Sept. 23, 2002
-- Every spring, below a second-story balcony in New Orleans' fabled French Quarter, crowds gather to watch men tear at their T-shirts in agony and shout at the heavens. For the uninitiated bystander, such a ritual might seem cultish, or perhaps simply overindulgent. But to those who have taken in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire
, either on stage or on screen, the spectacle exposes a far different meaning.
To those men (and women) opening their hearts and vocal chords toward the open windows of the Vieux Carre, the name Stella on their lips, it's the opportunity to step into the shoes of a dramatic legend.
A Streetcar Named Desire
fueled the legends of two of America's icons of drama: Tennessee Williams and the star of his play, the 23-year-old Marlon Brando. For Morning Edition
, NPR's Debbie Elliott
digs into the history of the play to find out how Williams created this potent mix of raw emotion and sex that would become what theater critics would later call the best play of the 20th century.
Before igniting the careers of its author and stars, Streetcar
endured a somewhat lengthy gestation. Williams put the script through numerous revisions under many working titles, including The Moth
and Blanche's Chair on the Moon
. At the time he moved into an apartment in New Orleans' French Quarter to finish his work on the play, he was calling it The Poker Night
Kenneth Holditch, who gives literary tours in New Orleans, says the location proved inspirational. "[Williams] said from that apartment he could hear that rattletrap streetcar named Desire running along Royal," Holditch says, "and one named Cemeteries running along Canal. And it seemed to him the ideal metaphor for the human condition."
That metaphor finds its expression within the play in the character of Blanche DuBois -- originally played by Jessica Tandy -- a fragile southern belle who visits her sister Stella, played by Kim Hunter, and Stella's working-class husband Stanley, played by Brando. Blanche, who hides a past not quite as pure as she'd like people to imagine, complicates matters immediately. Stanley suspects she's trying to swindle the couple. In the play's brutal climactic scene, he rapes Blanche, breaking her fragile grip on sanity.
Williams used more than just the name of a streetcar for inspiration. It has been suggested by some scholars that Stanley -- rough, masculine and short tempered -- was based on Williams' lover at the time he was writing the play, a man named Pancho Rodriguez Gonzalez.
Tennessee Williams may have inserted himself into the play as well, says his brother Dakin. "Blanche is Tennessee," Dakin insists. "If he would tell you something it wouldn't be necessarily true. And Blanche says in Streetcar
, 'I don't tell what's true, I tell what ought to be true.' And so everything in Blanche was really like Tennessee."
Williams' use of gender role-playing as inspiration would surely have caused a stir had it been common knowledge at the time. But so, the play raised eyebrows. Williams' frank presentation of sexuality onstage shocked some audiences, but thrilled as many others.
Philip Kolin, a professor of English and author of several books on Streetcar
, puts the magnitude of the play in perspective. "People have said that Williams absolutely invented the idea of desire for the 20th century," he says. "It was a play that dealt with for the very first time on the American stage, female sexuality and male sexuality."
When the curtains closed on the play's first night on Broadway, on Dec. 3, 1947, the crowd shared a moment of stunned silence, then burst into applause that lasted a full 30 minutes.
The play would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Williams, and was made into a movie by Elia Kazan, with help from the playwright and most of the original cast. The film would help cement Streetcar
's place in history, garnering 12 Academy Award nominations -- Kim Hunter, Vivien Leigh (who replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche), and Karl Malden as Stanley's friend Mitch took home statuettes for their performances, and the picture won for best art direction.
Not all of the response was so positive, but there was little that could be done to stop Streetcar
's momentum. The Catholic Legion of Decency, which functioned as a sort of ratings board, threatened to condemn the film unless the more overtly sexual scenes, including Stanley's rape of Blanche, were removed. Williams acquiesced on some counts and wrote new dialogue that reduced the bisexuality of Blanche's husband to subtext, but refused to take out the rape scene. The Legion agreed, but only if Stanley was shown suitably punished for his actions.
But the complaints did little to stop Streetcar
's momentum. The film was released in 1951, and more than 50 years later, Stanley's cries echo still.
Listen to obituaries of actress Kim Hunter from All Things Considered
and Weekend Edition
. Sept. 12 and Sept. 14, 2002.
Hear an All Things Considered
report on the 50th anniversary
of the play, A Streetcar Named Desire
. Dec. 1, 1997.
Search for more NPR reports on A Streetcar Named Desire
Read a Present at the Creation
feature on the French Quarter
Learn more about
, the original 1947 theatrical production and the 1951 film of A Streetcar Named Desire
Visit the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival
Read about Tennessee Williams
and his works.
Learn more about Tennessee Williams as well as A Streetcar Named Desire
's settings and characters
Read the New York Times review
of the play's 1947 opening.
See a guide to the film
, its background and its making.
Read about the opera production
of A Streetcar Named Desire
and see a video clip. (QuickTime plug-in required)
Visit sites about Marlon Brando
and Vivien Leigh
Review a history of New Orleans streetcars