Fifty Years of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

November 11, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: It is just after World War Two in sultry New Orleans. The play is “A Streetcar Named Desire”, Tennessee Williams’ acclaimed melodrama that is 50 years old this fall, a play of passion and tension that builds from the first act, when Stanley Kowalski first meets Blanche DuBois.

STANLEY KOWALSKI: My clothes are sticking to me. Mind if I make my self comfortable Blanche; please, please do.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater –ACT –is currently producing “Streetcar” –the latest of more than 20,000 productions of this classic since it opened on Broadway in 1947. That opening was a signal event in the American theater and. marked the Broadway debut of Marlon Brando. His character, Stanley, is macho, hard drinking, card-playing–“a gaudy seed-bearer,” as Williams writes, who “sizes women up at a glance.” Stanley is the husband of Stella–played by Kim Hunter. Stella’s older sister is Blanche DuBois–a delicate but fading beauty–with a penchant for lying about her not so pretty past. On Broadway, Jessica Tandy played Blanche, who is fleeing the ugly reality of her life, and finds Stanley, who eventually undresses her psychologically and otherwise.

Her chances for a romance with Stanley’s friend Mitch, played by Karl Malden, are ruined when Stanley warns him of Blanche’s seamy history. In the last scene Blanche is defeated. Having been raped by Stanley, though no one will believe her, she is packed off to a sanitarium by a doctor and nurse, strangers on whose kindness she must depend.

The play won a Pulitizer Prize for Tennessee Williams in 1948. Scholars say that the characters in Streetcar come from Williams’ own dysfunctional family. Gay and alcoholic, he was a native of Mississippi, a sometimes resident of St Louis and New Orleans. And his plays are the most performed of any American playwright. He was delighted with the performance of Marlon Brando, who went on to star in the movie version of Streetcar, which came out in 1951.Vivian Leigh played Blanche on the screen and won an Academy Award.

BLANCHE: They told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and then get off at Elisian Fields.

SAILOR: There’s your car now.

SPENCER MICHELS: For many movie fans, Brando’s portrayal of Stanley was a benchmark in American film-full of animal magnetism and power. The actual streetcar line of the play’s title–which ran through the streets of New Orleans for years–was discontinued shortly after the play opened. Williams used it symbolically throughout the drama. Streetcar and its stars were so renowned that some theater companies wouldn’t mount it fearing unflattering comparisons. Today, productions like ACT’s look for new interpretations,

BLANCHE: You are simple, straightforward, and honest, a little bit on the primitive side, I should think. To interest you, a woman would have to–

SPENCER MICHELS: Television and film actress Sheila Kelley plays Blanche as a survivor, who holds on to her dignity.

SHEILA KELLEY: I think she’s a very sensitive soul. I think she’s someone that is very raw, that walks through the world, and everything affects her very deeply. It’s almost as though her senses were hyper. She’s hyper. She smells hyper. She sees hyper. She hears hyper. She feels. And Stanley is her complete opposite.

SPENCER MICHELS: Stanley is played by Marco Barricelli, and he admits he was worried about comparisons with Marlon Brando.

MARCO BARRICELLI: An actor’s job is to find himself in that role and to use himself, so I certainly don’t know what he was doing, you know, where he was emotionally, what he was thinking about when he grabbed his head and screamed “Stella” with the torn tee-shirt and all that stuff.

MARCO BARRICELLI: (in role) Stella! Stella! Stella!

SPENCER MICHELS: Barricelli almost refused the role.

MARCO BARRICELLI: It’s got so much baggage, and everybody who comes to see it will come with the same sort of preconceptions that you have about it. So I didn’t think it was a very good idea and then I sort of went home and I thought, “Who in their right mind turns down Stanley if it’s offered to you? That’s stupid. You have to do it.”

SPENCER MICHELS: “A Streetcar Named Desire” runs in San Francisco through November 23rd, and audiences will have a chance to find out if and why it holds up after half a century.