December 3 1947, Hey, there! Stella, Baby! A Streetcar Named Desire premieres at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York

Tennessee Williams

by Camille Paglia

Marlon Brando, carrying a “red-stained package” from the butcher and sporting blue-denim work clothes as the lordly, proletarian Stanley Kowalski, ambles insolently onstage at the opening of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “Bellowing” for his adoring yet tart-tongued wife, Stanley is the strutting male animal in his sexual prime. The setting is a seedy tenement in the multiracial French Quarter of New Orleans, whose picturesque verandas open to the humid air. Street sounds and sultry, insinuating jazz riffs float in and out.

The exotic location, boisterous energy, and eruptions of violence in A Streetcar Named Desire were a startling contrast to the tightly wound gentility of Williams’s prior hit play, The Glass Menagerie (1944), whose fractured family is cloistered in a stuffy St. Louis flat. Streetcar exploded into the theater world at a time when Broadway was dominated by musical comedies and revivals. At the end of its premiere, the audience sat numb and then went wild, applauding for thirty minutes. Critical responses ranged from positive to rapturous, with dissent coming only from Wolcott Gibbs and Mary McCarthy. Streetcar won the Pulitzer Prize and other major awards and ran for two years in New York before touring the country. European productions won enormous acclaim, except in England, where the verdict was split.

Brando as Stanley was a volcanic force of nature. Leering, brooding, belching, mumbling, scratching himself, and smashing crockery on the floor, he exemplified a radical new style of naturalistic acting, “the Method,” which Brando learned from Stella Adler and which would gain public attention through Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in New York. Focusing on emotional truth and painful personal memory, the Method was developed in the 1930s by the leftist, ensemble-oriented Group Theater, which was following Konstantin Stanislavsky’s precepts for productions of realist plays (such as Chekhov’s) at the Moscow Art Theater. Brando, along with his friend Montgomery Clift, would transfer the Method into movie acting, as in the 1951 film of Streetcar, which was directed, like the play, by Elia Kazan. The repercussions from Brando’s performance in that film are still being felt among contemporary American male actors, who often “do” Brando without being aware of it.

In its taboo-breaking style, Streetcar belonged to an oppositional strain in American culture that emerged following World War II. The near-universal patriotism of the war years, galvanized to defeat German and Japanese imperialism, continued in mainstream American society and media for nearly two decades. But it was countered by an underground variously represented by abstract expressionism, bebop, and the Beats, as well as existentialism imported from Paris. There was a touch of the cynical hipster in Brando’s impudent delivery of Stanley’s brusque, satirically deadpan lines. Brando’s raw primitivism was also a jolting departure from the slickness of the prettified glamour boys of the Hollywood studio, and it prefigured the youth rebellion of the 1950s, including rock and roll—to whose iconography Brando would contribute through his role as the black-leather- clad leader of a motorcycle gang in a low-budget 1953 film, The Wild One.

The rude, crude Stanley Kowalski, with his iconic white T-shirt and his immigrant ethnicity, was evidently based on two men: a St. Louis factory worker of that name and a Mexican boxer, Pancho Gonzalez, who was one of Williams’s butch lovers. Stanley has a tinge of “rough trade,” a gay male staple—the street hustler, hot and dangerous. In Streetcar’s rowdy scenes of men playing poker, bowling, cursing, and brawling, Williams is gazing longingly at male bonding from his distant outsider’s position. (An earlier title for the play, which was partly inspired by a Van Gogh painting of a billiard hall, was The Poker Game.) Williams was a small, effeminate gay man (his adult height was five-feet- six) who had been called “sissy” by neighborhood boys and “Miss Nancy” by his bullying, rejecting father. Williams would immortalize his father’s bumptious authoritarianism in the garrulous, overbearing Big Daddy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

The shocking frankness with which Streetcar treated sex—as a searingly revolutionary force—was at odds with the dawning domesticity of the postwar era and looked forward instead to the 1960s sexual revolution. Williams drew much of his philosophy of sex from D. H. Lawrence, whose wife, Frieda, he visited in Taos, New Mexico, in 1939, when he was planning to write a play about Lawrence’s death. What distinguishes Williams from other American playwrights of leftist social realism, such as Arthur Miller (whose Death of a Salesman made a sensation in 1949), is his florid Romantic emotionalism and love of beauty, as well as his Romantic reverence for barbaric, elemental nature. Emotional expressiveness is so central to Williams that Irene Selznick, the producer of Streetcar, refused to produce his next play, The Rose Tattoo, because she said it was an “opera,” not a play.

Streetcar’s historical background, embodied in the fluttery, flirtatious Blanche DuBois, is the decay of the agrarian Old South and the rise of gritty, prosaic urban industrialism. All of Williams’s plays, until The Night of the Iguana in 1961, were set in the South. (The latter play takes place in a ramshackle hotel in Mexico.) Like William Faulkner, Williams portrays the psychological landscape of Southern decadence, with its guilt, squalor, and self-destructive fantasy. But Williams has greater faith in the sheer mesmerizing power of human personality. His major women characters are flamboyant, instinctive actresses—sometimes literally so, as with the aging movie star Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth (1959).

The ultratheatrical Blanche is one of Williams’s relentless, nonstop talkers. Other examples are Amanda Wingfield, the suffocatingly overprotective mother in The Glass Menagerie, and Violet Venable, a malign New Orleans aristocrat in the 1958 one-act play Suddenly Last Summer. (Violet was played by Katharine Hepburn in the stunning movie of Suddenly Last Summer, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and released in 1959.) All these women were inspired by Williams’s own overpowering mother, with her pretensions of Southern refinement and her pathologically incessant talking, which one visitor described as a “nightmare.”

Blanche is a dreamer who lives by language, the medium of the playwright’s art. She creates poetry and illusion through her flights of rhetoric, which transform the harsh, bare environment. Blanche is literally a conduit of Romanticism: we hear that she taught Poe, Whitman, and Hawthorne to resistant high-school students in the country. It is through words alone that she re-creates the vanished world of Southern chivalry. She cries, “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” Blanche’s love of imagination and artifice clashes with the humdrum routine of the practical, utilitarian world, embodied in Stanley’s curt, deflating minimalism. (Williams derives great humor from the two characters’ competitive conversational rhythm.) As the play proceeds, the number and speed of words begin to increase and cloud the air, signaling Blanche’s hallucinatory memories and descent into madness. Blanche’s aggressive talking and baroque fantasies will live again in the caustic termagant Martha in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962).

Williams said of his work, “I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.” Elia Kazan claimed that Blanche DuBois was Tennessee Williams. She has his sexual hedonism, restlessness, and love of illusion, as well as his chronic alcoholism (he also abused pills). The enterprisingly nymphomaniac Blanche is Williams’s champion in his self-proclaimed war against American puritanism. Williams attributed his mother’s hysteria and his sister Rose’s mental instability to sexual repression: “They were both victims of excessive propriety.” (Rose, who was lobotomized at a state hospital in Missouri, was the model for Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.)

Like Blanche, Williams was uprooted from his Southern birthplace and became a refugee. He spent his first seven “idyllic” years in Mississippi before his family’s traumatic move to St. Louis. He would live in sixteen different houses before he was fifteen. Williams became a compulsive traveler. Though a millionaire from the movie rights to his work, he lived in hotel rooms and would die alone in one. He said in his 1975 memoirs, “I live like a gypsy, I am a fugitive.” Amid his bleak St. Louis surroundings, he developed a nostalgia for what he imagined to be the grace and elegance of the antebellum South. An enormous early influence on him in Mississippi was his family’s black servant, Ozzie, who told him and his sister African American and Native American folktales.

Williams understood that the Southern claim of aristocracy, enabled by the atrocity of slavery, was built on lies. Hence in Streetcar the ancestral DuBois plantation, lost to creditors, is called Belle Reve—that is, “beautiful dream.” But the dream was always a patchwork of illogic: the French noun rêve is masculine, so the estate’s name should properly be “Beau Reve.” Williams had already used “Belle Reve” as the title of an adolescent poem where he fantasized about living on a Missouri plantation with his parents. The name was evidently suggested by a shrine of St. Louis snobbery, the Bellerive Country Club (meaning “beautiful riverbank”), where his mother strove for social acceptance and where, as a teenager, he would slip on a diving board and knock out all of his front teeth. (He had to wear dentures for the rest of his life.) Hence Bellerive/Belle Reve was a beckoning mirage that led to failure, humiliation, and mutilation.

The archetypal Southern belle whom Blanche so desperately plays, eighty years after the Civil War, would have been instantly recognizable to audiences from Scarlett O’Hara of Gone with the Wind, the blockbuster film (based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 best seller) that had been released in a tremendous burst of international publicity just eight years earlier. (Coincidentally, a British actress, Vivien Leigh, would win two Academy Awards for Best Actress for playing both Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois.) Belle Reve is partly Tara, the family plantation for which Scarlett fights tax collectors and carpetbaggers. But it is also (as Williams attested) the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s 1904 play of that name, a precious patrimony that is mortgaged and seized by vulgarians.

A residue of Williams’s transsexual self-projection into the archly predatory Blanche is perhaps discernible in her seductive exchange with the newsboy, toward whom she directs such blatant come-ons as “You make my mouth water.” Williams said that Blanche, soliciting the startled newsboy, has become Allan, her young gay husband, whom she shamed into suicide. A Streetcar Named Desire was unusually forthright about homosexuality at a time when the subject was bowdlerized or demonized by Hollywood movies. Homosexuality was explicitly forbidden under the Motion Picture Production Code: These Three, for example, a 1936 film based on Lillian Hellman’s hit play, The Children’s Hour, substituted a heterosexual triangle for the central plot motif of lesbianism, which was expunged.

Williams introduced homosexuality into Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where it is the motivation for Brick’s marital reticence with the hot-blooded Maggie, and into Suddenly Last Summer, where the backstory focuses on a promiscuous gay aesthete, Sebastian Venable, who is slaughtered and cannibalized by a pack of poor Spanish boys whom he had solicited. (The Adonis archetype invoked here is part of Williams’s use of Greek mythology, as in his 1957 play, Orpheus Descending.) Sebastian’s sex tours were based on Williams’s own in Mexico and Italy, where he pursued orgiastic anonymous sex and indulged what he called his “deviant satyriasis.” When he got an “appetite” for blonds (a line he gives Sebastian), he would mull going north. Williams’s 1950 novel, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, fictionalized his own experiences with Italian gigolos the year after Streetcar’s huge success. (Mrs. Stone, his female proxy, would be played onscreen once again by Vivien Leigh in the 1961 movie.)

Williams was a bold pioneer for sexual candor: Baby Doll, for example, a lurid 1956 film based on his screenplay and directed by Elia Kazan, was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Yet Williams was denounced by gay activists after the gay liberation movement awoke following the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion. He was accused of always linking homosexuality to guilt, self-punishment, degeneracy, and death—themes of the closeted era in which he had written his major plays. But he himself had been courageously and even recklessly open about being gay at a time when it could have proved personally and professionally costly. Though he loved New Orleans for its sexual tolerance and pleasure- seeking lifestyle, Williams never liked Mardi Gras and was always uncomfortable about drag queens, who he felt degraded women. With his taste for macho and even heterosexual men, he criticized the “swish” and “camp” style among pre-Stonewall gays.

The sex roles of A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams’s greatest play, are certainly polarized by any conventional standard. The heterosexual electricity between Stanley and Stella across the gender divide is positively blinding. (Eyes repeatedly “go blind” in the stage directions at moments of sexual arousal.) In the 1970s, after his popularity had waned with the rise of younger playwrights, Williams told a gay interviewer that he did not want to ghettoize himself: “I wish to have a broad audience because the major thrust of my writing is not sexual orientation, it’s social. I’m not about to limit myself to writing about gay people.” With his empathy for the suffering yet dynamic individual, Williams produced not tendentious political potboilers but works of true universality, whose passionate characters have entered world literature.

Bibliography:

Jordan Y. Miller, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of A Streetcar Named Desire: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1971). Matthew C. Roudané, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams (Cambridge, 1997). Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams (Boston, 1985). Tennessee Williams, Memoirs (Garden City, NY, 1975). Filmography: A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan (1951).