The play is set in the shabby but rakishly charming New Orleans of the 1940s. Stanley and Stella Kowalski live in the downstairs flat of a faded corner building. Williams uses a flexible set so that the audience simultaneously sees the interior and the exterior of the apartment.
Blanche DuBois, Stella’s sister, arrives: “They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then to transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at––Elysian Fields!” Blanche is a fading Southern belle from Laurel, Mississippi. An English teacher (though hardly a schoolmarm), dressed in all white, she is delicate and moth-like. Blanche tells Stella that Belle Reve, the family plantation, has been lost, and that she has been given a leave of absence from her teaching position due to her nerves. Blanche criticizes Stella’s surroundings and laments Stella’s fall from their elite upbringing.
In contrast to Stella’s self-effacing, deferential nature and Blanche’s pretentious, refined airs, Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski exudes raw, animal, violent sexuality. While Blanche flutters in semi-darkness, soaks in the bath, and surrounds herself in silky clothes and costume jewels, Stanley rips off his sweaty shirts under the bare kitchen light bulb. Though Stella still cares for her sister, her life has become defined by her role as Stanley’s wife: their relationship is primarily based on sexual chemistry. Stella’s ties to New Orleans rather than the lost Belle Reve are further emphasized through her pregnancy: she is bringing a new Kowalski, not a DuBois, life into the world.
While Blanche is bathing, Stanley rummages through her trunk, suspecting Blanche of having sold Belle Reve and cheated Stella – and thereby himself – out of the inheritance. Blanche reveals that the estate was lost due to a foreclosed mortgage, showing Stanley the bank papers to prove it”
Later that night, in the “lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum” of the kitchen, Stanley and his friends are still in the thick of their drunken poker night when Blanche and Stella return from an evening out. Stanley’s friend Mitch catches Blanche’s eye, and as she asks Stella about him, she maneuvers herself skillfully in the light to be caught half-dressed in silhouette.
Blanche and Mitch flirt. Blanche hangs a paper lantern over a bare bulb. Stanley seethes that Blanche is interrupting the poker game. Eventually, Blanche turns on the radio, and Stanley erupts: he storms into the bedroom and tosses the radio out of the window. When Stella intervenes to try and make peace, Stanley hits her. Blanche and Stella escape upstairs to Eunice’s apartment. The other men douse Stanley in the shower, which sobers him up, and he is remorseful. Stanley stumbles outside, bellowing upstairs: “STELL-LAHHHHH!” Stella slips back downstairs into Stanley’s arms, and Mitch comforts Blanche in her distress.
The next morning, Stella is calm and radiant, while Blanche is still hysterical. Stella admits that she is “thrilled” by Stanley’s aggression, and that even though Blanche wants her to leave, she’s “not in anything that [she has] a desire to get out of.” Blanche suggests that they contact Shep Huntleigh, a Dallas millionaire, to help them escape. The only thing holding Stella and Stanley together, Blanche says, is the “rattle-trap street-car named Desire.” Stanley, unbeknownst to Stella and Blanche, overhears Blanche criticize Stanley as being coarse and sub-human. Blanche tells Stella, “In this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching . . . Don’t––don’t hang back with the brutes!”
Later, Stanley lets drop a few hints that he knows some repugnant details about Blanche’s past, and Blanche is nervous, but the tension does not crack just yet. While Blanche is in the apartment for Mitch to pick her up for a date, a Young Man comes to collect money for the paper. Blanche fervently flirts with him and kisses him on the mouth before Mitch arrives.
When Blanche and Mitch return from their date, she is exhausted with “the utter exhaustion which only a neurasthenic personality can know” and still nervous from Stanley’s hints. Blanche is still playing at being a naïve Southern belle who still blushes at a kiss. Mitch boasts of his strapping manliness, but by speaking quantitatively about his athleticism rather than stripping his sweaty shirt and baring his torso.
Blanche melodramatically tells Mitch about her tragic love life: when she was sixteen, she married an effeminate young man who turned out to be homosexual. Blanche reproached her husband while they were dancing the Varsouviana Polka, and her husband committed suicide. Blanche is still haunted by his death (and the play will become increasingly haunted with the background music of the polka).
About a month later, Blanche is offstage soaking in the bath while Stella prepares Blanche’s birthday dinner. Stanley tells Stella all about Blanche’s sordid history in Laurel, as Blanche sings “Paper Moon” from the bathroom (“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!”). After losing Belle Reve, Blanche moved to the dubious Hotel Flamingo until getting kicked out for her promiscuous ways. Blanche is not taking a leave from her school due to her nerves: she has been fired for having an affair with a seventeen-year-old student. Stella, rushing to defend Blanche, is horrified, and she is equally horrified when Stanley tells her that he has also told these stories to Mitch. Stanley informs Stella that he’s bought Blanche a one-way bus ticket back to Mississippi.
Mitch does not show up for Blanche’s birthday dinner. Blanche senses that something is wrong. Stanley and Stella are tense. Blanche tries to telephone Mitch but doesn’t get through; Stanley, Stella, and the audience know what Mitch knows, though Blanche does not. Stanley presents Blanche with the bus ticket. As we hear the faint strains of the polka, Blanche rushes out of the room. Stanley and Stella nearly begin a huge fight, but Stella goes into labor.
Later that evening, Blanche is alone in the apartment and drunk; the Varsouviana is playing in her mind. Mitch, also drunk, arrives and confronts Blanche. She admits that Stanley’s stories are true – that after her husband’s suicide, she had sought solace in the comfort of strangers. A Mexican Woman comes to the door and offers “Flores para los muertos.” Mitch tries to have sex with Blanche but without agreeing to marry her, though he then stops himself. She cries “Fire! Fire!” and he stumbles away.
It’s several hours later the same night, and Blanche has been drinking steadily since Mitch left. Stanley comes home from the hospital to get some rest before the baby comes. Blanche has put on an absurd white evening gown and a rhinestone tiara. Blanche makes up a story about Shep Huntleigh sending her a telegram from Dallas, and then tells Stanley that Mitch came back on his knees with roses to beg for forgiveness. Stanley shatters her stories, saying, “You come in her and sprinkle the place with powder and spray perfume and cover the light bulb with a paper lantern, and lo and behold the place has turned into Egypt and you are the Queen of the Nile! Sitting on your throne and swilling down my liquor! I say––Ha!––Ha!” He bursts out of the bathroom in his brilliant silk pajamas, and advances on Blanche. She attempts to resist him, but Stanley overpowers her with physical force: “Tiger––tiger! Drop the bottle top! Drop it! We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!” She sinks down, and he carries her limp body to the bed; the swelling music indicates that he rapes her (offstage).
Weeks later, Stella and Eunice are packing Blanche’s bags while the men play poker in the kitchen and Blanche takes a bath. They have made arrangements for Blanche to go to a mental asylum, but Blanche believes Shep Huntleigh is coming at last to take her away. Blanche has apparently told Stella about the rape, but Stella refuses to believe her. When Blanche emerges from the bath, she is delusional, worrying about the cleanness of the grapes and speaking of drowning in the sea. A Doctor and Matron from the asylum arrive, and Blanche sweeps through the poker players to the door. When she realizes that this is not Shep Huntleigh come to take her away, she initially resists, darting back into the house like a frightened animal, but she cannot hide from the Matron’s advances. Stanley yanks the paper lantern off the light bulb. The Matron catches Blanche and drags her out. The Doctor treats her more calmly, calling her by name, and Blanche is mollified, grasping at her final shreds of dignity: “Whoever you are––I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” The Doctor leads her offstage. Stella, holding her baby in her arms, breaks down in “luxurious sobbing,” and Stanley comforts her with loving caresses.