Hottie Marlo Brandon on the DVD cover and Brandon with Jessica Tandy in the original 1947 Broadway production
A Driving Force
It is not overstatement to say A Streetcar Named Desire shaped America. Tennessee Williams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948 for the play, was one of the most prolific and successful American playwrights of the 20th century. Streetcar has been adapted numerous times into films, operas, ballets and television shows in several languages, with the 1951 film starring Vivien Leigh winning four Academy Awards. It is unquestionably renowned as a great piece, but in trying to figure out exactly how it shaped America, the answer is not as straightforward.
It is important to know the story to understand how Streetcar shaped America. Blanche DuBois, played by Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production and Leigh in the 1951 film adaptation, is the protagonist, a Southern belle who’s come to visit her pregnant sister, Stella Kowalski, in the New Orleans French Quarter. She arrives on a literal streetcar named Desire, heavily symbolic. Her sense of decorum is constantly at odds with Stella’s unrefined husband Stanley. Her visit upsets the relationship dynamics of the couple, and Stanley sets out to destroy Blanche by revealing things she has tried to leave behind in Laurel, Mississippi. These include promiscuity with a 17-year-old student, thinly veiled alcoholism and her first husband’s homosexual affair and later suicide. After building sexual tension throughout the play, when Stella is gone to have her baby, Stanley rapes Blanche. Stella either does not believe her sister’s accusations or can’t have the event upset her world, and the play closes with Blanche being carted off to a mental institution.
Heavy stuff, but especially so for 1947, when the play debuted. And while those themes make for a very memorable plot line, I don’t think Williams just threw them in for random shock value. But what his overall motive was, to this day, remains unclear. Scholars still debate the meanings behind this psychological play, while directors still debate how to play each character. Williams is distinguished for his psychologically complex works, in the same vein as Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, but ironically, it was his realism on stage that shocked audiences more than the melodrama to which they had become accustomed.
In an NPR broadcast, Bob Edwards discusses how the show studies the depths of human condition. How hard will Blanche hold on to her old way of life? How hard will Stanley work to destroy it? What Does It Take to Keep ‘Streetcar’ on Track by Misha Berson published in American Theatre Magazine echoes this sentiment as it explains the complexity involved in playing Blanche:
“Williams fueled his script with plenty of symbolic Freudian ammo to tag Blanche with those dubious (and obsolete) diagnoses of “feminine hysteria” or (worse) “nymphomania.” In some recent productions, Blanche’s condition has been clinically updated to full-blown bipolar disorder.”
Another motivation for Blanche’s actions is much simpler:
“Her terrible case of “nerves” could… be mainly due to mounting stress from real-life nightmares… guilt over her confused husband’s suicide; the mass die-off of her Old South relations, and the loss of their Mississippi plantation; the scandal of her dalliances with schoolboys and salesmen…”
Whatever the case, Streetcar was a hallmark in that it explored real problems effecting real families behind closed doors. Williams blasted through taboos of American theatre and showed violence and sexuality plainly on stage.
This continued into its film adaptation. “The play is heightened realism, a visual style highly amenable to cinematic representation.” For the first time, there was a sexually appealing guy on screen. Stanley Kowalski in tight, sweaty t-shirts stood in stark contrasts to the gentlemanly suits commonly seen in the movies. But as always, change was met with opposition. The Motion Picture industry’s censorship board under Joseph Breen made a challenging foe. The Breen Office could be counted on to censor the most important aspects of the play: homosexuality, rape and promiscuity. So instead of fighting the battle head-on Williams and director Elia Kazan nuanced these issues and heightened the awareness among viewers. Instead of Blanche confessing the sins of her past as she does in the play, audiences must instead pick up clues throughout the movie, which for some makes it a more personal experience. This pushing the envelope, coupled with a myriad of other things, was part of the downfall of the Motion Picture Production Code. In spite of the obstacles against it, Streetcar broke through customs and began to shape American film as well.
Another way Streetcar changed American theatre was its director’s reliance on the Stanislavski-inspired “method acting.” Leigh, much like her character Blanche, held on to the old techniques she’d used in the shows that made her famous and dismissed the newer system. Her on-screen counterpart, Marlo Brando, was embracing the method that would come to dominate American acting style. Their being at odds with each other arguably heightened their on screen tension.
Further notable additions by Streetcar to theatre’s changing landscape is its use of the first polyphonic synthesizer, an electronic instrument that generates electrical signals converted to sound through speakers, and its use of music as commentary to the play in addition to mood setting. By transmitting music being played elsewhere in the theatre, Williams and Kazan created the illusion of music being played “around the corner” from the Kowalski house.
Streetcar was obviously not the first play or film to do something scandalous, and frequently, scandal dies down as quickly as it flares up without leaving a real impact on anyone. But as usual, it is all about right place, right time. The issues that it discussed were issued that were important to the audience. Everyone was struggling with the new “working man” kind of culture that they saw in Stanley, and everyone was trying to phase out this outdated Southern gentility they saw in Blanche. Williams just did it for them; it was their internal struggles played out. Sex was a big deal in 1947. The Hayes Office and the Breen Office were trying to suppress it from the general American conversation. But as we all know, government regulation tends only to inflame things more. So when Streetcar rolled in with its honesty and its themes so pertinent to the times, there was no option but for it to be successful.
And in a way, we, like Stella, will always have that strange relative from our past showing up unannounced on our doorstep. Spousal abuse, mental health and sexuality are relevant topics in the setting of 2014. So Streetcar is still around, still being performed and bringing to light topics that we might want to sweep under the rug. I’m not saying that it has ever spurred a radical movement that facilitated widespread and immediate change, but it is on the list of books that shaped America – not books that turned America on its head. I think that its performance, among many others, helped to start the conversation about taboo subjects that will eventually lead their being addressed.
So it becomes clear that Streetcar broke new ground on many fronts of American theatre, and if you believe the adage “life imitates art” it is clear that it has impacted American culture. But if you don’t believe that, it is still hard to argue that its presentation of intense material onstage did not spark conversation among its viewers. Still today people gather annually for the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival “Stella!” shouting contest in the French Quarter to commemorate the famous line. From the Breen Office to the music studio and both on screen and off A Streetcar Named Desire pushed the envelope and made its mark on American film and culture.