The play takes place in an impoverished section of New Orleans named Elysian Fields. Williams tells us that in spite of its stark poverty, a certain nostalgic charm surrounds the area - as you walk among the white-frame houses, you can hear the soft music of black entertainers wafting out of barrooms and smell the faint scent of bananas and coffee in the air.
As the play unfolds, two women, one white and one black, are sitting outside a two-story house on an afternoon in early May. Serving as an example of the rich racial and cultural diversity of New Orleans, Eunice, the white woman, lives upstairs, and the other woman is a nearby neighbor. Two muscular, roughly dressed men walk up to the house, and one of them, who we find out is named Stanley Kowalski, begins hollering for a woman named Stella. Stella, a gentle, mild-looking young woman who apparently comes from a different background from Stanley's, comes downstairs and politely greets his friend, whose name is Mitch. Stanley casually throws a package of meat at her, and even though she is initially horrified that she has to catch a bloody package from him, she also seems to be delighted by his crudeness. She asks him if she can watch him bowl, and he tells her to come along after she has put the meat away. It seems like Stanley has the word "testosterone" tattooed on his forehead, and Stella can't keep herself from wanting to be near him all the time.
After Stella has left for the bowling alley, a delicate-looking, daintily-dressed woman who is totally out-of-place in this shady area of town (think Elizabeth Taylor in Harlem) walks up to the house. Her name is Blanche Dubois, and she is a little bit older than Stella is. In her frail white clothing, Williams describes her as resembling a moth, with an air of uncertainty surrounding her. She asks Eunice and the other woman if she was actually in Elysian Fields, and she can't believe it when they tell her that she has found the house of Stella Kowalski. She tells them that she is Stella's older sister, and Eunice lets her into Stanley and Stella's downstairs apartment. Eunice tries to be friendly to her, and Blanche reluctantly tells her that she is a teacher from Laurel, Mississippi, and that she and Stella had grown up on a beautiful plantation named Belle Reve, but she soon grows irritated because she wants Eunice to leave her alone. Eunice, who doesn't like Blanche's false airs, finally leaves and volunteers to get Stella from the bowling alley. While she is gone, Blanche spies a bottle of whiskey in a cabinet and quickly downs a half-glass before anyone finds her.
Stella finally comes home, and Blanche is ecstatic to see her. It is obvious that even though Blanche loves her dearly, she smothers Stella, who is immediately intimidated and overwhelmed by her sister. Stella offers her a drink, and Blanche immediately takes it, not telling her that she has already had one. She tries to ask Stella pointedly about living in such a decrepit place, but Stella tells her that she is perfectly content living there. Blanche reveals that the school superintendent of her district had suggested that she take a leave of absence, and Stella decides not to press the issue any further because Blanche seems to be extremely nervous and jittery.
Blanche asks Stella what Stanley is like and learns that Stanley is away on the road and that he is obviously not of the same economic background as they are. While Stella quickly gives her a tour of the apartment, Blanche is obviously dismayed by her sister's low-income apartment and is shocked that she and Stanley do not have a maid. Blanche finally reveals to Stella that Belle Reve, which had been the family plantation, had been lost, and she is too upset to tell Stella any of the details. She becomes angry with Stella because Stella had run away to marry Stanley, a common "Polack," and had left her alone to take care of Belle Reve. Blanche tells her that she had had to endure the slow, tortuous deaths of their parents and knew nothing about maintaining the mansion. During her tirade, she criticizes Stella for settling down with such a poor, common "Polack" as Stanley, and Stella bursts into tears and goes to the bathroom to wash her face. Stanley and Mitch come home while Stella is in the bathroom, and Blanche is left alone to meet them. Stanley, who obviously doesn't share Blanche's sense of propriety, takes his shirt off in front of her, and she tries not to show how shocked and appalled she is by his lack of manners. He seems to enjoy shocking her because he considers her sense of propriety extreme and silly. It is obvious by their stilted, barbed conversation that there is tension between them - they come from completely different worlds and are completely skeptical of each other.
Stanley tries to be nice to her for Stella's sake and tries to appear happy that she will be staying with them for a while. He asks Blanche if she had been married once, and she tells him that she had been married when she has been much younger and that the boy had died.
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