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A Streetcar Named Desire written by Tennessee Williams is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The year is 1947 - the same year in which the play was written. All of the action of A Streetcar Named Desire takes place in on the first floor of a two-bedroom apartment. The set is designed so that the audience can also see "outside" and observe characters on the street.
The Kowalski Household
Stanley Kowalski is a gruff, crude, yet charismatic blue-collar worker. During the World War II, he was a Master Sergeant in the Engineers' Corps. He likes bowling, booze, poker, and sex. (Not necessarily in that order.)
His wife, Stella Kowalski, is a good-natured (though often submissive) wife who was raised on a wealthy Southern estate that fell on hard times. She left behind her "proper," upper-class background and embraced a more hedonistic life with her "low brow" husband. At the beginning of Act One, they seem poor but happy. And even though Stella is pregnant, and their cramped apartment is going to become even more crowded, one gets the sense that Mr. and Mrs. Kowalski might be content for decades. (But then that wouldn't be much of a play, would it?) Conflict arrives in the form of Blanche Dubois, Stella's older sister.
The Faded Southern Belle
The play begins with the arrival of Blanche Dubois, a woman who bears many secrets. She has recently given up on her deceased family's debt-ridden estate. Because she has nowhere else to go, she is forced to move in with Stella, much to the annoyance of Stanley. In the stage directions, Tennessee Williams describes Blanche in a way that sums up her character's predicament as she looks at her lower class surroundings:
Her expression is one of shocked disbelief. Her appearance is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with fluffy bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat… Her delicate beauty must avoid strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.
Even though she is financially downtrodden, Blanche maintains the appearance of elegance. She is only five years older than her sister (around age 35 to 40), and yet she obsessed with properly lit rooms. She doesn't want to be seen in direct sunlight (at least not by gentlemen callers) because she longs to preserve her youth and beauty. When Williams compares Blanche to a moth, the reader immediately gets the sense that this is a woman that is drawn towards disaster, in the same way a moth unwittingly destroys itself when it is drawn to the flame. Why is she so psychologically frail? That's one of the mysteries of Act One.
Blanche's Little Sister - Stella
When Blanche arrives at the apartment, her sister Stella has mixed feelings. She is happy to see her older sister, yet Blanche's arrival makes Stella feel very self-conscious because her living conditions pale in comparison to the home in which they once lived, a place named Belle Reve. Stella notices that Blanche seems very stressed, and finally Blanche explains that after all of their older relatives passed away, she was no longer able to afford the property.
Blanche envies Stella's youth, beauty, and self-control. Stella says that she envies her sister's energy, but many of her comments reveal that Stella knows that something is wrong with her sister. Stella wants to help her impoverished (yet snobby) sister, but she knows that it won't be easy to fit Blanche into their home. Stella loves Stanley and Blanche, but they are both strong-willed and used to getting what they want.
Stanley Meets Blanche
Towards the end of the first scene, Stanley returns from work and meets Blanche Dubois for the first time. He undresses in front of her, changing out of his sweaty shirt, and thus creating the first of many moments of sexual tension. At first, Stanley behaves in a friendly manner; he non-judgmentally asks her if she will be staying with them. For the moment, he does not display any sign of annoyance or aggression to Blanche (but that will all change by Scene Two).
Feeling very casual and free to be himself, Stanley says:
STANLEY: I'm afraid I'll strike you as being the unrefined type. Stella's spoke of you a good deal. You were married once, weren't you?
Blanche replies that she was married but that the "boy" (her young husband) died. She then exclaims that she is going to be sick. Scene One concludes the audience/reader is left wondering what tragic events befell Blanche Dubois and her ill-fated husband.