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A Streetcar Named Desire
StreetcarNamedDesire.JPG
1st edition (New Directions)
Written by Tennessee Williams
Characters Blanche Dubois
Stella Kowalski
Stanley Kowalski
Harold Mitchell
Date premiered December 3, 1947
Place premiered Ethel Barrymore Theatre
New York City, New York
Original language English
Subject  
Genre Southern Gothic
Setting The French Quarter and Downtown New Orleans
IBDB profile

A Streetcar Named Desire is a 1947 play written by American playwright Tennessee Williams[1] for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1947. The play opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947, and closed on December 17, 1949, in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The Broadway production was directed by Elia Kazan and starred Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden.[2] The London production opened in 1949 with Bonar Colleano, Vivien Leigh, and Renee Asherson and was directed by Laurence Olivier.[1]

Contents

Plot synopsis

Widely considered a landmark play, A Streetcar Named Desire deals with a culture clash between two iconic characters, Blanche DuBois, a relic of the Old South, and Stanley Kowalski, a rising member of the industrial, urban working class.[1]

The play presents Blanche DuBois, a fading but still-attractive Southern belle whose pretensions to virtue and culture only thinly mask alcoholism and delusions of grandeur. Her poise is an illusion she presents to shield others (but most of all, herself) from her reality, and an attempt to make herself still attractive to new male suitors. Blanche arrives at the apartment of her sister Stella Kowalski in the Faubourg Marigny of New Orleans, on Elysian Fields Avenue; the local transportation she takes to arrive there includes a streetcar route named "Desire." The steamy, urban ambiance is a shock to Blanche's nerves. Blanche is welcomed with some trepidation by Stella, who fears the reaction of her husband Stanley. As Blanche explains that their ancestral southern plantation, Belle Reve (translated from French as "beautiful dream," though the correct French phrase is actually Beau Rêve),[1] in Laurel, Mississippi, has been "lost" due to the "epic fornications" of their ancestors, her veneer of self-possession begins to slip drastically. Here "epic fornications" may be interpreted as the debauchery of her ancestors which in turn caused them financial losses. Blanche tells Stella that her supervisor allowed her to take time off from her job as an English teacher because of her upset nerves, when in fact, she has been fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. This turns out not to be the only seduction she has engaged in—and, along with other problems, has led her to escape Laurel. A brief marriage marred by the discovery that her spouse, Allan Grey (commonly misspelled as "Allen"),[citation needed] was having a homosexual affair and his subsequent suicide has led Blanche to withdraw into a world in which fantasies and illusions blend seamlessly with reality.

In contrast to both the self-effacing and deferential Stella and the pretentious refinement of Blanche, Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, is a force of nature: primal, rough-hewn, brutish and sensual. He dominates Stella in every way and is physically and emotionally abusive.[1] Stella tolerates his primal behaviour as this is part of what attracted her in the first place; their love and relationship are heavily based on powerful—even animalistic—sexual chemistry, something that Blanche finds impossible to understand.

The arrival of Blanche upsets her sister and brother-in-law's system of mutual dependence. Stella's concern for her sister's well-being emboldens Blanche to hold court in the Kowalski apartment, infuriating Stanley and leading to conflict in his relationship with his wife. Blanche and Stanley are on a collision course, and Stanley's friend and Blanche's would-be suitor Mitch,[1] will get trampled in their path. Stanley discovers Blanche's past through a co-worker who travels to Laurel frequently, and he confronts her with the things she has been trying to put behind her, partly out of concern that her character flaws may be damaging to the lives of those in her new home, just as they were in Laurel, and partly out of a distaste for pretense in general. However, his attempts to "unmask" her are predictably cruel and violent. Their final confrontation—Williams alludes to rape, but never states it directly—results in Blanche's nervous breakdown. Stanley has her committed to a mental institution, and in the closing moments, Blanche utters her signature line to the kindly doctor who leads her away: "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

The reference to the streetcar called Desire—providing the aura of New Orleans geography—is symbolic. Blanche not only has to travel on a streetcar route named "Desire" to reach Stella's home on "Elysian Fields" but her desire acts as an irrepressible force throughout the play—she can only hang on as her desires lead her.

The character of Blanche is thought to be based on Williams' sister Rose Williams who struggled with her mental health and became incapacitated after a lobotomy.[1]

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Sound effects

The original script is unusual in that the author included a comprehensive sound effects plot, most notably sounds of passing trains which punctuate the action and heighten the sense of Blanche's being left behind.

Themes and motifs

Illusion versus reality

A recurring theme that can be found in A Streetcar Named Desire is the reflection of the decayed agrarian South and a thriving, industrialized new America. Blanche is penniless and homeless; Stanley, the descendant of Polish immigrants and proud to be working class, is powerful and confident. There is constant conflict between reality and fantasy, actual and ideal. Blanche says "I don't want realism, I want magic." This recurring theme is read most strongly in Williams' characterization of Blanche DuBois and the physical tropes that she employs in her pursuit of what is magical and idealized: a paper lampshade with which she covers the harsh white light bulb in the living room; her chronically deceptive recounting of her last years in Belle Reve; the misleading letters she presumes to write to Shep Huntleigh; and a pronounced tendency toward excessive consumption of alcohol. As one critic writes, "Blanche spins a cocoon linguistically for protection."[citation needed] Blanche creates her own fantasy world through the characters she plays, such as the damsel, southern belle or school teacher. She wears her costumes to create a façade to hide behind, concealing her secrets and attempting to reach her former glory, and illustrating her inability to relate to others in a "normal" sense.

Notably, Blanche's deception of others and herself is not characterized by malicious intent, but rather a heart-broken and saddened retreat to a romantic time and happier moments before disaster struck her life (her previous loved one, the refined Allan Gray, committed suicide during a Varsouviana Polka, as a reaction to Blanche's revulsion when she discovered he was homosexual, after she accidentally encountered him having sex with another man).

The contrast between Blanche and Stanley can be understood as reflecting a similar opposition: the 'fake', illusionary and self-deceptive woman, versus her sister's coarsely, brutally present and animalistic husband, simplistic and 'real' in his corporeal presence.

Abandonment of chivalric codes

In fairy tales, the ailing princess or the damsel in distress is often rescued by a heroic white knight. A Streetcar Named Desire is characterized by the conspicuous absence of the male protagonist imbued with heroic qualities. Indeed, the polar opposite of what a literary chivalric hero might be is represented in the leading male character of the play, Stanley Kowalski. Stanley is described by Blanche as a "survivor of the Stone Age" and is further depicted in this primitive light by numerous traits that he exhibits: uncivilized manners, demanding and forceful behavior, lack of empathy, crass selfishness, and a chauvinistic attitude towards women. The replacement of the heroic white knight by a character such as Stanley Kowalski further heightens Williams' theme of the demise of the romantic "old South." Similarly, the character of Mitch is something of a social maladroit, chivalrous but dull. Even he proves susceptible to baser instincts when he makes a deliberately crude sexual advance on Blanche, having lost interest in marrying her.

Stage productions

Original Broadway production

A 24-year-old Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski on the set of the stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire, photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1948.

The original Broadway production was produced by Irene Mayer Selznick.[2] It opened at the Shubert in New Haven shortly before moving to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 3, 1947.[2] Selznick originally wanted to cast Margaret Sullavan and John Garfield, but settled on Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, who were virtual unknowns at the time. Brando was given car fare to Tennessee Williams' home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he not only gave a sensational reading, but did some house repairs as well. Tandy was cast after Williams saw her performance in a West Coast production of his one-act play Portrait of a Madonna. The opening night cast also included Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch.[2] Despite its shocking scenes and gritty dialogue, the audience applauded for half an hour after the debut performance ended.[3]

Later in the run, Uta Hagen replaced Tandy, and Anthony Quinn replaced Brando. Hagen and Quinn took the show on a national tour and then returned back to Broadway for additional performances. Early on, when Brando broke his nose, Jack Palance took over his role. Ralph Meeker also took on the part of Stanley both in the Broadway and touring companies. Tandy received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play in 1948, sharing the honor with Judith Anderson's portrayal of Medea and with Katharine Cornell. Brando portrayed Stanley with an overt sexuality combined with a boyish vulnerability that made his portrait of Stanley and especially the moment where he howls "Stellllllla!" for his wife, into cultural touchstones.

Uta Hagen's Blanche on the national tour was directed not by Elia Kazan, who had directed the Broadway production, but by Harold Clurman, and it has been reported, both in interviews by Miss Hagen and observations by contemporary critics, that the Clurman-directed interpretation shifted the focus of audience sympathy back to Blanche and away from Stanley (where the Kazan/Brando/Tandy version had located it).

Original cast

Original London production

The London production, directed by Laurence Olivier, opened in October 12, 1949 and starred Bonar Colleano, Vivien Leigh, and Renee Asherson.[1]

Revivals

Tallulah Bankhead, whom Williams had in mind when writing the play, starred in a 1956 New York City Center Company production directed by Herbert Machiz. The production, which was staged at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, was not well received and only ran 300 performances.

The first Broadway revival of the play was in 1973. It was produced by the Lincoln Center, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, and starred Rosemary Harris as Blanche and James Farentino as Stanley.

The Spring 1988 revival at the Circle in the Square Theatre starred Aidan Quinn opposite Blythe Danner as Blanche and Frances McDormand as Stella,[4] for which McDormand won a Tony.

A highly publicized 1992 revival starred Alec Baldwin as Stanley and Jessica Lange as Blanche and was staged at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the same theatre the original production was staged in. This production proved so successful that it was filmed for television. It featured Timothy Carhart as Mitch and Amy Madigan as Stella, as well as future Sopranos stars James Gandolfini and Aida Turturro. Gandolfini was Carhart's understudy. Baldwin received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play, and Lange won the 1992 Theatre World Award.[5]

In 1997, Le Petit Theatre Du Vieux Carre in New Orleans mounted a 50th Anniversary production, with music by the Marsalis Famliy, starring Michael Arata and Shelly Poncy. In 2009, the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, where the original pre-Broadway tryout occurred, began a production of the play for its 200th anniversary season.

The 2005 Broadway revival was directed by Edward Hall and starred John C. Reilly, Natasha Richardson and Amy Ryan.[6]

In January 2009, an African-American production of A Streetcar Named Desire premiered at Pace University, directed by Steven McCasland. The production starred Lisa Lamothe as Blanche, Stephon O'Neal Pettway as Stanley, and Jasmine Clayton as Stella, and featured Sully Lennon as Allan Gray, the ghost of Blanche's dead husband. Benvolio Tomaiuolo assistant directed and stage managed the production. The first all-black production of "Streetcar" was probably the one performed by the Summer Theatre Company at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri in August 1953 and directed by one of Williams's former classmates at Iowa, Thomas D. Pawley, as noted in the Streetcar edition of the "Plays in Production" series published by Cambridge University Press. The number of black and cross gendered productions of Streetcar since the mid-1950s are much too numerous to list here.

The Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on September 5 and ran until October 17, 2009. This production, directed by Liv Ullmann, starred Cate Blanchett as Blanche, Joel Edgerton as Stanley, Robin McLeavy as Stella and Tim Richards as Mitch.[7]

Adaptations

Film

Vivien Leigh in the trailer for A Streetcar Named Desire

In 1951 a film adaptation of the play, directed by Elia Kazan, won several awards, including four Academy Awards. Jessica Tandy was the only lead actor from the original Broadway production not to appear the 1951 film. References to Allan Grey's sexual orientation are essentially removed, due to Hays Code restrictions. Instead, the reason for his suicide is changed to a general "weakness".[8]

Pedro Almodovar's 1999 Academy Award-winning film, All About My Mother, features a Spanish-language version of the play being performed by some of the supporting characters. However, some of the film's dialogue is taken from the 1951 film version, not the original stage version.

Opera and ballet

In 1995, an opera was adapted and composed by André Previn with a libretto by Philip Littell. It had its premiere at the San Francisco Opera during the 1998-99 season, and featured Renée Fleming as Blanche.

A 1952 ballet production, which was staged at Her Majesty's Theatre in Montreal, featured the music of Alex North, who had composed the music for the 1951 film.

Another ballet production was staged by John Neumeier in Frankfurt in 1983. Music included Visions fugitives by Prokofiev and Alfred Schnittke's First Symphony.

Television

In 1955, the television program Omnibus featured Jessica Tandy reviving her original Broadway performance as Blanche, with her husband, Hume Cronyn, as Mitch. It aired only portions of the play that featured the Blanche and Mitch characters.

The multi-Emmy Award-winning 1984 television version featured Ann-Margret as Blanche, Treat Williams as Stanley, Beverly D'Angelo as Stella and Randy Quaid as Mitch. It was directed by John Erman and the teleplay was adapted by Oscar Saul. The music score by composed by Marvin Hamlisch. Ann-Margret, D'Angelo and Quaid were all nominated for Emmy Awards, but none won. However, it did win four Emmys, including one for cinematographer Bill Butler. Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe award for her performance and Treat Williams was nominated for Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie.

A 1995 television version was based on the highly successful Broadway revival that starred Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. However, only Baldwin and Lange were from the stage production. The TV version added John Goodman as Mitch and Diane Lane as Stella. This production was directed by Glenn Jordan. Baldwin, Lange and Goodman all received Emmy Award nominations. Lange won a Golden Globe award (for Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie), while Baldwin was nominated for Best Actor, but did not win.

In 1998, PBS aired a taped version of the opera adaptation that featured the original San Francisco Opera cast. The program received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Classical Music/Dance Program.

The real streetcar named Desire

The Desire Line ran from 1920 to 1948, at the height of streetcar use in New Orleans. The route ran down Bourbon, through the Quarter, up Desire, and back around to Canal. Blanche's route in the play — "They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at — Elysian Fields!" — is allegorical.

The lines serving the French Quarter were converted to buses in the early 1950s.[9] For many years, an original 1923 Perley Thomas streetcar from the St. Charles Avenue Line, No. 952, proudly bearing the name "DESIRE," was a popular tourist attraction in the French Market.[10]

Awards and nominations

Awards
  • 1948 New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play
  • 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
Nominations
  • 1988 Tony Award for Best Revival

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Williams, Tennessee (1995). A Streetcar Named Desire. Introduction and text. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers.
  2. ^ a b c d Production notes. Dec. 3, 1947—Dec. 17, 1949
  3. ^ December 3, This Day In History Calendar (2008). Sourcebooks, Inc.
  4. ^ Production notes. Mar.10—May 22, 1988
  5. ^ Production notes. Apr. 12—Aug. 9, 1992
  6. ^ Production notes. Apr. 26—July 3, 2005
  7. ^ A Streetcar Named Desire. Sydney Theatre Company
  8. ^ Cohan, Steven (1997). Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. pp. 254. ISBN 0253211271. http://books.google.com/books?id=UACyelofecEC&pg=PA254&lpg=PA254&dq=%22allan+gray%22+suicide+blanche&source=web&ots=VgIQLYb6yG&sig=oiTGezngRkFrlbUy5jXsV-gusY4#PPA254,M1. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  9. ^ Branley, Edward J. (2004).New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line. Charleston SC, Chicago, Portsmouth NH, San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, p. 68.
  10. ^ No. 952 was moved to San Francisco in 1998. 1923 New Orleans 'Streetcar Named Desire' No. 952 Market Street Railway

External links

New York productions chronology. A Streetcar Named Desire Internet Broadway Database


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