9. Symbols: A Soundtrack Called Desire
Read those stage directions!
Tennessee Willams writes music cues throughout the pages of A Streetcar Named Desire. And a lot of that music does more than just set the mood, like a movie soundtrack. Williams uses those music cues to help tell his story.
You can get the 60second Recap on symbols in literature here.
And here’s the 60-second scoop on music symbolism in A Streetcar Named Desire…
Even if you’re reading this play instead of watching it, you won’t be able to miss the songs in A Streetcar Named Desire. Which is a good thing, because they’re symbols.
The Varsouviana Polka and “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” If you wanted an indication that Blanche is losing her grip on reality, these songs are it.
Remember that The Varsouviana Polka was the song that was playing in the last moments before Blanche’s young husband’s suicide. Since then, Blanche has heard the Polka whenever she’s feeling sorry about his death, and her role in his death.
But the Polka isn’t just a song that symbolizes Blanche’s remorse; it also symbolizes her descent into fantasy. The emotional trauma she suffered as a result of the suicide has been taking its toll, and as the play goes on and Blanche becomes more insane, the Polka plays more frequently.
By contrast, we only hear the song about the paper moon once—in Scene Seven. But the lyrics couldn’t be any more explicit. They’re all about fantasy, and what can turn what’s merely make-believe into something real.
Just another indication that in A Streetcar Named Desire, song symbolizes the permeable boundary between what’s real and what isn’t … not to mention Blanche’s tendency to ignore that boundary altogether.
This Play Is Set In NOLA.Of Course Music Is Important.
Music and New Orleans go together like movies and Hollywood, or rain and Seattle, or angry people walking quickly and New York City. You just know that music is going to be crazy-important in a play set in NOLA.
But what Tennessee Williams does with music in Streetcar is pretty next-level.
First of all, if you read your stage directions carefully you'll notice that Williams uses music to establish the mood of many different scenes in Streetcar. It’s basically like watching a movie, where the music is fast-paced during a chase scene, tender in a love scene, etc. And yes—there's a bunch of the kind of music you'd expect from a play set in New Orleans: jazzy, bluesy goodness that floats in from the bars near the Kowalski home.
But we’re interested more in the specific songs that are used repeatedly as symbols in the play—starting with the "Varsouviana." Williams mentions the name of this polka in his stage directions, but Blanche, too, gives its name in Scene Nine. This is important, since those watching the play instead of reading it don’t have the benefit of Williams’s commentary. If he wanted the audience to know the tune, he had to place it in the dialogue of one of his characters.
Now what is this Varsouviana? Why haven’t we heard of it? Well, it’s a polka tune, so unless you’re into that you likely wouldn’t have encountered this song before. It sounds a bit like merry-go-round music, which you can imagine is eerie to hear in a Gothic-type drama on the stage. Or, if you don’t feel like imagining, watch this a man play it on the accordion on YouTube. Or listen to a 30-second clip on iTunes; there are a few.
Anyway you get the point. It sets the mood of Blanche being unstable and imagining creepy music that no one else can hear. It also helps when she explains that her husband killed himself while the Varsouviana Polka was playing. She can’t escape the guilt of feeling like she caused his suicide. She can’t escape her husband’s death, so she can’t escape the music, either.
It Wouldn't Be Make-Believe If You Believed In Me...
What else have we got for music? How about the song "Paper Moon" that Blanche sings while she’s in the bathtub in Scene Seven? Just a random ditty? Take a look at the lyrics before you write it off. These lines—all sung by Blanche—are interwoven with Stanley and Stella’s argument:
(singing) Say, it’s only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea—But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!
It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be— But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!
Without your love,
It’s a honky-tonk parade!
Without your love,
It’s a melody played in a Penny arcade…
It’s only a paper moon, Just as phony as it can be— But it wouldn’t be make-believe If you believed in me!
It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, Just as phony as it can be. (9.30-45)
We-lllll, what do we have here? A world filled with fantasy? Check. Blanche’s complete dependence on the love of other people? Check. The need for others to join her in self-delusion and artifice? Check, check, check.