The play begins in a poor but lively, racially mixed area of New Orleans, on an evening in early May. Music from a bar around the corner can be heard as two men enter. They are Stanley Kowalski and his friend Mitch. Stanley calls up to a two-story building on the corner for his wife Stella, who comes out to the first-floor landing. He throws some meat up for her to catch, and then says he is going bowling. Stella says she will come and watch.
Blanche, Stella’s sister arrives. She is well dressed, all in white, and looks out of place in the impoverished surroundings. Eunice, the woman who lives in the upstairs flat, confirms that Blanche has arrived at the right place. Blanche is uncertain. She cannot believe that her sister lives there. Eunice, who owns the building, lets Blanche into the downstairs flat and tells her to make herself at home. As Eunice chats with her it transpires that Blanche is a schoolteacher from Mississippi who lives in a large house.
After Eunice leaves, Blanche takes a whiskey bottle from a half-opened closet and makes herself a drink. Stella returns and the two sisters greet each other joyfully. Blanche soon asks her what she is doing living in such a run-down building. Stella says it isn’t that bad. Blanche reveals that she is able to come during the school term because the high school superintendent suggested she take a leave of absence. She has obviously been under a lot of stress, and she gets Stella to reassure her about her appearance. They agree that Blanche will stay with Stella and Stanley in the apartment, even though there is not much room. Blanche wants to know whether Stanley will like her. Stella says they will get along fine as long as Blanche does not compare him to the men they used to date at home. It is clear that Stella is wildly in love with Stanley, although Blanche is concerned when she hears that Stella has not told her husband that Blanche is coming.
Blanche then complains that while Stella left their home to come to New Orleans, she was left to struggle to keep the family home going. She now reveals that the home, Belle Reve, has been lost. Stella asks what happened, but Blanche continues to reproach her for leaving. She recalls the deaths of their parents and other relatives. None left any money, and all Blanche had was her paltry salary from the school. Stella cries at Blanche’s reproaches.
Stanley returns with his friends Steve and Mitch. They part after agreeing to meet for poker the next day. Stanley enters the apartment and Blanche introduces herself. Stanley offers her a drink, which she declines, and then removes his shirt because the room is so hot. They make awkward small talk while Stella is in the bathroom. Stanley says that Stella has told him of her, and he asks her about her former marriage. Blanche reluctantly recalls that her husband, whom she calls a boy, is dead.
The first scene establishes the sharp contrast between the two main characters, Blanche and Stanley. They are from completely different worlds, she a refined woman from an southern aristocratic background, he a down-to-earth working man with crude manners. They are not going to be able to understand each other. But this scene also gives an early hint about Blanche’s duplicity. She is not quite what she appears, as is seen when she pretends to Stanley, after he offers her some whiskey, that she rarely touches it. (The audience has already seen this is not true.)
This scene also introduces two of the prominent themes of the play, sex and death. The basis of the love between Stella and Stanley is sexual passion. Although Stanley is what today might be called a “male chauvinist,” they are happy in their own way, bound together by physical love. On the other hand, Blanche’s longest speech in this scene is all about death. She gives Stella a long catalog of the deaths at the Belle Reve plantation, emphasizing the heartrending nature of death and the details of people’s last moments. The note of morbidity continues throughout the play.
There are also some important symbolic and visual elements in the opening scene. Stanley removes his shirt (which he will do often), signifying his elemental, animal-like strength and virility, whereas Blanche spends a lot of time bathing and freshening up, a symbol of her attempts to wash away her past and live up to her image of being beautiful and refined. However, she is twice in this scene associated with the raucous sound of cats, which tends to undermine her attempts to present herself in this way.