The play is set in a two-story, white-frame, faded corner building on a street called Elysian Fields, which runs between the train tracks and the river in New Orleans. The neighborhood is poor but has a “raffish charm.” Stanley and Stella Kowalski live in the downstairs flat, and Steve and Eunice live upstairs. The stage is set such that the audience can see both the interior and the exterior of the building. Music from a “blue piano” is heard offstage.
In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields are the final resting place of the heroic and virtuous. The street name is both a literal street in New Orleans and a symbolic resting place. Williams romanticizes the neighborhood: even though it is poor, all races and classes are mixed, and the constant music gives everything a slightly dreamy quality.
Eunice and a Negro Woman are sitting on the front stoop when Stanley and Mitch come around the corner. Stanley bellows for Stella, and when she comes out on the first-floor landing, he tosses her a package of bloody meat from the butcher. Stanley and Mitch leave to go bowling, and Stella soon follows them. Eunice and the Negro Women crow delightedly over the sexual innuendo of the meat-tossing.
Tossing the package of meat symbolically captures Stanley and Stella’s sexual relationship: he hurls himself physically at her, and she accepts delightedly. Raw physical lust forms a vital part of the life-blood of New Orleans, and of their relationship.
Blanche DuBois comes around the corner, looking distinctly out of place: dressed in white and fluttering uncertainly like a moth, she stares uneasily at a slip of paper at her hands. She is looking for her sister, Stella, and she has been told to take “a street-car named Desire” and transfer to Cemeteries to arrive at Elysian Fields. Eunice assures Blanche that she is in the right place, and the Negro Woman goes to the bowling alley to fetch Stella.
Eunice lets Blanche into the Kowalskis’ flat and tries to make small talk about what Stella has mentioned about Blanche––that the latter is a teacher from Mississippi, and that they grew up together on a plantation called Belle Reve. Blanche tells Eunice that she’d like to be left alone.
Blanche’s nervousness at Eunice’s questions indicate that she has something to hide in her past and that there is more to her seemingly innocent appearance than meets the eye.
Blanche perches uncomfortably as she looks around the dim, messy apartment. There are two rooms in the apartment: the kitchen/dining room, which also contains a fold-out bed for Blanche, and the bedroom. Suddenly, Blanche springs up to the closet, finds a whiskey bottle, and quickly takes a drink. After replacing the bottle and washing the glass, she resumes her original seat.
Blanche considers herself to be above her surroundings. Her concealed drinking shows her desire to escape reality as well as the fact that she is quite adept at hiding facts about herself. Blanche is very concerned with keeping her delicate surface appearance intact.
Stella bursts into the apartment, and she and Blanche embrace excitedly. Blanche speaks with a feverish hysteria and lets her criticism about the dingy state of the physical and social surroundings slip into her effusive greetings. She asks Stella for a drink to calm her nerves, though simultaneously insisting that she’s not a drunk. Once the drink is poured, she again laments Stella’s living conditions, calling the place something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story.
Blanche’s disapproval of Stella’s lifestyle allows Blanche to reinforce her own sense of superiority. She romanticizes the situation, envisioning herself as an ingénue in a tragic narrative. Blanche portrays herself as a lady who rarely drinks, but her words are directly opposite to her actions.
Stella’s quietness makes Blanche anxious that Stella isn’t glad to see her, but Stella reassures her to the contrary. Blanche tells Stella that she is taking a leave of absence from her job as a schoolteacher due to her nerves. She comments that Stella is looking plump and draws attention to her own girlish figure, saying that she hasn’t changed a bit since Stella left and their father died. Blanche is shocked to find that Stella does not have a maid in the two-room flat, and she takes another drink.
Blanche’s commentary on Stella’s body and the appearance of the apartment draw a contrast between the physical life that Stella has chosen and the dream world that Blanche desperately wants to inhabit. Though Stella has changed and moved into a new life, Blanche clings to her version of the past.
Blanche worries that Stanley will not like her and that she will have no privacy from him in the apartment. She makes disapproving comments about Stanley’s lower-class status and his friends (“Heterogeneous––types”). Stella is very much in love with Stanley, and she tells Blanche not to compare him to the boys they knew at Belle Reve.
Blanche is both disdainful of Stanley and afraid of him. He holds the power in the apartment, even though Blanche sees herself as elite. Her disparaging comments about the mixed social class show Blanche trying to cling to her prior social status.
Blanche bursts out that she has lost Belle Reve, and, with steadily mounting hysteria, she recalls how she suffered through the deaths of their parents and relatives. She accuses Stella of abandoning the family and the estate to jump into bed with her “Polack.” Stella springs up and rushes into the bathroom, crying.
Outside, the men return from bowling and discuss their plans for poker the following evening. Blanche nervously flutters around the apartment as they speak. Stanley enters, exuding raw, animalistic, sexual energy, and he sizes Blanche up at a glance. Stanley casually makes small talk with Blanche, who is stiff and a little hectic. Stanley pulls the whiskey bottle out to take a drink, noting its depletion.
Blanche is immediately seen as Stanley’s direct opposite: fluttering, insubstantial, and pale rather than a robust, muscular specimen. In this way, Stanley and Blanche are like the sun and the moon. Blanche may be able to hide her alcoholism from devoted Stella, but not from Stanley.
Stanley pulls off his sweaty shirt in front of Blanche, asking her about being an English teacher in Mississippi. Stella is still in the bathroom. When Stanley asks Blanche about her marriage, polka music plays faintly in the background. Blanche tells Stanley that “the boy died” and sinks down, saying she feels sick.
Stanley’s physical presence dominates the apartment. The polka music is only in Blanche’s mind—even though the audience hears it—and its appearance signifies that she is haunted by her dead husband.