The play opens in New Orleans in the 1940s at the ground-floor flat of a young couple, Stanley and Stella Kowalski. Upstairs lives another couple, Eunice and Steve. The dynamic between main characters Stella and Stanley is made immediately clear when he, clearly a gruff man, tosses a piece of meat to his wife for her to make into dinner. Gender roles anyone? Meanwhile, it’s clear that she adores him – she even tails after to watch him bowl with his friends.
After both Kowalskis exit, Blanche DuBois comes onstage. She’s Stella’s older, single sister (early thirties). She’s dressed all in white, delicate, and “moth-like.” Blanche waits inside the apartment and has a shot of Stanley’s booze.
When Stella comes back, the sisters reunite and Blanche reveals some bad news: their family plantation, Belle Reve, has been lost; they are bankrupt. She had a bit of a break-down, so she’s now taking some time off from her teaching position at the school (Blanche teaches high school English). She resents that she had to stay home and watch their older family members die one by one while Stella was off with Stanley. Blanche is also horrified that her sister is living in a dump like this one when they both come from such a wealthy, elite background.
Blanche has another drink. (From now on, just assume Blanche is either having a drink or about to have a drink at all times.) Stella goes to the bathroom and Stanley enters, which means he and Blanche are alone for Big Sexual Tension Scene Number One. While they chat, Blanche reveals that she was married once, but her husband died.
As Blanche is bathing, Stanley finds out from Stella that Belle Reve was lost. He rifles through Blanche’s things and believes that her costume jewelry and fake furs are all genuine, expensive pieces – he thinks that she sold Belle Reve and kept the profits for herself. Later, while alone with Blanche, he accuses her of this. She shows him all the papers detailing the estate and its bankruptcy, proving her story correct. Meanwhile, Blanche tries to pull her “Aren’t I so cute and pretty?” act with Stanley, and he’s having none of it. Before the scene ends, Stanley reveals that Stella is pregnant.
Later that night, the women go out for dinner while Stanley and his buddies play poker at the house. Among said buddies is Mitch, who is single but lives with his elderly, sick mother. He’s a bit more sensitive than the others. Stella and Blanche return home at about 2am to find the men still gambling and very drunk.
Blanche flirts with Mitch and it’s clear that he returns her interest. He’s a bit of an awkward teddy-bear, though, and Blanche has to carry the conversation entirely. Meanwhile, Stanley is angry that the women are chattering and interfering with his poker night. In a drunken rage, he hits Stella. The two women run upstairs to Eunice’s place, and the men all go home after sticking Stanley in the shower and trying to sober him up.
Now under control, Stanley feels horrible at what he’s done to his wife. He staggers outside, sobbing, and yells up to her to come down to him. To Blanche’s horror, Stella does, and the two make up. The next morning, Blanche waits for Stanley to leave and then comes downstairs to her sister. She insists that they get out of this horrible situation immediately. Stella says she’s happy – she’s “thrilled” by Stanley’s aggression, not frightened by it.
Meanwhile, Blanche and Mitch start dating. She won’t let him see her in any strong light because she’s trying to hide her age, and she also won’t give him more than a goodnight kiss in the hopes that holding out will make him want to marry her. After one date, she reveals some of her past to Mitch. When she was young, she was married to a man who turned out to be gay. After discovering him with another man, Blanche called him “disgusting,” and he killed himself. Since then, Blanche has been haunted by his death (made clear to the audience by the repeated use of the polka song that was playing when he committed suicide).
Tensions continue to rise between Blanche and Stanley, who can’t stand his sister-in-law’s phony act and her air of superiority. He does a little hunting around and discovers that Blanche has been lying about what went down in Laurel (her hometown). Apparently, she was fired from her job as a schoolteacher after she was discovered having an affair with one of her high school students. She then sank further into scandal, entertaining many gentlemen at a place called the Hotel Flamingo until she was essentially asked to leave town.
Stanley reveals all of this information to Stella (and, we find out later, to Mitch as well). The couple fights over it, since Stella wants to defend and help her sister, whereas Stanley wants Blanche out of his house. In the midst of their argument, Stella goes into labor and Stanley rushes her to the hospital.
While they’re at the hospital, Blanche is left alone at the apartment. Mitch comes to see her, but by now he’s wised up as to her real character. He wants her to have sex with him, seeing as that’s what she does, apparently, with many other men. Blanche refuses; she still thinks Mitch should marry her. Mitch is all, “No, thanks” and takes off.
Blanche drinks herself silly until Stanley comes home from the hospital to get some rest, since the doctors say Stella won’t deliver the baby until the morning. Now, he’s alone with Blanche, which gives him the opportunity to tell her off the way he’s always wanted.
Blanche responds to his anger by retreating further into self-delusion. She’s all dressed up in her costume jewelry and finest gown, and she claims that she’s going on a cruise in the Mediterranean with an old boyfriend. She also claims that Mitch came back to beg her forgiveness, which we all know isn’t true.
She and Stanley continue to argue, and Blanche worries that she, a single and attractive woman, shouldn’t be alone in an apartment with a man like Stanley. Stanley finds her fear amusing, but then attacks and rapes her. This isn’t shown on stage; the scene comes to an end just as he’s carrying a nearly unconscious Blanche into the bedroom.
The final scene features Stella (with the new baby) and Eunice helping Blanche to pack her things. They’re sending her away to a mental institution. Blanche told Stella that Stanley raped her, but Stella doesn’t believe her story. She just thinks her sister has gone mad. Blanche has somehow convinced herself that she’s still going on this cruise with her old boyfriend, so she willingly packs and pretties herself.
Meanwhile, Stanley, Mitch, and a few of their buddies are sitting around the kitchen table playing poker. When the doctor comes to take Blanche away, at first she resists. But when he plays the part of the Southern gentleman and offers her his arm, Blanche accepts it and goes willingly. Mitch takes a swing at Stanley, revealing that he knows Blanche’s story to be true (or at least strongly suspects it). Horribly distraught, Stella calls after her retreating sister, but submits to Stanley’s comforting arms on the porch of their house as Blanche disappears around the street corner and offstage.