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A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

by Tennessee Williams

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Blanche DuBois, a woman whose fortunes have changed for the worse, comes to live with her sister Stella and her brother-in-law Stanley in New Orleans. In Blanche and Stanley, Tennessee Williams created two of the stage’s truly great characters. Blanche faces alcoholism, faded beauty, and lost status; she tries to cover up past scandals both as a teacher and in her marriage, all while desperately trying to keep up the appearance and her own delusion that she’s still attractive to men. Stanley, meanwhile, is a primal force, all emotion, passionate, and abusive. Conflict between Stanley and Stella is inevitable. Who can forget lines like “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” from Blanche, or Brando screaming “Stella” in the film adaptation? It must have been very special to see that first cast in 1947, with a 23-year-old Brando.

Just this quote, on desire:
Stella: But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark - that sort of make everything else seem - unimportant. [Pause.]
Blanche: What you are talking about is brutal desire - just - Desire! - the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another...
Stella: Haven't you ever ridden on that street-car? ( )
2 vote gbill | Jan 20, 2014 |
Tennessee Williams

A Streetcar Named Desire

Methuen, Paperback, 2009.

8vo. lx+139 pp. With Commentary [xiv-lvi] and Notes [91-122] by Patricia Hern and Michael Hooper.

A Streetcar Named Desire first published, 1947.
This edition with critical commentary first published, 1984.
Reissued with corrections, 1988.
Reissued with a new cover design, 1994.
Reissued with additional material and a new cover design, 2005 and 2009.

Contents

Tennessee Williams: 1911-1983
Plot

Commentary
- Williams's writing: Repressed Self-Knowledge
- An American context
- Southern roots and European influences
- Structure: eleven one-act plays united by a purpose?
- From The Poker Night to Streetcar: approaches to character
- Poet of the theatre/successful showman?
- Production history of A Streetcar Named Desire

Further Reading

A Streetcar Named Desire

Notes
Stills from the 1951 version directed by Elia Kazan
Questions for further study

=================================================​

This is not a review of the play per se but of this particular edition. Knights of the Blue Flag, protect the moral integrity of LibraryThing.

Compared to more recent instalments in the Methuen Student Edition series, for example The Glass Menagerie (2000) and Sweet Bird of Youth (2010), there are several striking differences with the “old school” approach used for Streetcar. The most obvious, and the most annoying, are the smaller font and, occasionally, the inferior printing (too dark, almost blurred). Neither is very comfortable on the eye. By way of compensation, you get a wonderful cover art. The light bulb and the moth are more than relevant to the play. Blanche is unhealthily preoccupied with light, one of the most prominent metaphors/symbols/images, and that certainly includes light from this very source: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action”, she remarks to Mitch in Scene 3. At her first appearance in the beginning of Scene 1, her uncertain behaviour is unforgettably described as one that “suggests a moth”. More romantically, the picture on the cover, obviously a photoshop job, reminds the reader that the play is suffused with a surreal atmosphere far removed from sordid realism.

The chronology of Tennessee’s life and works is also different. It is shorter and poorer, but it does benefit from the inclusion of some important quotations from his own works, his mother’s memoirs, Remember me to Tom (1963) and, of course, the finest critical minds. Some of these excerpts are unintentionally hilarious, such as this one from an obituary by John Simon:

He did have a nightmarish, tortured sense of the abyss and a smiling, compassionate complicity with those who hurtle into it. […] The trouble with Williams was that, unlike the truest kind of genius, he did not grow artistically. After his best plays (of 1944 and 1947) came his good but uneven plays, after which came worse and worse ones, some still streaked with lightning flashes of splendour, some utterly lost in the murk of mechanistic iteration and self-parody.

You have to love the critics! The first sentence is a fine summary of at least one important part from the essence of Tennessee Williams. The rest can be accepted only by people who either haven’t read much of Tennessee’s works or don’t care for them in the first place. One absolutely certain thing is that he changed artistically during the 40-odd years of his mature career as a writer. He changed a great deal indeed. Whether this development was for better or for worse is for the reader to decide, if he is so inclined. I surmise few will agree with Mr Simon that after 1947 Tennessee’s creative life was one very long decline and fall. He seems to equal popular success with artistic merit. That’s a good method, but only if you’re not very much interested in the writer’s personality. For my part, on a purely personal level, I think of Tennessee’s different periods as written by different people, or at least different sides of the same person, and I have never found comparisons between them to be especially illuminating. It’s a little like comparing tadpoles and frogs.

To finish with the chronology, it must be said that it contains at least two stupefyingly wrong numbers of first runs. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth most certainly didn’t last for 79 and 95 performances, respectively, on Broadway. The correct numbers are 649 and 375, respectively.

The Further Reading is divided into five sections, three of which list the works of Tennessee Williams. So it’s quite comprehensive, and it’s great to see his stories, novels, poems, letters, notebooks and memoirs mentioned, but there is one curious omission in the dramatic section (which commendably includes many of his one-act plays and some of the most obscure full-length ones). Ironically, this is the very play reprinted in this volume. It is certainly strange that this brief bibliography should mention three of Penguin’s omnibus volumes (collecting several plays in one book) yet should neglect A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays (1962), a superb edition that reprints also The Glass Menagerie and Sweet Bird of Youth. By way of compensation, the section with full-length studies is annotated. This is rare and, in this case, extremely helpful. As soon as I saw, “Divides Williams’s characters into recognisable types, such as Southern gentlewomen and wenches. Critical of over-dependence of sex in plays’ plots.”, I was already quite sure that Tennessee Williams (Twayne Publishers, 1962) by Signi Falk is not worth reading at all. An even greater gem is the description of the beautifully titled Gentleman Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth-Century Drama (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) by Michael Paller: “A study of Williams’s depiction of homosexuality on the stage, the restrictions on this and the work of other playwrights exploring gay themes.” Thank you, but no.

Spoilers ahead!

The Notes are not the usual few pages of topical references and glossary of fancy words than you can find in newer volumes of the series. It is an exhaustive running commentary on the text that occupies some thirty pages. Rare expressions and cryptic contemporary details are of course explained (e.g. the term “negro” would not have been considered offensive at the time of writing), but much the greater part of these notes is occupied with interpretation. Tennessee’s intricate use of symbols, metaphors, musical leitmotivs and evocative descriptions of the “raffish charm” of New Orleans, with all its sounds, smells and colours, is patiently described and deciphered. For the most part these are convincing if not terribly illuminating speculations, though sometimes they can also be fanciful, superficial or high-handed. Couple of examples with my commentaries in square brackets (the original formatting is preserved: the italicized phrases are those from the play) will illustrate some of their shortcomings:

[On the last line of the play, spoken by Steve:]
This game is seven-card stud: this matter-of-fact statement indicates three things: the poker players are starting a fresh game, one that they played before in Scene Three; life will continue in much the same way; Stanley, the ‘stud’, is triumphant, the luck that he believes in fashioning for himself signified by the number seven. At precisely what cost Stanley’s victory has been achieved is a point that the audience is left to ponder.

[Curious mixture of perceptive and contradictory claims. If life is going to continue in “much the same way”, then Stanley’s victory must have no price. For my part, one of the main consequences after the final curtain is that the “Blanche episode” changes profoundly the relationship between Stella and Stanley. Their marriage will never be quite the same again. He is certainly “triumphant”, for now, but later he will have to pay the price; probably a steep one. Stella has witnessed a side of Stanley’s character she never suspected, or if she did chose to ignore it. I wonder if those “things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark – that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant” will be enough to make her forget that Stanley played such a prominent role in the destruction of her own sister.]

Stella pours the coke into the glass. It foams over and spills. Blanche gives a piercing cry.: a crude image of ejaculation. The staining of Blanche’s white skirt emphasises how sex has corrupted her. Her cry is probably a mixture of pleasure and pain.

[Crude indeed! Using Blanche’s white clothes to suggest “innocence and vulnerability”, as mentioned at her first appearance, seems to me very tenuous as a symbol. Besides, it’s not she who’s corrupted. Prudish fellows like Mitch and appalling materialists like Stanley are.]

Do you mind if I make myself comfortable?: Stanley is happy to remove his shirt in front of a woman he has just met. Though Blanche does not object, it is not the behaviour of a Southern gentleman. In the 1951 film version directed by Elia Kazan, Vivien Leigh as Blanche permits herself a lingering look at Marlon Brando’s Stanley.

[Wonderful reminder of one of my favourite moments from the best film version – by far – of the play. Note how blatantly this scene is copied – and overdone – in the 1984 TV version with Ann-Margret and Treat Williams. That said, the important point here is not that Stanley is not a “Southern gentleman”, for this is quite obvious to Blanche anyway, but that from this very moment starts the sexual tension between them.]

What I been missing all summer: namely, sex. Now that he knows the stories about Blanche are true, Mitch can vent his sexual frustration.

[It is not very polite to take your readers for morons. We have followed the preposterous romance between Blanche and Mitch ever since Scene 3. This is Scene 10. We are perfectly aware that it has been hopelessly platonic so far. It is embarrassingly obvious that Mitch means sex, and so is the rest of the “analysis”.]

Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir? Vous ne comprenez pas? Ah, quel dommage!: ‘Do you want to sleep with me? Don’t you understand? Ah, what a shame!’ Blanche flirts with Mitch in the full knowledge that he will not understand. She sends out conflicting messages: they are alone in the apartment together and she wants him to relax, but she is still setting boundaries over which he must not step.

[This is, again, much too obvious to need a re-statement. Just a few moments earlier, Blanche has explained to Mitch that she doesn’t object to his kiss and is indeed flattered that he desires her, but “a girl alone in the world, has got to keep a firm hold on her emotions or she’ll be lost.” But the translation from French is much appreciated. Blanche in the flirtatious mood is always very funny; another example is her naughty question to Stella as regards Mitch “Is he a wolf?” But she does indeed play a dangerous double game. This is well explained a little earlier, in Scene 5:]

I want to deceive him enough to make him – want me: Blanche considers Mitch crucial to her future, hence her continuing plan of deception. She is pretending to be a Southern belle with very strong morals. Her worry is that he will become frustrated, deterred by her not ‘putting out’ – making herself available sexually.

Lay… her cards on the table: as the poker party is imminent, this is an appropriate metaphor. Though poker is a game of bluff, Stanley likes transparency in life; he cannot bear Blanche’s evasions.

[Surely this is a double entendre, is it not? This seems to me a much better meaning of this (accidental) metaphor than the “imminent” poker game. After all, it is his answer to her “To interest you a woman would have to – “, and it’s hard to believe that he is primarily interested in a woman’s sincerity. Stanley’s demand for “transparency” fits his one-track mind, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Just like poker is a game not only of bluff, so is life. Stanley gets easily incensed by Blanche’s not exactly adequate behaviour, but now and then, with a sly smile and a roguish twinkle in the eyes, he is quite capable of playing her game. Nor is he averse to being hypocritical when it suits his purposes or tickles his crude sense of humour.]

Not in front of your sister: Stanley makes clear just how much of a problem is Blanche’s presence; he cannot be himself with his wife.

[This is very close to nonsense. For sure Stanley has absolutely no trouble being himself in Blanche’s presence, including a kiss for Stella before he leaves. It depends much on how the actor would speak the remark, but I think this sham morality is a fine piece of sarcasm on Stanley’s part. Obviously, it is intended to hurt Blanche, but it’s not like he hasn’t made it abundantly clear earlier that she is indeed unwanted in his house.]

And so on and so forth. Every ulterior motive or subconscious desire of the characters is painstakingly delineated. Much of this is not without interest, but I can’t say that it raised my appreciation of the play to a new level. It did clarify two or three perplexing moments, but for the most part I found the arguments too weak to change my (usually different) perceptions of the characters. I don’t think you will be much the worse for not reading these scholarly reflections; indeed, if this is your first encounter with Streetcar, you shouldn’t read them because they may spoil the mystique of the play. When all is said and done, the Notes are most helpful when they stick most closely to their primary function: American Southern encyclopedia from the late 1940s.

The Commentary – surprise! surprise! – is pretty much the same bunch of monumentally erudite but singularly uninspiring fantasies. It makes for a very entertaining read. Yet it was but seldom that I found it thought-provoking. You know these delicious moments when a book compels you to put it down and lost yourself in reverie, don’t you? That’s what I’m so often missing in critical and scholarly works that pretend to be “objective” and so, I’m afraid, is the case here.

Furthermore, it is distressingly often that interesting if far from profound remarks go hand in hand with sheer claptrap. For example, “Williams’s writing: repressed self-knowledge?” starts with several fascinating parallels between Tennessee’s life and his works, a hazardous area that should be handled with great care and open mind. I think it will change my next reading of Suddenly Last Summer if I consider Catherine’s struggles to retain her brain intact in Mrs Venable vicious hands to have been inspired by Tennessee’s “distress and guilt he felt at the lobotomy of his sister Rose”. And yet, the same section finishes with the absurd notion that Blanche may be “a male character, a homosexual, given a female mask by Williams so as to avoid having to confront his own feelings about himself…” Well, if you’re not going to “confront your own feelings about yourself” with complete honesty, what’s the point of writing? One Murray Kempton, writing an obituary in the venerable New York Review of Books, is quoted telling us, grandly: “We cannot appreciate Tennessee Williams without putting his homoeroticism into full account…” Please, let’s be serious, shall we?

Some parts are completely superfluous, not to say a waste of space. “Structure: eleven one-act plays united by a purpose?” is a case in point. Analysis of form in literature, as in music, seldom yields worthy results. It is the content that matters; form is a secondary issue, the last refuge of those who have nothing to say. It is ridiculous to speak of the scenes in Streetcar as one-act plays. No one but a goofball would stage them separately. It is equally silly to claim, as the critical authorities have, that the play has “no plot” or that “plot in the normal sense there is not too much of”. The plot is simple but complete. It is dramatic without being improbable, and it proceeds in a logical way until the most “right” conclusion is reached. It has a beginning (the arrival of Blanche), a middle (her suffering in the hands of Stanley, Mitch and even Stella), and an end (her leaving, now trapped forever inside an imaginary world).

Other sections proved more profitable. “An American Context” is an interesting description of just that: what was offered on Broadway between 1945 and 1947, when Tennessee emerged as one of America’s foremost dramatists, and how he fit into this picture. The rationale of all this, and I’m pleased to say the authors don’t shirk from their responsibility, is to explain Tennessee’s sudden yet stunning success (for two years he progressed from rags to riches and from nobody to celebrity). In short, as so often happens with genius (could it be a coincidence?), Tennessee flourished in just the right time. The public responded to his plays because they offered “violence, morality, spectacle and romance in American settings, played out by characters that often managed to be both highly individual and representative of particular aspect of American life and tradition.” The two obvious examples of that in Streetcar are the picturesque, romantically idealised elegance and finesse of the old South (Blanche and Belle Reve) and the “new American, an immigrant, a man of the city”, aggressively materialistic and destined to “make his mark in a world of industry and commerce” (Stanley). Tennessee may never have intended such an interpretation, but that of course doesn’t make it less valid. It is also fascinating to learn that this “lyrical, heightened style of dialogue and extended speeches full of vivid imagery or highly rhythmic phrases, sometimes approaching the intensity and musicality of verse drama”, that is Tennessee’s characteristic style at least since Menagerie, was in the process of being worked out by other American dramatists ever since the 1920s, for example in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1922).

“Southern roots and European influences” walks on the very thin ice of endless comparisons with other writers. It cracks easily and many a critic has drowned in the icy waters below. But Michael and Patricia have pulled off this one rather nicely. The “Southern roots” are briefly dealt with, mostly linked to the novels of Faulkner and Hellman who attempted to present a more flawed and critical picture of the South, though they still remained fascinated by its charisma. The “European influences” is a much more fruitful subject for judicious speculation. It concentrates on Chekhov, Strindberg and D. H. Lawrence, often with stimulating results. Blanche is perceptively compared to “Chekhov’s charming, elegantly selfish, admiration-seeking, ageing women” but with the difference that the latter are “vivaciously staving off despair and the admission of defeat”. It’s even suggested that Blanche’s translation of her name as “white woods” and comparing it to “an orchard in spring” may be an homage to The Cherry Orchard (1903); not terribly unlikely considering that Tennessee was a die-hard fan of Chekhov. Further and much more extensive discussions of Miss Julie (1888) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) attempt to show how Strindberg and D. H. Lawrence, too, much like Tennessee in Streetcar, tried to reconcile “innate sexuality and consciously acquired civilisation”.

“From The Poker Night to Streetcar: approaches to character” must be read only after one is intimately familiar with the play. It subjects the four main characters to thorough dissection, but I found most of it too superficial, too flippant or too contrived for my taste. The best about this section are several quotes from Elia Kazan’s notes as published in Twentieth Century Interpretations of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (curiously omitted from the Further Reading). These are invariably controversial, one of them is rightly judged to express “male arrogance worthy of Stanley Kowalski”, but still more absorbing and incisive than pretty much all excerpts from reviews, studies, appreciations and obituaries written by artistically impotent creatures. As the first director of Streetcar and a long-term admirer, defender and even collaborator of Tennessee’s, Kazan’s authority is impressive. He is reported to have had a comprehensive understanding of the stage and an uncanny ability to bring out better-than-ever performances from the casts he worked with. All this is backed up by writing that combines agreeable bluntness with remarkable word power. He memorably describes Stanley as “marvellously selfish, a miracle of sensuous self-centredness.” Even when you disagree completely with Kazan, you are somehow forced to think over his notes; it’s hard to dismiss them outright. For sure you won’t find in them Blanche who is a “Jungian Great Mother Figure, a kind of white witch”, “the Soul subjected to physical existence and thus to ‘the apishness and brutality of matter’”, “beauty shipwrecked on the rock of the world’s vulgarity” and other fatuous rhetoric and stupendous nonsense mentioned and quoted, thankfully only briefly but regrettably without the slightest trace of humour, by Patricia and Michael as a tribute to the transcendental silliness of their colleagues.

“Poet of the theatre/successful showman?” is a rambling piece of slender value. It wanders without focus and never justifies the promise of its title. The only thing I thought worthy of re-reading and pondering was the one and a half page or so dedicated to Tennessee’s masterful use of music and other “emotive sounds” throughout the play. Many subtle points to appreciate here. There are two main musical leitmotivs. One is the “blue piano” that we meet – and hear! – in the very first stage direction, “played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers”. It expresses “the spirit of the life which goes on here” and is open to infinite variety of interpretations, my favourite being a simple and bohemian lifestyle that takes the abject poverty and the cramped living conditions with a solid dose of crude but effective sense of humour (much like Puccini’s La Boheme, broadly speaking). The other leitmotiv is the polka that we hear, significantly, only when something about Blanche’s disastrous marriage is mentioned. We first hear it in the end of Scene 1 when Stanley casually asks her “You were married once, weren’t you”, later it appears in the end of Scene 7, when Blanche tells Mitch the tragic story of her husband’s suicide, and again in the opening of Scene 9 before the great confrontation with the disillusioned Mitch; the latter reference actually tells us what Blanche is thinking about at the moment: a most Puccinian use of the leitmotiv technique indeed! From the countless ambient sounds the play is saturated with, my favourite is “the powerful note of a locomotive engine” that is associated with Stanley. It is heard when he takes the upper hand in the action (for instance, his surreptitious entrance and eavesdropping on the sisters in Scene 5) or invades Blanche’s troubled thoughts (for instance, in Scene 7 during her confession to Mitch).

The production history may be the best part of the book. It is perfectly compelling from start to finish. To this day, A Streetcar Named Desire remains, perhaps, Tennessee’s most popular play with the audiences worldwide. (Whether it is the most highly regarded by the august body of critics I don’t know, nor do I care.) After its Broadway premiere on December 3, 1947, it ran for two full years and 855 performances, far longer than any other play by this dramatist. According to the IBDB (Internet Broadway Database), it enjoyed eight revivals between 1950 and 2012 which totally amounted to 593 shows, or altogether 1448 performances on Broadway alone (1). No doubt much of this jaw-dropping popularity is due to the magnificent 1951 movie, an exceedingly rare instance when a great literary original is done full justice on the silver screen. But even before this picture was released, the play was already famous.

Streetcar was lucky from the beginning. It’s no wonder that the Broadway premiere was a massive success. It gathered together massive amounts of talent and genius. Jessica Tandy (Blanche), Marlon Brando (Stanley), Kim Hunter (Stella) and Karl Malden (Mitch) formed the leading quartet on stage. It has never been surpassed save for the 1951 movie. Elia Kazan began his legendary collaboration with Tennessee Williams; he directed and demanded changes in the text as he later would with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The ingenious set of production designer Jo Mielziner and the colourful original score of composer Alex North completed the off-stage cast. The latter is especially wonderful and badly neglected. It captures to perfection the steamy, sweaty and sinister atmosphere of the play, yet even the few bits recorded for the movie has never, to the best of my knowledge, been released commercially. However, a digital recording of the National Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Jerry Goldsmith is available on CD and well worth your time.

In 1949 the play took Europe by storm. It attracted to the stage the best each country could offer. In London, Laurence Olivier directed Vivien Leigh as Blanche with momentous consequences for posterity. Despite numerous cuts, some timidly requested by Olivier from Tennessee himself, others demanded without ceremony by the prudish Lord Chamberlain, the play run for 329 performances. The Italian premiere was directed by the mythical Luchino Visconti – best known to old film buffs for Il Gattopardo (1963) with Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon, and to opera fans for his 1958 production of Verdi’s Don Carlo in Covent Garden with Boris Christoff, Jon Vickers and Titto Gobbi – and starred Rina Morelli as Blanche, Vittorio Gassman as Stanley, and the young Marcello Mastroiani as a dashing Mitch. The French premiere was directed by Jean Cocteau, who took plenty of liberties with the text and the production, the Swedish one was tackled by Ingmar Bergman.

Many other US and British productions through the years were notable for the participation of well-known actors and actresses, including some names much more familiar from the screen. Among the couples who tried to bring off the stupendous clash between Blanche and Stanley were Uta Hagen and Anthony Quinn, who took over the Broadway premiere from Tandy and Brando; Tallulah Bankhead (New York, 1956) who, typically in her style, generated so much contradictory criticism, including by Tennessee himself, that nobody today remembers who played Stanley with her; Rosemary Harris and James Farentino (New York, 1973); Fay Dunaway and John Voight (Los Angeles, 1973); Claire Bloom and Martin Shaw (London, 1974), with Joss Ackland as Mitch; Geraldine Page and Rip Torn (Lake Forest, 1976); Blythe Danner (the mother of Gwyneth Paltrow) and Aidan Quinn (New York, 1988), with Frances McDormand as Stella; Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin (New York, 1992); Glenn Close and Iain Glen (London, 2002), directed by Trevor Nunn; Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly (New York, 2005), by all accounts the most unusual Stanley ever to have been cast. Quite a list!

All these productions, as you would expect from any masterpiece, generated vast diversity of interpretations in virtually every aspect. But they presented more or less the same play. Again as expected, however, Streetcar has spawned countless spin-offs, one more misguided than the other, their authors apparently compensating for lack of creativity with ludicrous and self-indulgent “interpretations” of what they don’t understand. There have been at least two productions – West Berlin (1974) and Berkeley (1983) – that included black Stanley among an all-white cast, thus trying to play up some imaginary racial overtones. Everybody who bothers to read the very first stage direction of the play will know that racism was the very last thing Tennessee wanted to deal with. Possibly more interesting, if more bizarre, is the gender reversal. The comical masterpiece Belle Reprieve (1991), loosely based on a few scenes from Streetcar but with many additional songs, dances and jokes, turned Blanche into a “butch lesbian” and attempted to “deconstruct and question sexual roles generally, and more specifically in traditional versions of Williams’s play” – whatever that means.

For my money, the most interesting spin-off is the music drama (not opera) with music by Andre Previn and libretto by Philip Littell. It was first performed in the San Francisco Opera in 1998, conducted by the composer and with an impressive cast that included the famous soprano Renee Fleming as Blanche together with the imposing physical presence and the versatile baritone of Rodney Gilfrey as Stanley. Fortunately for us, for it’s not likely to see this staged in your local opera house, it was also shot and later released on DVD. It’s an awfully interesting curiosity. The libretto follows the play very closely, many lines were copied more or less verbatim and even such minor details like the collecting boy kissed by Blanche are retained, and though English is not the best language for this type of singing it is charming to hear it once in a while on the opera stage. Andre Previn, widely if grudgingly renowned as a pianist and conductor, is still underrated as a composer. I suppose the anti-Hollywood prejudice still reigns supreme, for once upon a time he used to compose film scores and even had the temerity to win an Oscar for Irma la Douce (1963). (Remember this charming comedy with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine?) He has composed fine vocal parts, largely declamatory but not without a sense of characterization and drama. The role of the orchestra is rather more limited than I would have liked, mostly reduced to accompaniment, but the scoring is imaginative and atmospheric.

It is not generally remembered today that there are at least three movie versions of A Streetcar Named Desire. The 1951 masterpiece has overshadowed the rest almost to the point of non-existence. It’s not often that everything in a movie fits so perfectly. This happened because the whole Broadway premiere was lifted and transferred to the West Coast. The only exception was Jessica Tandy whose star status was deemed insufficient by the Hollywood moguls. She was dumped, Vivien Leigh took her place and, judging by some audio recordings on YouTube, it was the right decision. Elia Kazan created a visual poem with just the right, very slight indeed, dose of realism. Vivien and Marlon nailed Blanche and Stanley to the last syllable, gesture or facial expression. Kim Hunter and Karl Malden did the same with Stella and Mitch. It’s a movie that everybody should experience at least once in their lives.

I find it strange that Tennessee was reportedly interested in a remake. He thought a new version could be closer to the original text. He objected to the ending in which, presumably, Stella leaves Stanley. Sage scholars have made way too much mischief of such differences. Patricia Hern and Michael Hooper are no exception. They damn the movie with the cold praise of “justly famous”, one in which “determined attempts were made to retain the spirit of the original play.” They draw the reader’s attention, quite unnecessarily, to the “removing all reference to homosexuality and, most crucially, changing the outcome of the rape” (that is, Stanley doesn’t remain unpunished for it). This is tosh. Let it be said again that 1) the homosexual nuances are very faint and not at all that important: much more critical is the fact that Blanche adored her husband, yet, unwittingly, drove him to suicide when she told him she knew his secret; and 2) the movie’s ending is no less ambiguous than the original one. Yes, Stella runs away from Stanley. But how does she do it? By going upstairs to Eunice. Well, she did the same in Scene 3 – and did come down in the end of the same scene. We know she will do so again. Besides, as the two remakes convincingly demonstrate, sticking closer to the play doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie. It’s probably safe to assume that Tennessee was fortunate to die before he could see them.

Both remakes are TV productions which, as far as I know, have never been released on DVD. You can still find them on some ancient VHS; the newer can also be seen piece by piece on YouTube. The first one came out in 1984 and starred Ann-Margret (Blanche), Treat Williams (Stanley), Beverly D’Angelo (Stella) and Randy Quaid (Mitch). The second one was based on the successful 1992 Broadway revival and starred Jessica Lange (Blanche), Alec Baldwin (Stanley), Diane Lane (Stella) and John Goodman (Mitch). Apart from a few minor blunders (e.g. Beverly D’Angelo couldn’t act to save her life), good movies with good casts, interesting as alternative interpretations, enjoyable to watch, and yes, closer to the play. All the same, neither is any match for the 1951 original. No matter how hard I try, I see the remakes mostly in the form of unflattering comparisons; no doubt my fault, but there it is. Baldwin and Williams are wise not to try to imitate Brando, but their original touches do not convince; Treat takes off his t-shirt at every possible opportunity, Alec presents a cerebral Stanley who is as fascinating as he is incredible. Ann-Margret tries really hard to look alluring, one has to give her that. But she turns Blanche into a vicious bitch rather than into a wronged woman worthy of our compassion. Jessica Lange does a better portrayal, but she makes the unforgivable dramatic mistake to suggest that her Blanche is already insane beyond repair in the very beginning.

At least the 13 stills in the end of the book are from the right movie. They are well chosen as to include many of the critical scenes and reproduced one per page, which is fine, but share the printing defects of the text: a little too dark, not the best possible resolution. Also, the captions should have been longer. They consist almost exclusively of names. Very little is mentioned about the action. Nonetheless, if you are one of those unfortunate individuals who has never seen the movie, these stills will give you at least a faint idea what a terrible mistake that is.

-------------------------------------------------​

(1) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is second on these lines, with 694 performances after its premiere in 1955 and five revivals between 1975 and 2013 totalling 663 performances more, altogether 1357 shows for 58 years on Broadway only. Interestingly, Cat was less frequently revived than Streetcar, yet it amassed greater total from revivals. Glass Menagerie comes third with 563 performances after the 1945 premiere and five revivals (1965-2005) with further 521. These numbers do not include the production which is curreintly being staged in the Booth Theatre. It is expected to close on February 23, 2014. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Oct 7, 2013 |
I read this in college and had totally forgotten that I did that until recently, when I saw the movie for the first time. This play made me sad and angry, and watching the film, I was able to really sympathize with a woman who had no where to go. I've definitely felt trapped in my life, and my parents have almost always been an option, but without them - who is really always there for you? ( )
  AmberTheHuman | Aug 30, 2013 |
Classic. I've watched the movie a few times over my lifetime. Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh, and Karl Malden were superb. As I read this play, I visualized all of these great actors in their roles. If you only like happy endings, skip this one. But if you like it real, truthfully gritty, then put this one on your list to read. ( )
  shesinplainview | Jun 16, 2013 |
Somewhat depressing look at family relationships in the South. I would have liked it more if Stanley had not been so irredeemably awful! ( )
  Becky221 | Jun 4, 2013 |
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Epigraph
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
"The Broken Tower" by Hart Crane
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The exterior of a two-storey corner building on a street in New Orleans which is named Elysian Fields and runs between the L&N tracks and the river.
Quotations
Stanley [bottle in hand]: Have a shot?
Blanche: No, I – I rarely touch it.
Stanley: Some people rarely touch it, but it touches them often.

Stanley: I never met a woman that didn't know if she was good-looking or not without being told, and some of them that give themselves credit for more than they've got.

Blanche: Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

Blanche: Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the only unforgivable thing in my opinion and it is the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty.

Blanche: They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields!
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This work refers to separate editions of the play. Please do not combine with omnibus editions which contain other plays also, nor with any other version that does not contain the full original text (e.g. abridged or simplified texts, movie adaptations, the opera, student guides or notes, etc.).
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0451167783, Mass Market Paperback)

The story of Blanche DuBois and her last grasp at happiness, and of Stanley Kowalski, the one who destroyed her chance.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:29:36 -0400)

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Blanche DuBois, a haggard and fragile southern beauty finds her pathetic last grasp at happiness cruelly destroyed in large part by her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski.

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