STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
This is the original set for the recent opera of Streetcar composed by Andre Previn (1992) It premiered at the San Francisco Opera House.
Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire are probably the three finest plays in the American Canon.
Streetcar opened in New York in 1947 and changed American Theater forever.
The play was bold, daring, sensual and sexual. Greek tragedies contained murders, incest, infanticide, and in Streetcar Williams presented American audiences with a tragedy on a par with the Greek masters replete with rape, homosexualtiy and the beautifully doomed tragic hero, Blance Du Bois.
The great Jessica Tandy played Blanche and Marlon Brando stunned the theater world as the alluring, brutal Stanley Kowalski. Surrealistic music and lighting bathed the entire performance in a steamy, vibrant, lurid atmosphere.
Overnight, Marlon Brando's career was made and Tennessee Williams became an international celebrity. When Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman opened two years later, New York became the theater capitol of the world. The lights on Broadway never shown so brightly.
The Meaning of the Title: The play tales place in New Orleans and the names of the streetcar lines may seem very strange to us but actually they refer to two New Orleans neighborhoods -- Desire and Cemeteries. Cemeteries is famous because the graves are above ground in sculpted marble coffins. The city is at the mercy of the Mississippi delta and when people were first buried there in the late 18th Century, the bodies were pushed up out of the ground by the water table. That's why the practice of above ground burial began. (The Cemetary is now a huge tourist attraction.) The Old Quarter -- laid out in the 1700's -- hasn't changed much over the last several centuries.
Check out a replica of the original Desire Streetcar. http://www.bywater.org/desire.htm
(Scroll down and click Return to Bywater link, lower left.)
Anyway, Williams uses these names effectively to underscore one of the main themes of the play. As Blanche intimates several times, we live our lives as if on a streetcar of desire unable to control our sexual passions until the end of the line -- death.
Blanche has just been run out of her family's small southern town because she was having sex with a minor. So she travels to her sister's house where she will face the end of the line..... Stanley. He does not kill her but he brutally rapes her and pushes her over the edge mentally. She retreats into a fantasy world. Stanley has destroyed the conscious half of her life.
Stanley and Blance live on a section of the Old Quarter called the Elysian Fields, a classical reference. In Greek mythology, after death the soul would roam the underworld seeking a place of refuge. The souls of those favored by the Gods (poets, philosophers, statesmen, etc.) would go to a place called the Elysian Fields in the underworld where they would live out eternity in a state of drugged euphoria. This is the address Blanche asks about in the first scene. Stanley and Stella clearly live in a state of drugged frenzy -- Stanley drinks and he and Stella have a terrific sex life which Stella says leaves her tranquilly narcoticized. Stanley and Stella are not poets, but they live in a "place-after-death."
This ambiguity underscores another of Williams' themes - the dichotomy in human life between earthly lust and spiritual purity.We all hover somewhere between these irreconcilable poles ....Desire and Death. So Blanche takes a streetcar named Desire, exits at Cemeteries and looks for the Elysian Fields. At the end of the play Blanche is in her own Elysian Field.
So what's up with a name like Tennessee? Williams' childhood was not happy. He grew up in a small southern town with overly religious, un-loving parents. There was always tension and hostility in the household. Williams also grew up ignorant of sexual matters. After college, he travelled about and wrote. He briefly settled in New Orleans where he discovered his repressed sexuality as a gay man. Part of his new identity -- his coming out -- was to change his name to Tennessee. This was a bold step in the 40's and 50's because in those decades the gay world was clearly a hidden and taboo sub-culture. What's interesting is that while there are gay themes and characters in many of his plays, his gay characters are often highly sterotypical like the "mannish" lesbian nature of the hideously unsympathetic Miss Faulkes in Night of the Iguana, and in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick's "dark" secret concerns a homosexual love for a fellow athlete.
Censorship: The video of the play starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh was censored before release. Here's what missing because of the censoring:
(1) The video never clearly discloses that Blanche's first husband -- "the boy" -- kills himself because he was gay. Blanche discovers him with another man -- the "older" man -- and is horrified. To her eternal regret she rejects her young husband instead of helping him. Whenever she thinks of his death in the play and video, a polish polka is heard in the background -- the music playing the night of the suicide by a lake-side resort.
(2) In the play it is very clear that Stanley rapes Blanche, but the video can be interpreted as a beating only. (3) Finally, in the video, at the very end, Stella decides to leave Stanley with their baby because she suspects the truth. In the play, however, while suspicious, Stella enters her own world of denial. She chooses to believe Stanley's lies and she remains with him. Hollywood simply could not endorse Williams' conclusion that life is tragically and inherently unjust since the Stanleys of this world usually win.
But despite all of this tampering, the video is still powerful and moving and no actor has ever been able to match Marlon Brando. As Stanley Brando gives a stunning performance.Enjoy the show.
This is the famous painting "Poker Night" by Thomas Harte Brenton. It depicts Scene ii of Streetcar.