Streetcar and Social Realism

Depicting a gritty, highly detailed slice of New Orleans life, A Streetcar Named Desire demonstrates the influence of the social realism movement in literature and the performing arts. Social realist dramas are naturalistic works set in actual places and recognizable milieus whose characters are not just individuals but cultural archetypes—that is, they represent social classes, cultures, nationalities, or races. The action of social realist dramas covers how characters co-exist (or don’t) and dramatizes a clash between them. Typically, one character or group of characters rises and another falls, symbolizing a shift in society or civilization.

In the theatre, social realism developed in the 1870s with the plays of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Anton Chekhov and, slightly later, George Bernard Shaw. By the 1930s, it had become the dominant style of American theater. Given the intense events transforming the world at the time, including economic depression and the rising threat of war, it seemed almost mandatory to examine people within the context of the social order and as representatives of its different aspects. In the 1940s, rising playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller slightly altered the form. These playwrights grounded their plots, settings and characters in real life but often used expressionistic theatrical devices, such as flashbacks or juxtaposed actions, in their storytelling. For example, to convey Blanche’s deteriorating mental state, Streetcar departs from realistic jazz music to feature incoherent sounds that only she sees and hears. The stage directions also specify the symbolic use of color in costume: Stanley wears brightly colored shirts and pajamas as befits his identity as a “gaudy seed-bearer.”

With its colorful, lower-class urban setting, Streetcar influenced a new generation of socially realistic works. One such variety, the kitchen-sink drama, was especially popular in 1950s and early 1960s Britain. Often set in poorer industrial areas, plays by Arnold Wesker and John Osborne depicted the ordinary lives of the working class, showing people questioning, rebelling against, or submitting to their grim domestic surroundings.