A Streetcar Named Desire is a 1947 play written by American playwright Tennessee Williams for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. 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.
In 1951, a film adaptation of the play, directed by Elia Kazan, won several awards, including an Academy Award for Vivien Leigh as Best Actress in the role of Blanche. In 1995, it was made into an opera with music by Andre Previn and presented by the San Francisco Opera.
In contrast to both the self-effacing and deferent 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. Stella tolerates his primal behaviour as this is part of what attracted her in the first place; their love and relationship is 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. Stanley's friend and Blanche's would-be suitor Mitch is trampled along Blanche and Stanley's collision course. Stanley discovers Blanche's past through a co-worker who travels to Laurel frequently, and Stanley confronts Blanche 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 pretence in general. However, his attempts to "unmask" her are predictably cruel and violent. Their final, inevitable confrontation—a rape—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: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers", reminding us of one of the flaws that has led her to this point--relying too heavily on the attentions of men to fulfill and rescue her.
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.
A recurring theme found in A Streetcar Named Desire is a 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: the paper lampshade she employs to cover 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 excess consumption of alcohol. As one critic writes, "Blanche spins a cocoon linguistically for protection." Blanche creates her own fantasy world through the characters she plays, such as the damsel, southern belle or school teacher. She wears her costumes creating 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 original Broadway production was produced by Irene Mayer Selznick. It opened at the Shubert in New Haven shortly before moving to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 3, 1947. Selznick originally wanted to cast Margaret Sullavan and John Garfield, but settled on Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, who were both 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. 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. The production received no other Tony nominations. Brando portrayed Stanley with an overt sexuality that made him, the character of Stanley, and Tennessee Williams into cultural touchstones.
A highly publicized 1992 revival starred Alec Baldwin as Stanley and Jessica Lange as Blanche. This production proved so successful that it was filmed for television. The stage revival was staged at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the same theatre the original production was staged in. 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.
In 1951, Elia Kazan directed a movie based on the play. References to Allan Gray's homosexuality are essentially removed, due to censorship common at the time. Instead, the reason for his suicide is changed to a general "weakness". The play is referenced in Pedro Almodovar's 1999 Academy Award-winning film, All About My Mother, in which a Spanish-language version of the play is seen being performed by some of the supporting characters. However, some of the dialogue is based on the 1951 film version, not the original stage version.
A short, parody film was also made called "Living with Blanche." It centers around Blanche DuBois after she leaves the mental institution years after the original story. It stars Julia M. Blauvelt and is directed by Amy C. Lewis.
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.
A version of this essay first appeared in the New York Times, November 30, 1947, four days before the opening of A Streetcar Named Desire. Another version of this essay, titled "The Catastrophe of Success " is sometimes used as an introduction to The Glass Menagerie.