I have a feeling that I read Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” before I ever saw the film adaptation directed by Elia Kazan. I seem to remember checking out some Williams plays from the public library one summer during my teen years, since I’d enjoyed reading “The Glass Menagerie” for school and wanted to know more of his work.
Re-reading the play years later, and seeing the masterful film version as an adult woman, I feel a heart-wrenching sympathy for the fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois. She’s a tragic figure, with all her deceptions and vanities and her reluctance to look harsh reality in the face. “I don’t want realism,” she cries. “I want magic!”
Drifting into the lives of her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley at a particularly desperate moment in her life, Blanche is dismayed by their rickety New Orleans apartment, by Stanley’s uncouth behavior, and by her sister’s embrace of a world so unlike their family’s previous, genteel existence. The setting is a noisy one, as urban settings tend to be, constantly punctuated by the sounds of the piano bar around the corner, passing locomotives and streetcars, neighbors’ arguments, and the dance-tune of Blanche’s hallucinations.
Blanche’s attachment to her costume jewelry, her furs, and other remnants of her former grand lifestyle at Belle Reve, the (now lost) family estate, is evident. She tries to dress up her sister’s apartment a bit, most notably by covering a bare light-bulb fixture with a colored Chinese paper lantern. And she wears fragrance throughout the play, adding an olfactory note to the noises and colors of the plot.
In one scene, for example, she playfully spritzes Stanley with her perfume atomizer. He does not respond favorably; as she later concedes to her sister, “I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume.” (Or, for that matter, for having his dispproving sister-in-law visiting for an unspecified length of time.)
The motif of perfume comes up again later in the play. Stanley, seeking information on Blanche’s recent past, mentions a seedy hotel in her hometown but Blanche denies any personal contact with the place and its inhabitants’ doings. She uses fragrance as an analogy of virtue or vice, as well as a way to change the subject:
BLANCHE: The Hotel Flamingo is not the sort of establishment I would dare to be seen in!
STANLEY: You know of it?
BLANCHE: Yes, I’ve seen it and smelled it.
STANLEY: You must’ve got pretty close if you could smell it.
BLANCHE: The odor of cheap perfume is penetrating!
STANLEY: That stuff you use is expensive?
BLANCHE: Twenty-five dollars an ounce! I’m nearly out. That’s just a hint if you want to remember my birthday!
As the play’s plot coils tighter and tighter with the tensions between the characters, Blanche repeatedly soothes her nerves by taking long (fragranced?) baths in the apartment’s sole bathroom: “A hot bath and a long, cold drink always give me brand new outlook on life!” But in a final confrontation, Stanley throws Blanche’s dainty toilette in her face as just one more facet of her disingenuousness and hypocrisy:
STANLEY: I’ve been on to you from the start! Not once did you pull the wool over this boy’s eyes! You come in here and sprinkle the place with powder and spray perfume and cover the light bulb with a paper lantern and lo and behold the place has turned into Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile!
All the same, I’d like to think that Blanche does apply some jasmine perfume after her bath in Streetcar‘s last scene, and that it still offers her some consolation.