They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!
The setting is the exterior of a corner building on a street called Elysian Fields, which runs between the river and the train tracks in a poor section of New Orleans that has “raffish [crude] charm.” Faded white stairs lead up to the entrances of the shabby building’s two flats. Steve and Eunice live upstairs, and Stanley and Stella live downstairs. The hum of voices in the street can be heard, as well as the bluesy notes of a cheap piano playing in a bar around the corner. (Williams notes that the music from this piano is to set the mood throughout the play.) It is an early May evening, and the sky at dusk is almost turquoise.
Eunice and a Negro woman are relaxing on the steps of the building when Stanley and his buddy Mitch show up. Stanley hollers for Stella, who comes out onto the first-floor landing and replies calmly to his tough, streetwise banter. He hurls a package of meat up to her and says that he and Mitch are going to meet Steve at the bowling alley. They depart, and Stella soon follows to watch them. Eunice and the Negro woman find something hilariously suggestive in the meat-hurling episode, and their cackles indicate sexual innuendo.
Soon after Stella leaves, her sister, Blanche, arrives, carrying a suitcase and looking with disbelief at a slip of paper in her hand and then at the building. Dressed in a fine white suit appropriate for an upper-crust social event, Blanche moves tentatively, looking and apparently feeling out of place in Stella’s neighborhood. Eunice assures Blanche that the building is Stella’s residence. When Blanche declines to go to the bowling alley, the Negro woman goes instead to tell Stella of her sister’s arrival.
Eunice lets Blanche into the two-room flat, and Blanche investigates the interior of the Kowalskis’ apartment. Making small talk, Eunice mentions what she knows of Blanche from Stella—that Blanche is from Mississippi, that she is a teacher, and that her family estate is called Belle Reve. Tiring of Eunice’s questions, Blanche asks to be left alone. Eunice, somewhat offended, leaves to fetch Stella.
Alone, Blanche sits looking nervous and uncomfortable as she surveys the messy, dingy surroundings. Spying a bottle of whiskey in the closet, she suddenly breaks out of her dejected stupor. She pours a healthy shot, downs it immediately, replaces the bottle, cleans her tumbler, and returns to her original pose.
Stella returns with excitement, and she and Blanche embrace. Blanche talks feverishly and seems nearly hysterical. After initially expressing her thrill at seeing her younger sister, Blanche lets slip a critical comment on the physical and social setting in which Stella lives. She tries to check her criticism, but the reunion begins on a tense note. Blanche redirects the conversation by asking if Stella has any liquor in the flat. She claims she could use the drink to calm her nerves, but insists—without being asked—that she isn’t a drunk. After the drink is poured, Blanche asks how Stella has allowed herself to stoop to such poor living conditions. Stella makes a light effort to defend her present lifestyle, but she mostly lets Blanche do the talking.