What is the purpose of theatre? To capture, feel, and relive emotions that the human condition suffers from. Oscar Wilde once famously said he regarded “the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
From the time Greek tragedies and comedies were written and performed in the 5th century BC to the realism and absurdity of plays in the 20thcentury, theatre has been used as a tool to reflect the human thought and ideology of the times they were created in. The stage is meant to make us think about our existence or even escape from our reality.
All the world is a stage, but unfortunately, many of us desperately unrehearsed.
And perhaps, no one captures this better than Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Exactly 70 years ago, A Streetcar Named Desire made its Broadway debut on 3 December, 1947. The Elia Kazan directed production took theatre-goers by surprise at the tawdry realism and depiction of violence, both physical and sexual, on stage. Streetcar is about a faded Southern belle from Mississippi named Blanche DuBois who comes to New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella and her brusque, aggressive Polish-American husband Stanley Kowalski in their squalid French quarters. Blanche is disillusioned, materialistic and loves to indulge in herself. She hides a dark past under her constant need for approbation from others. Stanley, on the other hand, is straightforward, violent and macho, who does not believe Blanche’s tales about “losing” the family estate Belle Reve and seeks to disprove her claims at every stage. Stella, while deeply caring for Blanche, is in love with Stanley in spite of his violent outbursts.
Marlon Brando essayed the role of Kowalski while Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter played Blanche and Stella respectively. Brando ripped the stage apart every night with his screams for “Stellaaaa!” It was Williams’ play which put Brando — who was Elia Kazan’s student at Actors’ Studio at the time — on the map and turned him into an overnight star for his uninhibited portrayal of the post-war, no-nonsense working class American in Streetcar. Tennessee Williams, at the time, was still fresh off the success of The Glass Menagerie, which some consider a better play, when this production went on to run for a record 855 performances with Williams winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948. For her brilliant performance as Blanche, Jessica Tandy went on to win the 1948 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.
Poetic, yet electrifying
Streetcar reeks of realism through poetry in its language. Williams was a master of words and knew how to capture emotions and nuances of his characters. When Blanche becomes hysterical over losing Belle Reve and accuses Stella of running away while leaving her behind to manage all the affairs on her meagre teacher’s salary, she talks about how funerals are pretty compared to death; and how flowers on a coffin soften the Grim Reaper’s presence. Williams wrote Blanche as a woman who wove an atmosphere of magic realism around her. Despite her failings, Blanche could see through the depth of her own suffering of lost love even though she puts on an act of aristocracy in front of Stanley and his friend Mitch.
As Brooks Atkinson wrote in the original review of the play in The New York Times, Streetcar is “a quietly woven study of intangibles”.
The play is a physical manifestation of the spiritual dislocation America was going through at that time. The American dream of owning whatever one wanted and earning however one wanted was crushed under the penury of the post-World War II era. The fast cars, the fox-lined fur coats and all such sophistication could not cover up the grimy existence of the middle class. When studied in retrospect, the play today is not just about America, but the reflection of how living is in a post-truth world. After all, human suffering is universal; it’s the context that makes it different. What makes it relevant even today is that even after 70 years, we still depend “on the kindness of strangers”, to quote Blanche, to make us happy about our lives.
Radical for its times
As deeply flawed as Stella, Blanche and Stanley are, Williams leaves nuggets of knowledge in his characters. For example, when Blanche witnesses Stanley’s violent behavior, she pleads with Stella to leave such a man and suggests they go away to another man called Ship Huntleigh, who’ll help them out with money. While Blanche’s plea is admirable, Williams reveals her dependence on men for her emotional and physical sustenance as a tragic flaw. Williams expresses emotions like Shakespeare, though his plot doesn’t follow the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy.
Streetcar also addresses issues which were considered quite radical for Williams’ times. The play talks about rape, homosexuality, suicide, mental health, domestic violence, patriarchy and class divide to name a few. When it premiered in London in 1949, Williams was denounced as a “filthy, American sleaze merchant”. The play was called salacious, pornographic, and described as a “depiction of a raving sexual neurotic”. Despite what critics had to say, Streetcar was a reflection of a hypocritical society. Stanley’s charming yet roguish mentality served as a perfect foil for Blanche’s aristocratic state of being.
Such realistic depiction also reflected the changing theatre norms where a shift to realism and absurdity was taking place in 20th century. The play is absurd because of its portrayal of how society functioned. This was the time when Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski’s systematic approach to acting was picking up pace in America, from which variations of method acting such as Stella Adler’s method and Sanford Meisner’s technique, eventually evolved. Marlon Brando was a lifelong student of Adler and redefined method acting for his peers. The manner in which he dug deep night after night to play a convincingly charming, yet savage Stanley, astounded audiences.
Brando’s acting ability is thankfully preserved in Streetcar which was later made into an eponymous black and white film in 1951 directed again by Elia Kazan. It retained most of the original Broadway cast, except for Blanche who was played by Vivien Leigh, already famous for films such as Gone With The Wind. She was part of the London cast of the play which performed in 1949. Vivien Leigh’s iconic portrayal as Blanche is one of the best cinematic performances of all times. If you ever want a good lesson on acting, this is the movie to watch. The film adaptation swept the Academy Awards that year, with Leigh winning the Oscar for Best Actress, Kim Hunter for Best Supporting Actress, Karl Madden (Mitch) for Best Supporting Actor and, Richard Day and George Hopkins for Best Art Direction. Brando narrowly lost out Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
A Streetcar Named Desire’s timelessness is evident as it is one of the few plays to have been made into a movie, staged as a ballet, had a Broadway revival, adapted for television, and even featured on The Simpsons in the episode titled A Streetcar Named Marge. Come what may, it is a treasure Tennessee Williams left for posterity.
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Updated Date: Dec 03, 2017 13:53:22 IST