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A Streetcar Named Desire: High School Drama Unit

I’d seen the movie before. I knew it was based on a play by Tennessee Williams. I have not had the chance to see it on stage. When I saw the movie again a couple of months ago, I was already brainstorming in my head how to use it for script analysis. It’s a wonderfully powerful story with complex characters and a number of symbols and themes.

I got myself a copy of the play and The Spark Notes study guide. I also hunted down this great lesson plan, and cobbled together a decent four-week unit. The goals were in-depth character analysis and script analysis. My loose lesson plans are below.

Week One

I introduced the playwright and play, gave handouts of a map of the French Quarter of New Orleans, and described the environment of New Orleans in the post-WWII period. I’ve visited the French Quarter twice, and I hope my enthusiasm for the place was contagious.

Students read Act I, scenes 1 and 2 as a whole group round-robin style (as mentioned in the lesson plan linked above). I had the students arranged their desks into a circle. Then my students completed a character analysis sheet I created. They did this independently on either Blanche DuBois or Stanley Kowalski. They would fill this out twice more as the play progressed, so that they could see afterward how Williams kept revealing information and changing our sympathies. Afterwards, as a whole group we discussed the play so far. I brought to their attention some elements that would later be recognizable as symbols of sex, guilt, and fear of death.

Students read Act I, scenes 3 and 4 in small groups and completed a second character analysis. They were allowed to switch to the other main character if they wish. Further whole group discussion.

I played on my MP3 player a piano blues song similar to what is called for in the play (“Give Me Flowers While I’m Living” by Champion Jack Dupree.) I showed my students images of French Quarter buildings and the St. Charles Streetcar. I related more of my memories of the city, and I told them of its remarkable racial diversity, music and gourmet food.

Week Two

Whole group round-robin reading of Act II, Scene 1.

Act II, Scene 2: something a little different. My plan was to get four female volunteers and four male to act the scene, then get one more volunteer to read the blocking. I would have had the acting volunteers pair up as Blanche-and-Mitch pairs. Each pair would act out two pages from Act II Scene 2, in sequence:

  • Pair 1: stop at the very top of page 63
  • Pair 2: stop at the very top of page 65
  • Pair 3: stop at the bottom of page 66
  • Pair 4: finish the scene

Unfortunately, I had a sub because I was on Jury duty that day, and he did not coax enough volunteers. He had one male volunteer and one female volunteer do the entire scene. Twice. Had I been there, I would have decided to assign parts and skip the volunteer bit.

Next, small-group reading of Act III. The students read whatever was left at the end of the week at home. Then they completed a third character analysis of either of the two main characters. I had hung on to their earlier analysis sheets so that I could return them all at once and students could compare how their perspectives changed throughout the reading. If I hadn’t done it this way, I’m sure half of the students would have thrown out the earlier sheets when returned.

Week Three

I handed out a notes and essay sheet for the following activities (see the 01/12/07 update below for details):

Whole group discussion of the three main themes of the play:

  • fantasy’s inability to overcome reality
  • the relationship between sex and death
  • dependence on men

Small group discussion of three motifs:

  • light
  • bathing
  • drunkenness

Particular attention was paid to symbolism and cultural significance. Students were required to write notes individually on each topic.

Given writing prompts, students completed six short essays independently. The notes and essays were due in one week.

Then a two-day project: small-group collage on one of three concepts: Blanche, Stanley, or the play as a whole. I brought over scissors, poster paper and glue bottles from my art classroom. I also brought in a stack of magazines, bought for a quarter a piece at Tower Books in its final days of business. (I can also get a good number of 25 cent magazines at my nearest library, by the way.) See the 01/13/07 update below for images.

Week Four

Viewing of the movie, which took three class periods. Day four was Finals Day, and I used it for a quiz on the play followed by drama games.

As a side note, we set aside Fridays as “drama game” days, so Weeks One – Three were not a full five days.

Results

The students’ collages showed a remarkable understanding of the symbols used in the play. I’ll try to get photos up soon.

The character analyses were surprisingly good, as were most of the short essays.

Day one of the movie viewing went well. Everyone was quiet and paid attention, which was a blessing since my student-teaching observer was there that day. On day two a couple of the boys had a sleeping-on-the-desk position.

Then at the end of the day’s viewing, a few of the less academic boys whined about how did this movie possibly win all those Academy Awards? It was the worst acting they’d ever seen! I asked one of them to give me an example of excellent acting. He paused a moment and replied, “Ron Burgundy in Anchor Man.” Did I roll my eyes? I don’t remember. As the students left class, a couple of my quieter students gave me a look, which I interpreted as I didn’t feel that way but those guys are so obnoxious. One of my favorite students caught me outside and told me, “I really like the movie, Ms. Pedersen.” I gratefully told him thanks and gave him a big smile.

The quiz was intended to gauge whether individual students had absorbed the details of the play. The quiz results were pretty dismal, which showed that almost no-one had reread the play to prepare for it. I had believed it was not very difficult.

UPDATE 01/12/07: Discussion Notes and Essay Questions

I tracked down my discussion notes/essay questions assignment. Here it is:

WHOLE GROUP DISCUSSION – 6 points (2 points each)
Discuss the following themes as a class. Write your own notes down during the discussion:

  1. Fantasy’s inability to overcome reality. Why does Blanche lie to herself and others? How does Stanley respond to Blanche’s fabrications? How might the see-through back wall be a symbol of fantasy’s inability to overcome reality? Where do you consider Williams’ final view toward illusion and reality to lie? Does he align himself with Stanley’s reality and brutal honesty, or with Blanche’s illusion and pretense?
  2. The Relationship between Sex and Death. What does Blanche say and do that shows us that she is afraid of death? What has the lifelong inappropriate pursuit of her desires led to? For what people in Blanche’s life has sex led to death? What is the significance of the names of streetcars?
  3. Dependence on Men. What is Blanche’s last line in the play, and what is its significance? Why did Blanche want to marry Mitch? Do Blanche and Stella appear to have any hope of happiness without men to support them? Who does Stella side with at the end of the play, and why? What sort of message might Tennessee Williams be giving about the treatment of, and attitudes toward, women during postwar America?

SMALL GROUP DISCUSSION– 6 points (2 points each)
Discuss the following motifs with two or three other students. Write your own notes down during the discussion.

  1. Light. How does Blanche avoid strong light? Why does she do this? What things might bright light represent in this play? What about dim light?
  2. Bathing. What does Blanche tell people that baths do for her? What might be the psychological reason for them? Are they effective? When does Stanley shower and why?
  3. Drunkenness. Both Stanley and Blanche drink excessively in this play. Whose drinking is social, and whose is antisocial (that is, an attempt is made to keep it secret)? What is the result of drinking for each character, either in the short term or long term?

INDIVIDUAL SHORT ESSAYS
On your own, answer the following questions in short essay form. Write three or more complete sentences to thoroughly answer each question. Short essay answers are worth 5 points each.

  1. How does Blanche’s fascination with teenage boys relate to her decline and fall? How may this fascination have been created?
  2. Did Mitch love Blanche? Explain what happens to demonstrate your answer.
  3. In what ways are Blanche, Stanley, Mitch, and Stella cruel others during the play? Which form of cruelty is worst, in your opinion, and why?
  4. Which character do you have the most sympathy for at the end of the play, and why?

UPDATE 01/13/07: Student Collages
Student Work - Streetcar Named Desire collage
Student Work - Streetcar Named Desire collage
Student Work - Streetcar Named Desire collage
Student Work - Streetcar Named Desire collage

By Dawn Pedersen

Science advocate, web designer, educator, artist, and mommy.

5 replies on “A Streetcar Named Desire: High School Drama Unit”

Hi,

I enjoyed reading about your unit. I am also a teacher, and I am currently teaching this play to my 11th graders. Thanks for the ideas!

exceellent project . Honestly i did not have any idea how to do my collage about street car named desire but after read all your reading and seeing the collages now I got many ideas how to do mine. thanks for your big help 🙂

Thanks for your generosity in sharing your ideas. I teach ESL adult foreigners and will assign that great collage idea. I’m sure they’ll love it!

I never taught this play before, but I am familiar with it. Your lesson plan is wonderful and hits the major ideas in the play. Thank you so much for putting it online.

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