Fifty Years of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

November 11, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on Tennessee Williams we turn now to Lyle Leverich, who’s the author of “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams,” and to Richard Seyd, who directed the American Conservatory Theater production of “Streetcar Named Desire.” Thank you both for being with us. Mr. Seyd, how do you explain the enduring appeal of this play?

RICHARD SEYD, Director: I think it has to do with both the subject matter and the theatrical style of the play, which at the time was very revolutionary, and in many ways the episodic structure of the play.

But also I think it’s really interesting that it was one of the first times I think in the American theater, that working class figures were put on the stage within a very strong psychological context, but so much of the time through the 30’s where the working class of this culture began to appear on the American stage it was much more on the social context; it was much more in Clifford O’Dette’s plays, for examples, and I think the figure of Stanley, the figure of Mitch also actually–Steve, Eunice, all of these figures, from this working class culture in New Orleans–I think it was surprising to the American public to see these figures so respected by the writer.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: These guys that had have just come back from the war, right?

RICHARD SEYD: Yes. Just come back from the war. So they were both younger. So much of the play also–so many of the characters are younger, inexperienced because the war pulled them out of their natural evolution in their 20’s and at the same time because of the war they’re older in their experience in certain regards too. I mean, the tragedy emerged. He has dealt with death for probably the last 10 years of his life–the strange girl he lost, the war, and when he comes back, his mother is dying, which, of course, is one of the things that bring him and Blanche together.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s interesting. The play doesn’t really have a moral or a message, wouldn’t you say–would you say that? It’s not like the plays of the 30’s, for example.

LYLE LEVERICH, Author: No, no. There’s no convenient resolution, and, of course, all of the plays of the 30’s and many in the 40’s too, for that matter, have struggled with the need to resolve the plot and so forth. And Tennessee felt that the enigma–that people were enigmatic–and that particularly in “Streetcar” he didn’t want–in fact, he was very careful to say that he did not want to side with one or the other character; he simply wanted to show which was his main point–the breakdown of communication.

To him, the lack of communication in our society between people on every level is part of our tragedy as a race of people, you know; we don’t communicate. So there are these different levels of meanings, yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What other levels would you add, Mr. Seyd?

RICHARD SEYD: One of the credos that I used for my interpretation of the play was in “Night of the Iguana” Hannah recounts a love experience in which a strange man asked for her to be able to take off her underwear so that he could touch it. And she’s explaining this, and she says in it, “Nothing human disgusts me unless it is unkind or violent.”

And I sort of–because when I started to do “Streetcar” I read a lot of his other plays–particularly the major works–and I just found that line, and I just went that sounds like Tennessee to me because I just finished reading Tom, which was extremely helpful to me. And that I think is also one of the major themes. Blanche arrives and if only she had been given a higher level of kindness, I think there would have been a very different reality that she confronts at the end of the play.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Where would you place this work in American theater? Some people say this is the greatest American play. Where would you put it?

RICHARD SEYD: That’s a hard question.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m sorry to put you on the spot.

RICHARD SEYD: It’s fine. I don’t–I just don’t like to compare one play with another, particularly when I’m sort of inside it myself. All I can tell you is I think it’s a flawless piece of writing. I think it is certainly up there with the top two or three American plays of the 20th century without any question. And my respect for Tennessee as a writer and my respect for him as a theatrical craftsman has increased exponentially during the process of working on this.


RICHARD SEYD: It’s exposition more than anything else. I’ve never come across a writer, with the possible exception of Chekhov, who weaves exposition into the psychological reality of the characters so that it is completely effortless. You never feel you’re being set up for the story.

You suddenly find as an audience, you suddenly find yourself in the story. And unless you’re a writer or worked a lot with writers and understand what a difficult craft theatrical writing is–I mean, generally I think writing for the theater is probably the most difficult form of writing there is. And it’s only when you meet a master that you really go, oh , my God, this is incredible, what he pulled off.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about his view that success was a catastrophe? Here he is–he was a tremendous success with this play and others, and yet he thought it was terrible for him, why?

LYLE LEVERICH: Well, it was. Elizabeth, he was not prepared for a success like that. He was–too young a man in the first place–unsophisticated, and he–all he really wanted out of life was to be able to write when he wanted to write, where he wanted to write, and what he wanted to write. And so he was always in literal flight, trying to find a corner of the universe where he could do this.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The success took away his privacy, which is what he needed to–to work, or he thought he needed that.

LYLE LEVERICH: It was difficult. And there were people who would like to take possession of him. I mean, he had this quality of vulnerability about him. I mean, you know, you had someone to put on his coat–help him get dressed properly. He didn’t ever have matching socks and things of this sort. He–he–you know, I went to a very close friend of his and I said, look, I went into the St. Francis Hotel one day and they had the sign out front which said, “Do not Disturb,” and when I opened the door, or when he opened the door–and I walked in and I could understand why no self-respecting chamber maid would go in the place.

He had script all over the place–and I asked this friend about this, and he said, well, that was artist order. But the outside world and all of its trials and tribulations, which drive us all crazy, you know, from day to day, I think to catch up on the details–he just ignored them, and let somebody else worry about them.

RICHARD SEYD: I think it’s an increasing problem too because celebrity, I mean, in many cases he had to flee the country, and the country was the source of his artistry, the culture in which he grew up was the source, and I think it’s the hardest thing about being an artist and a celebrity is that you lose your connection to the source because people are watching you, rather than you being able to watch people, and it’s true for an actor, and in Tennessee’s case, as Lyle said, it’s also true for him as a writer.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you both very much for being with us.