At rise, we see a two-story building in a poor, charming, diverse section of New Orleans, called Elysian Fields. It is an evening in early May in the 1930s. The Kowalskis live in the downstairs apartment, and Eunice and Steve live upstairs.
The action begins with the arrival of Blanche DuBois, dressed in white, and both looking and feeling entirely out of place on this downtrodden street. Blanche stares at the building in disbelief – her directions brought her to Elysian Fields, but it looks nothing like what she expected. Eunice tells Blanche that she has come to the right place – Blanche's sister, Stella, lives on the first floor. After Eunice lets Blanche into the apartment, she runs around the corner to fetch Stella.
Left alone, Blanche surreptitiously takes a drink of whiskey, and puts the bottle and tumbler away. Stella arrives and they embrace happily, Blanche babbling excitedly about Stella's appearance and not giving her sister a chance to get a word in edge-wise. Stella offers Blanche a drink, which she makes a show of accepting reluctantly. The quality of the neighborhood comes up quickly; Blanche is appalled that Stella is living in such conditions. Stella is perfectly happy with her lot, and doesn't take kindly to Blanche's questions.
As the conversation progresses, it is revealed that Blanche is taking a leave of absence from her position as a school teacher, and plans to stay with Stella for an unspecified period of time. Blanche is concerned about living in such close quarters with Stanley, and makes no effort to hide her discomfort with his blue collar background. Stella is quite in love with her husband, however.
Blanche broaches the subject of the DuBois family plantation, Belle Reve. She is immediately on the defensive as she describes how hard she worked to keep the plantation running, while Stella left to live her own life in New Orleans. A long string of deaths in the family ate up all the money, while the process of nursing dying loved ones took their toll on Blanche's psyche, and in the end Belle Reve was lost. Stella is upset at both the news and the accusatory way Blanche broke it to her, and she goes into the bathroom to cry.
Stanley enters the apartment with Mitch and Steve, all returning from bowling. Blanche hesitantly introduces herself to Stanley, who did not know Blanche was coming to town. He asks Blanche some straight forward questions about herself and her plans, while removing his sweaty shirt and taking a drink. Blanche is appalled. As the scene ends, it is revealed that Blanche was married once, when she was young, but the boy died. The recollection makes her feel sick, and she buries her head in her arms.
"They told me to take a street-car named Desire." Blanche's first action in the play is one of confusion, ambivalence, disorientation. She cannot believe where she has ended up, standing at her sister's rundown New Orleans door step, or determine how she got there, on a pair of streetcars named Desire and Cemeteries. Blanche makes it clear from the start that her actions are involuntary – "they," some unknown entity, told her to take a street-car named Desire. This is both meaningful in the present tense and on a deeper thematic level. Blanche is lost; her life is falling apart and she has nowhere to go. Only desperation and a lack of other options has brought her to Elysian Fields, a tenement as different from its heavenly title as can be imagined by Blanche's sheltered mind. And we will learn that throughout Blanche's adult life, without any agency, she has been riding two metaphorical streetcars named Desire and Cemeteries – the dual themes of lust and death that will be paired constantly through the play. Just as circumstance has led her to the Kowalskis' doorstep, so too did circumstance lead her to a life driven by desire and death. The impulses are paired from the very start; which will win?
All of the major themes and elements of A Streetcar Named Desire are introduced as quickly as possible at the top of the play. Tennessee Williams teasingly drops clues about all the major reveals of the second and third acts in the introductory exposition, as though he were writing a mystery. In a way, the play is a mystery, with Stanley investigating Blanche's background and an ever-unraveling layer of truth and un-truth is exposed to the ugly glare of the light. But for now, in the first scene, we only get tantalizing hints as Williams references all the major issues: the loss of Belle Reve; Blanche's drinking; the fear and adoration Stella feels for her husband; Blanche's fear of the light and preoccupation with appearances; the death of Blanche's husband. The second scene brings in the elements particular to Blanche and Stanley's relationship, and from there all the foundation is laid to send the story hurtling down the tracks towards its conclusion.
Williams provides copious stage directions in his plays, and they are both functional and poetic. He does not simply state the necessary movements, nor does he serve as a backseat director, programming every gesture before an actor has touched the text. Rather, his directions are like a depiction of a potential performance – the outline of the Blanche and the Stanley that he sees, but written in gossamer and smoke. For instance, he dictates that Blanche should enter in "a white suit with a fluffy bodice," and further describes her outfit as something appropriate for a cocktail party. But this is not Williams prescribing the elements of what we see, but rather the overall effect – "there is something about her uncertain manner… that suggests a moth." An interesting choice of comparison, as moths are drawn to light the way Blanche is desperately drawn from it.
Also important is the detailed description of the set. We have only one set for the entire play – the crowded apartment of the Kowalskis – but thanks to transparent walls we have access to the street outside as well as the two rooms and bath. Underscored is the cramped claustrophobia that enters the apartment with Blanche, and the heightened emotions of the bunker as Blanche's hide-out extends longer and longer. The outside world regularly penetrates the apartment, with visits from Mitch and Eunice and the occasional poker night. But rather than letting in air and light, these penetrations just force Blanche to retreat deeper and deeper into her fantasy, hiding from the encroaching walls of the apartment.
But in the first scene, of course, Blanche is still putting on a happy face. She babbles away at Stella, full of chipper gossip and cardboard reminiscences. Blanche deftly deflects any criticism or questioning from her younger sister, and when certain revelations become necessary (as in the telling of the loss of Belle Reve) Blanche succeeds in spinning them around so that she is breaking the news on her own terms. Her defensive strategy is to stay on the offensive – criticizing Stella's lifestyle and social standing when Blanche is in an even worse situation herself, defending herself against blame for the loss of Belle Reve before Stella can even say a word. This Blanche has been twisting and manipulating truths and lies for a long time, and her method seems at first like it will succeed in her new life as well. But then she meets Stanley.
Stanley and Blanche are characterized as polar opposites. He is brutish, coarse, primitive; she is dainty, elegant, delicate. He sizes her up with a glance; she hides her eyes from him. He is direct and blunt; she dances around every topic. But the funny thing about opposites is that they attract. The instant animus between the characters is powerful and binds them together much more so than more positive emotions. This is the beginning that sets up the inevitable date they have with each other.