x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The instant expert: A Streetcar Named Desire

This week Kevin McIndoe looks at A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic play that opened on Broadway on this day in 1947.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Kevin McIndoe looks at A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic play that opened on Broadway on this day in 1947.

THE BASICS The landmark work was written by the American playwright Tennessee Williams, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it in 1948. Elia Kazan directed the Broadway production, which famously starred Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. It ran for two years and 855 performances, during which Uta Hagen replaced Tandy and Anthony Quinn took Brando's place.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Blanche DuBois (Tandy), a fading Southern belle, travels to New Orleans to stay with her pregnant sister, Stella (Hunter), and Stella's rough-hewn husband, Stanley (Brando). Blanche's refined manner is a smoke-screen for her battling her demons. While placid Stella tolerates Stanley's brutish behaviour, Blanche looks on disapprovingly, all the time secretly fancying him.

GOOD START, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Blanche's airs and graces rub Stanley up the wrong way, and the stage is set for a seismic showdown. He rapes her, and she suffers a nervous breakdown. Blanche's would-be beau, Harold "Mitch" Mitchell (Malden), punches his erstwhile friend Stanley and breaks down, as she is taken to a mental health institution. Stella rebuffs Stanley when he tries to comfort her, and seeks refuge with a neighbour as her husband bawls out her name. All together now: "S-t-e-l-l-a-a-a-a!!!!!!"

HEAVY! ANY THEMES WORTH NOTING? Desire, of course. When Blanche describes the directions she had been given to get to her sister's house, she was told to take a streetcar named Desire. Stanley and Stella's passion keeps their often stormy relationship going, while Blanche's desires are continually thwarted. Her stumblings into unsuitable liaisons have been a reaction to the trauma of her late husband's suicide.

WHAT ELSE? Loneliness. Blanche is trying to recapture the loving relationship she had with her husband, and as a result, has indulged in affairs and is often attracted to young men. Mitch is lonely, too, and while it looks as though he and Blanche could be happy, it becomes clear that their shortcomings prevent that.

ANYTHING ELSE? Delusion. Blanche can't cope with the changing world around her, and affects an alter-ego to help her handle life, or to live it as she thinks it should be. When Mitch wants to switch on a light to get a look at her, she declines and tells him she does not want realism, she wants magic. But in the end, reality bites.

WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT? The brilliance and power of the performances captivated theatregoers and heralded a radical, edgy era in drama on stage and on film. The opening-night audience erupted in a half-hour standing ovation.

WOW, CRITICS MUST HAVE BEEN MAD FOR IT! Actually, no. Many dismissed the play as immoral, vulgar and sinful.

INFLUENTIAL, THOUGH? Absolutely. All four actors employed the Method technique - drawing on their emotions and experience, with a visceral intensity that raised the bar for actors.

AND A FILM TOO, RIGHT? Yes, but Tandy, who had won the Tony for Best Actress, was replaced by Vivien Leigh, who had played the role in London's West End. Film bosses thought Leigh had the box-office wattage to put bums on seats for a relatively uncommercial film. It won four Oscars in 1951, with Leigh nabbing her second for Best Actress. Supporting Actor and Actress gongs went to Hunter and Malden, but Best Actor-nominated Brando lost out to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen.

 

Five other great plays by Tennessee Williams

THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1944) Williams's first major work and possibly his most autobiographical. Essentially about the flaws of family life. Two film versions have been made.

THE ROSE TATTOO (1951) Another huge hit for Williams, it tells the story of an Italian-American widow, Serafina Delle Rose, who retreats from the world. Anna Magnini won an Oscar for the film version.

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1955) Williams's favourite, about a family meltdown, with Maggie "the Cat", wife of Brick, at the centre. Burl Ives repeated his Broadway role of Big Daddy in the film version, which also starred Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1958) One of Williams's darkest, it tells of a young woman who goes insane after her cousin dies mysteriously. Also a film with Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift.

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1959) About a drifter and a gigolo, Chance Wayne, who returns home on the arm of a former film star. Also a film, starring Newman.