a “stone-clearer” Kowalski means one who makes horseshoes, i.e. an iron forger, a black smith, even as “Ferrara,” besides designating a place, comes from “smith” and is similar, in that regard, to the English word “farrier.” Just as Browning’s reference (while historically correct) suggests a rather plebian source, ultimately, for the Duke and his “nine-hundred-year-old name, so, too, does Stanley’s name suggests his place on the social scale. And while Blanche is never called “Duchess,” she is referred to by Stanley, always scornfully, as “Her Majesty” (Scene 7), “Dame Blanche” (Scene 7), “Queen” and “Queen of the Nile” (Scene 10). Blanche, in the flush of her romance with Mitch, calls herself “la Dame aux Camellias” (Scene 6), anticipating Stanley’s snarky reference when he calls her “Dame Blanche,” and inflates poor, inadequate Mitch into her “Armand.”
The Two Packages
It’s all right there, at the beginning. The first thing we see is Stanley carrying a (bowling) ball and (a red-stained) package of meat that he throws up to Stella and which she catches. Eunice, the owner of the house and who lives on the second floor, has witnessed the meat-throwing scene and builds on its sexual innuendo by instructing Stanley to tell her husband Steve to get himself a “poor boy’s sandwich,” for there will be no meat for him when he returns home. This suggestive meaning of this scene is underscored a second time in the crude double-entendre repartee between Eunice, the second-floor neighbor, and the colored woman after the men are out of sight.
Colored Woman: What was that package he th’ew at ’er?
Eunice: You hush, now!
Colored Woman: Catch what?
If all this serves to establish the direct, unadorned, working-class characteristics of the neighborhood, it serves (almost defiantly) to show forth the play’s clear notion of sexual, rough-house power (Stanley throws, Stella catches) that is at the heart of the play. It is at that moment, that Blanche appears around the corner—Blanche, who will be the bone of contention between Stanley and her sister and, as it turns out, a new candidate for Stanley’s sexual appetite. (She is also a bone of contention between Stanley and Mitch. Stanley calls him his “buddy,” but, in the next breath promotes him to his “best friend,” one whom Stanley has taken it upon himself to save from being duped by the temptress Blanche, who, like Browning’s “last duchess” has too easily smiled on those she would fool herself into taking for courtly lovers. Stanley will save Mitch even if it takes a rape to do it, though it is clear Stanley has had something of the sort it mind from the beginning. There are scores to settle. As he tells Blanche, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” (Scene 10) As Blanche tells Mitch, “The first time I laid eyes on him I thought to myself, that man is my executioner! That man will destroy me, unless—” (Scene 6). Nothing will follow from that “unless,” except, of course, the rest of the play. That same kind of power—the power that is Stanley’s—is at the very center, the very heart, of Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess,” where, ruthlessly exercised, it is justified in the eyes of the Duke (and he hopes in the eyes of the envoy who listens to his spiel) because of his last duchess’s putative promiscuity—for Williams an element useful to his depiction of a desperate Blanche, a victim who is neither entirely innocent nor an unmitigated victim. And in both cases—Williams’ play and Browning’s poem—sexuality is married to jealousy, a situation that calls for revenge—rape in the play, murder in the poem. And what happens to that bloodly package from the butcher’s? Well, it becomes a baby, the package that will keep Stanley and Stella together, after the outsider who would disrupt, perhaps destroy, their ménage, is cast out into darkness. On Elysian Fields—pace Eunice, as it turns out—you can “beat up on a woman an’ then call ’er back” (Scene 3) but it has only murderous hostility toward the “other” Dubois, this Snow White of the Woods.
A Last Word
It is not possible, surely, to figure out just how Williams’ imagination works—what sticks and what he makes of it. In the case of Browning and “My Last Duchess” I hypothesize that what attracted Williams was the mystery in the back story generated by the Duke, who hints at it but does not actually tell it. His suspicions concerning the Duchess’s sexual perfidies (which may have been no more than a penchant for flirting with those who may have shown her suspect courtesies or suggestive compliments) have led him to have her removed for good. In Streetcar Williams appears to have taken upon himself to spell out Blanche’s own back story as he focuses on the fate of Belle Reve’s “duchess” at the hands of Elysian Fields’s “duke.” In his version of the story, the “duchess”—her good looks faded—has baggage: an unshakable track record of having looked for love in all the wrong places. Williams’ “duke” builds the case against her and then punishes her with banishment from his “castle.” Browning’s Frà Pandolf, the courtly painter has morphed into Mitch, the faux-courtly suitor. Like the “last” Duchess, the “Empress” of Belle Reve is dead. Long live the Duke of Ferrara, long live the “seed-bearer” (Scene 1) of Elysian Fields. And Neptune once again has tamed the sea-horse.
Last modified 31 October 2011