A Streetcar Named Desire
Starring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy and directed by Elia Kazan – nope, not the film, but the initial Broadway run of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitizer-winner. The play is, quite consciously, a last gasp of melodrama as the American theatre transitioned to a more natural style, the ideal-type characters, the identity-as-performance, the pervasiveness of scandal all contributing to an overwrought and explosive look into desire and violence, the death throes of the American Old South juxtaposed against a newer symbol of America – the rough, the dangerous, the frank, the industrial worker.
Thomas Lanier Williams III was his name, and he recast the American theatre, Streetcar… and others (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Rose Tattoo, The Glass Menagerie) making him the most important and influential playwright of the 20th century United States. Alcoholism, mental illness, homosexuality, domestic violence, pride and shame, love and dysfunction – this is the stuff his work is made of, showing America the underside of itself. As the country changed, though – as the last of the Old South collapsed, as American dropped pretensions of class for pretensions of freedom, as the secrets and decay began to show through – Williams’ work changed, too. And the playwright who had defined a country, the golden child of the theatre world, turned to new methods, new subjects, and a more poetic approach to writing in the 1960s and the 1970s. Critics and audiences didn’t follow him, though, and both Williams-the-man and Williams-the-playwright fell further and further.
But Tennessee Williams and Streetcar… remain the symbols of American theatre, and the play continues to resonate, capturing not only something fundamental about the United States, but also something timeless about the human condition, a universal brokenness and an unlimited potential. Just think of the two great lines the play has left us – the plaintive, deluded and desperate yearning behind Blanche’s proper “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” and the anguish, grief and rage that come together in Stanley’s great bellow of “Stella!” The human condition. Then and now.