Credit: Public Domain

Why are we still returning to Stanley Kowalski?

By Ruby Stirling

Tennessee Williams’ Stanley Kowalski will always be a classic figure of fiction. Ruby Stirling examines this masculine, violent and good-looking individual and why we return to his image in theatre and film so much.

You’d be hard pressed to think of a more distinctive male lead in American theatre than Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Disturbingly violent, yet alarmingly seductive, generations of Stanley Kowalskis have bullied their way across screen and stage. With Marlon Brando’s rendition as the blueprint, the role has since been rendered by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Treat Williams, and most recently, Irish favourite Paul Mescal in an extended run at London’s Almeida. 

For Mescal particularly, the role demands a unique brutality far removed from his sensitive portrayals of chain-adorned teenagers and troubled young fathers. Stanley oozes violent sexual bravado, abusing his pregnant wife and raping his sister-in-law in a distorted act of retribution. What lies behind the enduring magnetism of such a violent role? 

Perhaps most crucially is the allure of the new America that Stanley represents. Within the constraints of a two-bedroom New Orleans apartment, Streetcar follows Stanley’s physical and conceptual conflict with his sister-in-law Blanche, who is forced to move in after the loss of her family estate. Inflamed by alcohol – drank openly by Stanley, and secretly by Blanche – their warring allows Williams to examine the metamorphosis of a post-WWII America from Blanche’s jaded Southern aristocratic values to Stanley’s vigorous working-class world. 

Whilst Blanche’s beauty, sanity, and credibility are all in decline, Stanley is at his prime: he’s considerably younger, stronger, and firmly rooted in the present. His triumph over Blanche is excruciating to witness, yet comes as little surprise; rudimentarily, their conflict is one between past and future, and Williams confronts us with the jarring reality that the comforts of the past must always yield to the demands of the present. The allure of Stanley is the allure of a new America itself: equal parts violent and vitalising, cruel and inevitable.  

It’s therefore unsurprising that his sexual charisma is central to the role’s survival. Our conception of Stanley as the paradigm of macho sexuality is perhaps more due to Brando’s command as an actor than Williams’ as a playwright; Kowalski is Brando, credited by Gore Vidal as changing the concept of sex in America itself. Again, his intense physicality – half muscles, half sweat – is weaponised to pose an immense threat, but nonetheless drives one of Hollywood’s most captivating performances.  

As his sexuality beguiles us, it can be easy to dismiss the current of sexual violence within the play that seals each character’s fate under a mid-century American patriarchy. Stanley’s violent rape of Blanche propels her final descent into insanity; Streetcar concludes with Blanche taken to what we can only assume is an asylum. Only more tragic than this is Stella’s betrayal of Blanche, as she chooses not to believe her sister’s sole truth and instead stand by her husband – a choice difficult to commiserate with, but key to understanding how male violence continues to be perpetrated.  

Some roles endure well because they’re so open to interpretation; Stanley Kowalski is not one of them. We are familiar with all Stanley embodies – brutal Americanism, violence and patriarchy – and as long as they endure, his character will also. Perhaps this endurance is what best allows Williams to remind us of the ultimate senselessness: it is the eponymous Streetcar named Desire that does life’s true steering. 


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