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Laura Amy Schlitz

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A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire

Author: Tennessee Williams

Year: 1947

Famous for: Stella!, …the kindness of strangers, and a dramatic descent into insanity.

Main character: Faded, inebriated Blanche DuBois

The scoop:

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams isn’t exactly what you’d call a hopeful play. It begins when the aging debutante, Blanche DuBois, Williams takes a streetcar named Desire to her sister’s place in New Orleans where she hopes to find a refuge from a cruel and unforgiving world. Unfortunately for Blanche, her sister Stella’s place is anything but a sanctuary. Not only is Stella’s husband, Stanley, not buying Blanche’s damsel-in-distress routine, he’s also determined to bring her face-to-face with her recent indiscretions. . Somebody cue the tragic ending!

But A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t all denial and despair. This play was actually Tennessee Williams’ call for change. See, Williams thought there was something wrong with a world in which a single woman’s only recourse was either a man, or a complete departure from reality. That’s no longer the reality, for the most part. Perhaps we can thank Williams—and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Streetcar : Context and Resources

Tennessee Williams in front of Broadway theatre where A Streetcar Named Desire opened

Tennessee Williams in 1947, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

“Write what you know.” Legend has it that this was Mark Twain’s recipe for literary success.

Tennessee Williams knew depression, alcoholism, failure, loneliness, and insanity. He wrote what he knew. And he became one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century.

Williams tore characters and events from the pages of his own life, sealed them into pressure-cooker plots, and set the result to explode on stage. Audiences, accustomed to more polite fare, had never seen anything quite like it—except, perhaps, in the private dramas of their personal lives. American theater would never be the same.

A Streetcar Named Desire whetted the public’s appetite for drama that examined life’s realities without blurring its harshest truths. Its influence extended to movies and television, where Williams’ taboo-smashing realism was adopted so widely that it came to be the new normal.

Today, nearly every storyteller in Hollywood and just about everyplace else in the English-speaking world is, knowingly or not, a disciple of Tennessee Williams. Here’s an interview with Pulitzer Prize-and-Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner about the impact of Tennesee Williams’ life and work on his own career.

Here’s The New York Times review of A Streetcar Named Desire’s original stage production, in 1947.

Tennessee Williams: Life imitates art

Tennesee Williams with his mother Edwina and sister Rose

Happier times: Thomas Lanier Williams III (right), who would later adopt the name Tennessee Williams, with his mother Edwina and his sister Rose.

Tennessee Williams died wealthy, famous, and alone in a suite at New York’s Elysee Hotel. The medical examiner’s report indicated that he choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops; drugs and alcohol may have contributed to his death by suppressing his gag reflex. Williams was 71 years old.

It was the tragic coda to a life of stage-ready triumph and pathos.

Here’s The New York Times obituary from February 26, 1983, the day after Williams’ death. As the writer drily notes: “Just as his work reflected his life, his life reflected his work.”

Here’s a hair-raising look at Williams’ family. His father, a hard-drinking traveling shoe salesman, called him “Miss Nancy.” His mother, a socially-ambitious “Southern belle,” was also prone to fits of hysteria. His sister would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and lobotomized.

As for the future playwright, when he failed a military training course in college, his father put him to work at a shoe factory. He responded in what would become his signature fashion: writing between shifts with ferocious drive, then suffering a nervous breakdown that left his legs temporarily paralyzed.

Here’s a riveting 1981 interview with Williams, published in the Paris Review, in which he claims that his plays are not autobiographical. “My work is emotionally autobiographical,” he says. “It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life.”

But as this examination reveals, Williams embedded numerous elements from his own life into his plays. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois’ threadbare pretensions and chronic hysteria appear to be modeled after his mother. Williams found inspiration for Stanley Kowalski’s loutishness in his father’s personality.

A Streetcar Named Desire: The meta-play

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams: Movie Poster | 60second Recap

Missing in Action: In the 1951 film adaptation, homosexuality.

Blanche was more than just an echo of Williams’ mother. Her hyperventilating personality reflected the sensibility of a once-dominant theatrical archetype: melodrama.

This article sets out the history of stage melodrama, loosely defined as a theatrical work that uses exaggerated jeopardy to engage the audience’s emotions.

By the time A Streetcar Named Desire opened at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, melodrama was on the way out. On the way in: dramatic naturalism, which sought to create the illusion of reality with characters that more or less resembled those one would encounter in real life.

Here’s a comprehensive bibliographic survey of literary criticism of A Streetcar Named Desire. It points out that Stanley Kowalski’s bare-knuckled brio was, in fact, a personification of dramatic naturalism. Stanley was the personification of something else: The sort of bullying alpha male who not only dominated Williams’ early life, but made the era in which he lived so hostile to homosexuality.

This review of Tennessee Williams’s Memoirs discusses the playwright’s decision to confront the taboos of his time head on and, by the late 1930s, publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. “I never considered my homosexuality as anything to be disguised,” Williams said. “Neither did I consider it a matter to be over-emphasized. I consider it an accident of nature.”

Others however, did not. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams pushed the limits of social acceptability when he depicted Blanche’s husband as homosexual: Hollywood censors removed that particular detail from the play’s 1951 film adaptation.

 

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