A Streetcar Named Desire is set in the late 1940s, post-World War II, which is also the time period in which the play was written. Williams is highly detailed in identifying his setting—not just New Orleans but a specific address in that city: 632 Elysian Fields Avenue, “running between the L & N [railroad] tracks and the [Mississippi] River,” adjacent to the French Quarter. An actual street in New Orleans, Elysian Fields was named after the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, but unlike that elegant French boulevard of shops and restaurants, it was always a mixed commercial and residential area for the working classes. Developed in the second half of the 19th century, this section of Elysian Fields had become a particularly low-rent neighborhood by the time of the play. So, the street where Stella lives, like Stella herself, possesses a grander, old-world heritage that has fallen in status.
The stage directions situate the Kowalskis’ building carefully, noting the presence of a bowling alley and a bar around the corner—the latter close enough to hear its music, “a blue piano that expresses the spirit of the life which goes on here.” In this way, the stage directions referring to the setting express and punctuate the events of the play, as if to comment on the action. That action takes place primarily inside and in front of the Kowalskis’ two-room apartment, though the street itself is also visible.
In almost every way, Elysian Fields represents the opposite of where Blanche comes from and what she is used to. It is noisy, filled with the sounds of howling cats, rattling trains, and street vendors’ cries, and it is crowded, with people living atop one another. Neighbors are able to easily hear each other and often conduct their personal lives—gossiping, kissing, fighting, and reconciling—in public, on the porches and sidewalks. In contrast, Blanche is accustomed to the quiet of the country and plenty of space and privacy. Elysian Fields is poor, industrial, and, if not highly dangerous, at least home to shady activities, like those of the prostitutes who rob drunks on the sidewalk after dark. Blanche, however, is used to surroundings of respectability and gentility, places built by beauty-loving aristocrats living lives of leisure. Most of all, Elysian Fields is cosmopolitan, a place “where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races” and nationalities. Blanche grew up in a comparatively homogenous environment, the bucolic but carefully stratified society of a country town.
From the start, Blanche appears incongruous to Elysian Fields. This incongruity emphasizes the themes of Streetcar: the clash of the rural Old South with the industrial New South; the past’s inexorable yielding to the present; the decline of illusion and magic in the face of reality. It also telegraphs the main arc of the play: the inability of the weak and well-bred to survive in the rough, modern world of vulgar but vital commoners. Elysian Fields is not necessarily a bad place; it even has “a raffish charm.” But ultimately, this setting proves malevolent to Blanche and is instrumental in her downfall.